Just what is now ‘normal’?

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a Freelance Thought-Leadership Consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

One of the best managers I’ve worked for used to allocate an hour per day for informal thinking and reflection – sometimes he did it alone while other times he chewed the fat with his colleagues in a completely unstructured way. During my professional career, I’ve seen and heard many people confuse activity with productivity. Further, a friend who works in a managerial capacity in the education sector told me that, at the onset of the lockdown, his boss immediately organised seven hours of Zoom calls for his team. That’s not seven hours in total – that’s seven hours every, single, day. He didn’t allow any time for pre-meeting preparation or post-meeting execution – let alone time to think and reflect. The boss, who is the CEO, clearly doesn’t trust his team to do the right thing. Unsurprisingly, his team doesn’t feel comfortable and they are exhausted from being in an artificial meeting environment almost all day, every day.

It will take a while to paint an accurate picture – but, perhaps in a year’s time, we’ll be able to look back and say who had a good or a bad lockdown. The phrase “(s)he had a good war” is little heard nowadays, however, it was commonplace when I was growing up. The example I remember best is Denis Healey, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer and a potential prime minister during the tumultuous mid-seventies. At the beginning of the Second World War, he was a lowly gunner and five years later left the army as a major with an MBE. He was decorated for his bravery for being in charge of the Allied beach landing at Anzio, Italy. And he spoke fluent Italian due to a number of local girlfriends… By most interpretations, he had a good war!

I’ve been keeping a diary since the pandemic first emerged. The most often-cited issue is the NHS. Has it had a good war? My view is that it’s a nuanced answer. With 1.4 million staff and an annual budget of £130 billion it really can’t be looked at as a single cohesive entity. It consumes about 10% of our national GDP. No other entity, public or private sector, comes remotely close.

Some elements of the NHS are in the “could do better” category. NHS logistics failed in the early stages of the pandemic, the provision of PPE was chaotic and it certainly didn’t communicate effectively. At the 2019 General Election, Comrade Corbyn tried to scare us into thinking that the NHS would be sold to US firms. Thankfully, the public wasn’t fooled by this nonsense – but, it does raise the issue of whether it’s an unwelcome idea. Who would you prefer to run the NHS supply chain: NHS bureaucrats with limited international capability and no plan for a pandemic or global logistics wizards with state-of-the-art technology at Amazon? Don’t get me started about NHSX – did they really think they are better at developing apps than Apple or Google? The heroic efforts of our hospital doctors and nurses can’t be allowed to bury these issues.

We are closest to GP services. A recent claim by Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson – that GP surgeries may not re-open until March 2021 – prompted a flurry of responses from doctors who claim to be working just “normally”. NHS England medical director for primary care, Dr Nikki Kanani, said: “General practice is open and has been throughout the pandemic. Whilst consultations may have been offered remotely or virtually to keep patients and staff safe, our practices have been open and offering care.” This is not my experience.

I’m 58 and consider myself fairly digitally savvy. I’m completely OK with telephone and video consultations. For me, in most circumstances, they’re better than face-to-face meetings. I also have a number of close relatives in their eighties with chronic long-term conditions. Most of these people have trouble operating a TV remote control – let alone a WhatsApp video-call on a smartphone. Very few of them actually own or have access to a smartphone! Many have some level of hearing loss, which an aid doesn’t appear to compensate for on the telephone.

Not all old people are technophobes, however it is a prevalent issue. I know old folks who still think the phone is really only for emergencies. A story on the BBC PM show recently highlighted that some old people still prefer to make calls in the afternoon because it’s cheaper than in the morning. (Note for younger readers: this used to be true in the 1980’s). One elderly chap said he only switches on his mobile phone when he wants to make a call. 

GP surgeries closed their doors in mid-March and have only recently started a cautious re-opening programme. Before Covid-19 there were about 26 million GP appointments per month. If you’re elderly the only way you know how to communicate with a doctor is by meeting them in-person. When you meet a doctor, they will routinely assess your body language, your pallor and your general demeanour. How can they do this over the phone? Doctors are expert at listening to what you say and reading between the lines. Many of my elderly relatives will be more honest in the privacy of a doctor’s consultation room than in their own home. They are not accustomed to intimate, private conversations via telephone. The conversation is likely to be a lot more stilted and therefore less productive.

Speaking recently at a meeting of the Royal College of Physicians, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘From now on, all consultations should be tele-consultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to’. My local GP website says: “You cannot book a face to face GP appointment. Following telephone consultation you may be asked by the GP to attend.” Only 10% of consultations now physically take place. This is a radical change – and hasn’t been properly justified, as far as I can tell. Plus, how much consultation on the issue has been conducted?

Medical professionals need to be protected – but, at what cost? My local authority has an infection rate (in the week to August 21) of 2.1 per 100,000 people. That equated to two people … The physical closure of GP surgeries may have been sensible at the peak of the pandemic, however things have moved on, surely? The medical establishment is very good at pumping out statistics about the number of virtual consultations it’s done. But, have they measured the effectiveness and patient satisfaction recently? It would be good to know. Perhaps it’s time they both thought and reflected.

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This piece was written for our website.

Censorship cannot become the new normal

Joy Morrissey

GUEST POST: Joy Morrissey is the Conservative MP for Beaconsfield and Patron of Conservatives in Communications. Follow on Twitter

At a time when we are all still struggling to come to terms with Coronavirus, I would like to re-emphasise the vitally important principle of free speech. Many may not believe that this should be a priority right now, when we are faced with the daunting task of fighting this virus and supporting our ailing economy. But without the historic principle of free speech, which allows for the free flow and exchange of innovative ideas, we would not have been able to make the great scientific and policy making strides that are helping people around the world to tackle this pandemic.

Yet, worryingly, across the Western world, evidence is mounting that people, particularly the young, seem less and less appreciative of the value of free speech. This has become increasingly apparent as more people try to censor the opinions of those with whom they disagree rather than challenging them with reasoned arguments.

This has unfortunately intensified to the extent that individuals themselves are now being censored, no-platformed or “cancelled” in a misguided attempt, almost religiously, to defend the idea that certain beliefs are sacrosanct and cannot therefore be challenged or criticised.

As a result, we now live in a culture where not a day goes by without an individual or public figure having to clarify, apologise or resign for having expressed an opinion, or said a word out of place, or deviated from the approved line on a given subject.

We cannot perhaps expect people from all corners of society to appreciate just why free speech matters so much and how it influences, shapes, and improves their everyday lives.

Yet the vital importance of free speech must be well understood by academic institutions which only exist, and continue to thrive, because of our liberal freedoms.

How can universities seriously expect to maintain their status as bastions of thought, knowledge and innovation, when they continually allow their student bodies to censor research or academic speakers who contradict their world view? Surely they realise how illogical their wilful inaction is?

Already there are real concerns that the failure of institutions to stand up for liberal values could be stifling and suppressing research, discussion and innovation by academics in other areas.

A report from Policy Exchange has suggested that right-leaning, or Brexit-supporting academic staff at universities feel uncomfortable expressing their views, because doing so may trigger a hostile response which could hamper their research and their careers.

This extends to other contentious issues such as those surrounding trans rights. In fact, the report points out that many academics feel as though they must self-censor their work prior to publication. This undermines the very existence of universities as open and thought-provoking environments where old ideas can be challenged and new ideas created.

This is also bad news for the wider public, as potentially game-changing concepts could be stifled, while impractical ideas and solutions get bulldozed through unchallenged.

If universities are more concerned about hurting people’s feelings than the quality and breadth of their academic research then I believe we have a serious and endemic crisis right at the heart of our premier educational institutions.

This is already having consequences across society with schools, public bodies and workplaces following universities’ example and failing to foster an environment which embraces open discussion and debate.

Across our society we need to do more to distinguish between abusive speech inciting violence, and free speech which involves the expression of new ideas and the challenging of old ones. There should be unanimous agreement about the vital importance of the latter.

Only through free and open debate have projects from both Conservatives and Labour, which were previously thought of as unthinkable or unworkable, eventually became universally accepted hallmarks of our country, such as the NHS or the principle of privatisation.

No one – and no idea – is so perfect or unassailable as to be beyond criticism. If you have strongly held beliefs, then you should be prepared to defend them through reasoned and measured debate, exposing weak criticisms for what they are and highlighting how much stronger your own arguments are.

This means of course that we may all be exposed to views and opinions that we find unpalatable or even preposterous. But the minute we start chipping away at the free expression of others, we begin to erode the very essence of what makes us a democracy.

That is something which as a party we must not allow to happen. Universities should wake up and smell the coffee and act now to uphold the very principle of free speech on which they were founded.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com.

Social housing must be part of building plans to help boost the economy

Aisha Vance-Cuthbert is Co-Director of Conservatives in Communications and Head of Communications at a large housing association

This morning, in Dudley, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will unveil his taskforce ‘Project Speed’ – chaired by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak – aimed at accelerating building and infrastructure projects to get the UK economy moving again as we slowly emerge from lockdown.

This move is welcomed by the construction industry, and those who are both directly and indirectly employed by the sector. However, what we need – in addition to schools, infrastructure and market sale / rent homes – are new social homes for the millions of people who are currently in expensive, temporary and often poor-quality accommodation.

The Government has already signalled that it understands and wants to solve the housing and homelessness crisis, which go hand-in-hand. For example, only last week, the Government announced an extra £105 million in funding to help keep rough sleepers off the streets.

The trouble is, as noble as this sounds, most councils have depleted the cash because of the lack of available social housing. For the most part, the only available option is to place people in expensive nightly-paid accommodation, hotels or bed and breakfasts. And this is exactly why the Government must invest in high quality social homes – to help tackle rough sleeping, solve the housing crisis and save the taxpayer millions.

There’s also a ‘levelling up’ argument. After the general election, I wrote an article for The Times Red Box on why building more social housing would reward millions of voters along the Red Wall. The Conservatives ‘borrowed’ millions of votes from Labour, giving them a significant, working majority.

Specifically, I highlighted a YouGov poll of undecided voters carried out on behalf of the National Housing Federation. It found that 80% of ‘Labour Leavers’ worry about their housing costs. It also found that housing matters more to ‘Labour Leavers’ than crime. In fact, they signalled that housing is the fourth most important issue after Brexit, the NHS and immigration.

I welcome the Government’s ambition to re-boot the economy; creating local jobs and supporting our public services. But, I hope that it will also include building more affordable homes. Building homes – of all tenures – will help kick-start the economy while, at the same time, protecting our public finances.

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This piece was written for our website.

Has BoJo lost his mojo? No, and he’s shovel-ready

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

It’s been almost a year since members elected Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister, and six months since he won a personal mandate from the country – and a stonking majority at that! How is he performing? This piece looks at some of the highs and lows, as well as the future ahead.

The highs

I deal in facts not fiction, so let’s start with the polls. Last December, the UK returned a Tory-led government for the fourth time in a decade: a 44% share of the vote (14m ballots) won him 365 seats* – a Conservative MP for each day of the Gregorian calendar. Today, according to Politico’s Poll of Polls, public support for the ‘People’s Government’ is holding firm.

What’s he achieved vs what did he guarantee? A week after that seismic result in 2019, the Government published its Queen’s Speech, outlining the ‘People’s Priorities.’ Chief among them was Mr Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done in January” [2020], which he quickly did. Michael Gove recently confirmed that the UK will “neither accept nor seek any extension to the Transition Period.”

“Extra funding for the NHS” has been enshrined in law and the number of new nurses has increased compared to last year.

Over 3,000 of his “20,000 more police” have been recruited and Robert Buckland has brought about “tougher sentences for criminals”, including the most serious terrorist offenders. “An Australian-style points-based system to control immigration”, as part of a much broader Bill, is due to have its report stage and third reading.

It’s true that millions more have been “invested…in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure,” and that good progress – new consultations and plans to increase investment – has been made towards “Reaching Net Zero by 2050.” All this while not raising “the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.”

The lows

Britain has been transformed by the coronavirus crisis. The number of GP surgery appointments per annum is likely to be down, not up. 310,000 people, including the Prime Minister and Matt Hancock, have tested positive for the disease. Of those, sadly, 43,500 have died – one of the highest figures in the world. It’s inevitable that there will be, and it’s right that – in time – there is, an inquiry. Lessons must be learned.

Because of Covid-19 – and the measures this government has introduced to combat it – UK public debt has “exceeded 100% of GDP for the first time since 1963.”

The death of George Floyd sparked many protests abroad and at home. A minority of people, on both ends of the spectrum, including Antifa, exploited Black Lives Matter, to behave quite irresponsibly. Our politicians have a vital role to play in healing divisions and addressing issues, which is why I – and others – were surprised it took Mr Johnson – the author of a book about his hero – time to speak out.

Number 10’s handling of these events has created a perception – among backbenchers and commentators – that the Prime Minister has misplaced his mojo.

An analysis

So, some clear wins (promises made, promises kept) and some evident challenges, but challenges that can be overcome with a bold and ambitious plan. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

And yet, if you spend your time talking to Londoners, following the mainstream media and scrolling through Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Government was about to collapse at any given moment – that Sir Keir Starmer, by asking a couple of questions each Wednesday and by sacking Rebecca Wrong-Daily, is about to gain 120 seats for Labour. The mountain’s too high to climb.

These are the same people who: predicted Remain would win the Brexit referendum by a landslide, never imagined Donald J. Trump would become US President and thought Jeremy Corbyn might actually win in 2017 (and two years later). The same people who were confident Priti Patel would resign and Dominic Cummings would be fired, and tweet #WhereisBoris on a nearly daily basis.

That said, 44% can be improved upon and regardless of whether there’s any truth in it – perceptions are hard to shake-off. And so, the Government must listen. In particular, No10 must listen to its backbenchers. They are ideally placed to feedback on any disillusionment across the country, before decisions are made. A new liaison between No10 and the Parliamentary Party should be hired.

In my opinion, the appointment would help the Government make sound policy decisions from the get-go and reduce the number of U-turns in the long-run. However, U-turns aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Like subpoenas (writs “commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure”), they needn’t be seen as negative – rather a means of making right.

This government should also listen to experienced conservatives in communications. We recently polled our supporters and they rated its coronavirus communications strategy 3.18 out of 5. While positive, it’s clear improvements can be made. First-up, was phasing out daily press briefings, which I’m glad it has done. I’d also like to see more women MPs around the Cabinet table at the next reshuffle.

What we need to hear from Mr Johnson tomorrow, in Dudley, is how he’s going to help Britain rebuild itself and win again after the lockdown. I hope he makes us feel proud about our identity and culture and that his vision is aspirational and opportunistic. The British people have put their faith in him before – a few for the first time – and I’m sure they’ll continue to keep it, if he listens and acts accordingly.

*Election data

 2010201520172019
Votes (000s)10,70411,30013,63713,966
% of UK vote36.136.842.343.6
Seats won 306 330 317 365
% of seats won47.150.848.856.2

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (June 29, 2020).

What’s next – an early general election perhaps?

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector.

I recently blogged that Boris Johnson must articulate a detailed vision and appoint a sound team to execute on it. He is doing that – and in the process annoying the loony left and some in the mainstream media.

Like Johnson, Michael Gove studied at Oxford and graduated with an upper-second degree, has written for The Spectator and The Times, lists education among his political interests, co-spearheaded the Vote Leave campaign and ran for Tory leader,twice. While Gove served as education secretary under David Cameron, it is Johnson – as prime minister – who has put improving life chances at the heart of his political agenda. While Johnson is determined to deliver Brexit by Halloween, it is Gove who has been put in charge of overseeing preparations across Whitehall for a no-deal scenario. There are many overlaps between the two gentlemen, not least their overall abilities and most especially their ability to express themselves both orally and via the medium of the pen (or keyboard).

Over the weekend, Johnson revealed (in an op-ed for The Times) that – in addition to previous announcements on education, technology and towns – there will be further investment in the NHS. Plus, he confirmed new upgrades for hospitals and recommitted to improving social care. Gove, meanwhile, defined the purpose of this one nation government in a tweet: “Our most important priority [is] rejuvenating our democracy, strengthening our union and embracing new opportunities”. In other words, the referendum question was clear, as were the pledges made at subsequent European, general and local elections, and therefore the mandate to move forward is without doubt.

During his first days in office – rather than setting off for Brussels – Johnson explored the ‘awesome foursome’ that make-up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK); taking pit stops in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if, as the Policy Exchange demands, patriots could “display their area’s symbol or county coat of arms, or similar, on their number plate as is the case in many other European countries like Germany and Switzerland”? Simultaneously, our freedom-loving international trade secretary focused her efforts on life outside of the EU, including free ports and new free trade agreements with the US, Australia and New Zealand, among others.

At the time of writing this, Ipsos MORI and YouGov have the Tories on double-digit leads over Labour. In Brecon and Radnorshire, we saw Labour’s parliamentary candidate drop to fourth place and almost lose his deposit. All this indicates a clear Boris bounce and an electorate totally fed-up with Jeremy Corbyn’s ambiguity on the main issue of the day. Therefore, it’s perfectly understandable that two-thirds of voters now want to get rid of Corbyn before the UK goes to the polls again.

What else has Johnson been doing? In terms of protecting our nation and streets, we’ve seen him board HMS Victorious and appoint Johnny Mercer to head the new Office of Veterans’ Affairs as well as a plan to put 20,000 more bobbies on the beat over the next three years. This, combined with the home secretary’s vision to restore public confidence in law and order, should go some way to addressing the surge in gang violence, knife crime and moped theives affecting the capital’s residents, visitors and tourists.

Perhaps Sadiq Khan should’ve spent less time arguing for a second referendum and attacking the president of our closest ally, and more on the issues that impact Londoners. Is it any wonder that his approval ratings have tanked? Cameron and Johnson defeated Red Ken in 2008 and 2012; let’s ensure Johnson and Shaun Bailey – who has put addressing crime at the centre of his mayoral campaign – defeat Corbyn and Khan next year.

In 2018, almost a quarter of a million new homes were built in England – up from 225,000 12-months earlier and more than double the number when Labour was last in power. There have also been significant environmental milestones reached in England with a 90% drop in plastic bag purchases from the big supermarkets compared with just five years ago. As the environment secretary said recently, “We’re calling time on being a throwaway society”. We are investing for the future.

Borrowing from President Bartlett in The West Wing, I’ve asked myself this: ‘What’s next?’ Johnson’s current administration should build on these accomplishments and aspire to go even further in investing for a better future. I say current as, whichever way you look at it, it appears we are headed for an election this autumn.

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This piece was written for The Commentator (August 18, 2019).