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How politics thwarted the UK’s Covid-19 response – Financial Times

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When the inevitable national inquiry reports into Britain’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the first item on the charge sheet will be a failure to act decisively at the outset to suppress the pandemic.Some Whitehall insiders call this a stumble, a passing hesitation. Some talk about reckless complacency. Others observe laconically that Prime Minister Boris Johnson does not react well to bad news.

Britain lagged behind most of Europe in the spread of the infection. Yet, in spite of the lessons to be drawn from Italy and elsewhere, it has one of the highest death rates outside of the US. Management failures in procurement and distribution compounded political mistakes in depriving it of critical resources such as ventilators, testing capacity and personal safety equipment.

The postmortem, one old Whitehall hand says, will be “bloody”. Ministers and political aides are already privately shuffling off responsibility to institutions such as Public Health England and the civil service, suggesting they have been slow to react to fast-moving events. Prudent officials say they are keeping detailed personal diaries to record the advice they offered to Mr Johnson and his ministers.

Some mistakes were inevitable. Covid-19 is a new disease. There were genuine uncertainties and differences among epidemiologists. The UK is not alone in facing problems. Scientists often disagree with each other. So do clinicians and public health experts. And Britain is caught up in the worldwide scramble for essential equipment to treat patients.

The crisis has also exposed longstanding structural weaknesses. The top jobs in Whitehall go to talented policymakers rather than managers schooled in complex logistics. Public Health England has stuck rigidly to “peacetime” rules on equipment standards when the nation is fighting what officials call a war. A decade-long financial squeeze has left the National Health Service ill-equipped.

Standing above all the tactical mis-steps, however, was the strategic misjudgment made by Mr Johnson and his colleagues at the outset. Until well into March ministers refused to grip the gravity of the threat because Mr Johnson did not want to contemplate a draconian response.

This failure was evident in February when Mr Johnson chose not to attend several meetings of the emergency ministerial group Cobra. It has haunted the UK’s effort ever since, helping to explain why, even now, the pandemic is sweeping through care centres for the elderly, why medics and care workers are scrabbling for safety clothing when treating Covid-19 patients, and why Britain is behind nations such as Germany in mapping the virus through testing and contact tracing.

In the words of one top official: “Every road leads back to the slow start.” Britain has been “behind every curve”, another insider says. One consequence was a failure to build up testing capacity, another that it came late to the global competition for ventilators and protective clothing.

Mr Johnson’s breezy confidence was on display in early March when he volunteered that he had been “shaking hands with everybody” during a hospital visit. He said everything about Britain’s response — its scientists, the NHS, its testing and surveillance — was “fantastic”. Britain could busk its way through the crisis.

The prime minister’s default response to bad news, say officials who have worked closely with him, is a cheerful assertion that things will sort themselves out. Even as the virus took hold in early March, he was horrified, a ministerial colleague says, by the idea of imposing shutdowns or quarantines.

For a time, the advice of two leading scientists unwittingly conspired with this approach. While other nations followed Italy into lockdown, chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and Christopher Whitty, the NHS’s chief scientist, backed a strategy of “mitigation”.

Generalised testing was halted in favour of a policy of self-isolation and efforts to shield the most vulnerable. The goal was “herd immunity”. In Sir Patrick’s description: “Our aim is to try to reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune”.

Other scientists argued the strategy was better suited to a seasonal flu epidemic. With Covid-19, it would threaten hundreds of thousands of potential deaths and overwhelm the NHS. By the time this view prevailed, the virus had taken firm hold. The prime minister was among the victims.

The U-turn might have led to a candid conversation with the nation to rebuild public confidence. Instead ministers persist with a never-give-an-inch communications strategy more suited to election campaigns. Every mistake invites a denial. Targets for testing and equipment are missed and promises broken.

After a period of recuperation, Mr Johnson is preparing to return to his desk. His ministers have fallen to arguing about when to relax the lockdown. The answer should be obvious. The government should proceed with extreme caution. It should follow the example of Germany in sharing the uncertainties with citizens. The choice between beating the virus and economic recovery is a false one. The government must start telling the full truth.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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Politics This Morning: Canada slowing COVID-19 infection rate, but threat remains as restrictions ease, says Tam – The Hill Times

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Good Friday morning,

Fresh figures from federal public health officials showed that Quebec and Ontario account for more than 90 per cent of the country’s COVID-19 caseload. The latest projections, released yesterday, suggested that Canada could see between 97,990 to 107,454 cases by June 15.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said while Canada has made progress in curbing the infection rate and controlling the spread of the epidemic, the threat hasn’t fully abated, as there is still no vaccine for the virus.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Jane Philpott has been tapped by Ontario to advise it in its efforts to collect racial and socioeconomic data during the pandemic. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Philpott said her job will be to bring together “huge amounts of information” that have been siloed. Such data, she said, will be useful in improving the government’s research efforts and response to medical care. Her position is unpaid.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted not to comment on the release of a video that shows an RCMP officer hitting an Inuit man with his truck in Kinngait. The chief superintendent of the Nunavut RCMP has called for an investigation into the incident. According to the Globe, the victim was arrested for public intoxication, but was not charged. Mr. Trudeau reiterated comments he made earlier this week, acknowledging the existence of systemic racism amid the ongoing protests against police violence, triggered in the wake of George Floyd‘s death.

As anti-racism and police brutality protests show no signs of waning, one activist and some Parliamentarians said that there’s growing recognition that it’s time to go beyond long-overdue “piecemeal reforms.” 

Independent Senator Rosemary Moodie observed the protests, which are colliding with a deadly pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting racialized communities, are drawing out more allies. “Every race is out there on the streets, supporting the concerns of what’s happening,” Sen. Moodie said.

Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen, who immigrated to Canada as a refugee from Somalia, told Toronto Star that the process for addressing systemic racism in Canada starts with amplifying the “voices of those who feel that sting of discrimination of racism as part of their lived reality,” who can define the scale of the issue. He said there’s also work to be done at the community level, by empowering groups who are front-line responders when incidents occur.

Seniors Minister Deb Schulte said the government delayed the rollout of COVID funding for seniors to prevent fraud, which has been an issue flagged public servants in the processing of cheques through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit program. The top-up in financial assistance to vulnerable seniors will arrive the week of July 6. Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough sought to assure MPs the government intends to pore over cases where fraud might have occurred.

In scheduled events, the House Indigenous Affairs Committee is scheduled to hear from First Nations Tax Commission and the Inuit Business Council, among others, at 11 a.m. Happening simultaneously is the Government Operations Committee meeting, where industry officials and Coalition of Concerned Manufacturers and Businesses of Canada are slated to testify. The Industry Committee, meanwhile, is holding a hearing at 2 p.m. Witnesses include the Montreal Port Authority and Spartan Bioscience Inc.

The Hill Times

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Politics Podcast: What History Can And Can’t Teach Us About Today’s Protests – FiveThirtyEight

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It’s easy to compare today’s anti-police-violence protests to the protests of the 1960s, but those comparisons don’t paint a full picture. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, history professor Yohuru Williams joins Perry Bacon Jr. and Galen Druke to discuss which parallels are apt, how today’s protests are different, and what that says about where the movement is headed.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast publishes Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

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The House's green surface bill runs into politics – Politico

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Presented by Freight Rail Works

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With help from Tanya Snyder and Brianna Gurciullo

Editor’s Note: Morning Transportation is a free version of POLITICO Pro Transportation’s morning newsletter, which is delivered to our subscribers each morning at 6 a.m. The POLITICO Pro platform combines the news you need with tools you can use to take action on the day’s biggest stories. Act on the news with POLITICO Pro.

Quick Fix

— The House’s ambitious surface transportation bill released this week is already running into some problems, with some industry groups and Republicans crying foul over what they called a “partisan” process.

— Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao stuck by the agency’s hands-off approach to regulating air travel during the pandemic in an interview with POLITICO.

— As part of an escalating row with China over airline access, DOT said it will ban Chinese flights from the U.S. later this month.

IT’S THURSDAY: Thanks for tuning in to POLITICO’s Morning Transportation, your daily tipsheet on all things trains, planes, automobiles and ports. Get in touch with tips, feedback or song lyric suggestions at [email protected] or @samjmintz.

“Cruisin’ down 11th / Glance to my right, the passenger seat’s unoccupied / Here’s how I know that we had nothin.’”

LISTEN HERE: Follow MT’s playlist on Spotify. What better way to start your day than with songs (picked by us and readers) about roads, railways, rivers and runways.

Surface Transportation

LET THE SURFACE CIRCUS BEGIN: House Democrats’ climate-focused surface transportation reauthorization got skewered on Wednesday by Republicans and some industry groups, including those representing the rail industry and state transportation departments. GOP lawmakers accused House Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio of shutting out Republicans and unveiling a partisan bill that has an “extreme” environmental agenda. Some turned to the Senate’s version of the bill, which included a climate title for the first time but holds more modest goals than DeFazio’s proposal to discourage states from building new highways and include climate impacts in transportation plans.

Two weeks to work it out: DeFazio told reporters that Republicans left “very little room” for engagement on climate issues and Democrats crafted the bill according to their own priorities — and that they’d likely have no problem passing it in the House even without Republican votes. But before the July 1 floor vote comes the June 17 markup, and DeFazio said he scheduled a two-week window between the release of the bill text and the markup to make time for amendments and other input from Republicans. Tanya Snyder has all the details for Pros.

Guinea pig: The transportation bill markup will be a trial run for new House rules that allow the legislative process to go forward remotely, as our Connor O’Brien observed. He notes that the surface vote will happen before the defense authorization bill, and that T&I is a bigger committee than Armed Services.

Aviation

NOT OUR JOB: Chao hit back at criticism over how her agency has handled regulating pandemic measures for airlines, calling questions about masks and social distancing “labor management” issues. “When the federal government gets involved, we tend to be much more heavy handed,” Chao said on Wednesday, while noting that her agency continues to “monitor” the situation.

Her comments, made during a virtual interview with POLITICO Playbook, earned a strong reaction from labor unions and workplace safety advocates. David Michaels, who was head of OSHA during the Obama administration, called it an “abdication of duty.” Labor unions for flight attendants and pilots, which have called for DOT to make health guidelines mandatory, were mad, too. “There’s a difference between heavy handed and just washing your hands of this critical responsibility,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, calling DOT an “outlier” on safety.

An example of the patchwork: Delta Air Lines on Wednesday said it would keep preventing customers from picking middle seats and extend caps on seating through the end of September. “On routes where increasing customer demand is driving flight loads closer to our caps, we will look for opportunities to upsize to a larger aircraft type or add more flying,” the carrier said.

DOT FINALIZES SERVICE EXEMPTIONS: DOT issued a notice late Wednesday easing airlines’ service requirements that are a condition of receiving CARES Act aid. The final order, which is unchanged from a previously published preliminary order, says carriers can suspend service to either 5 percent of the points they cover, or five points, whichever is greater. “The Department believes that the process we are finalizing here strikes an appropriate balance between the needs of communities to maintain at least minimal access to the national air transportation system during the public health emergency, and the needs of carriers to conserve financial resources to weather this time of unprecedented loss of demand,” the agency wrote.

EYE FOR AN EYE: DOT announced on Wednesday that it plans to stop Chinese passenger carriers from flying into or out of the U.S. this month because China hadn’t taken steps to give Delta and United Airlines the OK to resume service to the country.

Move gets results: Shortly after, China said in a statement that it will ease its restrictions on foreign airlines flying into the country, according to Reuters. “Qualifying foreign carriers currently barred from operating flights to mainland China will be allowed once-per-week flights into a city of their choosing starting on June 8,” the story says. The number of flights can increase if no passengers on the incoming flights test positive for three weeks.

The DOT restriction, which would hit four Chinese airlines, is set to go into effect June 16. As our Brianna Gurciullo reports, DOT said its move would “restore a competitive balance and fair and equal opportunity among U.S. and Chinese air carriers in the scheduled passenger service marketplace.” The agency says its “overriding goal” is for airlines from both countries to “be able to exercise fully their bilateral rights.”

Calling all China watchers: The trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship will determine whether this century is judged a bright or a dismal one. POLITICO’s David Wertime is launching a new China newsletter that will be worth the read.

THE LOW LOWS: Airline fuel consumption hit its lowest point in at least 20 years in April, according to the new numbers from DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. There were 447 million gallons of fuel consumed that month, down from 1.5 billion the year before, a 70 percent drop.

FOR THE RECORD: After the New York Times reported this week that TSA officers had been “called out of the airports to help protect federal property” amid protests in the D.C. area over the death of George Floyd while in police custody, the agency made clear that those employees weren’t security screeners but rather law enforcement officers. “@TSA officers who interact with and screen passengers and their baggage at airports every day did not participate in responding to #BlackLivesMatter protests. Airport TSA officers are not law enforcement officials,” agency spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said in a tweet.

Around the Agencies

GOVERNING FROM HOME: In the interview with POLITICO, Chao also noted that while she expects the transportation world to return to normal relatively soon, there could be long-term changes to employers like hers that could stick around. “We’re going to see trends develop in telework,” Chao said. “Do we really need a building for 5,500 people [the size of DOT’s headquarters] when more and more people are feeling more comfortable teleworking … and video conferencing?”

The Autobahn

— “Pakistani aviation authority says PIA pilot ignored air traffic control.” Reuters.

— “Full rollout for contactless payments in NYC subways delayed until December.” The Verge.

— “Former UAW president pleads guilty to embezzlement, racketeering charges.” Wall Street Journal.

— “VRE seating is now every other window seat.” WTOP.

— “Air Canada retires last Boeing 767 after 37 years.” The Points Guy.

The Countdown

DOT appropriations run out in 118 days. The FAA reauthorization expires in 1,214 days. Highway and transit policy is up for renewal in 118 days.

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