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Sat, 28 November 2020

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The Breakfast Briefing: Neil Ferguson quits, the grim toll, and Theresa May’s tips for Boris

The Breakfast Briefing: Neil Ferguson quits, the grim toll, and Theresa May’s tips for Boris
4 min read

Your essential morning guide to what’s moving in Westminster

Do yourself a favour and start your day with this incredible Telegraph story. I’ll wait. 
 
In a properly eye-opening scoop, the paper reveals that Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist helping to shape the Government’s response to the coronavirus, flouted strict coronavirus lockdown rules despite having spent two weeks in self-isolation after testing positive for Covid-19.
 
The finer points of the Professor’s private life notwithstanding, it’s the kind of action that, when millions of Brits are separated from their loved ones, will only fuel suspicions of one rule for them, another for the rest of us. Ferguson has now resigned from the top Sage advisory group, and you can almost hear the seething Number 10 press officer in his statement: "I deeply regret any undermining of the clear messages around the continued need for social distancing to control this devastating epidemic. The Government guidance is unequivocal, and is there to protect all of us."
 
The story broke last night on an already-grim day for the Government. Dominic Raab was forced to downplay the usefulness of international comparisons as the UK reported the highest official coronavirus death toll in Europe - and there were tacit admissions from some of the leading scientists that the UK’s initial response had not helped matters.
 
“I think if we'd managed to ramp testing capacity quicker it would have been beneficial,” chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told MPs in his usual understated way. Dr Jenny Harries - who in March said South Korean-style mass testing of the public was “not an appropriate mechanism as we go forward” - now said it had not been a viable option because of the “resources we had”. Professor Angela McLean, the deputy chief scientific adviser, said South Korea, now posting new cases in the single digits, was “really place in the world that we can look to and say this worked”, when quizzed on the belated shift to a “test, track and trace” strategy at last night’s presser.

"There were tacit admissions from some of the leading scientists that the UK’s initial response had not helped matters"

This isn’t just a health tragedy, of course, and this morning sees a fresh warning from MPs about the impact the pandemic is having on charities - many of whom lived a hand-to-mouth existence before the crisis hit and forced them to cancel fundraising events, shut up shop, and furlough staff.
 
The latest report from the DCMS committee, led by Tory MP Julian Knight, urges Chancellor Rishi Sunak to do more to stop vital services falling over, with Knight saying: “The sum of money that’s been made available goes nowhere near replacing the income that many charities have lost.” Meanwhile more than 100 organisations have signed an open letter led by Oxfam warning that Britain’s carers - the very people we’re implored to clap for every Thursday - are “facing a poverty crisis” because of holes in the social security system.
 
Sunak, of course, has rather a lot on his plate right now, and the Evening Standard’s Joe Murphy shed light on a string of changes being considered to eventually wean the country’s businesses off the unprecedented furlough scheme. Lord Lamont, who knows a thing or two about an economic crisis having been at Number 11 during Black Wednesday, this morning warns that the unprecedented and “very expensive” jobs guarantee is masking the “pretty horrible” reality of the crisis for many Brits. But the Tory peer urges Sunak not to do “anything in terms of reducing the debt that would hold back the recovery”, and advises his successor to let borrowing “take the strain” for now.
 
Also offering her counsel this morning is Theresa May, who’s not very impressed with finger-pointing world leaders. The pandemic has, the former PM says in The Times, prompted a shift towards "nationalism and absolutism" instead of cooperation - and she’s urging Boris Johnson, who will face a grilling from Keir Starmer at PMQs today, to step up to the plate and make sure Britain plays a “wider international role beyond the day-to-day of the pandemic". With figures like the UK’s though, will anyone want to listen?


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