United Kingdom

Unlock London! Tony Blair report backs easing restrictions in capital and some other cities

London and other major English cities like Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol can safely ease their lockdown, while others need to take steps to tighten them, according to a new report today.

The paper from the Tony Blair institute for  Global Change suggests that whole of the UK could return to around 51 per cent of normal 'mobility' from its current 40 per cent level without taking the dreaded R rate above 1.

But the loosening of the shackles in some areas would have to be coupled with even tighter restrictions in areas continuing to struggle with getting the reproduction rate of coronavirus under this key figure.

It cites York, Slough, Southend among 14 areas that have not managed to keep a lid on new infections. It also mentions the Isle of Wight, which is being used to trial the Government's new smartphone app.

This could cause more pain in areas where the local economy is already facing its worst contraction in decades.

Downing Street last week confirmed that the lockdown could be eased at different speeds in different parts of England, depending on the local situation. It came after data revealed just 24 new infections in London.       

London and Liverpool have 'headroom' to ease population mobility and get people back to work, the report found

But areas like the Isle of Wight and York (above) still have an R value too high to allow the lockdown to be eased

In today's report, Smart Exit: A Covid-19 Early-Warning Model,  authors Ian Mulheirn and Christina Palmou, both economists, wrote: 'Our model suggests that a one percentage point increase in mobility leads to a 2.2 percentage point change in the acceleration of the virus.

'Applying this relationship to the recently observed numbers of new cases in England suggests that mobility could recover to around 51 per cent of its normal level without causing R to breach the threshold of 1.

'This would represent a significant increase in economic activity, potentially saving many businesses and jobs.

'At a local level, we find that some areas of the country have substantial headroom to increase mobility safely, while a minority need to restrict mobility further to slow the spread of the virus.

'London, Merseyside, the West Midlands and Bristol could all increase mobility by around ten percentage points, but in Slough and York it appears already to be too high to get R below 1 locally.'

The report suggests politicians use an 'early-warning model' that would  allow them to 'forecast and monitor the effect of easing measures on the spread of the virus in real time, such a tool could help us manage the virus and minimise the cost at a national and local level'. 

 It balances increased mobility and the economic benefits against the reproduction rate of coronavirus.

A furious blame game erupted today as a Cabinet minister claimed government coronavirus blunders were down to 'wrong' science advice.

Therese Coffey insisted the government had just been following the guidance from experts as she fended off damning criticism from MPs over 'inadequate' testing.

The Science and Technology Committee found hospital staff, care home workers and residents were put at risk because of a lack of capacity for screening 'when the spread of the virus was at its most rampant'.

Routine testing for those with symptoms was abandoned on March 12, when the government shifted to its 'delay' phase, with checks reserved for hospital patients and health staff.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair has backed Boris Johnson's administration, saying it is right to be opening schools again.

The Prime Minister's plans to start sending children back to school next month has come under attack from teaching unions and some local authorities, with critics arguing it is too soon to lift the coronavirus-related lockdown restrictions.

Mr Johnson, in his address to the nation on May 10, said Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils would be the first to go back, starting on June 1 'at the earliest'.

His ambition, Mr Johnson said, was that secondary pupils scheduled to take exams next year would 'get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays'.

Despite criticism of the proposals in some quarters, Mr Johnson has found an unlikely ally in three-time general election winner Mr Blair.

In an interview with BBC Newsnight on Monday evening, Mr Blair said the Government was adhering to scientific advice by preparing schools to open their doors again.

'They're right, I think, to be reopening the schools,' said Mr Blair. 

Boris Johnson's plans to start sending children back to school next month has come under attack from teaching unions and some local authorities, with critics arguing it is too soon to lift the coronavirus-related lockdown restrictions

'I don't think they would say that they're putting school opening above health risks. What they're doing is basing it on the evidence, actually.

'There are countries that have reopened parts, at least, of their school system.

'If you look at all the best evidence and again, my institutes assembled a lot of the different data on this, it's, especially for younger children, the risks of transmission are actually quite low.' 

Union chiefs have warned teachers it will 'not be safe' to mark pupils' books when schools reopen, while casting yet more doubt on the government's plans to bring children back to primary schools next month.

Staff who are members of the UK biggest teaching union will be told to go through a 20-page checklist with their bosses before returning to work. They will only be deemed safe if there is a 'yes' answer to every question, say the National Education Union (NEU).

It comes just days after five former education secretaries - Labour's Alan Johnson and Carles Clarke, plus Conservatives Nicky Morgan, Damian Hinds and Justine Greening - revealed they were all backing a phased reopening of schools.  

Staff who are members of the UK biggest teaching union will be told to go through a 20-page checklist with their bosses before returning to work (pictured: Social distancing measures as a child studies on a marked table at a primary school in Worcester, May 18)

Union bosses have told members it is 'extremely unlikely' that primary schools will reopen on June 1 (pictured: Children of essential workers in a lesson in Worcester, May 18)

But this week a third council in England was set to defy official advice to reopen schools in June. Pupils in Bury will not return 'while high levels of Covid-19 remain'.

Following growing opposition to the plan to reopen primaries to certain year groups from June 1, Bury council says that while high levels of the infection remain in the north west, 'the borough will not be re-opening schools on June 1'.

What safety measures are planned to reduce coronavirus in schools? 

Ministers have unveiled a raft of measures to keep pupils who do return to school safe from coronavirus.

They include: 

Unclear guidance around practical arrangements for social distancing within schools, as well as concerns over testing and tracing, and supply of PPE, were listed as other reasons for refusing to open.

Unions and the government are continuing to clash over plans to reopen primary schools by June 1. But the NEU, which has more than 450,000 members, has cast fresh doubt on the government's plans, which were confirmed by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson over the weekend.

Union bosses have told members it is 'extremely unlikely' that primary schools will reopen on June 1.

In a document, named the Planning Guide for Primary Schools, seen by MailOnline, the NEU has challenged the government's plan to use micro-groups - similar to the system used in Denmark - which will reduce the need to keep students and teachers more than two metres apart.

The NEU instead is urging strict two metre social distancing measures remain in place - as is being done in other workplaces.

The planning document also includes a 20-page safety checklist, written jointly with fellow unions, Unite, Unison and GMB, which it will urge its members to go through with bosses before they return to schools.

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the NEU, said: 'Our checklist incorporates and builds on the Government's own toolkit for primary school wider opening. That is what makes our checklist rigorous.

'It is designed for use when it is safe to open schools nationally. It sets out the standards which teachers, school staff and parents should expect to be met before the head teacher decides that the school is safe to open more widely.'

In an interview with BBC Newsnight on Monday evening, Tony Blair said the Government was adhering to scientific advice by preparing schools to open their doors again

He added: 'Teachers and support staff will be responsible for ensuring safe practices are implemented, as young children will not be able to do so themselves. Parents would expect nothing less.'  

Health Secretary Matt Hancock looked to reassure the House of Commons on Monday, telling MPs only a 'very small' number of children were 'badly affected' by Covid-19.

Mr Blair backed up the comments, telling the BBC his own institute - the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change - had gathered data to show that 'especially for younger children, the risks of transmission are actually quite low'.

He argued that private schools had been continuing to educate their pupils, while youngsters in the state system had been given 'no education at all' since schools were told to shut their gates on March 20 as the coronavirus outbreak took hold.

'Let's be clear, the private schools will have been educating their children throughout this,' added Mr Blair, a father of four.

'Parts of the state system will have been. But then there are some children who will have been having no education at all. You've got to get the schools back.'

Union leaders remain unconvinced with the argument put forward by ministers and Mr Blair, however.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that teachers 'haven't yet seen the scientific underpin' to back up the assertion that the transmission risk among pupils is low.

He has called on ministers to write to unions explaining the Government's assessment. 

During the same interview, Mr Blair also gave his approval to the way Sir Keir Starmer has been leading Labour during the pandemic since his election as leader in April.

'It's changed for the better, for sure, in my view,' Mr Blair said of the current state of the party.

'Because it's got a serious leadership that's already making an impact because they're showing competence, forensic skill, in dissecting the Government.

'I think he's done a very good job so far and I wish him every success.'

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