Public Policy Dynamics UK #6

by RPP colleagues

Health and Politics in the United Kingdom

Total COVID-19 cases:4,319,128
14-day total COVID-19 cases per 100,000:114.1
14-day change:-12.5
Total COVID-19 deaths:126,445
14-day rise:1,280
  • Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon will lead the SNP into the Scottish Parliamentary election in May after surviving a committee review into her conduct before Parliament around harassment allegations against her predecessor, Alex Salmond. More broadly in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unveiled an integrated review into UK foreign, development and defence policy to move UK trade avenues beyond the EU post-Brexit. 
  • Guidance has been launched to new local integrated care systems (ICSs) responsible for the local commissioning and delivery of health services to cement lessons from Covid-19 to maintain long-Covid care and transform elective and cancer care in the long-term.
  • The UK Government’s emergency Covid-19 powers have been extended until the end of September, beyond the scheduled full unlocking of Covid-19 restrictions in England in June. The UK vaccination effort has inoculated nearly 30 million Britons, though vaccine supplies are set to be curtailed over the coming two months.

Politics

  • As the UK local and devolved elections in May draw closer, Scottish National Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon has emerged broadly unscathed from pressure over her conduct before a Scottish parliamentary inquiry into handling of sexual harassment allegations against former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. Sturgeon had been alleged to have misled a Scottish Parliamentary committee on whether she was aware of complaints levelled at her predecessor and former ally, and the committee found by 5 votes to 4 that Sturgeon had misled Parliament over her accounts of a meeting with Salmond in 2018. Sturgeon has nonetheless survived a vote of no confidence tabled by the Scottish Conservatives and will lead the SNP into the elections in May. The SNP has already introduced a bill for a second independence referendum in the next Parliament, and aims to re-join the EU.
  • Following the UK’s departure from the EU, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unveiled the Government’s integrated review of the UK’s security, defence, development and foreign policy under the banner of ‘Global Britain’. The review supports the UK’s ambition to shift trading priorities beyond immediate neighbours and towards the Indo-Pacific region, in-line with the UK’s ongoing attempt to accede to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has stressed the UK is willing to trade with any country, irrespective of its domestic politics and human rights record, in a sign of the UK softening its position on trade with China, more in-line with the EU position than that of the United States. Hostilities between the UK and China have flared in recent days, however, as the UK sanctioned Chinese individuals linked to human rights abuses against Uyghurs.
  • In a mark of further heightening tensions between the UK and EU post-Brexit, the European Commission has formally taken legal action against the UK Government after the UK unilaterally made minor changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which provides for unfettered trade across the island of Ireland. Purportedly to provide time for Northern Irish businesses to adjust to trading arrangements with the rest of the UK, the UK Government elected to extend grace periods for businesses trading from Britain to Northern Ireland without securing the EU’s prior agreement. As Northern Ireland remains in the Single Market and under EU trade rules, checks are to be required on goods traded between Britain and Northern Ireland – representing an unwanted trade barrier across the Irish Sea. The UK’s departure from the EU has led to a steep decline in exports to the EU, exacerbating Covid-19 economic pressures.

 

Health

  • After additional funding was pledged to the health service in the November Spending Review and following the Spring Budget this year, the NHS has published its Operational Planning Guidance 2021/22 for this year to maintain the Covid-19 response and recover routine services such as elective and cancer care over the coming year. New local integrated care systems (ICSs), which will bear considerable responsibility for the delivery of care once given statutory footing in April, are directed to build on the lessons from Covid-19 to transform services and accelerate the restoration of routine care; expand primary care capacity to improve access to local health outcomes; and transform urgent and emergency care to prevent inappropriate attendance at emergency departments. ICSs are instructed to prioritise cementing the outpatient delivery of care to address Covid-19 capacity issues and expand capacity in the long term.
  • Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced a new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) will be established on 1 April, aiming to plan, prevent and respond to external threats to public health. The UKHSA will integrate elements of the NHS Test and Trace programme, which has worked to control the spread of Covid-19, and the vaccine-procuring UK Vaccine Taskforce to lead future work on controlling infectious diseases. An agency in the mould of the UKHSA had been promised to replace Public Health England (PHE); rather than dissolution, PHE is set to have a narrower remit alongside the UKHSA in the future, focusing more on broader public health issues such as smoking and obesity.

 

Covid-19

  • Despite a small cross-party rebellion from libertarian-oriented MPs led by the Covid Recovery Group, both government and opposition yesterday (26 March) voted to extend emergency Covid-19 powers until the end of September. The extension enables the Government to keep in place and introduce exceptional powers including public health measures such as social distancing and social measures such as the protection of tenants against eviction. Some provisions, such as additional health and safety requirements in social care, were removed yesterday. The vote extends emergency measures beyond the planned lifting in England of all social restrictions in June as the threat of future waves of Covid-19 persists as new variants proliferate across the globe.
  • Social restrictions in England on socialising outside are set to be lifted on Monday (29 March) – the first key date in the Government’s roadmap to unlocking restrictions. From Monday, groups of up to six will be able to socialise outdoors, with the Government’s “stay at home” slogan is set to be replaced with the instruction to “take this next step safely”, while non-essential shops are set to reopen on 12 April. In Scotland, restrictions are being lifted more quickly, with the stay at home order will be lifted on 2 April and non-essential shops set to reopen on 5 April.
  • The UK governments are broadly on-track in lifting public health restrictions as planned as Covid-19 infections, hospitalisations and mortality continue to fall precipitously as the UK vaccination programme takes effect. A record-setting 844,285 doses were administered on Saturday (20 March), and around 29 million Britons have now been vaccinated. Boris Johnson has called on all people eligible for a vaccine – currently those with underlying vulnerability and those over the age of 50 – to come forward for a vaccine before an expected drop in supply through April and May.
  • Turbulence in the UK vaccine supply is expected through the spring as imports from India are set to steeply decline, though the UK Government is near to calming acrimony with the EU on the sharing of vaccines. The Government is reportedly set to begin exporting some doses to the EU in return for doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured at a plant in the Netherlands. The UK has thus far imported around 10 million doses from the EU, but has exported none in return.

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