westminster coronavirus lockdown

The Week in Westminster: Bullying, budgets, Brexit and outbreaks

Your need-to-know guide to this week's UK political happenings

It’s not been an easy week for those toiling away in the Palace of Westminster. Before the week had even begun in earnest there was scandal over bullying claims against the Home Secretary, swiftly followed by Brexit negotiations on Monday that were overshadowed by an emergency Cobra meeting on the government’s response to Covid-19. With the next budget due to be delivered on 11 March there’s also been much speculation on what it will include – and much criticism about how the government has been spending public money in recent years. Here’s everything you need to know from the week in Westminster.

Does the government have a bullying problem?

In an extraordinary public statement on Saturday, the Home Office’s most senior official Sir Philip Rutnam, resigned citing Home Secretary Priti Patel’s behaviour of “swearing, belittling people [and] making unreasonable and repeated demands” as the reason. Rutnam has also brought an employment tribunal against the government as sources came forward claiming Westminster had been warned about Patel’s conduct in 2015 during her time as employment minister. During this time a member of staff in the Department of Work and Pensions was awarded £25,000 of taxpayer money after taking an overdose of prescription medicine following an alleged episode of bullying by Patel.

It also emerged that in 2017 officials in Patel’s private office had accused her of humiliating civil servants in group settings and creating an untenable atmosphere is which everyone was treated as “hopeless”. Despite agreeing to oversee a Cabinet Office inquiry, Johnson showed public support for Patel during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. After being repeatedly pressed by Jeremy Corbyn on when he first heard allegations about Patel’s bullying, Johnson responded by saying she was doing “an outstanding job” and he was “sticking by her”.

The coronavirus action plan

Following Monday’s Cobra meeting, Boris Johnson laid out the government’s plans for dealing with the outbreak of coronavirus. Health officials warned that the number of cases and pace of infection is likely to rise – the UK recorded its first coronavirus death on Friday – but will be implementing the following to mitigate the effects:

  • Increased publicity over good hygiene measures and the importance of staying at home when ill.
  • Encouraging school closures, homeworking and the cancellation of large gatherings should the need arise – with the caveat that the government does not believe this is currently necessary.
  • The introduction of new powers to allow medical professional and the police detain individuals suspected to be infected. However, this comes alongside an acknowledgement that the spread of coronavirus may result in a significantly diminished emergency service.
  • The provision of specialist care for the seriously ill in critical care units – spilling over into general care bays where necessary. The government says it has a ‘well-rehearsed plan’ for such events, however, NHS staffers have raised concerns over the already over-subscribed number of hospital beds available in the UK. There are just 4,250 critical care beds in the country.
  • In accordance with the above, doctors would be encouraged to identify the least sick patients and discharge them from hospital early to be cared for at home. This could be prohibited by an overstretched social care service which already struggles to provide at-home care for those medically fit to leave hospital.
  • Should hospitals become vastly overwhelmed, a large number of non-urgent operations would be postponed.
  • Retired nurses and doctors may be called back to work to help relieve pressure on NHS staff.

The government had also controversially planned to halt geographic updates on the spread of the virus in the UK but overturned the decision on Thursday due to concerns over fake news – especially as the Commons health committee confirmed its plans had now moved from containing the disease to delaying a mass outbreak. There are currently 163 confirmed cases in the UK with worst case scenario predictions estimated that 80% of the population could become infected. However, health authorities are also keen to stress that many will suffer only mild symptoms.

Between a rock and Brexit hard place

The first week of talks between the UK and the EU, by all accounts, do not appear to have yielded much in the way of progress. Negotiations began in Brussels on Monday with the EU warning the UK to tone down the political rhetoric around Brexit and take the heat out of, what the EU would prefer to be, more technical negotiations around a future relationship. However, by Friday little seemed to have been achieved, with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier speaking of the ‘grave’ differences between the two sides. He pointed to Johnson’s refusal to commit to the European convention on human rights, a decision which could limit cooperation on fighting crime, as a key indicator of the UK’s stubbornness while also commenting on the government’s seeming inability to decide what it wanted.

Barnier also said he believed the UK was ‘underestimating’ the difficulties that would come when the transition period ends in December 2020, either with or without a deal, explaining that it would not be ‘business as usual’. However, in a statement, the UK’s negotiators welcomed the ‘constructive tone’ of the talks, saying that difference were to be expected in these early stages.

The UK’s trade talks with the US – which have been in the spotlight this week – also caused some consternation, particularly as the UK has asked the US for a ‘level playing field’ – an agreement the UK has reneged on with the EU. Although official talks with the US have not yet begun, fears over what they may include prompted the government to issue a press release stating the NHS would not be on the table, as well as committing itself to maintaining animal welfare standards. However, it has become clear that any trade deal with the US will be worth significantly less to the UK economy than previously claimed by Donald Trump.

Budget speculation begins

With the 2020 Budget due next week, rampant speculation over what it might include has begun. One thing is clear: Chancellor Rishi Sunak has had to make drastic revisions to free up funds to deal with coronavirus. Many had expected Sunak’s first budget to mark a radical departure from the austerity of the past few years but parliamentary sources have confirmed that changes have been made to ‘prioritise economic security’ in the face of the impact Covid-19 may have, with long-term reforms being shelves in favour of short-term measures.

There are also rumours that Sunak plans to raise money by scrapping the ‘entrepreneurs relief’ tax break which mainly benefits the wealthy by halving the tax paid when a business is sold. Meanwhile, local councils have been pressing the government for greater education funding and an examination of Tory spending over the past decade has drawn criticism from many. The Office for National Statistics has found that the poorest 20% of Britons are no better off now than they were in 2004 while it has emerged that London received up to five times more funding on areas including housing and culture than the rest of the UK. This is a particularly pressing concern given the government’s emphasis on ‘levelling up’ the UK.

Check back next week when we’ll have a full rundown of the 2020 Budget.

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