Morning briefing: Antibody tests fo NHS workers next week

Good morning.

The government will today announce that NHS and social care staff are to be offered coronavirus antibodies tests as early as next week, according to the Guardian. Hundreds of thousands of workers will be offered the test, which requires a blood sample and is carried out in a laboratory. Staff in closest contact with Covid-19, such as those in intensive care, will be given priority. The test will determine whether the person had coronavirus in the past.

But scientists do not know definitively whether the presence of antibodies provides immunity against a second infection, or if it does provide immunity, how long it will last. Scientists will monitor the results of the tests to see whether those with antibodies catch the virus again. The move brings the prospect of mass antibody testing closer, but the government is still yet to approve a finger-prick home test kit, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously said would be a “gamechanger”.

The National Audit Office (NAO) today revealed that ministers have overruled their most senior civil servants on spending decisions 11 times since the start of pandemic. On each occasion, ministers forced through spending pledges despite being challenged by their permanent secretaries and without usual value-for-money checks. Only 75 such decisions have been taken over the past 30 years, according to the Institute for Government. The NAO found that the government has pledged more than £124bn in extra spending to tackle the pandemic, higher than the £123bn forecast last week by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Lastly, the NHS Confederation, which represents healthcare leaders, has warned that the government is running out of time to introduce a track and trace strategy if it wants to avoid a second spike of infections. It said that lockdown measures should not be further eased until a plan was in place. “We are 10 weeks into the pandemic and developing a strategy with a well worked through local base should have been in place much sooner,” said Niall Dickson, chief executive. “If we do not rapidly instigate the right system, involving the right people, then the ramifications for the NHS, including its staff and its patients, could be severe.” The government has said a tracing system will be ready by 1 June – but without a crucial NHS app, which is still being trialled on the Isle of Wight.

Global updates:

World: The number of worldwide Covid-19 cases rose 106,000 yesterday – the biggest increase yet over a 24-hour period, as the World Health Organisation warned that the virus was beginning to spread rapidly in poorer nations. The number of global confirmed cases has reached five million, according to Johns Hopkins University.

US: The reopening of businesses in Connecticut, Kentucky and Alaska mean that all 50 states have begun easing lockdown measures to some degree.

Japan: Japan will lift its state of emergency in Osaka and two other prefectures where infection rates have slowed.

Mexico: Mexico recorded 424 coronavirus-related deaths yesterday, its highest single-day tally. The previous record was 353 deaths on 12 May.

Greece: Greece will reopen for tourists on 15 June, when seasonal hotels will be allowed to open, the government has said. International flights will be welcomed from 1 July.

India: Domestic flights will begin running again in India on Monday, 25 May. The government has said that it will not be viable to keep middle seats empty.

Read more on the New Statesman:

Too little, too late, too flawed: the BMJ’s indictment of the government’s response to Covid-19

The tragedy of Tye Green Lodge care home is a parable of government neglect

The Great Moving Left Show: How the pandemic could transform British politics

Why now, more than ever, we should bask in the glory of wasting time

I wistfully remember my last meal out pre-lockdown – at a Greek restaurant full of interesting wine

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.