Morning briefing: Council rebels against government schools plan

Good morning.

The Labour-run council in Bury has become the first local authority in England to declare that primary schools in its area will not open on 1 June, regardless of government guidance. Other local leaders across the north have criticised the government’s plan, including in Liverpool and Hartlepool, but Bury’s combative stance is the strongest yet.

“We recognise the importance of schools re-opening, not only in terms of education, but for social and emotional reasons, especially for the most vulnerable children… But this needs to be done with the safety of school communities at front and centre,” the council said. The leader of the Tory group in Bury says the move is a political ploy – but with opposition from both unions and local authorities mounting, the government will have to respond if it wants schools across the country to fall in line.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics released this morning showed that the number of people claiming unemployment benefits soared by 856,000 in April to just under 2.1 million. It’s the single biggest monthly jump on record, and means the claimant count is now at its highest level since 1996. Official unemployment figures for January to March showed a more modest increase of 50,000, to 1.35 million, but only cover the first week of lockdown.

The government is in “active discussions” to create so-called “air bridges” with other countries that would allow free travel back and forth over the summer, possibly without any quarantine period. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed the government was considering the reciprocal measure with countries that have a low viral reproduction rate.

Finally, the Guardian reports that vulnerable workers will not be exempt from the scaling back of the government’s furlough grant scheme from August. Chancellor Rishi Sunak favours a universal approach to paring back the scheme, rather than creating specific rules for different sectors of the economy, the paper reports.

Tune into the New Statesman’s live blog at 10:30am for rolling coverage of the health and social care select committee, where leaders from the care sector will be giving evidence on the management of the coronavirus outbreak.

Global updates:

US: President Donald Trump threatened to permanently cut funding from the World Health Organisation (WHO) unless the United Nations body makes major reforms and shows independence from China within 30 days. Trump also said that he has been taking hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that is unproven against Covid-19 and may cause heart problems, as a precaution.

Taiwan: Taipei yesterday pulled the country’s bid to become a member of the WHO, saying a two-day convention of the body’s assembly should be used to debate the pandemic response. It will table its bid at a later date.

New Zealand: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is considering giving New Zealanders an extra public holiday to boost domestic tourism. "My message to Kiwis is, come and experience your own backyard,” she said.

Brazil: Brazil has overtaken the UK in coronavirus cases, with more than 255,000 confirmed infections. It now has the third highest case load in the world, behind Russia and the US.

Europe: French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have joined forces to call for a €500bn (£448bn) fund for European Union countries hardest hit by Covid-19. The European Commission would borrow money from the markets and hand out cash as grants, gradually repaying debt from the EU’s budget, they said. It marks a change of heart for Merkel, who previously opposed the idea of shared European debt.

Turkey: Turkey will impose a four-day lockdown starting on Saturday, covering the Islamic religious holiday Eid al-Fitr, during which large groups typically gather. It’s the country’s most severe restrictions since the start of the pandemic.

Read more on the New Statesman:

The government is taking a necessary gamble on the Oxford vaccine

Coronavirus makes the Immigration Bill look like an even worse idea

Why Covid-19 should change the conversation on migrant workers

 
 
 
 

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.