Are attempts to boost vaccine takeup genuine policies or PR stunts? Something strange seems to be going on in government
Something strange seems to be going on in the Conservative government.
Recent weeks have seen ministers announce mandatory vaccination to enter nightclubs, speak supportively of businesses that demand workers are jabbed and moot the idea of barring students from university who’ve not been inoculated.
Novel developments for members of the self-professed “freedom-loving” party.
The question being asked in Westminster is whether this is genuine policy – or just a PR stunt.
“There’s a lot of attempts to drive vaccine uptake and lots of concepts being mooted subtly or not so subtly with no real intent behind them,” said one Whitehall official.
Conservative MPs agree, with several telling Sky News earlier this week they didn’t think plans to restrict access to nightclubs and other events would ever materialise.
One of the proposals has already been shelved, with the government announcing this weekend there are now no plans to use the COVID pass for access to learning.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is understood to have made clear there would have been legal implications and potentially little benefit, given polling shows a vast majority of students say they will have the jab.
But the fact these ideas are even being suggested is enough to drive some backbenchers potty.
Several MPs have already said they won’t be attending this year’s party conference if they are forced to show their vaccination status.
Others worry about sailing too close to compulsory vaccination and the ethical implications of a heavy-handed approach.
“It was wrong-headed and should have been done by carrots,” says one senior backbencher of the plan for universities.
Those carrots now appear to be sprouting, with companies like Uber and Deliveroo offering discounts to customers who get vaccinated.
Scientists say these approaches are not without risk, but still avoid many of the problems of the negative incentive “stick” strategy.
“They are less likely to lead to perceptions of compulsion and generate a process of ‘reactance’ where people resist in order to reassert their autonomy,” said Professor Stephen Reicher, an advisor to the government on public behaviour.
But as well as the societal impact, there’s also a business impact.
Those in hospitality say Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s initially bullish tone on reopening led to share price boosts and funds flowing in.
Speculative stories about COVID passports disrupt that, with a single front page story potentially undoing weeks of growing confidence.
The calculation in government may be that the longer-term benefit of high vaccine uptake to the economy and society is worth any short-term bumpiness.
But some, like Professor Reicher, worry that neither the carrot nor the stick will be sufficient on their own.
“What is critical is to show people that the authorities are of the community and acting for the community,” he said.
“That is why processes of engagement are generally much more effective than processes of incentivisation.”
The irony of Rishi Sunak’s long-term vision is the short-term political calculation behind it
He may have been prime minister for a year, but his speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester felt almost like the moment Rishi Sunak introduced himself for the first time.
A speech rich in announcements and packed with messages about Rishi the man and his values.
He and his team knew the speech would be critical to resetting his stuttering leadership.
And you could see that in the overarching theme he returned to throughout – whether it was his description of his childhood, his political priorities or the sort of leader he wants to be, the ultimate message was “take a look at me again”.
That theme is a tacit acknowledgement that after nearly a year in office, working tirelessly hard, there has been very little apparent change in the public’s appetite for the Conservative Party led by him.
This was the first, and perhaps the only chance, that Mr Sunak will get to lay the foundations of his leadership pitch before a general election.
The speech aimed to do three things: First, to define his values and priorities of leadership. Second, to set out priorities that support the assertion that he is willing to take “tough decisions” in the country’s long-term interests. Third, to present himself as the ‘change candidate’ who can take the fight to ‘status quo’ Labour.
By doing this, his close advisers hoped he would present himself as a leader who wants to “do what works” and as a traditional Conservative who wants to “make things better for the next generation”.
He sought to project the values of common sense and social conservatism – drawing parallels between himself and Margaret Thatcher by painting the Conservatives as the party of the “grocer’s daughter and pharmacist’s son”.
At its root was the claim that he is the heir to Thatcher – a leader who will “fundamentally change our country”.
“Where a consensus is false, we will challenge it,” he said. “Where a vested interest is placing itself above the needs of the people, we will stop it. And where common sense is under attack from an organised assault, we will defend it.”
There was a triad of policies to back up this pitch: the curtailing of HS2, an overhaul of further education and a crackdown on smoking.
The PM confirmed he was scrapping the northern leg of HS2, describing the rail project as “the ultimate example of the old consensus” and sticking with a project even when the “facts have changed”. He insisted the £36bn of funds freed up would be reinvested into other transport projects.
On education, the PM promised radical reforms for 16-19-year-olds, with a new “Advance British Standard” that would merge A-levels and the vocational T-levels into one qualification. Students would have to study Maths and English until they are 18 and study five subjects rather than three.
And tacking back to social conservatism, the prime minister also announced the legal age for smoking would be raised by one year, every year so that a 14-year-old would never legally be sold cigarettes.
What all these pledges had in common was their long-term nature.
The smoking ban, which the government is expected to introduce into the King’s Speech later this year, will take at least four years to implement, according to Number 10.
The education reforms, which the prime minister claimed would be his top spending priority, will be a decade-long project.
And the radical ripping up of HS2 and his new Northern network transport plan is an endeavour that would run into the coming decades.
The irony of all of this is that the politics of much of this long-term agenda is based on short-term calculations.
On HS2, he’s made a huge decision on a multi-decade project, in part because it gives Labour a real headache.
Do they recommit the money and be framed by the Tories as reckless spenders, or do they follow his lead, with all the backlash that would bring?
What this shows is that, in reality, the speech was far less about the actual policies and all about the politics of a leader who wants to present as a change candidate and paint his opponents as the party of the ‘status quo’ – unwilling to go against the prevailing political consensus.
I do not need to tell you how hard it will be for Sunak to pull this off. He is the leader of a party that has been in government for 13 years and is hugely trailing in the polls. But there are two things that explain the approach.
First, with a Conservative Party truly out of favour with the public, this prime minister has to turn any campaign into one centred on himself – a different kind of leader, disassociated from the Conservative brand.
Second, he doesn’t really have a choice. In a country where voters seem desperate for change, he can hardly pitch himself as a continuity candidate or run on a ‘stick with us’ ticket.
It’s an audacious approach, but what does he have to lose? His party is massively behind in the polls and already looking to who comes next.
If we learnt anything today, it was this: if Sunak is going down, he intends to go down fighting.
Opening arguments begin in Sam Bankman-Fried trial
Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the criminal case of former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried, also known as SBF, painted a very different picture for the jury to consider during the trial.
In a New York courtroom on Oct. 4, Assistant United States Attorney Thane Rehn and SBF attorney Mark Cohen delivered opening arguments to a jury of 12 people on the events leading up to the collapse of crypto exchange FTX as well as Bankman-Fried’s alleged role. The remarks followed Judge Lewis Kaplan finalizing a selection of 12 members of the jury and 6 alternates after more than a day of questioning.
According to an X (formerly Twitter) thread from Inner City Press at the event, Rehn claimed in court that SBF used FTX customer funds to enrich himself as well as convince lawmakers — through campaign donations and testimony — that he was trustworthy. The Assistant U.S. Attorney reportedly argued that Bankman-Fried repeatedly lied to users, employees, and the general public regarding “the hole” FTX found itself in during November 2022 when financial information on the exchange was released.
“The hole was too big,” said Rehn. “So defendant blamed a downturn in the crypto market. But he had committed fraud. That is what the evidence in this trial will show. You will hear from his inner circle. His girlfriend will tell you how they stole money together.”
Cohen, who delivered his opening statement after Rehn, reportedly blamed some of the issues leading to FTX’s downfall on SBF’s former girlfriend and former Alameda Research CEO Caroline Ellison as well as Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao, or CZ. He claimed Ellison had failed to act to hedge some of Alameda’s investments despite Bankman-Fried’s urging to do so, and CZ’s social media posts had directly led to a run on FTX.
SBF’s defense team presented the former FTX CEO as someone who “acted in good faith” amid a company growing exponentially in a volatile crypto market. He also pushed back against the narrative SBF was a “bad guy” by spending funds, with a penthouse in The Bahamas and paying celebrities to endorse FTX: “It’s not a crime to try to get Tom Brady”.
Oct. 4 marked the second day of Bankman-Fried’s first criminal trial, which is expected to last roughly six weeks. He has pleaded not guilty to 7 charges related to alleged fraud at FTX, and will appear in court again in March 2024 for a second trial.
Among the highlights of SBF’s first week in court included the former FTX CEO appearing with a new haircut for the first time. Ellison along with other former executives connected to the crypto exchange may testify against SBF as the trial continues.
This is a developing story, and further information will be added as it becomes available.
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