As the Department for Health lowers the coronavirus alert level from a “four” to a “three”, there are cautious signs of optimism that the health crisis, brought about by the COVID-19, is coming under control. Lock down and social distancing measures appear to have worked; today, NHS intensive care units (ICUs) across the UK now have less than 500 patients on ventilators – at the peak of the crisis, this figure was well over 3,000.
But while the spread of the virus has slowed, the health crisis has begun to morph into a social and economic crisis.
This week, we saw the latest set of unemployment figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), revealing that over 600,000 people lost their jobs between March to May. Meanwhile, jobless claims under Universal Credit jumped to 2.8 million in May alone, marking a 125.9% increase since the beginning of lock down.
We have been helping to lead a national cross-industry campaign on the issue, calling on UK Government to create a new ‘Opportunity Guarantee‘ for the unemployed, and to help support the UK’s longer-term economic recovery. You can read the cross-industry letter in The Sunday Times here.
The next two months will prove critical if the UK’s economy is able to bounce back quickly. The Bank of England’s new £100bn stimulus package, announced yesterday, aims to help the UK weather the economic storm, and navigate out of what is widely expected to be one of its deepest-ever recessions.
The next few weeks will prove critical for all UK organisations – regardless of sector, size and focus. With the shockwaves of the initial health crisis subsiding, businesses need to now be ready for the next stage of the COVID-19 challenge and help define their future survival. Private, public and third sector bodies should all now be acting on:
- Working with Government and key stakeholders: provide evidence and insight to the challenges facing your industry. Although it may feel an overused term, this crisis is truly ‘unprecedented’. Government and policy makers have never faced a challenge of this nature or scale and proactive Government engagement now will enable your organisation to help shape the policy and support both your industry and the future of your business. We are currently supporting six industry taskforces, working with Government departments, sector bodies and leading businesses to shape the UK’s economic and social response to coronavirus.
- Understanding what matters to your customers, your employees and stakeholders: the needs of your audience have changed, and they will continue to evolve over the months ahead. Ensure that your business priorities are re-aligned to meet these new needs – failure to do so will limit business survival in the longer-term.
- Investing in the right channels to market: just as your audience needs have changed, your routes to market and reach across communication channels need to adapt. Over the past few months’, we have helped businesses communicate through different channels to support business continuity. Make sure your organisation’s communications and engagement is ‘proactively’ adapting now, enabling you to be competitively placed for the challenges that lie ahead.
- Understanding, auditing and critically reviewing your organisation’s reputation and crisis preparedness: as the world continues to undergo considerable change, understanding how your business is able to respond, and where any future risks lie will be critical for future business continuity. We have just launched a Crisis Diagnostics service, which provides businesses with the opportunity to evaluate strategic and operational strengths and weaknesses, enabling a strategic re-alignment to respond effectively to future and anticipated issues.
If you’d like help with any of the challenges that your organisation is facing as a result of COVID-19 then please get in touch.
Last month, I wrote about the joys and challenges of a virtual Parliament and what this all means for public affairs professionals.
I said it remained to be seen how long virtual Parliament would last and it turned out to be sooner than I expected. The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg opted to end the ‘hybrid’ working model which had been in place since mid-April arguing that politics “is better done face-to-face”.
Under Mr Rees-Mogg’s plan, which has now been approved, MPs will be asked to form kilometre-long queues to obey social distancing rules when voting. The Lords, by contrast, is developing a new online voting system, which is expected to be ready by the middle of the month.
Whilst the proposal states that MPs should be physically in Parliament in order to participate, Rees-Mogg has said that he will bring forward a further proposal allowing those who cannot attend Parliament due to age or medical restrictions to be able to question the Government remotely. Rees-Mogg suggested that these MPs would be unable to vote but could be ‘paired up’ with a colleague from the opposition who agrees not to vote so the numbers are cancelled out.
The plans have sparked incredulity, concern and condemnation from the opposition MPs and some members of his own party. Critics said the Government’s plan excluded vulnerable MPs, including those shielding, as well as MPs with caring responsibilities. Scottish MPs expressed deep reservations about having to travel hundreds of miles back to London.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission also joined calls to ensure MPs can work remotely saying it puts MPs unable to attend Parliament “at a significant disadvantage”.
The row continued with the Prime Minister saying at PMQs that older MPs and those shielding should be allowed to vote by proxy, a move which Labour called a u-turn. It wasn’t enough to get Tory critic and Chair of the Procedure Committee, Karen Bradley on board either. She pointed out that the proxy scheme is due to expire in July 2020 and was “not suitable to be extended to several dozen members” – it is generally used for MPs who are on parental leave.
Many Conservative MPs have, however, welcomed the end to the virtual Parliament. Some have argued that a virtual Parliament hinders Parliament from performing its role effectively. Others have suggested that it was unreasonable for MPs to not be back at work when the Government has asked schools to reopen. Essentially, parliamentarians should lead by example.
And whilst the vast majority Tory MPs followed the whip and duly voted to approve the plans without amendments, a sizeable number rebelled. Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Tom Tugendhat said he was going to vote with the Government and then saw the queues. He waited almost an hour to vote and opted to rebel. Voting normally takes 15 minutes.
The mix of Tory rebels was eclectic and represented the breadth of the parliamentary party: hardcore Brexiteers like Peter Bone and John Redwood, former Ministers like Tracey Crouch and Nusrat Ghani and Select Committee Chairs like Tugendhat, Caroline Nokes, and Greg Clark. Many were the same names who publicly called for Dominic Cummings’ resignation.
The Government may have won the votes, but around a third of MPs representing millions of constituents were effectively left disenfranchised because they could not get to Westminster. Education Committee Chair, Robert Halfon, who is shielding summed it up well saying “If I can’t vote, I don’t have a choice to vote, I’m a parliamentary eunuch.” In an interview, he simply concluded “I just want to do my job.”
As public affairs professionals, we were quick to embrace the new normal, making great use of digital tools in engaging with parliamentarians and devising creative and proactive meetings programmes. My clients have got virtual meetings with parliamentarians and officials in the coming weeks and I expect this to continue being the norm for the foreseeable future.
But given fewer opportunities for participation with many MPs remaining remote and others unable to question ministers as only 50 MPs are allowed in the Chamber at a time, the return to a ‘traditional’ Parliament poses challenges for us and begs the question of how Parliament will effectively function in the coming weeks.
For the past three months, attention has understandably been fixed on the Government response to coronavirus, and issues such as NHS capacity, PPE procurement, support for businesses, and the gradual relaxation of social distancing have dominated the political debate. Given how the social and economic impact of coronavirus will be with us for some time, this fixation will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
However, it is notable that in recent days we have seen a flurry of activity from Government as it has sought to return attention to its post-Brexit trading ambitions, which prior to the coronavirus pandemic had been one the key planks of its policy agenda, alongside levelling up and decarbonisation.
The headline issue for this trade agenda has been the negotiations on the future relationship with the European Union, which (coronavirus aside) still represents the largest policy and political challenge facing the Government. Boris Johnson may have won the 2019 General Election on his commitment to Get Brexit Done, but he will also be held accountable for its success or failure.
The deadline to achieve a deal with the EU, which minimises economic disruption before the Transition Period expires, is the 31 December 2020. Further adding to this pressure, the UK Government must also decide on whether to request an extension to the Transition Period by the end of June.
The third round of negotiations with Brussels came to an end last week, and as expected there remain several key points of divergence, these being access to fisheries and the level playing field. The UK Government has accused the EU of not negotiating in the spirit of the political declaration, and of adopting an ideological approach to try and tie the UK into an unfair relationship.
The preferred UK outcome is to strike a similar agreement to the EU/Canada trade deal. However, EU Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier has argued that the UK cannot have unrestricted access to the Single Market without observing the necessary obligations, which includes regulatory alignment on issues such as state aid and employment law. He also made the point that there will be no preferential access for British businesses to the Single Market if EU fisherman are excluded from UK waters.
To help refocus minds, the Cabinet Office has today published 13 documents outlining its vision for the future relationship. These documents included the draft legal text for the UK’s preferred trade deal, as well as other agreements on agriculture, fisheries, law enforcement and air transport. The Government has also published the future tariff schedule that will be adopted once the Transition Period ends and the UK leaves the Common External Tariff.
This new schedule addresses almost 6000 different tariff lines, and the Government claims it will ensure that 60% of trade will come into the UK tariff free, either on WTO terms or through existing trade agreements. Some of the sectors which will now be subject to zero tariffs include white goods and sanitary products, while key UK industries will continue to be protected such as ceramics, agriculture, and car manufacturing.
Talks with the EU are set to resume at the beginning of June, and whilst it is hoped these new documents will help to reboot the negotiations, Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove has also begin to step up preparations for a No Deal scenario. The Exit Operations Committee which he chairs will now meet more regularly, and civil servants previously tasked with the Government response to Coronavirus will now be redeployed to work on No Deal preparations full time.
Alongside the daunting task of reaching an agreement with the EU, the Government has also set itself the ambition of securing a new Free Trade Agreement with the United States by the time the Transition Period ends.
The first round of talks with US trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, took place in May and they are set to resume in June. International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, has reported to Parliament that good progress has been made in a range of sectors, but already there are rumours of a concessions package designed to slash tariffs on US agricultural imports in the hoping of accelerating the negotiation process.
Although Boris Johnson had largely enjoyed a united cabinet, such a move would almost certainly be opposed by Environment Secretary George Eustice (likely backed by Michael Gove) in order to protect British farmers, and to prevent a race to the bottom on animal welfare and hygiene standards.
However, as with any agreement there are always concessions to be made, and with a US FTA representing a major objective for the Government, it remains to be seen whether Mr Eustice would be overruled if it enables the Prime Minister to reach this goal, and prevent coronavirus from derailing his entire political agenda.
The new normal: the joys and challenges of a virtual Parliament and what this means for public affairs professionals
With our virtual Parliament now up and running, the ‘new normal’ is in full swing and viewers of BBC Parliament are getting little glimpses into the lives of their elected representatives.
Breaking 700 years of parliamentary tradition, it is truly historic. For the first time in parliamentary history, PMQs has been conducted by video-link and Conservative MP, Sara Britcliffe became the first ever Member of Parliament to give their maiden speech remotely from the comfort of her home via Zoom (a tool most of us had never heard six weeks ago).
It hasn’t been completely smooth sailing. Technological glitches have occurred. At the first virtual PMQs, Conservative MP, David Mundell was unable to connect, missing out on asking his question. During a Select Committee session with the Education Secretary, Caroline Johnson MP’s question was indecipherable leading to the Chair stepping in.
There are plans to introduce remote voting and tests are being carried out, but this has yet to be fully secured meaning that key votes are unable to take place.
The proceedings are hybrid, meaning up to 50 MPs can be in the House of Commons, spaced six feet apart, and another 150 can join via Zoom. This, of course, means that most MPs are left out and must resort to watching Parliament on television.
Virtual Parliament is currently confined to oral and urgent questions and ministerial statements, meaning that other aspects of Parliament have been shelved, including adjournment, opposition day and Westminster Hall debates.
This all raises wider questions about how effectively MPs can raise the views of their constituents, with fewer participation opportunities and not being able to collar ministers in the division lobby.
But it is only natural that in the early days, there will be a few technical hiccups and the overall consensus is that during these unprecedented times, a virtual Parliament is vital to ensure the continuation of our democratic processes and for our concerns to be represented.
To put it simply, during these unprecedented times, a virtual Parliament is better than no Parliament.
We will also likely see a change in how the virtual Parliament operates in the coming weeks, with the scope of activity widened, including more debates and voting on legislation. This can only enhance its effectiveness and overall functioning.
Other countries are yet to follow the UK’s lead. The German Bundestag and the Irish Dail are both continuing to meet in person and the U.S. House of Representatives hasn’t approved proxy voting, amid opposition from Republican lawmakers. In just two weeks of virtual Parliament, the UK has shown that it can be a model for being the closest you can get to business as usual.
But for public affairs professionals seeking to influence policy, this new normal certainly brings its challenges.
Whilst public affairs professionals should continue covering key parliamentary activity and encouraging MPs to submit questions, they also need to be planning for when more routine parliamentary business kicks in (whether virtually or not) and devising creative and proactive programmes.
They should be succinct in thinking about what campaigns to engage on and be very clear on the ‘asks’, they wish to make. With Covid-19 transforming the political landscape for the foreseeable future, it is vital that messages and asks are aligned within its context, because this will be the Government’s biggest priority.
Most of us have made great use of digital tools in engaging with parliamentarians during the past few weeks and this will undoubtedly continue for the foreseeable future. MPs are tweeting more too, raising the importance of using social media to get your point across.
It remains to be seen how long this virtual Parliament will last, but it is possible that normal service will not resume until after the summer recess. Whilst we, public affairs professionals are used to face-to-face meetings and in-person events, the days of traditional lobbying are over for now and we should look to embrace this new normal and make the most out of the opportunities it offers.
Though it can be easy to forget, COVID-19 is a human crisis before an economic one.
Even amongst people and families whose health remains largely unaffected by the virus, the financial impact will be felt hard by everyone – through the real and significant loss of livelihoods, employment and earnings. (more…)