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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Tuesday morning.
PUTIN PARLEY: Boris Johnson last night held a video call with U.S. President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi as Western fears grow that Russia is planning an invasion of Ukraine. The videoconference sought to present a “united front” of NATO leaders before Biden holds a showdown call with Russian President Vladimir Putin today to warn him against starting another war in Eastern Europe. U.S. intelligence has concluded that the Russian military is preparing for the possibility of a rapid push into Ukraine if Putin decides to invade. Playbook has been told Britain shares that assessment.
Top lines from No. 10’s readout: “They emphasised the need to provide a united front in the face of Russian threats and hostility. The leaders called on Russia to de-escalate tensions and reaffirmed their staunch support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The Prime Minister reiterated the points he made to President Putin when they spoke earlier this year in this regard, and which the Foreign Secretary also made to her Russian counterpart last week. The Prime Minister said the U.K. would continue to use all the economic and diplomatic tools at its disposal to prevent any Russian aggression against Ukraine.”
And here’s the White House readout: “The leaders discussed their shared concern about the Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders and Russia’s increasingly harsh rhetoric … They called on Russia to de-escalate tensions and agreed that diplomacy, especially through the Normandy Format, is the only way forward to resolve the conflict in Donbas through the implementation of the Minsk Agreements … They agreed that their teams will stay in close touch, including in consultation with NATO allies and EU partners, on a coordinated and comprehensive approach.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted overnight: “Spoke with Ukrainian President [Volodymyr Zelenskiy] about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. I reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine is unwavering. There will be serious consequences for any escalation from Russia.”
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Crunch time: The White House announced in the early hours that Biden would speak to Putin via video call from the Situation Room. It will be at 3 p.m. U.K. time. Expect readouts afterward.
The New York Times puts in plainly: “The meeting, perhaps Mr. Biden’s highest-stakes leader-to-leader conversation since he took office more than 10 months ago, may set the course for Ukraine’s ability to remain a fully independent nation.”
Previous highlights … CNN tees it up with Biden’s best Putin putdowns: “After a meeting with Putin in 2011, then-Vice President Biden said he looked into Putin’s eyes and declared: ‘I don’t think you have a soul.’ During an interview in March, Biden called Putin a killer.”
What happens next: Biden, Johnson and the other European leaders will hold another call following the U.S. President’s talk with Putin, Downing Street said. The White House said Biden would also speak to Zelenskiy in the coming days.
What could the West do? A senior Biden administration official tells my POLITICO colleagues in Washington that the U.S. and Europe have agreed a sanctions package that would cause “significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy” if Putin invades Ukraine. CNN says Biden will also threaten Putin with sanctions against his inner circle. The Times’ Oli Wright, David Charter and Larisa Brown reckon NATO leaders could hit Russia by cutting it off from the international financial settlement system, Iranian-style restrictions on banks, and deploying additional U.S. forces in Eastern Europe. Biden will not threaten a direct U.S. military response, U.S. officials briefed the media Monday.
DRIVING THE DAY
OMICRON WAVE: Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed Monday that the Omicron coronavirus variant is now spreading in the community as the U.K. reached 336 confirmed cases of the strain — with the real number suspected to be in the thousands. A government insider last night told Playbook that Omicron is already in every part of Britain, that there is little they can do to stop the spread, and therefore it is now inevitable we will see a new “wave” of COVID infections driven by the variant, which is likely to become dominant within weeks. Javid on Monday conceded he couldn’t guarantee Omicron will not “knock us off our road to recovery” — once again opening the door to possible Plan B restrictions. Apologies in advance but this is not a particularly cheery update this morning.
Wrong direction: On Friday, Playbook reported that the view in Whitehall after one week of Omicron data was that it “could be better.” The same sources now warn more gravely that things are not heading in the right direction, while stressing it is still too early to make firm conclusions. The main issue, on the front page of the Times, is the variant’s apparently extremely high transmissibility. Chris Smyth, Tom Whipple and Rhys Blakely report that Imperial College’s prof. Neil Ferguson says early indications suggest infections are doubling in Britain every three days or fewer. The paper says the U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has drawn similar conclusions. It also says internal government estimates point to a doubling time of every three to five days. Playbook is also told by multiple government sources that the scientists are now confident Omicron is more transmissible than Delta.
Why this matters: You might think it’s the severity rather than the transmissibility of Omicron that really matters. Severity is certainly very important, and little remains known about how serious the disease is, or how well vaccines protect against it. But very high transmissibility poses real dangers as well. If Omicron is significantly more transmissible than Delta, huge numbers of people could become infected in a very short space of time. Even if most of them cope with a mild illness, the number of people who end up severely ill could still rise rapidly, potentially putting the NHS under serious pressure. The FT’s John Burn-Murdoch made this point compellingly at the weekend.
Plan B still alive: A health official on Monday told Playbook the situation in hospitals is “under-reported” and much worse than generally perceived. They warned that even a small spike in COVID hospitalizations would cause large numbers of cancelations and stretch intensive care unit capacity. Last week the FT’s Seb Payne, Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe, Oliver Barnes and Sarah Neville reported that contingency plans were being drawn up for Plan B measures such as working from home over the Christmas period. It was shot down at the time, even though Playbook had heard similar. Last night government insiders confirmed once again that WFH could be brought back if Omicron’s transmissibility puts the NHS under strain.
Booster blame game: The government’s main defense against Omicron is the booster campaign, which if successful could protect the NHS by reducing the number of people who become seriously ill from the variant. That looks like a big “if” this morning. Several papers carry alarming reports that the campaign is faltering, with an extraordinary blame game exploding last night between the country’s various public health bodies over why it’s taking so long to speed up the rollout.
Weekend lag: On the front of today’s Telegraph, Laura Donnelly and Harry Yorke say the booster rollout is at a “standstill.” They note that Monday’s figures show fewer people were vaccinated over the weekend than they were before Boris Johnson’s promise to ramp up the campaign. A government source insisted to Playbook that the numbers remain “strong” and will increase over the coming days.
DHSC vs. JCVI vs. NHSE vs. UKHSA: Speaking privately, sources across Whitehall, the NHS and the country’s public health bodies accept the rollout has not risen to the task set by Johnson 11 days ago now. Remarkably — or perhaps not — they are all blaming each other. Ministers are being asked by they did not accelerate the booster rollout over the past few months, before a new variant emerged. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) has been criticized for waiting so long to cut the gap between second and third jabs from six months to three. NHS England (NHSE) has been blasted for not opening up its booking systems following the PM’s order, then for taking until last Friday to issue guidance about the next phase, and then for setting the unambitious target of December 13 for expanding eligibility to under-40s.
Latest fall guy: Today, the Telegraph reports that the NHS England delay is being blamed on the U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA) led by Jenny Harries. Sources tell the paper the UKHSA has yet to provide NHSE with the legal instructions it requires to press ahead with the rollout on a national scale. However, others say this is rubbish and there is no reason this paperwork should be causing any delays at NHSE’s end. None of this inspires much confidence in the U.K.’s public health system.
POLL EXCLUSIVE: New polling for More In Common shared with Playbook shows Britons don’t think much of those who refuse to get vaccinated. Asked to rate how warmly they felt toward people who haven’t been jabbed, the public gave an average score of just 23 out of 100, compared to 82 out of 100 for those who have had the vaccine. Playbook wonders if that sort of sentiment might encourage ministers to toughen their rhetoric on boosters and restrictions in the coming days — something that’s worth looking out for. Those surveyed were also asked what they wanted the government to prioritize post-COVID, from NHS waiting lists to supply chains to education catch-up to businesses. The answer was overwhelming: 62 percent said reducing NHS waiting lists is the most important backlog to tackle. You can read the poll findings in full plus reaction from More In Common Director Luke Tryl here.
You can see why: Data from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine out today finds that a staggering 13,000 operations have been canceled in the last two months. Only a quarter of NHS trusts were surveyed, so the real number is likely much higher — and well above pre-pandemic levels. The Royal College of Surgeons warns the NHS “cannot care for patients properly with a bed base the size of a postage stamp.” The Times’ Kat Lay has the story.
Testing website trashed: The foreign travel testing debacle continued on Monday as the Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation — the trade body for testing — blasted the government’s website advertising the tests. The body said firms with misleading prices were “constantly reappearing” on the government website and it “is not serving its purpose.” The BBC has the story. No. 10 on Monday vowed to crack down on the testing profiteers, though given they haven’t managed to do so in the past six months, Playbook would say don’t hold your breath.
Had a cold recently? … Then there’s a one-in-four chance it was COVID, prof. Tim Spector from the Zoe tracking app told Times Radio on Monday. “We’re estimating that somewhere between one in three and one in four colds are actually due to COVID. And so that’s quite a high rate of people that are currently not even bothered to get a lateral flow test, or getting a PCR test, going to parties and spreading it around. We should really be encouraging people not to come in to the office, not to go to that Christmas party if they’re feeling unwell.”
Talking of Christmas parties … The Times’ Oli Wright has confirmation — if anyone needed it — of the original Pippa Crerar Mirror scoop on No. 10 Christmas drinks last year. Wright reports that the bash was organized by civil servants via a WhatsApp group, with staff urged to bring Secret Santa presents and wear Christmas jumpers. Two sources confirm to Wright that the drinks session took place on December 18 with a “proper spread” of food and booze. A source tells him: “The majority of people there were civil servants with a few special advisers and others there. But it was mostly officials.” Policing Minister Kit Malthouse on Monday suggested the cops should investigate if there is a complaint about alleged lockdown rule-breaking in No. 10. Downing Street insisted again that no rules were broken.
Latest from DHSC: A new government film with Martin Kemp starring as Father Christmas will urge people to get their jabs. OK then. You can watch here if you really want to.
YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 51,459 new cases, ⬆️ 7,467 on Sunday. In the last week there have been 330,918 new cases, ⬆️ 27,596 on the previous week … 41 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, ⬇️ 13 on Sunday. In the last week 836 deaths have been reported, ⬇️ 2 on the previous week. As of the latest data 7,268 COVID patients are in hospital.
OMICRON VARIANT: 336 cases detected in the U.K., ⬆️ 90.
VAX STATS: A total 51,118,266 people or 88.9 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a first dose, ⬆️ 21,955 … A total 46,557,413 people or 81 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a second dose, ⬆️ 27,166… A total 20,580,644 people or 35.8 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a booster/third dose, ⬆️ 290,165.
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TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with Treasury questions with some punchy attack lines from Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves on COVID business bounce back loan fraud … followed by any UQs or statements … Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock then has a ten minute rule motion on improving systems for the 6.3 million people — Hancock among them — who live with dyslexia … The main business will be the first of two days of Nationalities and Borders Bill scrutiny.
KABUL RECKONING: There will be plenty of attention today on the shocking testimony of Raphael Marshall, a Foreign Office fast-streamer turned “whistleblower” who lays bare the chaos of the U.K. botched evacuation from Afghanistan in the summer. Marshall makes a series of stark claims about the dire state of the FCDO operation that saw junior staff wade through more than a hundred thousand requests from Afghans for evacuation. Tens of thousands of pleas went unanswered, he says in evidence to the foreign affairs select committee. Committee Chair Tom Tugendhat says: “These allegations are serious … these failures betrayed our friends.”
Computer chaos: The Economist’s Matt Holehouse has a useful thread on some of Marshall’s more eye-catching claims. One allegation, highlighted by the BBC’s Lewis Goodall, is that the merger of the Foreign Office and department for international development caused IT chaos: Staff in the crisis center who previously worked for DfID could not access FCDO computers because “the DFID and FCO IT systems are not yet integrated. They were visibly appalled by our chaotic system.” Another is that “in the middle of the evacuation effort, for one afternoon, Mr Marshall was the only person monitoring and processing emails in the Afghan Special Cases inbox.” The Mail’s John Stevens splashes the paper with the suggestion that a “work from home” culture among officials exacerbated the crisis.
Pen Farthing’s circus: Another serious claim is that the government endangered British troops and prevented Afghans from being able to escape by prioritizing the evacuation of animals belonging to Pen Farthing’s Nowzad charity. “There was a direct trade-off between transporting Nowzad’s animals and evacuating UK nationals and Afghan evacuees, including Afghans who had served with British soldiers,” Marshall alleges. The whistleblower also makes allegations about the then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, including that he took hours to engage on key decisions and demanded cases were shown to him in a “well-presented table.”
Government response: A Whitehall official disputed Marshall’s version of events and suggested he was too junior and far-removed from the ministerial level to have a full picture of what Raab and the FCDO were doing.
Stay tuned 1: As chance would have it, Raab is on the morning broadcast round for the government in his new role as justice secretary. He may not get many questions about his current beat.
Stay tuned 2: Laurie Bristow, former U.K. ambassador to Afghanistan, as well as senior officials from the FCDO, are in front of the foreign affairs select committee today at 3 p.m.
Reminder: Somehow, almost unbelievably, the government’s Afghan resettlement scheme is still not yet operational four months after the retreat from Kabul.
CRIME WEEK LATEST: No. 10 and the Home Office will have been pretty pleased to see Monday’s crime announcement lead the news bulletins for most of the day. Today they may not get the same result. This morning’s announcement is the Prisons White Paper, which will see a new drive to keep drugs out of prisons with airport-style security as standard, drugs dogs at gates and scanners to search staff who may be “susceptible to corruption.”
The Nationality and Borders Bill … is in the Commons for its remaining stages today and Wednesday. Labour MP Dan Jarvis and Tory MP Johnny Mercer have put forward a cross-party amendment which would scrap immigration fees for members of the Armed Forces and veterans, and their families if they served five years. Mercer is lobbying hard — Playbook is told 49 Labour backbenchers have signed up to it so far.
Arthur’s law: The PM tells the Sun he will bring in a law enforcing whole life terms for child murderers following the killing of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. Johnson says: “Anyone who plans then carries out the murder of a child should never be released from prison.”
ANOTHER BIG BEAST GOING: Mother of the House Harriet Harman is to announce she will not stand in the next election, according to the Sun’s Kate Ferguson. Over her just under 40 years in parliament, Harman has worked with eight very different Labour leaders … Briefly held the top job in an acting capacity twice … Served under two Labour PMs … Opposed five Tory PMs … and won her seat 11 times since she first took it in a 1982 by-election. End of an era.
HANGING BASKET CASE: POLITICO’s Esther Webber has been delving behind the scenes of the delayed white paper, which is expected to give pride of place to, er, pride of place. Michael Gove’s aide Danny Kruger has been influential in pushing a civic pride agenda, which is seen as key to the next election. As Simon Fell, MP for Barrow-in-Furness, puts it: “If we don’t breathe fresh life into high streets, tidy up backstreets, and give people pride in their communities once again, it will be hard to convince them that lending us their vote was worth it.” Detractors in the civil service refer to the civic pride push disparagingly as the “hanging baskets” model of leveling up.
Roll on 2022: The long gestation period for this piece of work has raised hopes Gove can do both: improve town centers and deliver longer-term structural change. Northern Research Group MPs sense their pleas for substantial devolution deals have hit home, while Esther hears DLUHC will be empowered to bang heads together across Whitehall by directing the regional work of other ministries. If one thing has been leveled up, it’s expectations for the white paper. Read Esther’s full piece here.
I’M THE MP, GET ME OUTTA HERE: Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan faces a Berwick-Upon-Tweed shaped distraction as she meets her U.S. counterpart Katherine Tai this afternoon for trade talks, POLITICO’s Morning Trade U.K. newsletter reports. Her Northumberland constituency was one of the areas that took a beating from Storm Arwen, leaving swathes of the area under flooding and numerous homes without power. Some locals weren’t too impressed to see their MP swan off to Washington before all the lights had come back on — constituent Jan Fraser told MTUK that “to go off while the situation is unresolved and to leave her constituents in the lurch is terrible.” The seat remains a crisis zone as Storm Barra looms.
NORTH SHROPSHIRE NEWS: The Lib Dems appear to be having some trouble with their candidate at the North Shropshire by-election after their vetting process clearly went awry. First Helen Morgan had to apologize for appearing to compare Boris Johnson to Hitler. Then she had to apologize for comparing Channel migrants to Auschwitz prisoners. Today the Sun’s Natasha Clark has Morgan comparing Home Secretary Priti Patel to Joseph Goebbels. She has apologized for a third time. Not an ideal track record for a candidate in what could be a surprisingly close by-election. Guido also reports the Lib Dems are in legal difficulty after briefing “internal polling based on postal votes” to the Observer. It’s against the law to publish statements about how people may have voted in their postal votes.
In better news for the Lib Dems: Today’s Guardian editorial calls on Labour supporters in North Shropshire to vote Lib Dem next week to beat the Tories. “Losing a leave-voting rural constituency would be a bigger earthquake and send shock waves through the Conservative party. Even if the Lib Dems came close, the result would send a shiver up the spine of Tory MPs. That is why North Shropshire’s Labour voters ought to set aside their tribal loyalty and back the Lib Dem candidate,” the Guardian reckons.
GRENFELL INQUIRY: Successive governments covered up the fire risk from unsafe cladding on buildings for years, the Grenfell inquiry heard on Monday. The Mirror splashes the story, including calls for David Cameron to face questions over the alleged cover-up.
NEW ANTI-CORRUPTION ALLIANCE: The cross-party anti-corruption APPG will join forces today with similar groups from the U.S. Congress and European Parliament to launch the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy. The APPG Chair Margaret Hodge — of £1.5 million shares from a tax haven fame — said the new alliance represents a “powerful moment as the world’s democracies come together for the fight against illicit finance.”
CARING IN THE CAYMANS: The owner of HC-One, Britain’s largest care home provider, siphoned £4.8 million in tax-free profits to the Cayman Islands while claiming millions more in government support over the pandemic, a Panorama episode broadcast last night revealed. The payments were shifted to Safanad Ltd, owned by Saudi investment company Bahamdan Group. The Times’ Katie Gibbons has a write-up.
COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: The DCMS committee follows up on its session with Azeem Rafiq by quizzing the National Asian Cricket Council. MPs will also get the chance to ask questions of Fan Led Review of Football Governance Chair Tracey Crouch (10 a.m.) … New Electoral Commission Chair John Pullinger is up at PACAC (10.30 a.m.) … Former Ambassador to Afghanistan Laurie Bristow and other senior FCDO officials will give evidence on the evacuation of Kabul at the foreign affairs committee (3 p.m.) … The justice committee will hear from former Home Secretary David Blunkett on the Imprisonment for Public Protection sentences he introduced (2.30 p.m.) … and the environmental audit committee has a session with COP26 President Alok Sharma (3.30 p.m.).
LORDS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with questions on kitten and puppy smuggling, the net zero target and the NHS cancer care backlog … The main business will be the second reading of the Health and Care Bill. Former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, who introduced many of the reforms the bill would overturn, is among the 81 peers down to speak as it stands.
GETHING SPEAKS OUT: Welsh Economy Minister Vaughan Gething has said he is often asked if he is a member of the staff when eating in restaurants, due to his skin color. Gething contributed to a new book on racism — BBC Wales has a write-up.
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Deputy PM Dominic Raab broadcast round: BBC Breakfast (7.30 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … GB News (8.45 a.m.) … talkRADIO (9.05 a.m.).
Also on BBC Breakfast: Epidemiologist Tim Spector (7.10 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast: Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales Nicole Jacobs (7.20 a.m.) … Chair of foreign affairs select committee Tom Tugendhat (7.45 a.m.) … Tory MP David Warburton (8.05 a.m.) … Emilia Campos Bedingfield of the Balliol Community for Safety group (8.20 a.m.) … Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry (8.35 a.m.) … Dr Emma Davis of the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) (8.45 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Met Police Chief Superintendent Dal Babu (7.10 a.m.) … Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry (8.20 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Tory MP Desmond Swayne (8.05 a.m.) … Greater Manchester night time economy adviser Sacha Lord (8.50 a.m.).
The Briefing with Gloria De Piero (GB News 12 p.m.): Tory MP Derek Thomas … Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse … Shadow Local Government Minister Jeff Smith.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Tory MP Stephen Hammond … Former Labour adviser Andrew Fisher … Maidenhead Synagogue Director Jonathan Romain … Broadcaster India Willoughby.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Bank of England warns price rises will bite even harder.
Daily Mail: Afghans killed as Whitehall worked from home.
Daily Mirror: Government ‘cover-up’ led to Grenfell.
Daily Star: Grape expectations.
Financial Times: SEC probes Trump’s ‘non-woke’ group as blank-cheque fears rise.
HuffPost UK: Omicron community spread confirmed.
i: U.K. ministers bullish about no Plan B as Omicron starts to spread in community.
Metro: Golf Ace’s ‘mile-high rampage’.
POLITICO UK: Boris Johnson pins election hope on ‘leveling up’ Britain — whatever that is.
The Daily Telegraph: Booster rollout at a standstill.
The Independent: Revealed — The chaos of U.K.’s Kabul evacuation.
The Guardian: Afghans left to die in Kabul due to U.K. red tape chaos, says diplomat.
The Times: Omicron cases in U.K. double every three days.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: 🌧🌧🌧 Heavy rain most of the day, breezy. Highs of 8C.
NEW GIGS: The Onward think tank has had a shake-up: Adam Hawksbee joins as deputy director in January and will lead its work on leveling up (he is currently head of policy and programs for Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands) … Three new policy specialists will join as part-time policy fellows: Tim Pitt, former Treasury special adviser, who will work on economic policy; Toby Lloyd, former SpAd in the No. 10 policy unit, to work on social fabric policy; and Ted Christie-Miller, Onward’s former net zero lead, to work on climate policy. And there are promotions for James Blagden to chief data analyst, Francesca Fraser to a senior researcher on its leveling up program and Alex Luke to a senior researcher on its getting to zero program.
BIRTHDAYS: Walsall South Valerie Vaz … Former Change U.K. Leader Anna Soubry … DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson … Sevenoaks MP Laura Trott … No. 10 policy unit head Declan Lyons … HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary Tom Winsor … Flint Director Simon Puddick … Political academic Noam Chomsky … Ambassador of Thailand Pisanu Suvanajata … Prime Minister of Malta Robert Abela.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald producer Grace Stranger.
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