Politics

Bumping elbows

Freedom Day – a British Experiment

19 July 2021 is “freedom day” – the day when the UK government has relaxed the last Covid restrictions in England.  But does it mark a return to normality (whatever that is), or is it, as some have suggested, a dangerous British experiment?

For many of us, the relaxing of restrictions is a welcome relief.  The cost in economic and social terms has been high.  Many businesses in the hospitality sector have really struggled to survive the restrictions.  That’s not to mention the impact on our social lives.  Covid has left some people feeling incredibly isolated and others struggling on reduced incomes. 

Most of us are keen to see life return to normality.  After all, we cannot go on like this forever.  Sooner or later, we must find a way to live with Covid.

Dangerous experiment?

However, some experts have dubbed “freedom day” as a dangerous British experiment. 

In an article in the Lancet, on 7 July 2021, the idea of relaxing restrictions on 19th was branded as dangerous and premature in a letter signed by 100 experts that has since been endorsed by many scientists around the world. 

These experts highlighted five of key risks:

  1. A significant proportion of the population are still unvaccinated (especially younger adults and children).  This will lead to high levels of infection running the risk of leaving many people with long term health problems.
  2. It risks high levels of infection amongst children that will accelerate when they return to school.  This will lead to further significant disruption of children’s education.
  3. Such high levels of infection represent fertile ground for dangerous new strains of Covid to emerge.  This includes the risk of a vaccine resistant strain emerging.
  4. It will lead to more hospitalisations which will place significant pressure on the NHS.
  5. Deprived and vulnerable communities are the most at risk and likely to be hardest hit by rising infection rates.

The experts recommended delaying easing restrictions further until the vaccination program has covered most of the population.  This would imply a delay until late August or possibly early September.

As it stands, on 19 July 2021, the government statistics show that nearly 88% of the population had had their first jab and 68% had received both jabs.  These are high numbers and positions our vaccination roll out well ahead of other countries.  However, it is nevertheless the case that one in three of us are not yet fully covered.

Infections are rising

Infections have risen significantly since the beginning of June, as restrictions have been eased and we have had to deal with the impact of the more infectious Delta variant. 

Graph of UK trends in cases: July 2020 - July 2021

The number of cases is fast climbing towards 60,000 and could easily hit 100,000 by the end of the month.  There seems little doubt now that case numbers will exceed the peak we saw back in January 2021.

The link between cases and hospitalisation: weakened but not gone

It has been claimed that new cases are not leading to new hospitalisations. 

A few weeks ago, we wrote a blog in which we created a Covid Index to allow us to view trends in cases, hospitalisations and deaths in parallel.  So now seems like a good time to revisit this to see how well the data supports this claim.

Unfortunately, if we look at the data, we can see that this claim is not entirely true.

It is now clear that we are seeing a gradual but distinct uptick in hospital admissions.  More cases does mean more hospital admissions, even if the link is now a lot weaker than before.

UK Covid trends INDEX: July 2020 - July 2021

The good news is that the level of increase is not tracking new cases anywhere near as closely as was the case back in January.  At that time rising cases led to a similar rise in both hospitalisations and deaths.  These followed on fairly quickly behind case reporting. 

Now, the immediate impact is much reduced and instead we are seeing a more gradual but nevertheless notable increase in hospitalisation.

Clearly, the fact that so many people are now vaccinated (especially amongst the most vulnerable groups) means that a much higher proportion of infections are now mild or asymptomatic.

A modest increase in deaths

A closer look at trends over the past month also show that as yet we are not seeing any major uplift in deaths.  However, the figures do show a slight overall increase.

Graph of Covid Trends INDEX: Summer 2021 Trends

Overall case numbers have grown to be around four times higher than the average for the past 12 months. 

Hospitalisations are rising at a slower rate but rising, nonetheless.  The current levels of hospital admissions sit are around 75% of the average number recorded over the past 12 months.  At the current rate of increase it is likely that hospital admissions will exceed that average before the end of the month.

Deaths, at present, show only a relatively modest increase since the start of June.  We’d have to say that at present it is too early to fully judge the likely medium-term impacts on death rates.  Death rates are still low at around 10%-15% the average of the rate we have seen in the past 12 months.  However, this is still up from a rate of under 5% recorded during late May and early June.

Likely trend

As vaccination continues to roll out, it will inevitably have an increasingly depressive impact on infections.  However, the relaxing of restrictions will serve as an accelerant – especially amongst young adults who are the least protected and the most likely to wish to congregate together in large social gatherings at pubs and nightclubs.

It is always difficult to predict numbers given the changing nature of the pandemic and the ongoing rolling impact of vaccinations.  However, it seems that by the middle of August we are likely to see:

  • Infection rates; will probably exceed 100,000 cases.
  • Hospital admissions; likely to be c.1,300 per day.
  • Deaths; likely to be c.50-70 per day.

This would mean that hospitalisations would be around the levels we were seeing in mid to late February and deaths at around the levels we were seeing in mid-to-late March. 

With infection rates about 100,000, many people would be forced to self-isolate based on current test and trace rules, which could be very disruptive.  Although the government plans to modify rules of self-isolation for fully vaccinated people, this will not happen until mid-August.

A race to roll out

We are now in a race between a virus that has been given significant freedom to spread on the one hand and a vaccination programme that is fast progressing to a point where the population will be fully vaccinated on the other.  These two factors combine to push the numbers in different directions.

Of course, we have to re-open society and adapt to live with this virus at some point.  Let’s just hope we have not made that step a month or two too soon.

About Synchronix

Synchronix is a full-service market research agency.  We believe in using market research to help our clients understand how best to prepare for the future. 

You can read more about us on our website.  

If you wish to follow our weekly blog you can view all out past articles on our website here.

If you have any specific questions about our services, please contact us.

Sources

Government Coronavirus Data

Lancet, 7 July 2021

The Guardian, 16 July 2021

UK Elections 2021 – How is the political landscape changing?

How is the political landscape changing? As the dust settles on the May 2021 elections, it is worth taking a closer look at the results to see what they might tell us.   

England

The overall results for labour have been bad across the English elections.  Labour has lost seats across many areas and, at the same time, the Tories have picked seats up.

Overall, the Tories have increased their number of councillors in contested areas by + 11%, labour have declined by -20%. 

The LibDems remain the third largest party but have seen little real change.

Other important highlights are that UKIP has now disappeared from the political scene and Reform has failed to hoover up those old seats.  The main beneficiary from the demise of UKIP has clearly been the Tories. 

There has also been a dramatic increase in the amount of Green councillors (more than doubling their number of councillors in contested areas to 151). 

One final important highlight is the fact that there have been gains across the board for a mix of independents (an 18% increase to 255 councillors).

Labour’s highest profile loss was, of course, Hartlepool.  However, here, the story has more to it than meets the eye.

Hartlepool

In Hartlepool the Tories saw their vote increase from 28.9% at the last general election to 51.9% on May 6th.   Much of this gain is likely the result of the disappearance of the Brexit Party as a meaningful political force.  25.8% voted BP in 2019 which, if added to the Tory vote at that time, would total 54.7% – similar to the Tory vote this time around.

Whilst this may explain the Tory win, it does not explain the reduction in the Labour vote (falling from 37.7% in the last general election to 28.7%).  Smaller parties like the Greens may have taken votes from Labour but as the Greens only accounted for 1.2% of the vote, this can hardly explain it.

One point to remember is that the incumbent MP was forced to leave office because of allegations of sexual harassment and victimization.  This may have served to turn some voters away from Labour – but the question remains that whatever their reasons were for not voting Labour, who did those voters turn to?

A big factor appears to have been an independent candidate – Sam Lee, a local businesswoman.   Sam positioned herself as someone who stood up for the local business community and a Westminster outsider.  A vote for her, she claimed, would “show politicians that we are sick of their party games and empty promises”. A vote for her then, was, in many ways, a rejection of the status quo.  Sam polled 9.7% of the vote and, as she didn’t stand in 2019, it looks like she may have taken a fair number of votes away from Labour.

No change..?

So, in 2021, it may be that Hartlepool saw no real significant switch from Labour to Tory at all – that had already happened in 2019, when large numbers of voters changed to the Brexit Party.  And having switched to the BP, the move to voting Tory seems to have been an easy step for many. 

The vote for Sam Lee is significant though.  It shows a considerable number of people prepared to vote for someone outside the political establishment, and a desire amongst many for something quite different from the established parties.

The Red Wall weakens in the North and Midlands

In general, results in the North and Midlands have shown the biggest Tory gains plus the most serious Labour losses.

Again, the explanation seems to lie mainly with picking up former Brexit Party voters rather than outright direct conversion of 2019 Labour voters. 

The biggest Tory gains compared with previous local elections were in Yorkshire and Humberside (+11.2% up), the West Midlands (+9.7%) and the North East (+7.3%).

These marry up with the more significant Labour losses – Yorkshire and Humberside (-4.5%), the West Midlands (-5%) and the North East (-4%).

Labour losses and Tory gains were less significant elsewhere in England.

So, are we witnessing a sea-change in voting patterns in the North driven by regional factors or is it something more complicated than this? 

It is true that the so-called Red-Wall has clearly been seriously eroded in many parts of the North.  However, Labour has performed well in the area in certain large cities.  Could it be that this is more about how voting patterns are changing in metropolitan v non-metropolitan areas, than it is about changing attitudes in the North?

The Metropolitan Effect

Labour has performed well in northern metropolitan areas such as Liverpool and Manchester, showing that it can hold its own there under the right conditions.

In Manchester, Labour even gained ground.  Perhaps this was due in no small part to the charismatic Andy Burnham but the numbers tell a convincing tale.

Labour increased its share of the vote on the first choice for Mayor from 63.4% in 2017 to 67.3% in 2021. The Tories slipped from 22.7% to 19.6%.  Here, the lesser parties were very much out of the picture.

The Labour Mayoral vote also held strong in Liverpool.  No sign of any cracks in the Red Wall in these major northern cities; a quite different story from the story we see in less urban areas. 

So why is the metropolitan vote in the North so different from the trends we see elsewhere?

The Role of ‘Englishness’

Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Southampton University, feels that the migration of voters to the Brexit Party and then to the Tories has much to do with the emergence of a strong English national identity.  This tends to view the Tories as a party that is positive about the English and Labour as essentially mediocre about, or even hostile to, an English cultural identity.

Evidence for this can be found in BSA research that looked at the motives behind voting Leave/Remain in the Brexit vote.  This found that people who identified themselves as ‘British’ and not ‘English’ in England, voted 62% in favour of Remain.  However, 72% of people who identified themselves as ‘English’ and not ‘British’, voted in favour of Leave.

This sentiment, Jennings would argue, has translated into a vote for the Brexit Party in 2019 and has now converted into a Tory vote.  Parts of the North which have switched to Tory are often areas where this sense of ‘Englishness’ is strongest.

However, cities such as Manchester and Liverpool are more cosmopolitan in character and have strong and distinct local identities (as Mancunians or Scouse).  As a result, the tendency to strongly identify with an ‘English’ nationalist identity is less evident.  This in turn translates into a much-reduced willingness to switch away from Labour to the BP or Tories.

Treating the ‘North’ as a single homogenous area would therefore appear to be a gross over-simplification.

A different picture in Southern England

In the South, there was less dramatic change in voting patterns.  Although we saw some shift to the Tories in the council elections, the change was nowhere near as significant or dramatic as that seen in political landscape in the North.

However, there are a couple of interesting results that are worth pulling out – both Labour Mayoral wins.

The first is the result for Cambridge and Peterborough.   On the first choice alone, the Tories would have won (Tory 41%, Labour 33%, LibDems 27%).  However, once the LibDems were knocked out of the picture the second-choice votes for these voters were overwhelmingly Labour.  The result enabled Labour to win (just) by 51%. 

The second result is for the West of England Mayor (which covers Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire).

Here Labour increased its vote from 22.2% to 33.4% in the first round.  The Tories also actually did a little better (increasing from 27.3% to 28.6%).  The LibDems, again, saw limited but negative change (20.2% down to 16.3%) and the Greens again, saw progress (up to 21.7% from 11.2%). 

Again it is worth noting that the presence of a strong independent candidate can affect the results.  In 2017 such a candidate polled 15% of the vote but this time around, no such candidate stood.

This does raise the possibility that a future cooperative arrangement between Labour, Greens and LibDems in the south could potentially cause significant damage to the Tories in some parts of the southern political landscape.  However distant and unlikely such a prospect might seem today.

What about Scotland?

The results in Scotland, of course, have been quite different from anything we see in England.

Here we have seen the SNP make modest progress – increasing their share of the vote from 46.5% of constituency votes at the last parliamentary election in 2016 to 47.7% now.  The Tories saw little change in fortune (21.9% share now vs 22% in 2016).  Labour, too, saw limited change (21.6% down from 22.6%).

The SNP have consolidated and built on their dominant position even if they have not achieved an outright majority.  Some have suggested that they owe their electoral success at least in part to the general perception that Nicola Sturgeon has handled the Covid crisis well. 

One might make a similar observation across the UK.  This is that the light beckoning at the end of the Covid tunnel tends to favour the incumbent administrations – the SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England.  There is no doubt some truth in this and, if so, we can see this pattern repeated in Wales.

What about Wales?

Wales bucked the pro-Tory trend we see in England.  Here comparisons with England are more interesting because Wales, like England, voted Leave (whereas Scotland did not).  However, UKIP and latterly the Brexit Party have never been quite the force in Wales that they were in many parts of England (the Brexit Party registered only 5% of the Welsh vote in the 2019 election). 

Here the Tories have not managed to benefit anywhere near so much from picking up former UKIP or Brexit Party voters.  In 2016 the Tories got 21.1% of the constituency vote, which they have been able to increase to 25.1% this time around.  This no doubt reflects picking up some of the old UKIP votes (which accounted for 12.5% of the votes in the 2016 assembly election).

However, in Wales Labour have increased their share of the vote from 34.7% to 39.9%. Plaid Cymru have remained at pretty much the same level (20.7% vs 20.5% last time).

As with elsewhere, it may well be that the incumbent administration is benefiting from the feeling that we are headed in the right direction Covid-wise. 

The lack of the BP/UKIP factor in Wales in the political landscape meant there were only a limited number of these voters for the Tories to potentially pick up.  This supports Professor Jennings’ view that it is the sense of Englishness that has driven a migration of votes from labour, via UKIP and the Brexit Party, to the Tories.  The absence of the ‘Englishness’ factor in Wales potentially explains why such a pattern has not been repeated here.

In conclusion

It is probably worth concluding by saying that we ought to be very careful in what we read into these results.  The 2021 elections have occurred at a time when so much is in a state of flux.  The Covid crisis makes these times most unusual indeed. 

In a few years’ time when (hopefully) Covid no longer dominates our lives, we will be living in a vastly different world.   Also, we cannot yet say what the longer-term impacts of Brexit may be.  We are also only at the very beginning of the Tory levelling-up agenda.  Much has been promised, but what will be delivered?

This election has highlighted some important emerging trends, but the events of the next few years could yet see things change quite radically.

About Synchronix

Synchronix is a full-service market research agency.  We believe in using market research to help our clients understand how best to prepare for the future.  That means understanding change – whether that be changes in technology, culture, attitudes or behaviour. 

We offer market research services, opinion polling and content creation services.  You can read more about this on our website.  

If you wish to follow our weekly blog you can view all out past articles on our website here.

Sources

Election Results from BBC England

BBC Scottish Election Results

Welsh Election Results from the BBC

Sky News Election Takeaways

BSA

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