Early evening summary

  • Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, has said Labour would give councils new powers to take over empty shops. In a speech she said:

Where there are persistently empty shops, blighting local areas and not being filled, we should give local councils the power to step in – just as they can with persistently empty homes already.

40% of small businesses say that making vacant units available for rent is one of the biggest changes that should be made to help their high street. Where these are not coming back into use via the market, we would create an ‘Empty Shop Order’, giving local councils the power to take them over, bring them back into use and offer them to local businesses or other enterprises.

Once this is successful, and council has recouped its costs, the landlord should begin receiving rent again from the property. The government should look to use the newly expanded dormant assets fund to provide loans to councils for this purpose.

In a Q&A after the speech, Dodds restated the party’s opposition to corporation tax rising now. This is from the Times’ Eleni Courea.

Anneliese Dodds says Labour will oppose any "immediate" changes to corporation tax

In her Q&A after speaking to UCL @glo_pro she said:

"If government is saying that they will be immediately imposing tax changes on the UK I do think that's the wrong decision"

— Eleni Courea (@EleniCourea) February 25, 2021
Anneliese Dodds giving her pre-budget speech this afternoon.
Anneliese Dodds giving her pre-budget speech this afternoon. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

That’s all from me for today. But our coverage continues on our global coronavirus live blog. It’s here.

Updated

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which produces its own estimates for R, the reproduction number, thinks it is starting to nudge up. It estimates that R for the UK is now between 0.9 and 1, up from between 0.8 and 0.9.

The UK government publishes its own figure (the official figure) every Friday. Currently it puts the UK figure at between 0.6 and 0.9.

🚨 OUT NOW: our new weekly #NIESRCovidTracker suggests that the R number is starting to move up to 0.9 – 1.0 from a range of 0.8 – 0.9 where it had been since mid-Jan, with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Yorkshire & the Humber above 1.0

Here in full👇👇https://t.co/1Ajz9WKhma

— National Institute of Economic and Social Research (@NIESRorg) February 25, 2021

The Cabinet Office has dismissed a complaint about the equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, by arguing that her abusive public response on Twitter to a HuffPost journalist who emailed her office with a press query was issued from a “personal” Twitter account. In a scathing response, Jess Brammar, the HuffPost UK editor-in-chief, wonders when it became the case that ministers’ Twitter accounts were no longer covered by the ministerial code.

Updated

Covid fines surge in England and Wales as police adopt hardline approach

About 40% of all fines handed out by police for breaches of Covid-19 laws since the start of the pandemic in England and Wales were issued in the most recent four-week period as police adopted a more hardline approach and “fatigue” with the rules set in, my colleagues Jamie Grierson and Tobi Thomas report.

No 10 rejects Hammond's claim government is 'populist'

Without meaning to be rude to colleagues, or the No 10 press team, it is probably fair to say that Downing Street lobby briefings are not the best places to go for highbrow political discourse. It’s more question/line to take, followed by new version of the question/same line to take all over again. But at one point in the briefing today we did start to open up a discussion about the nature of populism.

It was prompted by the Philip Hammond interview with the BBC released this morning. (See 9.15am.) In it the former chancellor said he thought the government would have to abandon some of its manifesto spending promises. No 10 has not said yet that it accepts this (they dodged the question today), but the claim is not particularly provocative.

But Hammond went further. He said Boris Johnson would find it hard to implement cuts because he was leading a “populist” government. This is a claim often made by Johnson’s critics, but one very rarely repeated by Conservative politicians because, in the mind of establishment opinion, populism is generally seen as dishonest, disreputable, and menacing

When asked about Hammond’s comment, Allegra Stratton, the PM’s press secretary, said she did not accept his claim that Johnson was not willing to take unpopular decisions. She said:

The prime minister has spoken about the tough choices ahead. There have been difficult choices he has had to make in responding to the pandemic and indeed over the months and years ahead there will be more of them. So, I don’t recognise the picture the former chancellor makes.

Stratton was then pressed on whether Hammond was right to describe the government as “populist”. She replied:

We can have a debate about populist and popular and the technical terms, but certainly this is a prime minister that over the last few months has already started to lay out policy decisions that have been difficult. You can see that in the difficult decision, for instance, on foreign aid, the decision we had to take this year to reduce it from 0.7 [0.7% of national income]. So this is a prime minister that is prepared to take difficult decisions, and is weighing up hard choices at the moment.

This was a surprising answer because, although cutting the foreign aid budget may have been a “difficult” decision for Guardian readers, it is also one of the most popular decisions ever taken by Johnson’s government. Adam Bienkov from Business Insider dug out the polling.

Boris Johnson's Press Secretary Allegra Stratton denies the PM is incapable of taking difficult and unpopular decisions, by pointing to his decision to cut foreign aid... which has overwhelming public support. pic.twitter.com/TdECRESVbm

— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) February 25, 2021

Of course, being popular is not the same as being “populist”. Populism is a concept with various definitions, but the one most widely accepted now is (in the words of Cas Mudde, who is credited with coming up with it) “an ideology that considers society to be separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people”. Johnson is clearly associated with this because of the way he has championed Brexit as an anti-elitist crusade.

Cutting the aid budget was not part of the Brexit offer, but for years it was the signature economic policy of Ukip, who were classic rightwing populists and who in many respects wrote the script for Johnson’s Vote Leave movement.

When it was put to Stratton that cutting the aid budget did not prove Johnson was not a populist, she repeated the point about it being a difficult decision. And she said that in implementing lockdown Johnson had obviously had to take other difficult decisions. “This is why this populist label, I don’t find it very helpful,” she added.

Updated

UK records 9,985 more cases and 323 further deaths

The latest Covid figures for the UK have now been uploaded onto the government’s dashboard. Here are the key statistics.

  • The UK has recorded 323 further deaths. A week ago today the equivalent figure was 454. And the total number of deaths for the last seven days is down 30.4% on the total for the previous week.
  • The UK has recorded 9,985 more cases. That is a tiny rise on the total for yesterday (9,938) but it is still only the fourth day this year the reported total has been below 10,000. Week on week, new cases are down 15.7%.
  • There were 448,962 first doses of vaccine administered yesterday. That is the highest daily total for almost a week, and well above the current seven-day average.
First doses of vaccine administered
First doses of vaccine administered Photograph: Gov.UK
Dashboard
Dashboard Photograph: Gov.UK

Sky has released a picture of Sir Kenneth Branagh playing Boris Johnson in This Sceptred Isle, a drama about the coronavirus pandemic due to be broadcast next year. My colleague Caroline Davies has the story here.

Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in the Sky Original drama ‘This Sceptred Isle’, which will air in autumn 2022 on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.
Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in the Sky Original drama This Sceptred Isle, which will air in autumn 2022 on Sky Atlantic and Now TV. Photograph: Sky UK/PA

Updated

UK Covid alert level reduced from 5 to 4 as threat of NHS being overwhelmed lifts

The Covid alert level is being moved down from level 5, the most serious level, to level 4, the four UK chief medical officers have decided. They have just issued this statement:

Following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and in the light of the most recent data, the four UK chief medical officers and NHS England national medical director agree that the UK alert level should move from level 5 to level 4 in all four nations.

The health services across the four nations remain under significant pressure with a high number of patients in hospital, however thanks to the efforts of public we are now seeing numbers consistently declining, and the threat of the NHS and other health services being overwhelmed within 21 days has receded.

We should be under no illusions – transmission rates, hospital pressures and deaths are still very high. In time, the vaccines will have a major impact and we encourage everyone to get vaccinated when they receive the offer. However for the time being it is really important that we all – vaccinated or not - remain vigilant and continue to follow the guidelines.

We know how difficult the situation has been and remains to be for healthcare workers, we thank them for their immense effort, skill and professionalism throughout the pandemic.

The four chief medical officers are: Prof Chris Whitty (England), Dr Michael McBride (Northern Ireland), Dr Gregor Smith (Scotland) and Dr Frank Atherton (Wales). Prof Stephen Powis, the NHS England national medical director, has also signed the statement now.

Given what has been happening to Covid case numbers are deaths in recent weeks, this decision is not surprising. The Covid alert system was set up in May last year and at that point the UK was at level 4, meaning “a Covid-19 epidemic is in general circulation; transmission is high or rising exponentially”. It went down to level 3 in June, back up to level 4 in September and only went up to level 5 in January, as England entered its third lockdown. Level 5 means the virus is in general circulation, transmission is high or rising and “there is a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed”.

When the alert system was set up, it was envisaged that the lifting of lockdown measures would be linked to the UK’s progress down the alert scale. But in practice there has been little linkage, and the roadmap for lifting lockdown measures in England published on Monday contains no mention of alert levels, and only one mention of the JBC.

Updated

One in five adults in England has now had first dose of vaccine, NHS says

One in five adults in England under 70 have had their first dose of Covid-19 vaccines, PA Media reports. PA says:

An estimated 20.3% of people aged 16 to 69 had received their first jab as of 21 February, according to NHS England figures.

The estimates show little variation between the regions, ranging from 17.2% in London to 22.3% in north-west England.

No 10 says it rejects former French ambassador's claim PM 'an inveterate liar'

Here are the main lines from the No 10 lobby briefing.

  • Downing Street has said that votes on the budget will be treated as a confidence matter, meaning that if Conservative MPs rebel, they will lose the whip. Asked if budget votes would be a confidence matter, Allegra Stratton, the PM’s press secretary, said yes.
  • No 10 has ruled out prioritising prisoners in the next wave of the vaccination programme. According to a report in today’s Times, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is advising that, in the next phase, people under 50 should be vaccinated by age bands, with no attempt to prioritise key workers. But it is also saying officials should have the option of vaccinating a whole prison in one go. The Times says:

[The JCVI] has accepted that local areas should not be stopped from mass vaccination in institutional settings such as prisons, after complaints that it is impractical to separate out prisoners by age.

Although there will not be any formal exemption from the age-based list for prisons, local vaccination teams will be given “more flexibility” to depart from strict priority order to avoid wastage and tackle inequalities of race or class.

But Downing Street said prisoners would not get prioritised, and they would be vaccinated in line with the JCVI recommendations for the whole population (ie by age). “Prisoners won’t be prioritised for vaccines,” the PM’s spokesman said.

We completely reject that characterisation. As you heard the PM say when we signed the agreement with the EU, we’ve delivered on what we promised the British people in both the 2019 election and previously during the referendum in terms of returning sovereignty.

(The day Johnson agreed the trade deal with the EU was the day when he also claimed it involved “no non-tariff barriers” to trade. This was completely untrue.)

No, I think it demonstrates our commitment to the union and the focus the PM has on ensuring that we deliver for all countries of the United Kingdom.

Updated

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has announced further sanctions against members of the Myanmar military for their part in the coup that has deposed the democratic leadership. Six more military figures of the state administration council face sanctions for serious human rights violations, on top of the 19 previously listed by the UK, the Foreign Office said.

Updated

Starmer says Serco's decision to pay dividend to shareholders 'outrageous' after test and trace payments

Sir Keir Starmer has posted a tweet saying it is “outrageous” that Serco is paying a dividend to shareholders. (See 9.47am and 11.20am.)

Outrageous.

Taxpayers' money shouldn't be given to Serco's shareholders via dividends.

The Government should have placed Test and Trace in the hands of our NHS and local communities.https://t.co/VbwH0ieO7y

— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) February 25, 2021

Louise Haigh, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, has criticised the Conservative European Research Group for calling for the Northern Ireland protocol to be abandoned. (See 11.32am.) She said:

The ERG – and this cannot be stressed enough – voted for this.

This was the deal they demanded, for the Brexit they chose.

Now they would rather tear things down, and provoke further instability, than show even a hint of responsibility.

Updated

Boris Johnson has described the plans for school exam grades in England to be based on teacher assessments as a good compromise. Speaking on a visit to Accrington academy in Lancashire, he said:

I think in an ideal world you would not have taken kids out of school because of the pandemic, we wouldn’t have been forced to do this and in an ideal world we’d be continuing with exams as you normally have them, and the best place for kids is in the classroom and the best way to check on kids’ progress is with normal exams.

But I think this is as good a compromise as we can come to.

I think it will be fair, I think it will be durable and it’s the right way forward.

He also insisted he had confidence in the much-criticised education secretary, Gavin Williamson. Asked if he did, he replied: “Of course, and I think that what we are doing is the right thing to get all our students, our pupils, back on March 8.

Boris Johnson meeting pupils in the canteen during a visit to Accrington academy in Lancashire.
Boris Johnson meeting pupils in the canteen during a visit to Accrington academy in Lancashire. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/AP

Updated

Here are two tweets on first minister’s questions from opposition MSPs.

From Willie Rennie, the Scottish Lib Dem leader

Jackie Baillie has just made a very serious point that the name of one of the complainers was privately revealed to Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff. That is very serious. An absence of action would be negligence. #FMQs

— Willie Rennie (@willie_rennie) February 25, 2021

From Adam Tomkins, a Scottish Conservative and convenor of the parliament’s justice committee

If what the FM is saying right now is true, why on earth did the Crown Office want this evidence suppressed? It just does not make sense #FMQs

— Adam Tomkins MSP (@ProfTomkins) February 25, 2021

And this is from the SNP’s Humza Yousaf, the Scottish government’s justice minister

FM taking no prisoners here.

The Oppositions' smears falling flat on their face. Anyone listening to this will have heard wild conspiracy theories being repeated verbatim by Ruth Davidson & Jackie Baillie. Your reminder that assertion is not evidence.

#FMQs

— Humza Yousaf (@HumzaYousaf) February 25, 2021

Sturgeon rejects opposition claim 'something rotten at core of SNP' is 'poisoning' Scotland's democracy

Here is a clip of Jackie Baillie, the acting Scottish Labour leader at Holyrood, telling Nicola Sturgeon at FMQs there is “something rotten at the core of the SNP and it is poisoning our democratic institutions”.

Sturgeon said what was poisoning institutions was politicians “hurling assertions and accusations without a shred of evidence to back them up”.

She also said that Baillie was acting like a spokesperson for Alex Salmond. But when Salmond was in the Scottish parliament, Baillie did not believe a word he said, she said.

Scottish Labour @jackiebmsp says there is "something rotten at the core" of the SNP, which is "poisoning our democratic institutions".

FM @NicolaSturgeon says what is poisonous is accusations that don't have a "shred of evidence".

Live updates ➡https://t.co/4kcgmVCXiH pic.twitter.com/hSMe7dcSf5

— BBC Scotland News (@BBCScotlandNews) February 25, 2021

Updated

Willie Rennie, the Lib Dem leader, asks Sturgeon if the name of a complainant was handed over to Alex Salmond.

Sturgeon says to the best of her knowledge that did not happen.

So are people lying, Rennie asks.

Sturgeon says a process is underway that is investigating this.

Updated

Jackie Baillie, the acting Labour leader, asks who authorised a meeting with Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff.

Sturgeon says Baillie is accepting Salmond’s version of this. She doesn’t, she says.

She says she wants a culture where people feel able to come forward with sexual harassment allegations. Accepting Salmond’s account of events is not a good way of promoting that culture, she says.

Baillie says standing up for women takes more than warm words. She says it is beyond belief that anyone would pass on the name of a complainant.

Given what Sturgeon said about Salmond in her briefing yesterday, why did she agree to meet Salmond?

Sturgeon says Salmond claims the name of a complainant was given. That does not mean it is true, she says. She says she did not seek to intervene.

She says some time ago Baillie gave an interview suggesting she should have intervened to promote mediation. Sometimes she is accused of intervening; sometimes of not intervening, she says.

She says in the past these allegations might have been “swept under the carpet”. But she does not regret not doing this.

Updated

Davidson says Sturgeon has been desperate to shut down comment on the secret meeting in her office, which suggests she misled parliament about when she first heard of the allegations against Alex Salmond. She says this looks like a cover-up.

Sturgeon says she has already submitted written evidence on this. So it cannot be a cover-up. The evidence is on the Scottish parliament’s website. She will give evidence on Wednesday. This was the sixth date given for this hearing, because it has been repeatedly postponed.

Just because Davidson does not like this government, she should not trash the reputation of legal officers. She says their reputation is being sacrificed on the “altar of the ego of one man”.

Davidson says a culture of secrets and cover-up is growing. “Is saving your own skin worth all the damage your are doing?”

Sturgeon says what matters to her is the integrity of our institutions. She says Davidson’s own reputation is at risk. She has provided “a litany of nonsense”. It cannot be a cover-up if she is giving evidence. It used to be possible to have a proper debate “without a scorched earth policy of conspiracy theory”.

She says Davidson talks about democratic integrity. But she is about to take a seat in the House of Lords and pursue a political career without the endorsement of voters.

Updated

Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader at Holyrood, says Sturgeon said she had nothing to hide in relation to this affair. So will she publish her evidence to the Hamilton inquiry?

Sturgeon says she has no problem with that being published. But that is up to James Hamilton.

Davidson says on Monday Sturgeon summoned journalists to her office and challenged Alex Salmond to provide his evidence. But when Salmond did publish, bits of of evidence were removed.

Sturgeon says the fact that Davidson is quoting Salmond’s claims means they are in the public realm. She says she expects to be questioned on these matters when she gives evidence to the comittee next week.

Scrutiny of her, and of the Scottish government, is not just legitimate; it is necessary, she says. She says she looks forward to giving her evidence. But anyone suggesting that there was political interference in prosecution decisions are wrong. It is a “deluded” theory, she says.

She says politics is not for the faint-hearted. But politicians should not trash the reputation of people doing their jobs.

Updated

Sturgeon takes first minister's questions in Scottish parliament

Nicola Sturgeon is taking first minister’s questions in the Scottish parliament.

Here is our latest story about the latest in her feud with Alex Salmond.

Boris Johnson speaking with pupils at Accrington academy in Accrington, Lancashire today.
Boris Johnson speaking with pupils at Accrington academy in Accrington, Lancashire today. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/AFP/Getty Images

Ealing council identifies four areas where South African variant found not linked to travel

This is what Ealing council in London is saying about the decision to extend surge testing in the borough. (See 11.37am.)

In parts of our borough, and in other parts of London, a small number of people with South African variant have been identified. These people had no link to travel to or from South Africa. Monitoring variants and the spread of the virus more widely through regular testing has been identified as a key measure of the government’s roadmap to recovery and for allowing restrictions to be eased in the coming weeks and months.

Over the last few weeks, all positive Covid-19 tests from the borough have been sent for variant testing. From these, scientists have found a small number of people who tested positive for the South African strain of the variant. They live in Acton, Greenford, Southall and West Ealing.

Testing is the best way of identifying people with the virus and stopping it from spreading. Ealing has one of the highest borough testing rates in London. Although the borough’s Covid-19 rates have dropped significantly in recent weeks, rates remain high in some parts of the borough. Working alongside NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England, Ealing council wants to do everything possible to drive down infection rates before lockdown restrictions start to ease.

The new surge testing initiative in the borough will build on one launched at the start of the month, which just covered Hanwell and West Ealing.

Responding to Williamson, Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, says Williamson blamed the algorithm for what happened last summer. But the algorithm was not responsible; he was.

Now, for the first time, he has said he trusts teachers. I cannot help but wonder why he only trusts teachers when there is a chance to make them responsible for what happens with exams, rather than his department.

She says the government should have started training teachers to carry out the new assessments weeks ago.

And she says the money announced for catch-up programmes is not enough. It amounts to just 43p per pupil per day, she says.

Gavin Williamson's statement to MPs

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, is making his statement to MPs about how exam grades in England will be awarded this summer.

He says pupils will have their grades determined by teachers, with assessments based on what they have been taught, not what they would have been taught if the pandemic had not interrupted teaching.

He says teachers will be able to use a range of evidence when making their assessments, including coursework and mock exams.

He says they will get guidance to ensure their assessments are fair. They will be pegged to performance in previous years, he says.

There will be an appeals system, he says.

And he says “no algorithm” will be used. (The Department for Education used an algorithm in determining grades last summer, although the system had to be abandoned after mass protests about how it led to some pupils getting grades that were manifestly unfair.)

Williamson ends by saying he hopes pupils will be able to go on to the next stage of their lives with confidence.

Surge testing extending in Ealing after more cases of South African variant found

More surge testing is being rolled out in Ealing in London after further cases of the South African variant were discovered, Sky News is reporting. This will be an extension of the surge testing in the borough launched earlier this month.

COVID-19: More surge testing in Ealing as additional South Africa variant cases detected https://t.co/eW8tbfY2wX

— Sky News (@SkyNews) February 25, 2021

The European Research Group, which represents Tory MPs who favoured a hard Brexit, has produced a report urging Boris Johnson to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol, PA Media reports. PA says:

The protocol was designed by the EU and UK to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. It achieves this by effectively creating a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea, with goods imported into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK subject to a range of new processes.

The ERG report said the European Union’s “bungled” attempt to suspend parts of the agreement during a row over coronavirus vaccine supplies in January - a move which was hastily abandoned by Brussels - created a “unique political opportunity” to renegotiate the deal.

The document said the UK government should tell Brussels that it intends to pass a new law to “redress the trade diversion and societal pressures” created by the protocol.

Mark Francois, the ERG chairman, said:

We will no doubt be told that the EU will never renegotiate the protocol - just as we were repeatedly assured they would never reopen the withdrawal agreement, or indeed abandon the dreaded ‘backstop’, which the protocol eventually replaced when they subsequently did both.

Francois said the protocol had to go or “we will not let matters rest there”.

Serco boss claims Covid contracts only responsible for 1% of net profits

In an interview on the Today programme this morning Rupert Soames, the Serco chief executive, claimed “very little” of the profits announced for 2020 (see 9.47am) were a result of the pandemic.

Serco is one of the main private contracting firms working on NHS Test and Trace (which, despite its official name, is not run by the NHS). But Soames told Today:

Less than 1% of our profits last year have come from the net impact of Covid because, whilst we have got a lot of business to do with test and trace, we’ve also had other parts of our business that have come to pretty much a grinding halt. So, overall, net net, it’s only about 1% of our profits last year came from Covid.

When it was put to him that test and trace work accounted for about £350m of revenue, Soames accepted it made a material contribution. But he went on:

But we also had material losses in our transport business. Remember that we run a lot of leisure centres for councils that have been shut almost all through the year ... The net impact of Covid, end to end, is about £2m, or about 1% of our profits.

Soames also said test and trace was now a “remarkable success”. He said:

[Test and Trace] is now a remarkable success and I acknowledge it has taken quite some time to get there.

But as of last week there are as many people being tested every week as we’ve vaccinated, about 2.5 million people a week.

In the first week of January there were about 1 million people who were traced through the system.

Rupert Soames.
Rupert Soames. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, is promoting a story by Mure Dickie and John-Burn Murdoch in the Financial Times today (paywall) saying that her Covid policies over the winter have been more successful than England’s. It says:

Data from the pandemic’s winter wave suggest that Sturgeon’s greater willingness to maintain restrictions has helped Scotland keep deaths and infections lower than in England.

While deaths per million people in Scotland attributed to coronavirus exceeded those in England for more than a month in October and November last year, they went on to peak at a lower level. Excess deaths, seen as the best measure of the pandemic’s overall impact, have since December also been lower in Scotland.

As is often the case, the graphics tell the story more powerfully than the text. Here is the FT’s chart for excess deaths (widely seen as the best measure of the impact of Covid on mortality).

Excess deaths in Scotland and England
Excess deaths in Scotland and England Photograph: FT

And here are the figures for excess deaths in care homes.

Excess deaths in care homes, in Scotland and in England and Wales
Excess deaths in care homes, in Scotland and in England and Wales Photograph: FT

Worth a read - “Scotland reaps dividend of Covid response that diverged from England” via @FT
https://t.co/Qem8xvyPXb

— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) February 25, 2021

The Salvation Army, a charity working with the homeless, has also expressed reservations about today’s rough sleeping figures. (See 10.25am.) Lorrita Johnson, its director of homelessness services, said:

Any official figures that suggest fewer people are being forced to sleep rough offer a glimmer of hope.

But we must be cautious about the data. New rough sleepers are coming onto the streets all the time and include those whose livelihoods disappeared overnight or when their living conditions, such as sofa surfing, became impossible due to social distancing. We have yet to see the true impact of the pandemic on people’s lives but we expect many more people to be at real risk of being made homeless as the economy bites.

Labour queries government report saying rough sleeping in England below 3,000 per night last autumn

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has released its rough sleeping snapshot for England for the autumn of last year. This is an estimate for how many people are sleeping rough on a typical night in October or November. Some local authorities carry out an actual count, and others produce an actual estimate, and so the figure is not tied to any one particular date.

The figure for autumn 2020 was 2,688, MHCLG says. It says that this down 37% from last year, that this is the third year in a row there has been a decline, but that this is still 52% higher than the figure for 2010. It says 44% of rough sleepers were in London or the south-east.

Rough sleeping snapshot
Rough sleeping snapshot Photograph: MHCLG

MHLG says that the snapshot coincided with the November lockdown and that one reason for the reduction was the “Everyone In” scheme to house rough sleeper, which by November had helped around 33,000 people.

But Labour said the rough sleeping snapshot was an underestimate. It said the Greater London Authority’s CHAIN (Combined Homelessness and Information Network) figures said there were 3,307 rough sleepers in London during this period, not 714 (the figure produced by the snapshot).

Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow housing secretary, said:

Nobody should be sleeping rough, especially during a pandemic.

The government promised to bring ‘everyone in’ but even these partial figures show 2,688 people spent this pandemic on the streets. It is extremely concerning they have not repeated the emergency support for rough sleeping that was in place during the first lockdown.

There is a real risk that gains made last year will be lost. We came into this crisis with twice as many rough sleepers as in 2010. Almost 1,000 people died while homeless in 2020. We cannot return to business as usual. The government must address the causes of homelessness, and end rough sleeping for good.

Thangam Debbonaire.
Thangam Debbonaire. Photograph: House of Commons/PA

Outsourcing giant Serco will start paying a dividend to shareholders due to soaring profits and a post-Covid outlook that promises future growth, PA Media reports. PA says:

Bosses issued a profits upgrade for 2021 and said now is the time to make the 1.4p-a-share payments to investors - having faced criticism over previous plans for the payouts.

They said previously claimed furlough cash has been repaid, a £5m bonus was shared among 50,000 frontline workers, while levels of profit from winning Covid contracts was minimal.

Chief executive Rupert Soames said that although underlying trading profit had jumped 36% to £163m in 2020, only around £2m came from winning Covid contracts - the rest coming from “normal operations of the business”.

Serco added around £400m to its revenues from Covid services, including operating more than 25% of NHS Test & Trace sites and half the tier 3 tracing capacity.

Soames added: “Although these contracts are at lower margins than we would normally accept for this type of work, they generated nearly £350m of revenue, so made a material contribution and helped to reduce the impact of losses in transport, health and leisure.”

Updated

Covid tests and masks will not be compulsory at English schools, says minister

It will not be compulsory for school pupils in England to take Covid tests twice a week, nor wear face coverings in class, the schools minister Nick Gibb has confirmed. Gibb did a round of broadcast interviews this morning, ahead of the statement in the Commons later about how exam grades will be awarded this summer and he talked about Covid testing for pupils, masks, the risks of grade inflation and how the appeals process will work. My colleague Helen Pidd has written up the story here.

Updated

PM should drop 'extravagant' spending promises due to pandemic, says former Tory chancellor

Good morning. A week today we’ll be digesting the contents of the budget, which Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, will deliver on Wednesday 3 March. And this morning there is an unwelcome intervention from his predecessor-but-one, Philip Hammond (now Lord Hammond), who has told the BBC the government should now ditch some of its “extravagant” spending promises made during the general election.

In an interview with Laura Kuenssberg, Hammond said that ministers had “made very extravagant commitments to the British electorate in good faith before the coronavirus crisis”. He went on:

Not all of those commitments can now sensibly be delivered on and that’s going to be a big challenge for a government that regards its short-term popularity as very, very important.

Hammond, who had the Tory whip removed by Boris Johnson in 2019 after he joined a rebellion over Brexit (although Johnson subsequently sent him to the Lords as a Conservative peer), said the government needed to tell the public “some difficult home truths”. Government borrowing this year is now estimated to be £340bn higher than it would have been without Covid.

Hammond said he was confident that Sunak’s instincts were “the right ones” (ie, that Sunak wanted to take a responsible approach to spending, in Hammond’s view). But he said Sunak was part of a government and he said not sure “the top leadership of the current government” (ie, Johnson) “really has that appetite for being unpopular, in order to do the right thing”. He said:

My fear is that, as a populist government, giving money away is always easier than collecting it in.

And the government will be tempted not to move quickly back to normalising the relationship between government and citizen, the balance between taxing and spending, as we move out of the crisis and into the next phase, which is dealing over the longer term with the legacy of this Covid crisis - what the economists called the scarring effect on the British economy.

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.30am: The Home Office publishes annual immigration figures, as well as figures for the EU settlement scheme.

9.30am: The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government publishes annual figures on rough sleeping.

11am: NHS Test and Trace publishes its weekly performance figures.

Around 11.30am: Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, makes a statement to MPs about his plans to allow teachers to decide exam grades in England this summer.

12pm: Downing Street is expected to hold its daily lobby briefing.

12.30pm: Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, takes questions in the Scottish parliament.

2pm: Public Health England publishes its weekly Covid surveillance report.

4pm: Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, gives a speech on the economy.

Politics Live is now doubling up as the UK coronavirus live blog and, given the way the Covid crisis eclipses everything, this will continue for the foreseeable future. But we will be covering non-Covid political stories too, and when they seem more important or more interesting, they will take precedence.

Here is our global coronavirus live blog.

I try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest, I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.

If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter. I’m on @AndrewSparrow.

Philip Hammond talking to the BBC
Philip Hammond talking to the BBC Photograph: BBC News

Updated

Contributor

Andrew Sparrow

The GuardianTramp

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