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Analysis

Christmas debacle caps a bad year for Johnson on Covid-19

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With Brexit, months or even years can pass before Boris Johnson’s heroic claims about Britain’s bright future outside the EU are tested by cold reality.

But with coronavirus, the time lapse between the prime minister’s rhetoric colliding with the real world is often measured in days.

Mr Johnson woke up on Sunday to newspaper headlines of “Christmas is cancelled” after he announced tough new Covid-19 restrictions that will stop households in much of south-east England from mixing over Christmas because of a new strain of the virus that is spreading fast.

Only last Wednesday he had insisted it would be “inhuman” to abandon his plan to let households across England have a five-day festive get-together.


2.9%


is the approval rating of Mr Johnson among Tory activists, according to a ConservativeHome survey

The Christmas U-turn capped a grim year for Mr Johnson, who has repeatedly faced questions about his competence in handling the Covid-19 crisis.

“When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defence,” Mr Johnson said on Saturday, explaining his decision to introduce the new restrictions, which allow households outside the south-east to mix for just one day, rather than five, over Christmas.

But it was only on Wednesday that Mr Johnson denounced Labour leader Keir Starmer for wanting to “cancel Christmas” after the opposition party suggested the festive relaxation of restrictions — announced in November — was irresponsible.

Sir Keir said on Sunday of Mr Johnson’s original Christmas plan: “It was an act of gross negligence by a PM who once again has been caught behind the curve, who has offered confusion not clarity, who undermined public confidence, who always over-promises and underdelivers.”

Beyond the Christmas debacle, notable examples of Mr Johnson’s over-promising cited by his critics include the pledge in May to introduce a “world beating” test and trace system for England, only to see it regularly fall short.

In May the prime minister promised to introduce a “world beating” test and trace system for England, only to see it regularly fall short. © Andy Rain/EPA/Shutterstock

Mr Johnson’s competence ratings in opinion polls have been shredded as the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed his enthusiasm for delivering good news to people without necessarily thinking through the consequences of things going wrong.

Sir Keir claimed the prime minister had a fatal weakness. “At the heart of the problem here is a prime minister who simply doesn’t want to be unpopular and won’t take the tough decisions that are necessary,” he said.

Mr Johnson’s optimism bias is coupled with a libertarian streak — he told MPs he did not come into politics to order a Cromwellian crackdown on Christmas — which his critics say has led to him being too late to impose restrictions throughout the pandemic.

His hesitation before introducing England’s first lockdown on March 23 was blamed for a high death toll and heavy economic hit.

The UK has suffered one of the highest death rates from coronavirus in Europe, while also recording one of the worst economic downturns.

Research by the Financial Times last month found the UK had spent more money fighting Covid-19 than almost all comparable countries but still languished towards the bottom of league tables on economic performance in 2020 and deaths caused by the virus.

The Office for Budget Responsibility said last month the UK’s economy was set to shrink by 11.3 per cent in 2020, while the government would need to borrow £394bn to fund a shortfall in taxes and £280bn in public spending to tackle the virus.

Ironically for Mr Johnson, the public approve of tough action to tackle the virus.

But throughout the pandemic the prime minister has struggled with the conflicting pressures of keeping the public safe from Covid-19 and the need to ensure the economy carries on functioning.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, and many Conservative MPs have urged Mr Johnson to refrain from severe restrictions for fear of exacerbating the downturn. © Jessica Taylor/House of Commons

Mr Johnson has been urged by chancellor Rishi Sunak and many Conservative MPs to refrain from severe restrictions for fear of exacerbating the downturn.

Politically weakened by the pandemic, the prime minister knows that Mr Sunak is seen by many Tory MPs as the heir apparent.

Mr Johnson’s tendency to belatedly bow to government scientific advisers’ calls for restrictions — for example, he initially resisted their demands for a second lockdown in England — has cost him dear in terms of support in the Conservative party.

A ConservativeHome survey of Tory activists this month put Mr Johnson fourth from bottom of a poll testing the approval ratings of cabinet ministers. His rating of plus 2.9 per cent compared with Mr Sunak’s rating 74.6.

And the newly formed Covid Recovery Group of backbench Conservative MPs, who are sceptical about restrictions, have escalated hostilities.

Mark Harper and Steve Baker, leaders of the group, wrote in the Mail on Sunday that the government’s strategy of lockdowns and tiered restrictions in England was “clearly failing to break the transmission of Covid-19”.

A YouGov survey on Sunday found that 61 per cent of the public thought the government was handling the crisis badly. As Mr Johnson told colleagues this week: “I can’t wait for 2020 to end.”



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Analysis

Can plant-based milk beat conventional dairy?

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Plant-based milk brands are churning up the global dairy business, with a surge in sales, investment, and new products coming to market. The plant derived dairy trade is now worth an estimated $17bn worldwide.

Growing consumer demand has boosted investment. According to data firm Dealroom, venture capital funding across the plant-based dairy and egg sector has skyrocketed, from $64m in 2015 to $1.6bn in 2020.

The world’s biggest food company, Nestle, recently launched its first international plant-based dairy brand, a cow’s milk substitute made from yellow peas. Wonder will come in a variety of flavours, competing with established brands like Oatly oat-based milk. Founded in Sweden in the 1990s, that company is now valued at around $15bn. Demand for alternatives to soya, which once dominated the dairy free market, continues to escalate.

In the west, sales for other plant-based milks, including oat, cashew, coconut, hemp, and other seeds overtook soya back in 2014. Since then, they’ve raced ahead to be worth almost three times as much as soya products, with a combined projected value of more than $5bn in sales by 2022.

Advocates argue that plant-based production emits less greenhouse gas than cattle, making it the way forward to help feed the world and curb global warming. But dairy groups are fighting back with their own sustainability campaigns. And cow’s milk is hard to beat when it comes to naturally occurring nutrients, like protein, vitamins and minerals.

The average 100 millilitre glass of cow’s milk contains three grammes of protein, compared to 2.2 grammes in pea milk and just one gramme in oat-based substitutes.

Dairy producers have also won a legal bid, preventing vegan competitors in the EU from calling their products milk and yoghurt. Despite their growing popularity, plant-based brands are a long way from displacing conventional milk products. Their current $17bn turnover is still a drop in the pail, compared with the traditional cattle-based dairy trade, which is worth an estimated $650bn worldwide.



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'It’s more than sport – every day we are fighting for our rights to be equal’

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French pro basketball player and podcaster Diandra Tchatchouang on her role beyond the court



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Emily Dean on how allyship amplifies the female experience on film

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When I was six years old, I decided to be an artist. When I was 12, I decided to be a filmmaker. And instead of saying no, you can’t do that, or it’s not possible, my mum bought me a video camera.

After several years of working in the industry, I’m working with a female director for the first time. And it’s been such a gratifying experience. Women express leadership in different ways. Maybe you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room. But you can have great ideas.

And the best thing about being mentored by women and being a mentor to women is that make friends with women.

There’s something so powerful the women coming alongside other women, especially in a group setting. Because it means that you can and back each other up. You can support each other’s decisions, and you can amplify each other’s voices.

It’s about seeing yourself in your work. Seeing some part of yourself reflected is really gratifying. It’s also important that we speak up for female characters. I want to see girls and women on screen who have the whole cacophony of experience of what it’s like to be female.

I want to see their flaws. I want to feel their struggles. I want to see their joy. That is so important to making a character feel real. And it took me a little while to settle into myself and realise, if the characters I like to come up with are not your everyday run of the mill characters you see in animation, that’s fine. Because this is who I am.

When you walk into a story room, when you’re working on a film, you have to leave your ego at the door. I think that can be interpreted like keep your ego out of the work. But I’d also say for women who are maybe more shy that leaving your ego at the door means you walk in. And your job is to focus on what’s best for the story and for the film.

The story needs you. The film needs you, and it needs your best ideas. It won’t thrive unless you speak up.



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