NHS can’t cope with winter
Every year Britain has a winter — and every year the whole of Britain seems surprised by that. Advance planning for Jack Frost is almost non-existent. They call it “muddling through” and a muddle it certainly is
Three quarters of a million people have been struck down by the ‘winter vomiting bug’ and dozens of hospital wards closed in the worst start to the norovirus season on record.
In the last two weeks, 43 hospital wards across England and Wales have been closed with the total number shut since the outbreak began now standing at 335.
Some schools have been forced to close with between a quarter and a half of pupils off sick and businesses have been severely affected by the outbreak of the highly infectious virus.
Figures released yesterday by the Health Protection Agency indicate some 68,000 people have been hit by the bug in the last week alone.
It means that almost twice as many people have been affected so far this autumn and winter, compared to the same stage in 2011.
This is the biggest early-season outbreak of norovirus, which is spread by poor hand hygiene, since at least 2007, when the HPA started collecting data in its current format.
During a typical winter some two million people are usually affected by norovirus. However, infections almost always peak in January and February. This winter it has struck remarkably early, which could be a harbinger of a record norovirus season.
Staff at Wimbledon Chase Primary School in south west London said an “unprecedented” number were off sick on Tuesday, with 140 out of 639 absent.
So far this winter schools have also had to shut for a period in Cambridgeshire – with a Fenlands primary seeing half of pupils off ill at one stage – London, Plymouth and elsewhere.
Passengers on P&O’s cruise liner Oriana have threatened a mutiny after they say more than 300 were hit by the vomiting bug which has turned the cruise into a ‘nightmare’.
Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said this year’s large early outbreak had probably been given a spur by the cold November. He said: “That drives people inside, which helps the virus to be transmitted.” It could also have got off to “an early start”, he said. “Once the virus has got off to a good start it feeds off itself until it has run out of steam.”
But at this stage it was impossible to tell if this winter would end up being a “bad year” overall, or just an “early year” which fizzled out early.
In raw statistics, the HPA figures show that the number of laboratory confirmed cases of norovirus went up from 2,394 on November 25 to 2,630 on December 2, a rise of 236. However, most cases go unreported because the vast majority of people do not go to their GP or end up in hospital after contracting the bug.
HPA officials work on the basis that for every one laboratory confirmed case, there are an additional 288 unreported cases.
Although there have been more cases reported in the latest weekly figures, they are down on the previous week, when there were 327 confirmed cases.
However, John Harris, an expert on norovirus at the HPA, warned that this could just be a short term drop, as the “bulk” of cases usually came after Christmas. He said: “People should be vigilant in their hygiene and we would like to remind anyone who has typical symptoms suggestive of norovirus infection to avoid visiting friends or relatives in hospital or care homes. “Norovirus infection in hospitals is very disruptive as it can lead to ward closures.”
The virus spreads quickly from person to person and is particularly prevalent in winter, although outbreaks can occur at any time of year. It causes fever, nausea, diarrhoea, and vomiting. Abdominal cramps are common as well. Symptoms usually last between a day and five days. In most people the virus is “self limiting” and they make a full recovery, but among the old and frail it can be lethal. Every year millions of people across Britain are affected by it.
On average, some 3,000 people in England have to be admitted to hospital because of every year, while it kills about 80. Like flu, there are winters when it is very prevalent and others when it is less so.
The virus is spread from person to person by what doctors call the “faecal oral route”.
Consequently, thorough hand washing during times of outbreak is essential. Those who are preparing or handling food should be especially vigilant.
It is known to spread very fast between those living or working in close proximity, for example in schools, hospitals and care homes, offices, hotels and cruise liners.
British government to relax rules on foreign students
Foreign PhD will be allowed to stay in Britain after completing their degrees but Britain will take further steps to “root out abuses” by fake ones trying to get visas, Theresa May said today.
In a key speech, the Home Secretary said foreign PhD students will be allowed to stay in the UK for a year after their studies to encourage more talented immigrants to remain in Britain.
But she will also roll out more face-to-face interviews for overseas applicants, which could make it more difficult for them to get permission to study in the UK in the first place.
Mrs May is trying to bring down immigration to tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands. She said today immigration can increase pressure on property prices and reduce wages for low earners. High immigration can make it difficult to have an integrated society, she added.
In an interview with the Financial Times last night, she also hit out at universities, saying they have a responsibility to make Britain more attractive to foreign students.
“The universities have got a job here as well in making sure that people actually understand that we’re open for university students coming into the UK,” she told the newspaper. “There’s a job here not just for the government, I think there’s a job for the universities as well to make sure that people know that we are open.”
The Home Secretary is also expected to address concerns about tough visa restrictions on Chinese tourists, with plans to roll out more online applications and offer forms in Mandarin.
There have been a number of rows within the Coalition about immigration policy, with accusations that the Home Office’s tough restrictions are holding back growth.
Sources said Mrs May, the Prime Minister, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and George Osborne, the Chancellor, have now reached an agreement on sounding more welcoming to students at the same time as remaining tough over security concerns.
Some cabinet ministers have backed university chancellors who argue that including legitimate students in net migration figures is driving them to other countries and deterring billions of pounds in investment.
Boris Johnson, the London mayor, has also attacked the Government’s “crazy” policies on immigration for throttling tourism and discouraging students.
There has been mounting concern about the shifting attitude towards foreign students since London Met University was stripped of its right to teach foreign students.
The Home Office has cracked down on bogus colleges letting in immigrants pretending to be students as part of a drive to being down immigration to the tens rather than hundreds of thousands.
British private school fees are often subsidized — for promising students from poor families in particular
The great taboo topic among parents of children at private schools is how (or by whom) the fees are being paid. Looking around the room at their first parents’ evening, many of the mothers and fathers will be wondering what arrangements their contemporaries have come to with the bursar, and the common conversational opening gambit of “What do you do for a living?” is often no more than a coded version of “How on Earth are you paying the fees?”
In fact, any such evening will be well populated with those who have done their homework – and made sure that their offspring have done theirs – in order to benefit from bursaries and scholarships.
According to the latest figures from the Independent Schools Council, one third of the children at private schools are being educated at a reduced cost of one kind or another: because they are receiving a grant, or because the school is giving them a bursary. And head teachers report that the number of parents applying for assisted places has trebled in the past six years, as the outlook in the economy has remained grim.
In recent decades the rise in private school fees has far outstripped any rise in wages in most professions, so that whole groups of society for whom private education had been an accepted part of the lifestyle now find themselves struggling to afford it.
But while fees have been rising, so have the sums available to pay them. The amount of money available through bursaries has increased by 11.4 per cent in the past two years, comfortably ahead of the official rate of inflation.
Charitable grants for educational expenses are another possibility worth pursuing: these are often tied to parents in specific careers or professions.
Parents who wish to benefit from scholarships, bursaries or grants will, however, have to prove that their need is genuine and that they have exhausted every other avenue of assitance.
They should prepare for searching questions from school Bursars, and should expect bank and mortgage statements to be inspected. The financial circumstances of the children’s grandparents may also be called into question.
But the support is there to be taken up: it is in the interests of most private schools to attract intelligent and hardworking pupils by any means at their disposal, in order to maintain a high placing in the academic league tables so they can continue to attract those parents who can afford the full amount. And the great benefit for head teachers is that they get to choose the children who will be eligible for scholarships and bursaries on ability and attitude, rather than weight of cheque.
As Andrew Halls, head of King’s College School, Wimbledon, puts it: “Most good schools will bend over backwards to take the pupils they want.”
‘We don’t need a law against insults’: British prosecutor backs free speech as he says it’s OK to offend people
There is no need for a law that makes it a crime to insult someone, the Director of Public Prosecutions has said.
In a boost to free-speech campaigners, Keir Starmer QC said it was safe to reform the controversial law that says it is a criminal offence to use ‘insulting words or behaviour’.
The clause of the 26-year-old Public Order Act has spurred a campaign which has united gay and secular activists, celebrities and conservative Christian evangelicals in favour of a robust right for people to insult each other.
In October, comedian Rowan Atkinson said the law was having a ‘chilling effect on free expression and free protest’.
He warned: ‘The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult.’
The Crown Prosecution Service, which Mr Starmer heads, has in the past been against any move to strike the word ‘insulting’ from the statute book. But the DPP has now changed his mind, the CPS said.
He wrote in a letter to former West Midlands chief constable Lord Dear: ‘Having now considered the case law in greater depth, we are unable to identify a case in which the alleged behaviour leading to conviction could not properly be characterised as “abusive” as well as “insulting”.
‘I therefore agree the word “insulting” could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions.’
However, Mr Starmer added: ‘I also appreciate there are other policy considerations involved.’
The indication from the CPS that the law against insult does nothing to protect the public came as a major boost for the campaign to amend the 1986 Public Order Act.
The law was notoriously used in 2005 when an Oxford University student was arrested for saying to a police officer: ‘Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?’ It has also been used to arrest a Christian preacher in Workington who told a passer-by that he thought homosexuality was sinful.
And teenager Kyle Little was fined £50 in 2007 for ‘causing distress’ to a pair of labradors by saying ‘woof woof’ at them within earshot of the police. The case was later quashed on appeal.
Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute think-tank said: ‘We hope Home Secretary Theresa May will listen to the country’s top prosecutor and agree to reform this overboard and unwanted legislation.’
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: ‘This legislation has been on the statue books for 26 years, initially to control football hooligans, major demonstrations and protests such as the miners’ dispute.
‘But the legislation is now being used to criminalise huge numbers of people for trivial comments. ‘In 2009 the police used this law 18,000 times, including against people who were expressing their views or beliefs in a reasonable manner.’