Boris Johnson’s missing social care plan

The UK prime minister said he had a 'clear plan' to end a chronic crisis. But we've yet to see it.

Boris Johnson’s missing social care plan

LONDON — Fresh from his latest electoral triumph, Boris Johnson’s government is setting out its legislative agenda for the year ahead. But there’s a crucial piece missing: a plan to fix England’s broken system of adult social care.

Recent reports that standalone legislation on social care will be missing from the queen’s speech are true, POLITICO’s London Playbook hears, despite people in care facing crippling costs and amid desperate underfunding in the sector.

Johnson didn’t know a pandemic was going to hit when he stood on the steps of Downing Street in 2019 and promised to fix the crisis in social care “once and for all.” But he did say there was a “clear plan we have prepared,” and two years later that plan is nowhere to be seen.

So what’s the hold-up? “The more you look at the plan, the more difficult it becomes,” one minister said, and the central question is how a new regime is paid for.

Under the current system, people with assets over £14,250 have to pay for some of their care costs, while those with assets over £23,250 must meet their bills in full. It means people unlucky enough to need lengthy or intensive care face eye-watering sums. The Daily Mail estimated that around 17,000 older people have to sell their properties every year in order to fund their care. Reform will cost a lot and will need a sustainable funding model, but there are fears in Whitehall about whether proposed solutions are guaranteed to deal with the problem. Ministers accept it’s a complex issue — even more so than the post-pandemic health and economic crises.

It’s complex, but the issue is nothing new, seeing as reform has been promised for decades and the crisis was at breaking point even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Demand has increased faster than funding and councils faced deep cuts during the David Cameron era, meaning cash is forever further stretched. The older population keeps increasing and needing care for longer, while the prevalence of disability among working-age adults, which is a massive and often forgotten load on the care sector, has also risen. But the Health Foundation said spending per person on adult social care fell in real terms by around 12 percent between 2010 and 2019. The U.K. spends less on social care than the EU average, according to OECD figures, and while demand goes up, the cost of provision also increases.

Take just one example. The health committee highlighted the case of Daphne Havercroft, whose mother Dorothy wanted to return home with a care package rather than move to a nursing home after a stint in hospital. Despite more than 100 people attempting to coordinate the plan, it never happened, and she remained on the wards until being discharged to a nursing home, from where she had three emergency admissions back to hospital. Daphne guessed that neither the NHS nor the local authority were willing to fund the package, so Dorothy got a raw deal.

She wasn’t alone. Age U.K. reckoned in 2018 that around 1.4 million older people are not getting the care they need — up 19 percent in two years. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, some 43 percent of care directors said providers in their areas had closed or cut services, according to the Association of Directors of Social Services. The health committee recommended last year that, as a starting point, the sector needed an additional £7 billion per year by 2023-24 to cover demographic changes, improve dismal pay rates for carers and protect people who face “catastrophic” social care costs. That would mean an extra 34 percent on the 2023-24 budget.

As if the picture wasn’t bad enough, the coronavirus has made the crisis in social care all the more acute. Research from Age U.K. released Tuesday showed 23 percent of people aged 60 and over found their ability to carry out everyday activities without support had worsened since the first lockdown. ADASS found a third of adult social care providers said there had been an increase in unmet need due to the pandemic, while fears that budgets aren’t enough had shot up. It estimated last summer that COVID had reduced care provider incomes by £190 million and that £520 million in additional funding would be needed to meet the same level of need in 2021 compared with the previous year.

Spare a thought for unpaid carers, who Carers U.K. estimate save the public purse some £530 million a day. Research toward the start of the pandemic found carers were taking on bigger burdens, due to local services closing and the need to isolate. Two-thirds said they had not been able to take breaks during the pandemic, and around the same number said their own mental health had worsened. “I am exhausted,” one carer said. “I was caring for two people at the start of the lockdown, sadly one person has now passed away, but the health of the second person has deteriorated further so there is no let-up in the amount of caring required.” Another said their depression had “spiraled since this virus started ruining the world.” Bear in mind, carers allowance is just under £70 a week.

No ‘political capacity’

Despite all of this, the pandemic has made the chances of reform in the near future even slimmer. Social Care Minister James Bethell told the Lords last October that “there simply is not the management or political capacity to take on a major generational reform of the entire industry in the midst of this massive epidemic.”

The options: Johnson is said to favor Andrew Dilnot’s 2011 reform recommendations, which keep being kicked into the long grass. Dilnot suggested a lifetime cap on the cost of care for individuals, alongside more generous means-testing. The cap was taken on by the coalition government with cross-party support — though at double the level Dilnot recommended — but the plan fell apart.

Dilnot had an article in the Mail Tuesday in which he argued “to do nothing can no longer be an option” and urged ministers to “bite the bullet” now. “Boris Johnson talks of leveling up the economy. This would be a tangible demonstration of his policy,” he said. The Conservative-supporting Daily Mail’s leader says the queen’s speech must address “the abject failure over two decades to tackle our deepening social care crisis. On his first day in office, Mr. Johnson said he had a plan. He must produce it.”

Other reformers point to the regime in Japan, which has one of the oldest populations in the world. Under the plan, everyone pays in from 40 years old through general tax and social insurance premiums. The 6 million users themselves pay another 10 percent of the cost at the point of use. Yasuhisa Shiozaki, a former Japanese health minister, told the health committee the system is “accepted as an indispensable part of the social infrastructure.” Also lauded is the German model, in which the entire workforce puts in 1.5 percent of their salaries, with employers matching the sum. The system is less generous than Japan’s however, covering basic needs on a universal basis and offering means-tested benefits for those who need more.

The Local Government Association wrote to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and other ministers yesterday this week a failure to act on social care in the queen’s speech “will be a bitter blow” to the sector. Labour is piling in too. Shadow Social Care Minister Liz Kendall told POLITICO social care is “as much a part of the country’s infrastructure as the roads and the railways,” adding: “The government needs to wake up and realize that in our century of aging you cannot build a better Britain as we emerge from COVID without a long term plan for reforming social care.” Shadow Health Secretary John Ashworth added: “Johnson made a solemn promise to the British people on the steps of Downing Street that he would quickly bring forward a solution to social care. The test of the queen’s speech today is whether he delivers on his word. The pandemic has shown the tragic folly of failing to invest in and reform social care.”

Conservatives are weighing in too. Health committee chair Jeremy Hunt (a former health secretary and Conservative leadership hopeful) said: “It’s not as if the government hasn’t had time on this one, so I can’t pretend it isn’t a big disappointment not having concrete plans.” He added, however, that “the real decisions were always going to be taken ahead of the spending review in the [fall].”

And yet, no plan for social care appears to be on the horizon.

Every prime minister since Tony Blair has stood on the steps of Downing Street or made speeches at party conferences promising to reform or fix the issue, but it never happens. There is agreement about the need for reform, but it remains forever stuck. In the meantime, lives are being blighted, and politicians are failing to deliver the care they would want for themselves and their families.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email for a complimentary trial.
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Sebastian Kurz’s media war

Recent media interference has damaged the Austrian chancellor's reputation.

Sebastian Kurz’s media war

BERLIN — Sebastian Kurz, the made-for-Instagram Austrian chancellor who rose to prominence by harnessing the power of social media, is racing to take back control of his story.  

Facing uncomfortable questions at home about his manhandling of the press and a tsunami of political scandals, Kurz is due to travel on Tuesday to Munich, where he’s to receive the “Media Prize of Freedom” from a German publisher.  

For the image-obsessed Kurz, 34, whose personal photographer feeds Instagram and Facebook with images of the chancellor’s every move, the event is the stuff of PR gold (past recipients of the prize from the Weimer Media Group include Mikhail Gorbachev and Jean-Claude Juncker). Just after lunch, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will introduce his Austrian friend during a live-streamed ceremony at Munich’s storied Bavaria Film Studios.

It’s a fitting setting for an honor Kurz’s critics say is about as genuine as the replica Brandenburg Gate that another famous Austrian — Hollywood legend Billy Wilder — erected on the Bavaria lot (for his film “One, Two, Three,” a political comedy where nothing is what it seems).

Far from promoting “freedom of expression, political dialogue and democracy,” as the prize citation reads, Kurz’s detractors say he has sought to systematically undermine Austrian media through a combination of financial pressure, access control and outright intimidation.

Kurz “doesn’t accept that journalists stand on the other side of the fence, that their job is to check facts and report,” said Helmut Brandstätter, a veteran Austrian broadcast and print journalist who left the profession in 2019 to run for parliament, where he now serves as an MP with the liberal Neos party. “The guiding principle is to not accept that journalism is a check on power because, according to him, journalism should only involve passing along official announcements.”

It’s a similar playbook that Central Europe’s self-styled “illiberal democrats” — from Poland to Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic — have relied on in recent years to undermine critical media.

Unlike those former communist countries, however, Austria has been anchored in Western Europe’s liberal political traditions since the war, its democracy underpinned by a vibrant press. Whether that history will make the Alpine nation more resilient against an authoritarian turn is an open question. But the country’s trajectory is already causing alarm in some quarters; this year, Austria recorded its lowest ranking ever in Reporters Without Borders’ annual scorecard of media freedom, which was released in April.

Cash for media

The government’s main tool for rewarding its media allies is its generous PR budget. Kurz’s coalition, which includes his party and the Greens, recently earmarked €210 million for media spending until 2024.

In the past, most of that money has been spent on advertising, a practice critics see as a hidden subsidy for the country’s powerful tabloids, which support Kurz and have received most of the cash. Last year, for example, the coalition spent €47 million on such advertising, or triple what the previous government did.

“These money flows remind me of the initial years of the [Hungarian] Fidesz government,” said Milan Nič, who heads research about Central and Eastern Europe at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank. Such tactics, common in the region, occur in the spirit of “if something is not forbidden, it’s allowed,” Nič added.

Kurz’s office declined requests to comment for this article. But last week, on World Press Day, Kurz tweeted that press freedom and independent media were “important pillars of our liberal democracy.”

“As the federal government, our support for the freedom of the press and media is unlimited,” he added.

Even as he has lavished his media allies, Kurz has been less generous with Austria’s public media. A government decision to end a requirement that legal announcements be printed in the publicly-owned Wiener Zeitung has the future of that newspaper, which was founded in 1703 and is one of the world’s oldest, in question. Though owned by the government, the paper is editorially independent. Kurz, who supports an online-only model for the paper, recently said that “operation and financing of a newspaper isn’t the responsibility of the republic.” 

The ORF, the state broadcaster with a news division often critical of the government, is on stable financial footing, thanks to its financing mix of mandatory license fees from viewers and advertising. But journalists who work there say the broadcaster, the primary source of information for most Austrians, faces persistent interventions from Kurz’s government in news coverage. Many fear Kurz will use the upcoming election of a new ORF director, which the chancellor can influence through the board of governors, to install a political crony.

“There have been critical phases in the past, but it has never been as bad as it is now,” said a senior ORF journalist who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. 

While there’s nothing out of the ordinary about political leaders trying to spin stories in their favor, the recent publication of text exchanges from within Kurz’s inner circle has pulled back the curtain on the lengths the chancellor is willing to go to steer the media. 

Kurz’s critics say the only thing that’s unlimited about the chancellor’s approach to the media is his desire to influence it. Armed with a generous budget and a communication staff of 80 that includes writers, photographers, videographers and PR specialists, Kurz’s media operation is larger than many Austrian newsrooms. In addition to promoting the chancellor and his government, the team serves another purpose of equal urgency: to snuff out critical press coverage.

In July 2020, Alexandra Wachter, an Austrian television journalist who works for private broadcaster Puls 24, confronted Kurz with accusations in the German media that he regularly attacks the EU to deflect attention from domestic problems and curry favor with his base. Kurz’s response: “You have a brain of your own.”

Sensing it would reflect poorly on the chancellor, his chief press aide asked the broadcaster to cut the exchange, which it did (Puls 24 later decided to make available the full interview online).

“Kurz is manic about how the media portray him, how he is perceived, photographed and judged,” Hubert Patterer, the editor of Kleine Zeitung, a conservative regional paper, concluded after a series of run-ins with Kurz and his handlers in a widely-read column dedicated to the chancellor’s “message control” strategy.

While most politicians are vain to some degree, the journalists who follow Kurz closely say his fixation with the media goes beyond casual narcissism.

“At times,” Patterer wrote, “it has the quality of an obsession.” 

Editors on speed dial

Patterer got a taste of that fixation in the early phase of the pandemic after his paper ran an article and photographs showing Kurz flouting social distancing rules during a visit to the western part of the country. For weeks, the chancellor had been stressing the necessity of pandemic restrictions to Austrians and the pictures of him being celebrated at an impromptu rally by fans created an uproar. 

Kurz called several times to complain, Patterer said, going as far as to send photographs of the event taken by his own photographer to argue his case.

Patterer said in an interview that he didn’t so much regard the calls as an intervention as much as a sign that the chancellor can’t handle criticism.

“You could see how his confidence abandons him when he’s confronted with pictures that don’t align with his self-image,” he said. “He refused to acknowledge that he had made a mistake.”

Patterer, whose paper is the largest in southeastern Austria, a region that has long supported Kurz’s party, wasn’t the only journalist the chancellor has on speed dial. Editors from several other newspapers that covered his trip reported receiving similar calls.

“It was the first time that his message control didn’t work,” Patterer said. “He became a victim of the power of the pictures.”

Kurz isn’t the first Austrian chancellor to intervene with the press or to reward titles that support him with government advertising. But Austrian editors say that under Kurz, these practices have intensified to a degree they’ve never seen.

“The difference now is two-fold,” Brandstätter said. “First, the perfection of the surveillance and, second, the brutality of the interventions.”

When he was editor-in-chief of the daily Kurier newspaper, Brandstätter said Kurz, then foreign minister, regularly called both him and the owner of his newspaper to air grievances. On one occasion, Kurz called from New York to complain about a picture the paper had run of him, he said.

Both Patterer and Brandstätter recall Kurz asking them the same question in private: “Why don’t you like me?”

Brandstätter suspects his own exit as Kurier editor in 2018 was accelerated by Kurz’s interventions with the paper’s proprietor, a banking group traditionally close to the chancellor’s conservative party. Though Kurz has denied those suggestions, he told an associate in one of the text exchanges that recently came to light that he believed Brandstätter “hates” him.

A centrist newspaper with a strong following in and around Vienna, Kurier is important to Kurz’s camp because its readership comprises many middle-class swing voters, the very demographic the party needs in order to maintain its dominance.

“The message they wanted to send was that we were under permanent supervision, that they have 80 people monitoring what we do at all times and that if they don’t like something, they would call as many times as it took to get what they wanted,” Brandstätter said.

Awkward questions

Recently, Kurz has gotten little of what he wanted when it comes to media coverage.

He has faced awkward questions over why, after never missing an opportunity to post photographs of himself traveling in economy class, he hopped on a private jet to fly from Israel back to Vienna in March. Even more awkward, the luxury jet that ferried him is owned by Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch and Vladimir Putin ally whom the U.S. has sought to extradite over his alleged involvement in organized crime.

Meanwhile, a clutch of investigations by Austrian authorities into allegations of government corruption have triggered a steady flow of embarrassing details about Kurz’s inner circle, including the discovery of more than 2,000 pornographic images on the government-issued iPhone of a close Kurz associate.

Kurz’s campaign against critical media has also hit speed bumps. The chancellor’s Austrian People’s Party lost a lawsuit last month that it had filed against Der Falter, the Vienna investigative weekly, for writing that Kurz’s team had intentionally violated campaign finance rules in 2019.

Ten days after the ruling, an online platform operated by Kurz’s party attacked Falter editor Florian Klenk with a flurry of baseless accusations about the journalist’s involvement in the “Ibiza” scandal that brought down Kurz’s first government with the far-right Freedom Party in 2019.

The piece would likely have drawn little notice if Kurz, who has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, hadn’t shared it on Twitter.

Klenk says Kurz’s move was an attempt at “intimidation.” If so, it backfired because instead of triggering a debate about Klenk, Kurz raised questions about why the chancellor of Austria would spread false information about a prominent journalist online.

Those setbacks underscore why Kurz’s Germany trip is so important. Throughout his short political career, he has cultivated the German press. During the refugee crisis, for example, Kurz was a regular on Germany’s talk show circuit, campaigning for tougher migration rules in Europe.

Kurz’s primary motivation with such visits doesn’t appear to be to improve his image among Germans, but rather to show Austrians that he is a politician of international renown. And though some German media view him with a critical eye (just last week, Jan Böhmermann, a prominent German satirist, subjected Kurz to a withering takedown on his TV show), overall, the coverage of the chancellor has been positive, at times fawning.

For German conservatives frustrated by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s left-leaning views on migration and many other social issues, Kurz has been a breath of fresh air.

Wolfram Weimer, the German publisher behind Kurz’s media award, said Merkel’s Christian Democrats, now trailing the Greens in many polls, could only dream of the kind of dominance Kurz has achieved in Austria. (Despite the recent difficulties, Kurz‘s party still has a comfortable lead in the polls.)

In other words, for German conservatives, Kurz represents both what once was and what could be again.

Weimer said his organization was eager to recognize Kurz for the role he has played as a “bridge builder” between Eastern and Western Europe. As for the corruption scandals surrounding the government and Kurz’s treatment of the media, Weimer, who operates a small stable of publications about politics and business, said he hasn’t really focused on the details of what he called “domestic Austrian issues.”

“These are things I don’t really know that much about or — to be honest — really care about,” he said.

Source : Politico EU More   

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