Don't duck difficult decisions on Budget, Jeremy Hunt tells Rishi Sunak

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Cat Neilan
·50 min read
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Rishi Sunak walks from the Treasury to No 11 Downing Street this morning - PA
Rishi Sunak walks from the Treasury to No 11 Downing Street this morning - PA

Rishi Sunak must not duck difficult decisions in tomorrow's Budget, former Cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt has said.

The Chancellor has been "making very sensible noises about the fact that, in the end, we have to pay for everything we spend", the health and social care committee chairman told Sky News, adding there is "no future for this country if we start to believe we can borrow our way into growth".

Mr Hunt called for "some long-term vision about how we are going to get the economy back on its feet, not just in the next year but the next decades".

He also indicated that he would support modest tax rises, along with William Hague, Sajid Javid and other senior Conservative figures. "Ducking decisions doesn't give people confidence," he said. "We all want to get taxes down but people want to know we have got a Government that is leveling with us about the hard choices ahead."

This morning Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, said the Budget will not "crush the recovery before it's happened", as he suggested furlough would be extended.

He noted that much of the deficit could be tackled through "strong [economic] growth by the end of 2021".

​​Follow the latest updates below.

04:05 PM

And that's it for another day...

Rishi Sunak will now be putting the finishing touches to his Budget, ahead of tomorrow's grand unveiling, which will take place just after PMQs, at around 12:45pm.

The Chancellor has plenty to weigh up in this most challenging of fiscal statements, balancing the need to rebuild the country's public finances with the impact any measures could have on economic green shoots as lockdown is lifted.

An increase to corporation tax seems likely - although exactly when, and whether it's to 23 or 25 per cent remains to be seen. Fuel duty is expected to be frozen yet again, while support such as furlough and the universal credit uplift is likely to be extended, alongside other support for businesses.

Despite it being a manifesto commitment, nearly two-thirds of our readers said Mr Sunak should scrap the pensions triple lock - something backed by former chancellor Ken Clarke (see below).

But there are plenty of other arguments he will be listening to - some of which have been explored in Westminster today.

Read on for all the day's news, and make sure you return for all our Budget coverage tomorrow.

03:48 PM

Northern Ireland ministers clash over post-Brexit checks and protocol

Stormont ministers clashed over the Northern Ireland protocol today, after a DUP minister decide to halt work on post-Brexit inspection posts.

Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons was asked by other ministers to provide details on what actions he has taken after the work - at Belfast, Larne, Warrenpoint and Foyle ports - was paused.

Sinn Fein's finance minister Conor Murphy said: "The DUP must shoulder its responsibility for the active role they played with the Tories in creating these circumstances we are now living with, despite the majority of people and MLAs opposing their approach.

"It is time the DUP was honest with the public and accepted that the executive is legally obliged to comply with the commitments set out in the Withdrawal Agreement and the protocol, both of which now form part of the law."

But Mr Lyons said: "A lot of people want to put their heads in the sand. We do face fundamental questions, we have fundamental concerns and challenges."

Listing a series of problems, including red tape and additional bureaucracy and the creation of barriers within the UK's internal market, he added: "It is so, so important that we get an alternative to the protocol. No amount of tinkering with it is going to make it work - it needs to go."

03:34 PM

Ross Clark: The return-to-office refuseniks could be swept aside

Firms like JP Morgan and HSBC say they intend to move to a ‘hybrid’ working model in future, with employees dividing their time between office and home. But last week Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon described working from home as an “aberration that we are going to correct as soon as possible”.

In his latest column, Ross Clark explains why he would happily bet a Goldman Sachs bonus that the people who will in future be running large companies will be those who shun the opportunity to spend half their time at home – and who instead make the daily journey to the office.

The idea that anyone is going to reach the top by holding Zoom meetings while baking banana bread is utter bunk. Once the world gets properly back to work the lockdown lifestyle is going to seem lazy and decadent. It will also leave many people feeling far more stressed than would a daily trip to the office. If you work from home, you can never truly relax there. If I take a week off I have to go somewhere else.

Read his column in full here.

03:20 PM

Further 279 Covid deaths registered in England

A further 279 people who tested positive for coronavirus have died, bringing the total number of confirmed reported deaths in hospitals in England to 83,529

Patients were aged between 17 and 102 years old. All except 11, aged 17-89 years old, had known underlying health conditions. The date of death ranges from 3 December 2020 to 1 March 2021 with the majority being on or after 21 February.

The worst-affected region was the North East & Yorkshire, with 58 deaths, followed by the North West, with 57 deaths reported, and the Midlands, with 54 deaths.

There were 46 deaths registered in the South East, 26 in both the East of England and London, and 12 in the South West.

03:18 PM

Just over 173,000 people vaccinated in England yesterday

England's daily vaccination tally is below 175,000 for the second day in a row

A total of 17,985,951 Covid-19 vaccinations took place in England between December 8 and March 1, according to provisional NHS England data, including first and second doses, which is a rise of 173,212 on the previous day's figures.

Of this number, 17,373,384 were the first dose of a vaccine, a rise of 160,580 on the previous day, while 612,567 were a second dose, an increase of 12,632.

03:06 PM

Matt Hancock warned against taking 'excessive' powers over NHS

Matt Hancock has been warned against trying to take "excessive" powers over the NHS in England, after a white paper set out plans to give the Health Secretary greater control.

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said any new powers assumed by ministers must be "very tightly defined".

He told the health and social care committee: "It can't be right for a secretary of state just to stop, on their own initiative, a very carefully and well-worked-up local configuration plan because he or she is coming under inappropriate pressure from let's say a fellow Cabinet minister or a speaker of the House of Commons."

It would be "inappropriate" for a minister to "farm out" services to the private sector or give him "the power to hire and fire NHS chairs and chief executives", he said, as well as warning about the risk of influence from a "very extensive lobby by single-condition pressure groups" on certain drugs.

"We just need to be very careful not to allow single, individual politicians - who inevitably, quite understandably, have got party political interests - excessive power over exactly how the NHS operates day-to-day," he said.

02:50 PM

Scotland's school reopening will go ahead as planned, says Nicola Sturgeon

Scotland's primary schools will return in full from March 15, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said.

A phased return of pupils will take place between March 15 and the Easter break, with all pupils given at least some in-school teaching in that time, before full-time schooling returns after the holidays.

However, when secondary schools return, face coverings will have to be worn at all times and physical distancing guidelines followed.

The First Minister said: "I would encourage as many staff and senior phase pupils as possible to use the tests when they return to school. It is a further important way in which we can ensure that schools remain as safe as possible."

Ms Sturgeon also confirmed that guidance on entering people's homes will be amended to make clear that supporting new parents is allowed.

"I hope that gives clarity - and enables vital support - for parents of very young children," she told MSPs.

02:47 PM

Scottish Government could accelerate roadmap, Nicola Sturgeon says

The Scottish Government will consider in the next week if the easing of restrictions can be accelerated, Nicola Sturgeon has said.

Updating MSPs in Holyrood, the First Minister said figures in the past week were encouraging, and said she and ministers would be considering if the exit from lockdown can be moved forward.

She said: "I have always said if we can go further and faster, then we will not hesitate to do so. All of us want to move on as quickly as possible - and, as a priority, to see friends and family again. I hope that day is now not too far away.

"But to make sure we don't see any reverse in our progress that would put that in jeopardy, it is really important that, for now, we all need to abide by the lockdown rules. So please continue to stick to their letter and their spirit."

This morning, it was reported that Germany could reopen shops and allow two households to start socialising from March 8 - three weeks before England (see 11:36am).

02:40 PM

Michael Ellis to replace Suella Braverman in first ministerial maternity cover

Michael Ellis has been named as the replacement for Attorney General Suella Braverman, when she takes six months of maternity leave later this year.

Mr Ellis, the Conservative MP for Northampton North, is currently the Solicitor General for England and Wales.

His role is being covered byLucy Frazer, who has also been given approval to be sworn into the Privy Council.

In a statement, Downing Street said: "The Prime Minister gives the Attorney General his very best wishes for her maternity leave and looks forward to welcoming her back in the autumn."

Ms Braverman is the first minister to use the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act, which was passed in order to allow her time off with her second baby.

Suella Braverman will be the first minister to take six months' maternity leave -  Paul Grover for the Telegraph
Suella Braverman will be the first minister to take six months' maternity leave - Paul Grover for the Telegraph

02:28 PM

Donation of surplus vaccine depends on need for booster jabs, says Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock has said the amount of "surplus" doses of Covid vaccine that the UK is able to donate to other countries will depend on whether a booster jab is required this autumn, and if the decision is taken to start vaccinating children.

The Health Secretary told MPs he was "proud" of the success of the UK's rollout so far, and that he was "absolutely cognizant of the fact that vaccination around the world will be necessary", highlighting the launch of the Covax programme in Ghana last week.

But he added: "We know for sure that we seek to vaccinate with two doses every adult in the UK, there may well be a need for a third vaccination over the autumn against variants and there is currently a clinical trial considering the vaccination of under-18s.

"So the exact number of vaccines that we will need for the UK population is not yet known, but we are absolutely keen to ensure that we then go on to support with vaccines as well as with money that we have already pledged to support the vaccination of the most underdeveloped parts of the world."

02:14 PM

For and against: Does the UK need to pay down its eye-watering debts?

Conservative MPs can't agree on whether taxes or the public finances are the more pressing issue, and Labour doesn't know whether to back the Government or not.

But one thing is certain: by this time tomorrow Rishi Sunak will have unveiled his latest Budget.

Should the Chancellor focus on paying down the UK's eyewatering debts before inflation puts the country in a choke-hold, or should he focus on growth?

Our experts Ambrose Evans-Pritchard and Jeremy Warner go head-to-head here.

01:56 PM

Have your say: Should the pensions triple lock be scrapped?

Rishi Sunak is just hours away from unveiling his Budget, which will see the Chancellor attempt to balance the competing needs of supporting the economy at a critical juncture while beginning to make some inroads into the gaping hole in the country's public finances.

With Covid support likely to continue for some months, the Chancellor will have some difficult decisions to make - including whether to stick with manifesto commitments such as the pensions triple lock.

This morning the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, suggested it could be in the spotlight as he stressed the focus would be on helping those of working age. Meanwhile former chancellor Ken Clarke has explicitly called for it to be scrapped.

So should the pensions triple lock be scrapped - or will this cost the Conservatives support come 2024?

Have your say in the poll below.

01:54 PM

UK death reductions 'better than anyone expected', says statistics guru

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from the University of Cambridge, said the impact of the vaccine on reducing deaths from Covid-19 was "better than anyone expected".

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's World At One news bulletin about the first dose rollout's success in reducing deaths for those aged over 80, he said: "If we look at what is happening every day as we see on the (Government's coronavirus) dashboard, we can see that deaths in the over-65s - one of the vaccinated age groups - are now halving every week.

"We all sort of hoped something like this might happen but, frankly, it is better than anyone expected, I think."

He added: "I think almost certainly by the end of this month, our actual overall death rate will be less than average over the last five years, and I think that's an extraordinary thing."

01:29 PM

Patient X has 'vanished into thin air', says Jon Ashworth

Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, notes that despite the UK's national lockdown "people were allowed to fly in from abroad, bringing in the P1 variation".

All epidemics exploit international travel, he adds, saying "surely it is obvious that tougher border controls should have been in place sooner".

The Labour frontbencher asks how a test can be processed without contact details, and what fixes will be put in place for the future.

He says it feels as though "someone has vanished into thin air". He asks how many other unidentified cases are in the community.

01:26 PM

Search for Patient X 'narrowed down to 379 households', says Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock then turns to the P1 "variant of concern" identified in the UK, of which five cases out of six isolated at home.

Testing and sequencing has been stepped up in South Gloucestershire, and there is "no information to suggest" that it has spread further.

However one individual did not fill out the form properly, he notes, stressing this is rare.

"Our search has narrowed from the whole country down to 379 households in the South East of England, and we are contacting each one," he says.

A number of people have come forward.

01:24 PM

Vaccine programme 'has some bumper days ahead', says Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock offers two further pieces of data published in the last 24 hours, including ONS data this morning showing that one in four people in England now have antibodies.

Thee level is highest in the over-80s, which again reinforces the success of the vaccine rollout.

The second piece of data is the vaccine efficacy study he revealed last night.

He thanks colleagues across the House for helping take-up, with vaccine enthusiasm among the highest in the world, and says while the "day to day supplies are lumpy, we have some bumper days ahead".

From now "we begin in earnest our programme of second vaccinations, which ramps up over the month of March," he adds.

The Government is on track to have given one dose to all over-50s by April 15 and all adults by the end of July.

01:20 PM

Daily deaths in over-80s falling every 10 days, says Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock has said the vaccine rollout is "a success story for the whole nation", as he sets out some of the data to the House of Commons that he revealed last night.

The Health Secretary says the halving time of hospital admission is now every 18 days, but for the over-80s it is 15 days.

Daily deaths are halving every 12 days, or every 10 in the over-80s.

"What all this shows is that the vaccine is working," he adds.

01:17 PM

UK 'cannot afford to lose steam' as economy begins to reopen, says NHS boss

The UK "cannot afford to lose steam" in the dramatic drop in cases and deaths as the country begins to reopen, the director of policy at the NHS Confederation has said.

Dr Layla McCay said the decline in deaths was "reassuring", adding: "We must ensure this downward trend continues, and remain cautious, especially as schools are reopened next week and restrictions are eased over the coming months.

"We cannot afford to lose steam and would urge the Government to maintain its cautious approach, especially as some local authority areas report slight increases in cases, and as the more transmissible Brazilian variant found in the UK is a cause for concern.

"As we look ahead and await the Chancellor's Budget announcement, the NHS will need significant investment to help it recover services, alongside managing the ongoing pressures of Covid-19, which will continue for some time to come."

01:01 PM

Lobby latest: Downing Street refuses to comment on plans for No 10 flat refurbishment

Downing Street has refused to comment on reports that Boris Johnson is considering setting up a charity to pay for the refurbishment of his official flat.

The Daily Mail reported that the scheme - based on one used by the White House - could be funded by wealthy Tory benefactors.

The paper said that it followed reports that the Prime Minister had complained the cost of refurbishing the flat over No 11 by his fiancee Carrie Symonds was "out of control".

In response, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "Matters concerning any work on Downing Street, including the residences, are covered in the Cabinet Office annual report and accounts. That is where we set out the details of what has happened.

"Downing Street is a working building, as has been the case under successive administrations, refurbishment and maintenance are made periodically."

12:59 PM

Foreign Office urges Iran to be 'better neighbour' to Yemen

The chair of the foreign affairs committee has called for the Government to press Iran to step into the breach and help "rebuild the destruction they have caused" in Yemen.

Tom Tugendhat, Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling, said was hopeful "the ceiling" in aid to Yemen announced by Foreign Office minister James Cleverly "will be somewhat greater than he has announced".

Noting that UK will leave "a large gap" in funding, he asked if the UK could encourage others including Iran to "stop the instrumentalisation of terror and perhaps fund to rebuild the destruction they have caused".

But Mr Cleverly said: "I don't think we currently enjoy bilateral relations with Iran to make credible requests, or to make requests we believe will be forthcoming, but we will continue to encourage Iran, to push Iran to be a better regional neighbour, a better regional partners.

"In the immediate term we strongly encourage Iran to stop supporting the Houthis, and for the Houthis to end their campaign of violence against Yememis and Saudis alike."

12:51 PM

Cut to overseas aid 'not how Global Britain acts', says Andrew Mitchell

Andrew Mitchell has attacked the Government over its decision to halve aid to Yemen, saying millions of children will starve to death as a result and that it is "a harbinger of terrible cuts to come".

The former international development secretary says he is the only senior European politician who has recently been to North Yemen to see an acute malnutrition ward, part-funded by the British taxpayer, saying this is "life-saving work which will now be halved".

He added: "The fifth richest country in the world is cutting support by more than half to one of the poorest countries in the world, and during a global pandemic... no one in this House believes the Foreign Secretary wants to do this. It is a harbinger of terrible cuts to come.

"It is a strategic mistake, with deadly consequences," he added. "This is not how Global Britain acts. We are a generous, decent country."

Noting that the commitment to giving 0.7 per cent of GDP in overseas aid is "enshrined in law" means MPs will have a vote, calling on his colleagues "to all search our consciences".

12:45 PM

Lobby latest: No 10 attacks Pontins over blacklist of 'undesirable guests'

Downing Street has condemned Pontins' use of a blacklist of "undesirable guests", after staff were told that peole with surnames including Boyle, Delaney, Gallagher, McGinley, McMahon and O’Donnell were "unwelcome".

An investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found that the company had been using the blacklist of mainly Irish surnames as part of a policy of refusing bookings by Gypsies and Travellers to its holiday parks.

The Britannia Hotel Group, which owns Pontins, has now signed a legally binding agreement with the EHRC to comprehensively address the issues raise.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "This is completely unacceptable. No-one in the UK should be discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity.

"It's right that the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Pontins investigate and address this."

12:39 PM

Lobby latest: Primary school children should not wear face coverings, No 10 says

Primary school pupils should not be asked to wear face coverings when schools in England reopen on March 8, Downing Street has confirmed.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said that officials have been in contact with Redbridge Council in east London which has reportedly told primary schools under its control that pupils should be advised to wear masks.

"Children in primary schools should not be asked to wear face coverings when they return to school on March 8. Face coverings are only necessary for pupils in Year 7 and above," the spokesman said.

"The Department for Education are in contact with the local council on that matter."

12:35 PM

David Cameron urges people to take the Covid vaccine

Former prime minister David Cameron has urged people to get their Covid jab as he shared a picture of him being vaccinated this morning.

He tweeted: "Huge 'thank you' to our brilliant NHS & all the amazing staff & volunteers working on the UK's deeply impressive vaccine programme.

"I was proud to have my jab this morning & encourage everyone to take theirs when the call comes - it's crucial we look after ourselves & each other."

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12:28 PM

No imminent 'threat to our vaccination strategy' from Brazil variant, says Covid genomes boss

The head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium has said the Brazil variant does not pose "any threat to our vaccination strategy", despite a new report suggesting a high level of reinfection (see post below).

Sharon Peacock, who is also professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said the current study could not be used to speculate on the effectiveness of vaccines or how things will "pan out in other countries including the UK".

How the findings, which have yet to be peer-reviewed, "relate to United Kingdom is yet to be determined", she added.

The current dominant strain in the UK is the Kent variant and "we should be optimistic and pushing on with vaccination so that we can get a high level of immunity in our population, starting with the most vulnerable," she said.

"The numbers of cases (of the Manaus variant) in the UK are very low at the moment. At the present time I don't believe there's any threat to our vaccination strategy, or likely effectiveness.

12:27 PM

Brazilian variant more transmissable and causes high reinfection rates, study finds

The Brazil variant detected in the UK could cause reinfection for between 25 per cent and 61 per cent of people who have previously had Covid, a new study suggests.

P1 was also found to be 1.4 to 2.2 times more transmissible than other variants in the Brazilian city of Manaus.

Dr Nuno Faria, reader in viral evolution at Imperial, told a briefing: "If 100 people were infected in Manaus last year, somewhere between 25 and 61 of them are susceptible to reinfection with P1."

He said more work was needed on patterns that might occur in other countries, adding: "We know that vaccines are effective and they can protect us from infection and from disease and death.

"This is a period to be optimistic about the future. The more we know about the virus, the better we're able to protect against it and I think there's no concluding evidence to suggest at this point that the current vaccines won't work against P1."

12:10 PM

'Ducking difficult decisions doesn't give people confidence', says Jeremy Hunt

Rishi Sunak must set out a "long-term vision" for how to get the country back on track, and a commitment to reforming social care, Jeremy Hunt has said.

The Chancellor has been "making very sensible noises about the fact that, in the end, we have to pay for everything we spend", the former minister told Sky News, adding there is "no future for this country if we start to believe we can borrow our way into growth".

Alongside "generous short term measures", the health and social care committee chairman predicted "some long-term vision about how we are going to get the economy back on its feet, not just in the next year but the next decades".

In particular he noted that the social care system "still doesn't have a 10 year plan", leaving people who have been "putting their lives on the line" working below minimum wage. "I am not asking for billions in the Budget tomorrow but I would like to see a commitment to a long-term plan to address these issues," he said.

On potential tax rises, Mr Hunt said: "Ducking decisions doesn't give people confidence. We all want to get taxes down but people want to know we have got a Government that is leveling with us about the hard choices ahead."

12:00 PM

Cutting Yemen aid budget goes against 'British values', says Jeremy Hunt

Jeremy Hunt has doubled-down on his criticism of the Government's decision to halve its aid budget to Yemen, saying it goes against "British values".

The former foreign secretary, who yesterday said dropping aid to just £87m for 2021 was "inexplicable", told Sky News: "The UN has regularly said this is worst humanitarian crisis on the planet - it may be the worst one we have ever had.

"If there was one area to show British values and our British sense of compassion and responsibility for people in other countries - I know it's not always popular to argue for the aid budget but this is important.

"It is incredibly disappointing at a time like this, when we are the senior country in the UN responsible for Yemen, that we have halved our aid contribution - I just can't understand why we would ever do that."

The UK "has a responsibility to other people on this planet", he added. "You'd have to be pretty hard-hearted to say the rich world shouldn't step in and play its part."

11:45 AM

Austria will 'no longer rely on EU' as vaccines unity disintegrates

Austria and Denmark have become the latest EU countries to break away from Brussels' vaccines strategy, raising fears that the bloc's unity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic was crumbling.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that Austria would work with Israel and Denmark on second generation coronavirus vaccines and “no longer rely on the EU in the future”.

It is widely seen as a rebuke to the European Commission-led joint procurement scheme for vaccines, which has lagged far behind the UK, Israel and US, and involved negotiating for supplies as a bloc.

Mr Kurz told Bild, Germany’s biggest selling newspaper, that the European Medicines Agency had been “too slow” in approving the jabs. "We must therefore prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent only on the EU for the production of second-generation vaccines," he said.

Read the full article here.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks behind a plastic shield at a press conference yesterday - AP
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks behind a plastic shield at a press conference yesterday - AP

11:36 AM

Germany could allow socialising and shopping weeks before England

Germany could allow up to five people from two different households to begin meeting from next week - three weeks earlier than in England, according to leaked documents.

Private get-togethers between two households, not exceeding five adults, will be allowed again "from March 8", according to a draft text seen by AFP.

It also proposes that flower shops, book stores and garden centres reopen soon.

In England, the rule of six will not make a return until March 29, while non-essential shops are not due to reopen until April 12.

The text has yet to be agreed by Germany's 16 regional premiers, who are due to hold talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel tomorrow.

Read analysis by Thomas Kielinger: For Germans, Britain is now the grown-up

11:22 AM

One in four people in England now have Covid antibodies

An estimated one in four people in private households in England were likely to have tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies in the 28 days to February 11, up from one in seven in the 28 days to January 14, the ONS said.

The estimate for Wales is one in six, up from one in nine; for Northern Ireland it is one in six, up from one in eight; and for Scotland it is one in eight, up from one in nine.

The presence of Covid-19 antibodies suggests someone has either had the infection in the past or has been vaccinated.

11:16 AM

Have your say: Should the pensions triple lock be scrapped?

Rishi Sunak is just hours away from unveiling his Budget, which will see the Chancellor attempt to balance the competing needs of supporting the economy at a critical juncture while beginning to make some inroads into the gaping hole in the country's public finances.

With Covid support likely to continue for some months, the Chancellor will have some difficult decisions to make - including whether to stick with manifesto commitments such as the pensions triple lock.

This morning the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, suggested it could be in the spotlight as he stressed the focus would be on helping those of working age. Meanwhile former chancellor Ken Clarke has explicitly called for it to be scrapped.

So should the pensions triple lock be scrapped - or will this cost the Conservatives support come 2024?

Have your say in the poll below.

11:08 AM

Scrap pensions triple lock, Ken Clarke tells Rishi Sunak

Former Conservative chancellor Ken Clarke has said Rishi Sunak should scrap the pensions triple lock, saying the manifesto commitment "can't be justified" in the current economic environment.

Lord Clarke, who introduced tough spending limits and tax rises in the 1990s, said the current Chancellor "could explain to people, 'well I've got to get some more revenue, I can't just keep printing and borrowing money on this scale'," warning that problems "will hit us once the crisis is over, unless we begin to tackle it now."

Speaking to Sky News, he said: "I would scrap the triple lock on pensions because, while there are some elderly people who have been very badly hit by the crisis… the comfortable elderly have really done rather well. They've saved money.

"It's the poor, it's the young, it's the low-paid who've been hit, and so the triple lock increase in pensions, in state pension, can't be justified."

He added: "I wouldn't put up tax on business now."

10:59 AM

Leo Varadkar backs joint UK-Ireland bid for 2030 World Cup

Leo Varadkar has backed a proposed joint bid by the UK and Ireland to host the 2030 World Cup, in what would be the tournament's centenary year.

Ireland's deputy premier said the bid by the five nations of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be "something for us to work towards together."

A feasibility study is currently under way and will continue before the formal bidding process begins next year, with Boris Johnson also giving his seal of approval (see 10:46am).

The Tanaiste said it would be "a real festival of football".

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10:48 AM

Scotland's Lord Advocate hits back against claims of 'improper motives' in Salmond case

Scotland's most senior law officer has rejected criticism of the Crown Office as he appeared before a Holyrood inquiry into a botched Scottish Government investigation of complaints against Alex Salmond.

Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC has been recalled to give more evidence to the committee into the Scottish Government's unlawful investigation of harassment complaints about the former first minister.

Mr Salmond last week said Mr Wolffe, who is both the head of the Crown Office, the body for prosecuting crime in Scotland, and a member of the Scottish Government, should resign over the saga, which ended up costing Scottish taxpayers more than £600,000.

Mr Wolffe said: "Any suggestion, from any quarter, that the Crown's decision-making has at any time been influenced by irrelevant considerations or improper motivations would be wholly without foundation. Insinuation and assertions to the contrary are baseless."

He said the crown had been criticised for "actions it has taken to protect the identity of the complainers" at Alex Salmond's criminal trial, at which he was acquitted of all charges.

10:46 AM

Boris Johnson promises 'bonanza of football in the years ahead'

The Business Secretary might have played down suggestions that the UK could could host additional Euro 2020 matches this summer or the World Cup in 2030 (see 8:09am) - but Boris Johnson is showing no such signs of caution.

The Prime Minister this morning tweeted that he "would love for the home of football to host the 2030 World Cup, and it would be a wonderful thing for the whole country to savour".

He added: "We want to do much more to encourage sport post-pandemic and see a bonanza of football in the years ahead."

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Mr Johnson last night told The Sun that British stadiums could host more Euro games this summer if other countries are unable to open up in time, saying: “Any other matches they want hosted, we are certainly on for that!”

10:38 AM

No excess deaths by Easter 'looks likely', says senior statistician

Office for National Statistics data out today (see 10:29am post below) reinforces the good news shared by Matt Hancock last night, that the vaccine is having a big impact on the number of Covid cases causing severe disease and death.

David Spiegelhalter, the highly regarded Cambridge statistician, notes there is also a "big deficit" in deaths not involving Covid.

"Will we get to 'no excess deaths' by Easter? Looks likely," he tweeted.

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10:29 AM

Deaths among over-80s fall more steeply than other age groups: ONS

Deaths involving Covid-19 among people aged 80 and over have fallen more steeply in recent weeks than those among younger age groups, the latest ONS figures show.

The number of weekly registered coronavirus deaths in England and Wales has fallen by more than a quarter to the lowest level since the start of the year, with 4,079 deaths registered in the week ending February 19.

This is down 28.3 per cent and the lowest number of weekly registered deaths since the week ending January 1.

But among the over-80s, deaths dropped by 56 per cent from the week ending January 29 to February 19, compared with falls of 50 per cent per cent for those aged 70 to 79 and 40 per cent for people under 70.

10:25 AM

'Double masking': Government scientists to consider updating advice

Double masking is being considered by government scientists, a senior official has suggested, as she said the “more layers you have better”.

A recent report by the US Centres of Disease Control and Prevention found that the best way to stop infection was to wear a cloth mask on top of a surgical mask, with President Biden among those to have opted for a double mask approach in recent weeks.

Speaking last night, Public Health England's Dr Susan Hopkins said: “I think what we know is that the more layers you have the better. We recommend at least two layers in the UK and ideally three layers in a mask, and that is really important to reduce the viral transmission, both from you to others and from others to you.

“We have got face masks and face coverings advisory group who meet on a regular basis, and look at new and emerging evidence, and the US has looked at some of that evidence as well.”

She added: “We are in an ongoing discussion about what to do next, but we think one mask that has more than two layers in it is currently effective for the vast majority of the population.”

10:11 AM

Watch: The Budget question keeping Rishi Sunak awake at night – how much debt is too much debt?

Rishi Sunak has borrowed £270 billion this financial year to pay for the Covid pandemic - more than enough, you would imagine, to keep the Chancellor awake at night.

As the Budget approaches, he will be worrying whether the size of the UK's debt burden means we are storing up problems for the future, says The Telegraph’s financial columnist Ben Wright.

In the video above, he explains how you can tell when a country has borrowed beyond its means and asks if the worry for the Chancellor is actually more around politics than economics.

Watch the video below for Ben Wright's full analysis.

09:59 AM

Minister challenged over dates that 'patient X' arrived in UK

A Cabinet minister has been grilled on the dates that "patient X" arrived in the country, carrying the Brazil variant P1, and when the hotel quarantine policy was implemented.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, told ITV's Good Morning Britain that the person had arrived after the policy came in, and stressed the "stringent measures were there, but the person had not filled in the forms correctly and that was why they slipped through the net".

Challenged on the dates, he said the individual arrived on February 12 or 13 - but he was then reminded by presenter Susanna Reid that hotel quarantine was launched on February 15, and that it was "too late".

The minister replied: "I don't recognise that but if that is what you are saying I am quite happy to accept that."

09:51 AM

Oxford vaccine data should overturn 'disappointing' European decision to shun jab

The strength of evidence for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine should overturn the "disappointing" European decision to shun the jab, the head of the Oxford team has suggested.

Some countries like Germany, Sweden and Poland have decided to shun the British-made vaccine due to concerns raised by their respective governments' scientists.

But Professor Andrew Pollard of the Oxford vaccine group said the data coming from Scotland and Public Health England showing "really high levels of protection" will "support their decision making".

He said given 5,000 people were dying in Europe each day with Covid-19 it was "disappointing in some senses", but stressed it was important to recognise each country has a different way of operating.

09:50 AM

Boris Johnson 'setting up charity to fund redecoration of Downing Street'

Boris Johnson is reportedly setting up a charity to help cover the cost of renovations in Downing Street through private donations.

The idea is similar to a setup in America that US presidents often use to make changes to the decor in the White House.

The Prime Minister has approached Lord Brownlow, a financier and former vice chairman of the Conservative Party, to run the charity, according to the Daily Mail.

The paper also reported that Carrie Symonds, Mr Johnson’s fiancee, has been involved in the decor changes and that the cost of the refurbishment could be tens of thousands of pounds.

Read more on that story here.

09:38 AM

Starmer and Dodds have 'unanimous support' on Budget strategy, claims Labour MP

The question of whether taxes should be put up this Budget is dividing both main parties.

While Conservative MPs are split between the conflicting desire to keep taxes low, boost the economy and restore public finances, there is also a debate in Labour about how generous Covid support should be at this stage and when taxes need to go up to pay for it.

However, according to veteran Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, Sir Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds "enjoyed unanimous support for their strategy" during a meeting last night.

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09:26 AM

'Puffing and panting' joggers should wear face masks, health experts claim

Joggers 'puffing and panting' past peole should wear a mask when running past people, experts have said.

Trish Greenhalgh, professor in primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford, told Good Morning Britain: "There is no doubt the virus is in the air, there is no doubt that you can catch it if you inhale, and that someone else has exhaled.

"The exercising jogger - the puffing and panting jogger - you can feel their breath come and you can sometimes actually feel yourself inhale it, so there's no doubt that there is a danger there."

She noted that 40 per cent of Covid cases were spread asymptomatically, "so you're jogging along you think you're fine, and then the next day you develop symptoms of Covid, but you've actually breathed that Covid onto someone perhaps you know, an old lady walking a dog or something like that."

Devi Sridhar, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, added that people should wear masks in busy areas but when not surrounded by people they could "take off your mask and run freely".

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09:19 AM

Rishi Sunak must use Budget to get back on 'firm financial footing', says Sajid Javid

Sajid Javid has told his successor to use tomorrow's Budget "to set out a plan to put our country back on a firm financial footing", signalling his support for tax rises.

In an exclusive interview with the Telegraph, the former chancellor and MP for Bromsgrove has joined Lord Hague in highlighting the need to fill the "substantial hole in the public finances".

Mr Javid said: "Rishi will know that if he doesn’t set out a credible plan now, excessive debt will impact the ability of future governments to properly fund our public services and act as a burden on future generations. We need to be fiscally ready for the next crisis that comes along."

The long-term fundamentals to spur growth remain "free enterprise, free trade, sensible regulation, low taxes and fiscal responsibility", he added.

The former chancellor also said his replacement must bring forward a new set of fiscal rules before the end of the year, "underpinning our future spending decisions".

09:19 AM

Drop in over-80 hospitalisations likely to be replicated in younger age groups, says PHE

The dramatic reduction of hospital admissions in over 80-year-olds after receiving the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is likely to be replicated in other age groups, Public Health England's head of immunisation has said.

Yesterday Matt Hancock hailed “exciting” PHE data showing that one dose of either vaccine cuts the risk of hospitalisation in the over-80s by more than 80 per cent. Both cut the risk of infections by around two-thirds, with the AstraZeneca jab slightly outperforming Pfizer.

Dr Mary Ramsay told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If anything we would expect it to be a stronger protection from the vaccine. The only difference obviously is that lower down in the age range is that people's chances of being hospitalised and dying are much lower because this is a disease that has caused most of its morbidity in older people."

She added that "it really shows that the group we targeted was the right group for vaccination because this is the group where the deaths and hospitalisations were occurring."

09:07 AM

Pensions triple lock under spotlight as minister says Budget will focus on 'people in work'

Business rate relief and an extension of the VAT holiday could be on the cards for tomorrow's Budget, Kwasi Kwarteng has said.

The Business Secretary told Radio 4's Today programme the thorny issue of business rates "comes up a great deal when I speak with business owners", although he stressed: "That is a matter for the Chancellor - I don't know. Let’s see what happens."

However he said "continued support" was likely to feature within Rishi Sunak's statement tomorrow, adding: "Perhaps an extension of VAT holiday, who knows. There is no doubt in my mind that Chancellor is very focused on support."

Asked if Mr Sunak was likely to make any changes to the pensions triple lock - which was a manifesto commitment but frequently features as contributing to generational inequality - the Cabinet minister said: "The main focus will be on trying to provide support for everyone across society, but particularly people in work."

09:01 AM

Budget will ensure 'conditions for growth are right', says Business Secretary

The Budget will focus on ensuring "the conditions for growth are right", the Business Secretary has said.

Ahead of tomorrow's statement, the Business Secretary has indicated that there will be no significant tax rises, although noted there would be a "debate" about how much they would need to be hiked in future.

He told Radio 4's Today programme: "We have to make sure conditions for growth are right, that is what the Chancellor will be focusing on. He will look at tax levels, of course, but he also has to encourage growth."

"In that, at the moment, our focus will be very much on growing the economy."

Mr Kwarteng added: "In the future, there will be a debate about - there always is - about what the right level of taxation will be. For now, certainly for the business sector, very focused on providing support."

08:58 AM

Budget will not 'crush the recovery before it's happened, says Business Secretary

The Budget will not "crush the recovery before it's happened" with onerous tax rises or the sudden removal of support, the Business Secretary has said.

Kwasi Kwarteng told Radio 4's Today programme that it was "a fairly good assumption" that measures such as furlough and other benefits would stay in place until lockdown ended.

He added: "It’s really important we don't crush the recovery before it’s happened and in order to to do that, we need to keep people's jobs going, keep people in employment, keep companies going. We need to continue providing support and there is every indication that what the Chancellor is going to do."

Asked about Lord Hague's column in today's Telegraph, the minister stressed that "the way to get out of this difficult situation is to grow the economy".

He added: "We need to reopen the economy and if we can do that, according to the roadmap by the third week of June, there is every chance the economy can bounce back, and we can see strong growth by the end of 2021. That would be best way to deal with growing deficit or to try and reduce it."

08:30 AM

More than seven million people in the UK living in areas with negligible Covid cases

More than seven million people in the UK are living in areas where cases of Covid-19 have almost disappeared, analysis by The Telegraph has revealed.

Hundreds of neighbourhoods across the country recorded close to zero cases last week, despite being under national lockdown restrictions.

Cases have fallen so low in many areas that Public Health England has deliberately “suppressed” data to protect the tiny number of infected people from being shamed on social media.

Last night MPs suggested that slides shown at Downing Street press conferences were failing to communicate that the virus has nearly disappeared across large swathes of the country.

Read our analysis here.

08:27 AM

Exclusive: £300m summer sports survival package to be announced in Budget - with cricket the big winner

A £300 million package to help save summer sport will be announced in the Budget on Wednesday, Telegraph Sport can reveal, with English cricket set to be among the big winners.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, will announce the new funding, which is designed to help sporting bodies and professional clubs deal with the cash crunch from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The money, a combination of “soft” loans lasting up to 20 years and grants, will be handed out via an independent committee run through Sport England.

Government insiders predicted English cricket, tennis, horse racing, rugby league and the Women’s Super League would benefit.

Read more here.

08:24 AM

Scottish Government's legal advice on Alex Salmond 'absolutely central' to inquiry, says MSP

The Scottish Government should release all the legal advice from its court battle with former first minister Alex Salmond, an independent MSP has said.

The advice relates to Mr Salmond's successful legal challenge of the Government's harassment complaints procedure, which led to him being awarded more than £500,000.

Andy Whiteman, who is an independent MSP and a member of the Alex Salmond inquiry committee, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that "we have been pressing for months for the release of all the legal advice".

He added: "The Government, of course, is a public authority and, under the ministerial code, it is allowed in exceptional circumstances to release legal advice so long as the Lord Advocate considers it is in the public interest.

"Because the judicial review, the process whereby Mr Salmond challenged the Government as to the legality of the harassment complaints procedure, then seeing this legal advice is absolutely central to us, the committee, understanding if in fact the Government proceeded on an appropriate basis throughout or whether, in fact, it might have been better to concede the case much earlier."

08:22 AM

Brazil variant: 'Patient X' still not identified, minister confirms

Authorities have still not located "patient X", the mystery person who tested positive for the Brazilian variant P1, the Business Secretary has confirmed.

Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News: "We are still monitoring the situation very closely.

"There was one case...where the person involved didn't fill in the forms correctly and we are still trying to work out what has happened to that potential carrier, but we are dealing with that situation."

08:18 AM

Covid tests on children could spur new generation of scientists, says Sage member

Encouraging children to carry out their own Covid tests could help "generate a new group of scientists in the process", a Sage member has said.

Calum Semple, professor of outbreak medicine and child health at the University of Liverpool, said that after children have performed Covid-19 tests under supervision, they "get used to it".

He told BBC Breakfast the package of measures - increased ventilation, masks and tests - mean schools "can be safe".

He added: "The good news is we're finding quite low rates of active infection within the schools. We're using the lateral flow antigen tests that identify those children that are most likely to be infectious - and about 1.2 per cent of school pupils are testing positive and about 1.6 per cent of staff are testing positive.

"It is really low in most occasions - sometimes in some areas it's down to 0.4 per cent. So, as a game-changer, it is giving confidence that schools are safe."

08:14 AM

MPs spent nearly £40,000 of taxpayers' money on Apple gadgets

MPs spent nearly £40,000 of taxpayers’ money on Apple laptops, wireless earphones, iPhones and iPads after they were granted an additional allowance to cover the costs of working from home during the pandemic.

An analysis by The Telegraph of claims published by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) shows at least £39,000 was claimed by 40 MPs on Apple equipment during this financial year.

Several MPs made claims for AirPods, a new range of wireless earphones, while others spent more than a thousand pounds purchasing Apple MacBooks and iPads, along with other gadgets.

The MPs who appear to have claimed the most on Apple technology included Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, who purchased a pair of £249 wireless earphone AirPods, along with £2,000 of additional equipment.

Read the full story here.

 Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, who purchased a pair of £249 wireless earphone AirPods - AFP
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, who purchased a pair of £249 wireless earphone AirPods - AFP

08:09 AM

Business Secretary plays down suggestions of more Euro 2020 matches

The Business Secretary has said he won't "over-egg" the success of the vaccine rollout, amid suggestions that Britain could host additional Euro 2020 matches this summer.

The tournament is due to be hosted across 12 different countries, with the semi-finals and final to be played at Wembley.

However, despite the success of the vaccine rollout, Kwasi Kwarteng played down suggestions Wembley could take more games.

"It is March 2 now. I don't want to run ahead of ourselves," he told Sky News. "The information is very encouraging, the vaccine rollout has been very successful. I don't want to over-egg it. I don't want to say we are completely free of coronavirus. There are still dangers ahead.

"The numbers are encouraging but I don't think it would be right for me to speculate about football tournaments in two or three months' time."

08:06 AM

Budget will 'support struggling businesses, struggling people', Business Secretary promises

The Business Secretary has signalled that Covid support will not be withdrawn in tomorrow's Budget - at least in the short term.

Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News: "The main thing on my desk, and the Chancellor's as wel,l is to support business through this very difficult time."

He added: "In tomorrow's Budget the Chancellor will be very minded to support struggling businesses, struggling people, so we can get through this very difficult period."

08:04 AM

Budget will focus on 'providing critical support', says Business Secretary

The Business Secretary has played down the prospect of big tax increases to start reducing the deficit in the public finances in this week's Budget.

Kwasi Kwarteng said that while Rishi Sunak had said the country could not "go on spending money forever", the priority for now was to support the economy.

"For now, what we have to do is support businesses, individuals, families, through what has been an extremely difficult time," he told BBC Breakfast.

"We have got another three years to run in the parliament and the Chancellor will be looking to reduce the deficit. For now, I think the real emphasis is on trying to provide critical support."

08:03 AM

Budget latest: Business Secretary signals that furlough will be extended

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has signalled that Chancellor Rishi Sunak will announce a further extension of the furlough scheme in the Budget on Wednesday.

Mr Kwarteng told BBC Breakfast: "I think the Chancellor has already indicated that we will be extending furlough.

"I think that has been part of a public announcement. I think there will be other measures that we will see tomorrow."

07:52 AM

Lord Hague tells Tories to prepare for tax rises

Some business and personal taxes “have to go up”, Lord Hague, the former Conservative leader and close ally of Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has warned.

In a new article for The Telegraph, Lord Hague writes that people who oppose some form of tax rises in the current climate are buying into “dangerous illusions”.

The intervention the day before Mr Sunak stands up to deliver his Budget will raise eyebrows, given the fierce debate about tax rises in the party and the pair’s close relationship.

Mr Sunak took over Lord Hague’s seat of Richmond, Yorks, when the latter stepped down as a Tory MP in 2015. Both men will appear at the Budget event together on Friday.

“It pains me to say, after spending much of my life arguing for lower taxes, that we have reached the point where at least some business and personal taxes have to go up,” Lord Hague writes.