Postcard From Southern Europe, Where Mask Wearing is Almost Universal

A Daily Sceptic reader has just returned from a trip to Spain and Italy and has sent us this guest post. Depressing reading.

One of the lovelier benefits to travel is the perspective it lends to life at home. Usually, this revolves around how the British sky and food is more dull than we realise, but after two recent trips to Spain and Italy one would be forgiven for thinking that Blighty is a post-covid, liberal, free-thinking nirvana.

Both countries in question reported big Covid numbers – broadly in line with ours. Now both have similar vaccination levels and both are reporting broadly similar case daily numbers too. Their supine adoption of the ‘passport’ has been relatively well documented but but to walk the streets or beaches in either is to see a population cowed by face mask legislation. Masks are obligatory more or less everywhere indoors but it is the manner of their adoption which makes it all the more depressing.

Two nationalities (which one might playfully suggest are known for their selective application of some rules) have taken to the wearing of masks with quiet supplication. When viewed with the rapid dropping of masks we are enjoying at home this makes for a most depressing spectacle.

The farcical insistence that a face mask is worn when walking from a beach bed to a bar is barely credible yet the adherence is almost total. Equally, to see a solitary, masked parking attendant standing in a country lane is absurd as it is worrying.

The beautiful and ancient Fallas of Valancia this year were reconvened after the pandemic, but despite taking place in deserted streets the participants were still required to wear masks alongside their fabulous consumes.

Of course, there is the human element, our children grumbled at wearing a mask – it was uncomfortable, new for them and scary – and were barely challenged when they did not. But the fact remains that every other child was happily going about with a mini-mask strapped to their face.

One wonders if this can be traced back to their lockdowns. Neither country closed schools to any great extent but children were required to wear masks at school. Equally, neither had such a wholesale adoption of home-working as here and while offices opened earlier than in the U.K., many people wore masks at their desks and were often banned from using meeting rooms, asked instead to use virtual conferencing with their colleagues a few yards away.

I cannot comment on the mask hesitancy or counter-arguments that have been made – of which I am sure there have been many, but writing this in a charming pizzeria in Milan I note that I was reminded to wear my mask by two people upon arrival and had my temperature taken to walk the 10 paces from the door to the terrace – whereupon my mask is not required.

If it wasn’t so sad it would be funny.

The Vaccine Rollout Was Based on Satefyism, Not Science

In a poll of experts taken by Nature earlier this year, only 6% said it was “unlikely” or “very unlikely” that SARS-CoV-2 will become endemic. By contrast, 89% said this was “likely” or “very likely”.

As Professor Francois Balloux has observed, “Eventually, covid-19 will become endemic everywhere in the world… claims about indefinite elimination are just empty slogans.”

This means the virus will continue to circulate for the foreseeable future, and most of us will catch it several times during our lives. In fact, it may become one that we first encounter in childhood, leading to immunity that lasts years or decades.

COVID, in other words, is here to stay. And unless more powerful vaccines are developed in the future, permanently suppressing transmission via vaccination is unlikely to work, let alone pass a cost-benefit test.

As the Great Barrington Declaration authors have argued, vaccines are best seen as a means of achieving focused protection against COVID-19. By vaccinating the elderly and clinically vulnerable, we have turned what – for many of those people – could have been a life-threatening illness, into something much less harmful.

However, since the start of the vaccine rollout, numerous people – including some world leaders – have taken a rather different view of the vaccines. For these individuals, the vaccines are a way of ‘crushing the curve’, and thereby ensuring that nobody ever has to get COVID.

But this view is based more on safetyism than on science. And ironically, it’s causing real harm. How so?

First, safetyism has led to the belief that everyone needs to get vaccinated, regardless of age. This is why the Government is proceeding with vaccination of 12–15 year olds, against the better judgement of its own expert panel. Yet as I and others have argued, a far better course of action would be donating those vaccines to poor countries.

Second, safetyism has led to the belief that everyone needs to get vaccinated, even if they’ve already been infected. Yet evidence suggests that people with natural immunity have better protection against infection than recipients of the Pfizer vaccine.

As Professor Marty Makary notes in a recent article for the Washington Post, “If we had asked Americans who were already protected by natural immunity to step aside in the vaccine line, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved.”

Third, safetyism has led to the belief that we need to roll out booster shots because vaccine-induced immunity wanes rapidly. So far, however, this is only true of immunity against infection; immunity against severe disease appears to hold up well.

In a recent Lancet article, Philip Krause and colleagues argue there is not yet any need for boosters, which could cause adverse reactions if administered too soon or too frequently. They point out that vaccines “will save the most lives if made available to people who are at appreciable risk of serious disease and have not yet received any vaccine”.

Fourth, safetyism has led to the belief that people should be strong-armed into getting vaccinated by means of passports and mandates, rather than persuaded. Although coercive measures may increase vaccine uptake, they risk undermining trust in government and the healthcare system.

What’s more, vaccine passports could have unintended consequences. If vulnerable people are led to believe – wrongly – that the vaccines have strong efficacy against infection, they might take more risks than they otherwise would.

A vaccine rollout based on science – not safetyism – would have recognised that not everyone needs to be vaccinated. It would have assigned leftover vaccines to people that actually need them. And it would have eschewed coercive measures, in favour of transparency about the risks and benefits.

The Great Lockdown Debate

On September 27th please join me at the Great Lockdown Debate and Drinks Reception being organised by Modern Review, a new international magazine being launched early next year.

The motion is “Lockdowns of the past year caused more harm than good” and arguing for it alongside me will be Professor Carl Heneghan, Director of Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, and Luke Johnson, businessman, entrepreneur and the former Chairman of Channel 4. Speakers on the opposing side will include Oliver Kamm, a Times leader writer, and Dr. Sonia Adesara, a medical doctor and former director of 50:50 Parliament. The debate will be moderated by former House of Commons Deputy Speaker Natascha Engel.

The venue is The London, a brand new super-luxury hotel just off Leicester Square. The evening will begin with a drinks reception at 6.30pm and the debate will start at 7pm. Tickets are £30, but the organisers have created a special offer for Daily Sceptic readers whereby you can get a 10% discount by going to this webpage.

The Role of Variants in Driving Surges is Good News for Sceptics

As an addendum to my piece yesterday on the evidence for variants driving Covid surges, a comparison between India and neighbouring Bangladesh is illuminating.

India

India has had one large surge in 2021 so far, occurring in spring and associated with the Delta variant (which was first identified there). It has had no summer surge, and no new variant since.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh, on the other hand, has had two peaks in 2021, a spring peak associated with the Beta variant and a summer one associated with the Delta variant.

And Finally…

In the latest episode of London Calling, James Delingpole and I discuss Macron’s toys-out-of-the-pram reaction to the AUKUS deal, the glorious prospect that lockdown zealot Justin Trudeau will end up with fewer seats in the Canadian federal election than he did in 2019 and James’s gleeful contamination of my brand.

I was referred to in the Belfast Telegraph on Friday as a “renowned anti-vaxxer”, even though I think it’s sensible for people in vulnerable groups to have the Covid vaccine (just not anyone else). I blame James for this career-ending misunderstanding – it must be because I’ve given up arguing with him when he describes the Covid vaccines as “kill shots” and links them to his crackpot conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and the Great Reset.

You can listen to the episode here and subscribe on iTunes here.

News Round-Up

All Bar Three Top U.K. Universities Refusing to Return to Full In-Person Teaching This Term

Only three of the top 27 U.K. universities have decided to stop bending to fear (or, perhaps, financial pressure) and to focus instead on proper education by returning to full in-person teaching this term. The other 24 say they have opted for a ‘blended’ approach which will include students ‘attending’ lectures online. The Times has the story.

The universities of Sheffield, Sussex and Southampton expect to return to in-person studies, with students expected to be on campus from the beginning of the academic year. …

The University of Sheffield has told students that they are “expected to attend in person, on campus, from the start date of your studies”, while Southampton said it would conduct all teaching “in-person and on campus”.

Sussex is planning for large lectures to go ahead in person, with alternatives available to students who cannot come to campus because of travel restrictions. The majority, including Oxford and Cambridge, will hold smaller group sessions such as seminars in person but larger lectures will remain online. …

Students overwhelmingly believe that the move online has affected their education, according to the latest monthly survey by the Office for National Statistics, conducted in June.

More than 60% of students who were in higher education before the pandemic said the lack of face-to-face learning had a major or moderate impact on the quality of their course. …

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the Vice-President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students, said she was concerned that some universities could be using online learning as a way to cut the costs of running lectures.

“Nothing can replace the ability to socialise with and learn from your peers, or to engage with face-to-face, interactive teaching and learning and to have a full campus life,” she said.

Some universities are keeping lectures online so they can continue to increase their intake of students, particularly those from overseas, a source at a sector think tank said. “If you don’t have to worry about accommodating people or about the size of lecture theatres, how big can they get before it’s an outrage? You’re not even paying for the cinema at this point, you’re paying for Netflix,” the source said.

A record number of U.K. candidates secured a place at university this year, with 448,080 students expecting to start degree courses from next week, up from 441,720 last year.

Worth reading in full.

More than 50% Increase in Number of Children Going to A&E with Serious Mental Health Issues since Start of Lockdowns

We are told that healthy children should be vaccinated against Covid to benefit their mental health. If only our leaders had taken an interest in this before imposing school closures and wider lockdowns which have helped to bring about a more than 50% increase in the number of children going to A&E with serious mental health issues. The Telegraph has the story.

More than 2,243 children in England were referred for specialist mental health care from emergency departments in May this year, compared with just 1,428 in May 2019.

Experts say children have struggled with schools being closed and without face-to-face interaction with their peers.

Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP and the Chair of the Education Select Committee, called for schools to remain open to stave off a mental health “catastrophe”.

NHS data reveal that nearly 27,000 children are being prescribed antidepressants each month, up more than 8% from 2019. While most are teenagers, 25 a month are aged six or under, and more than 1,000 are aged seven to 11.

Waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) have jumped by more than a third in some regions, according to NHS England Trusts.

The number of children admitted to acute wards with eating disorders more than doubled in the three months to June 2021, when compared with the same period in 2019.

Dr. Anna Conway Morris, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, said the increase in A&E referrals “shows that the things that are likely to need CAMHS input, like eating disorders, or like more serious self-harm or suicidal thoughts, have increased”.

Paul Farmer, the Chief Executive of the mental health charity Mind, has written to the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, calling for extra funding in order not to “betray the next generation”.

An NHS England spokesman said its mental health services were looking after record numbers of children “with over 420,000 treated since April last year”.

Worth reading in full.

Unvaccinated Footballers Could Be Barred from Next World Cup

Qatar is believed to be pushing for unvaccinated footballers to be barred from playing in next year’s World Cup, with fans also having to show proof of full vaccination to attend matches. MailOnline has the story.

It is known that professional players’ views on taking the vaccine are mixed and there are some concerns Qatar’s stance could rob the tournament of its stars – something all parties want to avoid.

Qatar, who have already administered more than 4.6 million vaccines so far, roughly 82% of their population, are in discussions with FIFA and medical authorities in efforts to reach an amicable solution.

The Athletic claim a number of options are being considered, including uninoculated players having to report negative tests every three days. …

A number of Premier League clubs are known to have players still resisting the Covid vaccine, including Arsenal and Switzerland star Granit Xhaka.

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted last month “not all of the players have been double-jabbed”, adding: “I have encouraged them to take the vaccination but you cannot force anyone to do that.” …

Newcastle manager Steve Bruce has admitted that “a lot” of his players have not been vaccinated…

Deputy Chief Medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam has been forthright in urging players to take up the vaccine and told them to ignore the myths around it. …

Worth reading in full.

Long Covid Is Even Less Common Than Previously Thought

In a post on long Covid back in July, I said that “estimates of the chance of reporting symptoms after 12 weeks range from less than 1% to almost 12%”. That 12% figure came from the ONS, who found that individuals who tested positive were 12 percentage points more likely than controls to report at least one symptom 12 weeks after infection.

In my post, I argued that 12% is probably an overestimate on the grounds that some people who tested positive might have been inclined to exaggerated their symptoms – to report things they normally wouldn’t have done (thanks to all the media attention on long Covid).

And I noted that a study published in Nature Medicine had observed a much smaller percentage of people still reporting symptoms 12 weeks after infection, namely 2.3%.

A new analysis by the ONS has obtained a figure almost identical to that observed in the Nature Medicine study, namely 2.5% (the difference between the blue and green lines in the chart below). This is clearly much lower than its previous estimate.

Interestingly, the reason for the discrepancy with the earlier figure isn’t the one I suggested (i.e., that some people who tested positive were inclined to exaggerate their symptoms). Rather, it’s a statistical issue.

In both their original and updated analyses, the ONS defined symptom discontinuation as two consecutive visits without reporting any symptoms. (Participants in the ONS’s survey were visited at regular intervals for the purpose of data collection.)

This means that someone would be classified as ‘having symptoms’ if they’d gone one, but not two, visits without reporting any symptoms. However, in their original analysis, participants were only followed for a median of 80 days (less than 11 weeks).

As a result, some participants who would have been classified as ‘not having symptoms’ if they’d been followed a little bit longer were still classified as ‘having symptoms’ at the end of their observation period. (In the jargon, their follow-up time was ‘right-censored’.) This is shown in the diagram below, taken from the ONS:

In the ONS’s updated analysis, which followed participants for a median of 204 days, individuals in the situation of Participant D above were correctly classified as ‘not having symptoms’ before the end of their observation period.

Using this revised method, the ONS found that less than 1% of children aged 2-11 continue to report symptoms 12 weeks after infection, with the figure rising to just 1.2% for those aged 12-16. Hence long Covid is particularly rare in children, further undermining the case for vaccinating that age-group.

While the ONS deserves credit for being completely transparent about the limitations of their original analysis, their updated analysis is still open to the criticism I mentioned above. This means that 2.5% should probably be considered an upper bound on the chances of getting long Covid, the true figure being somewhat lower.