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How to Keep Pubs and Schools Open? Merge Them

This piece in the Daily Mash is quite funny.

TEACHERS have announced that they would be willing to relocate schools to pubs as a compromise to keep both open.

As scientists warned that curbing coronavirus might mean closing pubs so schools can operate normally, educators have volunteered to teach classes from behind the bar.

Primary teacher Lauren Hewitt said: “The wellbeing of children is at the forefront of everything I do as a teacher, and drinking heavily is at the heart of everything I do out of school.

“It’s a visionary solution. There are blackboards at both, beer gardens can double as playgrounds, dividing up a bill between six is a maths exercise, and the kids can go on Tripadvisor to review the pub for their creative writing.

Worth reading in full.

Victorian Police Chief Threatens to Smash Car Windows and Drag People Out for “Non-Compliance”

This video is pretty shocking. A black-shirted police chief in Victoria threatens to break car windows and drag out the occupants if they refuse to tell police officers why they’re out of their homes. Chilling.

Government’s Test-and-Trace App to be Relaunched

The Government has concluded that the world-beating test-and-trace app it has already spent more than £10 billion on isn’t fit for purpose, something the rest of us concluded long ago. The Times has the story.

Ministers will launch a scaled back version of the coronavirus app this month after accepting that it was not accurate enough to be used for contact tracing.

A version that tells people about infection levels in their area and allows them to use personal information to calculate a risk score will be trialled.

The app was originally developed as an automated form of contact tracing, but is likely to begin instead as an individualised information and advice service informing people about their personal exposure to coronavirus.

The functions being explored include alerting users when they have been in contact with more people than usual.

While Bluetooth signalling showing that phones have been near each other is not yet trusted as a basis for instructing people to self-isolate for two weeks, officials hope that giving people data on how many close contacts they have could encourage them to stick to social distancing guidance.

These new functions are due to be tested in trials in coming weeks with the hope of having an app available nationwide in time for winter. NHS Test and Trace is planning to launch an app with whichever functions prove effective, in the hope of being able to add automated contact tracing later.

The service has previously announced plans to allow people to book coronavirus tests through the app and use it to scan Quick Response codes at pubs and restaurants so patrons can be alerted if other customers test positive. Although contact tracing was the original stated aim of the app, it is now being downplayed by a business plan that refers to the technology as an “app that supports the end-to-end NHS Test and Trace service”.

The revival of the app came as Times Radio uncovered evidence that some contact tracers have done minimal work since the NHS Track and Trace programme was launched three months ago. One said: “Since mid-May I’ve done two calls. I know some people who’ve had no calls in that time and some who’ve had four or five . . . Most of the time you sit around and watch Netflix.”

£10 billion of taxpayers’ money up in flames so tens of thousands of people can sit around watching Netflix all day. Couldn’t they have done that at home?

Worth re-reading yesterday’s magisterial round-up of the failures of trace-and-test apps around the world by our very own test-and-trace app correspondent.

Stop Press: Richard Dobbs, former McKinsey Director, has devised an ingenious way of measuring the effectiveness of the Govt’s test-and-trace app in the Spectator. According to his Harding-Hancock Test, it’s not faring well.

My initial estimate is that at the moment, Harding-Hancock Efficiency is at a potentially catastrophic level of less than 5 per cent for England. That means that for every person successfully isolated, there are around 20 not isolated, potentially spreading the infection.

Ambulances Reluctant to Take People to A&E

A reader with a friend who works in the care department of a Midlands local authority has passed on an alarming bit of intel.

Another reason for increased home deaths I’ve come across is the practices of ambulance crews. I’ve visited people who are having some sort of crisis or relapse and are waiting for an ambulance. The crews are still operating on the basis of treating people at home and only very reluctantly taking them to A&E. This is the policy still, despite the crisis having passed months ago of no critical care beds. Previously the policy was “if in doubt take them to A&E”.

One of the crew members said last month that they haven’t been so unoccupied in his career.

How Reliable is the PCR Test?

I’m using this picture again, even though it isn’t very nice (and neither is the test)

A scientist has got in touch to weigh in on the subject that’s been debated on these pages over the last couple of days: How reliable is the PCR test?

Having read Lockdown Sceptics today, I thought I’d add in a bit more about screening. I’m senior scientist in a biotech company and have been involved in some diagnostic development so have some experience in this area.

This is a useful article that explains some of the issues with the PCR test in relatively understandable language.

Although I don’t think there is much doubt about SARS-CoV-2 causing COVID-19, your reader is absolutely right to be concerned about false positives in PCR screening.

The main focus on understanding the PCR test’s performance is on the high “false negative”, which means that the test isn’t very sensitive, i.e. many patients with virus don’t test positive. However, what I cannot seem to find within the literature (and maybe another reader can point me in the right direction) is what the “false positive” rate is. All the studies I can find are on patients with COVID-19 and working out how often the test fails to identify them as infected (depending on sample type, between 10 and 70% of the time). But I can’t find a study where a large number of known negatives patient samples have been screened to work out how many would come out as positive. This is assumed, probably reasonably given the nature of the test, to be low and that a positive result probably indicates you have the virus, meaning the test is quite selective. But the actual false positive rate for the test is either not known or is very difficult to find, especially in the context of screening labs where they do handle positive samples and so there is also the risk of cross-contamination.

So what the problem? It is this: we base policy decisions on positive results and not negative ones.

To illustrate the issue, imagine we have a false positive rate of 0.1%, i.e. 1 in 1000 results. Pretty impressive for a test. However, we are screening 10,000s of individuals. If within this screening population there are a lot of infections then the 1 in 1000 false positives is not an issue as it is lost among the multitudes of true positive results. Even the false negatives are not too much of an issue as trends within such an infected population are probably meaningful. However, what if you screened 30,000 individuals without COVID-19? Then you’d get 30 positive results. In fact, at a large population level you can never get to a “0” and COVID-19 will be with us forever!

Given that policy decisions affecting millions of people are being based on small changes in positive results within a large sample size then understanding both your false positive rate and false negative rate is really important in deciding if a trend is real or just statistical noise based on screening artefacts. The errors (over- and under-estimates) are really critical in deciding if there is a trend: is 19 positive tests in 30,000 tests different from 24 positives in 28,000? What are the error bars on the tests? Taking it for granted that all positives are real and that the test is always under-reporting the true figure (based on the false negative rate) is not a safe assumption, especially as we don’t do confirmatory tests in the vast number of cases. However, given Prof. Heneghan’s recent blog regarding the “increase” in COVID-19 cases in England, which was posted earlier in the week, it seems that in England we can’t even normalise data to account for number of screening tests, let alone take a more sophisticated analytical approach which attempts to include an understanding of the analytical error in assessing data trends.

There’s something really dispiriting about his final point. He’s quite right of course. If public health officials can’t even control for increased testing when analysing trends in the testing data, what hope is there of them factoring in something more complicated?

Another reader has got in touch to flag up this letter to the BMJ by Brendan Healey of the Public Health Wales Microbiology Department, warning of the dangers of widespread testing when prevalence is low because of the risk of false negative and false positive results. He concludes that it may cause more harm than good.

The harm afforded by false positive results should not be ignored and the potential for adverse consequences during periods of low prevalence needs to be taken into account when deciding on testing strategies. We recommend that testing strategies need to be more agile and decisions on screening of various populations should be flexible and respond to the changing prevalence in the community/setting that is being investigated. Large volume screening at a time of low prevalence has the potential to do more harm than good and some of these strategies should be temporarily suspended. Some of these strategies are likely to be of greater benefit in interrupting transmission during periods of high prevalence and we propose that they are re-instated when the prevalence in the community or particular settings warrant such an approach.

Finally, a retired Professor of Forensic and Biological Anthropology has got in touch with his thoughts on the PCR test. What’s interesting about this email is the detail concerning how false positives might arise.

I’m writing to comment on PCR tests from a forensic science perspective. DNA based PCR tests used in forensic labs are extremely sensitive – like RNA based RT-PCR tests used to detect Covid-19. They will reliably detect in the region of 10 or fewer copies of the source DNA or RNA. Contamination with intrusive DNA or secondary transfer of DNA is widely recognised as a persistent risk in forensic. The tests are so sensitive it is realistically impossible to totally exclude the possibility of contamination – of the source or during the analytical process. Amplified DNA (PCR product) is a particularly potent source of contamination of the next DNA PCR reaction. The use of appropriate controls at all stages is necessary to reduce the risk of contamination and permit its detection. Unfortunately, there are examples of both lab and scene based incidents of contamination that were not detected until rather late in the prosecutorial process. There has also been a big scandal – involving Randox – of drug control tests allegedly being faked (hence compromising the actual results).

I’ve just been looking over the publicly available NHS Guidance and SOP and – while it does emphasise the need for proper viral containment and describes ‘positive control’ RNA to make sure the reaction has worked and reduce the risk of false negatives – the document offers little or no consideration of contamination or cross-contamination as a cause of false positives. These are systemic issues, not just related to the choice of test kit.

I would be reassured to know what measures the NHS have in place to detect false positives via the inclusion of negative ‘blank’ controls 1) at the virus RNA extraction step, 2) in the RT-PCR reaction step and 3) to detect contamination of the RT-PCR reaction with previously amplified DNA (or other measures, where appropriate); and what the rate of contamination of negative extraction and RT-PCR controls has been during testing.

Frankly, if we are doing 100,000 tests a day, I’d be surprised not to see more than a few contaminated blanks and by implication contamination-based false positives of this kind, but this may have more significance to earlier results, as now there seem to be hardly any covid positive cases left to provide a source of cross-contamination (although in certain circumstances the positive control RNA might).

In such situations, complacency can easily arise.

I’ve been in science and technology for 38 of the last 40 years, and if Boris and Chris Whitty et al. are doing anything based on the science, then sadly I’ve learned nothing.

He concluded by pointing me to a commentary on the PCR test in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences by Stephen Bustin and Tania Nolan published in April. They conclude:

RT-qPCR testing programmes for SARS-CoV-2 are wholly inadequate, poorly organised and surrounded by confusion and misinformation. Comprehensive testing is not hindered by availability of suitable assays, reagents, equipment or testing capacity. It is delays in the bureaucratic validation and approval process and lack of involvement of the wider research and commercial service provider community by public health laboratories that are at the heart of the testing conundrum.


Could Possession of the Bible Become a Hate Crime in Scotland?

There’s an excellent piece by Andrew Doyle in today’s Spectator about the awful Scottish Hate Crime and Public Order Bill. This dreadful Bill promises to make Scotland the least free-speech friendly country in Europe, including Hungary.

Scotland’s new Hate Crime and Public Order Bill was ostensibly proposed to repeal outdated proscriptions against blasphemy, but will instead usher in a range of new blasphemy laws by stealth. Most controversially, part two of the Bill pertains to the offence of ‘stirring up hatred’, which criminalises anyone who ‘behaves in a threatening, abusive or insulting manner’ or ‘communicates threatening, abusive or insulting material to another person’.

Moreover, the Bill explicitly allows for intention to be put aside. If behaviour or material is ‘likely’ to stir up hatred against any protected groups (defined by age, disability, racial or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, transgender identity or ‘variations in sex characteristics’) then whether or not the perpetrator intended to do so is immaterial. Even an actor playing a bigoted character could be prosecuted under the proposed laws. An entire section of the Bill is devoted to the ‘public performance of a play’, which specifies that actors and directors can be found culpable if members of protected groups find the material offensive. So if you are troubled by the anti-Semitism of Shylock’s detractors, or the Islamophobia of Tamburlaine’s decision to burn the Quran, you can complain to the Scottish police. Next year’s Edinburgh Festival should be interesting.

The implications for stand-up comedy are similarly dire. As practitioners of an art form that often teases the limits of public tolerance, comedians frequently find themselves involved in free speech battles. The dean of the Faculty of Advocates, Roddy Dunlop QC, has already warned that stand-up would not be exempt from the SNP’s Bill, and that even an old-fashioned ‘Scotsman, Irishman and Englishman’ joke may be perceived as discriminatory. Certainly, some of the more subversive acts that regularly appear at Comedy Unleashed, a night I co-founded in London, would be at risk of prosecution should they venture north of the border.

The Bill even goes as far as to criminalise the possession of ‘inflammatory’ material, which is why senior Catholic bishops have raised concerns that possession of the Bible could become a criminal offence. Let’s not forget that Leviticus 20:13 calls for the execution of gay men.

It won’t surprise you to learn that the Free Speech Union is vigorously opposing this Bill. We have submitted evidence to the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament drawing attention to its shortcomings that you can read here.


Theme Tunes Suggested by Readers

Just one today: “Last Night (I Dreamt I Had a Job)” by Blancmange.

Small Businesses That Have Re-Opened

A couple of months ago, Lockdown Sceptics launched a searchable directory of open businesses across the UK. The idea is to celebrate those retail and hospitality businesses that have re-opened, as well as help people find out what has opened in their area. But we need your help to build it, so we’ve created a form you can fill out to tell us about those businesses that have opened near you.

Now that non-essential shops have re-opened – or most of them, anyway – we’re now focusing on pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants, as well as other social venues. As of July 4th, many of them have re-opened too, but not all (and some of them are at risk of having to close again). Please visit the page and let us know about those brave folk who are doing their bit to get our country back on its feet – particularly if they’re not insisting on face masks! Don’t worry if your entries don’t show up immediately – we need to approve them once you’ve entered the data.

Forums Back Up and Running

I enjoy reading all your comments and I’m glad I’ve created a “safe space” for lockdown sceptics to share their frustrations and keep each other’s spirits up. But please don’t copy and paste whole articles from papers that are behind paywalls in the comments. I work for some of those papers and if they don’t charge for premium content they won’t survive.

We have created some Lockdown Sceptics Forums that are now open. Initially, they became a spam magnet so we temporarily closed them. However, we’ve found a team of people wiling to serve as moderators so the Forums are back up and running. Any problems, email the Lockdown Sceptics webmaster Ian Rons here.

“Mask Exempt” Lanyards

I thought I’d create a new permanent slot down here for people who want to buy (or make) a “Mask Exempt” lanyard/card. You can print out and laminate a fairly standard one for free here and it has the advantage of not explicitly claiming you have a disability. But if you have no qualms about that (or you are disabled), you can buy a lanyard from Amazon saying you do have a disability/medical exemption here (now showing it will arrive between Sept 9th to 18th). The Government has instructions on how to download an official “Mask Exempt” notice to put on your phone here. You can get a “Hidden Disability” tag from eBay here and an “exempt” card that looks like as if it’s been issued by the NHS for just £2.79 from Etsy here.

Don’t forget to sign the petition on the UK Government’s petitions website calling for an end to mandatory face nappies in shops here.

A reader has started a website that contains some useful guidance about how you can claim legal exemption.

Shameless Begging Bit

Thanks as always to those of you who made a donation in the past 24 hours to pay for the upkeep of this site. If you feel like donating, however small the sum, please click here. And if you want to flag up any stories or links I should include in future updates, email me here. I may not be able to manage an update every day over the next few days as I’m off to Wales today to do some walking in the Brecon Beacons.

And Finally…

In my Spectator column today, I weigh in on the Policy Exchange report laying bear the extent of the Free Speech Crisis in Britain’s universities.

About 18 months ago, I attended a debate at Policy Exchange, the think tank founded by Nick Boles, Francis Maude and Archie Norman, on whether there was a free speech crisis at British universities. One panellist, Professor Jon Wilson of King’s College London, vigorously denied that any such problem existed. Various people pointed to examples of right-of-centre academics being no-platformed — Charles Murray, Amy Wax, Linda Gottfredson — but that was scarcely conclusive. It was anecdotal evidence, not hard data.

The same cannot be said any more. This week, Policy Exchange published a paper by three academics — Remi Adekoya, Eric Kaufmann and Tom Simpson — which proves beyond reasonable doubt that free speech is in trouble in the higher-education sector. They commissioned a YouGov survey involving a randomly-collected sample of more than 800 professors and lecturers, some working, some retired, who represented the 217,000 academic staff in British universities in 2018-9. Surveys of academics have been done before, some involving larger sample sizes, but none as rigorous as this.

Their findings won’t surprise anyone familiar with the sector. For instance, 75 per cent of UK academics voted for left-of-centre parties in the 2017 and 2019 elections, compared with less than 20 per cent who voted right-of-centre. Just over half said they would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch, while only 37 per cent said they would risk sharing a table with a dissenter from trans orthodoxy. Among the small minority of academics who identify as ‘right’ or ‘fairly right’, 32 per cent have refrained from airing their views in front of colleagues.

Worth reading in full.