Day: 27 March 2021

Coronavirus Deaths Fall to Lowest Figure For a Saturday in Six Months

Just 58 deaths from COVID-19 have been recorded today, the lowest number for a Saturday in six months. Ninety-six deaths were recorded last Saturday, meaning fatalities have fallen by 40% in the past week. MailOnline has more.

The figures come ahead of the easing of restrictions on ‘Happy Monday’, with larger outdoor meetings being permitted in England from March 29th.

Earlier today, Boris Johnson said that he can see nothing in the data to dissuade him from continuing along his roadmap, which would mean no curbs from June 21st.

The Prime Minister acknowledged cases could again spiral as restrictions are relaxed, with the ‘stay local’ order having ended in Wales and larger outdoor meetings being permitted in England from Monday.

But he said on Saturday that the “key difference” this time is that the rise in prevalence should be “sufficiently mitigated” by the successful vaccine rollout.

Worth reading in full.

The Measure of Man

We’re publishing a new essay today by Sinéad Murphy, a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University, about the light that the work of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer can throw on the Government’s handling of the pandemic over the last 12 months. Here are the three opening paragraphs:

One year later, and the Coronavirus Act that has enabled much of the UK Government’s lockdown has just been renewed for another six months. Debate in the lead-up to its renewal has included admissions from the Prime Minister of his failure last year to introduce measures early enough and ‘hard’ enough, submissions from Tory opponents of the Act showing that cases of COVID-19 are now so low as to make continued measures unnecessary, and ongoing concern by the bravest Tory of them all, Charles Walker, about the health of the population when measures continue in defiance of falling cases.

All of these aspects of the debate are important. But it is well past time for scientific analyses and disagreements in respect of measures, cases and health to be supplemented, perhaps even undercut, by a philosophical perspective. These concepts – measure, case, health – have this year been our bread and butter. We have bandied them endlessly, sometimes desperately. But are we fully aware of what they mean?

In a short essay from 1990, entitled “Philosophy and Practical Medicine”, the German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, provides us with just what we need: a philosophical account of the concepts of measure, case, and health, which reveals just how truncated has been the understanding and application of them during the past year.

Worth reading in full.

Spain to Trial Four-Day Working Week

In a further indication that the world will not return to normal after lockdown(s), Spain is set to trial reducing its working week to four days in the hope of preventing increases in Covid infections. Sky News has the story.

Spain is planning to use €50 million (£43 million) in EU funds to cut its working week to four days in a bid to prevent further coronavirus outbreaks.

The experiment is set to last for three years and will be funded by money from the European Union’s massive Covid recovery fund.

The money will compensate some 200 mid-size companies as they resize their workforce or reorganise production workflows to adapt to a 32-hour working week.

It will go towards subsidising all of the employers’ extra costs in the first year of the trial and then reduce the government’s aid to 50% and 25% each consecutive year. …

Reducing work hours from 40 to 35 per week in 2017 would have resulted in a 1.5% GDP growth and 560,000 new jobs, a study published earlier this year in the Cambridge Journal of Economics found.

Salaries would have also increased nationally by 3.7%, especially benefiting women who more often take part-time jobs, the research said.

Software Delsol, in southern Spain, invested €400,000 (£343,000) last year to reduce working hours for its 190 employees and has since then reported a 28% reduction in absenteeism, with people choosing to go to the bank or see their doctor on their weekday off.

Their sales increased last year by 20% and no single employee has quit since the new schedule was adopted.

However, the scheme’s critics say a pandemic-shaken economy is not the best scenario for experiments.

Work after the pandemic is likely to be very different from that before 2020. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about people spending more of their working hours at home. According to the workspace provider IWG (formerly Regus), “hybrid working”, where staff work from home some of the time, will become “the norm”. The BBC has the story.

Working from home some of the time, or hybrid working, will become “the norm” for many companies after the pandemic, says global workspace provider IWG.

Firms will be looking to save money and be more environment-friendly by using less office space, said IWG chief executive Mark Dixon.

IWG said 2020 had been a “challenging” year as fewer firms rented its offices.

But it said it was ready to take advantage of “accelerating demand” for hybrid working.

Sky’s report on Spain’s trial is worth reading in full.

British Variant Fails to Live Up to the Hype Again

This morning I wrote that despite the British Covid variant – supposedly much more deadly and contagious – being dominant in the UK since December, positive cases peaked 10 days before the January lockdown, and instead of a Christmas surge, infections plummeted in January and also failed to spike in schools when they reopened in March. In Denmark, too, the dominance of the British variant in January and February was marked not by a new surge in positive cases but precipitous decline, confounding predictions.

Now we have two more places that show the Kent variant is failing to live up to the hype. The table below from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows that as of February 27th, Florida was the state with the highest prevalence of the British variant (B.1.1.7) at 13.2%, and Texas comes in third at 7.1%.

Source: CDC

These are also two of the most open states. Florida ended its restrictions in September and did not reimpose them in the winter, while Texas removed its remaining ones back at the start of March. So, for the past month neither has had any restrictions at all, let alone a lockdown “tough enough” to hold back the British variant. And what do we see? No new surge at all. The reopening in Texas even saw positive cases decline to their lowest level since last spring.

This isn’t modelling or prediction. It is cold, hard data on what happens when a state opens up or stays open for the winter. It is therefore also solid proof that restrictions are not needed to “control” the coronavirus. We already knew that from Sweden in the spring. Now we know it from Florida in the winter, and Texas, which is near the bottom of the pack when it comes to vaccinations, shows us what we can expect when we open up, British variant or no British variant.

Of course, there will still be new outbreaks of COVID-19, as some countries in Europe are currently experiencing. But how much more proof do governments and their scientists need that the threat is manifestly manageable without unprecedented restrictions on liberty, the efficacy of which is anyway unproven?

Kent Covid – not so much a tiger as a pussycat.

Negative Impact of Restricting Travel Extends Far Beyond Tourism

The broadcast media is wrong to focus only on holidays abroad when considering travel restrictions, Lord David Blunkett says. In a letter published in yesterday’s Telegraph, he highlights that the impact on trade and aviation is just as important.

Am I the only one who is tired of interviewers on broadcast media, particularly the BBC, asking: “Do you think it will be impossible to go on holiday abroad this year?”

Questions on this theme are not only put to politicians, but also to anyone with any kind of expertise – whether it’s relevant or not – on an almost hourly basis. This obsession then drives the narrative, which affects how decisions are taken.

Decisions about foreign travel have ramifications way beyond whether anyone can go on holiday. All of our future trading arrangements depend on people being able to be on site, to demonstrate products, and, of course, to be able to maintain and service what is delivered. Maintaining our aviation capacity is as much about freight as it is about passengers, and when airlines go into liquidation and airports cease to be viable, all of us lose out.

Perhaps in the weeks ahead these kinds of questions might replace the constant reiteration of the anxiety displayed by broadcasters.

Government U-Turn on Indoor Riding Arenas

Equestrian businesses have been dealt a blow by the Government which has decided not to allow indoor riding arenas to reopen on March 29th, despite previously agreeing that well-ventilated venues could open to the public. The British Equestrian Federation (BEF) has expressed its dismay about this change in legislation in a statement.

British Equestrian has been made aware that the recent legislation published by the Government now states that indoor riding arenas in England should close and will not be permitted to open on Monday March 29th in line with other outdoor sports facilities. This contravenes the agreed position achieved through collective work by British Equestrian, our member bodies, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) prior to the resumption of activity at the end of the first lockdown in 2020.

The following wording was included in the coronavirus regulations, but has since been removed.

…venues which includes the use of large, open and well-ventilated equestrian covered arenas (these are sometimes termed ‘indoor’ arenas by equestrians, but due to their size and ventilation are not considered indoor for the purposes of this guidance)

The BEF has raised this as a matter of urgency with Sport England, DCMS and Defra, stating that the change is neither justified nor reasonable, “particularly at such short notice”.

This is a reminder that all industries have been hard hit by lockdowns, including those usually overlooked by Government officials and the media.

The Diamond Princess Told Us About Pre-Existing Immunity, Asymptomatic Infection and the Infection Fatality Rate. Why Were Those Lessons Ignored?

A reader who’s just completed a PhD in biology has got in touch to point out just how prescient the data from the Diamond Princess cruise ship was. Why was that data ignored by public health panjandrums?

I thought to bring your attention to a paper published in MedRxiv by Russell et al from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on the 9th March 2020. They were looking at data from the Diamond Princess to try and establish case fatality rates. They got it wrong, but they did give the original data they used.

3,711 passengers and crew were on the Diamond Princess. Median age 58.

The virus had circulated undetected for 2 weeks, so given that masked-up health officials had caught COVID on board (The Maritime Executive 12.2.2020), it’s probably safe to assume everyone on the ship (or possibly only almost everyone) had been exposed.

Everyone on board had a PCR test (eventually)

619 out of 3,711 tested positive (17%)

Of which:

Symptomatic: 301
Asymptomatic: 318

Observed deaths:
(70 – 79 age bracket): 6
(80 – 89 age bracket: 1

So, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that 83% of passengers and crew may have had prior immunity.

Of positive tests, half were asymptomatic.

Of those who tested positive, ~1% died. No one died under the age of 70.

In the light of all the data collected in the last year as this pandemic has ranged across the world, it’s startling to think that the broad outline of what we could expect was already known, just no-one wanted to see.

BBC Upholds Complaint; Lockdown Sceptics Vindicated

Readers will recall that on January 1st BBC Radio 5 Live broadcast an interview with Laura Duffel, the matron at King’s College Hospital, about the surge of Covid patients that had been admitted over the Christmas period.

Among other things, the matron said:

We have children who are coming in. It was minimally affecting children in the first wave. We have a whole ward of children here and I know that some of my colleagues are in the same position where they have whole wards of children with Covid…

We immediately smelt a rat. Children are more vulnerable to seasonal influenza than they are to Covid, so how could this be true? I asked the Senior Doctor to investigate and, sure enough, it looked very unlikely to be true. He wrote a piece for us entitled: “Are there wards full of children in English hospitals?

On December 29th there were 474 Covid inpatients at Kings.

433 patients were in adult beds. A further 41 were in ICU beds (total 474)

If there had been any children with Covid in the hospital on December 29th, one would expect the total number of reported Covid patients to be greater than 474 to reflect the balance of patients in paediatric beds. So, if we assume the figures are accurate, there were no children suffering from acute Covid in Kings on December 29th.

Of course, it was possible that a “whole ward” of children suffering from COVID-19 were admitted between December 29th and January 1st, when the matron was interviewed, but, as the Senior Doctor pointed out, that was vanishingly unlikely.

Low Fertility Rate Fuels Fears of Covid “Baby Bust”

Britain’s fertility rate has fallen to historically low levels due to lockdowns, according to a new study, creating fears of a Covid “baby bust”. Southampton University’s Centre for Population Change warns that up to 66,000 fewer children could be born in the UK by 2023. The Telegraph has the story.

Britain’s fertility rate is believed to have plummeted to the lowest level on record in the pandemic, surpassing its previous nadir in 2001 before a wave of immigration from the EU.

The findings, set out in a new study by Southampton University’s Centre for Population Change, also warn up to 66,000 fewer children could be born across the UK by 2023, fuelling fears of a Covid “baby bust”.

The population experts suggest the fertility rate in England and Wales fell to an all-time low of 1.6 children per woman in 2020, below even the 1.63 seen at the turn of the century before arrivals from the European Union’s new member states increased the birth rate.

Under the report’s worst-case scenario, the rate drops to just 1.45 by 2023 as the impact of Covid worsens the existing pattern of falling fertility.

The report considers a range of lockdown-related factors behind this decline, including the worry of financial instability caused by job losses, and the postponement of weddings.

Researchers studying the impact of a year of lockdown and social restrictions modelled four scenarios for births over the next three years and warned that the pandemic will “depress fertility, particularly among young people”.

The CRC weighed up a range of factors from more young people living with parents and barred from socialising since last March, to the impact of some 200,000 postponed weddings, stress of home schooling for existing parents, as well as the fear of potential job losses due to economic uncertainty.

The study said: “Because fertility at all ages was declining before the onset of the pandemic, this could mean a further decline in fertility to historically low levels for the UK.

“Our projections show that for three scenarios out of four fertility is expected to decline over the next three years leading to significantly fewer births annually compared to the pre-pandemic period.”

Births only increase under one of the four scenarios – the most optimistic – where parents in their thirties opt for more children after lockdown(s).

Worth reading in full.

News Round Up