Day: 19 April 2021

Britain Records Lowest Daily Covid Death Toll Since the Start of September

The Department of Health recorded just four Covid deaths in the past 24 hours – the lowest number since September 7th, when three deaths were announced. The Mail has the story.

Department of Health figures showed there were also 2,963 new infections in the past 24 hours, down 17% on last week’s figure of 3,568. 

Today’s Covid deaths are the lowest they’ve been in more than seven months, after falling by almost 70% compared to last Monday’s 13. 

There is no indication that opening outdoor pubs, gyms and hairdressers last week, or reintroducing the rule of six late last month, has caused any uptick in cases. Coronavirus metrics are usually low on Mondays due to the way test results and fatalities are logged, but ministers will take confidence in the fact both cases and deaths are down significantly from last Monday. 

The statistics will inevitably pile more pressure on Boris Johnson to speed up his roadmap out of lockdown, with the next relaxation not due for almost another month.  

Mr Johnson has promised to stick to “data, not dates” when it comes to easing curbs but has so far refused to move quicker despite vanishingly low death numbers and just 2,000 Covid patients being treated by the NHS.

Cause for optimism, you’d think. But apparently not, according to the Government. The narrative continues to focus not on falling Covid cases or the success of Britain’s vaccine rollout but on the threat of Covid variants – particularly the Indian variant, which has landed the country on the Government’s “red list” for international travel. In light of this, Environment Minister George Eustice has said it is still “too early to say” whether the reopening of indoor hospitality can take place on May 17th.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Daily deaths from Covid have fallen below the average numbers from road accidents, latest official figures show. The Telegraph has more.

India Added to “Red List” over New Variant Concerns

India will be added to the Government’s “red list” for international travel as a “precautionary measure” after 103 people in the U.K. were found carrying the country’s Covid variant. From Friday, Brits coming from or through India will have to quarantine in Government approved hotels for 11 days, costing £1,750 per person (or £2,400 for two people sharing a room). Those who break these quarantine rules could face a fine of up to £10,000. The Guardian has the story.

India will be added to England’s travel “red list” from 4am on Friday, Matt Hancock has announced, as surge testing got under way to tackle a growth in cases of a coronavirus variant first discovered in the country.

The Health Secretary said that of 103 people in the UK who have so far been found to be carrying the Indian variant, the “vast majority” had links to international travel – suggesting at least some have been infected by community transmission.

He said scientists were working to see if the variant had any “concerning characteristics” such as being more transmissible or resistant to vaccines, but that in the meantime the move had been taken on a “precautionary basis”.

The decision means most travel from India will be banned, with only UK citizens and residents allowed to arrive from the country, and all those who do must quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.

Hancock admitted that the “biggest risk” to coronavirus restrictions being eased was a “new variant that the vaccine does not work as well against”, so surge testing would be rolled out “to make sure that we limit the spread as much as possible”.

Labour has (of course) supported the Government’s decision, with Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth saying that “we must act fast when the situation is controllable because in a few weeks time it might not be”.

The addition of India means there will be 40 countries on the Government’s travel “red list”, including parts of southern Africa and all of South America. While some have said that the Indian Covid variant could “scupper” Britain’s “roadmap” out of lockdown, others, such as JCVI member Professor Adam Finn, have said that this verdict is “pessimistic” because immunity from vaccines “won’t just disappear”. The announcement that India has been added to the “red list” came after the Prime Minister cancelled his trip to the country due to take place next Monday.

“I do think it’s only sensible to postpone, given what’s happened in India, the shape of the pandemic there,” he said.

The Guardian’s report is worth reading in full.

The War on Pubs is Being Waged by Puritans Against Joy

We’re publishing an original piece by former university teacher Sean Walsh today about the Government’s war on pubs. He sees this as a puritanical crusade intended not just to make sure no one’s having any fun but also to suppress dissent. Here’s an extract:

The Lockdown Sanhedrin, the SAGE clerisy, is itself infected with the virus of puritanism. It’s impossible to look at Chris Whitty without concluding that other people’s enjoyment presents itself to him as a sort of personal Kryptonite. Boris’s self-announced “libertarianism” seems to amount to little more than the thesis that he gets to do what he wants and the rest of us can go hang. But I think it goes deeper than that – the Government and in particular its advisers are in thrall to a metaphysics of joylessness.

At the start of this crisis, the Government decided that it was qualified to make a distinction between those activities which are essential and those which are not. The latter were consequently eliminated from the list of what was permitted. To put it another way, it took upon itself the right to decide what counts as work, and what counts as mere “play”.

But it is not clear that any such distinction exists, and if it does then it does not follow that we should prioritise work over play, even in a pandemic. Aristotle claimed that the “first principle of activity is leisure”: that we work in order to play; that play is a more valuable activity than work because it is something that is done for its own sake. The vulgar utilitarianism which has shaped SAGE’s pandemic response is a crude sanitisation of our understanding of the human soul. Not every worthwhile thing that we do as human persons can be reduced to the requirements of a Downing St data slide.

Worth reading in full.

“We Have to Compare Sweden to Its Neighbours” Isn’t a Convincing Argument

In a recent post on Lockdown Sceptics, I argued that the case for lockdown basically collapsed in May of 2020, when Sweden’s epidemic began to retreat. Sweden was the only major Western country that didn’t lockdown in 2020, yet it saw age-adjusted excess mortality up to week 51 of just 1.7% – below the European average.

A common reply is that, although Sweden did better than the European average, it did worse than its neighbours. Here its neighbours are taken to be the other Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland. Looking at age-adjusted excess mortality, it’s true that the other Nordics did better than Sweden. All four saw negative excess mortality up to week 51.

Does this mean lockdown sceptics are wrong to cite Sweden as evidence that the benefits of lockdowns are vastly overstated? No, I don’t believe it does.

First, the economist Daniel Klein and his colleagues have identified 15 different factors that may account for the higher death toll in Sweden as compared to the other Nordics. These include the greater number of frail elderly people alive at the start of 2020 (the ‘dry tinder’ effect); the larger immigrant population; and the lack of adequate protection for care home residents in the early weeks of the pandemic. 

Second, as the researcher Philippe Lemoine has pointed out, the epidemic was already more advanced in Sweden by the time most European countries introduced lockdowns and social distancing. The other Nordic countries therefore had a head start in responding to the deadly first wave. This is particularly important because, when the first wave struck, the best ways of treating COVID-19 were not yet well understood.

I would add that, with the exception of Denmark (which saw a moderate second wave), the other Nordics are small, geographically peripheral countries for which a containment strategy was actually workable. As I’ve noted in Quillette, all the Western countries that have managed to keep their COVID-19 death rates low (Norway, Cyprus, Australia, etc.) benefited from pre-existing geographical advantages. And all imposed strict border controls at the start (something the UK Government’s scientific advisers cautioned against).

Third, as the legal scholar Paul Yowell has argued, the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are similar to the Nordics in terms of climate and population density, and once you include them in the comparison, Sweden no longer stands out. Lithuania actually had higher age-adjusted excess mortality than Sweden last year, despite imposing a strict winter lockdown.

Finally, as Yowell also points out, the ratio of Sweden’s COVID-19 death rate to Denmark’s isn’t that much higher than the ratio of Denmark’s to Finland’s. And this is despite the fact that Denmark has taken a more restrictive approach than Finland. One could therefore take the comparison between those two countries as evidence against the efficacy of lockdowns.

What’s more, this exercise could be repeated with other pairs or trios. For example, despite taking a slightly less restrictive approach than Spain and Italy, France has reported fewer deaths from COVID-19 (as well as lower excess mortality). Of course, these kinds of comparisons don’t tell us very much. But that’s the point. We shouldn’t only compare a country to its immediate neighbours.

And when researchers have analysed European countries and US states in a systematic way, they haven’t found evidence that lockdowns substantially reduce deaths from COVID-19.

Pub Landlord Who Banned Keir Starmer is Sceptic of the Week

We haven’t had a ‘Sceptic of the Week’ for a while, but today is a good time to revive it following the decision by Rod Humphris, landlord of The Raven in Bath, to throw Keir Starmer out of his pub this lunchtime because the Labour leader has done so little to oppose the lockdown policy. MailOnline has more.

Sir Keir Starmer was thrown out of a pub today after being confronted by a Labour-supporting landlord furious that he supported the lockdown which had closed his business for months.

In astonishing scenes in Bath today, Rod Humphris, the lockdown-sceptic landlord of the Raven, had to be held back by the Opposition Leader’s security guards as he demanded he leave.

The incident was captured on camera by reporters amid a visit to the city to support West of England metro mayoral candidate Dan Norris ahead of the forthcoming elections.

Mr Humphris had clashed with Sir Keir outside the Raven, accusing him of having ‘failed to be the opposition’ by supporting the lockdown and backing plans to make schoolchildren wear masks.

As the politician paused the landlord waved a piece of paper at him, saying: “Do you know what the average age of death with Covid is?

“According to the Office for National statistics it’s 82 years and three months. The average age of death normally? Eighty one years.

“Do you understand we have f***ed our economy because old people are dying?”

As Sir Keir tried to walk away he continued: “No, no I came here to speak to this man not your security.

“You have failed me. I have been a Labour voter my entire life. You have failed to be the opposition.

“You have failed to ask whether lockdown was functioning. Do you understand? Thousands of people have died because you have failed to do your job and ask the real questions.”

Well done Mr Humphris. You speak for millions of lifelong Labour voters. Conservative MPs like Charles Walker, Desmond Swayne, Graham Brady, Iain Duncan Smith and Steve Baker are far more deserving of the title “Leader of the Opposition” than Keir Starmer.

Worth reading in full.

‘First Do No Harm’ Means Not Giving the Covid Vaccine to Young People

Today we’re publishing an original piece by Dr Alan Mordue, a retired consultant in public health medicine, about the risk to young people of being vaccinated against Covid. His conclusion is that only those aged 50 and over, or those with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, should be vaccinated. For the rest, the risk/benefit ratio means they shouldn’t get immunised. Here is an extract:

The AZ vaccine, like all COVID-19 vaccines, is still in the midst of a Phase 3 trial and this will not report on any long-term side effects until early 2023. If we apply the precautionary principle we would want some additional room to accommodate any adverse effects that emerge, so a 15-20 fold difference between benefit and risks would be reasonable. This begins to point towards 50 years as the cut off; below that the potential benefits may not be justified by the potential risks.

How about switching to another vaccine for the younger age groups? A “course correction” as Prof. Van-Tam called it? Unfortunately, we do not know about long-term side effects of the other vaccines either. For the newer ones there may also be rare side effects yet to emerge, like the blood clots for the AZ vaccine, and for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine there are concerns about higher rates of infection and deaths in the weeks immediately after vaccination.

Worth reading in full.

Police Unable to Deal With Crowds Due to Outdoor Hospitality Rules

While bad weather at the beginning of last week hampered the reopening of outdoor hospitality in some parts of the country, many venues were blessed through the week with sunshine, bringing plenty of Brits out to visit pubs and restaurants for the first time since before Christmas. The rule that all customers must sit outdoors has led to large crowds gathering at makeshift beer gardens in city centres, making it difficult for police to enforce social distancing guidelines. The Telegraph has the story.

Covid rules forcing people to eat and drink outside pubs and restaurants have left police in an impossible position with officers unsure how to deal with large crowds…

In city centres across the country, closed off roads were transformed into makeshift party venues with bars and restaurants offering outdoor seating for customers.

But despite warnings that social distancing rules must be maintained, scenes in areas like Soho in central London suggested little notice was being taken of the law.

As the drink flowed, hundreds of revellers crowded together in the narrow streets, leaving police with the headache of trying to control the crowds.

Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation said yet again the Covid rules had placed frontline officers in a difficult situation.

He said: “We are facing a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation still, and Soho is a prime example. How on earth are we supposed to police that? 

“The local councils have made it easy for people to do pretty much what they want. The council is carrying out regular patrols and are calling the police if there are any major problems but in terms of making sure people stick to social distancing it is extremely difficult.”

John Apter, the National Chair of the Police Federation, said: “It is clear that alcohol and social distancing do not mix.”

The pub and restaurant trade has also criticised the outdoor hospitality rules, insisting there is no evidence to maintain the ban on indoor venues.

The industry will find out this week if the High Court has granted permission to launch a Judicial Review over the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of lockdown.

A spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association said: “All restrictions have to be removed by June 21st.”

“That is the date when we start our road back to profitability. For us we are holding on but we need the second half of this year to save the Great British Pub. That is it in a nutshell.”

Despite this plea, it seems increasingly unlikely that the Government will even stick to the date of the next phase of its “roadmap” out of lockdown – reopening indoor hospitality. Environment Minister George Eustice said on Sunday that it is still “too early to say” whether this unlocking can take place on May 17th because of the threat of new variants, despite the success of the vaccine rollout and the fact that Covid cases have fallen to a seven-month low in England.

The Telegraph’s report is worth reading in full.

Closing Playgrounds during Covid Has Fuelled “Pandemic of Mental Health Problems” among Children, according to Parliamentary Committee

Of all the negative impacts of lockdowns, one of the most profound has surely been the stunting of children’s educational and social development, and the suffering among the young of “vicious cycles of increasing distress“. One of the causes of “a pandemic of mental health problems” among children was the closure of playgrounds in the first lockdown, according to a parliamentary committee. The Telegraph has the story.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood is calling for practical measures to help children recover from repeated lockdowns, which have left too many confined for long periods at home. 

Their report calls for the halting and reversal of closures of children’s playgrounds – saying it is now more important than ever to encourage more outdoor play.

Its authors said the decision to close off playgrounds during the first lockdown followed longer-term trends which have seen too many play areas sold off in recent years. 

MPs said children growing up in the shadow of Covid needed far more help to recover from the pandemic, warning that one in six children are likely to be suffering from mental health problems – up from one in nine three years ago…

The report warns that spending on play facilities has fallen by 44% since 2017/18, with 347 playgrounds closed since 2014. It also calls for “outdoor play” to be put on the National Curriculum, warning that the lack of free play, and the amount of time spent glued to screens, is fuelling a rise in children’s mental health disorders.  

Experts said the closures of children’s playgrounds and play facilities across the country during the first lockdown had exacerbated such problems, adding to frustration and anxiety. 

And they said that many children had also suffered fallout from their parents’ stresses during the pandemic, with many exposed to heavier drinking at home.

Responding to these findings, the children and parents’ campaign group UsForThem said policies should be optimised to support the health and well-being of children. The closing of playgrounds, it said, is “unnecessary, unscientific and damaging to children”.

Lea Milligan, the Chief Executive of MQ Mental Health Research, is quoted in the Telegraph report saying that the problem of poor mental health among children has become an “emergency”.

The most vulnerable in our society are the ones who will be carrying the heaviest burden post-pandemic. The increase in mental illness in the UK was already an alarming trend before Covid struck. Now it is an emergency.

Without action, many of our children could face a lifetime of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.

Worth reading in full.

U.K. Trial Launched to Deliberately Infect People with Covid after They’ve Already Had It

Researchers at the University of Oxford have launched a trial that will deliberately expose people who have already had Covid to the coronavirus again to study the level of immune protection needed to prevent reinfection (assuming reinfection is possible). It is hoped that the study will aid the development of treatments and vaccines. The Guardian has the story.

The first human challenge trials for Covid began this year, with the study – a partnership led by researchers at Imperial College London among others – initially looking at the smallest amount of virus needed to cause infection among people who have not had Covid before.

Now researchers at the University of Oxford have announced that they have gained research ethics approval for a new human challenge trial involving people who have previously had coronavirus. Recruitment is expected to start in the next couple of weeks.

“The point of this study is to determine what kind of immune response prevents reinfection,” said Helen McShane, a Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford, and Chief Investigator on the study.

McShane said the team would measure the levels of various components of participants’ immune response – including T-cells and antibodies – and then track whether participants became reinfected when exposed to the virus.

Participants must be healthy, at low risk from Covid, aged between 18 and 30, and must have been infected with the coronavirus at least three months before joining the trial. As well as having previously had a positive Covid PCR test, they must also have antibodies to Covid. Given the timing criteria, McShane said it was likely most participants would have previously been infected with the original strain of the virus.

The first phase of the trial will initially involve 24 participants split into dose groups of three to eight people who will receive, via the nose, the original strain of coronavirus. The idea is to start with a very low dose and, if necessary, increase the dose – up to a point – between groups…

The second phase of the study – expected to start in the summer – will involve a new group of participants and will study closely their immune response before and after exposure to the virus, as well as the level of virus and symptoms in those who become reinfected.

The vaccines which produce the required level of immunity – as determined by this study – could have their licensing fast-tracked without trials of thousands of people, according to Professor McShane.

If we can determine the level of immune response above which an individual cannot be infected, then that will help us determine whether new vaccines will be effective without necessarily having to test them in phase three efficacy trials.

Worth reading in full.

News Round Up