Month: April 2021

The EU’s Vaccine Passport Scheme Could Destroy Peace in Northern Ireland

Today, the European Parliament will vote on the introduction of vaccine passports within the EU, known as Digital Green Certificates. Ciarán McCollum, a barrister and linguist from Northern Ireland who advises on matters of European law, has written a piece for Lockdown Sceptics expressing his concern that this scheme will destroy the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. Here’s an extract:

The proposed regulation will cost Europe dearly. There are the financial implications of a universal border control regime which involves the constant handling of that most sensitive of data types: medical records. There is the loss of ideals intrinsic to European democracy. But more pertinently for me, there is the situation in Northern Ireland.

The Explanatory Memorandum calls freedom of movement one of the EU’s “most cherished achievements” and a “driver of its economy”. It is also a driver of peace in my home. The Northern Irish remain citizens of Europe without the Union, and will not accept being checked upon entry into what about a million of them consider their home: the neighbouring Member State of Ireland. The prospect of violence is terrible.

Despite these risks and contrary to the recently introduced Better Regulation Rules, the DGC controls are being rushed through with nary a cost-benefit analysis, impact assessment or public consultation and with limited parliamentary debate. Why? Well, in the words of the Head of the Commision’s Covid Taskforce, Thierry Breton, when speaking to RTL in March, so that Europeans can once again “enter a public place” and “live without being a risk to each other”. Could Mr Breton really mean to suggest that there ever was, or ever can be, life without risk? Has the Parisian gentleman, when crossing his home city by car for example, ever encountered the 4-lane 12-exit roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe?

Worth reading in full.

Number of Covid Hospital Patients in England Falls to Seven-Month Low

The number of people in English hospitals with Covid has fallen to the lowest level since last September, according to the latest NHS figures. The total is down by 96% from the peak in January. The Evening Standard has the story.

The number of patients in hospital in England with Covid has dropped to its lowest level for seven months, figures show.

A total of 1,310 patients were in hospital at 8am on April 27th, according to figures from NHS England.

This is the lowest since 1,299 on September 21st, and is down 96% from a record 34,336 on January 18th.

During the first wave of the virus, patient numbers peaked at 18,974 on April 12th 2020.

Both south-east and south-west England are reporting numbers down 98% on their second-wave peak, while eastern England has seen its number drop by 97%.

Patient numbers in the Midlands have fallen 96%, with London north-west England and the combined region of north-east England and Yorkshire all seeing drops of 95%.

The number of hospital admissions of patients with Covid has also dropped significantly since January.

Yet more good news, but will the Government – transfixed by the threat of Covid variants – take any notice?

Worth reading in full.

Almost 70% Of English Adults Have Covid Antibodies

New data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that across the U.K. more than half of adults are likely to have Covid antibodies. The figure is highest in England, where 68.3% are likely to have antibodies based on the ONS’s testing, which suggests that almost 70% of the population has had the infection or been vaccinated. Sky News has the story.

Almost 70% of the adult population in England now have Covid antibodies, the latest figures suggest.

An estimated seven in 10 adults (68.3%) in private households were likely to have tested positive for coronavirus antibodies in the week to April 11th, according to the ONS.

The latest estimate is up from one in two, or 53.1%, two weeks earlier.

The presence of Covid antibodies suggests someone has had the infection or has been vaccinated – and the inoculation rollout has now reached more than 33 million people across the U.K..

In Wales, some six in 10 adults (61%) in private households tested positive for antibodies in the week to April 11th, according to the same new figures.

This is also up from around one in two adults, or 48.2%, two weeks before.

The ONS said that the rise in antibody levels in older age groups is likely a reflection of the fact that over 12 million people (largely in this group) have had a second dose of a Covid vaccine.

The Mail also highlighted that the number of adults with Covid antibodies now is likely higher than the ONS is currently reporting.

Antibody levels are likely to be even higher now because millions more have been jabbed since the blood tests were conducted more than a fortnight ago, and it takes about two weeks for immunity to kick in… 

Official data [also] shows nearly 40 million people in England live in practically “Covid-free” areas, where two or fewer cases were recorded during the latest week. 

The Sky News report is worth reading in full.

The Growing Plague of Mandatory Testing in UK Workplaces

A Lockdown Sceptics reader has written to tell us about mandatory testing that’s happening at his workplace.

Regarding the story on Durham University today and lateral flow tests, you’ll probably be aware that there’s a growing problem of mandatory testing in workplaces.

I work in an office in London and we were told this week that twice-weekly tests are mandatory to come into the office. We currently have about 10 people coming in out of a possible 200+.

To make it worse, we were originally told these tests were advisory, but now apparently they are mandatory – something to do with the firm’s “duty of care to those with hidden underlying health conditions”. The people being tested are the same people who’ve been vaccinated of course, which shows the senselessness of the whole thing. And arguably makes the testing permanent, given that having been vaccinated doesn’t absolve you of the need to get tested twice a week.

People who hadn’t taken the test this week were sent home halfway through the day, despite having reasonable objections, including having recently had the virus (and so having the antibodies that meant they could neither catch it nor pass it on), and others not being prepared to risk having to self-isolate, given individual circumstances that make that impossible. Of course, companies can do as they please – but this is all so self-defeating and driven by all the wrong instincts.

Those of us grateful to still have a job and income have to pick and choose our battles. But why is there not more of an outcry over mandatory testing? Will mandatory vaccinations be next? You could make a case for all this (I personally wouldn’t) in a care home, but not in a normal office. Many people will say it’s the price we have to pay for getting back to normal, but it’s a high price.

My own circumstances are even worse but probably not unique. I refuse to comply with any of this because my partner had a miscarriage a few months ago, caused, we believe, by having to carry something heavy in her workplace which colleagues wouldn’t help with “due to the social distancing rules”. This is the true hidden horrific cost of lockdown and the other measures. She was then made to suffer alone in hospital on multiple occasions (family not allowed in), and even the paramedics were reluctant to come to the house – for a critical emergency – without ascertaining her Covid status. The cruelty of lockdown and the restrictions is my biggest bugbear, quite aside from its efficacy.

If other readers have stories about mandatory testing in their workplace, do email them to us here (saying whether you’re happy for us to publish your name).

Are We Being Kept in Partial Lockdown by Status Quo Bias?

Status quo bias is when one prefers the current state of affairs simply because it is the current state of affairs. First described by the economists William Zechauser and Richard Zeckhauser, this particular cognitive bias has been documented in many scientific studies.

However, you’d hope that it wouldn’t affect decision-making over something as consequential as a national lockdown. Where the lockdown is concerned, you’d hope that rational judgement based on firm principles, or rigorous cost-benefit analysis, would prevail.

Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case, as the Tory peer Daniel Hannan argues in a piece for Conservative Home:

Would anyone, coming fresh to our current situation, propose a lockdown? The vulnerable have been shielded: around 95% of people over 50, along with healthcare and care home workers, have had what turns out to be a highly effective vaccine. The inoculation programme is now reaching healthy people in their early forties – people for whom, in most cases, the virus would manifest as a cold. As I write, the latest daily death count is six. Not six per million. Six.

Even if you believe a lockdown was necessary to “flatten the curve” (which, incidentally, it very likely wasn’t), the curve has now been thoroughly flattened. And with seasonality starting to kick-in, any remaining benefit of lockdowns is rapidly approaching zero. (Recall that every European country saw declining death numbers last May.)

Despite all this, some lockdown measures are still in place. Hannan continues:

The trouble is that lifting restrictions is an altogether tougher proposition than not imposing them in the first place. People tend to anchor to the status quo. Governments are reluctant to relinquish the powers they assumed on a supposedly contingent basis. Just as with post-war rationing, bureaucrats fear chaos if controls are lifted, and struggle to understand the (admittedly counter-intuitive) notion of spontaneous order. Freedoms, as always, need to be prised from the cold grip of the administrative state.

And as Hannan notes, the costs of the ongoing measures are far from trivial:

Well, for one thing, each of the next 19 days will cost us several hundred million pounds. Sums that would have horrified us a year ago have now become unremarkable; but they haven’t become any smaller. To say “just another couple of weeks” is much easier if you are a government official at home on full pay than if you are, say, a restaurateur or hotelier. Every day in lockdown is adding weeks to our recovery.

It’s time for the Government to acknowledge that the last four months have gone better than expected, and the remaining lockdown measures should be lifted immediately. Meanwhile, Hannan’s article is worth reading in full.

NHS Mobile App Will Be Used as Covid Vaccine Passport for International Travel

The NHS mobile app, through which people currently book GP appointments, will be used as a Covid vaccine passport when international travel returns. The date of return remains uncertain: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said we must “wait and see” if May 17th continues to be viable. The Guardian has the story.

International travellers will be asked to demonstrate their Covid vaccination and testing status using the NHS smartphone app, the U.K. Government has confirmed, as the Transport Secretary promised to release a list of possible holiday destinations within a fortnight.

Grant Shapps said work had started on developing the app many people use to book appointments with their GPs so that it can show whether they have been vaccinated and tested for the virus.

But he was coy about when people would be able to start travelling abroad for holidays in interviews on Wednesday morning, saying the public would have to “wait and see” when they could go to some of the most popular foreign holiday destinations.

“Spain specifically, I’m afraid I just don’t have the answer to that because the Joint Biosecurity Centre will need to come up with their assessment and we can’t do that until a bit nearer the time,” he told Times Radio.

Speaking to Sky News, Shapps said he would be able to announce within a fortnight which countries people would be able to visit without needing to quarantine when they returned and added that domestic coronavirus statistics were on track for the Government to enable the resumption of foreign holidays next month.

“I have to say that so far the data does continue to look good from a U.K. perspective, notwithstanding those concerns about where people might be travelling to and making sure we’re protected from the disease being reimported.”

He added: “We do need to make sure that we do this very, very carefully… But, in the next couple of weeks, I’ll come back on and I’ll be able to tell you about which countries will have made it into the traffic light system – and that green list in particular.”

He said the green list would include the “countries where you’ll be able to go to, without needing to quarantine on your return, you will still need to take a pre-departure test, and one test on your return”.

Further doubt was cast on our ability to resume travel on May 17th last week when it was reported that the Foreign Office could refuse to sanction travel to countries on the Government’s “green” and “amber” lists since its travel advice is published independently of the “traffic light” system.

The Guardian’s report is worth reading in full.

The Truth About the Covid ‘Crisis’ in India

Now that Chile is settling down a bit, the latest Covid cautionary tale is India, which never seems to be out of the news at the moment as its positive cases and deaths have rocketed in the past few weeks.

Even the usually level-headed Kate Andrews in the Spectator has been painting the situation in lurid colours.

As it happened, the UK’s worst nightmares were never realised. The Nightingale hospitals built to increase capacity were barely used. But what the British Government feared most is now taking place elsewhere. India is suffering an exponential growth in infections, with more than 349,000 cases reported yesterday, as well as nearly 3,000 deaths. Hospitals are running out of oxygen for patients and wards are overflowing. There are reports of long queues as the sick wait to be seen by medical professionals. It’s expected the situation will deteriorate further before it gets better.

Jo Nash, who lived in India until recently and still has many contacts out there, has written a very good piece for Left Lockdown Sceptics putting the current figures in context – something no mainstream outlet seems to have any interest in doing.

Jo makes the crucial point that we need to keep in mind the massive difference in scale between India and the UK. At 1.4 billion people, India is more than 20 times larger than the UK, so to compare Covid figures fairly we must divide India’s by 20. So 2,000 deaths a day is equivalent to a UK toll of 100. India’s current official total Covid deaths of approaching 200,000 is equivalent to just 10,000 in the UK.

In a country the size of India and with the huge number of health challenges faced by the population, the number of Covid deaths needs to be kept in perspective. As Sanjeev Sabhlock observes in the Times of India, 27,000 people die everyday in India. This includes 2,000 from diarrhoea and 1,200 from TB (vaccinations for which have been disrupted by the pandemic). The lack of adequate hospital provision for Covid patients may be more a reflection of the state of the health service than the severity of the disease.

Jo Nash also points out that poor air quality plays a role.

Delhi, the focus of the media’s messaging, and the source of many of the media’s horrifying scenes of suffering, has the most toxic air in the world which often leads to the city having to close down due to the widespread effects on respiratory health…

Respiratory diseases including COPD, TB, and respiratory tract infections like bronchitis leading to pneumonia are always among the top ten killers in India. These conditions are severely aggravated by air pollution and often require oxygen which can be in short supply during air pollution crises…

According to my contacts on the ground, people in Delhi are suffering from untreated respiratory and lung conditions that are now becoming serious. I’ve also had breathing problems there when perfectly healthy and started to mask up to keep the particulate matter out of my lungs. I used to suffer from serious chest infections twice yearly during the big changes in weather in India, usually November/December and April/May. When I reluctantly masked up that stopped. My contacts have reported that the usual seasonal bronchial infections have not been properly treated by doctors afraid of getting Covid, and people’s avoidance of government hospitals due to fear of getting Covid. Undoubtedly, these fears will have been fuelled by the media’s alarmist coverage of the situation. Consequently, the lack of early intervention means many respiratory conditions have developed life-threatening complications. Also, people from surrounding rural areas often travel to Delhi for treatment as it has the best healthcare facilities and people can go there for a few rupees by train. This puts pressure on Delhi’s healthcare system during respiratory virus seasons.

Positive cases look like they may be peaking in many regions now.

News Round Up

No Benefit of Social Distancing and Capacity Limits, Study Shows

A new study published this week adds to the evidence that social distancing rules like the two-metre, one-metre-plus and six-foot rules offer no additional protection against COVID-19.

Professors Martin Bazant and John Bush from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology use mathematical modelling to show that the risk of catching the virus is unaffected by keeping your distance from infected people when in the same room because of the way the virus spreads via aerosols in the air.

Prof Bazant told CNBC that the six-foot rule “really has no physical basis because the air a person is breathing while wearing a mask tends to rise and comes down elsewhere in the room so you’re more exposed to the average background than you are to a person at a distance”.

While distancing offers some protection against larger droplets, it offers none against aerosols, which are a very common mode of transmission.

The peer-reviewed study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, uses a model to calculate indoor exposure risk based on time spent inside, air filtration and circulation, immunisations, respiratory activity, variants and mask use. Their conclusion is that it’s not social distancing that reduces risk but primarily the amount of time people spend in an enclosed space. The authors advise in the paper:

To minimise risk of infection, one should avoid spending extended periods in highly populated areas. One is safer in rooms with large volume and high ventilation rates. One is at greater risk in rooms where people are exerting themselves in such a way as to increase their respiration rate and pathogen output, for example, by exercising, singing, or shouting. 

Prof Bazant explains in his CNBC interview that this means many venues that have been closed can reopen at full capacity without increasing exposure risk.

What our analysis continues to show is that many spaces that have been shut down in fact don’t need to be. Often times the space is large enough, the ventilation is good enough, the amount of time people spend together is such that those spaces can be safely operated even at full capacity and the scientific support for reduced capacity in those spaces is really not very good. I think if you run the numbers, even right now for many types of spaces you’d find that there is not a need for occupancy restrictions.

The authors suggest that instead of an exposed person being defined as someone who has been within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes (as per the current CDC definition), whole rooms should be considered to be exposed depending on whether or not they exceed their cumulative exposure time (CET) with the infected person.

This does seem to be a more scientifically credible definition of exposure, but it also invites the possibility of yet more public health tyranny. And indeed, the authors propose regular mass testing at a frequency regulated by the CET for the space in question – and they’ve helpfully provided an app to enable us to calculate that. They explain:

For a group sharing an indoor space intermittently, for example, office coworkers or classmates, regular testing should be done with a frequency that ensures that the CET between tests is less than the limit set by the guideline. 

The need for this mass testing arises because they assume in their model that asymptomatic infections are no less infectious than symptomatic infections, so that simply asking people to isolate when ill is not enough to prevent exposure. Yet it is well-established now that asymptomatic infection is considerably less infectious than symptomatic infection and contributes very little to spread.

It’s worth stressing, then, that this is very much a model, not a study of real world transmission data and patterns, so is highly dependent on the assumptions and parameters that go into it. Some of those assumptions are more sound than others.

The assumptions relating to masks, for instance, are highly dubious.

The model tells you that if a restaurant with 50 people in it includes one infected person then people should spend less than 40 minutes there to avoid being infected. But if they are all wearing masks then this would be 28 hours! How does it arrive at that incredible difference?

CDC Says Fully Vaccinated Americans Can Now Go Maskless Outside – but Not in Crowds

When Joe Biden became the President of the U.S., he asked Americans to wear face masks for his first 100 days in office. Thursday marks his 100th day as President, but new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that only fully vaccinated Americans can do away with face masks outdoors – and even then, only when not in crowds. The Mail has the story.

Fully vaccinated Americans can now safely go without masks outside, the CDC said on Tuesday.

“If you are fully vaccinated, things are much safer for you,” said CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky during a Tuesday White House press briefing. 

“There are many situations in which Americans do not need to wear masks if they are fully vaccinated, particularly outdoors.”

As long as they are outside, people who are fully vaccinated can now exercise, go to small gatherings or restaurants with people who are vaccinated or unvaccinated. 

It comes amid mounting evidence – finally acknowledged by the CDC on Tuesday – that outdoor transmission of coronavirus is exceedingly rare, accounting for less than 10% of cases. Those risks are mainly linked to crowded events that can turn into super-spreader events, or people who were in close range of one another. 

However, in crowded places like concerts, parades or sporting events, even vaccinated people should still wear masks, the CDC’s new guidance says. 

The guidance is merely that – advice about what the health agency has deemed safe – and is not enforceable. It’s up to states, counties and cities to issue mask mandates and other restrictions. 

Several states, including Massachusetts and Kentucky rolled back their guidelines on mask-wearing outdoors on Tuesday morning, in anticipation of the update to the guidelines. 

Unvaccinated people can shed their masks too, if they are outside exercising or at small outdoor gatherings with vaccinated friends and families.  

In order to “make a point” about the new mask-wearing guidelines, President Biden took off his mask when giving a speech at the White House on Tuesday and kept it off until he was back inside.

Worth reading in full.