Day: 7 May 2021

The Maddening Mystery of Imperial’s Invulnerable Reputation Despite its Dire Record of Failed Model Predictions

Phillip W. Magness in AIER has crunched the numbers and shown how poor Imperial College’s modelling has been at predicting the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic under different policy responses in every country in the world (well, 189 of them). Yet for some unexplained reason Neil Ferguson and the rest of the Imperial team remain respected authorities on epidemic modelling and management. Magness writes:

COVID-19 has produced no shortage of doomsaying prophets whose prognostications completely failed at future delivery, and yet in the eyes of the scientific community their credibility remains peculiarly intact.

No greater example exists than the epidemiology modelling team at Imperial College-London (ICL), led by the physicist Neil Ferguson. As I’ve documented at length, the ICL modelers played a direct and primary role in selling the concept of lockdowns to the world. The governments of the United States and United Kingdom explicitly credited Ferguson’s forecasts on March 16th, 2020 with the decision to embrace the once-unthinkable response of ordering their populations to shelter in place.

Ferguson openly boasted of his team’s role in these decisions in a December 2020 interview, and continues to implausibly claim credit for saving millions of lives despite the deficit of empirical evidence that his policies delivered on their promises. Quite the opposite – the worst outcomes in terms of Covid deaths per capita are almost entirely in countries that leaned heavily on lockdowns and related nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) in their unsuccessful bid to turn the pandemic’s tide.

Assessed looking backward from the one-year mark, ICL’s modelling exercises performed disastrously. They not only failed to accurately forecast the course of the pandemic in the US and UK – they also failed to anticipate COVID-19’s course in almost every country in the world, irrespective of the policy responses taken.

Time and time again, the Ferguson team’s models dramatically overstated the death toll of the disease, posting the worst performance record of any major epidemiology model.

Magness has put together a table of all the countries with the predictions ICL made for them and their actual outcomes. The results should be fatal for the reputation of anyone whose job it is to make accurate predictions of the future course of events. But not ICL it seems, whose credibility appears to be invulnerable despite repeated and consistent failure. Magness wonders why.

Why is Ferguson, who has a long history of absurdly exaggerated modeling predictions, still viewed as a leading authority on pandemic forecasting? And why is the ICL team still advising governments around the world on how to deal with COVID-19 through its flawed modeling approach? In March 2020 ICL sold its credibility for future delivery. That future has arrived, and the results are not pretty.

Worth reading in full.

Vaccine Booking System Hasn’t Allowed Pregnant Women to Book the Specific Vaccines Recommended to Them by the JCVI and the NHS

The NHS’s vaccine booking site hasn’t just failed to keep people’s vaccine status private but has also failed to allow pregnant women to book the vaccines they have been advised – both by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and by NHS England – to receive.

The JCVI says that it is “preferable” for pregnant women to be “offered” the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines “where available” due to there being more “real-world data” from the U.S. on these vaccines and because “more research is needed” on the AstraZeneca vaccine when given to pregnant women. “Where available” is not strong enough for NHS England. GPs at sites that are only administering the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine were told last month to cancel all appointments for pregnant women and to direct them to sites where alternative vaccines are available.

Regardless of the advice given, it has not been possible, for this whole time, for pregnant women to book specific vaccines through the NHS vaccine booking system – an issue which is, at long last, being amended (though how long this might take is anyone’s guess). The Guardian has more.

After the Government announced that people under 40 would be offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca vaccine where possible, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) warned the system for pregnant women – who are advised to have the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines – was not working.

Charities said pregnant women had faced confusion, delays and wasted trips, with the online booking system giving no option to pregnant women to specify what vaccine they wanted…

Professor Wei Shen Lim, the JCVI chair, said he hoped NHS England would be able to overcome difficulties in pregnant women accessing the Pfizer or Moderna jabs. “I understand there have been some reports of difficulties in accessing the vaccines,” he told a televised briefing. “I certainly hope that operationally NHS England will be able to overcome those difficulties in access.”

A letter to health providers from senior bosses, including the National Medical Director for England, Professor Stephen Powis, published on Friday, said: “NHS Digital will be amending the national booking service in the coming days to allow pregnant women to book into specific vaccine appointments in line with JCVI guidance.”

Before news of the letter, Dr Pat O’Brien, the RCOG Vice-President, had said: “The latest Government guidance for pregnant women is to contact their GP for advice on how to receive the appropriate vaccine. However, GP practices are reporting that they don’t have the ability to do this, leaving pregnant women feeling frustrated and helpless as they are passed from pillar to post.” 

Joeli Brearley, of the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, said pregnant women had faced “insurmountable challenges” when trying to access the vaccine, including medical professionals giving sometimes inaccurate information.

“Pregnant women are telling us that this is affecting their mental health,” she said. “The Government has had a baby blind spot throughout this pandemic.”

Worth reading in full.

Vaccine Booking Site is National Disgrace

What follows is a guest post by our technology correspondent. He’s pretty unimpressed by the NHS’s vaccine booking site, following news of various data breaches that have hit the headlines in the past 24 hours. Incidentally, he’s right about you being able to find out anyone’s vaccine status if you enter a few of their details on to the booking site. I was able to find out my sister’s status within two minutes.

The Guardian and Telegraph report that the NHS’s covid vaccine booking site has a “glitch” which reveals people’s vaccine status. That’s a big problem, as the Guardian points out, because it leaves all of us in the U.K. open to coercion, bullying and scams whether you have had the vaccine or not.

It is also not a “glitch” as the Telegraph describes it. The Guardian is closer with “seriously shocking failure”. To be clear, this is not an unintended bug introduced by a hapless programmer that occurs in obscure situations. It is a design flaw that shows the people responsible for your most private data do not understand the absolute basics of online privacy and security.

So, what is the problem? Essentially, if you know a little bit about a person: their name, date of birth and postcode, when if you enter that into the site it takes you to one of three different screens depending on whether you have had zero, one or two jabs. If you see a test centre finder, the person has had no jabs. If you see a request for a reference number, they have had one jab. If you see a screen saying you have had both of your appointments, then they have had two jabs. So, there you have it, the entire nation’s vaccine status available to anyone who cares to do a bit of online digging. I just tried it for some people I know, and I now know their vaccine status. There is no attempt to check that you are who you say you are. Not even the most basic authentication. It is a completely open database of the entire nation’s vaccine status. Even worse, it is still online now, more than 24 hours after the scandal broke in the press and the NHS being contacted by the regulator.

To recap, this is extremely private data, about every person in the UK, and it is openly available to everyone in the world. The site has not been taken down, even temporarily. It is equivalent to the Government providing a website that tells you if someone is overdrawn at their bank or not. But this is arguably more private than that data. This is why privacy is so important. This is why we should be so reluctant to give our data to people who cannot look after it, such as NHS Digital. The riposte of “if you haven’t done anything wrong then you have nothing to fear” doesn’t work. None of us have done anything wrong, but because NHS Digital has screwed up, we are all now vulnerable to scammers, fraudster and criminals, and there is nothing we can do about it.

The response from NHS Digital is as shocking as their ignorance of online security: “people should not be fraudulently using the service”. Is that a joke? Is that what passes for security, asking fraudsters not to access the site? The NDG – National Data Guardian for Health and Social Care – is not much better and apparently toothless: “The NDG has contacted the organisations which run the website to ensure that they are aware of the concerns that have been raised and will discuss with them the twin important aims of protecting confidentiality whilst maintaining easy access to vaccinations for the public.”

Ensure they are aware of concerns? They should be demanding that the site is immediately taken down and prosecuting NHS Digital management. This is a disgrace and a national embarrassment. Serious action needs to be taken immediately.

“Cautious” Resumption of International Travel as Only 12 Countries Are Added to “Green List”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced a “cautious” resumption of international travel for people in England from May 17th, with only 12 countries added to the Government’s “green list”. Last month, the Commons’ Transport Select Committee told the Government to publish this list by May 1st “at the latest”. Missing this deadline and leaving the announcement to the last minute has placed the (already struggling) transport industry under even more pressure.

Travellers to countries on the “green list” will not have to self-isolate upon their return to the U.K., but they will still have to fork out for PCR tests. The lowest cost of these tests is currently £60, adding almost £250 to the bill for a family of four. The countries and territories that will feature on the “green list” are:

  • Portugal
  • Israel
  • Singapore
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Brunei
  • Iceland
  • Gibraltar
  • Falkland Islands
  • Faroe Islands
  • South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
  • St Helena, Tristan de Cunha, Ascension Island

Turkey, the Maldives and Nepal have been added to the “red list“. Most European countries will feature on the “amber list”, including France, Spain, Greece and Croatia, meaning returning holidaymakers from those countries will have to self-isolate for at least five days. BBC News has a guide to the rules for travelling to countries on the different lists under the Government’s “traffic light” system.

Each of the three lists will be reviewed every three weeks after May 17th, but a number of countries are expected to stay off the “green list” for quite some time. Those already on the list could also end up being relegated to the amber or red list (assuming the Foreign Office hasn’t already refused to sanction travel to them). MailOnline has more.

[The Transport Secretary] warned that the [green list] countries would remain on a “watch list” and reserved the right to take them off again if there is a spike in Covid cases.

Fronting a Government press conference tonight, Mr Shapps said the plan was “necessarily cautious”, adding: “We must make sure that the countries we reconnect with are safe.” …

The Department for Transport also announced that from May 17th, people who have had both doses of a coronavirus vaccine will be able to use the NHS app to demonstrate their status.

People who do not have the app will be able to request an NHS letter from that date.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: “Frantic work is under way” to prepare the NHS mobile app which will be used as a vaccine passport when international travel returns, according to the Guardian – “but there are concerns it may not be ready in time”. No shit.

Stop Press 2: The Telegraph reports that returning holidaymakers could face queues of up to eight hours at airports.

Stop Press 3: MailOnline has upped the airport wait to 10 hours.

Bolsonaro Refuses to Lockdown; Cases in Brazil Decline Anyway

We’re publishing a third postcard from our Brazilian correspondent today in which he explains that infections, hospitalisations and deaths are declining across Brazil, in spite of President Bolsonaro’s stubborn refusal to lock down in the face of overwhelming pressure. Which is just as well, says our correspondent, because it’s impossible to lock down the population of Brazil. Here’s an extract:

Bolsonaro may be an ass, he may be an environmental disaster, he might be far too close to criminals, and he might be a little too fond of hydroxychloroquine, but you gotta say it… the man has balls.

If a new variant, rapidly rising deaths, overstretched hospitals, travel bans, and international condemnation from the pro-lockdown crowd wasn’t going to lead to a lockdown, nothing ever would.

In Brazil, lockdown will never work, of course. And the funny thing is: everyone knows it. The media, the state governors, the scientists… everyone. Their demands are strictly political. This is a country where the vast majority of people work in the informal economy and can’t stay home, and an even larger proportion will simply do what they like anyway and dare the police to enforce it, who can’t and won’t. The super rich, who run the country, wouldn’t take kindly to being stopped from jetting off to Mexico, or Dubai, or the Maldives, or Miami. At one point, some small town Brazilian mayors put up fences on popular beaches to discourage mixing. Brazilian holidaymakers ripped them down and set up on the sand en masse.

The state governors, too, know the futility of lockdown, even as they scream for one. How do we know? Because they won’t impose lockdowns in their own states. They know such measures would be unenforceable and devastating… for them at the polls, as well as for the local economy, so they instead come up with the weakest restrictions possible, just enough to say they are doing something, and then blame the Government for why they can’t do more. The whole thing is a farcical game.

Worth reading in full.

Cases Halve in a Month; R Rate Falls; Fewer Than 1,000 Covid Patients

More good news today – if only Boris was paying attention to data, not dates. MailOnline has the rundown.

England’s coronavirus cases have halved in a month, the R rate is still below one, and the number of people in hospital has dropped below 1,000 for the first time since September, promising data revealed today.

Just 46,000 people had coronavirus in England on any given day last week, or one in 1,180 people, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The figure was around 112,000 towards the start of April – and is down 15% last Friday’s estimate.

No 10’s top scientists said the reproduction rate – which tracks the spread of the virus – was between 0.8 and 1.0, meaning the outbreak is still shrinking. This was down from 0.8 to 1.1 in the previous seven-day period.

Meanwhile, NHS figures show the number of infected patients in hospitals across England has dropped into three figures for the first time since the second wave spiralled out of control nine months ago. Daily admissions are now below 100.

The data follows on from promising statistics from Public Health England and a symptom-tracking app yesterday, which showed the easing of restrictions on April 12th has not triggered any spike in the disease.

Boris Johnson is under mounting pressure to speed up his roadmap out of lockdown, with businesses and MPs warning that they risk suffering another lost summer if there are further delays. But the Prime Minister has refused to budge from plans to re-allow holidays and indoor hospitality from May 17th, despite promising he would be led by “data not dates”.

Come on BoJo. What are you waiting for? Reward the electorate for delivering yet another hammer blow to the Labour Party and set them free.

Worth reading in full.

Under-40s to be Offered Alternative to AstraZeneca Jab

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has issued new guidance today saying that adults aged 30 to 39 without underlying health conditions should be offered an alternative to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. MailOnline has more.

Britons under 40 should be offered an alternative to the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine due to its link to rare blood clots, health officials announced today.

Advisers made the recommendation after more adults suffered the potentially-fatal clotting disorder in the past week.

They said the absolute risk of the clots is still “extremely small”, affecting around one in 100,000 people given the British-made jab.

So far regulators have spotted major blood clots in 242 people, of whom 49 died. But they are occurring more in younger adults, with a rate of around one in 60,000 under-40s.

Experts said the infection rate in the UK is now so low that the risk of the rare clots outweigh that of Covid in younger adults, who often only suffer mild illness. They will be offered the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines instead.

That final point is interesting. Does it mean that health officials have calculated that the risk of dying from a blood clot after being receiving the AZ jab is greater than the risk of someone under-40 with no underlying health conditions dying from Covid? To date, 49 people have died from blood clots after being given the AZ vaccine. If we assume that at least a half of the 35 million Britons who’ve been inoculated got an AZ jab (a conservative assumption), that means the risk of dying from a blood clot after receiving the AZ vaccine is ~49/17,500,000.

So is the JCVI saying that the risk of someone under-40 with no underlying health conditions dying from COVID-19 is < 49/17,500,000?

Even I hadn’t realised the risk was quite so infinitesimally small.

Worth reading in full.

Immunity Passports: A Debate Between Jay Bhattacharya and Alberto Giubilini

Today we’re publishing a debate about the pros and cons of immunity passports between Dr. Alberto Giubilini, a Senior Research Fellow in the Oxford Philosophy Faculty, and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University. If any readers would like to participate in this debate, please send your contributions to lockdownsceptics@gmail.com and we’ll publish a round-up in a few days’ time.

Here is an extract from Dr. Giubilini’s contribution:

There are many people among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. These would be exempted from passport requirements – medical exemptions are normally applied where vaccine mandates are in place. Besides, there are many people in the most vulnerable groups who, even if they have been vaccinated, are not protected, given that vaccines are not 100% effective. We need to maximize the chances of protecting these people as far as is reasonably possible. (Which excludes lockdown. These are unreasonable measures.)

Their freedom to have a normal life, to travel, to go to public spaces, to socialise – in other words, their fundamental freedoms (the very same ones that lockdown denies) – presuppose that they are able do all these things as safely as possible. If I am an unvaccinated vulnerable person and I have reason to think very few people in my local pub or in my community are vaccinated, in an important sense I am not free to go to the pub or to the shops. (I would only be free in a legal sense, but that is not the kind of freedom that matters the most.) Doing that would mean taking on quite a large risk (I am in a vulnerable group after all), and that would be true even if I am vaccinated (vaccines are not 100% effective, after all).

Because my liberty matters and arguably the state has a responsibility to protect it as much as is reasonably possible, I can reasonably expect some safeguards to be in place to guarantee that it is safe for me to do all these things.

An immunity passport scheme can offer some extra level of protection to vulnerable people by significantly reducing the chances of transmission without all the costs of lockdown. Vaccines might not be as effective at preventing transmission as they are at preventing disease, but even a reduction of risk can be important.

And here is an extract from Dr. Bhattacharya’s reply:

Vaccine hesitancy among those most susceptible to severe outcomes after Covid infection (primarily the elderly) is the key public health problem at this point in the epidemic. Age is the most important risk factor for severe Covid infection outcomes; there is a thousand-fold difference between the mortality risk faced by the oldest individuals and the youngest after infection. A comprehensive meta-analysis of seroprevalence studies published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation finds that people aged 70 and over have a 95% infection survival rate. In comparison, people under 70 have a 99.95% infection survival rate.

In the U.S., more than 80% of the elderly population has already received one vaccine dose (of the two shot regimens), and 70% are fully vaccinated. It has been difficult for states to move that fraction higher for various reasons, but perceived doubts about the vaccine’s safety features prominently among the explanation. While the adenovirus vaccines have triggered a safety signal in younger populations that have led regulatory agencies to issue black box warnings, there have been no safety problems established for these vaccines in the older population. But the issue is one of perceived safety rather than actual safety.

To that specific population that is already largely distrustful of public health authorities (and with much good reason given their manifest failures during this pandemic), the imposition of immunity passports will have the paradoxical effect of reducing vaccine demand. A certain kind of person, over-represented in the vaccine-hesitant group, will respond to an immunity passport requirement by wondering why, if the vaccine is so great, public health authorities and businesses are coercing him to get it? I confess that I have had this thought, even though I have read the vaccine trial data closely, think that the vaccines are great, recommended vaccination strongly to my older friends and family members, and am fully vaccinated myself. Worse, there is the distinct possibility that the distrust of public health created by Covid immunity passports will foster further erosion of the popular support for other vaccines such as the MMR vaccine that protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. If this occurs, it would be a disaster from a public health perspective.

The debate is very much worth reading in full.

Face Mask Requirement in Secondary Schools Expected to End on May 17th

After being urged not to “pander” to the pro-mask teaching unions, the Prime Minister is expected to stick to his plan to end the face mask requirement in secondary school classes when the next step of the Government’s “roadmap” out of lockdown comes into force. Mask-wearing will, however, continue to be encouraged in school corridors. The Telegraph has the story.

The Prime Minister will confirm that the Government guidance is changing from May 17th, when England moves into stage three of the reopening roadmap, according to multiple senior Whitehall sources.

Officials at the Department for Education are already drafting the new guidance, which will drop the recommendation that English secondary school pupils should wear face masks in class, while still encouraging their use in corridors.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, told the Telegraph that the success of the vaccine rollout and the current low level of Covid cases in schools had paved the way for the move.

“As infection rates continue to decline and our vaccination programme rolls out successfully, we plan to remove the requirement for face coverings in the classroom at step three of the roadmap,” he said.

However, on Thursday night education trade unions – which have been pushing to keep masks in classrooms into the summer – threatened to defy the change.

Kevin Courtney, the Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said he would stick by teachers who still wanted pupils to wear masks, adding the coverings remained in place as a “precautionary measure”.

The Government guidance is only advisory rather than backed by law, meaning teachers will retain some autonomy about what to do in the classroom.

Meanwhile across the rest of society, rules on mask wearing are expected to stay in place even past the “end” of lockdown in June.

The Telegraph report is worth reading in full.

Was a Passenger Train the First Victim of the Lockdown Policy?

A reader has emailed us the details of what might have been the first victim of lockdown: a passenger train.

This story of a somewhat unusual victim of lockdown may be of interest: a CrossCountry passenger train. A freight driver went to work shortly after Boris Johnson’s announcement of lockdown number one. Mr Johnson’s edict had placed him, like many others, in the very difficult position of trying to arrange childcare in order to continue his work. He became so distracted by trying to resolve the sudden predicament in which he found himself, via his mobile phone, that he drove his train into a buffer stop. The train derailed and partially blocked the adjacent passenger line.

Less than a minute later, a CrossCountry passenger train came hurtling by at 85mph and collided with the derailed vehicle, suffering extensive damage as a result. Was this the first victim of lockdown? The Rail Accident Investigation Branch has the full report.

Thankfully, no humans were injured, but with a modicum of imagination, it is easy to see how the event almost led to major tragedy. Sadly, the more than 13 year run without a passenger fatality in a U.K. train accident did come to an abrupt end just a couple of months later. The BBC were quick to blame climate change, but we await the findings of the official investigation report.