Day: 11 May 2021

In Defence of the Handshake

We’re publishing an original piece today by Dr David McGrogan, Associate Professor of Law at Northumbria Law School, in defence of the handshake. As far as Prof. McGrogan is concerned, we cannot hope to return to normal life unless we start shaking each other’s hands again. Here is an extract:

The handshake is alive and well and living in Paris – not to mention London, New York, and Stockton-on-Tees. Prohibition never eliminates a practice, as any fool can tell you; it just drives it into the weeds. And handshaking is no different. People are still doing it. And now it has a subversive edge. When somebody offers you their hand these days, it is no longer just the meaningless ritual of yesteryear – it sends some important messages, which are all the more profound for the fact that they are not consciously sent or received. Human communication is not just verbal, but physical, and one only has to think for a second to realise that our physical ways of communicating – kissing, hugging, shaking hands – are often the most significant. What words are there that can surpass a simple hug from a loved one at a time of crisis? Or a first kiss? Or a handshake on the playground after a fight?

The first unconscious message sent by the post-2020 handshake is simply stated: you and your fellow hand-shaker are simpatico. The mask-wearing, the social distancing, the fear-mongering – maybe you’ll go along with it if you must, but deep down inside, you hate it. And with that furtive handshake, both of you now know that you’re in the same club. The wheat has been separated from the chaff.

Worth reading in full.

Boris Promises a Full Public Inquiry Into the Government’s Handling of Covid Before the End of This Parliamentary Session

Boris Johnson has been pushed into promising a full public inquiry into the Government’s handling of Covid and says that one will begin before the end of this parliamentary session. MailOnline has the story.

The Prime Minister firmed up his commitment to an early probe into the crisis as he was grilled by MPs about the Queen’s Speech plans.

Up to now, Mr Johnson has seemed unwilling to give a timetable, pointing out that ministers and officials are focused on the response to the disease.

But Sir Keir Starmer and other opposition parties have insisted that an inquiry should start immediately to learn lessons.

In the Commons, Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Ed Davey urged Mr Johnson to set up an inquiry “on behalf of bereaved families across the country”.

Mr Johnson replied: “I can certainly say that we will do that within this session.” …

“I have made that clear before… I do believe it’s essential we have a full, proper public inquiry into the Covid pandemic.”

Although there is no fixed length for a parliamentary session, they typically run for around a year…

A full public inquiry would be likely to take many years to complete.

To date, most of the calls for an inquiry made by those in the media and political classes have focussed on the idea that the Government was too slow to introduce the first lockdown. Whether or not the inquiry will look at the impact of lockdowns on Covid mortality, other diseases, mental health, education and the economy – as Recovery suggests – has yet to be seen. I won’t be holding my breath.

The MailOnline report is worth reading in full.

Stop Press: The Prime Minister has announced that an independent public inquiry into the Government’s handling of Covid will begin in the spring of next year.

Stop Press 2: Julia Hartley-Brewer has stressed that “the key issue in the public inquiry… must not be whether Boris Johnson locked down too late in spring 2020 but whether he should have locked down *at all*”.

Travellers Complain of a Deterioration in Their Mental and Physical Health While Staying at “Prison-Like” Quarantine Hotels

People travelling into the U.K. from countries on the Government’s “red list” must isolate for 10 days in a quarantine hotel – and pay £1,750 per adult for the privilege! They’re not exactly getting their money’s worth, however. Some travellers have complained of a deterioration in their mental and physical health while isolating due to a lack of fresh air, exercise and proper food. The Guardian has talked to nine travellers who are or have recently been in quarantine hotels.

Some of them had travelled abroad due to sickness or death of loved ones and so were already in a distressed and traumatised state before entering the quarantine process…

While nobody challenged the need to quarantine, it is the way the process has been handled that has generated the complaints. A Facebook group called U.K. Hotel Quarantine Support Chat has been set up and has thousands of members, many of whom have raised concerns about quarantine arrangements.

Dr Sanjay Gupta, an NHS cardiology consultant, who was returning from Kenya where he had travelled to be with his dying father, said: “Not everyone can afford to pay the £1,750 cost. There seems to be something shamelessly opportunistic about this situation. But if you’re arriving from a red list country you don’t have a choice.”

Dr Thanjavur Bragadeesh, also an NHS consultant, who had returned from India where he was helping to care for his elderly parents after both had had surgery, said: “It took several hours to reach the hotel after arriving at the airport. The food is not good and the quantities are small. I got a small box of cereal for breakfast with a cheese omelette that was so hard that if I had thrown it, it would hit someone. One of the things I got for dinner was half a naan bread. I don’t know who got the other half!”

A quarantine hotel breakfast.

He said people quarantining had to be escorted by security guards for their 15 minutes of fresh air. “We are not prisoners, we are not trying to escape,” he said.

“I really feel for the people who are quarantining with children. The hotel staff have been polite but the conditions here are claustrophobic. It is perfectly reasonable and sensible not to bring infection into the country but things don’t need to be this draconian.”

Zahid Siddiqui, 58, returned from Pakistan where he had spent several months visiting his sick father. He expressed concerns about the lack of ventilation, fresh air and exercise and poor food.

“The whole thing was a nightmare,” he said. “I have various medical conditions such as atrial fibrillation and medical advice is that I need to take daily exercise. But I was only allowed to go outside for two of the 11 days. I have never been in jail in my life but this experience felt like it. I have never before suffered from depression but after my time in the quarantine hotel I now understand the meaning of the word.”

There are currently 43 countries on the Government’s travel “red list“, which will be reviewed, along with the “green” and “amber” lists, every three weeks.

Worth reading in full.

Lockdown Restrictions to be Eased Across Most of Scotland on Monday

Restrictions on meeting both indoors and outdoors will be partially eased across most of Scotland on Monday. Pubs will also be able to sell alcohol indoors once again. It’s bad news for those who live in Moray, however, where current restrictions are expected to remain in place. BBC News has the story.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the rest of mainland Scotland [other than Moray] would move to level two restrictions from May 17th.

Some islands will move to level one restrictions on the same date.

Under the level two restrictions, up to six people from three households will be able to meet in their homes, and can also stay overnight.

And Ms Sturgeon said it would also be possible for people to hug their loved ones again from Monday.

Alcohol can be served indoors in pubs or restaurants, which will be allowed to stay open until 10.30pm – and up to six adults from three households will be able to meet indoors in a public place.

Restrictions on meeting up outdoors will ease further, to enable up to eight adults from eight different households to gather.

Adult outdoor contact sports and indoor group exercises will be able to resume.

Cinemas, bingo halls and amusement arcades are also likely to be able to reopen, and outdoor and indoor events like concerts can restart – although capacity may initially be limited.

Yesterday, it was reported that Zero Covid deaths occurred in the last 24 hours in Scotland (as well as in England and Northern Ireland). Despite the continual fall in cases and deaths, and the success of the vaccine rollout north of the border, a further easing of restrictions is not expected to occur until June.

Worth reading in full.

Ministers “Haven’t Ruled Out” Ending Mask-Wearing Requirements on June 21st, Says Matt Hancock

Sky News presenter Stephen Dixon seemed desperate to pull a sliver of positive news out of Matt Hancock in an interview this morning. Discussing the rules on mask-wearing, the Health Secretary said: “In general settings, we’re keeping the rules on masks as they are for this step [of the “roadmap” out of lockdown, beginning on May 17th] outside of schools.” Hancock claimed that “the cost of [mask-wearing]… is really, really small”, though he failed to address the concerns raised in a recent peer-reviewed study in the scientific journal Water Research that “the toxicity of some of the chemicals found and the postulated risks of the rest of the present particles and molecules, raises the question of whether disposable plastic face masks are safe to be used on a daily basis”. He clarified that, for now, the rules “will be staying the same”.

“So there’s a possibility at least that the mask rule… could go in June,” Stephen asked. “We haven’t ruled that out,” Hancock returned – but it turns out that much else still hasn’t been ruled out.

We haven’t ruled that out when it comes to where we end up on social distancing rules and anything to do with certification domestically – for instance for large events. Whether that goes ahead… will all be set out ahead of step four [of the “roadmap”]… not before June 21st.

Given the extent to which the Health Secretary talked about face masks before being asked about dates, it seems as if the decision has already been made (at least privately) that mask mandates will remain in place beyond the “end” of lockdown, as per previous reports.

In the interview, quoted on the Sky News website, Hancock also discussed the updated rules on hugging.

We will be changing the rules to be far more about people taking personal responsibility, exercising common sense according to their circumstances.

We will set out really clearly the risks. People understand the risks – we know that – and we’ll make that very, very plain and then people can exercise their own personal responsibility.

… Grandparents, sometimes for the first time in over a year, will be able to be close to their grandchildren, but taking into account the individual risk of catching this disease which differs according to circumstances.

Worth reading in full.

Border Controls, Not Lockdowns, Explain the Success of Denmark, Norway and Finland

I’ve previously explained why “we have to compare Sweden to its neighbours” isn’t a convincing argument for lockdowns. However, the argument keeps cropping up on social media. So I’ll have another go.

As I noted in my previous post, Sweden has had more deaths than the other Nordic countries – whether you use ‘confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people’ or age-adjusted excess mortality. 

However, this doesn’t mean that lockdowns are what account for the divergent mortality trends. In other words, it doesn’t follow that if Sweden had locked down at the same time as its neighbours, then it would have seen many fewer deaths from COVID-19.

Even if you believe that lockdowns were the main factor behind the other Nordics’ low death rates (and they probably weren’t), the epidemic was already more advanced in Sweden by the time its neighbours locked down. And since lockdowns don’t have much impact unless case numbers are low (as in Australia and New Zealand), locking down probably wouldn’t have made a big difference. 

Moreover, there’s good reason to believe that lockdowns weren’t the main factor behind the other Nordic’s low death tolls. Rather, the main factor was probably border controls.

Let’s examine what each country did during the first wave, using the Oxford Blavatnik School’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. (I will ignore Iceland, since it’s a small island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, and its geographic advantages are obvious.) 

Recall that the Blavatnik School’s database includes several measures of government restrictions. I will focus on mandatory workplace closures, mandatory stay-at-home orders, and restrictions on international travel (i.e., border controls). 

Let’s start with mandatory stay-at-home orders. None of the Nordics had any days of mandatory stay-at-home orders during the first wave. (This is in contrast to the U.K., which was hit much harder than all four Nordics, and had a mandatory stay-at-home order in place between March 23rd and May 12th.)

Now mandatory workplace closures. Norway did introduce these quite early on March 12th. However, Denmark did not introduce them until March 18th – just five days before the U.K. And Finland did not introduce them until April 14th – more than three weeks after the U.K.

These comparisons reveal that the other Nordics did not lock down particularly hard or particularly early. Indeed, all three had less strict lockdowns than the U.K. (which saw many more deaths during the first wave). Finland’s success is particularly difficult to explain with reference to lockdowns since the country did not introduce any real measures until after the peak of infections.

News Round Up

Majority of Covid Hospital Admissions Over Winter Were Vaccinated, PHE Study Shows

The Government announced results from two new vaccine studies from Public Health England (PHE) yesterday. One looks at how much protection the vaccines offer against death once a person is infected, the other at how much protection against hospitalisation with COVID-19 the vaccines offer.

The study on deaths is the more straightforward of the two. It looks at PCR positive cases in England between December 8th and April 6th. It finds among 80+ year-olds: 16.1% (1,462/9,105) of unvaccinated cases died versus 9.2% (99/1,072) of cases at least 21 days after their first Pfizer dose, 11.3% (33/293) of cases at least 21 days after their first AstraZeneca dose and 4.7% (6/128) of cases at least seven days after their second Pfizer dose. These correspond to unadjusted relative risk reductions of 43% (Pfizer 1), 30% (AZ 1) and 71% (Pfizer 2) respectively.

Among 70-79 year-olds it finds 4.0% (1,147/28,875) of unvaccinated cases died versus 2.7% (15/549) for Pfizer 1, 2.1% (10/484) for AZ 1 and 0% (0/7) for Pfizer 2. This corresponds to unadjusted relative risk reductions of 33% (Pfizer 1), 47% (AZ 1) and 100% (Pfizer 2).

Once adjusted for sex, clinical risk factors, age and being a care home resident, these become relative risk reductions of 44% (Pfizer 1), 55% (AZ 1) and 69% (Pfizer 2). This level of reduction in the mortality rate among the vaccinated over-70s once infected is encouraging. The lack of data on deaths within 21 days of the first jab and seven days of the second jab is disappointing. Why do we have yet another study on vaccine efficacy with no accompanying analysis of safety?

The second study looks at whether vaccination protects against hospitalisation. Unlike the first study, it doesn’t look at those already infected (testing positive) to see whether they are hospitalised, but at those who are hospitalised to see whether they’ve been vaccinated. It analyses 13,907 admissions in trusts participating in a surveillance programme between December 8th and April 18th. It excludes those who caught the virus in hospital. It also excludes those whose positive PCR test was more than five days before admission (1,230 cases), the reason for which is not explained. The breakdown of admissions by sex, age and vaccination status is shown in the table below.

Notice that a majority of admissions in this period – 57% – had received at least one vaccine dose. An earlier study that I noted before, from the ISARIC4C consortium, had found just 7.3% of hospital admissions over a similar period had received at least one vaccine dose. The reasons for this huge discrepancy are unclear, but given that the earlier figure made headlines for showing how effective the vaccines are, and for the sake of clarity in data, it should be cleared up.