Day: 18 May 2021

Boris Tries to Clear up Confusion About Travel to “Amber List” Countries

Environment Secretary George Eustice said today that Brits can travel to countries on the Government’s “amber list” (which includes most European countries) in order to visit friends and family, so long as they quarantine on their return to the U.K.. This forced the Prime Minister to clarify that people should only travel to these countries if they “absolutely have to”. The Times has the story.

Travel agents have received almost triple the number of inquiries for holidays to nations on the amber list this week after the Government lifted its ban on international travel.

However, the Prime Minister said it was “very important for people to grasp” that the medium-risk category in the traffic-light system did not indicate a holiday destination…

The Government’s official travel advice states: “You should not travel to amber-list countries or territories.”

George Eustice… said this morning that the medium category existed because there would be “reasons” people needed to travel abroad, such as visiting family and friends…

Asked why, despite the travel advice, more than 150 aircraft had departed the U.K. yesterday for amber-list countries, Eustice told Today on BBC Radio 4: “We don’t want to stop travel altogether and the reason… that we have the amber list is there will be reasons why people feel they need to travel either to visit family or indeed to visit friends.”…

Hours later Johnson overruled Eustice, telling reporters: “I think it’s very important for people to grasp what an amber-list country is: it is not somewhere where you should be going on holiday, let me be very clear about that.

“And if people do go to an amber-list country – they absolutely have to for some pressing family or urgent business reason – if they have to go to an amber-list country, then please bear in mind that you will have to self-isolate, you’ll have to take tests and do your passenger locator form and all the rest of it, but you also have to self-isolate for 10 days when you get back.

“And that period of self-isolation, that period of quarantine, will be enforced with fines of up to £10,000, so I think it’s important for you to understand what an amber-list country is. People need to understand that an amber-list country is definitely not a green-list country.”

The amber list covers 171 countries and territories, with only a dozen destinations on the quarantine-free green list. Travellers arriving from 43 “red” nations have to pay £1,750 each to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days when they return.

Worth reading in full.

A Response to Dominic Cummings’ Pro-Lockdown Twitter Thread

Dominic Cummings – director of the Vote Leave campaign and former chief adviser to Boris Johnson – has written a pro-lockdown Twitter thread. However, I don’t find his arguments very convincing. What follows is a point-by-point response.

1/ Covid… Summary evidence on lockdowns. For UK political pundits obsessed with spreading nonsense on Sweden/lockdowns, cf. SW econ did a bit WORSE than Denmark which locked down, AND far more deaths in Sweden:

Not all sources indicate that Sweden did worse than Denmark in terms of GDP growth last year. For example, the IMF gives Sweden’s growth as –2.8% and Denmark’s as –3.3%. In fact, according to the IMF, only a handful of European countries had higher growth than Sweden last year.

It’s true that Denmark has had fewer COVID-19 deaths. However, it’s unlikely that lockdowns account for this difference. During the first wave, Denmark had zero days of mandatory stay-at-home orders, and did not introduce mandatory business closures until March 18th. But the country did introduce border screening on March 4th, followed by a total border closure on March 14th. Hence its success during the first wave is more plausibly due to border controls.

During the second wave, Denmark had about the same level of restrictions as Sweden, and in any case saw a moderate number of deaths. 

More importantly, the argument that “we have to compare Sweden to its neighbours” isn’t very convincing. Sweden’s age-adjusted excess mortality up to week 51 of 2020 was just 1.7% – below the European average. 

The epidemic in Sweden was already more advanced by the time its neighbours locked down. And since lockdowns don’t have much impact unless case numbers are low, locking down probably wouldn’t have made a big difference. What’s more, the Baltics 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.

Cumming’s tweet also links to an article by the economist Noah Smith, which argues that “lockdowns were good”. However, Smith doesn’t discuss any of the evidence contradicting his thesis, of which there is plenty. See herehereherehereherehere and here.

One of the biggest misunderstandings, spread by political pundits even now, is the ‘tradeoff’ argument. Fact: evidence clear that fast hard effective action best policy for economy AND for reducing deaths/suffering

The argument that lockdowns are good for both public health and economic output – that there’s no trade-off – only works if locking down enables you to completely suppress the virus. 

Once complete suppression has been achieved, the lockdown must be combined with a well-functioning system of contact tracing, and a well-functioning system of border controls. In the absence of these measures, a new epidemic will almost certainly emerge once the lockdown is lifted.

There is strong evidence that the UK’s lockdowns were bad for the economy. Indeed, the UK had the second lowest GDP growth in 2020 out of all the major countries in Europe, and its worst recession for 300 years. 

One could argue that the UK should have locked down earlier, but this is a bit like arguing China should have acted earlier to contain the epidemic in Wuhan. In other words, that ship sailed a long time ago.

What’s more, it’s doubtful whether the UK – which is much denser and more connected than, say, Australia – would have been able to contain the virus through measures like contact tracing and border controls. 

Dominic Cummings Blasts Boris for not Imitating China’s Policy of “Welding People Inside Homes” in Fact-Free Twitter Rant

Dominic Cummings has fired off his latest salvo against his former boss ahead of his appearance before MPs to give evidence on May 26th, laying into Boris Johnson and the Government for not locking down sooner, among other complaints.

The disgruntled former chief adviser to the Prime Minister wrote a series of posts on Twitter that began by criticising Sweden’s response before ranging over other issues including human challenge vaccine trials and the transparency of SAGE.

Those of us “obsessed with spreading nonsense on Sweden/lockdowns” are treated to Dom’s “summary evidence on lockdowns”. Unfortunately for him, however, he seems to get his facts from somewhere other than the real world.

Dom takes a shot at the “trade-off argument” – the argument that lockdowns intended to control disease have a lot of downsides. He argues that Taiwan shows how “fast hard effective action [is the] best policy for [the] economy AND for reducing deaths/suffering”, and that “if you REALLY get your act together not only is [the] econ[omy] largely unscathed but life is [close to] normal”. He claims the Government is “totally hostile to learning from East Asia” because they and their advisers believe “Asians all do as they’re told it won’t work here”.

It’s true that East Asian countries have suffered considerably fewer deaths during the pandemic than the countries of Europe and the Americas. But the idea that that is because they imposed lockdowns hard and fast is palpable nonsense. Japan has not imposed a strict lockdown and neither has Taiwan or South Korea (see below). Worth recalling that South Korea has more commonly been lauded for avoiding hard lockdown by being so good at contact tracing, not for being fast to lock down hard. Contact tracing is also very unlikely to be the main reason for South Korea’s epidemic remaining small, but either way there is no basis to Dom’s claim that East Asia’s success is due to hard and fast lockdowns. As for Taiwan’s current “normal”, that involves very tight border restrictions that have been in place since February 6th 2020, and the country has just imposed new restrictions on the capital region Taipei.

Over 80% Of Americans Have Had at Least One Symptom of Depression during Lockdowns

More than eight in 10 Americans have reported at least one symptom of depression during lockdowns, according to the results of a new survey conducted by YouGov and commissioned by Field Trip. Here are the key findings:

Close to half of Americans reported symptoms of mild or more severe depression according to validated depression metrics. Interestingly, even though these measures indicate a nation suffering with mental health challenges, 76% of respondents self-identified their mental health as “good” or better, suggesting a disconnect with one’s self-perceived state of mind and objective measures of mental health…

Women are more likely than men to indicate negative mental states (with 24% describing their current mental health as either poor or fair, compared to 18% of men)…

Younger Americans are also more likely to rate their mental health as poor or fair…

The negative feelings Americans are feeling are so severe that in the two weeks prior to this survey alone, nearly one in four Americans (24%) indicated that they have felt that they would be better off dead or thought of injuring themselves. 

The MailOnline has more on how Americans have tried to cope with their negative emotions over the past 12 months.

Americans reported drinking more alcohol, taking more drugs, watching more porn and overeating more frequently amid the pandemic compared to before Covid…

Every day for more than a year, Americans have either been stuck at home, watching global Covid cases and deaths climb from the hundreds to the thousands, from the thousands to the millions, or have been working jobs on the front lines with little diversion or social contact. 

And as infection and death rates rose, so did rates of depression, anxiety and mental illness…

Many [of the survey’s respondents] were trying to cope on their own, using mechanisms that could do more harm than good. 

One in five people said they were drinking to help them cope, with 37% saying the amount of alcohol they consumed had increased since the start of the pandemic. 

Unsurprisingly, with more time spent at home, and fewer activities to do, a quarter of respondents said that they’d been overeating. 

Women were more likely to use food to cope…

Men found themselves overusing another coping mechanism: porn. 

17% of men said they had been using porn to deal with negative feelings amid the pandemic, and 34% said they were watching more porn than they had pre-pandemic. 

Opioid use was up, too. One and 10 young adults (between 25 and 34) said they had turned to the addictive painkillers to help them cope, and 20% of those said they were using the drugs more often…

While many people were already getting help for, or planning to get help for their depression and mental health issues amid the pandemic, the survey suggests that there will be months, if not years, of mental health fallout from the pandemic ahead. 

The MailOnline report is worth reading in full.

Cabinet Meets Amid Claims There is “Close to Nil” Chance of Lockdown Ending on June 21st

Boris Johnson is holding talks with his Cabinet today amid reports that there is “close to nil” chance that lockdown will end on June 21st because of fears about the Indian Covid variant. The MailOnline has the story.

Ministers are preparing emergency plans that could see local restrictions used to combat hotspots, or even the next stage of the roadmap delayed.

In an echo of the tiers system brought in last summer, people in the worst-hit areas could be told to stay at home and restaurants and shops forced to close – with stricken businesses handed more grants to keep them afloat. 

There are also growing doubts about whether lockdown can be lifted across England on June 21st. Just a week ago Mr Johnson was holding out the prospect of a broad lifting of legal constraints and social distancing, but it now appears that a review of the rules is unlikely to report this month.

One Government source told ITV News that some of the loosening that took effect this week – including “Rule of Six” socialising indoors and in bars and restaurants – might have to be rolled back.  

“It is clear some social distancing will have to be retained, not everything we’ve set out for June 21st is likely to happen,” they said.

“But it is also possible some of the easing we’ve done today will have to be reversed.”…

Tory ministers and MPs have been warning the PM against changing course, complaining that curbs must not be extended to protect people who are refusing vaccines – which are believed to be effective against the Indian variant.

One Cabinet minister warned that missing the June 21st milestone could become Mr Johnson’s “Theresa May moment” – a reference to her failed Brexit deadline. 

“This freedom date is burned on people’s brains in the same way as her date for leaving the E.U.,” the source said. “When she missed it, she was finished.”

The source said Number 10 had “overreacted to panicked warnings from the usual suspects” in parts of the health establishment.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Boris has said there is not yet “conclusive” evidence that the roadmap will need to be altered and things will be clearer in “days”. MailOnline has more.

Writing in Top Science Journal, Experts Call for New Investigation Into Origins of COVID-19

There are two main theories for SARS-CoV-2’s origin. One maintains that the virus originated in bats, and then jumped to humans, most likely via an intermediate host species. The other states that the virus originated in a lab, but then accidentally escaped, perhaps due to inadequate safety protocols. 

It should be noted that there are two slightly different versions of the latter, “lab leak” theory. One says the virus that escaped was of wholly natural origin; the other says it had been genetically engineered beforehand. In the diagram below, A corresponds to the first version of the lab leak theory and C corresponds to the second; B corresponds to the natural origin theory:

The lab leak theory, you’ll recall, was initially dismissed as a “conspiracy” – even though the location of the first outbreak (in proximity to the Wuhan Institute of Virology) suggested it was by no means implausible. 

In September of 2020, Twitter suspended the Chinese virologist Li-Meng Yan after she claimed that SARS-CoV-2 was manufactured in a laboratory and accused the Chinese government of covering up evidence. (Dr. Yan subsequently fled to the United States over concerns for her safety.)

In February of 2020, 27 scientists wrote a letter to The Lancet, claiming studies “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife”. The authors stated, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”

In May of 2020, Anthony Fauci told National Geographic that the scientific evidence is “very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated”.

In June of 2020, Peter Daszak – organiser of the Lancet letter – wrote an op-ed for the Guardian. He again referred to proponents of the lab leak theory as “conspiracy theorists”, and claimed that his own work “firmly concludes that COVID-19 originated in bats”. (Daszak has actually funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and was the subject of 2015 news item in the journal Nature titled ‘Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research’.)

Children Told They Must Continue to Wear Face Masks in Classrooms by Local Authorities in Blackburn and Darwen, Bolton, Lancashire and Sefton

The Indian variant has been used to justify the Government U-turning on ending mask-wearing in the classroom, with schools in areas where the strain is more dominant having been told by the local authorities to keep to the mask mandate in place. The Telegraph has the story.

Whitehall officials have agreed with directors of public health at Blackburn and Darwen, Bolton, Lancashire and Sefton councils that masks should continue to be worn in lessons and corridors.

It comes amid rising concern about a surge in the Indian variant of Covid, which early data suggests could be more transmissible than other variants.

The Prime Minister announced at the start of last week that from May 17th, secondary pupils would no longer be required to wear face masks during the school day.  

But the Telegraph understands that by Friday evening, deals had been struck with several local councils to extend the use of masks in the classroom.  

A Government spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister has set out the measures needed to tackle the new variant of concern. In line with our plans published earlier this week to address variants of concern in education, we have also agreed with Directors of Public Health that face coverings will remain in place in Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Lancashire and Sefton. We are continuing to work closely with local authorities in these areas.”

The Department for Education (DfE) issued guidance last week which said schools should not seek to implement “restrictive measures” without the “explicit approval” of ministers.

Officials insisted that the national guidance remains that face masks are no longer needed for children while they are at school.

But they added that directors of public health at a handful of local councils and borough councils have been given explicit permission by the Government to advise schools that face masks must be worn at all times when indoors if it is not possible to socially distance.

Other schools have decided to continue instructing children to wear face masks in the classroom without approval from local directors of public health, despite the DfE sayings schools shouldn’t be doing so.

The Telegraph report is worth reading in full.

Stop Press: The UsForThem campaign group says this is “the quickest U-turn in the history of U-turns and a body blow for children”.

News Round Up