Day: 26 May 2021

U.K. Records 3,000 Covid Cases for the First Time in a Month – but Deaths Stay in Single Figures

Professor Neil Ferguson says that the spread of the Indian Covid variant could result in lockdown restrictions needing to be “tightened” – but as Britain recorded more than 3,000 Covid cases today for the first time in a month, deaths remained in the single figures. This follows Professor Sunetra Gupta’s recent warning regarding fear being drummed up about variants due to an increase in cases.

What we’re trying to do is prevent people from dying. Whether or not infections go up with a new variant is not relevant. It is important that people don’t die.

We have protected vulnerable people now… I’m sure that [vaccines] will protect vulnerable people against this new variant from death. Maybe not from infection, but that’s not relevant…

The MailOnline has more on the most recent Covid figures.

Daily infections today (3,180) spiked by 18% compared to last Wednesday’s figure, reaching their highest level since April 12th (3,568).

But deaths remained in single figures, with nine fatalities today up slightly on the three posted last Wednesday. Day-to-day counts can fluctuate – but the overall trend remains flat.

And Britain’s mammoth vaccine drive continued at full steam ahead, with 387,987 top-up jabs dished out across the country yesterday. It takes the U.K.’s number of fully vaccinated adults to more than 23.6 million…

It comes as “Professor Lockdown” Neil Ferguson today said it was impossible to say whether the June 21st date for England’s last stage of easing restrictions will go ahead because of the Indian variant.

He warned the B.1.617.2 strain – which is now spreading in almost half of England’s 300-plus authorities – could hinder Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown and lead to measures needing to be “tightened”, if data showed it was much more transmissible. 

But the notoriously cautious academic struck a note of optimism, saying the huge vaccine roll-out means the U.K. is currently in a “much better place” than in December, when the Kent variant first began surging through the country before triggering a devastating second wave.

And Professor Ferguson… also suggested the nation could cope if the variant was proven to only be 20 to 30% more transmissible – which SAGE experts say is feasible.  

Worth reading in full.

Live Music Venues Beset by Regulations – and Not Just Ones Imposed by the Government

Audiences at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club won’t be dancing cheek to cheek anytime soon, with the famous London venue having introduced a raft of “Covid protocols” (some already required by the Government, others not), including mask-wearing, facial thermometers and protective screens. Here’s a list of new rules from their website.

  • Face coverings must be worn when entering and leaving the venue or anytime you are not seated. Staff will wear face coverings.
  • Upon entering the club there will be an optional sanitiser station and a facial thermometer which you will be asked to use;
  • All guests must scan the Track and Trace QR Poster on arrival at the club.
  • We have removed entrance furniture to ease congestion in and out of the venue;
  • We have increased our cleaning system using medical grade sanitiser on all surfaces;
  • We politely ask customers not to bring excessive baggage that needs to be checked into the cloakroom to ease congestion upon entering and leaving the club;
  • Increased hand washing of staff and staff health declarations;
  • We have gone cashless. Your PDQ machine will be cleaned between each use;
  • We have reduced capacity to 50% to allow for spacing between guests;
  • We have adapted our air conditioning system to ensure there is 100% fresh air being circulated in the club;
  • We have installed some protective screens in certain areas.

As if this wasn’t enough, the Club points out that these are “just a few” of the measures which it has introduced to ensure the safety of its staff, musicians and audience members. Incredibly, it says that this can all be done while “maintaining the atmosphere of the club”. Yeah, right!

If all (or most) live entertainment venues return to action in this manner, their post-lockdown recoveries could well be short-lived.

Department for Education Is “Surprisingly Resistant” to Investigating the Failures in Its Covid Response, Says New Report

The Department for Education’s (DfE) lack of planning for how to deal with a pandemic, along with its failure to set standards for remote learning when lockdowns struck, resulted in children receiving “unequal [educational] experiences” over the past year, according to a new report. This report also says that the department has been “surprisingly resistant” to investigating the shortfalls in its Covid response. The Guardian has the story.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) also said there was evidence that the Government’s £1.7 billion catch-up programme – designed to restore the learning lost during school closures – may not be connecting with many of the most disadvantaged children. The committee’s report describes the DfE as having “worthy aspirations but little specific detail”.

Meg Hillier, Chair of the PAC, said: “The pandemic has further exposed a very ugly truth about the children living in poverty and disadvantage, who have been hit particularly hard.

“Online learning was inaccessible to many children even in later lockdowns and there is no commitment to ongoing additional funding for IT. Schools will be expected to fund laptops out of their existing, and already squeezed, budgets.”

Hillier said the DfE “appears uninterested in learning lessons from earlier in the pandemic”, preferring to wait for later public inquiries.

“It shows little energy and determination to ensure that its catch-up offer is sufficient to undo the damage of the past 14 months,” Hillier said.

The report, after hearings conducted by the bipartisan committee, was deeply critical of the DfE’s failings towards children with special educational needs and disabilities, many of who struggled with remote learning, and over the future of the more than one million digital devices it had distributed to schools at a cost of £400 million.

The DfE told the committee that the laptops and tablets were now owned by schools and local authorities, which would have to maintain and update them using existing budgets.

The committee accused the DfE of being “unprepared” for the disruption despite taking part in the Government’s 2016 cross-departmental exercise to test the U.K.’s response to a pandemic, called Operation Cygnus. The MPs also found that the DfE was “surprisingly resistant” to investigating its response since March 2020.

Numerous studies have highlighted that pupils made little to no progress while learning from home – so why the reluctance from the DfE to investigate its errors in fixing this?

The Guardian report is worth reading in full.

Matt Hancock Should Have Been Sacked for “Lying to Everybody on Multiple Occasions”, Says Cummings

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former Chief Aide, began his appearance in front of a joint meeting of the Science and Technology Select Committee and the Health and Social Care Select Committee today by apologising for his own mistakes relating to the Government’s response to Covid and for falling – alongside ministers, advisors and other officials – “disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect… in a crisis like this”.

It didn’t take long for Dominic’s attention to turn to the failings of others. Perhaps his most eye-catching assertion was that Health Secretary Matt Hancock should have been sacked “for at least 15 to 20 things”, including “lying to everybody on multiple occasions”. The MailOnline has more.

He accused the Health Secretary, among other things, of overplaying the U.K.’s readiness for a massive infectious disease outbreak early last year.

And in a gobsmaking [sic] personal attack, which even took the MPs on the Commons Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees by surprise, he today said: “Like in much of the Government system, there were many brilliant people at relatively junior and middle levels who were terribly let down by senior leadership.

“I think the Secretary of State for Health should’ve been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly. 

“There’s no doubt at all that many senior people performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has a right to expect. I think the Secretary of State for Health is certainly one of those people.

“I said repeatedly to the Prime Minister that he should be fired, so did the Cabinet Secretary, so did many other senior people.”

Mr Cummings said one of Matt Hancock’s lies was that everybody got the treatment they deserved in the first peak when “many people were left to die in horrific circumstances”.

Asked to provide evidence of the Health Secretary’s lying, the former Chief Aide to the Prime Minister told the Commons committee: “There are numerous examples. I mean in the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment that they required.

“He knew that that was a lie because he had been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak, and we were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.”

Mr Cummings said that assurances given to him by Mr Hancock in January last year that pandemic preparations were brilliant “were basically completely hollow”.

Other points made by Cummings relating to the Government’s Covid response were highlighted by Toby last night, and Sky News has since produced a handy report on the main allegations made in the session.

The MailOnline report is also worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Freddie Sayers of UnHerd has written about Dom’s fantasy version of events: that he invented lockdown.

Stop Press 2: Having watched DC’s testimony, Ross Clark says in the Telegraph that it’s just as well he’s out of Government because his contempt for democracy was palpable.

Stop Press 3: A senior Tory has told the Telegraph that Hancock is now the Cabinet member least likely to be moved in the coming reshuffle.

Dominic Cummings might be gunning for Matt Hancock – but that doesn’t mean he is at risk from a demotion at the next reshuffle if the word in Westminster is to be believed.

One senior Tory tells me: “Matt Hancock has now got the safest role in govt – Boris won’t sack him now.”

That’s not to say the claims aren’t being believed. “[Matt] can exaggerate,” says the MP. “He hears things are possible and then tells you that it is already happening. It’s v plausible.”

But he is safe because the Prime Minister “won’t admit Cummings is right… it would show weakness if Boris did it now”.

“And Hancock is the shield for the boss,” the backbencher adds.

Taken from the Telegraph‘s live blog of Cummings’ testimony.

M&S’s Annual Profit Slumps 88% During Lockdowns and the Retailer Plans to Close More Stores

The economic disruption caused by numerous lockdowns has been deeply felt by Marks & Spencer (M&S), with the retailer’s full-year profit having slumped by 88%. This is largely due to a collapse in clothing sales, the recovery of which is likely to be hampered by the post-lockdown shift to “hybrid working“, where staff only visit the office some of the time. Despite this, the company says it has traded well in the early weeks of the 2021-22 year and that it believes profits will recover. Reuters has more.

M&S, which also sells upmarket food, made a pretax profit before one-off items of £50.3 million… in the year to April 3rd, down from the £403.1 million made in 2019-20.

The 137-year old group, one of the best-known names in British retail, said like-for-like clothing and homeware sales plunged 31.5%, damaged by multiple coronavirus lockdowns which shuttered stores.

Clothing and homeware sales in stores crashed 56.2%, partly offset by online growth of 53.9%.

In food, where space remained open during the crisis, like-for-like sales rose 1.3%.

On a statutory basis, M&S sank to a pretax loss of £209.4 million, versus a profit of £67.2 million in 2019-20.

All U.K. clothing retailers have been hit hard by the pandemic. Last month Primark… which does not trade online, reported a drop in annual profit of 90%. Next, … which has a huge online business, has shown greater resilience but its full-year profit still fell 53%.

Worth reading in full.

The damage to its profits has forced the retailer to commit to closing another 30 stores over the next 10 years. BBC News has the story.

M&S has already closed or relocated 59 main stores, as well as cutting 7,000 jobs across stores and management.

The chain has reported big losses for last year as the pandemic took its toll on clothing sales.

But food sales were up thanks to its Ocado tie-up, contributing to “a resilient financial performance in a year of disruption”…

The High Street stalwart currently has 254 full-line stores… It says that a number of them are in long-term decline and cannot justify future investment. 

About 30 stores will gradually close over the next decade, while another 80 will be moved to better locations or merged with nearby shops. 

The group will open 17 new or expanded main stores over the next two years, including a number of former Debenhams sites.

Also worth reading in full.

LA Times Publishes Unconvincing Defence of Lockdowns and Gets Ratioed on Twitter

At this stage of the pandemic, you really can’t get away with sweeping, unqualified claims about the virtues of lockdown – there’s just too much evidence in the other direction. So the LA Times discovered last week.

On May 19th, the paper published a column entitled: “The evidence is clear – COVID lockdowns saved lives without harming economies.” However, when it shared the article on Twitter, it ended up getting severely ratioed. As of this writing, the relevant tweet has 384 likes and 3.8 thousand comments – the vast majority of them critical.

One of the most popular replies says, “Tell that to the 100,000 people that lost their businesses, livelihood, and life’s work.” The user followed this up with, “My bad. I mean 200,000”, linking to an article in the Wall Street Journal

So what arguments did the LA Times columnist put forward? 

He begins by claiming that “lockdowns played a significant role in reducing infection rates” and that “they had a very modest role in producing economic damage”. He then argues that “evidence for both propositions has been expertly compiled by Noah Smith”, linking to a recent article by Smith.

However, as I noted in a previous post, Smith doesn’t discuss any of the evidence contradicting his thesis, of which there is plenty. See herehereherehereherehere and here.

The author moves on to the comparison between California and Florida, noting that “California now boasts among the lowest case, hospitalisation and death rates in the nation, as well as a recovering economy”. However, the fact that its case and death numbers are currently “among the lowest” is more-or-less irrelevant, given that the virus is in retreat across the entire country. 

And although the state’s GDP declined by only 2.8% last year – compared to Florida’s 2.9% – its unemployment rate is the second worst of all 50 states. 8.3% of Californians are currently out of work, versus only 4.8% of Floridians.  

News Round Up

Is Boris a Lockdown Sceptic?

Having read Dominic Cummings’ twitter thread on the Government’s lack of preparedness for the pandemic – I had 10 hours to spare and thought, ‘Why not?’ – I began to suspect that Boris might be a lockdown sceptic. The central plank of Dom’s case against the PM in his thread is that he should have locked down earlier and the reason he didn’t is that he naively thought that a policy of shielding the elderly and vulnerable, and encouraging symptomatic people to quarantine at home, would mean ~60% of the population would become infected over the summer, thereby avoiding a second wave in the autumn/winter, when the NHS would have found it harder to cope due to the annual winter NHS crisis – the so-called ‘herd immunity’ strategy. Hmmm. Sounds pretty sensible to me – and to get an idea of how that would have worked out, we only have to look at Sweden, which avoided a hard lockdown throughout 2020 and had one of the lowest age-adjusted excess mortality rates in Europe.

Dom tries to swat this argument away in his thread, accusing “UK political pundits” of “spreading nonsense on Sweden/lockdowns”, and compares Sweden unfavourably with Denmark. A pretty feeble response, as we’ve pointed out numerous times on Lockdown Sceptics. (see Noah Carl’s piece on Monday for a comprehensive rebuttal of the “Yeah, but, Denmark” critique of Sweden’s approach.) No, the example of Sweden, which refused to lock down and whose health service never came close to being overwhelmed, remains a devastating riposte to the apocalyptic doom-mongering of people like Dom back in March of last year, who were screaming at the Prime Minister to lock everyone in their homes because… the NHS.

As I say, reading that thread, it seems pretty clear that Boris’s instincts were correct and the reason he switched tack in the week leading up to March 23rd was because he was surrounded by bed-wetting hysterics like Mr Cummings.

But today’s Daily Mail confirms it: Boris is a lockdown sceptic. I’ll let the Mail summarise the “explosive allegations”, which Dom has clearly leaked to them:

Boris Johnson referred to Covid as “Kung-Flu” and – before he was infected with the virus – offered to be injected with it live on TV to “show it’s nothing to be scared of”, Dominic Cummings will claim today.

They are among the explosive allegations that Mr Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser, will make to MPs investigating the Government’s handling of the epidemic.

In an extraordinary claim, he will accuse the Prime Minister of being responsible for “thousands of deaths” by delaying a second lockdown when a second wave of the virus hit the U.K. in the winter. …

The Mail has learned that Mr Cummings will allege Mr Johnson:

* Argued against tough Covid curbs on the grounds that “it is only killing 80-year-olds”;
* Did say “no more f***ing lockdowns, let the bodies pile high in their thousands”.
* Said he regretted being “pushed” into ordering lockdowns because the “economic damage is more damaging than the loss of life”.

No doubt Boris could have expressed his scepticism more diplomatically – assuming Dom is telling the truth – but the substance of these points is correct: for those under 65 and with no underlying health conditions, the virus is nothing to be scared of; the average age of those who’ve died from COVID-19 in the UK is about 80; and the economic damage caused by the lockdowns will certainly outweigh the harms the lockdowns have prevented, if any.

Should anyone be in any doubt that Boris is a 64 carat lockdown sceptic, Dom has some more “devastating” points:

Mr Cummings will also say that before the decision, Mr Johnson vowed: “I’m going to be the mayor of Jaws, like I should have been in March (when the first lockdown was ordered).”

The Prime Minister has said that he regards the mayor in the Jaws movie – who refuses to close the resort’s beach even after a shark has killed tourists, for fear of damage to the local economy – as one of his “heroes”.

I must say, I take some comfort from this. Regular readers will know that until that fateful U-turn on March 23rd 2020 I was a huge fan of Boris’s and have struggled to reconcile the Rabelaisian, liberty-loving character I’ve known for the past 38 years with the furrowed-browed headmaster of the last 15 months. As I asked the journalist Quentin Letts in our recent Free Speech Union chat: How did Sid James become Hattie Jacques?

Turns out, Boris’s Jamesian side wasn’t entirely abandoned; it was just just kept in check by the Jacquists in 10 Downing Street.

Presumably, one reason Boris allowed himself to be pushed around by these chin-wobblers is because he was worried they’d accuse him of needlessly killing thousands of people if he didn’t do what they said. In which case, Dom’s suicide bomber routine is actually quite helpful. Boris allowed Dom to browbeat him into following his lockdown strategy and the disloyal bastard is still accusing him of being a mass murderer. So Boris has little to lose from ignoring these Cassandras from now on. They’ll turn on him whatever he does so there’s no point in trying to keep them on side.

It’s time to assert yourself, Prime Minister. At the next meeting of the Cabinet, announce that you’re going to reopen on June 21st come hell or high water and anyone who thinks that’s a bad idea should resign now or forever hold their peace. Thereafter, if the usual suspects start briefing against stage 4 of the Roadmap, including those snakes on SAGE, he should sack the bloody lot of them.

Why has this Mortality Monitor Suddenly Changed its Baseline From the Ten-Year Average to 2019 – the Lowest Mortality Year Ever?

One of the most reliable and informative sources of mortality data over the past year has been the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries’ weekly mortality monitor report. It shows weekly and cumulative mortality for the year, and unlike the ONS, adjusts for population size and age so we get a truer reflection of how the current trends compare with the past.

Last week the report showed that the trend of deaths in 2021 has been so low since mid-March that all the excess deaths in January and February had been almost cancelled out and cumulative standardised mortality stood at just 1.1% above the 10-year average (see graph below).

At Lockdown Sceptics we were waiting for the moment when, at some point in the next few weeks, this figure would hit 0% so we could announce that, despite the winter Covid surge, 2021 was now officially a low mortality year with below average age-standardised mortality.

However, it appears that moment now may never come, as unexpectedly this week the Institute changed the baseline on its key chart. The 10-year baseline is gone, and in its place is a straight comparison to 2019.

The important thing to know about 2019 is it is the year with the lowest age-standardised mortality ever (see below).