Day: 28 May 2021

Positive Tests Pass 4,000 for the First Time Since April – but Covid Deaths Stay Flat

There was another rise in positive tests today, which passed 4,000 for the first time since April, but reported Covid deaths remained flat with just 10 victims. The MailOnline has the story.

Department of Health bosses posted another 4,182 positive tests, up by almost half on last Friday’s count. It is the most reported in a single day for nearly eight weeks, since the 4,479 on April 1st. Almost 75% of all new cases are now the Indian variant.

Ministers always expected cases to increase when restrictions were eased, and they believe vaccines will stop the NHS from being overwhelmed once again. 

But Number 10 has refused to rule out delaying plans to relax lockdown on June 21st and will have to hit the panic button if hospitals start to suffer spiralling admissions, or the mutant strain is found to be much more infectious than the Kent variant, which triggered the devastating second wave.

Cautious scientists have called for Number 10 to delay the final step on the roadmap back to normality for at least two months, giving the NHS more time to fully vaccinate millions more adults. Analysis suggests a single dose of the jab is only around 33% effective at blocking symptoms of Covid in patients infected with the Indian variant, compared to about 50% for the once-dominant Kent strain.

Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said there was “a good argument for caution until such time as we’ve got a much higher proportion of the population double-vaccinated”.

Admissions have started to creep up across Britain, rising by 30% in a week to 134. Figures will get even higher over the next few weeks because of the lag between getting infected and becoming severely ill.

But hospital bosses in the worst-hit towns insist jabs have changed the game, with barely any infected patients who need medical care having been fully vaccinated.

The Health Secretary appears to agree with Professor Hayward that the vaccination of millions of Brits (including the most vulnerable) is not enough, having said on Thursday: “Our vaccination programme has reached 73% of the adult population, but that means that more than a quarter still haven’t been jabbed. 43% of adults have had both jabs, but that means that more than half are yet to get the fullest possible protection that two jabs give.” A number of SAGE members have joined (or, in fact, are leading) the calls for lockdown to be extended because of the Indian variant, despite the increase in positive Covid tests still not being matched by an increase in deaths.

The MailOnline report is worth reading in full.

More Than Half of Brits Have Not Hugged a Friend or Relative Since the Easing of Restrictions, New Polling Suggests

New polling by the MailOnline suggests that more than half of Brits have not yet cuddled a friend or relative since the easing of restrictions last Monday which “allowed” them to do so. Only a fifth are planning on holidaying abroad this summer.

Some 51% of those polled for [the MailOnline] claimed they had yet to take advantage of the easing of restrictions introduced on May 17th that allow them to wrap their arms around a loved one.

And in a blow to holiday firms and airlines, the same poll by Redfield and Wilton Strategies found that just a fifth of Brits are planning to take a foreign holiday this year.

More than half of those polled said they didn’t plan to take any form of holiday away from home this year, either abroad or in the U.K..

The findings show that the country is being extremely cautious in emerging from more than a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions despite the widespread roll-out of Covid vaccines. 

Lucy Johnston recently drew attention to the long-term impacts of the Government’s (and the media’s) campaign of fear regarding the virus in her Sunday Express article on “Covid Anxiety Syndrome” (CAS).

Up to one in five is believed to have developed a “compulsive and disproportionate” fear of Covid, which would likely stay in place even if the virus disappeared completely. Warnings about the dangers of Covid have heightened the problem, and mixed messages about the level of danger have made it worse, said Marcantonio Spada, a Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health at London’s South Bank University, who co-authored the report [on CAS]…

The recently identified condition – Covid Anxiety Syndrome – is characterised by fear of public places, compulsive hygiene habits, worrying about the virus and frequent symptom checking. 

Polling from Ipsos MORI suggests that even more than a fifth of the population could be suffering from CAS. It found that 28% of British adults aren’t looking forward to “greeting people with handshake/hug/kiss”.

The MailOnline report is worth reading in full.

Johnson & Johnson Covid Vaccine Approved for Use in U.K.

The Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Covid vaccine has been approved for use in the U.K.. Like the vaccine made by AstraZeneca, J&J’s vaccine has been linked to blood clotting, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finding earlier this month that there is a “plausible causal association” between the two. Sky News has more on the use of the vaccine in the U.K..

The vaccine, developed by the company’s pharmaceutical arm Janssen, has been shown to be 67% effective overall at preventing moderate to severe Covid, with some studies suggesting it also offers complete protection from admission to hospital and death.

In a statement, Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the approval as “a further boost to the U.K.’s hugely successful vaccination programme, which has already saved over 13,000 lives”…

The U.K. has ordered 20 million doses of the vaccine, which England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, has previously said could be used for hard-to-reach groups of people, where recalling them for a second jab is not always successful [because only one dose is required].

The [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] is thought to have held back from early approval of the vaccine after concerns were raised in the U.S. about a link to extremely rare blood clots.

The clots are similar to those seen in a very small proportion of people having the AstraZeneca jab.

In April, the use of the shot was suspended in the U.S. while the US CDC investigated eight “serious” cases of rare blood clots associated with low blood platelets, among the seven million people who had been vaccinated.

One person died.

The vaccine’s rollout was resumed after a week – after concerns had been assuaged – but the European Medicines Agency recommended a warning about unusual blood clots with low blood platelet count should be added to the product information for the vaccine.

Worth reading in full.

Must We be Sensible Forever?

We’re publishing a new piece today by Dr. Sinéad Murphy, an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University, about the lasting psychological impact of lockdowns and the philosophy of safetyism underpinning them. Here is an extract:

We have been prodded this year by the devilish theme of safety, which has dramatically altered the contour of our lives. But now the colour of our lives may be changing too, as we are encouraged from all sides not only to stay safe but to be sensible.

On May 15th, the FA Cup final was attended by twenty-two thousand supporters. The fans were back. Football was back. And certainly, the real crowd did foreground how anaemic has been its virtual equivalent. But when Leicester scored the goal that won them the cup, their cheering fans were faced down by a line of officials, caped in plastic over their high-visibility jackets and fanning their outstretched gloved hands, palms downwards, in a calming gesture – Let’s be sensible, folks.

Two days later, May 17th, brought the return of hugging for anyone who had been observing the ban. But it is not a rush-into-the-arms hugging, not a big hugging, not a tight hugging, all of which have about them this new taint of excess. It is sensible hugging: faces turned in opposite directions and got over with as quickly as possible.

There is a new kind of puritanism abroad – casting its pall over our lives, already so out of shape. Those moments when life is brimming over, when we act on impulse, when our sides split with laughter, when we cry with anger or with joy, when we cannot let go our embrace or when we could talk and talk for hours: all have about them a new hue of poor taste. The palate of human life has been dimmed; Let’s be sensible, folks.

Worth reading in full.

Ministers Sign £21 Million Renewable Vaccine Passport Contract

Michael Gove hinted on Thursday that plans for vaccine passports could be dropped because the alleged benefits are “finely balanced” against the “hassle” and “friction” that would come with introducing certification. But the i has reported that ministers have already signed several vaccine passport contracts, including one worth up to £21 million that can be renewed each year.

Speaking in the Commons today, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said the Government is still reviewing whether Covid-status certifications could be used to help the return of “mingling at the bar” at large-scale pubs and to facilitate major events such as Premier League matches.

Asked whether vaccine passports might be used to reopen the hospitality sector, Mr Gove added: “It might be the case in venues like nightclubs you could see a role for it.” …

He added that in his “own view” any vaccine passport programme “has to be rescinded at some point in the future”.

However, i can reveal that the Government has already signed several vaccine passport contracts, including one worth up to £21 million that can be renewed each year. 

The Department of Health and Social Care earlier this month signed a contract with HH Associates, a subsidiary of outsourcing firm HH Global, to produce paper vaccine passports for people who do not have access to a smartphone or computer.

The contract, worth up to £21 million this year, will see the Surrey-based firm print and post vaccine passports to members of the public in England unable to access their vaccination status for free digitally. The agreement is due to expire in May 2022 but can be extended annually…

People in England who have received two doses of a Covid jab are now able to access their Covid vaccination status via the NHS app, or by printing off a pdf of their certificate for free from the NHS website…

The Government’s website states that the certificates are for those who wish to travel to countries which require proof of vaccination.

But MPs and politicians have accused ministers of opening a backdoor to permanent ID cards without proper Parliamentary scrutiny.

“This is the biggest shift in civil liberties in the history of the United Kingdom. Why is it OK for this to happen by stealth?” said Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, former Director of advocacy group Liberty.

She told i: “This is a recipe for bullying and discrimination with no public consultation or Parliamentary consent. They promised us this was going to happen by consultation, and instead it’s happening by stealth. Liberal and libertarian Conservatives, like all U.K. citizens, must stand up.”

Steve Baker, Deputy Chair of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, told i: “The Government appears to have decided to introduce Covid-status certification – a two-tier checkpoint Britain – by stealth, without a vote in Parliament.”

He called on the Prime Minister to “pull the plug on that attempt” immediately and for Parliament’s spending watchdog to scrutinise the £21 million annual cost for the paper certificates. 

Details on plans for the introduction of vaccine passports – as well as on mask-wearing rules beyond the fourth and final step of the “roadmap” – are expected by the end of the month.

The i report is worth reading in full.

Average Age of Newly Infected Brits Drops to 29

The average age of Brits testing positive for Covid has fallen from 41 at the beginning of the year to just 29 – the lowest average age recorded yet. This decrease is being attributed to the success of the vaccine rollout (though increased testing of younger people could also have something to do with it) which has seen almost 25 million people receive two doses of a vaccine. The MailOnline has the story.

The median age stood at 29 for the week ending May 19th – down from 35 at the start of April and 41 at the beginning of the year.  

Compounding the apparent efficacy of the vaccine rollout, analysis now shows that two thirds of people admitted to hospital with the coronavirus are under 65, the Times reports.  

But despite Boris Johnson’s desire to announce an end to social distancing this week, this has been pushed back amid the ongoing threat of the Indian Covid variant.

The Prime Minister has said that he has not seen “anything currently in the data to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map”, but hinted that the Government would wait until the June 14th deadline before announcing a relaxation. 

The fast-spreading strain now makes up between half and three quarters of all cases in the U.K., Matt Hancock said yesterday. 

The Health Secretary told a Downing Street press conference it is now dominant in Britain, taking over from the Kent variant that had been the most common one since Christmas.

But official data has now revealed that just three per cent of Britons infected with the Indian variant had received two jabs. 

More than 38.6 million adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 24 million have had two. 

While many people in hospital with the virus have not been fully vaccinated, reported Covid deaths continue to be very low (often in the single figures). Despite this, SAGE members insist that the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown could be “derailed” because of the Indian variant.

Worth reading in full.

Switch to Remote Learning Caused Large Increases in School Dropout and Learning Losses in Brazil

Back in April, I wrote about a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that Dutch students made “made little or no progress while learning from home”. Now researchers have reported a similar finding in Brazil. 

As in the Dutch study, the researchers used rigorous methods to gauge the impact of remote learning on student outcomes. In other words, they didn’t just compare outcomes in 2020 to those the year before.

In São Paulo State (where the study was based) state schools switched to remote learning only at the end of the first quarter, and they continued to teach remotely thereafter. This allowed the researchers to compare the change in outcomes between the first and last quarters of 2020 to the change in outcomes between the same two quarters of 2019.

They looked at two different outcomes: high dropout risk (i.e., whether the student had any math and Portuguese grades on his school record in the relevant quarter), and standardised test scores. When comparing the change in 2020 to the change in 2019, the researchers found large increases in school dropout and learning losses. 

Furthermore, they exploited a natural experiment to gauge the impact of switching back to in-person learning. In the fourth quarter of 2020, some municipalities allowed high-schools but not middle-schools to switch back. This allowed the researchers to compare middle- and high-schools in those municipalities with respect to the change in 2020 versus the change in 2019. 

Consistent with the previous result, they found that switching back to in-person learning was associated with higher standardised test scores. 

In the authors’ own words, their results show that “the societal costs of keeping schools closed in the pandemic are very large”. As such, they argue that “the public debate should move from whether schools should be open or not to how to reopen them safely”.

News Round-Up