Day: 31 May 2021

Zero Deaths Reported in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Monday

England recorded zero Covid deaths for the fifth time since the Government started collecting figures on Monday. Zero deaths were also recorded in Wales and Northern Ireland, with just one person having died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid in Scotland. Sky News has more.

The one U.K. death is less than the six confirmed yesterday and the three last Monday – while the number of positive cases is up from 3,240 and 2,439 respectively…

Another 120,243 people have had their first dose of a Covid vaccine, taking the total to 39,379,411. And Sunday saw 204,282 second jabs administered, meaning 25,537,133 people have had both shots.

Also today, England’s biggest vaccination centre offered Covid vaccines to anyone over the age of 18, despite the minimum age for eligibility currently being 30.

Thousands of people have already been vaccinated at the centre at Twickenham Stadium in west London.

Government guidelines say only people over the age of 30 are eligible for the jab but medics offered it to all adults in an effort to ensure nothing is wasted.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Given this, why must we wait three more weeks (if not longer) for lockdown to finally comes to an end, asks Sacha Lord.

Stop Press 2: Despite this positive news, ITV News decides to lead its coverage of Monday’s figures with: “Concerns over Indian variant grow.”

The NHS Data Suggests We’re Not on a ‘Knife Edge’ At All

There follows a guest post by the Lockdown Sceptics‘ in-house doctor – a former NHS panjandrum, now in private practice. I asked him to look at the latest NHS data to see if there was anything to support the recent warnings from various SAGE members that Britain is “on a knife edge” and that going ahead with the June 21st reopening would be imprudent.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that senior NHS figures are using Trumpian methods of communication by Twitter and a variety of governmental advisers have been providing freestyle commentary on the airwaves warning that the U.K. is “on a knife edge” in relation to the relaxation of societal restrictions.

To what extent are these warnings supported by the observable evidence?

As regular readers will know, I’m partial to a few graphs and rather enjoy looking at spreadsheets (there’s no accounting for taste) – so let’s examine a few from the recent NHS COVID data.

Firstly, some high-level stuff. Graph 1 shows the COVID hospital admissions from October 2020 right up to this week. That gives a sense of proportion as to how the overall hospital load compares to the winter peak. Note that the current level of admissions are a tiny fraction of those in October last year.
Can readers discern the rise in hospitalisations widely predicted after the reopening of schools in March? No, I can’t either – because it didn’t happen.

No 10 on Brink of Caving into SAGE Pressure and Postponing June 21st Reopening

There’s a depressing report in MailOnline. A Downing Street source says there’s a 50:50 chance stage four of the roadmap could be delayed, pending more data about the spread of the Indian variant. Not surprisingly, the pressure to delay is coming from various members of SAGE.

A Government minister today acknowledged England’s June 21st Freedom Day could be in jeopardy after a number of SAGE scientists publicly called for the end of restrictions to be pushed back.

During a round of interviews this morning, Environment Secretary George Eustice said the Government couldn’t “rule anything out” when asked if the next phase of the roadmap could be delayed or watered down.

He insisted a decision would be made in a fortnight’s time when ministers will know more about the effect of the Indian strain – which is making up three-quarters of all new infections – on hospital rates.

The comments mark a significant shift in tone from No10, with ministers claiming just days ago there was no reason to deviate from the lockdown-ending plan. The remarks come after several high profile SAGE experts and Government advisers today lobbied for the June 21st easing to be moved.

Professor Ravi Gupta, who sits on the Nervtag subgroup of SAGE, urged the Government to push back the unlocking by “a few weeks” to allow more people to get vaccinated before ditching all social distancing rules.

The Cambridge University expert claimed there were early signs the third wave had already begun – after daily infections breached 4,000 on Friday for the first time in nearly two months – and warned it could become ‘quite explosive’ over the next few months.

Professor Gupta said the jab rollout was giving people a “false sense of security” because infection rates were still relatively low, but claimed it was inevitable unvaccinated people would eventually start to fall ill with the highly infectious strain.

The roaring success of the vaccine programme has seen almost 40million adults given at least one dose of the jab and 25million fully inoculated. But it leaves more than 5million Britons over 50 either unvaccinated or only partially protected.

Professor Gupta’s comments were echoed by SAGE professor Susan Michie, who warned Britain was on a “knife-edge” as it approached the June 21st deadline. The University College London behavioural scientist, who sits on the SPI-B committee, said said [sic] fully opening the country as planned could lead to a serious spike akin to the second wave in the winter.

“Either it could run away as it did before Christmas, which would be extremely serious and we’d have more restrictions, or it could be contained,” she told Sky News.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the panel which advises No10 on its Covid vaccine rollout, also urged ministers to be “cautious” amid rising cases. He said the impact of May’s lockdown easings on Covid cases – which saw restaurants allowed to serve indoors and Britons able to invite up to six others into their homes – would not be clear for another two to three weeks.

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith accused scientists of bullying the Government into extending lockdown.

Let’s hope Boris sticks to his guns – for once. After all, only six people were reported as dying from COVID-19 yesterday. Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: The Times has written up Professor Rav Gupta’s interview on the Today programme in which he warns of a third wave.

Stop Press 2: Just one Covid death has been reported today and, according to the Spectator, “England is currently running below SAGE’s best case scenario for hospitalisations following the restriction relaxations”.

Some Parts of Scotland May Be Left Behind When the Rest of the Country Unlocks Further Next Week

Lockdown restrictions will be partially eased in Scotland next week, but Health Secretary Humza Yousaf says that stricter rules are likely to remain in parts of the country where the number of positive tests is increasing. BBC News has the story.

Under the lockdown easing roadmap, areas in level two are scheduled to move down to level one on June 7th. 

But Humza Yousaf said this may not be possible for areas where Covid cases are giving “cause for concern”.

He said this could affect locations outside Glasgow, which is the only part of Scotland still in level three.

The rest of mainland Scotland is in level two, while some islands have already moved down to level one.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she is hopeful Glasgow can move down a level at the end of this week, which would allow people to meet inside homes and gardens, and alcohol to be served inside bars and restaurants. 

She is due to announce on Tuesday whether the rest of Scotland can move down to level one on June 7th, a step which would allow greater numbers of people to socialise and venues such as soft play centres to reopen.

Mr Yousaf told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme that while the impact of new variants on the NHS was still being assessed, it may be necessary to hold some areas back. 

He said: “It may not be the entire country moving to level one.

“I think people would understand where there are rising case numbers, where there is rising test positivity… it may be the case that parts of the country move to level one but actually other parts of the country we decide to keep in level two.”

Asked if he was referring to Glasgow, he replied: “Glasgow – but also, I must be quite frank, there are other parts from the data that continue to give us cause for concern.”

The Scottish Government is focusing particularly on the spread of the Indian Covid variant in parts of the country. This has also been at the centre of considerations in England on whether lockdown should come to an end on June 21st. A decision is expected here on June 14th.

Worth reading in full.

University Students Demand Reduction in Tuition Fees Due to Loss of Learning During Lockdowns

A group of 17 university students’ unions have called for a 30% reduction in their tuition fees (worth £2,700) to compensate for the loss of education caused by the Government’s lockdowns. They are willing to accept higher interest rates on their loans in exchange for this discount. The Guardian has the story.

[The group,] led by the London School of Economics and the University of Sheffield, [has] written to the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, and the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, to propose that the Government funds a 30% tuition fee rebate for all students this year by increasing interest rates by 3% to 6.2%, meaning it would be repaid only by the highest earning graduates.

The letter stated: “We are asking for immediate financial justice for Covid-affected cohorts of university students. In an ideal world, education should be free; however, in a year when students are calling for compensation on their fees, we have created a fiscally neutral solution to adjust tuition fees, supporting students with a one-off payment.”

The student leaders, who are all from research universities in the Russell Group, based their calculations on modelling from the London Economics consultancy. It suggested that increasing the interest rate on student loans would mean that the £1 billion cost of the 30% rebate would be paid for by high-earning graduates, because loans are written off after 30 years, rather than the taxpayer or graduates on low incomes.

The average male graduate would pay £6,500 more in loan repayments over their lifetime, with the very highest earners paying up to £29,800 more, but female graduates on average salaries could repay the same amount because their lifetime earnings are lower.

The pandemic meant most students were barred from their campuses from the end of the autumn term until May 17th, so they missed out on in-person teaching, access to facilities such as libraries, and social and extracurricular activities. Many were frustrated to find themselves unable to access rooms in halls of residence and flats they had already paid for…

Some students have voiced their anger with universities this year through rent strikes, building occupations and socially-distanced protests…

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Universities have a strong track record in delivering excellent blended tuition, and we have been clear from the start of the pandemic that the quality and quantity should not drop.

“The Office for Students will be monitoring to ensure this is the case, and universities should be open about what students can expect.”

Another letter sent by a group of 19 students’ unions told the competitions watchdog in April that students have been “mis-sold” degrees. They demanded tuition fee refunds. Prior to this, the Government responded to a petition asking for a reduction in fees saying: “[We are] not considering a reduction in maximum fee levels to £3,000.”

The Guardian report is worth reading in full.

Holidaymakers Missing Return Flights Because of Delays by Covid Test Provider

British holidaymakers have complained of missing return flights because of long delays by a Government-approved Covid test provider. Various Government departments have attempted to pass the buck for resolving the matter, with the Department of Health concluding that the provider will be removed from the Government’s website if it continues failing to meet certain standards. The Sun has the story.

Qured promises users a “fit-to-fly” certificate within 30 to 40 minutes of receiving a negative test done via a video call.

But customers tell of hours of delays, making them miss return flights.

Others have complained that the firm’s £39 test kits were not delivered to their homes on time before they were due to fly out – meaning they could not leave.

One said of trying to get home: “Almost 24 hours later and no fit-to-fly certificate, despite a negative result in 20 minutes.”

The holidaymaker takes the test while on a video call to Qured and emails a picture of the result.

Confirmation is due back in the form of an official medical certificate, meaning they are fit to fly…

Qured said: “While the timings of delivery and results are generally accurate, they are subject to change due to circumstances out of our control.”

The Foreign Office said it was an issue for the Department for Transport.

The Department for Transport said it was an issue for the Department of Health.

The Department of Health said: “If a provider is failing to meet required standards, they get a five-day warning and are then removed from the list.”

Qured is rated 2.4 out of five on Google Reviews and has received a good deal of criticism in recent days. One user commented on Friday: “I [am] deeply distressed and concerned. I did my online Covid test at 2:15 today (Friday) to enable me to return back to the U.K. on Saturday. I have not had my results back (this was now over 10 hours ago). My account does not show that the test has been undertaken let alone provide me with the ability to download my certificate to fly. Without this, I cannot book into my flight and am at risk of missing my flight altogether.” Another said: “If they can’t handle the volume of tests then they shouldn’t book so many appointments. This is really not acceptable.” Similar reviews can be found on Trustpilot, despite the firm having an average rating of 3.4 out of five.

The Government’s list of Covid test providers – which still features this firm – was last updated on May 28th.

The Sun report is worth reading in full.

News Round-Up