Day: 16 June 2021

News from the Free State of Florida

Answering the call from Lockdown Sceptics for news from the reopened states in America with which to shame our own timid Government, Julian Boulter sent us this dispatch from Florida. More stories will follow.

We are a family of three Brits – although my wife was born South Korean – living in Naples, Florida for the past six and a half years.

Florida, in line with most other states, issued a Shelter-at-Home order (lockdown) in April 2020, but in Florida this only lasted for one month; eight states followed South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s lead in not locking down at all, preferring to share the data with their populations and only making recommendations on behaviour. Governor Noem has eloquently pointed out that all businesses are essential to those who own them and it is not the Government’s place to decide otherwise.

Between May and the end of August 2020, Florida gradually re-opened (against the wishes of President Trump), although schools did not resume in-person learning until the start of the 2020/2021 year in August, and then with masks in classrooms. In September Governor Ron DeSantis met with the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration (Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford, Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University and Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University) and took their advice about a focused protection approach rather than any continuing restrictions.

He has subsequently issued Executive Orders that strengthen Floridian’s rights to decide for themselves on mask wearing and taking the vaccine, and has banned vaccine passports. At the same time he ensured care homes and the vulnerable were protected – witness a death per million rate that ranks around 26 of 50 states – and is better than the UK, despite having some similarities with the UK (same average age of population, same urban density and worse metabolic health).

I returned to the office in June 2020 (no masks) and have been working there ever since. We had our first two cases of COVID-19 in May this year; both have recovered and are back at work. My daughter has had to wear a mask to class, but that is all. The school averaged four to five cases a week but did not shut down any classes at any time; testing was not required. Her High School Graduation was at the local Concert Centre, who insisted on reduced numbers and masks; by contrast, the graduating students and parents’ dinner at a local country club earlier in the week had 300 people with no masks, and a packed dance floor. We’ve been eating in restaurants for months. Last year we went to the Florida Keys diving twice, and drove up to St Augustine for a few days earlier this year. We had friends drive across from Texas to stay with us for a few days back in May.

We’ve been back in church and singing in the choir since well before Christmas, although we also had a separate service for those who wished to wear masks. In May we moved to a combined service, and we also had international opera star Jeannette Vecchionne-Donati performed a charity benefit concert to a packed Church, no masks (video here).

It’s also worth noting that politics is very polarised here and many are sceptical of President Biden, Dr Fauci and Bill Gates, and are reluctant to take the vaccine, so take-up appears to have stalled; infections and deaths however have continued to decline. In fact, I think I know more people who will not take the “experimental gene therapy” than have had the vaccine. Governor DeSantis’s current mantra is that Florida chose “Freedom over Faucism”.

Sixty MPs Rebel Against Unlocking Delay

In a House of Commons vote this evening, 60 MPs voted against the extension of the restrictions, the largest rebellion Boris has faced yet in connection with his lockdown policies – although not enough to defeat the Government, thanks to the support of Labour MPs. MailOnline has more.

MPs have approved the extension of coronavirus restrictions in England until July 19th – but dozens of furious Tories rebelled amid demands that Boris Johnson must not “shift the goalposts” and delay Freedom Day yet again.

The Prime Minister was spared a defeat as Labour backed plans for a four-week delay to the end of lockdown measures, with MPs voting 461 to 60, a majority of 401, to approve regulations delaying the easing of the measures.

For now, limits on numbers for sports events, theatres and cinemas will remain in place, nightclubs will stay shuttered and people will be asked to continue working from home where possible.

But MPs had lined up to grill Matt Hancock in the House as he opened the debate on regulations that formally extended the lockdown into next month.

The Health Secretary defended pushing the date back, arguing the Indian – or Delta – variant has “given the virus extra legs” and stressing that July 19th should be the “terminus” for the restrictions.

Former chief whip Mark Harper voiced scepticism that the latest promise will be kept, asking whether “we are going to get to this point in four weeks’ time and what we are going to be back here again”.

And another ex-minister, Steve Baker complained about the two-week review of the change saying it only “deepens despair” if the Government “creates hope and shifts the goalposts”.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson was challenged by Tory MPs Philip Davies and William Wragg.

Mr Davies questioned why the Prime Minister was not trusting the “the common sense of the British people and his Conservative instincts of individual freedom and individual responsibility” rather than the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

Mr Johnson insisted he did not want to see Covid restrictions last forever but “a little more time” was needed to vaccinate millions more people to help combat the spread of the Delta variant.

Mr Wragg asked: “When can we expect the co-ordinated chorus of Sage members recommencing their media appearances to depress morale?”

Mr Johnson replied: “I believe that academic and scientific freedom are an invaluable part of our country and I also note that my scientific colleagues would echo my sentiments that we need to learn to live with Covid.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: You can see a list of the MPs who voted ‘No’ here. The naysayers were comprised of 49 Conservative MPs, six Labour MPs and and five Democratic Unionists. The tellers for the Noes were Steve Baker MP and Jackie Doyle-Price MP.

France Easing Lockdown Restrictions Earlier Than Expected

France is bringing forward the lifting of a nationwide curfew by 10 days amid falling numbers of daily positive Covid tests. Guidelines on mask-wearing are also expected to be eased sooner than expected. The MailOnline has the story.

Speaking after a cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Jean Castex told a news conference on Wednesday that the night-time curfew would now end from June 20th, and that face masks would soon no longer be required outdoors.

After restaurants, bars and cafes were allowed last week to reopen indoors for the first time in seven months, Castex said life in France was at last starting to return to normal.

“We’re on the right track – let’s keep up our efforts,” Castex said. “The health situation is improving faster than we had anticipated, everywhere in mainland France.” …

The [Delta] variant accounts for the bulk of new infections in Britain, but French Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Tuesday it only represented 2-4% of confirmed cases in France…

Castex said pressure on French hospitals had decreased significantly. The number of people in intensive care units was down by 116 to 1,952 on Tuesday, according to health ministry data.

France’s seven-day moving average of new cases, which was above 40,000 two months ago, stood at 3,500 on Tuesday. French health experts say the pandemic can be considered under control if the rate is below 5,000.

Worth reading in full.

Many Care Workers Would Rather Quit Than Be Forced to Take Covid Vaccine, Says Union Boss

The GMB Union has hit back against the prospect of care home workers being forced to take Covid vaccines. Rachel Harrison, GMB National Officer, says the Government doesn’t have “the foggiest idea or concern about the impact their decisions make on a workforce already suffering from many of the worst political failures during the pandemic”. The union has warned that more than a third of its members in social care would consider quitting if vaccines are mandated.

The i has more.

GMB said that the move, which is being considered by the Government, was an attempt to “strongarm” care workers into taking the jab. 

Under the plans, care home staff in England who work with older people would be required to get the jab or risk losing their jobs. They will reportedly have 16 weeks to get vaccinated.

One in six care workers – around 52,000 – have not had the vaccine despite being eligible. 

Rachel Harrison said: “Carers have been at the forefront of this pandemic, risking their lives to keep our loved ones safe, often enduring almost Victorian working standards in the process.

“The Government could do a lot to help them: address their pay, terms and conditions, increasing the rate of and access to contractual sick pay, banning zero hours, and ensuring more mobile NHS vaccination teams so those working night shifts can get the jab,” she said. 

“Instead, ministers are ploughing ahead with plans to strongarm care workers into taking the vaccine without taking seriously the massive blocks these workers still face in getting jabbed.”

Unison General Secretary Christina McAnea said that “encouragement achieves better results with the nervous than threats or coercion”.

“The Government’s sledgehammer approach now runs the risk that some care staff may simply walk away from an already understaffed, undervalued and underpaid sector,” she said. 

On Tuesday morning, Cabinet minister Liz Truss insisted that the Government had not yet committed to the plans, saying that officials were “currently consulting on this issue” but that a decision would be “very imminent”. The Government have refused to rule out the move.

However, Ms Truss said it was “incredibly important” for care home staff to be vaccinated. …

The Government is also planning a consultation on whether Covid jabs should be made compulsory for all NHS staff, alongside those in social care. According to official data, 151,000 NHS workers – just over one in 10 – have not have [sic] the vaccine.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Health Secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed that plans to force care home staff to get vaccinated against Covid will go ahead.

“Totally F***ing Hopeless” – Boris Johnson’s Verdict on Matt Hancock

Dominic Cummings has published a trove of confidential material on his Twitter and Substack accounts today, including a WhatsApp exchange between him and the Prime Minister in which Boris describes the Health Secretary as “Totally f***ing hopeless”. MailOnline has more.

In an exchange from March 27th last year Mr Cummings criticised the Health Secretary over the failure to ramp up testing. Mr Johnson replied: “Totally f***ing hopeless.” He then tried to call his senior aide three times without managing to get through.

Another from the same day saw Mr Cummings complain that the Department of Health had been turning down ventilators because “the price has been marked up”. Mr Johnson said: “It’s Hancock. He has been hopeless.”

On April 27, Mr Johnson apparently messaged Mr Cummings to say that PPE was a “disaster”, suggesting that Michael Gove should take charge instead.

“I can’t think of anything except taking Hancock off and putting Gove on.”

Mr Cummings dropped the incendiary revelations in a lengthy post on the Substack blogging platform just minutes before PMQs.

It included vicious passages condemning Mr Johnson for “telling rambling stories and jokes” instead of chairing crucial meetings properly, and a claim that the PM is intending to quit in order to “make money” rather than serving a full term if he wins the next election.

Worth reading in full.

Government Told to Ban Perspex Screens in Pubs and Offices Because They Increase Transmission

Perspex screens appear to have joined the long list of measures introduced to mitigate the impact of SARS-CoV-2 which actually make matters worse. Alex Wickham of Politico has got hold of a leaked planning document describing what Stage 4 of the roadmap will look like and what social distancing measures will remain in place throughout the winter and possibly beyond. He reports that the Government has been urged to ban the use of these screens in pubs, restaurants and offices.

Not only do Perspex screens not stop the spread of the virus, they may actually increase transmission! More from Alex here:

Problems include them not being positioned correctly, with the possibility that they actually increase the risk of transmission by blocking airflow. Therefore there is clear guidance to ministers that these perspex screens should be scrapped.

Even if perspex screens are scrapped, the guidelines on face masks will likely remain place in some settings “long-term”, Alex Reports, despite evidence of their benefits being equally threadbare.

Stop Press: You can read more about the leaked Stage 4 planning document here.

Night Curfew May Have Increased the Spread of COVID-19 in Greece

During the pandemic, many countries have imposed night curfews in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19. How successful have these measures been? According to a recent study, they may have actually increased transmission. 

Sotiris Georganas and colleagues took advantage of a natural experiment in Greece whereby the timing of night curfew shifted in one region but not in another. While a 9pm curfew had been in place throughout the country since November of 2020, a 6pm weekend curfew was introduced on 6th February in the Attica region (which includes Athens).

The authors used Google mobility data to examine how time spent at home, and time spent at groceries/pharmacies, changed in the Attica region and the Epirus and Western Macedonia region (where the timing of night curfew did not shift). Specifically, they examined mobility data in each region in the five weekends before the shift, as well as the four weekends after.

What did the authors find? Compared to the Epirus & Western Macedonia region, the Attica region saw a small and statistically significant increase in time spent at home, as well as a small and non-significant decrease in time spent at groceries/pharmacies. In other words, the shift in the timing of night curfew had – at best – a marginal impact on mobility.

Given that the shift reduced the time available for shopping by three full hours (a change of almost 20%), the overall effect will have been to increase crowding – by concentrating roughly the same amount of shopping into a shorter time period. As a consequence, it may well have led to a rise in transmission. 

In the authors’ words, “As more people were present simultaneously in high-risk places such as supermarkets, the early curfew backfired.” This finding suggests that governments should focus on protecting care homes and hospitals, rather than trying to control the epidemic by tweaking people’s shopping habits.

Euro 2020 and Wimbledon Matches Used as Pilot Events for New “NHS Covid Pass”

A new “NHS Covid Pass”, showing a user’s vaccine status, as well as recent test results, will be piloted at upcoming Euro 2020 and Wimbledon matches and could later be introduced at a range of other sport and entertainment events, despite the Government deciding against making Covid status certificates compulsory for attendance at mass gatherings. The Mail has the story.

The existing NHS App, which already provides details of a person’s vaccinations, has been modified so that there is an option to enter Covid test results.

Those who have not been double-jabbed will be able to do a lateral flow test at home and then log it on the app. Spot checks will be performed on a small number of spectators arriving at grounds to show they are being truthful about their negative result.

A Whitehall source said… “The NHS Covid Pass will help us to safely unlock capacity crowds at the Euros and Wimbledon and hopefully deliver a fantastic summer of sporting success.” …

Wimbledon and Euro 2020 matches will be used as pilot events as ministers consider whether the NHS Covid Pass should be used more widely.

The Government has ruled out making it compulsory for venues to make people share their coronavirus status. Instead, they are concentrating on giving organisers the option of asking fans to use the NHS Covid Pass so big sporting events can go ahead safely.

All courts at Wimbledon will operate at 50% capacity for most of the tournament, which kicks off in less than two weeks.

Both [only!] the women’s singles final on July 10th and the men’s singles final on July 11th are set to be played in front of full capacity crowds.

Worth reading in full.

News Round-Up

PHE’s Latest Vaccine Study Suggests Hospitalisation Risk INCREASES After the Second Dose

It’s not two weeks since Lockdown Sceptics was casting doubt on Public Health England’s alarming claim that the Delta (Indian) variant had more than double the risk of hospitalisation of the Alpha (British) variant. How long will they take to backtrack after the panic has done its damage, we asked?

Well, it turns out that even before Boris took to the podium on Monday PHE had already released a new study claiming that vaccines after all are more effective at preventing hospitalisation against the Delta variant than the Alpha variant. Here’s the story in the Telegraph:

Vaccines are more effective at preventing hospitalisation against the Indian/delta variant than they were against previous types, once people are double-jabbed, new data shows.

Real world data shows the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 94% effective against hospital admission from the variant after one dose, rising to 96% after two jabs.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was found to be 71% effective against hospital admission after one dose, rising to 92% after two jabs.

In both cases, two doses had a greater impact preventing hospitalisations than was the case with the Kent variant. 

The new study and the earlier study aren’t quite showing the same thing. The earlier study showed the risk of hospitalisation with the Delta versus Alpha variant for all those testing positive, not just the vaccinated, though subsequently adjusted the results for “vaccination status”. The new study specifically looks at the hospitalisation risk in those vaccinated with respect to the Alpha and Delta variants and compares them. However, the two studies should come to broadly the same conclusion, as they are both looking at how much more serious disease is with the Delta variant. At any rate, given that a large proportion of the vulnerable population is now fully vaccinated, we certainly shouldn’t see a doubling in the hospitalisation rate with the Delta variant if, as is claimed in the new study, the vaccines are better at preventing serious disease from that variant.

Ross Clark suggests the problem with the earlier data was that the sample size was small and biased. As he notes, PHE’s modelling misses the most obvious data point, that the rate of hospitalisations per case has not increased as the Indian variant has become dominant (see graph below). How then can the Indian variant have twice the risk of hospitalisation?

Is the new study any more reliable than the earlier one? As usual with a PHE observational study, it’s hard to tell, as much of the method is hidden behind opaque statistical techniques with working that is not set out. All the reader knows is that raw data is taken and transformed by some statistical process into hazard ratios and vaccine effectiveness estimates that are all but impossibly to verify. What we can do, though, is look at the results of this largely concealed data-processing and see if it makes sense.

Below is the table from the study (there’s only one, it’s a very short paper), and it shows something very curious.