Day: 28 June 2021

Serco and Mitie Awarded New Testing Contracts That Could Last for 18 Months

The Government is sticking to its line that lockdown will end on July 19th and that this unlocking of restrictions will be irreversible. But, once again, its actions point in the opposite direction. Most recently, Serco and Mitie have been handed new testing contracts – worth up to £687 million collectively – to support the Test and Trace system. The contracts will run for 12 months but could be extended by another six. Reuters has the story.

The [Test and Trace] scheme, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged would be world-beating when he launched it with a £22 billion budget in May 2020, has repeatedly missed targets…

Serco’s contract, which is worth up to £322 million, covers services such as site operations, cleaning and security at around 20% of test sites in England and Northern Ireland, down from the roughly 25% of sites covered by its previous deal.

Mitie’s deal, worth up to £365 million, covers the management of around 28% of testing sites across England, Scotland and Wales, up from about 23% of sites in its former contract.

The two agreements are focussed on testing only but form part of the Test and Trace scheme, which oversees testing of people who think they have Covid, and then tracing contacts of those who test positive to require them to isolate.

While Serco also holds contracts for contact tracing, Mitie only looks after testing sites.

Parliament’s spending watchdog said on Friday the scheme had improved but was still missing targets, and the results of millions of tests to find asymptomatic cases had not been reported.

Worth reading in full.

Australia’s Phantom Menace

We’re reprinting a piece that appeared in the Australian recently by the Commercial Editor Steve Waterson, who has kindly given us permission. He wrote it just before a two-week lockdown in the city was announced, following the recording of 18 new positive test results. Here is an extract:

Not much has changed in the last year. Our visionary ‘leaders’ have come up with nothing new, save a revved-up vocabulary to keep us on the edge of our toilet seats: the anthropomorphised, cunning and clever virus hides and pounces when we least expect it, for it is a “beast” that, unlike any other matter in the universe, travels “at the speed of light”.

So scary is it that everyday descriptions are inadequate. Only the language of airport thrillers and Hollywood can capture the Clear and Present Danger of Jason Bourne’s Delta Variant; that’s why borders have to be “slammed shut” and the virus “hunted down”, “crushed” and “eliminated”. “Flatten the Curve”, an early instalment of the Pandemic Wars franchise, was nowhere near sexy enough.

Sadly, instead of action heroes leading us to safety (whatever that looks like), we have premiers tootling by again in their clown cars – parp, parp! – stuffed with their supporting cast of chief chuckle officers and assorted buffoons, blindly seeking a way out of the quagmire of hypocrisy and contradiction they have created.

Worth reading in full.

Disruption to Vaccination Services During Lockdowns Has Driven Down Childhood Immunisation Rates, New Study Finds

A review of 35 studies comparing changes in the pattern of childhood vaccinations before and during Covid for Collateral Global has found that obstacles to vaccination services have “[driven] down immunisation rates, especially in disadvantaged people and poorer countries”. The review, led by Carl Heneghan, Jon Brassey, and Tom Jefferson, highlights that this reduction in services has affected over 80 million children under the age of one from countries across the world.

According to the World Health Organisation’s [WHO] first pulse interim survey published in August 2020, 16/91 (18%) of countries reported severe/complete disruption of routine mobile immunization services, and 10% reported disruption to static routine immunisation services. About half of the countries reported partial disruptions of routine immunisation for both health facilities and mobile services. [WHO first-round survey 2020] …

The WHO’s second round national pulse survey from January to March 2021 reported that more than one-third of 135 countries experienced disruptions to immunisation services: routine facility-based disruption occurred in 35 (34%) countries surveyed and outreach immunisation services occurred in 30 (39%) of countries.

Looking at polio vaccination alone, the review found that the drive to vaccinate children was halted in many countries until the second half of 2020. In Pakistan, for instance, the polio vaccine roll-out stopped in April 2020 and the disruption to services resulted in 40 million children missing polio vaccinations. Pakistan was not, unfortunately, an exemption to the rule.

In a hospital centre in Senegal, polio vaccination was reduced from March to August 2020. [Sow A 2020] Data from Sierra Leone on five common vaccinated diseases from Mar 1st, 2020, to Apr 26th, 2020, compared with 2019, reported decreases in vaccination ranging from 50% to 85% depending on the individual vaccine analysed, including the OPV1 vaccine. [Buonsenso D 2021]

In April 2020, The WHO reported that Niger had an outbreak of vaccine-derived poliovirus that affected two children –having suspended the vaccination campaign due to the pandemic. Niger’s last wild polio case was in 2012. Niger joins 15 countries experiencing vaccine-derived poliovirus outbreaks in Africa. No wild poliovirus has been detected in Africa since 2016. Niger joins the list of countries experiencing vaccine-derived poliovirus outbreaks in Africa.

The Collateral Global review is worth reading in full.

Should We Ban Cars?

As I’ve noted before, one of the main justifications for lockdowns has been the “externality argument”. This is the argument that government is justified in restricting our freedom in order to prevent us from harming others – which we might do by transmitting a deadly virus. As Richard Dawkins put it:

You can argue over whether masks, handwashing, banning groups etc are effective. What you can NOT argue is that you are personally entitled to take the risk as a matter of individual liberty. You risk other lives as well as your own. It’s just elementary epidemiology.

However, it seems the same exact argument could be made about the use of private cars (or seasonal flu, for that matter). In 2016, there were 181,384 casualties on Britain’s roads, including 1,792 deaths. Many of these victims will have been entirely blameless road users – cyclists, pedestrians and others – who just happened to get hit by a careless driver. 

What’s more, according to a 2012 paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, emissions from road transport cause 4,900 early deaths in Britain every year, and that’s not even counting the impact on conditions like asthma. How would Richard Dawkins put it?

You can argue over whether buses, trains and bicycles etc are convenient. What you can NOT argue is that you are personally entitled to drive a car as a matter of individual liberty. You risk other lives as well as your own. It’s just elementary transportology.

Of course, someone might say that 7,000 deaths from car accidents and emissions is a lot less than the number who would have died from COVID-19 in the absence of lockdowns – so the analogy doesn’t really work. There are several responses to this.

First, the average age of those who die in car accidents is much younger than the average age of those who die of COVID-19, meaning that each fatal car accident takes away more total life-years. And in any case, there’s not much evidence that lockdown did prevent a large number of deaths.

Second, even if lockdowns could have prevented a lot of deaths in the early months of the pandemic, the situation now is completely different. In fact, the age-standardised mortality rate in the first five months of 2021 was actually lower than in 2018. 

Third, by rejecting the analogy on the grounds that 7,000 deaths is “too few” to matter, one is implicitly conceding that the externality argument isn’t an absolute. In other words, there is some level of externalities that society should tolerate, so long as the benefits to other parties are large enough. 

The question then becomes: are the externalities of COVID transmission sufficiently large relative to the benefits of personal freedom (including the freedom to attend school or operate a small business) to justify lockdown? And it’s by no means clear the answer to that question is in the affirmative.

Australian Care Workers Face Mandatory Vaccination

The Australian Government is expected to follow in England’s footsteps by making Covid vaccination mandatory for care workers, as well as for quarantine workers, due to concerns over the Indian Delta variant. The MailOnline has the story.

Cabinet’s National Security Committee met on Monday to discuss the unfolding situation with lockdowns and tighter restrictions emerging around the nation.

It is understood the leaders are expected to endorse mandatory vaccination for aged care workers.

Despite aged care workers and residents being in the initial Phase 1a roll-out, many are still not vaccinated.

Of the 910 deaths in Australia from Covid, 685 have been aged care residents.

As well, there will be a ban on accommodating low-risk domestic travellers next door to high-risk international arrivals, which triggered an outbreak in Queensland.

This could be done by separating them into different accommodation or floors in the one facility.

The National Cabinet is also set to back vaccination and testing of all quarantine workers, and making vaccines and testing available to their household contacts.

The meeting received a detailed briefing on the vaccination program from three top officials – Covid Task Force Commander John Frewen, Health Department boss Brendan Murphy and Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly.

Earlier, Lieutenant General Frewen told reporters while Pfizer supplies remained constrained, there were ample AstraZeneca doses for people over 60.

He warned the disease would not be eradicated in the near future…

Almost 7.4 million Australians have been vaccinated.

Worth reading in full.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid Set to Rule Out Unlocking on July 5th

Allies of Sajid Javid say that his approach to Covid will be radically different to that of Matt Hancock’s because he is “much less ‘nanny state-ish'”. But today, the new Health Secretary is expected to tell Brits that July 5th is too early for “Freedom Day” to take place and that the nation’s unlock will have to be held off for at least a further two weeks. The MailOnline has the story.

The new Health Secretary will deliver a statement to MPs in the House of Commons this afternoon in which he will set out the latest thinking on when rules can be axed.

Boris Johnson built in a two-week review point when he announced the original four-week delay to the final step of his lockdown exit roadmap. 

But Mr Javid will reportedly say the nation is not yet in a position to return to normal life but hopes are high that will be possible by the July 19th deadline. 

Sources have suggested that Mr Javid’s approach to the pandemic will be radically different to Matt Hancock’s because he is “much less nanny-state-ish” than his predecessor…

Some Tory MPs are pushing for the Government to ease the rules from July 5th due to the ongoing success of the U.K.’s vaccination drive. 

Mr Javid will tell MPs that July 5th is not possible but he is expected to say he is confident that the July 19th easing will be able to go ahead as planned, according to the Times…

[A source told the newspaper]: “[Javid] is someone who has not been keen on the restrictions, someone who sees the economic and social impact. 

“Saj’s outlook is much less ‘nanny state-ish’, although I’m sure he will be challenged by scientific and medical advisers.” …

Mr Javid said yesterday: “We are still in a pandemic and I want to see that come to an end as soon as possible and that will be my most immediate priority, to see that we can return to normal as soon and as quickly as possible.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: The Prime Minister has confirmed that a July 5th unlock will not go ahead, saying instead that “we’re very likely to be in a position on July 19th to say that really is the terminus and we can go back to life as it was before Covid as far as possible”.

News Round-Up