Day: 12 July 2021

We Must “Proceed With Caution”, Says Boris Johnson As He Announces Lockdown Easing on July 19th

There’s was a particularly downbeat tone to the Prime Minister’s speech on Monday evening in which he said that the country can proceed with easing lockdown restrictions on July 19th, but “with caution”.

The mood was set by Health Secretary Sajid Javid earlier in the day, who confirmed Government plans to urge large indoor venues to implement vaccine passports. In his speech, Boris Johnson said he expects and recommends people to continue wearing face masks after “Freedom Day” and cautioned that “this pandemic is not over”. The Guardian has the story.

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, the Prime Minister urged “extreme caution” on Monday, as he gave the final confirmation that Step Four of the ‘roadmap’ would go ahead next week.

It will mean nightclubs can reopen, social distancing rules will be abandoned and mask-wearing will no longer be legally enforceable…

But in a marked shift of emphasis from a week ago, when he said mask-wearing would become a matter of “personal choice”, Johnson said he would “expect and recommend” that face coverings be worn in crowded indoor spaces, and people were advised to limit their contact with those outside their households.

He warned businesses such as nightclubs and theatres that it was their “social responsibility” to check their customers’ Covid status; and said he expected the return to offices to take place only “gradually”.

Government documents said that ministers will “consider mandating” the NHS Covid Pass if “sufficient measures are not taken to limit infection”. 

The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, had earlier told MPs: “This is not the end of the road. It’s the start of a new phase of continued caution, where we live with the virus and manage the risks.”

Under questioning from the Health Select Committee Chair, Jeremy Hunt, Javid declined to rule out imposing new restrictions in the future, if ministers judged it to be necessary.

Government advisers expect about 1,000 to 2,000 daily hospital admissions over the summer as restrictions are lifted, and 100-200 deaths a day under what was described a “central scenario”. This would depend on how quickly the public’s behaviour returns to normal.

Minutes published by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) also highlighted the threat of a new vaccine-resistant variant emerging in the U.K., which they warned would pose a risk to the whole world.

Johnson said there would be an increase in cases whenever restrictions were lifted, and it was better to do so now, with the “natural firebreak” of the school summer holidays, than during the autumn or winter when the NHS is already under intense pressure.

“But it is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution, and I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough – this pandemic is not over,” he said. “This disease, coronavirus, continues to carry risks for you and your family. We cannot simply revert instantly on July 19th to life as it was before Covid.” …

Speaking alongside the Prime Minister, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, said that while a rise in infections was both expected and inevitable whenever restrictions were moved, the scale of this, and the subsequent impact on hospitalisations and deaths, depended on the public.

He said: “If behaviour returns immediately to pre-pandemic levels, that would be a very, very big rise. If we go slowly and cautiously, that will be less of a rise.” …

[An official] document said the Government would, in September, review the country’s preparedness for the coming months “which will consider whether to continue or strengthen public and business guidance as we approach the winter”.

Worth reading in full.

Labelling the Lab Leak Theory ‘Misinformation’ is a Stain on British Science

I’ve written a comment piece for Mail+ today about the shameful attempt by eminent British scientists to suppress the lab leak theory, pegged to the editorial in the BMJ calling for a “full, open, and independent investigation” into the origins of the virus. Here is an extract:

We still don’t know for sure where the virus came from, but the theory that it escaped from a lab in Wuhan has always been quite plausible – which is why it’s peculiar that so many British scientists initially dismissed it as ‘misinformation’.

For one thing, the closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2 occurs naturally in a region of Southern China almost 1,000 miles away from the research centre. Yet the first viral outbreak was recorded in Wuhan. How did it get there if it wasn’t via a lab leak?

We know that scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology have been researching coronaviruses in bats for more than a decade, catching them in the wild and bringing them back to the lab to carry out ‘gain of function’ research.

This involves altering microbes that cause diseases to make them more transmissible in the hope of developing vaccines and treatments.

What’s more likely? That SARS-CoV-2 escaped from the lab or that Covid-19 began when a human ate an infected animal bought from the Wuhan wet market – the so-called ‘zoonotic spill over’ theory?

We know that safety standards at the Institute are quite lax. For instance, Wuhan scientists conducted some experiments on a coronavirus capable of infecting human cells in 2016 in a lab with biosafety levels comparable to that of a dentist’s office, i.e. they wore protective face shields, but that was about it.

Moreover, this wouldn’t be the first time a dangerous pathogen has escaped from the lab. Smallpox leaked from a research lab at Birmingham Medical School in 1978, SARS has escaped six times – once from a lab in in Singapore, once in Taiwan and four times in Beijing – and in 2007 an outbreak of foot and mouth disease was traced to a leaky drainage pipe at a British government lab in Surrey.

Yet in spite of this circumstantial evidence, some experts were quick to write off the lab leak hypothesis when it was first aired.

Worth reading in full.

Government to Urge Venues to Require Vaccine Passports for Entry after “Freedom Day”

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has confirmed that the Government is going ahead with the fourth and final stage of its ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown on July 19th, saying there will “never be a perfect time” to end restrictions: “If not now, then when?”

It has, however, become quite clear why ministers have decided to “tone down Freedom Day rhetoric“, as large indoor venues in England have been urged to tell customers to show vaccine passports before being granted entry this summer. The day we were told would be the “terminus date” for restrictions in England will instead be a partial easing of restrictions that in all likelihood will return in winter. The Guardian has more.

Speaking to MPs, the Health Secretary confirmed the Government’s plan on July 19th to lift almost all the remaining legal restrictions put in place during the pandemic, including those covering mask-wearing and the size of social gatherings.

But his tone was noticeably more downbeat than a week ago, when he told MPs, “freedom is in our sights once again”.

The vaccine certification plan, in which venues will be “supported and encouraged” by Government to use the NHS app to check up on their customers, was the most concrete sign of a change of tack.

A review of Covid certification had been carried out by the Cabinet Office, under Michael Gove, but ministers had concluded previously that the scheme would not be immediately necessary, and should be held in reserve for the autumn.

Instead, with only a week to go until mass events will be allowed to go ahead, and venues such as nightclubs can reopen, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the Government would be in touch with businesses to encourage them to implement Covid checks at the door.

He suggested customers could either show that they have been double-vaccinated, or had a positive PCR test within the past six months – or could carry out a lateral flow test and show the email they received after reporting a negative result.

Javid said the Government was acting “in a measured way,” and had only proceeded because its four tests – on vaccines, hospitalisations, NHS capacity and new variants – have been met.

He said July 19th would be, “a major milestone for this country, taking us another step closer to the lives we used to lead”.

He conceded that infection rates are likely to get worse before they get better – potentially hitting 100,000 a day – but said the vaccination programme had “severely weakened” the link between infections, hospitalisations and deaths. …

He said moving now offered, “the best possible chance of a return to normal life”.

The events industry is likely to respond with exasperation at being given such short notice to implement the scheme. The PM’s spokesman stressed it was already “up and running” because it had been tried at a series of pilot events.

Ministers have also underlined the continued importance of mask-wearing in all indoor, crowded spaces in recent days, despite the decision to lift legal restrictions.

And employers are being encouraged to act cautiously when it comes to ordering office staff back to the workplace.

Worth reading in full.

Italy, Austria and Germany Could Be Added to “Green List” This Week

Reports suggest that more countries could be added to the Government’s “Green List” later this week, which would allow unvaccinated Brits to holiday abroad without needing to quarantine when back in the U.K. The MailOnline has the story.

Italy, Austria and Germany are among the potential destinations that appear to pose a low enough risk to be downgraded in a review due on Thursday.

The move could make life easier for Brits who are desperate to get away, but have yet to receive both doses. 

People who are double-jabbed are due to be exempted from having to self-isolate on return to “Amber List” countries from “Freedom Day” next Monday.

But they will have to prove they are fully vaccinated, and there fears of huge delays as the rules are eased. …

Meanwhile, Britons will still need to consider the restrictions that are being imposed by other countries – with many trying to stop the Delta – or Indian – variant being imported from the U.K. …

Experts have predicted that a dozen more countries could be added to the Green List – where vaccine status is not an issue for the restrictions in England – in a review on Thursday. 

Former BA strategist Robert Boyle told the Telegraph that Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Canada, Austria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Taiwan now meet the criteria for the loosest controls.

That would bring the total on the Green List to 39, with any changes expected to take effect from next week. …

Under the new arrangements, travellers will still be required to fill out a passenger locator form with details of their home address.

They will also need to confirm they have booked a day two PCR coronavirus test. Border Force agents must insect [sic] the documents for passengers at passport control. However, airlines will be responsible for checking vaccination status.

Border officers have warned that the huge rise in bookings since the loosening was announced will mean long queues.

Before Covid, three-quarters of people who passed through the U.K.’s border did not require any documentation checks other than verifying that their identity matched their passport.

Lucy Moreton, Professional Officer for the ISU Immigration Union, representing frontline border staff, told the Times: “This decision will open up foreign travel to a large number of new travellers. But we are not set up to cope with that sort of demand. 

“There is no way that the border can maintain that level of checks as the number of travellers increase.

“We’ve got away with it so far because the number of travellers are so low. But even at this point we’re seeing queues of one to two hours. 

“From the number of bookings we’ve seen already, we’ll easily see three, four-hour queues when people start returning from their holidays.”

Worth reading in full.

Mask Mandate Should Stay After July 19th, Says Labour’s Kate Green

Labour believes mandatory mask-wearing should stay in place after July 19th so as to keep the rules clear and to provide people with a sense of reassurance about their safety.

Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green told Sky News yesterday that allowing people to choose whether to wear a mask would be a “recipe for confusion” and “confrontations”, and that it would be much “clearer” to keep rules in place for public places after “Freedom Day”.

She added that, when on public transport, wearing masks and seeing others wearing masks is “a source of great reassurance and people want to do it”.

Despite appealing for clarity, Kate has created more confusion by suggesting that Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has decided to keep mask mandates in the city’s metro – a claim Burnham’s team has denied. Manchester authorities are, however, “strongly urging people to wear face coverings”, as is the Government more generally.

And it doesn’t stop there. Kate also said Labour believes social distancing measures should continue “as far as is possible” and that Test and Trace should be more – not less – sensitive. Do they ever want this to end?

Editor-in-Chief of The BMJ Says Lab Leak Is “Plausible and Worthy of Serious Inquiry”

The two most famous British medical journals are The Lancet (founded in 1823) and The BMJ (founded in 1840). The Lancet – which is arguably the more famous of the two – has come under criticism in recent months for publishing a letter that dismissed the lab leak as a “conspiracy theory”.

Now the Editor-in-Chief of The BMJ has written a surprisingly bold editorial, which is titled ‘Covid 19: We need a full open independent investigation into its origins’. Referencing a longer BMJ article by the science journalist Paul Thacker, she notes that “suppression of the lab leak theory was not based on any clear evaluation of the science.”

She goes on to say, “We don’t know which theory is right, but a lab leak is plausible and worthy of serious inquiry.” And she concludes by calling for a “a full, open, and independent investigation.”

Thacker’s article, which is much longer, examines the role that scientific journals and journalists played in shaping the now-punctured narrative that COVID-19 couldn’t possibly have leaked from a lab in Wuhan.

The story begins with the aforementioned Lancet letter, published in February of last year. That letter, it subsequently transpired, had been organised by Peter Daszak – president of EcoHealth Alliance – who has funded controversial gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Daszak’s letter helped to stifle debate on COVID origins for more than a year. As the molecular biologist Richard Ebright told Thacker, ‘conspiracy theory’ is a “useful term for defaming an idea you disagree with”. Ebright, incidentally, blames not only The Lancet, but also Nature and Science – the world’s two preeminent scientific journals – for suppressing the lab leak theory.

As an aside, Nature’s role in suppressing the lab leak has been covered extensively by the journalist Ian Birrell. As he notes, “Allegations swirl that it was not down to editorial misjudgement, but something more sinister: a desire to appease China for commercial reasons.”

Returning to Thacker’s article, he suggests two main reasons for the “U turn”, whereby the lab leak went from “conspiracy theory” to plausible hypothesis. The first is that Trump lost the election. Because Trump had endorsed the lab leak theory, Thacker argues, “Daszak and others used him as a convenient foil to attack their critics”. (So much for guilt-by-association being a logical fallacy.)

The second factor is that the WHO investigation into COVID origins, which had gone looking for evidence of zoonotic spillover, came back pretty much empty handed. “More worryingly,” Thacker notes, “members were allowed only a few hours of supervised access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

In the final part of the article, Thacker documents the various media outlets and “fact-checking” organisations that have scrambled to retroactively cover their anatomy. For example, Vox added a correction noting, “Since this piece was originally published in March 2020, scientific consensus has shifted.”

Thacker’s article offers a case study in what happens when scientific journals and journalists neglect their duty of independence, and instead become purveyors of an official narrative. It is worth reading in full.

News Round-Up

Moment of Truth for Open U.S. States as Delta Surge Arrives

It’s been relatively easy since March for the open U.S. states to stand by their decision to roll back Covid restrictions as infections have defied the doom-mongers’ models and stayed low.

However, that is about to change for at least some of the states. The arrival of the Delta variant (see below) is now causing surges in infections in a number of states, including some which have reduced restrictions to a minimum, such as Florida and Arkansas (see above).

Delta variant is in green (CoVariants)

Short-lived surges driven by new variants come and go – the Delta surge is already peaking in the U.K., at least among the unvaccinated and in Scotland, showing there is nothing to fear.

The open American states will need to hold their nerve in the coming weeks as infections rise and they come under pressure to “do something” once again.