Day: 12 August 2021

News Round-Up

Australia’s Capital Entering Seven-Day Lockdown Following One Positive Covid Test

Canberra, the capital of Australia, is being plunged into lockdown for a whole week following the reporting of a single positive Covid test. Retail and hospitality venues will be closed, again, and residents will not be able to leave their homes for ‘non-essential’ reasons past 5pm. The Independent has the story.

Canberra joins Sydney, Melbourne and several cities in New South Wales state that are locked down due to the Delta variant.

Canberra residents can only leave home for essential reasons from 5pm on Thursday, general retail stores will be closed and hospitality venues will only to able to sell takeout, an Australian Capital Territory Government statement said.

Schools will be open to students who cannot stay at home.

The infection is the first locally-acquired case in the city of 460,000 since July 10th last year.

A Canberra resident, a man aged in his 20s, had been infectious in Canberra since Sunday and tested positive on Thursday, Australian Capital Territory Chief Health Officer Kerryn Coleman said.

The source of the infection was unknown, she said. Covid was detected in wastewater late Wednesday, she said.

The lockdown starts on the final day of a two-week sitting of the Federal Parliament.

Worth reading in full.

Fully Vaccinated Brits Won’t Have to Self-Isolate After Coming Into Contact With a Covid ‘Case’ From Monday

The legal requirement for fully vaccinated Britons to self-isolate for 10 days after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid will be replaced with advice to take tests from Monday. If a test comes back positive, isolation rules must still be followed. Unsurprisingly, there will not yet be any changes to the rules for those who haven’t been ‘jabbed’. The Guardian has more.

Ministers have confirmed that the legal requirement to isolate will be replaced with non-binding advice to take a test for the double-jabbed, as well as those 18 and under. And those who do come into contact with the infected will not be told to isolate while waiting for their results. For people who do test positive, isolation will continue.

The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said on Wednesday night that the Government was able to go ahead with the decision to exempt the fully vaccinated from isolation rules on August 16th, as planned, because “getting two doses of a vaccine has tipped the odds in our favour and allowed us to safely reclaim our lost freedoms”.

Although Boris Johnson was under pressure from business to bring forward the August 16th date, because of disruption caused by the ‘pingdemic’, he said last month that timetable was “nailed on” and there was no likelihood of it being moved.

But when the details were announced on Wednesday night, they were less restrictive than they might have been. The fully vaccinated and under-18s will only be advised to get a PCR test if they are a close contact of a positive case, not required to, and they will not be expected to isolate while they await the results of the test. …

According to the official data, there have been more than 9 million calls to people since the pandemic began from the English Test and Trace service telling them that they must isolate. Until now, this has been a legal requirement.

There have also been more than 5 million alerts sent by the Covid app in England telling people they should isolate for the same reason, although these ‘pings’ have not been legally binding for the recipients.

Worth reading in full.

U.K. Vaccine Passport Allows for Self-Declared Exemption

Are vaccine passports dead? That may be premature, but they have certainly seemed on life-support this week, with even Gates-funded Telegraph Global Health correspondent Paul Nuki writing them off as useless in a recent piece.

Nuki quotes UCL’s Professor Francois Balloux, who argues the vaccines’ protection against transmission is so poor they can no longer be deemed to protect others: “It is not so much anymore a ‘duty to others’ to get vaccinated but a protection for oneself. There won’t be any ‘herd immunity wall’ to hide behind.”

Nuki suggests that mass testing will be used instead, noting that “already U.K. festivals and other mass events are switching their entry requirements to require a negative test of everyone – even where visitors have been double vaccinated”.

Professor Andrew Pollard, Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and Chair of the JCVI, disagrees, arguing that with the Delta variant and the failure of vaccines to prevent transmission, mass testing now serves no useful purpose and testing should be returned to its clinical setting for diagnosing treatable disease.

We don’t have anything that will stop transmission, so I think we are in a situation where herd immunity is not a possibility and I suspect the virus will throw up a new variant that is even better at infecting vaccinated individuals. …

I think as we look at the adult population going forward, if we continue to chase community testing and are worried about those results, we’re going to end up in a situation where we’re constantly boosting to try and deal with something which is not manageable.

It needs to be moving to clinically driven testing in which people are willing to get tested and treated and managed, rather than lots of community testing. If someone is unwell they should be tested, but for their contacts, if they’re not unwell then it makes sense for them to be in school and being educated.

Other senior scientists have also spoken out, calling for the end of coronavirus screening and mass testing, but so far ministers have kept quiet, as have their senior advisers, the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance. Our leaders are, as usual, being slow to recognise the need to lift Covid measures, even as those around them urge them to accept the time has come.

Until we reach such a point, then, it is worth being aware of the fine print in the NHS Covid Pass a.k.a. vaccine passport. Besides logging one’s vaccination status, the system also accepts a positive PCR test as proof of natural immunity (shh, don’t tell them about false positives), including for international travel.

For domestic use a recent negative test, including an LFT, will do.

Crucially, there is also, as with face masks, a broad exemption clause which is self-declared and requires no formal authorisation. The Government guidance page simply states:

If you have a medical reason which means you cannot be vaccinated or tested, you may be asked to self-declare this medical exemption.

The NHS Covid Pass page elaborates further for service providers:

If your customer confirms that they have a self declared exemption, but is unable to show any evidence, you should allow them access to your venue or event. You must not ask for proof of their medical exemption and it is not essential they show any form of exemption card at any point.

This means that for those worried about the medical risks of vaccination or testing, domestic vaccine passports need be no barrier to participation. For travel purposes admittedly it’s not quite so simple, but a single positive PCR test will do you for six months (quite why natural immunity is presumed to fade after six months but vaccines are supposed to last longer is a mystery, but presumably it has something to do with ‘The Science’).

As of Monday, double-vaccinated and under-18 contacts of ‘cases’ will no longer be required to self-isolate, and the Government announcement states that medical exemptions will apply “to those who can evidence that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons”. This appears to be different to the self-declared exemption for the NHS Covid Pass, so we will have to see what the final version of the rules states when the page is updated.

These various exemptions might make the whole charade a little more manageable in the interim, but obviously the big hope is that sooner rather than later mass testing and vaccine passports will be binned. It’s good to hear some of the Government’s own scientists making the case for that this week.

More Than Four in Five U.K. City Workers Have Not Returned to the Office

Fewer than one in five people working in U.K. cities had returned to the office by the end of July, new figures show. The Government is said to be disappointed by this news, but it hasn’t exactly led by example on the matter, with, for example, the Department of Health and Social Care having scrapped its timetable requiring civil servants to be in offices for up to eight days a month from September. The Guardian has the story.

A report from the Centre for Cities thinktank said worker footfall in 30 big cities stood at an average of just 18% of pre-pandemic levels in the immediate aftermath of most Covid laws being scrapped in England.

The biggest migration of workers back to the office has occurred in Brighton, with 49% of people having returned to their desks, a rise of 6% on the previous week. This was followed by Gloucester (39%), Southend (38%) and York (37%).

Cities where only a fraction of workers have gone back to the office include Glasgow, with an 8% figure – the city has had Covid restrictions in force for longer, given Scotland’s slower easing than England – followed by London and Oxford (15%) and Sheffield and Milton Keynes (16%).

Daytime worker footfall fell by 1% in the final week of July compared with the previous seven days, and on average was running at barely half the pre-Covid levels.

Paul Swinney, Director of policy at Centre for Cities, said it showed there remained significant reluctance among some workers to head back to the office in the “largest and most economically important cities”.

He said that the “sandwich economy” that catered to city-centre office workers was facing “an uncertain future” as the end of the furlough scheme in September came closer. …

The Centre for Cities’ report also found a mixed picture for the recovery of nightlife across the country.

Blackpool had a 50% increase in night-time footfall as clubbers in the north of England and the Midlands demonstrated the greatest desire to take advantage of the lifting of lockdown rules.

The strongest recoveries in overall footfall after Blackpool were in Sunderland (37%) and Leicester, Middlesbrough and Wakefield (all 32%). Bars, restaurants and clubs in the big metropolitan centres in the north and Midlands – Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle – also saw hefty increases in activity.

By contrast, night-time footfall in London, Luton and Slough, remained unchanged since clubs reopened and social distancing rules were removed.

Overall, the thinktank found an average 16% increase in footfall in 63 towns and cities across the U.K. in the period after July 19th. Only Blackpool and Bournemouth had seen footfall return to pre-pandemic levels, and the Centre for Cities said each was getting a temporary boost from people in the U.K. having holidays at home.

Worth reading in full.

Is It Better to Get a Given Amount of Covid Over With More Quickly?

The Delta variant has caused infections to surge in multiple countries, and is even driving up hospitalisations in some U.S. states, notably Florida. (Although that state has a vaccination rate only 10 percentage points lower than the U.K., vaccinations are not as concentrated among the elderly as they are here.)

What should we make of the surge of infections, and indeed hospitalisations, caused by the Delta variant? In a recent blog post, the economist Tyler Cowen argues that things aren’t quite as simple as many people – or at least many lockdown proponents – are assuming.

Cowen notes, “Even the growth of hospitalisations, much less the growth in cases, is a misleading signal for how well we are doing.” Why is that? As Cowen argues, “it is better to get a given amount of Covid over with more quickly rather than less quickly … subject to the constraint that you do not overwhelm your hospital system.”

All else being equal, the faster Covid spreads among people who do not yet have immunity (either from vaccination or natural infection), the shorter the time for which the healthcare system is under stress, and the faster immunity builds up in the population as a whole. Assuming, that is, your hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

Interestingly, Cowen’s argument is not dissimilar to the Great Barrington Declaration. That document notes: “As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all – including the vulnerable – falls.” And we should therefore allow “those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection”.  

I say “interestingly” because Cowen previously criticised the Declaration, claiming that it “strikes exactly the wrong tone and stresses exactly the wrong points”. However, he would presumably say the situation is different now (we have vaccines), and letting the virus spread among people who are voluntarily unvaccinated is not the same as letting it spread among people who haven’t yet been offered a vaccine.

I still maintain that focused protection trumps lockdown regardless of whether a vaccine is available, given the limited efficacy and substantial harms of lockdown. But it’s good to see Cowen acknowledge the case for building up immunity more quickly.

His observations raise the question of whether Western countries should have encouraged young people to gain immunity through natural infection in the spring/summer of 2020 (or at the very least not discouraged them through protracted lockdowns). If we’d taken a more relaxed approach then, we might have been in a better position entering the winter of 2020.

Lockdown sceptics will find several things to disagree with in Cowen’s blog post, but it’s still worth reading in full.

CDC Study Claiming Unvaccinated Have More Than Double the Risk of Re-infection is Full of Holes

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in America has published a new study claiming to show that, among the previously infected, the unvaccinated are at more than double the risk of re-infection than the vaccinated.

It forms part of their evidence for why people who have had COVID-19 before should get vaccinated and not rely on natural immunity.

It has a number of problems, however.

The study looks retrospectively at data from the U.S. state of Kentucky. The researchers identify all those in the state who were re-infected during May and June 2021 (defined in terms of positive tests a certain number of days apart) and compare their vaccination rates to a control group. They find 246 re-infections in that period, and calculate that those who were not vaccinated were 2.34 times more likely to be re-infected than those who were vaccinated.

The study has a number of limitations, however, some of which the authors acknowledge.

Firstly, the study period of May and June 2021 is notable for being a period of very low prevalence in the state, meaning it is not a good time to study acquired immunity, which is best studied during a new surge when it is most put to the test. The authors themselves acknowledge that because the study covers just one period in one state, the “findings cannot be used to infer causation”.

The authors also acknowledge that test-seeking behaviour may skew the findings to exaggerate vaccine effectiveness, as vaccinated people are probably less likely to get tested.

Another weakness is that the study doesn’t include symptom data so we don’t know whether the “reinfections” were actual disease or just asymptomatic and mild infections of the kind that are characteristic of the immune system working.

A related problem is that there is no discussion of how big the problem of re-infection is from an absolute standpoint. With only 246 re-infections (of unknown severity) in a population of 4.5 million over a two month period, it’s not clear that even if vaccination did halve your probability of re-infection it would be a difference worth getting vaccinated (which carries its own risks) to achieve.

News Round-Up