Day: 16 August 2021

Life Returns to Normal… At a Funeral

A reader has sent us an account of a funeral he attended today. Sounds wonderful.

Just back from a village funeral today.

130-150 mourners packed into the medieval church. Age profile 20-90, average age 60s. White British almost without exception, dominated by the nominally high risk age groups.

Masks? I counted four, including the vicar. Social distancing? Are you joking? We were packed in like Japanese commuters. No-one gave a damn except someone who seemed to have a crisis mid-service for unknown reasons and fled into the graveyard.

Singing? En masse. Laughing too.

Piled into the local pub for the wake, packed to the rafters too. Covid a popular topic but the line was if we’re vaccinated that’s all we can do, time to get on with it and stop farting about.

The Government can fool itself anyway it wants, Neil Ferguson can say anything he likes, and Gabriel Scally can talk as much **** as he likes. But the fact is that it’s over. I can’t see anyone rowing back from this – the mere fact of mass vaccination has entirely changed perception of the lockdown rules, or acceptance of them.

You know what? For a couple of hours it was like the Good Old Days.

The ‘Pingdemic’ Is Dead, Long Live the ‘Pingdemic’!

The end of self-isolation rules for double jabbed Brits who are ‘pinged’ or contacted by NHS Test and Trace after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid is “dangerous” and “totally illogical” (but not illogical in the way that Toby pointed out earlier), says the Deputy General Secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union. He is one of the sizable number of industry leaders who have called for staff to be supported if they choose to stay at home after being ‘pinged’, despite concerns over staff shortages caused by the ‘pingdemic‘ (which is said to have finished). The Telegraph has the story.

Railway workers and doctors have been backed to stay at home if they come into contact with a Covid case despite new rules allowing double jabbed people to return to their jobs.

Meanwhile, industry leaders called for further clarity on whether staff alerted by NHS Test and Trace could be compelled to come back to the workplace. …

Steve Hedley, the Deputy General Secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union, criticised the change [to self-isolation rules] as “dangerous” and “totally illogical” and backed staff who refused to come back to the workplace.

“This is a dangerous approach by the Government because the evidence shows that the link between the virus and deaths has been weakened, but it hasn’t been broken,” Mr Hedley said.

He added: “Many workers will be concerned at spreading or catching Covid if people pinged by the app are allowed to come back to their jobs straight away. If they choose to stay at home, we would support them. No one should be forced to go back to work.

“The railway companies have assured us that it will still be voluntary for people to come back to work. It must stay that way.”

The British Medical Association added that healthcare workers who want to self-isolate “should not be penalised in any way for doing so”.

Meanwhile, business leaders welcomed the relaxed rules but called for clarity on whether staff could be compelled to return to work if they come into contact with a Covid case.

Kate Nicholls, the Chief Executive of U.K. Hospitality, said guidance should be “black and white” rather than leaving the choice up to individual employers.

“Employers want to know with more certainty what they should do in those circumstances,” she said. …

Ms Nicholls also called for a further relaxation of the rules to allow younger people who have not yet had both jabs to be spared from automatic self-isolation.

Worth reading in full.

More Petty Bribes Employed to Get Young ‘Jabbed’

In case free burgers and cash prizes aren’t enticing enough, a range of firms, including Asda, National Express Buses and Deliveroo, have announced new incentives to get young Britons vaccinated against Covid. The Telegraph has the story.

Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, announced that five companies will be offering incentives to persuade the young to get jabs.

Asda will offer £10 vouchers for its George clothing brand to 18 to 30 year-olds who spend more than £20. These will be offered at vaccine pop-up clinics in Old Kent Road, in south London, and Watford and Birmingham.

Lastminute.com will provide £30 gift cards towards holidays abroad to all young people getting vaccinated through its website, while Better leisure centres will give over-16s a £10 voucher to use on any of its membership deals and a free three-day pass at any of its 235 leisure facilities across the U.K.

FREE NOW will provide up to £1 million in free taxi rides each way for over-18s attending a vaccine appointment Sunday until the end of September.

National Express Buses (Midlands) will offer 1,000 people five-day unlimited travel saver tickets which can be used within 90 days. Tickets can be claimed by sharing vaccine booking references in the company’s app.

Deliveroo confirmed that it will offer thousands of £5 vouchers to those who get the vaccine, while Bolt said it would provide £10 vouchers for 10,000 rides in Birmingham and Leicester from next week. …

Teenagers within three months of turning 18 can also now book a vaccine appointment online through the National Booking Service or by calling 119. …

Mr Javid said: “It is fantastic to see more companies backing the phenomenal vaccine rollout and joining the public as they do everything they can to continue protecting their loved ones, themselves, their community and this country.

“This truly is a national effort and we would not be where we are today without the support of the NHS, volunteers, businesses and the people of the U.K. themselves as we continue to build the wall of defence through every jab given.”

Worth reading in full.

Booster Vaccine to Be Compulsory for Care Home Staff

Care home workers will need to get a booster Covid vaccine in order to keep their jobs, a senior Government source has said. Booster shots will also be compulsory for some foreign trips and talks are underway on whether they will play a part in vaccine passport checks at nightclubs and other ‘large venues’. The Mail on Sunday has the story.

[Booster shots] will add to the legal requirements for care home staff, who from October will have to be double-jabbed to work in the sector, subject to parliamentary approval.

Millions are set to be offered a third jab from September after Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced the roll-out to priority groups.

A Minister told the Mail on Sunday the “logical” move will be to make the booster shots a requirement for travel, adding that the most up-to-date Covid certification for travel will become as normal as the need to have a yellow fever jab to enter certain countries. …

Meanwhile talks about what booster jabs will mean for domestic certification are still at an early stage within Government.

One insider said that, as domestic passports have only been announced for nightclubs, discussions over whether boosters will one day be required for entry are still in “very early days”.

The Government will make its decision on boosters following final advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which is reviewing the scientific evidence on the third jabs.

The JCVI previously issued interim advice in June that Brits “should be prepared” for another round of inoculations.

The roll-out would work in two stages, beginning with the over-70s, care home residents, extremely vulnerable people and health and care workers. 

Then all over-50s and under-50s with long-term health problems would be offered the booster vaccine.

Mr Javid said last week: “When it comes to booster jabs we are waiting for the final advice from JCVI… and when we get that advice we will be able to start the booster programme, but I anticipate it will begin in early September, so I’m already making plans for that.”

Worth reading in full.

Double Jabbed No Longer Need to Self-Isolate if ‘Pinged’, Even Though Vaccines Don’t Stop You Getting Infected

From today, those who’ve had two Covid vaccinations no longer need to self-isolate if they get ‘pinged’ or are contacted by NHS Test and Trace notifying them they’ve come into contact with someone who’s tested positive. The BBC has more.

People in England and Northern Ireland who have had two Covid vaccine doses will no longer have to isolate if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

Instead of having to quarantine for 10 days, they are now advised to take a PCR test – but this is not compulsory.

They are also advised to wear a face covering in enclosed spaces and to limit contact with others, especially the clinically vulnerable.

The guidance applies to under-18s too.

The changes to self-isolation rules have already been implemented in Scotland and Wales.

The relaxed rules in England and Northern Ireland are expected to significantly reduce the number of people being compelled to stay at home.

At its peak in July, the number of self-isolation alerts sent in England and Wales in a week was just under 700,000.

This is welcome news, obviously, but, like so much of the Government’s decision making about the coronavirus crisis, it’s completely illogical. After all, people who’ve been double jabbed are not significantly less likely to catch COVID-19 or infect others than the unvaccinated. This rule change, which was announced last month, seems to have been made before the evidence about just how ineffective the vaccines are when it comes to protecting people from infection had been digested by the Government. Or maybe the Government had digested it, but decided to press ahead with the relaxation of self-isolation rules anyway because of the havoc the ‘pingdemic’ was wreaking.

Can we now abandon the stupid contact-tracing rules for the unvaccinated, too?

Postcard from France

There follows a guest post by former Google software engineer Mike Hearn.

I just got back the south of France, flying from Switzerland. Myself and my fiancée visited Antibes and its local theme parks. The Pass Sanitaire came shortly before we arrived, so I got to see how it was doing on its first days of implementation.

Polling from the end of July stated that about half of the French are opposed to the anti-pass protests, about 35% are supportive and about 15% are indifferent. How does it look on the ground? I decided to do a simple experiment to find out: always present an expired test even though I had a valid negative one, and see what happens. Over a four day stay I was required to show a valid pass exactly zero times; that includes at the airports in both directions. Compliance is absolutely min viable and often lower. At small businesses enforcement was non-existent: sometimes the pass requirement was ignored entirely, other times we were asked “do you have a pass” and our answer wasn’t checked. One restaurant had come up with a clever way to detect police stings without requiring customers to actually present a pass. As expected, enforcement was stricter by larger firms, however even there we saw the following:

  • Test certificates being checked once and then swapped for a token that doesn’t expire.
  • Expired tests being accepted.
  • People accepting paper test certificates without scanning them.
  • Scanning tests and then not looking at the screen to see the results.
  • Accepting QR codes that failed to scan.

We saw no evidence of compliance checks being done on businesses, although it was only a short stay. We saw only one person voluntarily present a pass when it wasn’t being requested, and that person was unsurprisingly quite elderly.

Mask enforcement has collapsed. In the theme parks nobody was wearing masks despite the signs and announcements telling people it was obligatory. Even at large venues the staff frequently wear masks around their chins or dispense with them altogether. Social distancing is of course a long forgotten memory by now.

It’s a good thing enforcement is lax because the testing system is in a state of disarray. The massive throughput needs of the Pass Sanitaire mean that every pharmacy is operating rapid testing tents with staff no more trained than the average counter clerk. Despite that, there are always huge ‘queues’ (often more like a crowd milling around outside a tent). At one pharmacy, personal details had to be filled out on a smartphone while you were hanging around, but you didn’t get any kind of code or evidence you’d done so. The tester did the test, then assured me I’d get my results in 20 minutes. I had to point out that this was impossible because he had no idea who I was.

Delivery of test results also seems to be quite broken. Although the test completes within 15-20 minutes the results email frequently took hours to arrive for me. Moreover, that email did not contain the certificate. Instead you retrieve your results only after getting a code via email or SMS, which must be typed in within ten minutes. SMS codes never turned up and emails were routinely being delivered after the ten minute window had expired, meaning that actually downloading your test certificate was an exercise in frustration. My guess is the sudden spike in testing combined with the desire to use new-style digitally signed QR codes is causing automatic anti-spam throttling of messages from the Government. It’s possible they didn’t anticipate this and now have no way to fix it without removing the ‘security’ on their system.

Macron has claimed that, “Never before in our history was a crisis of such magnitude fought in such a democratic way.” In the parts we visited at least, the French are ‘democratically’ rejecting his rule by simply ignoring it. The motions are being made but on close-up inspection nothing is actually happening.

Polls vs. reality

How can this experience be reconciled with the anti-protest polling?

One answer is that the beliefs of a composite/average French person don’t actually matter here. The scheme is most popular with the elderly and public sector workers, least popular with the young and business owners. But retirees and government workers aren’t the ones waiting tables or selling tickets. Nor are they the employers of the people who do. In fact, among company managers, sympathy for the protests rises to 60%; higher than private sector workers as a whole. We may also assume that plenty of people are against the Pass Sanitaire while also being against protests, which have a history of being violent and disruptive in France, and it seems safe to assume that support for it will fall further as the system actually starts to bite (the poll pre-dates enforcement). Thus the true levels of support for the pass amongst the managerial classes are certainly much lower than the 40% this poll would imply.

Finally, not for the first time, we must raise eyebrows at polling that paints a totally different picture of what people think than what is observable with our own eyes. Polling firms try hard to ensure their sample is representative, but it’s been known for many years that their samples are not genuinely reflective of the population under test. A large but very predictable problem is that polls massively over-represent volunteers. It seems likely that there’s a correlation between the sort of people who support the Pass Sanitaire and the sort of people who enthusiastically volunteer to spend time on surveys without compensation. In the past I’ve encountered a belief among (ex) professional pollsters that it’s an open secret in the business that any question with a “pro-social” answer will get wildly un-representative answers. However, I’ve never been able to find any kind of rigorous written discussion of this. If you work or have worked in polling and have some insight to offer here, please do get in touch and share it. Enquiring minds would like to learn more!

Conclusion

Converting ordinary businesses into an unpaid police force cannot work without high levels of support amongst the young and entrepreneurial. The Pass Sanitaire doesn’t have that. Implementation difficulties leading to arbitrary and random arrests will only further erode support for the scheme.

New York Times Article Calls for Universal Masking in Schools, but It Doesn’t Stack Up

The authors of a recent New York Times op-ed describe universal masking as “one of the effective and efficient strategies for preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools”. And given the putative evidence supporting this measure, they ask rhetorically, “Why not require universal masking?”

The authors – a paediatrician and an epidemiologist – cite evidence from a recent study carried out in North Carolina. They collected data on COVID-19 infections among 864,515 students in the state’s school system from March 1st through June 25th, 2021. During this period, there was a mask mandate in place for all K-12 schools.

In total, 6,484 primary infections were recorded, and only 308 secondary infections. (Secondary infections refer to those among the contacts of students who were initially identified as infected.) “We believe this low rate of transmission occurred,” the authors write, because of universal masking.

By contrast, they note that “one school in Israel without a mask mandate… reported an outbreak of COVID-19 involving 153 students”. And “outbreaks at youth camps in Texas, Illinois and Florida show how quickly COVID-19 can spread among adolescents… who are largely unmasked”.

However, there are a number of problems with this argument. As you may have already noticed, there was no control group. The authors observed a low secondary attack rate, and then attributed this to the state’s mask mandate.

Yet infections were falling over the relevant time period in North Carolina as a whole. Only 390 cases were recorded on June 25th, compared to over 2,000 on March 2nd. And several previous studies have found “much lower” secondary attack rates among children, so it may not be that surprising the authors observed a low value.  

As David Zweig notes, schools in some parts of Europe and the U.S. did not have mask mandates, and there were no corresponding explosions of cases. What’s more, the Israeli study isn’t as clear-cut as the authors suggest. All schools in the country were exempt from masks for three days, so a single outbreak isn’t strong evidence for mask efficacy.

But put all that to one side. Suppose the authors are correct that universal masking reduces transmission in schools. Is it therefore worth doing? I would argue no.

First, there are tangible costs to mask-wearing. They’re uncomfortable. They get dirty. And they don’t allow you to see other people’s faces, which hampers learning (particularly for the youngest children) as well as social interaction more generally.

Second, it’s not even clear that we want to prevent children from becoming infected. For starters, they face an extremely low risk of death from COVID-19. According to a recent English study, the survival rate for under-18s is 99.995%. And if COVID-19 becomes endemic, which seems very likely, they’ll have to get it at some point. So why not now?

In fact, we might want to encourage children to become infected, the better to build up population immunity and protect the most vulnerable. (I’m of course exempting children who have a serious underlying health condition.)

Vaccination is another option, but I believe we should focus vaccines on those who actually need them, such as elderly people in other countries. And in any case, many people don’t want their children to be vaccinated.

The authors of the New York Times piece make two claims: universal masking cuts transmission in schools; and therefore we should require it. I’m sceptical of the first claim, but even if it’s true, the second doesn’t follow. Wearing masks is costly, and it’s not even clear we want to prevent infections among healthy children.

Kids have already paid a heavy price during the pandemic, thanks to months of ill-advised school closures. Rather than forcing them to wear masks, which could further diminish their learning, we should end the mandates and let them get back to normal.

Stop Press: For a rigorous and comprehensive review of the evidence on mask efficacy, see this piece in City Journal by Jeffrey H. Anderson, a former Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.