Day: 31 August 2021

Businesses Left Confused by Government’s Mixed Messaging on Working From Home

Businesses and some Tory MPs have complained about the Government’s flip-flopping on its work from home guidelines, with Steve Baker warning that “an entire cohort of businesses which rely on office workers will be at risk if the Government doesn’t give a clear steer to employers”. The Telegraph has the story.

Back in March, the Prime Minister said Britain’s army of homeworkers have “had quite a few days off” and should soon make a “passing stab” at returning to offices. 

The Government’s work from home advice remained in place for four more months before Johnson shifted the responsibility to businesses, saying that the rest was for staff and employers “to work out for themselves”.  

The result of Johnson’s flip-flopping and mixed messaging has been that the prospect of a “big bang” as city centres returned to life has turned out to be more of a fizzle.

Tory MPs and many businesses that depend on the traffic of office workers are growing frustrated as central urban economies lag behind in the recovery.

“You struggle with getting any clear messages out of the Government really, and they all seem to be a bit distracted at the moment anyway,” says Brian Bickell, Chief Executive of West End landlord Shaftesbury. 

“There’s no reason not to come back to your office, public transport is perfectly safe… there’s no clarity of if you should go back, it’s just go back if you want to. I don’t know who they’re pandering to really.”

Experts expect more workers to return to offices from September, but whether it’s a trickle or a wave will be crucial for the future of many city centre businesses.

Johnson’s messaging has been stuck between making a full-throated endorsement for a return to offices and embracing the home working revolution. He is sitting out the big debate that will shape the future of Britain’s cities.

“Ministers need to decide whether they are willing to bear the consequences of mixed messages over whether to return to the office,” says Steve Baker, Deputy Chair of the Covid Recovery Group – an influential group of lockdown sceptic Tory MPs.

Worth reading in full.

Why Has There Been a Rise in Non-Covid-Related Heart Attacks Since the Vaccine Roll-Out?

There follows a guest post by the academic economist who regularly contributes to the Daily Sceptic.

We have known for some time that the vaccines can lead to myocarditis, a condition that causes the heart muscle to swell. Myocarditis is typically a serious illness and in its worst cases can cause cardiac arrest and death. There are also some indications that the risk for myocarditis from the vaccine may be higher in younger people and especially in younger men – a group that is not seriously at risk from COVID-19.

This was clearly not an effect picked up by the clinical trials. We already know that the clinical trials have proved misleading when it comes to protection against infection – and there are also indications that the trials may have been misleading on how well the vaccine prevents hospitalisation and death. Since the vaccine was launched, independent macro-level data has consistently proved more scientifically reliable than micro-level trial data.

So, can we get any numbers on macro-level heart failure? Yes, in fact, we can – and the results are disturbing. The Government publishes a weekly report on excess mortality in England and it includes a breakdown by cause. One of these causes of death is heart failure. Usefully, the data also tells us how many of the deaths from heart failure were due to COVID-19. Using this data, we can calculate excess deaths from heart failure not caused by COVID-19. Let us compare the period in which the vaccine has been active, to the period in which it was not.

Here we see that excess deaths from heart failure that were not caused by COVID-19 are more than 12 times higher in 2021 than they were in 2020. Could these be myocarditis deaths induced by the vaccine? Possibly. There is no way to be totally sure. But the results are worrying and merit further investigation.

One statistical trick we might use to tease out causality is to take the ratio of COVID-19-induced excess heart failures to non-COVID-19-induced excess heart failures and compare this to the number of people vaccinated under-30 – i.e., the group most vulnerable to vaccine-induced myocarditis. (Note: there is no age-specific data on non-Covid-related heart attacks.)

Durham Offers Incoming Students £5,000 to Defer

Durham University sent out emails to those students who’ve accepted places this year, offering them £5,000 to defer until 2022/23. The emails read as follows:

Hi [name withheld],

We’d like to offer you a further opportunity to defer starting your studies at Durham until the academic year 2022/23. If you make a successful request to defer we will give you a payment of £5,000.

This new offer is to help us manage the number of students who want to study at Durham, having excelled in their A-levels and other level 3 qualifications this year.

We can’t guarantee all deferral requests will be successful. Places are limited, and decisions will be based on balancing the cohort.

As the email says, Durham has accepted too many students this year – not because they’ve “excelled” but because 44.8% of A-levels were awarded A*/A this year, up from 38.5% last year and 25.2% (in England) in 2019. If Durham calibrated its offers based on last year’s results, more students than anticipated will have met the requirements, hence the glut.

This follows news earlier this month that Leeds was offering law and business students £10,000 and free accommodation to defer their places.

Yet more evidence that the disruption of the last 18 months has wreaked havoc in our education system – although for once the victims of this disruption are being offered financial compensation.

Government Presses on With Vaccine Passport Plans

Depressingly, the Government has decided to press ahead with its plans to introduce vaccine passports for nightclubs and other crowded indoor venues in England from the end of next month in spite of the now overwhelming evidence that being double jabbed doesn’t prevent you catching COVID-19 or passing it on. The Guardian has more.

Downing Street has said the Government will press ahead with plans to introduce vaccine passports for nightclubs and other crowded indoor venues in England from the end of next month.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson was asked on Tuesday about reports suggesting ministers could back away from the proposal in the face of objections from Conservative MPs, but said there was no change to the policy.

“We set out broadly our intention to require vaccination for nightclubs and some other settings. We will be coming forward in the coming weeks with detail for that,” he said.

The requirement is meant to come into effect at the end of September and will be based on use of the existing NHS app, which allows users to generate proof of vaccination.

Asked whether the prime minister remained 100% committed to the plan, the spokesperson said: “Yes, there is no change in our position.”

Johnson first put forward the idea in July, days after clubs and other venues were allowed to reopen.

He said: “We are planning to make full vaccination the condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather. Proof of a negative test will no longer be sufficient.”

At the time, keen to encourage young people to get the jab, the government even refused to deny that pubs and other venues could be included; but Johnson’s spokesperson said there were no plans to expand it to other venues.

Ministers hoped barring vaccine-sceptics from busy nightspots would help to increase vaccine uptake among young people, but the plan prompted a backlash from Conservative backbenchers concerned about the impact on civil liberties.

Labour has also expressed concerns, suggesting a system that included Covid testing alongside vaccination would be a better approach, since fully vaccinated individuals can still catch and pass on the virus.

If Keir Starmer’s party declined to support the vaccine passports plan, the government could face defeat in the House of Commons, with some Conservative rebels suggesting up to 40 colleagues would be willing to vote against it.

Some backbenchers have also suggested they could boycott the Tory party conference in October if vaccination is made a condition of entry.

Worth reading in full.

It beggars belief that the Government wouldn’t, at the very least, allow entry to large indoor venues based on a negative lateral flow test – or an antibody certificate, given how much more effective natural immunity is at preventing infection than vaccine-induced immunity. In addition, the Government hasn’t disclosed how it will address the problem of waning vaccine-induced immunity. Will vaccine passports expire if a double-jabbed person hasn’t had a booster jab?

No doubt Boris and his Health Secretary will claim this incomprehensible, brain-dead decision is based on “the Science”.

Stop Press: Bernie Spofforth has compiled a twitter thread listing all those MPs opposed to vaccine passports.

Almost a Quarter of a Million Children Prescribed Antidepressants in 2020

In case there was any doubt about the impact of numerous long-lasting lockdowns on the youngest in society, new NHS figures have revealed that record numbers of antidepressants are being prescribed to children, with 231,791 prescribed to children aged between five and 16 in 2020 alone. Long waiting lists for mental health services, caused in part by lockdowns, have certainly added to the problem. And as we have previously reported, many people who have been able to receive ‘treatment’ over the course of the lockdowns still feel as though they missed out on proper care due to the loss of face-to-face appointments. For some, video calls made matters worse. The Times has the story.

Health service guidance says that they should be offered to under-18s only in cases of moderate or severe depression alongside talking therapies.

Campaigners fear that long waits for specialist mental health services aimed at children and young people are driving higher rates of prescription from GPs, who feel powerless to offer anything else.

Studies suggest that lockdowns and missed schooling, as well as the pressure of social media, may be behind higher rates of mental distress. The number of prescriptions issued to primary school children has increased by 20% in the past five years; those for secondary school pupils rose 23% in the same period. …

Catherine Knibbs, a child psychotherapist and online harm adviser, said that she often saw antidepressants handed out for mild cases of anxiety or depression. “Children’s mental health and wellbeing is complex, however pharmacology ought to be a last rather than first resort as their brains and bodies are still developing and maturing,” she said. …

A recent Unicef survey ranked the U.K. in the bottom third of wealthy nations when it came to assessing the quality of children’s mental health. Its report stated that problems with children’s mental health were only likely to get worse. “The existing children’s mental health crisis will probably intensify,” it stated.

“The experiences of lockdown, bereavement and ongoing strains on family relationships of economic uncertainty can damage many children’s mental wellbeing. Children may feel anxious, insecure and fearful for the future.”

Worth reading in full.

Militant Leader of Teaching Union Warns of Further Disruption to Children’s Education

Mary Bousted, the hard left General Secretary of the National Education Union, has warned that inadequate safety procedures in schools ahead of reopening will inevitably mean major disruption in the weeks ahead. In an interview with the Telegraph yesterday, she gave a strong hint that the NEU and the other teaching unions will soon be demanding school closures again – and blaming the Government.

On Monday night Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told The Telegraph: “We have much higher prevalence now in the community than it was. So we’re going in with much higher rates of prevalence into schools where we are relying on one mitigation, which is lateral flow testing.

“In Scotland, they have not abandoned the safety precautions… they have still maintained social distancing where possible, they are still, in secondary schools, using masks.

“My prediction is that very shortly we are going to see schools all over the country in their hundreds having to operate contingency frameworks. But what you’re doing there is shutting the stable door after the Covid horse has bolted.”

Commenting on this veiled threat, Ross Clark says in the Spectator that the Government needs a plan for how to respond if case numbers increase as a result of schools returning, as they’ve done in Scotland following the reopening of Scottish schools a few weeks ago.

A lot of people won’t want to take much notice of Mary Bousted… It was the NEU, after all, which not only opposed the return of schools after the first lockdown, but simultaneously advised its members not to take part in online lessons either. The NEU has often given the impression of being motivated first and foremost by a desire to obstruct the government’s plans.

Sir Patrick Vallance’s original verdict on the virus – that it is not possible to stop it passing through the population – might be more valid now than it was in March 2020

But Bousted has a point in that the return of schools over the next week could have quite a dramatic effect on infection numbers, which will test the government’s faith in controlling Covid through vaccines and travel restrictions, and will inevitably lead to calls for the return of tighter restrictions, perhaps even lockdowns. The warnings of what is to come are there to be seen in Scotland, where most pupils returned to the classroom in the week beginning August 16th. Since then, infection numbers in England and Scotland have diverged markedly. In England, 169,899 infections were recorded in the seven days to August 9th, followed by 174,551 in the seven days to August 16th, 185,903 in the week to August 23rd and 174,760 in the week to August 30th. In Scotland the corresponding figures are 8383, 10,039, 21,164 and 37,917. The picture is complicated because the lifting of most restrictions – which happened in England on July 19th – did not happen in Scotland until August 9th. Nevertheless, it is not hard to see why schools might now be the epicentre of the epidemic. While most adults are now vaccinated, very few children are. In terms of the spread of the virus within schools, very little has changed since the first wave – except, that is, the more transmissible Delta variant is now dominant.

Worth reading in full.

Why it’s a Mistake to Ask Academics For Advice on How to Manage the Pandemic

We’re publishing an original piece today by regular contributor Dr Sinéad Murphy, an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University, about why it’s a mistake to ask academics for advice about managing the pandemic. She doesn’t base this on the fact that the advice of professors of medicine and public health over the past 18 months has generally been poor, but on the disconnect between life in the academy and the real world. Here is an extract, taking Devi Sridhar’s advice to the Scottish Government as an example:

It is not surprising that the likes of Professor Sridhar run for cover to academia when the going gets tough – insofar as our universities have been institutions of enlightenment, they have long been a refuge for irresponsible opinion and wild theories of every kind, which they absolve of all sin by rendering them as purely academic.

What is surprising is that Sridhar and her like were ever allowed out of academia in the first place, that their ‘expert’ models and theories and forecasts and projections were ever accorded the dignity of relevancy.

Our universities – more is the pity – have evolved as little more than soft-play areas for amoral and impractical thought, for ‘critical’ projects wielded at any target that presents itself. It is a serious category error to assume that anyone employed in them is qualified to pronounce on anything of material significance.

To give him his due, Kant warned against this grave error. He saw that once we were busy submitting everything to ‘but’ questions we would be far too reckless to determine anything of practical or moral significance. “Argue as much as you like about whatever you like,” he encouraged his readers – “but obey!”

Worth reading in full.

Test and Trace Call Centre Staff Are Being Laid off Because There Aren’t Enough ‘Cases’ to Keep Them Busy

Test and Trace bosses are having to lay off staff because there aren’t enough ‘cases’ to keep them busy, just weeks after they were reportedly pushed by the Government to hire thousands more. The Sun has the story.

Test and Trace call centre staff in England are being let go just weeks after a drive to hire reinforcements ahead of the dreaded third wave, the Sun can reveal.

Outsourcing firm Sitel has reportedly told phone handlers they are no longer needed because the service is overstaffed.

Officials confirmed the Department of Health is shrinking Test and Trace because of a “decrease” in case numbers over the summer – despite signs they are now rising again.

One call centre worker claimed 4,000 workers – who phone Covid positive cases and their contacts to make sure people self-isolate – could lose their jobs after Sitel started short-notice terminations in August.

But bosses would not say how many will be let go.

The source said: “Some people have only been employed for two weeks and they’re already being told to leave. We’ve been hiring 60 people a day for the last two months.

“I think sacking people in such a short space of time without any notice is bad.”

Contractors were reportedly paid to hire thousands more tracers earlier in the summer when top Government advisers warned cases could hit 100,000 a day after lockdown ended.

But infections peaked at 55,000 in July and have since fallen to around 35,000 per day.

Worth reading in full.

Can Lack of Obesity Explain Low COVID-19 Death Rates in East Asia?

An unresolved puzzle of the pandemic is why COVID-19 death rates have been so low in East Asia. We know this can’t be due to different ways of counting COVID-19 deaths because it shows up in comparisons of excess mortality.

The most recent published estimates of excess mortality, taken from a paper in eLife by Ariel Karlinsky and Dmitry Kobak, are shown below. In this analysis, excess deaths since the start of the pandemic are given as a percentage of annual baseline mortality (see grey numbers).

Excess mortality in Europe ranges from –4% in Norway to 43% in North Macedonia, and most countries are in the 10–30% range. In East Asia, by contrast, excess mortality ranges from –11% in Mongolia to 4% in Hong Kong. (Note: excess deaths in East Asia may have increased slightly in more recent months.)

As I’ve argued before, it’s unlikely this difference is due to lockdowns as Japan has seen negative excess mortality despite having some of the least restrictive policies in the world. In 2020, for example, there were zero days of mandatory business closures and zero days of mandatory stay-at-home orders.

So what can explain East Asia’s low COVID death rates? One factor that’s often mentioned on social media is their low rates of obesity. As I’ll explain, however, this can’t explain more than a small part of the difference between East Asia and the rest of the world.

To begin with, obesity’s effect on the risk of death from COVID-19 – conditional upon on infection – is actually quite modest. (By comparison, the effect of age is enormous.)

While it’s often said that most COVID-19 patients in the U.S. are overweight or obese, this is isn’t very surprising. After all, most U.S. adults are overweight or obese. For example, a CDC study published in March found that 50.8% of COVID-19 patients were obese. Yet the figure for adults as a whole is only slightly lower, at 42.4%.

Earlier this year, the BBC radio program More or Less (which deals with statistics in the news) calculated that if the global obesity rate dropped to zero, the total number of COVID-19 deaths would fall by only 7%.

If you look at the chart above, there is no obvious clustering of highly obese countries on the first two rows. For example, the obesity rate in Peru – which has seen excess mortality of 153% – is less than one in five.

What’s more, two recent studies estimated that there have been around 4 million excess deaths in India. This equates to excess mortality of around 40%, which would place India on the top row of the chart above. Yet the country has an obesity rate of only 3.9% – one of the lowest in the world.

All this suggests that something other than lack of obesity explains the low COVID-19 death rates in East Asia.

Stop Press: For an alternative view on the relationship between obesity and COVID mortality, see this post on Swiss Policy Research.

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