Day: 14 September 2021

News Round-Up

Did the Government and its Advisors Implement Measures Proportionate to the Risk, Asks Chair of New Cross-Party Group of MPs and Peers

As the Government sets out its ‘toolbox’ for its “winter plan” which continues to hold out the threat of new restrictions, a new cross-party group of MPs and Peers has formed to hold ministers’ feet to the fire.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pandemic Response and Recovery brings together parliamentarians of all parties from both Houses of Parliament to examine the impact on society of the Government’s pandemic policy.

The group says that its aim is to provide a forum for scientists, health professionals and other experts to engage in broad, balanced and open discussion to inform a more focused and flexible approach to Government policy. It seeks to point the way to new approaches to pandemic management which prevent avoidable suffering and loss in the future. 

The Pandemic APPG is an officially registered Parliamentary Group co-chaired by Rt Hon Esther McVey MP (Conservative) and Graham Stringer MP (Labour). MPs on the Group include Conservatives Sir Charles Walker, Sir Graham Brady and Miriam Cates, Labour’s Derek Twigg and Emma Lewell-Buck, the Democratic Unionist Party’s Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley. Peers on the group include Independent Baroness Fox of Buckley and Conservative Baroness Foster of Oxton, DBE.

Addressing its inaugural meeting, which took place on Wednesday September 8th, Robert Dingwall, Professor of Sociology at Nottingham Trent University and a former NERVTAG and JCVI member, and Dr John Lee, retired Consultant Histopathologist and former Clinical Professor of Pathology at Hull York Medical School, urged a fresh approach to policy making. 

Professor Dingwall commented:

Every policy measure to mitigate the pandemic has come with costs. We must test any ongoing measures, especially non-pharmaceutical interventions, against what we once thought necessary and assess the genuine risks. It is time also, to foster wider public debate that broadens the Government’s scientific advice network to involve a whole-of-science approach.

A good society is defined by life, health, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not by the prevention of one disease alone.

Dr. John Lee added:

Vaccine Passports, Mask Mandates and Another Lockdown All on the Cards If Covid Infections Don’t Stay Low This Winter

Just days after it led the public into believing that plans for vaccine passports were off the table, the Government has announced that they will be introduced – along with mask mandates and potentially another full lockdown – if booster jabs and vaccines for healthy teenagers fail to keep Covid infections down this winter. Laying out its new plans, the Government said it is “committed to taking whatever action is necessary to protect the NHS”. MailOnline has the story.

Fronting a press conference alongside Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, the Prime Minister insisted that the U.K. was “incomparably” better placed to deal with the disease this year.

He said he hoped the situation could be kept stable with more jabs and the public behaving sensibly – although ministers have made clear another lockdown cannot be completely ruled out.

Professor Whitty gave a more downbeat assessment saying that infections were “high” relative to last year, and the NHS was under “extreme pressure” even though vaccines were helping significantly.

Meanwhile, Sir Patrick seemed to send a thinly-veiled message to Mr. Johnson by saying that when it comes to measures to stem cases the lesson was “you have to go earlier than you want to, you have to go harder than you want to”. …

Earlier, Sajid Javid was heckled by Tories admitting that ministers can only give Britons the “best possible chance” of avoiding brutal curbs.

In a statement to MPs, he stressed that vaccines can help “build defences’ against the disease, with boosters for the over-50s and jabs for under-16s starting next week.

But Mr Javid was hit with howls of rage from Conservatives in the Commons as he said the blueprint includes the ‘Plan B’ of making masks compulsory “in certain settings”, more working from home and social distancing if the NHS is under threat.

Vaccine passports will be kept “in reserve” and could be introduced in England with a week’s notice, even though they will not go ahead from next month as originally intended. …

The Winter Plan document lays out the details of ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B’. But although it does not go into detail about other contingencies, it states that further steps cannot be ruled out.

“While the Government expects that, with strong engagement from the public and businesses, these contingency measures should be sufficient to reverse a resurgence in autumn or winter, the nature of the virus means it is not possible to give guarantees,” the document says.

“The Government remains committed to taking whatever action is necessary to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed but more harmful economic and social restrictions would only be considered as a last resort.”

Worth reading in full.

£37 billion Test and Trace Scheme May Have Prevented Just 6% of Covid Cases

NHS Test and Trace, which has cost the taxpayer £38 billion, may have only prevented 6% of Covid infections, according to a new official report. MailOnline has more.

No 10’s Test and Trace system has had barely any impact on thwarting the spread of Covid, according to official estimates.

The controversial £37 billion scheme has been heavily criticised over the past year for being ineffective at breaking the chains of transmission.

New Government modelling found the programme – which critics have described as being the biggest ever waste of taxpayer money – may have only slashed cases by as little as six%.

It also estimates that people isolating prevented 1.2 million to two million secondary cases, with NHS Test and Trace responsible for stopping 300,000 to 500,000 of these.

The estimate assumed people with Covid symptoms and their households would still have isolated if testing wasn’t on offer.

But health chiefs noted that without the offer of testing, millions more people would have needlessly self-isolated when they weren’t infected because they wouldn’t have been able to prove they were negative through a swab.

Test and Trace identified around 900,000 positive cases in August, according to official figures.

It comes as Boris Johnson will today warn that the pandemic is “far from over” as he unveils his “winter plan”, admitting that another lockdown cannot be completely ruled out.

A report published by NHS Test and Trace looked at what impact it had over and above if people with symptoms still isolated without any access to testing.

It did this by analysing the transmission reduction from testing, tracing and isolating from the current scheme.

This was then compared to an imagined scenario where testing was not on offer and households were told to self-isolate if someone developed Covid symptoms.

A panel including ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, helped with the modelling.

The study, which looked at the period from last August to April, found the Test and Trace scheme reduced transmission between 10 and 28%.

But if people stayed at home when they suspected they had the virus anyway, like they are supposed to, the testing system only reduced transmission from six to 19%.

Worth reading in full.

English Patients Could Get Routine Annual Covid Jabs at Same Time as They Get Flu Vaccinations, Says Nadhim Zahawi

The media focus is currently centred on the booster jabs that will be given this year – starting with the over-50s and care workers – but the Government is already looking to the booster vaccine roll-outs of the future. Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi says that English patients could get routine annual Covid jabs at the same time as they get their flu vaccinations. The Guardian has the story.

Scientists have warned that the NHS is likely to be under significant pressure from other seasonal illnesses as well as Covid infections.

Zahawi said he hoped the booster programme would be the “last piece of the jigsaw” to allow society to continue through the winter without lockdowns.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he said: “Where possible we will try and co-administer – with one caveat – with flu. GPs and pharmacies, which are the backbone of the vaccination programme, can rapidly vaccinate lots of people.

“This is probably the last piece of the jigsaw to allow us to transition this virus from pandemic to endemic and I hope by next year we will be in a position to deal with this virus with an annual inoculation programme as we do flu.” …

Boris Johnson is on Tuesday to confirm the start of a booster jabs programme for the over-50s, a day after Government scientists finally approved vaccinations for older schoolchildren. [Why finally? Why were they supposed to give the green light?]

Worth reading in full.

The Unintended Consequences of Vaccine Passports

On Sunday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid stated in a BBC interview: “I am pleased to say that we will not be going ahead with plans for vaccine passports.” However, Number 10 has since clarified that vaccine passports are still a “first-line defence” against a winter wave of COVID-19.  

Whatever the Government’s true position – it seems to depend on exactly whom you’re talking to – introducing vaccine passports could have harmful unintended consequences, even aside from the threat they pose to civil liberties.

It’s now clear that, while the vaccines do provide strong protection against severe disease, their efficacy against infection is much more limited. In July, the Israeli Ministry of Health reported that the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness against infection had dropped to just 39%.

And an unpublished study by Qatari researchers found that the vaccine’s effectiveness against infection fell to zero after six months. (Though its effectiveness against severe, critical or fatal COVID-19 remained high for the study’s duration.)

The apparent decline in the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness may explain why Israel – which began vaccinating its citizens in late December – recently posted its largest daily total for the number of new infections since the pandemic began.

As many commentators have pointed out, the vaccines’ limited efficacy against infection rather undermines the case for vaccine passports. If vaccinated people are still capable of transmitting the virus, restricting attendance of large events to those who can show proof of vaccination is no guarantee of safety.

It would make more sense to create passports exclusively for those who’ve already been infected, since natural immunity seems to provide stronger protection against infection than the Pfizer vaccine. (I’m not seriously entertaining this proposal.)

The fact that vaccine passports wouldn’t have a large effect on spread isn’t the only problem. If implemented carelessly, they could actually lead to more COVID deaths.

How so? If vulnerable people (such as elderly persons for whom vaccines are less effective) are led to believe – wrongly – that the vaccines have strong efficacy against infection, they might take more risks than they otherwise would. For example, they might attend a large event, only to then become seriously ill with COVID-19.

Of course, the number of people in that category is likely to be small. But the hypothetical illustrates that vaccine passports aren’t simply a nuisance or a threat to civil liberties; they could even harm those they’re intended to help.

The small number of people still vulnerable to COVID-19 may need to continue taking precautions until more natural immunity is built up in the population. Vaccine passports will offer these people little protection in the meantime.

More than 20 Countries Could Be Moved from the ‘Red List’ to the ‘Green List’ This Week

A good number of countries, including Egypt, Argentina and Turkey, could be moved from the ‘Red’ to the ‘Green List’ later this week in the latest travel review. But for unvaccinated Brits, it is possible this classification could soon become obsolete given that a new travel system is being cooked up based purely on vaccination status. MailOnline has the story.

The Government is expected to announce changes to the U.K. ‘traffic light’ system this Thursday in the latest review, amid reports the regime could be scrapped altogether by next month.

Paul Charles, CEO of the PC Agency travel consultancy, told MailOnline: “With no new Variants of Concern since early May, and with the U.K. having higher levels of Delta infection than most other countries, there is no reason to keep so many countries on the Red List. 

“It can be sharply reduced in size to help Global Britain, as well as the travel sector, recover strongly. There is no scientific basis anymore on which to prevent travel and enforce hotel quarantine from a vast swathe of the existing list.”

Ministers introduced new rules for travellers into Britain this year to slow the spread of the virus and stop new variants from abroad arriving in the country and causing havoc.

People coming from Red List countries have to quarantine in state-approved hotels for 10 days at a cost of £2,285 and take three tests – one before the return and two on days two and eight after arrival.

Those who are unjabbed coming from ‘Amber List’ destinations are forced to self-isolate for 10 days at home and take three tests. However, the double-jabbed only have to take two tests.

People coming from Green List countries don’t have to quarantine and have to provide evidence of two negative Covid tests – one before returning to the U.K. and one on day two.

However, Whitehall officials are said to be developing a new system based on Covid vaccination status rather than the prevalence of the virus in other countries…

This means that Amber and Green destinations could be removed, although the Red List will remain in place.

Worth reading in full.

Why is the ONS Claiming Just 1% of Covid Deaths Are in the Vaccinated When PHE Data Shows the True Figure For August was 70%?

The ONS has published a new study on Covid deaths which purports to show how few vaccinated people die of Covid. Here’s how the Telegraph reported the headline claim: “Only 59 fully vaccinated people without serious health conditions died from COVID-19 out of more than 50,000 deaths in England this year, new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show.”

The Telegraph report continues:

In the first study of deaths by vaccination status, the ONS found that around 99% of COVID-19 deaths between January 2nd and July 2nd 2021 were in people who had not had two doses.

Overall 640 (1.2%) of deaths were in those who had received both vaccine doses, but the ONS said many of those could have been infections picked up before the second dose. 

Just 256 deaths (0.5%) were considered true “breakthrough” infections where the second dose had long enough to work, but still did not offer protection. 

However, the average age of those “breakthrough” infections was 84 and the majority (76%) were classed as “extremely clinically vulnerable”. Just 59 did not have serious medical conditions.

These statistics appear remarkable – until you realise what they’ve done. Although the data is presented as “this year” in fact the cut-off date is July 2nd. That is significant because it is just before the Delta surge got going. This means the data all comes from the Alpha surge, when almost no-one was vaccinated and tens of thousands of Covid deaths were reported, and from the quiet spring and early summer when many were vaccinated but almost no-one died (see chart below).

News Round-Up