Day: 5 October 2021

News Round-Up

Welsh Senedd Passes Vaccine Passports Plans as Zoom Error Prevents Tory MS from Casting Vote

The Welsh Government’s plans to introduce vaccine passport checks in nightclubs and other ‘large’ venues have passed through the Senedd after a Zoom failure prevented a Tory MS from casting his ‘no’ vote. WalesOnline has the story.

Welsh Labour’s high profile policy had seemed set for a humiliating defeat with all three opposition parties pledging to vote against it meaning the vote would have been tied. A tied vote would have left the decision with Presiding Officer Elin Jones who would have been obliged not to allow new legislation onto the statue books.

However Tory MS Gareth Davies, who was joining the meeting remotely, was unable to get onto Zoom to cast his vote. Labour’s Covid passes plan passed by 28 votes to 27.

The chamber, which is sitting in a hybrid format with some of the 60 members present and some attending remotedly, could hear an intervention by MS Darren Millar on behalf of his colleague Mr Davies, the MS for Vale of Clwyd. Mr. Millar was told by the Presiding Officer that all attempts to get him onto the relevant software had taken place.

It means this vote – which introduces new regulations to all people who live in Wales – was passed simply because of a Zoom error. The relief on the faces of the Government and First Minister was clear to see. …

After the result, a spokeswoman for the Night Time Industries Association Wales said: “The NTIA has long campaigned against the introduction of Covid Passports due to the operational barriers these measures will cause. We were pleased to see the number of MSs that listened to our concerns today and voted against these proposals.

“It is a democratic outrage that one MS who wanted to vote, and who would’ve voted against the proposals, could not, due to a mere technical error. This shambles will cause even more uncertainty for our businesses.

“There must be an urgent revote so that the will of the Senedd can be fairly expressed and businesses have some clarity about the future.”

Worth reading in full.

Like Freddy Krueger, Professor Lockdown Refuses to Admit Defeat

No matter how many disastrously inaccurate predictions he makes, Professor Neil Ferguson is still doing the rounds of broadcasting studios and the parliamentary estate brandishing his crystal ball. His latest appearance was in front of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus earlier today, where he warned that ‘Plan B’ would have to be activated if Covid hospital admissions climb above 1,200 a day. MailOnline has more.

England may have to resort to its winter Covid ‘Plan B’ if daily hospital admissions for coronavirus breach 1,200, ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson said today.

Boris Johnson announced last month that face masks, social distancing and vaccine passports might need to be brought back if the NHS comes under unsustainable pressure.

Ministers said the trigger point will be hospital rates now that the jabs have made case numbers less important – but they have not put a threshold on admissions.

Professor Ferguson – a key Government adviser whose modelling prompted the first lockdown last March – suggested England should not tolerate more than 1,200 daily hospitalisations. For comparison, Covid admission levels breached 4,000 during the darkest days of the second wave in January.

Speaking to a cross-party committee of MPs today, he said that the country was currently recording around 600 Covid admissions per day.

He added: “If that figure were to double, we’d need to think about moving to ‘Plan B’.” The epidemiologist, based at Imperial College London, called for “more intense” curbs if there is a sharp rise in admissions.

To get ahead of a winter wave, he said second doses for 16 and 17 year-olds could be brought forward and advised we are “more aggressive” in administering boosters.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: The Daily Sceptic‘s in-house doctor has sent through the latest INARC NHS England data, which shows current Covid hospital admissions steadily declining since Covid restrictions were eased on July 21st, in spite of Prof Ferguson’s prediction that cases would rise to 100,000 a day – that was “almost inevitable”, according to Mystic Meg – and possibly to 200,000.

Current daily hospital admissions have stabilised around 600, but ICU admissions continue to decline (see below). Still no sign of the much ballyhooed “surge” after schools reopened.

“Notable, Significant and Abnormal” Purchases of PCR Lab Equipment in Wuhan, Summer 2019

Researchers have uncovered “notable, significant and abnormal” purchases of PCR lab equipment in Wuhan in the summer of 2019, suggesting that Covid was spreading “virulently” in the city far earlier than was previously believed. The Telegraph has the story.

Analysts trawled through PCR procurement contracts in Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the capital, and found spending had almost doubled on the previous year.

The study by Internet 2.0, a cyber security consultancy that specialises in examining data from China, says: “We have come to the conclusion that, based on the data analysed, it suggests the virus was highly likely to be spreading virulently in Wuhan, China, as early as the summer of 2019 and definitely by the autumn.”

The data and findings have been passed to U.S. Government officials amid growing speculation that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan and its existence was covered up for months.

According to the more accepted version of events, Covid originated in a “wet market” selling live animals in Wuhan at the beginning of December.

But the new report claims spending on PCR equipment – standard kit in laboratories for amplifying small amounts of DNA and critical in tracking Covid – in Hubei Province increased to £7.8 million in 2019 from £4 million the year before and £3.3 million in 2017.

The total 2019 contract value, according to Internet 2.0, was higher than the previous two years put together. The report also found the number of PCR contracts increased from 89 in 2018 to 135.

The report’s authors claim the growth in spending was accounted for by contracts at four main institutions – the Chinese Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Hubei province, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Wuhan University of Science and Technology and a military hospital in Wuhan. The report says this is of huge importance because of the bodies’ roles in disease control and prevention.

The report alleges that the “significant increase in spending” was noticed from the summer of 2019, beginning as early as May – seven months before public health officials in China notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) that a mysterious illness was spreading through Wuhan.

The report concludes: “We assess with high confidence that the pandemic began much earlier than China informed the WHO about Covid.”

Worth reading in full.

12,000 Women Living with Undiagnosed Breast Cancer after a Year of Lockdowns

New analysis by Breast Cancer Now suggests that close to 12,000 women in the U.K. were living with undiagnosed breast cancer at the end of May, following more than a year of lockdowns – and, to make matters worse, screening for the disease is still below pre-lockdown levels. The Times has the story.

The charity Breast Cancer Now said that since screening resumed in the summer of last year about half a million fewer women had been seen than in the same months of 2018 and 2019.

Separate research from the University of Exeter warned that six out of ten patients showing common “alarm” symptoms for cancer were not referred on for urgent investigation.

In September last year Breast Cancer Now warned that a million women had missed out on breast cancer screening because of the pandemic.

Any woman registered with a GP is invited for NHS breast screening every three years between the ages of 50 and 71, although services were paused last year to create capacity in the health service for coronavirus treatment and to reduce the spread of infection. They have restarted but are still subject to infection control measures that often mean that not as many patients can be seen during each session.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, Chief Executive of Breast Cancer Now, said: “Unfortunately, despite our hardworking NHS staff, screening services running at reduced capacity means that now 1.5 million fewer women have been screened: a staggering 50% increase since services restarted.

“Women with breast cancer are continuing to pay the price due to the impact of the pandemic and in the worst cases delayed diagnoses could mean that some women die of this devastating disease.” Based on NHS referral, treatment and screening data, the charity estimated that as of May this year 10,162 people in England, 1,067 in Scotland, 620 in Wales and 30 in Northern Ireland could be living with undiagnosed breast cancer.

The charity, along with the Royal College of Radiologists, is calling for more funding and a long-term strategy to ensure that NHS imaging and diagnostic services have enough staff to see and treat patients promptly.

NHS England has said that it would spend £50 million on breast screening to meet national standards and recover backlogs by March next year.

Worth reading in full.

No Good Reason to Introduce Vaccine Passports Right Now, Says Sajid Javid

Talking at a fringe event at the Tory party conference, the Health Secretary said there is no good reason to introduce vaccine passports “at this point” – hardly the steadfast refusal we might hope for, but certainly better than nothing. The Evening Standard has the story.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been planning to make it mandatory for those attending nightclubs to have to be fully vaccinated, but the Government reversed on the policy.

Sajid Javid told a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference that he believed vaccine take-up in the U.K. was so strong that there was no need for the passport concept to be introduced as it had been elsewhere in Europe.

In France, proof of being double jabbed must be shown before entering a restaurant or bar.

With concerns that, despite the Government’s U-turn, immunity passports could be needed if Covid cases spike this winter, Mr. Javid said his comments did not mean “there can’t ever be a role for such an intervention”.

But he said his opinion was that any justification for their introduction needed to pass over a “very high” bar.

The Health Secretary said: “I’m driven by the evidence and if you look at countries who have enforced vaccine passports – and you mention France and Italy as example – I think … their motivating factor was to significantly increase their vaccine take up rate.

“We have been much more fortunate when it comes to vaccine take-up in that the British public have been very supportive in general.

“There are pockets of hesitancy of course but we don’t have anything like the levels of hesitancy that you’ve seen in France and Italy, particularly in France.” …

[He added:] “If we’re going to pretty much take away people’s freedom, you’ve got to have a really good reason to do it and I don’t think we have that reason at this point.”

But he refused to row back on his plan to make it mandatory for care workers to have to be fully vaccinated by next month if they are to continue in the profession.

Worth reading in full.

Why Are People’s Risk Perceptions So Skewed?

Yesterday I noted that, 18 months after the start of the pandemic, a sizeable chunk of Americans still dramatically overestimate the risks of Covid. In a recent poll, more than one third said the risk of being hospitalised if you’re not vaccinated is at least 50%.

Of course, you’d expect some people to get the answer wrong just because we’re dealing with a small quantity, and there’s always going to be some degree of overestimation. But many people were off by a factor more than 10. What accounts for this?

Interestingly, Democrat voters’ guesses were much higher than Republican voters’ – about twice as many Democrats said the risk of being hospitalised if you’re not vaccinated is at least 50%. This suggests a role for ideology.

Throughout the pandemic, the ‘Democrat position’ has been to support restrictions and mandates, whereas the ‘Republican position’ has been to oppose such measures. This is clearly visible in a plot of U.S. states by average stringency index. Almost all the ‘red’ states are on the left-hand side, while almost all the ‘blue’ states are on the right.

Given that partisans (on all sides) like to avoid cognitive dissonance, they tend to adopt beliefs that are consistent with their party’s platform. Since Democrat politicians have been busy imposing all sorts of restrictions and mandates, Democrat voters have adopted beliefs that imply those measures were justified.

Most survey respondents don’t know numbers like ‘the risk of hospitalisation for people who aren’t vaccinated’ off the top of their head. Instead, they probably make a guess based on all the relevant information they can recall.

Democrat voters, who’ve spent the pandemic consuming media like MSNBC, CNN and NPR, will recall numerous incidents of pundits saying that Covid is extremely dangerous, and we have to do whatever we can to stop the spread.

They will also recall that they were locked down for months, that their kids’ schools were closed, and that they had to wear a mask whenever they went to the grocery store. 

Putting all this information together, they will tend to assume that the risk of being hospitalised from Covid is extremely high. ‘Why else,’ they might ask, ‘would there have been so many restrictions?’

Note: Republicans also overestimated the risk of being hospitalised from Covid, albeit to a lesser extent than Democrats. This indicates that people’s skewed risk perceptions cannot be blamed solely on the content of left-wing media (or the policies implemented in ‘blue’ states).  

The psychological quirk that may account for people’s skewed risk perceptions has a name in psychology: the availability heuristic. As Steven Pinker notes, “people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind”.

Because plane crashes always make the news, people tend to overestimate the risks of air travel. And they may overestimate the risks of Covid for the same reason.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve been treated to morbid ‘daily death numbers’ – but for only one cause of death. Perhaps if these figures had been reported for all causes of death, people’s risk perceptions would be slightly less skewed. (Or perhaps they’d just be terrified of everything…)

During a pandemic, we obviously do want people to take precautions; we don’t want them nonchalantly walking into a care home when they have a high fever and a nasty cough. Yet – contrary to what some in government seem to believe – we don’t want people to be utterly terrified either.

There’s been so much attention on people claiming Covid is “just the flu” that the media has largely ignored the other end of the spectrum: people who believe Covid is the bubonic plague!

We can agree it’s bad if people underestimate the risks. But it’s also bad if they overestimate the risks. We want them to have the right risk perceptions. That way, they can make informed decisions.

And Finally…

In this week’s episode of London Calling, James and I discuss the recent easing of travel restrictions (unless you’re unvaccinated), my unsuccessful stalking adventure in Scotland, the new Sharpe novel by Bernard Cornwell, Purgatory’s Shore, the sequel to Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series, and Irwin Shaw’s Young Lions, which James loves.

You can listen to the episode here and subscribe on iTunes here.