Day: 20 October 2021

News Round-Up

No Evidence New Delta Sub-Variant AY.4.2 is Anything to Worry About

There’s a new variant in town. Or rather, a sub-variant – AY.4.2, an offshoot of the Delta variant, said by some scientists to be up to 10-15% more transmissible. As of the end of September it made up around 6% of new cases and is on an upward trajectory.

Variants detected in England (Wellcome Sanger Institute)

However, there’s no reason to panic – and, for a change, that’s the message coming from the top. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “There’s no evidence to suggest that this variant… the AY.4.2 one… is more easily spread. There’s no evidence for that…”

Francois Balloux, Director of the University College London Genetics Institute, said while the variant is “likely to be up to 10% more transmissible”, it is not comparable to Delta when it arrived in the U.K, which was at least 50% more infectious than Alpha.

Professor Balloux played down the likely impact of the increased transmissibility on infections, adding:

Pfizer Accused of Bullying Developing Countries Provisions in Covid Vaccine Contracts

Unredacted copies of Pfizer’s purchasing agreements with a range of countries show that the pharmaceutical giant is bullying the governments of developing countries, making them waive sovereign immunity, preventing them from penalising Pfizer over late shipments and allowing the company to restrict vaccine donations – all this according to a new report by the non-profit organisation Public Citizen. MailOnline has the story.

The bombshell report, published by Public Citizen on Tuesday, alleges the New York City-based company worked to silence governments, restricted nations’ access to vaccine donations, forced governments to pay out lawsuits they may face for breaking intellectual property laws (IP), and to seize public assets in case of missed payments such as foreign bank accounts.

Countries including Albania, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, the Dominican Republic and Peru were subject to these terms in order to acquire the vaccine.

Public Citizen reports that high income countries, such as the U.S., have assisted Pfizer in these bullying tactics by staunchly protecting their IP and allowing the company to form a ‘monopoly’.

Public Citizen obtained nine unredacted copies of Pfizer purchasing agreement with eight countries and the European Union.

The documents revealed previously unknown clauses within contracts that could potentially damage developing nations.

One provision in the contract with Brazil, for example, made the South American country waive sovereign immunity – which protects the nation from lawsuits – in order to access the vaccines, according to Public Citizen.

The contract also prevents Pfizer from being penalized for late shipments.

Little information about these contracts is allowed to be made public, though.

Countries, including the U.S., are not allowed to make any public announcement regarding the details of the contract and any potential dispute must be resolved by private arbitration.

Pfizer is also allowed to control and restrict vaccine donations as part of the contract, Public Citizen reveals.

Nations that sign purchasing agreements with Pfizer could be prevented from receiving donations from other nations, with the company instead wanting doses to be purchased directly from them.

If Brazil, for example, were to receive a donation of Covid vaccine doses from another nation, Pfizer would terminate the contract and the nation would have to pay out the remainder of the contract without receiving any of the remaining doses.

Worth reading in full.

No ‘Plan B’ – For Now

Health Secretary Sajid Javid gave the Downing Street press briefing today – the first one in five weeks. The headline news is that the Government isn’t implementing ‘Plan B’, although Javid did add the ominous words “at this point”. He said the NHS was not under unsustainable pressure, the link between infections, hospitalisations and deaths had been weakened by the vaccines and announced that the Government has spent considerable sums on some “game-changing” treatments developed by Merck and Pfizer. MailOnline has more.

Sajid Javid today batted away demands from NHS bosses for the Government to revert to its Covid winter ‘Plan B’ amid surging infections and a sluggish booster vaccine programme.

The Health Secretary insisted ministers would not reintroduce face masks and WFH guidance “at this point” as he addressed the nation from the podium at No 10’s first Covid press conference in a month.

Mr. Javid said that while the NHS was seeing ‘greater pressure’, he was confident the pressure was not ‘unsustainable’. He said ministers would ‘stay vigilant’ because cases could still rise to 100,000 a day this winter.

The decision by the Government to hold its nerve on restrictions will anger NHS leaders who claim hospitals are already buckling under the weight of Covid, flu and backlogs caused by the pandemic.

Mr. Javid used the press conference to urge Britons to come forward for their booster jabs in a bid to speed up the sluggish vaccine campaign — which has only seen a quarter of care home residents revaccinated.

He said that the country was still ahead in the race against the virus thanks to the initial Covid vaccination effort, but claimed that waning immunity meant that lead was “narrowing”.

Pleading with the country to get their booster, Mr. Javid added that not only would a booster save lives, it would also “protect our freedoms”. “Boosters could not be more important,” he said.

Daily infections are currently on the brink of passing the 50,000 milestone for the first time in months. Department of Health bosses today recorded 49,139 positive tests, up 15% on the previous week.

Meanwhile, hospital admissions rose by 15.3% week-on-week to 869, while deaths jumped by nearly a third to 179. Both measures lag behind case numbers by a few weeks, due to the time it takes for someone to become seriously unwell after catching the virus.

Mr. Javid also announced the U.K. has bought hundreds of thousands of “game-changing” pills that can be used to treat Brits with Covid at home this winter.

The U.K. has bought 480,000 antiviral molnupiravir pills made by US pharmaceutical company Merck and 250,000 PF-073 courses from Pfizer. They still need to be approved by the U.K.’s medical regulator before Britons can get their hands on the drugs.

Worth reading in full.

It’s good news that the Government is resisting the mounting pressure from various public health panjandrums to start reimposing Covid restrictions – for now. Let’s hope Boris can hold his nerve.

Anti-Lockdown Protester Facing Multiple Prosecutions Needs Money to Pay For Legal Defence

Debbie Hicks, the anti-lockdown protestor who was arrested after filming an apparently empty ward in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital at the end of last year, is facing four separate prosecutions in Magistrates’ Court – mainly for participating in anti-lockdown protests – and she needs to raise more funds to pay for her legal defence. The first case is due to be heard on November 16th and all four will be heard this winter. She has set up a CrowdJusice fundraiser that you can contribute to here.

Debbie’s solicitor plans to move on to the High Court if she loses in the Magistrates’ Court, or if the Magistrates’ Court says it doesn’t have the jurisdiction to consider her cases. That could be expensive, but the cause at stake could not be more important. Here is an extract from a note her solicitor sent to me:

These really are important cases in respect of Freedom of speech and Freedom to protest as:

  • Success at the High Court will set a precedent that protest is not, and never has been, completely illegal during the pandemic – even under lockdown.
  • Debbie suspects that the prosecution’s ultimate aim is to obtain a criminal behaviour order against her thereby chillingly curbing her ability to protest in the future.
  • There are still a large number of other citizens across the country who are being ‘unlawfully’ prosecuted or have been convicted – a successful outcome at the High Court will lead to a landslide of other cases crumbling and open avenues of appeal to others already convicted.
  • While the Crown Prosecution Service may try and quietly drop the odd case here and there after defence representations and arguments are filed, this will only occur when a prosecution lawyer reviews the case reasonably and objectively and properly analyses the law which is confusing and opaque – and, as Debbie has found, this is not easy to achieve. Success at the High Court will mean the CPS will have to blanket review all such cases and, with a legal precedent set, this will force the CPS to discontinue all remaining prosecutions.
  • Many ordinary citizens without a previous blemish on their record will currently have criminal records because they’ve been convicted of these types of offences. Success in the High Court could lead to an avalanche of appeals and convictions being overturned.
  • Success at the High Court will add clarity to the law that protesters have a reasonable excuse to gather and are not therefore committing an offence and cannot be directed to disperse or leave by the police.
  • While the prohibition of protests has now been dropped, legislation can always be amended again in the future. Who knows if further lockdowns are on the horizon. We only have to look to Australia as an example of a government completely abusing its powers against its own citizens. Success at the High Court in Debbie’s case will make it harder for our Government to suspend the right to protest again.

Once again, if you’d like to make a contribution to Debbie’s fundraiser, you can find it here.

Six Questions to Ask Before Deciding Whether to Comply With Mask Mandates

We’re publishing a guest post today by Dr. Gary Sidley, a retired clinical psychologist with over 30 years’ experience working for the NHS. He sets out all the reasons why mask mandates shouldn’t be reimposed and urges people to join the Smile Free Campaign, which advocates against masking.

On the July 19th 2021, England removed almost all its legal mandates that required healthy people to wear face coverings in community settings. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, however, opted to retain their mask mandates, as did London on its public transport system. Ominously, the Government’s Covid strategy for this winter includes the prospect of a ‘Plan B’ that could see the return of compulsory face masks in indoor settings in England. After a few months of bare-faced normality, how will the general public react to future directives to muzzle up?

Smile Free – a campaign group seeking the permanent removal of all mask mandates – urges each person to consider the responses to the following six questions before deciding whether to hide your face again.

Q1. Do masks help reduce viral spread?

Although some studies claim otherwise, the real-world evidence strongly suggests that masking the healthy does not significantly reduce the spread of respiratory viruses for neither the wearer nor others. Key reasons for this lack of efficacy are likely to include the improper use and storage of masks in the real world and the growing recognition that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for COVID-19) is spread via microscopic aerosol particles that are far too small to be kept at bay by face coverings.

Q2. Will wearing a mask cause me any physical harm?

If worn only for short periods, significant physical harms from wearing a mask are unlikely. However, there is evidence that long term use can lead to a number of negative consequences, including: headaches, skin irritation, fatigue and dehydration, reduced heart and lung efficiency and eye irritation. In addition, face coverings may put elderly people at more risk of injury from falls.

Q3. Do masks cause any social or psychological harms?

The social and psychological consequences of hiding our faces from other people are profound. Humans are social animals. We need to interact with others and communicate to sustain our wellbeing. Face coverings are dehumanising, inhibiting all forms of emotional expression and social interaction. Individuality minimised, identity hidden, the masked population appear broadly the same as they trudge along in their social vacuums. The impact of a masked population on children is even more problematic, denying them access to facial expressions that are so crucial for their emotional development.

Q4. Will wearing a mask help to reassure others who are anxious?

Most definitely not. Acting as a crude, highly visible reminder that danger is all around, face coverings are fueling widespread anxiety. Fear is underpinned by a perception of threat and being masked is a blatant indicator that we are all bio-hazards. Furthermore, continuing to wear masks while we gradually try to return to normality will act to keep fear going, as the wearer may attribute their survival to the mask rather than conclude that it is now safe to return to everyday activities. To recommend face coverings as a source of reassurance is akin to insisting people wear a garlic clove around their necks to reduce their fear of vampires.

Q5. Under the law, do I have a ‘reasonable excuse’ not to wear a mask?

In general terms, if wearing a mask is likely to cause you ‘severe distress’, or put you ‘at risk of harm or injury’, you are legally exempt. Mental health problems (such as anxiety, depression, and paranoia) and physical health problems (such as asthma and other respiratory difficulties) are sufficient and lawful reasons not to wear a face covering. Furthermore, you are not obliged to disclose your specific reason for exemption to anybody other than an official enforcement officer (usually a police officer); any other person who challenges you about not wearing a face covering is likely to be acting unlawfully and thereby risking prosecution. Indeed, a service provider has been fined £7000 under the Discrimination Disability Act for denying access to a woman without a mask.

Q6. Do I risk being fined if I don’t wear a mask?

While it is possible that a fine could be imposed for not complying with a mask mandate, such an event seems rare. Thus, in the four-month period June-to-September 2020, only 89 fines were issued (61 on public transport, 28 in retail settings) across the whole of England and Wales. Furthermore, if you are unfortunate enough to receive a fine and decide to contest it in Court, it is highly likely you will succeed; according to figures produced by the Crown Prosecution Service, all charges under the Coronavirus Act have either been withdrawn in Court or quashed after innocent people were wrongfully indicted.

In conclusion, mandating masks for healthy people in their communities is irrational, counterproductive, unethical and ultimately unenforceable. To help continue the fight against legal requirements to wear face coverings, please consider joining our Smile Free campaign.

Postcard From Vienna

We’re publishing a new addition to our long-running series ‘Around the World in 80 Lockdowns’. This time it’s a “Postcard From Vienna” from our regular travel correspondent Russell David. Here is an extract:

It’s no surprise most people aren’t booking holidays at the moment. In the 10 days leading up to the flight I received five emails from Ryanair, four of which were identical, headed ESSENTIAL REMINDER FOR YOUR TRIP in bold, capital letters, red and underlined. A couple of lines down it said: “Failure to comply with local travel requirements may result in you being fined or denied boarding or entry into your destination.” That too was in bold and underlined. There was then reams of copy about the E.U. Digital Covid Travel Certificate, passenger locator forms, masks and tests, until it returned to its theme: “Failure to produce required forms/negative Covid test results may result in boarding/entry to your destination being denied and may also result in very expensive, on the spot fines.” By this point you’re thinking: “Christ, should I really have booked this holiday? Is it worth the pain and stress?”

It didn’t start too well. At the Ryanair departure gate at Stansted, already a whirlpool of anxiety and hassle thanks to the staff’s incessant cries of “are you double vaccinated?” and “your bag’s too big, you have to pay extra”, I was called forward, unmasked as ever, clutching my exemption letter from my GP, and came face-to-mask with, well, let’s call her Eva. She peered at my letter for a long time before drawing herself up.

“I’ve let you on this time,” she said with the imperiousness of the Empress of India, “but this is out of date”, and she pointed to “July 30th, 2021” on my letter.

Worth reading in full.

How Outraged Should We Be By Yesterday’s Renewal of the Coronavirus Act Without a Parliamentary Vote?

There was plenty of outrage on Twitter yesterday from lockdown sceptics about the renewal of the Coronavirus Act 2020 without the House of Commons being given an opportunity to vote on it. For instance, Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted: “What kind of democracy do we live in when a six month extension to emergency powers to control every aspect of our lives can just be nodded through without any vote?”

But I’m a little more sanguine about this than others and have written a comment piece for Mail+ explaining why. Here is an extract:

Yes, the Act, as originally passed in March 2020, is an illiberal measure that grants the Government all sorts of sweeping powers. For instance, the ability to close businesses and schools, and restrict social gatherings.

But there are two reasons why its renewal should not set off alarm bells.

First, all the most draconian powers granted to the Government under the Act have been removed. The remaining clauses give ministers powers they would need to use in the event of another lockdown but which, by themselves, don’t enable them to impose one, such as allowing them to financially support businesses affected by COVID-19 and to stop landlords evicting tenants for unpaid rents.

However, the removal of these sweeping powers should not be a cause of comfort – which brings me to the second reason.

The last three times the Government imposed a lockdown, it didn’t need to rely on any of the authoritarian clauses in the Act. That’s because it has all the powers it needs under the Public Health Act 1984 and, unlike the Coronavirus Act, that piece of legislation doesn’t have to be renewed every six months.

That’s why Steve Baker, Conservative MP for Wycombe and Deputy Leader of the Covid Recovery Group, abstained in yesterday’s vote but didn’t call for a division of the House. He rightly understood that the renewal of the Act was small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

I go on to say that for opponents of further lockdowns the focus should be on reforming the Public Health Act, not repealing the Coronavirus Act.

If we’re going to make it harder for the Government to lock us down again without carrying out a cost-benefit analysis – which it didn’t bother with on the previous three occasions – the critical thing is to reform the Public Health Act. That is what the Covid Recovery Group is campaigning for.

Of course, reforming the act wouldn’t prevent the Government from imprisoning us in our homes again. But it would mean that in order to do so, in the absence of any kind of risk assessment, it might have to pass another act of Parliament. That would at least give MPs and peers the opportunity to scrutinise and debate the merits of another lockdown.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: For those unconvinced by this argument, you can sign a petition urging the Government to repeal the Coronavirus Act here.

Putting the Pandemic’s Death Toll Into Perspective

There are two ‘official’ death tolls on the Government’s COVID-19 dashboard. 138,852 is the number of deaths within 28 days of a positive test. 162,620 is the number of deaths with COVID-19 on the death certificate.

The main reason the latter is larger than the former is lack of testing during the first wave. In the spring of last year, about 15,000 people in whose death COVID-19 was a contributing factor died without being tested.

So is 162,620 the pandemic’s true death toll? No. And that’s because it includes a large number of deaths that probably would have happened anyway.

How do we know this? Because if we calculate the excess deaths – the number of deaths in excess of what we’d expect based on previous years – we get a much lower number.

The official death toll for England and Wales, based on death certificates, is 147,031. Yet if we add up all the deaths since the start of March 2020, and subtract the average over the last five years, we get a figure of 117,476 (about 20% lower).

What’s more, due to population ageing, the average over the last five years understates the expected number of deaths. Hence the true number of excess deaths is about 15% lower. Taking this into account, the pandemic’s total death toll in England and Wales is about 100,000.

However, when it comes to events like pandemics, estimating the total death toll isn’t the best way to gauge the impact on mortality. Consider an example.

Japan and Mexico have about the same population, but there are more deaths each year in Japan. How can this be, when everyone knows Japan is a very long-lived country? The reason is simple: there are more elderly people in Japan, so there are more people at high-risk of dying each year.

A better way of comparing the level of mortality in Japan and Mexico is to use the age-standardised mortality rate or life expectancy. Both of these measures take into account the risk of dying at different ages, as well as the age-structure of the population. (In 2019, Japan’s life expectancy was 84, whereas Mexico’s was only 76.)

Last year, the U.K.’s age-standardised mortality rate rose by 12.8%. Although this is the largest one-year change since 1940 (the first year of the Blitz), the level to which mortality rose was lower than in 2008. And even the change should be put into context: 2019 was a year of unusually low mortality.

I previously estimated that the life expectancy in England and Wales last year was 80.4 – down from 81.8 in 2019. (Other researchers have reported similar figures.) So despite tens of thousands of excess deaths, life expectancy was still around 80.

Business Secretary Rules Out Another Lockdown

Half of Brits believe there will be further lockdowns and some officials are urging the Government to implement ‘Plan B’ winter measures now. But such talk is, according to the Business Secretary, “completely unhelpful”. Not only that – he says he would “rule out” the idea the country is facing another lockdown. Sky News has the story.

NHS Confederation Chief Executive Matthew Taylor has urged the Government to bring back certain measures, including mandatory face coverings in public places, telling Sky News: “The overwhelming evidence is that we do need to act.” …

But asked by Kay Burley on Sky News whether the U.K. could be facing another lockdown, [Kwasi] Kwarteng said: “I would rule that out.”

Speaking on Wednesday morning, the Business Secretary added: “I think the conversation about restrictions on travel, restrictions on more lockdowns is completely unhelpful.”

Asked whether more travel restrictions could be brought back in, he told Burley: “No, I don’t think so.”

Challenged on the fact that the Government said similar last year before further measures were introduced, the business secretary said: “This time last year we didn’t have the vaccine.”

“We don’t want to go back into lockdown and further restrictions,” Mr. Kwarteng later clarified.

Perhaps this last remark – that the Government doesn’t want to bring in another lockdown – is closer to the point.

Worth reading in full.