Day: 29 November 2021

News Round-Up

Masks Have Made No Meaningful Difference to Delta – Oxford Professor

Professor Jim Naismith, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Oxford, has pointed out that, despite England dropping its mask mandate in July while Scotland kept its one in force, there is no evidence of this policy making any difference in the two countries’ infection rates. He writes:

The ONS survey results on prevalence shows that the Scottish and English approach to masking, although formally different since July, has made no meaningful difference to Delta. In both countries very high levels of prevalence have continued for months. Thus the new changes announced are unlikely to have much of an impact if Omicron does indeed spread rapidly.

You can see the ONS graphs below for yourself, and he’s right. Yet the Government has re-imposed masks in schools, shops and on public transport, despite there being no evidence that they make any significant impact on the spread of disease.

JCVI Recommends That All Adults Should Receive Booster Jabs – And Approves Use of The Pfizer Jab For 12 to 15 Year-Olds

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has declared that the time between receiving the second dose of the vaccine and the booster jab should be cut from six months to only three months, allowing those aged between 18 to 39 years-old to receive one much earlier than expected. The JCVI came to this decision as research has suggested that higher antibody levels are better prepared against the Omicron variant. In addition, the JCVI has approved the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 12 to 15 years-old. The Times has more.

The move, which will prove a huge logistical challenge for the NHS, comes after early evidence suggested that higher antibody levels may offer better protection against the variant.

The JCVI is now advising that all adults aged 18 to 39 years-old should be offered a booster dose, in order of descending age groups. Those aged 40 years-old and over are already eligible.

In further advice, young people aged 12 to 15 years-old should be offered a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, no sooner than 12 weeks after their first dose.

The JCVI also said that severely immunosuppressed people should be offered a booster dose no sooner than three months after completing their primary course of three doses.

Professor Wei Shen Lim, Chairman of the JCVI said: “Having a booster dose of the vaccine will help to increase our level of protection against the Omicron variant.

“This is an important way for us to reduce the impact of this variant on our lives, especially in the coming months.

“If you are eligible for a booster, please take up the offer and keep yourself protected as we head into winter.”

The JCVI said that both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines can be given as a booster for adults, with equal preference given to both.

Laws requiring facemasks in shops and public transport, along with new quarantine rules for all travellers into Britain, will come into effect at 4am tomorrow. Ministers said that this was a “proportionate” response to the emergence of a variant that scientists believe may be the most dangerous yet.

Conservative backbenchers are pressing for an early vote on the rules after Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, suggested that Parliament may not get a chance to approve the changes until after they are reviewed in three weeks. Ministers have said that the introduction of measures such as working from home and vaccine passports, which are strongly opposed by many Tory MPs, do not require a vote.

Worth reading in full.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Think of the Children

There follows a guest post by Dr. David McGrogan, a Professor at Northumbria Law School and Daily Sceptic regular. He has just been notified of another round of utterly pointless restrictions on what children and their parents are able to do in the coming weeks and months because of the super-scary moronic omicron variant.

Like most parents across the land, I received a letter from the local council’s Director of Public Health this morning (forwarded by the school in an email) explaining that they have “advised [sic] schools that parents/carers/other visitors are not invited” to nativity plays this year. Not the end of the world in the grand scheme of things, of course – just another depressing example in the long litany of examples of children’s priorities being cast under a bus due to adult panic during the course of this pandemic.

Much more concerning, because of what it said about the mindset of the Director of Public Health in question, was this alarmingly blithe justification for continued restrictions in schools, buried in the body of the letter:

Much as we would all like it to be, the pandemic is not over. Whilst it is clear that the vaccination programme is effective in preventing serious disease and deaths, the vaccine is never going to stop all transmission, and resultant harm, on its own. [Emphasis added]

You couldn’t get a starker admission than this that we long ago moved beyond “flattening the curve” or staving off a dire public health emergency in a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-repeated year. No: we are now in a different place altogether – one in which we must stop transmission “and resultant harm” for its own sake, forever. For how else are we supposed to interpret this statement? On what grounds will parents ever be allowed back into schools to watch nativity plays (or even properly meet their children’s teachers), if the requirement is for “all transmission and resultant harm” to end? We will never be in that position. So in what circumstance does the Director of Public Health envisage there ever will be a return to normal schooling? Ought this not to be made clear to local parents?

More broadly, this incident raises the question of how it is that something so fundamental – children’s schooling – has ended up beholden to the whim of unelected, largely unaccountable, public officials such as this. The local Director of Public Health in any given local authority cannot be voted out. They are not challenged by probing interviews in prominent media outlets. The means by which they are appointed is entirely opaque. And their policy positions, political backgrounds, and motivations are subject to essentially no public scrutiny. Yet they possess the power, at the sweep of a pen, to disrupt the lives of literally tens of thousands of people within their bailiwicks, with the only possible avenue of challenge being a prohibitively expensive and time-consuming claim for judicial review. This ought to be intolerable in a free society. Yet it is the position in which we find ourselves.

Once again, the Covid pandemic and its response have shone a harsh light on British democracy, and revealed it to be in a dilapidated state indeed.

Christmas Work Parties Cancelled Over Omicron Variant Fears

The emergence of the Omicron variant and its arrival in the U.K. has lead to many firms cancelling their traditional large-scale Christmas parties in favour of hosting smaller gatherings. The decision by many companies to postpone their usual Christmas celebrations will make it harder for venues to recover from the impact of previous restrictions, with the Chief Executive of U.K. Hospitality adding that businesses had “invested heavily” in implementing a ‘Covid-safe’ environment. MailOnline has more.

The emergence of the new Covid strain has forced companies to scrap parties for large numbers of people, turning instead to smaller departmental gatherings as the pandemic threatens the festive season for a second year.  

Law firm Osborne Clarke in London said they were now opting for “low key festivities” rather than “big shindigs”.

The firm’s managing partner Ray Berg told MailOnline: “We asked our people and their preference is for local team-level celebrations, so we’re opting for low key festivities rather than big shindigs this year. 

Given the emergence of a new variant I think we made the right call, no one wants to have a second lockdown Christmas.” 

While the U.K.’s hospitality sector said businesses recovering from the pandemic had “invested heavily” in making their venues safe for the public with measures including ventilation, hygiene and sanitation, events planners said the Omicron variant was causing concern.  

One senior events planner in London said they were now “on the cusp” of clients stalling with balance payments for New Year’s parties.

They said: “I definitely sense that we’re on the cusp of people stalling with balance payments for New Year parties now. By Friday I think it’ll be panic stations for corporations who are planning bashes.”

But a spokesperson for Mitchells & Butlers, said they had no plans to make any changes and will instead have Covid protocols in place.

They told MailOnline: ‘We are excited to be heading into the busy festive period and celebrating Christmas with our guests and colleagues.

“We have no plans to make any changes to our Christmas party plans but we will have Covid protocols in place and continue to monitor Government guidance to ensure we maintain a safe environment for everyone.”

The U.K. Chair of the accounting group EY said they would not be hosting any Christmas parties this year amid fears of hosting parties that would turn into super spreader events.

Hywel Ball, U.K. Chair of the company, told the Financial Times: “We used to have big London office parties with thousands [of people] but we’re not doing any of that.”

Meanwhile Phil Urban, Chief Executive of the pub chain Mitchells & Butlers, said he had seen a rise in smaller party bookings.

He said: “We are expecting fewer big office parties: venues that would typically have big office parties and do £300,000 a week I can’t see that happening this year.”

Chief Executive of the catering group Compass, Dominic Blakemore, said that companies were “reluctant to fully commit to [Christmas bookings] at this point.”

Worth reading in full.

Switzerland Votes Two to One in Favour of Keeping Vaccine Passports

Last September, Switzerland introduced a vaccine passport scheme prohibiting the unjabbed from entering many public places such as restaurants, sporting events, and cinemas. On Sunday, the Swiss people took part in a referendum on whether to keep the Government’s Covid response measures, which includes the vaccine mandate, with 60% of the public voting to retain the restrictions. BBC News has more.

Sunday’s referendum came after organisers said the pass was an unnecessary restriction of freedoms.

With just under two-thirds of the population fully vaccinated, the Swiss have one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe.

Now, Covid infections are rising exponentially, with case numbers up by 40-50% each week.

From the start of the pandemic the Swiss government has performed a tricky balancing act, trying to introduce measures to control the spread of Covid while still staying true to Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, in which the Government has little formal power and the people have the final say.

Switzerland’s lockdowns were never as strict as its neighbours’. People were allowed outside for exercise whenever they wanted and the schools only closed for a few weeks.

But last summer, with cases falling dramatically, Switzerland didn’t have a celebratory, U.K.-style ‘freedom’ day either.

Instead, a Covid certificate was introduced with proof of vaccination, negative test, or immunity through having had the virus. In September it became obligatory in order to enter bars, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, museums, sporting events, and face-to-face university classes.

But not everyone agrees.

Vaccination has long been a sensitive issue here, especially in German-speaking Switzerland. A belief that natural immunity is best led to a drop in childhood measles vaccinations that sparked a surge in measles cases across Europe.

Meanwhile, in the alpine communities, a historic pride in their own independence rooted, some say, in the time when the mountain villages were cut off from the world each winter, means there is resistance to the Government issuing orders.

Worth reading in full.

October’s Age-Standardised Mortality Rate Was Equal to the Five-Year Average

The ONS announced last week that there were 43,435 deaths registered in England in October, which is about 1,000 less than in September, and 7.1% more than the five-year average.

This is a marked change from last month, when total deaths were 19.4% above the five-year average. Looking at the breakdown by leading cause of death, it is also quite different from September’s:

Last month, several non-Covid causes of death were above their five-year averages, notably dementia and Alzheimer’s, as well as ischemic heart disease. In October, by contrast, all non-Covid causes other than “Symptoms signs and ill-defined conditions” are below their five-year averages.

This suggests that my concerns about the delayed impact of lockdown on mortality may have been misplaced. In other words: last month’s elevated rates of death from non-Covid causes may have been a blip, rather than the start of trend toward rising mortality.

October’s overall age-standardised mortality rate was approximately equal to the five-year average – 0.1% lower, in fact. Again, this is a marked change from last month, when the age-standardised mortality rate was 11.2% higher than the five-year average.

Since age-adjusted excess mortality is the best gauge of how mortality is changing, the fact that October’s value is about equal to the five-year average indicates that any impact of lockdown on mortality must be relatively small. Here’s my updated chart of excess mortality in England since January of 2020:

Various newspapers have reported a large excess of non-Covid deaths in England over the past four months. However, these claims appear to be based on absolute excess deaths, rather than age-adjusted excess mortality.

In October, there were more than 2,000 non-Covid deaths in excess of the five-year average. Yet as I already mentioned, age-adjusted excess mortality was approximately zero – and that includes the Covid deaths. This means that the most of the ‘excess’ non-Covid deaths we’ve seen recently are due to population ageing over the last two years.

All in all, October’s figures are more encouraging than September’s, giving no indication that mortality is unusually high. Let’s just hope it stays that way.

Omicron Variant Will Unleash Chaos in Schools as Hated ‘Bubbles’ Threaten to Return

The omicron variant will lead to “chaos” in schools, MPs have warned, with children set to be forced into self-isolation by the new rules. The Telegraph has more.

In an attempt to prevent the spread of the mutant strain of Covid, close contacts of those who test positive for omicron will have to self-isolate for 10 days, with the Government confirming that this applies to children.

On Sunday night, ministers were warned that the move risks a repeat of the situation during the summer term when thousands of healthy children were told to stay at home.

Steve Baker MP, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, said the measures “will cause chaos including collateral harms like damage to children’s education”, adding: “The Government needs to explain when all of this will be brought to an end.”

Parents have called for children to be exempt from the new self-isolation rules.

Molly Kingsley, co-founder of parent campaign group UsForThem, said: “We learnt from summer that forcing healthy children to isolate was an unmitigated disaster and it is unforgivable to do that again.

“If they don’t exempt children it will cause chaos in the classrooms. Asking healthy children to quarantine is not a harm-free measure, it is harmful to children who are not at serious risk from the illness. At this point in the pandemic it is shameful for the Government not to have an exemption for children.”

Earlier this year, the Telegraph launched a campaign calling for an end to disruption in schools and for children to be put at the heart of policy making.

In a further blow to the end of term, the UK’s biggest teaching union was arguing on Sunday night for a return of the ‘bubble’ system and for all in-person nativity plays and other Christmas activities to be axed, as the Government confirmed facemasks would have to be worn in secondary school corridors from Monday.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Nadhim Zahawi joined hundreds of teachers last night at the Teaching Awards, an annual jamboree for the teaching profession in London. There wasn’t a face mask in sight.

Do Online Opinion Polls Overestimate Public Support For Covid Restrictions?

We’re publishing an original essay today by regular contributor Mike Hearn about the problem of ‘pro-social bias’ in online opinion polls. What this means is that the huge public support for the Covid restrictions revealed in opinion polls for YouGov and others is likely to be overstated. Here is an extract:

Online panel polling solves the problem of low phone response rates but introduces a new problem: the sort of people who answer surveys aren’t normal. People who answer an endless stream of surveys for tiny pocket-money sized rewards are especially not normal, and thus aren’t representative of the general public. All online panel surveys face this problem and thus pollsters compete on how well they adjust the resulting answers to match what the ‘real’ public would say. One reason elections and referendums are useful for polling agencies is they provide a form of ground truth against which their models can be calibrated. Those calibrations are then used to correct other types of survey response too.

A major source of problems is what’s known as ‘volunteering bias’, and the closely related ‘pro-social bias’. Not surprisingly, the sort of people who volunteer to answer polls are much more likely to say they volunteer for other things too than the average member of the general population. This effect is especially pronounced for anything that might be described as a ‘civic duty’. While these are classically considered positive traits, it’s easy to see how an unusually strong belief in civic duty and the value of community volunteering could lead to a strong dislike for people who do not volunteer to do their ‘civic duty’, e.g. by refusing to get vaccinated, disagreeing with community-oriented narratives, and so on.

In 2009 Abraham et al showed that Gallup poll questions about whether you volunteer in your local community had implausibly risen from 26% in 1977 to a whopping 46% in 1991. This rate varied drastically from the rates reported by the U.S. census agency: in 2002 the census reported that 28% of American adults volunteered.

Worth reading in full.