Day: 13 December 2021

And Finally…

In this week’s bumper episode of London Calling, James and I discuss Boris’s current difficulties, which are about to be added to by the House of Commons rebellion and Thursday’s possible by-election loss; the likelihood of a lockdown of the unvaccinated in England, and why some apparently sound people are advocating that policy; Sadiq Kahn’s latest assault on our freedoms, which is to ban “inappropriate staring of a sexual nature” on the London Underground; Jussie Smollett’s comeuppance for pretending he was the victim of a hate crime; and, in Culture Corner, Lewis Hamilton’s recent F1 loss, the first episode of Yellowjackets, the strangely sexless central female character in Hawkeye, the Wheel of Time (again!) and vol 13 in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories.

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

News Round-Up

Schools Already Sending Children Home and Switching to ‘Remote Learning’

Schools have begun moving to remote lessons for the final week of term in spite of Downing Street saying children should remain in the classroom unless it is a “public health emergency”. Camilla Turner in the Telegraph has more.

Headteachers are drawing up lists of key workers’ children and updating plans for remote learning in January in case schools are told not to reopen following the Christmas break.

Unions warned on Monday night that omicron is causing “chaos” in schools and called for the return of pupils next term to be staggered.

Schools around the country have told parents to keep their children at home for the final week of term amid rising “panic” about the latest Covid variant.

Two schools in Bury St Edmunds – Sybil Andrews Academy and Abbots Green Academy – told pupils to learn remotely this week following three suspected cases of omicron.

The schools said in a joint statement that their “intention” is that the closures “salvage Christmas” as well as safeguard the “health and wellbeing of our school communities”.

Abingdon and Witney College in Oxfordshire told the majority of its pupils to stay at home and learn online this week as a “proactive measure” in the “run-up to Christmas”.

The school did not mention any confirmed or suspected Covid cases in its explanation for closing but said it wanted to “ensure that we keep ourselves and our families as safe as possible over the festive period”.

Hull City Council wrote to parents at St Mary’s College to say that Year 9 pupils should stay at home for the rest of the term because “a very small number of cases have shown an indicator on the PCR sample which is often, although not always, linked to the omicron variant”.

The council’s director of public health said that further tests will be done to confirm the variant but they take a few days, adding: “With Christmas approaching and a rising number of cases we want to stop the opportunity for further spread as quickly as possible.”

Arabella Skinner, a director of the parent campaign group UsForThem, said that the Government’s “confused” guidance means that children are being “penalised” by missing time in the classroom.

She said: “The Department for Education needs to get a grip on making sure that face-to-face education is a priority.

“It sounds like these panicked responses from local public health officials are not proportionate and are not putting children first.”

Worth reading in full.

You’ll Need Three Jabs For a Covid Passport, Warns Sajid Javid

In news that will surprise no one, Sajid Javid has told the House of Commons that the Government intends to change the definition of “fully vaccinated” to exclude those who’ve merely been double jabbed, so only those who’ve been triple jabbed will be entitled to a Covid passport. MailOnline has more.

The Health Secretary told the Commons that the Government intends to change the definition as soon as all adults have had a “reasonable chance” to get a booster.

The comment came after Boris Johnson’s bid to ramp up the rollout risked descending into shambles, with booking websites crashing and huge queues at walk-in centres.

Mr Javid ran the gauntlet of Tory anger at the new ‘Plan B’ restrictions to tackle the Omicron variant in the Commons this evening. More than 70 MPs are threatening to rebel in crunch votes on the plans tomorrow.

He pointed out that the incoming rules on Covid passes meant that from Wednesday people will need to show a negative lateral flow test to go to nightclubs or large events.

Javid said that those who are double-jabbed will be exempt – but added: “Once all adults have had a reasonable chance to get their booster jabs we intend to change this exemption to require a booster dose.”

The Cabinet minister significantly refused to give an exact timeline, amid criticism that the government is not being clear about whether all adults will get dates for jabs that fall before January 1st – or whether the bookings will be merely made before New Year’s Day.

Meanwhile, the new regulations bringing in ‘Plan B’ measures have finally been published – barely 24 hours before the votes are due.

People could be fined £10,000 if they try to falsify a Covid pass or test result.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Entry to Venues and Events) (England) Regulations 2021 make it an offence to make, adapt, supply or offer to supply ‘false evidence of Covid status to another person’ which is known to be ‘false or misleading’ and this will be punishable by a fixed penalty notice (FPN).

Other offences under the regulations also could result in fines for breaking the rules. These include a £1,000 FPN in the first instance, reduced to £500 if paid within 14 days, for example for venues who do not comply with the rules or ignore improvement notices issued by councils.

The fines double for the second and third offences (£2,000 and then £4,000), jumping to £10,000 for the fourth or any subsequent offences thereafter.

Johnson begged Tories to back his ‘Plan B’ Covid curbs today amid fears more than 70 will rebel in a crunch vote tomorrow.

Worth reading in full.

Wetherspoons Boss Attacks Government’s “Lockdown by Stealth”

Tim Martin, the founder and current Chairman of the pub chain Wetherspoons, has referred to the Government’s ‘Plan B’ measures as “lockdown by stealth”. The company has also responded to recently introduced work from home guidelines by warning investors that “the introduction of radical changes… make predictions for sales and profits hazardous”, and that the firm will likely be operating at a loss for the foreseeable future. The Guardian has the story.

In an update to the stock market, JD Wetherspoon told investors that “uncertainty, and the introduction of radical changes of direction by the Government, make predictions for sales and profits hazardous”.

It had been hoping to rebound from the impact of the pandemic this year but told investors that the Government’s ‘Plan B’ for tackling Omicron, including guidance to work from home where possible, meant it was likely to be “loss-making or marginally profitable” for the first half of its financial year.

Martin has been one of the most high-profile Brexiters in British business, a role that had previously seen him endorse Boris Johnson. But he has since become an outspoken critic of the prime minister over Covid measures affecting the hospitality industry, which he claims is not a significant source of outbreaks of the disease.

“The typical British pub, contrary to received opinion in academia, is usually a bastion of social distancing,” he said on Monday.

“However, the repeated warnings and calls for restrictions, mainly from SAGE members and academics, combined with arbitrary changes of direction from the Government, invariably at short notice, affect customer sentiment and trade.

“In effect, the country appears to be heading towards a lockdown by stealth.”

He cited comments made by Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, who has said the Omicron variant does not warrant the “extreme action” taken by the U.K. Government.

Martin added: “For reasons best known to themselves, perhaps in order to encourage more vaccinations, the U.K. Government and its advisers are creating an entirely different and more frightening impression of the variant, which appears to be at odds with the South African experience.

Worth reading in full.

Pubs Lose ALL their Christmas Bookings ‘Virtually Overnight’

Yesterday, I asked a popular gastropub if I could book a table for on December 21st for a Christmas Lunch for the staff and moderators of the Daily Sceptic. I’d left it a bit late and was worried the pub wouldn’t have anything available, but it turned out to be fine. “Sure,” said the receptionist. “Where would you like to sit? We’ve got plenty of availability at that time.”

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Apparently, English pubs and hotels have lost practically all their Christmas bookings in the last 24 hours or so, thanks to the Government-initiated panic about Omicron. As a result, an already ravaged industry has been dealt another blow. MailOnline has more.

Bosses said government warnings about the threat of Omicron and new working from home guidance had persuaded many punters that it wasn’t worth going ahead with their festive gatherings.

One London hotel told MailOnline it was expecting £100,000 worth of losses from cancelled events, rooms and covers – and said many staff were fearing for their jobs given the extent the industry relies on a lucrative Christmas period.

Gary Murphy, director of the Campaign for Pubs, told MailOnline: “It’s a massive problem all over the country.

“Quite clearly the government’s message is to cut down on socialising, so inevitably a lot of firms are cancelling parties and individuals are deciding they are uncomfortable with going out.

“I’ve seen pubs that have lost all of their bookings virtually overnight, particularly those in town centres. Every time Boris Johnson goes on the TV and announces new restrictions people get more worried.”

Mark Fuller, CEO of Karma Sanctum Soho, a boutique 30-bedroom hotel which includes a bar and restaurant, said he had seen up to £50,000 worth of Christmas events cancelled.

Worth reading in full.

The Scottish Government Will Inevitably Introduce More Covid Restrictions, Says Humza Yousaf

Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Health Secretary, has declared that the Scottish Government will soon introduce more Covid restrictions to combat the spread of the Omicron variant, with the new measures expected to be announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tomorrow. Yousaf also stressed that securing financial aid from Westminster is crucial to Scotland’s Covid response. BBC News has more.

New Covid restrictions in Scotland are “inevitable”, Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has warned.

He said the “sheer weight” of cases of the new Omicron variant could overwhelm the NHS and precautions would have to be taken.

It came as one teaching union called for the early closure of schools to protect pupils and staff.

Yousaf said the government would do everything it could to keep schools open.

Meanwhile last week’s advice to cancel Christmas parties is already having an effect, with hospitality businesses reporting a 25-30% drop in trade.

Details of the new restrictions would be given by the first minister in Holyrood on Tuesday, Yousaf added.

Yousaf told BBC Radio’s Good Morning Scotland: “I think it’s inevitable we will announce additional protective measures.

“I would be reluctant to get into detail on that because we’re working through that detail and the first minister rightly will update parliament tomorrow.”

He added that securing financial support from the U.K. Government would be very important.

It came after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed an ambition to offer boosters to all adults by the end of the year “if possible”.

People aged 30-39 years-old are now able to book a booster jab online, and appointments will be open to 18-29 year-olds later in the week.

Early analysis of U.K. Omicron and Delta cases shows two doses of Covid vaccine are not enough to stop people catching the new variant.

But a booster prevents about 75% of people getting any Covid symptoms.

On Monday the U.K. recorded its first death of a patient with Omicron variant

Scientists say Omicron’s higher rate of transmissibility meant cases were doubling every two or three days.

Professor Andrew Watterson, a public health expert from Stirling University, cautioned against an “over-reliance” on vaccines and stressed the booster campaign was “only one important strand”.

Worth reading in full.

Universities Must Not Switch to ‘Remote Learning’ Again

We’re publish a guest post today by Dr David McGrogan, a Professor at Northumbria Law School, making an impassioned plea to higher education providers not to switch to ‘remote learning’ next term in response to the Omicron panic. In his view, this will send a series of terrible messages to students, including that the world is a dangerous place and you had best avoid it by living your life online. You can link to Professor McGrogan’s Substack newsletter here.

It’s “déjà vu all over again” as Covid restrictions are reimposed. The sense that more is coming is almost palpable – a repeating pattern that it increasingly feels we will never escape.

Here in higher education, the mood is a strange mixture of resigned and febrile. On the one hand, staff and students plod gamely on towards the end of the semester while trying not to think about the news. On the other, there is a drumbeat of anxiety underpinning everything: will we be here in January, or will it be back to the dreaded ‘remote learning’, which we performed for almost the entirety of last year?

‘Dreaded’ is not too strong a term. The experiment of 2020-21, if it can be called that, was a disaster. It is no slur against either academic staff or students to confess this. We all did our best, but it was made painfully evident during the last academic year that human beings simply can’t learn from sitting in front of a screen. Teaching is a relationship that has to be performed in person, where teacher and student can read each other’s gestures and facial cues, gauge each other’s reactions, and – more importantly – build the foundations of trust on which education rest. Students need to be enthused about what they are studying by being in a room with a lecturer who really appreciates the importance of their subject. They sometimes also need to be told to concentrate, to listen, to stop looking at their phones. None of this works when mediated through a digital device.

Those are just the educational reasons why the shift to remote learning was so harmful, though. Far more serious, in my view, were the messages that it sent to students.

Scientists Demand Primary School Children be Vaccinated as a Condition of Remaining Open

Worried about the spread of the Omicron variant, some scientific experts have said that primary school children, aged between five and 11 years-old, must be vaccinated otherwise in-person teaching will inevitably face major disruptions next year. For example, Deepti Gurdasani, a Clinical Epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, points to data showing that Covid is spreading more quickly in younger age groups, therefore in-person teaching in primary schools will “not be feasible” if this age group remains unjabbed. The Guardian has the story.

Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), said that without vaccinating children there could be further huge disruption to education and that health concerns about infection now outweighed initial justified caution in extending vaccination to five to 11 year-olds.

“There was more uncertainty earlier. It’s now becoming clearer that vaccination is generally safe and that it’s better to be vaccinated than to be infected,” he said. “To my mind it’s clear: the safest option is to be vaccinated.”

Deepti Gurdasani, Clinical Epidemiologist and Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, said that schooling would “not be feasible” next year without extending the vaccination programme to primary school age groups. “There’s been no discussion of how we’re going to protect children in January when schools reopen,” she said…

Openshaw said that there is some evidence that Omicron is reproducing more efficiently in younger age groups, meaning that the vaccination of children could be especially important. It is not clear whether extending vaccination to primary school children would be able to happen quickly enough to affect the oncoming wave of cases, which is expected to peak early next year. But Openshaw added: “The ‘too late’ argument is not a good one. We’d always prefer to have done something three months ago. The second best time is now.”

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is currently reviewing data on Covid jabs for children over five as a “matter of urgency” and expected to give a recommendation if the U.K.’s medicine regulator gives the green light for vaccines to be administered to younger age groups. June Raine, Chief Executive of the MHRA, has said that it is “very likely” an assessment of whether to approve the Pfizer vaccine for children as young as five would be concluded before Christmas.

Worth reading in full.

The NHS Covid Pass Doesn’t Make Any Sense

Last Thursday, the Prime Minster announced that the NHS Covid Pass would become mandatory for entry into nightclubs and other venues “where large crowds gather”. While the timing of this announcement seems to be motivated more by politics than anything else, does the measure itself actually make sense? I would argue: no.

The NHS Covid Pass is available to those who meet any of the following three conditions. One, you’ve received two or more vaccine doses. Two, you’ve tested positive in the past six months and have finished self-isolating. And three, you’ve tested negative in the past 48 hours.

So, the passes do at least recognise natural immunity, which is condition number two. But will requiring them have any impact on serious illness and death (which is after all what really matters)? It seems unlikely.

Requiring passes certainly can’t guarantee zero transmission at large events, since we know that both vaccinated and previously infected people can transmit the virus.

The only measure that would come close to achieving zero transmission is requiring everyone – regardless of vaccination or natural immunity – to present a negative test upon entry. However, this measure would still be vulnerable to false negatives, or persons who became infected shortly after testing negative.  

If you’re a vulnerable person deciding whether or not to attend a large event, the fact that Covid passes are mandatory is no guarantee whatsoever that you won’t catch Covid. (As I’ve argued before, vaccine passports could have the unintended consequence of leading vulnerable people to engage in more risky behaviour.)   

In principle, requiring passes could lower the level of transmission at large events. But any effect is likely to be extremely small.

That’s because most people were vaccinated several months ago, so at this point won’t be much less likely to transmit the virus than those who aren’t unvaccinated. (They might even be more likely to transmit it.) Among the vaccinated, only those who’ve had three doses will have somewhat more protection against infection.

On top of that, the number of people who’d be turned away without a negative test – i.e., unvaccinated people who haven’t been infected in the last six months – must be pretty small, especially when you consider how many young people caught the virus over the summer. Which raises the question: what’s the point?

Finally, there’s the issue of why we should even care about the total number of infections. Covid isn’t going anywhere, which means most of us are going to catch it sooner or later – regardless of whether we’re vaccinated. (I am, in case you’re interested.)

Our goal should be protecting vulnerable people as the virus becomes endemic. It’s unclear how slowing transmission in nightclubs makes any real contribution to that goal.