Day: 28 December 2021

News Round-Up

Boris Has Shown True Leadership by Refusing to Impose More Restrictions

I’ve written a comment piece for Mail+, praising the Prime Minister for refusing to give in to the gloomsters and doomsters. Here is an extract:

I think he’s been muddling through as best he can, driven by a combination of Machiavellian calculation and a sense of what’s in the public interest, like most national leaders.

At the beginning of the pandemic, that meant school closures, shuttered businesses and stay-at-home orders. But 21 months later, in the midst of a fifth wave, the political and economic calculus has changed.

To begin with, we now have a keener sense of the cost of lockdowns. I’m not just talking about the economic toll – £400 billion and climbing, as well as the collapse of thousands of shops, pubs and restaurants – but the social impact, particularly on the most vulnerable. Tens of thousands of cancer patients may die unnecessarily as a result of delayed treatment, the country is facing an unprecedented mental health crisis and education experts tell us it will take two years for children to catch up on the schooling they’ve missed.

Just as importantly, it has become clear that the non-pharmaceutical interventions favoured by governments around the world only have a modest effect on the life cycle of each viral outbreak, if any. The various waves triggered by new variants seem to rise and fall according to the same pattern, regardless of the severity of the restrictions imposed. They are self-limiting and eventually burn out of their own accord.

The starkest illustration of this fact is Sweden, which didn’t impose any lockdowns in 2020 and experienced an excess death rate below the European average. But it’s also true of US states such as Florida and Texas, where Republican governors resisted calls to follow the lead of Democratic governors in states such as California and New York, with their draconian shutdowns.

If you throw in the mass vaccination programmes, as well as the fact that Omicron appears to be milder than previous variants, the cost-benefit analysis has fundamentally changed.

Needless to say, most political leaders have doggedly stuck to the original playbook, responding to this wave as they have to every other, including Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Mark Drakeford in Wales and Paul Givan in Northern Ireland.

That has made it particularly difficult for Boris to resist the huge pressure he’s been under from his scientific advisers and their outriders in the media to impose another raft of restrictions.

But resist he has.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Patrick O’Brien in the Spectator thinks Boris’s decision not to impose any more restrictions could be the start of a comeback in the polls in 2022.

As Three More Studies Show Negative Vaccine Effectiveness, When Will Health Authorities Face Up to What the Data is Telling Us?

The last two weeks have brought three new studies finding negative efficacy for two vaccine doses, meaning the vaccinated are more likely to be infected than the unvaccinated. These are study findings, not raw data, so have been adjusted for various biases and confounders, making it harder to dismiss them as anomalous or skewed.

The first is a pre-print study from Denmark, published on December 23rd, which looked at nearly all PCR-positive SARS-CoV-2 infections in Denmark from November 20th to December 12th and investigated them to see if they were likely to be the Omicron variant. By comparing the vaccination status of those infected, the researchers found a vaccine effectiveness against the Omicron variant of minus-76.5% for Pfizer and minus-39.3% for Moderna three months after double vaccination (see chart above), meaning the double-vaccinated were considerably more likely to be infected than the unvaccinated. They found the vaccine effectiveness against Omicron was significantly lower than against Delta, with Pfizer vaccine effectiveness at 53.8% and Moderna at 65% against Delta after three months. They reported that a third dose of Pfizer got vaccine effectiveness against Omicron back up to 54.6%, at least for a month. The full results are in the table below.

Canadian Study Shows Online Learning Increases the Risk of Depression and Anxiety in Children

Researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada have found that online learning dramatically increases the likelihood that a child will suffer from psychiatric issues such as anxiety or depression. Their study also found that the more time a child spent in front of a screen and the less time spent with others due to lockdowns has caused an increase in mental and behavioural problems for young people. MailOnline has more.

Learning online, rather than in a classroom, comes with an increased risk of depression and anxiety for older schoolchildren, according to a new study. 

Researchers analysed parent-reported mental health outcomes for more than 2,000 school-age children living in Canada at the time of the Covid outbreak.

For the study, the experts, from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, explored links between different types of screen use and mental health.

They found that there was a clear link between parent-reported anxiety and depression in older children, who were having to use a screen for education. 

“These findings suggest that policy intervention, as well as evidence-informed social supports, may be required to promote healthful screen use and mental health in children and youth during the pandemic and beyond,” the team wrote.

The scientists behind the study also found that increased TV watching and gaming in younger children during the outbreak led to higher levels of depression, anxiety, behavioural problems and hyperactivity. 

There was no increased risk of these conditions in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, according to the experts.

They say this could be due to their already higher level of screen use, and lower level of social interaction. 

“The Covid pandemic has resulted in major changes in the daily routines of children,” the researchers said.

This was “primarily because of the imposed public health measures related to distancing, isolation, and school closures”, the team explained.

The amount of time children and young people spent on screens increased dramatically, through television, gaming, video chat and online learning. 

To understand what impact this could have had on the mental health of young people, researchers examined a number of cohort studies.   

This study included 2,026 children with an average age of 6 and roughly split evenly between male and female participants.

Higher TV or digital media time, including gaming, was linked to higher levels of behavioural problems and hyperactivity in children aged two to four years-old, they discovered.

In older children and youth, with an average age of 11 years-old, watching more TV and gaming was linked to higher levels of depression, anxiety and inattention. 

Worth reading in full.

No, Chris Whitty. Omicron is Not a Really Serious Threat

We’re publishing another guest post by our in-house doctor, formerly a senior NHS panjandrum, this one looking at the latest hospital data. Turns out, staff absences are the reason London hospitals are under pressure, not a surge in Covid admissions due to the Omicron variant.

How quickly things change. The Daily Sceptic has asked me to provide a brief update on the unfolding situation after the Christmas weekend. Less than two weeks ago at the Downing Street press conference, Professor Chris Whitty said “by the time we get to Christmas I expect the majority of people going to hospital to be Omicron cases”. In response to a journalist’s question about Omicron, he said: “This is a really serious threat. How big we don’t know but everything we do know is bad.”

So, how bad is it?

Hospital admissions are rising, but not necessarily due to Omicron, according to Chris Hopson, the CEO of NHS providers.

Talking to chief executives this morning, the sense is that admissions are rising but not precipitately so. What’s particularly interesting is how many chief executives are talking about the number of asymptomatic patients being admitted to hospital for other reasons and then testing positive for Covid.

Trusts are not, at the moment, reporting large numbers of patients with Covid type respiratory problems needing critical care or massively increased use of oxygen, both of which we saw in January’s Delta variant peak.

Vaccine Expert Says Mass Deaths and Hospitalisations Are “Now History”

Professor Sir John Bell (pictured), a member of the Vaccines Taskforce, has expressed his optimism that “the horrific scenes that we saw a year ago”, which he says involved the NHS being pushed to breaking point along with mass deaths from the virus, “is now history”. For this reason, Bell supports Boris Johnson’s decision not to tighten Covid restrictions in England before next year. MailOnline has more.

The message came as a leading vaccines expert backed Boris Johnson’s refusal to toughen England’s Covid restrictions to bring them into line with the other home nations, saying that mass deaths and hospitalisations from the deadly disease are “history”.

Professor Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University and a member of the Vaccines Taskforce, said the public had been “pretty responsible” in its response to the spread of the Omicron variant. 

Speaking to broadcasters about New Year celebrations this afternoon, Care Minister Gillian Keegan said: “We have always said ‘act cautiously’ since this new variant came among us.

“It is highly infectious and many people will know people who have caught this over the Christmas period.

“So do be cautious, take a Lateral Flow Test (LFT) before you go out. Go to well-ventilated areas; I have been to a couple of outdoor parties actually, people have moved things to outside.

“So just be cautious, but do try to enjoy yourself as well but cautiously.”

It came as new figures showed the number of people in hospital with Covid in England is less than half the same time last year – despite cases being three times higher…

Johnson, who is at his Chequers country retreat, left it to Health Secretary Sajid Javid to face the cameras to announce the decision, although he later tweeted advice to Brits to exercise caution at the new year.

“The Health Minister has taken advice and looked at the data. I think his judgment where we should go in the next few days is probably fine,” Bell told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

“There are a lot of people who are aware that we are in the face of this large wave of disease. The behaviour of people in the U.K., in England in particular, has been pretty responsible in terms of trying not to go out and spending a lot of time exposing yourself to the virus.”

He added: “The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago – intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely – that is now history in my view and I think we should be reassured that that’s likely to continue.”

Boris’s decision last night not to follow the lead of the other home nations in bringing in harsher Covid restrictions ahead of the new year has also been welcomed by Tory MPs who have been at odds with the Prime Minister.

Worth reading in full.

France Tightens Covid Restrictions to Fight Fifth Wave

The French Government has imposed a series of new measures in an effort to battle the ‘fifth wave’ of the country’s Covid epidemic, which involves limiting attendance at outdoor venues to 5,000, with indoor environments only allowed to host 2,000 people. In addition, employees will be required to work from home for two-thirds of the working week if possible. The Prime Minister, Jean Castex, also announced that mandatory outdoor mask-wearing will be returned to some regions. The Times has the story.

Jean Castex, the Prime Minister, said the country needed tighter measures to cope with the fifth wave of the epidemic, although he ruled out the most stringent options on the table, such as a return of a lockdown or of a curfew.

Along with the limits on crowd capacity, which will affect competitions like the French football league, the measures will include a move to make homeworking compulsory for at least three days a week in “businesses where it is possible”.

Castex also announced the return of mandatory mask-wearing outdoors in some town and city centres and a ban on standing up at concerts. Eating standing up in bars or restaurants will be forbidden.

The prime minister said it would become illegal to remove masks in long distance trains and buses or in cinemas or theatres, ruling out the consumption of snacks and drinks during films, plays and journeys.

The announcements came with the Omicron variant arriving in France and the country registering more than 100,000 cases in a single day for the first time last week. Over the past seven days, France has reported a total of 1,050 Covid related deaths whilst 1,747 people have been admitted to intensive care after catching the virus.

Castex said hospitalisations were increasing at a “moderate rate” but added: “What we are seeing in Britain and Denmark justifies prudence and vigilance.

“We are engaged in a race against time.”

With 89.5% of French people aged over 12 years-old having received two doses of vaccination and 34.8% a booster, Castex said “we are one of the most vaccinated countries in the world and therefore one of the most protected. But we must amplify the movement”.

He said the delay between second and third doses would be reduced to three months, down from five at present, and confirmed the introduction of legislation to tighten the country’s Covid passport.

Under current rules, a vaccination certificate or a negative test is required to gain access to bars, restaurants, cafes, theatres, museums, cinemas, trains and other public places. Under the new rules, only vaccination certificates will be accepted.

He also pledged tougher penalties for false Covid passports, which are being produced on an almost industrial scale – police having uncovered more than 182,000 of them.

Worth reading in full.

Misreading Mill: On Liberty and Vaccination

We’re publishing a guest post today by David Martin Jones and Michael Rainsborough, two professors at King’s College London, disputing the claim, often made by libertarian lockdown enthusiasts, that J.S. Mill would have supported mandatory Covid vaccinations.

In a comment piece in the Telegraph on December 22nd, John Harris makes the moral case for mandatory vaccination in the public interest. Harris might have supported his argument by reference to a number of political and moral theorists who, like Harris, have endorsed forcing people to do things against their will in the name the greater good. Kant springs to mind. So too does Jean Jacques Rousseau who thought that securing the ‘General Will’ might require the recalcitrant to be “forced to be free”.

Curiously, however, Harris co-opts John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) to support state mandated Covid vaccines. Harris writes: “It is difficult, in view of the urgency of the global Covid pandemic and the immense death toll and burden of the disease, not to conclude that, in Mill’s famous and uncompromising words, the anti-vaxxers are ‘such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act’.”

What Harris seems to mean is that by refusing to get vaccinated, the vaccine refusenik acts in a way to “do harm to others” and consequently such actions must be controlled “by the active interference of mankind”. But would Mill have construed a refusal to get vaccinated an action directly harming others?

Indian Researchers Find that Natural Immunity Protects Better Against Infection than the AstraZeneca Vaccine

I’ve already covered three studies that found natural immunity protects better against infection than the vaccines. These comprise two from Israel, and one from Denmark. In each case, individuals who’d already had Covid were much less likely to become infected than those who’d been vaccinated.

Now a fourth study has come to my attention; this time from India. (The study was published as a preprint back in August.)

Malathi Murugesan and colleagues monitored infections in a cohort of healthcare workers between April and June of this year, during the country’s second wave. They compared four groups, corresponding to the different combinations of previously infected or not, and vaccinated or not.

Note: the vast majority of participants had received the AstraZeneca vaccine. This is in contrast to the Israeli and Danish studies, where most individuals had received another vaccine (mainly Pfizer).

Among those who hadn’t been previously infected or vaccinated, the cumulative infection rate was 14.9%. It was slightly lower among those’d been vaccinated but not previously infected, namely 11.1%. And it was dramatically lower among those who’d been previously infected: 2.1% among those who hadn’t been vaccinated, and 1.4% among those who had.

To check these results were robust, the authors ran a statistical model controlling for age, sex, type of work, and the daily incidence of Covid in the surrounding area (the city of Vellore in Southern India).

They estimated the protective effect of natural immunity to be 86% (which is consistent with a recent systematic review). By contrast, vaccine effectiveness was only 32%. As expected, the protective effect of hybrid immunity was 91% – slightly better than that of natural immunity alone.

There are now four separate studies all showing the same thing: several months after the corresponding event, natural immunity provides substantially better protection against infection than the vaccines.

“Vaccination efforts,” the Indian researchers note, “should be optimised by directing vaccination towards the areas where individuals are non-immune.” In other words, there was no need to vaccinate healthy people who’d already had Covid; those vaccines should have gone to the clinically vulnerable in poor countries.

No New Covid restrictions to Spoil New Year’s Eve

Covid restrictions will NOT be tightened in England before the New Year, Boris Johnson has decided after reviewing the latest data on the spread of the Omicron variant. This is a decisive win for lockdown sceptics. The Telegraph has more.

It means that New Year’s Eve parties can go ahead, although the possibility of new rules in January has not been ruled out.

The public are also being urged to show “caution” in the coming week, including taking a lateral flow test before gatherings, keeping windows open where possible and wearing a mask when required.

The Prime Minister is understood to have taken the decision not to bring in further restrictions at this stage because of signs in the data that Omicron may be a milder form of COVID-19, as suggested by previous scientific analysis. …

The number of people in hospital in England with Covid is less than half of what it was last year, despite there being three times as many reported cases.

The number of daily cases fell on Monday to 98,515, from 108,893 on Boxing Day.

And Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, revealed on Monday that 75% of eligible adults have received a booster jab, with the speed of the rollout being cited as one reason for not bringing in new restrictions.

However, the move leaves England out of step with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have all imposed limits on household mixing in social settings.

Announcing the decision, Mr Javid said: “We look at the data on a daily basis – that hasn’t changed over the Christmas period. But there will be no further measures before the New Year.

“Of course, people should remain cautious as we approach New Year’s celebrations. Take a lateral flow test if that makes sense, celebrate outside if you can, have some ventilation if you can.

“Please remain cautious and when we get into the New Year, of course, we will see then whether we do need to take any further measures. But nothing more until then, at least.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Will the Government introduce tighter restrictions in the New Year? The Telegraph says Government officials have draw up plans for a number of different measures, including reintroducing the ‘rule of six’. But none of these have been put to ministers yet.