US Reopening Faster than UK

Despite being ahead of the US in its rollout of the vaccine, the UK is far behind when it comes to unlocking restrictions. Recent reports have suggested that some of the UK’s current restrictions could be in place for more time than was originally expected, not less. The Telegraph has the story.

The US is rapidly casting off Covid restrictions despite trailing the UK in its race to vaccinate their population.

As the UK remains in tight lockdown, wide swathes of America are now almost back to business as usual. Texas is “open 100%” according to its Governor, who has also done away with any requirement to wear a mask.

In Florida this weekend thousands of students packed on to beaches during Spring Break, while families poured into Disney World.

California, one of the most restrictive states during the pandemic, this week allowed restaurants to open for indoor dining, and permitted gyms and cinemas to operate with limited capacity.

On Friday, Joe Biden celebrated reaching his goal of having 100 million vaccine doses administered in his first 100 days. The target was surpassed six weeks early.

But the US still lags behind the UK in rolling out vaccines.

The UK has administered about 41 vaccine doses per 100 people. The US effort stands at 35 per 100 people. Both are in the top five nations on this metric.

Around 60,000 coronavirus cases, and over 1,000 deaths, are still being recorded in the US.

The UK totals are less than 6,000 cases and around 100 deaths daily, around one tenth of the US levels.

However, the UK remains glued in lockdown. Schools returned on March 8th, but not until March 29th will up to six people be allowed to meet outdoors.

Only by April 12th will hairdressers and gyms open, along with pubs for outdoor use.

Such restrictions are already unrecognisable in the US.

Clearly, America’s vaccine rollout has been impressive. The question, therefore, is not “why is the US coming out of lockdown so early” but, rather, “why is the UK still in lockdown”?

Worth reading in full.

Holidays Abroad “Extremely Unlikely” This Summer Due to Increase in Covid Cases Across Europe

Government sources fear that an increase in Covid cases on the Continent could prevent Brits from holidaying abroad this summer, and could even cause a “new wave” of infections in Britain. The Times has the story.

Scientific advisers and other senior figures are becoming extremely concerned by an increase in infections that is forcing some regions on the Continent back into lockdown. They fear a rise in cases here within weeks.

European holidays in May – and even in the summer – look doubtful. Scientists are wary of outbreaks of the South African variant in some European countries and some are calling for tougher travel restrictions.

Although the British data is heading in the right direction, with a record 660,276 vaccinations yesterday and the seven-day average of deaths falling below 100 for the first time since October, science advisers are urging caution.

A Government scientist warned there was a danger that travellers could bring back new variants of the virus that are less susceptible to vaccines.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Spi-M modelling group, told Today on Radio 4: “International travel this summer is, for the average holidaymaker, sadly I think, extremely unlikely. I think we are running a real risk if we do start to have lots of people going overseas in July and August because of the potential for bringing more of these new variants back into the country.”

“What is really dangerous is if we jeopardise our vaccination campaign by having these variants where the vaccines don’t work as effectively spreading more rapidly.”

Officials believe that an increase in Covid cases across Europe could also impact Britain’s vaccine rollout.

Rises in cases in France, Italy, Spain and Germany have prefigured similar trends in Britain several times over the pandemic. A surge in cases on the Continent is also likely to complicate Boris Johnson’s attempt to stop the European Union blocking exports of the Pfizer jab to Britain. He is hoping to recruit allies such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland to oppose Brussels, whose threats are backed by Germany, France and Italy.

This morning EU chief Ursula von der Leyen escalated the row over delayed shipments by threatening to halt exports of AstraZeneca vaccines if the bloc did not receive its deliveries first.

Worth reading in full.

https://twitter.com/toadmeister/status/1373234386091573248

Stop Press: A reader has pointed out the double standards in the Government’s approach to Covid testing. Why, if it’s so important to produce a negative test or to have had the vaccine before attending anything (schools included), is the Government not requiring people to take a test before getting the jab at vaccine centres (attended, until now, by those most vulnerable to Covid)?

If asymptomatic “cases” are numerous and serious – as NHS advertising still tells us they are – surely we would ALL be told to have a Covid test just before booking a vaccine slot (not just those who, for whatever reason, have recently had a test that has been positive)? Then, if positive, the we could self-isolate and wait for the recommended interval, rather than expose other people to possible infection and compromise their vaccine response.

Furlough Scheme Pays Out Millions to Foreign States and Tax Exiles

Firms owned by some of the wealthiest people in the world have benefitted from the Government’s furlough scheme over the past year, new analysis has found. Three million pounds was claimed by the Qatari owners of Harrods and the Ritz in December alone. The Guardian has the story.

Billionaire tax exiles, the British National party, Saudi royals and oil-rich Gulf states have claimed millions of pounds in taxpayer-funded furlough money, the Guardian can disclose.

The revelations, based on analysis of Government information, have sparked dismay among MPs at the use of a scheme designed to support struggling businesses and prevent mass unemployment, with one complaining of public money being scattered “like confetti”. …

The Government first published information about claimants last month, when it released data on the 750,000 businesses using the scheme in December 2020. Since then, details of some claimants have emerged, including Tony and Cherie Blair, and golf courses owned by Donald Trump.

But many of the beneficiaries have remained hidden until now, often due to complex company ownership structures. The Guardian cross-referenced Government data with Companies House filings that reveal who owns a controlling stake in UK businesses.

The analysis shows firms owned by some of the world’s wealthiest people and entities benefited from the scheme. The figures below are just a snapshot of one month. Some companies will have claimed more since the furlough scheme, under which the Government covers 80% of an employee’s wages, began in March last year.

The Guardian’s list of beneficiaries of the coronavirus job retention scheme include (but is not exclusive to) Qataris behind Harrods and the Ritz hotel, the ruler of Dubai, tax exiles and the British National party.

Harrods, owned by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund and the Ritz hotel, owned by the ruler of Qatar’s brother-in-law, claimed up to £3 million between them in December.

Four Saudi royals received up to £55,000 for four companies, one of which manages the 2,000-acre Glympton Park estate in Oxfordshire, owned until this year by Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the US.

The Government of Dubai, and its ruler Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, have also claimed for companies including a “six-star” 24-hour concierge service for VIPs.

And the list goes on. Claims made in January are also expected to have been published by April.

Worth reading in full.

News Round Up

Backlog in Scottish Court Cases Due to Lockdown to Last Until 2025

Lockdowns have caused a “significant backlog of criminal cases” in Scotland, according to the country’s Courts and Tribunals Service. The Telegraph has the story.

The backlog in Scotland’s court cases due to Covid will not be cleared until 2025, justice system chiefs announced on Friday.

There is now a “significant backlog of criminal cases”, according to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS), and cases are taking longer to come to trial while the number of people held on remand has increased.

This creates “downstream impacts” on community justice services and prisons, they warned.

The SCTS has announced plans to expand remote jury centres and create additional courts from this September as part of a court recovery programme to deal with the backlog.

New jury trials were put on hold for several months last year due to the virus outbreak.

There will also be four additional High Courts, two additional Sheriff Courts for solemn cases and up to 10 more Sheriff Courts for summary cases.

With these extra resources, the SCTS said it predicts the backlog of High Court and Sheriff solemn cases will be cleared by 2025, and summary trial backlogs will be dealt with by 2024.

The picture isn’t much more positive in England and Wales. In January, four criminal justice watchdogs said that they had “grave concerns” about the impact of court backlogs caused by lockdowns. They highlighted that some crimes committed in 2020 will not go before a jury until 2022. The number of outstanding cases for Crown Courts increased by almost 10,000 between March and December 2020.

The report on the Scottish court backlog is well worth reading in full.

ONS Admits Ignoring Manufacturer Instructions in PCR Testing

The Office for National Statistics has admitted that in its Covid infection survey it has been reporting PCR tests as positive when only a single coronavirus gene is detected, despite this being contrary to the instructions of the manufacturer that two or more target genes must be found before a positive result can be declared.

According to a rapid response in the BMJ this week by Dr Martin Neil, a statistics professor at the University of London, targeting only a single gene in this way massively increases the risk of a false positive because of the possibility of cross-reactivity with other coronaviruses as well as prevalent bacteria or other contamination.

Digging into the detail of the methods followed by the lighthouse laboratories which process the tests for the ONS, Professor Neil writes:

The kit used by the Glasgow and Milton Keynes lighthouse laboratories is the ThermoFisher TaqPath RT-PCR which tests for the presence of three target genes from SARS-COV-2. Despite Corman et al originating the use of PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2 genes there is no agreed international standard for SARS-COV-2 testing. Instead, the World Health Organisation (WHO) leaves it up to the manufacturer to determine what genes to use and instructs end users to adhere to the manufacturer instructions for use.

The WHO’s emergency use assessment for the ThermoFisher TaqPath kit includes the instruction manual and contained therein is an interpretation algorithm describing an unequivocal requirement that two or more target genes be detected before a positive result can be declared. The latest revision of ThermoFisher’s instruction manual contains the same algorithm. The WHO have been sufficiently concerned about correct use of RT-PCR kits that on January 20th 2021 they issued a notice for PCR users imploring them to review manufacturer instructions for use carefully and adhere to them fully.

The ONS’s report of December 5th 2020 lists SARS-CoV-2 positive results for valid two and three target gene combinations and the report of December 21st does the same, for samples processed by the Glasgow and Milton Keynes lighthouse laboratories. However, it also lists single gene detections as positive results.

Between a quarter and two thirds of positive results were affected, Professor Neil found.

Over the period reported the maximum weekly percentage of positives on a single gene is 38% for the whole of the UK for the week of February 1st. The overall UK average was 23%. The maximum percentage reported is 65%, in East England in the week beginning October 5th. In Wales it was 50%, in Northern Ireland it is 55% and in Scotland it was 56%. The full data including averages and maxima/minima are given in [17].

Although the non-compliant practice was clearly indicated in the ONS reports and confirmed in correspondence, it was denied by key figures when writing in the press.

Professor Alan McNally, Director of the University of Birmingham Turnkey laboratory, who helped set up the Milton Keynes lighthouse laboratory, contradicted what was stated in the ONS report in a Guardian newspaper article about the new variant. He reported that all lighthouse laboratories operated a policy that adhered to the manufacturer instructions for use: requiring two-or-more genes for positive detection.

In correspondence with Mr Nicholas Lewis about single gene testing, in February 2021, the ONS confirmed that they do indeed call single gene targets as positives in their COVID-19 Infection Survey and also confirmed that the samples are processed by UK lighthouse laboratories.

Is this one reason the ONS consistently reports higher Covid infections than the ZOE Covid Symptom Study, which tracks symptomatic Covid? In its latest report published today, the ONS estimates 192,300 people had Covid in the UK in the week ending March 13th, whereas ZOE estimates 109,400 people had symptomatic Covid in the middle of that week – almost half the number.

France Limits AstraZeneca Covid Jab to Over-55s

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) yesterday declared the AstraZeneca Covid jab “safe and effective” to use, but the sustained fear over rare but serious cases of a brain blood clot disorder means a number of countries are still treading cautiously. France, for example, has limited the rollout of this jab to the over-55s. The Guardian has the story.

France has said only people aged 55 and over should receive the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine, and three Scandinavian countries have reserved judgment until next week, a day after Europe’s health regulator declared the shot safe and effective for all age groups.

As politicians launched an urgent effort to convince citizens of the vaccine’s safety, the French health regulator said the shot’s use should resume “without delay”. France was among more than a dozen EU states to suspend the shot this week.

But Dominique Le Guludec, the head of the regulator, said it should be provisionally reserved for people aged 55 and over until further information was available, on the basis of rare but serious cases of a brain blood clot disorder known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST).

Le Guludec said 25 people who had received the AstraZeneca shot had fallen ill with the disorder in Europe, and nine aged under 55, most of them women, had died. The cases needed further investigation, she said.

In a statement yesterday, the EMA said it “cannot rule out definitively” a link to the rare clotting disorder. The Telegraph reported:

The European Medicine’s Agency has said they “cannot rule out definitively” a link to a rare clotting disorder.

The agency will update its guidance to include an explanation about the potential risks on both the patient leaflet and in the information for healthcare professionals, the chief of the EMA said.

But Emer Cooke said in a briefing the “clear” conclusion of the review was that the vaccine “benefits in protecting people from Covid with the associated risk of death or hospitalisation outweighs the possible risks”.

For a number of European countries, including Norway, Denmark and Sweden, the EMA’s findings were not reassuring enough. More from the Guardian:

Norway, whose expert panel said on Thursday it was “convinced” of a link between the shot and the rare brain blood clots, Sweden, which reported one death from clotting and heavy bleeding, and Denmark said they needed more time before making a decision.

Norway’s Institute of Public Health said it “took note” of the EMA finding but felt it was “premature” to come to a final conclusion, saying it would issue its own guidance late next week.

Sweden said it would “examine the information” and hoped to decide within days “on the best way to use this vaccine in the future”. Søren Brostrøm, head of the Danish health authority, said it needed “time to get to the bottom of this… We need to look for causal relations and see if there are other explanations”.

Finland said it was suspending the use of the jab while it investigates two possible cases of blood clots.

Worth reading in full.

Professor Lockdown Strikes Again

Scarcely a week passes without Neil Ferguson popping up to issue a dire warning about the risks of opening up too soon. This morning, he appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme to warn about the risk posed by the new South African variant which he linked to the resurgence of the virus on the continent. His solution? Ban summer holidays. MailOnline has more.

Professor Neil Ferguson warned today that Britain must keep out the South African variant of coronavirus amid spiralling cases in Europe, suggesting foreign holiday plans may have to be shelved.

The SAGE adviser – dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ because his gloomy modelling of the first wave spooked ministers into the spring shutdown – said the troubling Covid strain was accounting for a “significant” amount of new cases on the continent.

He stopped short of calling for an outright travel ban but hinted that tough surveillance and quarantining at airports and borders would need to remain in place.

MailOnline notes that Professor Ferguson is assuming that vaccines are our only protection against infection from SARS-CoV-2.

But antibodies make up just one part of the immune response to Covid – for example white blood cells also play a critical role.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: A new study out of Oxford has concluded that the Covid vaccines are more effective against the Brazilian variant than previously thought and may be effective against the South African variant, too. The Times has more.

The study from Oxford, which has yet to be peer reviewed, suggests that the antibodies created by existing jabs and by natural infections can still neutralise the Brazilian and South African variants. This happened at lower levels than recorded with a strain that circulated during the first months of the pandemic.

Worth reading in full.

New Anti-Lockdown Party Seeks Candidates

A new political party has been set up to give opponents of the lockdown policy an opportunity to stand as candidates in the forthcoming local elections.

The Democratic Network, set up by Nigel Jacklin, a statistician and market researcher, is looking for candidates to stand in May. To date, it is the only party that’s pledged support for anti-lockdown campaign group Time for Recovery’s ‘Five Reasonable Demands’.

1. Behave with humanity

2. Give equal regard to all lives

3. Hold a comprehensive public inquiry and a balanced public debate

4. Safeguard all that makes life worth living

5. Get the economy moving for the sake of our children

Nigel says about his reason for setting up the new party:

People want to send a message to the political establishment, and we can do that in May. We have no national ambitions. Our focus now is on the May local elections and we want to get elected.

If you’d like to be a candidate, or support other candidates, you can do so by completing the short survey (‘the Network Survey’) at the bottom of the page at www.TheDemocraticNetwork.org.

Jon Dobinson, the tireless organiser behind Time for Recovery, is supportive of the venture. He says:

Although Recovery has strong supporters in all the main political parties, the Democratic Network is the first to back our Five Reasonable Demands for good Government during COVID-19 as a party. I congratulate them on a very smart move – polling shows that the Five Reasonable Demands have the overwhelming support of the British public, for whom they represent a far less damaging way to overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19.

As the country starts to open up, we must face up to the huge damage that the harsh measures taken during the pandemic have done. As the charity MIND has highlighted, we now face a mental health pandemic caused by loneliness and the Government’s campaign of fear, which is costing millions of adults and even worse, our children their peace of mind.

There’s a massive NHS crisis that must be fixed urgently, with vital screening programmes cancelled and almost five million people now on waiting lists. Plus we have the worst economic outlook in living memory. Yet many politicians still back rules which are making all this worse.

Unbelievably, we still even have the Ofcom restrictions telling broadcasters to censor good news in case people think that COVID-19 restrictions are unnecessary – rules which are worsening the mental health problems of millions of us on a daily basis. It’s time to return to our senses: we urgently need all our parties to follow The Democratic Network’s lead.

The November online poll that Jon’s referring to was carried out by Yonder and involved a representative sample of over 2,000 people. It found that three quarters of people (77%) would support the adoption of the Five Reasonable Demands by the Government. Half (49%) would strongly support them, and only 3% opposed them.

Be warned: several friends of mine who got involved in the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 ended up being pursued mercilessly through the courts by the Electoral Commission in the aftermath of Vote Leave’s victory, often at the behest of embittered Remain activists. It’s a safe bet that if any of the Democratic Network’s candidates actually win in May, their defeated opponents will submit vexatious complaints to the Commission and, if its track record is anything to go by, those complaints will be energetically followed up. If it can find any pretext for doing so, it will make the lives of those candidates and the party’s officers absolutely miserable – a task made easier by the fact that the Conservative Government will be aligned with the Commission in this instance. From what little due diligence I’ve done, Nigel seems like a responsible, decent bloke who is doing his best to comply with the voluminous red tape that any political party has to wrestle its way through. But tread carefully.

Covid “Certificates” Under Consideration for Large Events

The Government is considering introducing Covid “certificates” without which people would be unable to attend larger events post-lockdown(s). Reports suggest the documents would show whether individuals have had a vaccine or tested negative in the last few days. The Guardian has the story.

Coronavirus “certificates” that would show whether people have had a vaccine or a negative test are being considered by the Government as a way of getting people back to larger events, the Culture Secretary has said.

Oliver Dowden told Sky News that he hoped people would be able to return “in significant numbers” from June 21st if “all goes to plan”.

“We’re piloting the different things that will enable that to happen – clearly it will have to be done in a Covid-secure way,” he said. 

There would be tests of one-way systems, masks and hand-hygiene, he added. “Another thing that we are considering is a Covid certification, and we will be testing whether we can use Covid certification to help facilitate the return of sports.”

He said final decisions had not been made and the department was working with the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, who is leading a review.

Dowden said: “Social distancing makes it very, very difficult… for theatre productions to be run profitably. It makes it very, very difficult for our football clubs to run profitably if you have to have those large distances between people.” But the Government was proceeding with caution because it wanted to ensure a “permanent reopening”.

The Sun reports that the scheme will be “piloted indoors at the World Snooker Championship at Sheffield’s legendary Crucible on April 17th, and then outdoors too during the FA cup final on May 15th at Wembley”.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: A reader has got in touch to point out that if the vaccines don’t stop people catching the disease and transmitting it, but only reduce the severity of the symptoms, what’s the point of vaccine “certificates”? People allowed into football matches who’ve been vaccinated will still be able to infect others.

Yesterday I received a Government leaflet – “COVID-19 Vaccination; A Guide for Older Adults” – along with an invitation to have the vaccination. It includes the following sentence (p.11): “We do not yet know whether it [the vaccine] will stop you from catching and passing on the virus.”

This is astonishing and contradicts all the propaganda that the Government pumps out daily. If it isn’t known whether the vaccine will prevent infection or transmission of COVID-19, how can it possibly be used as a ‘passport’ when the passport holder could have – and be able to pass on – the virus? In the Government’s own words, the statement on page 11 undermines its whole case for vaccination passports.