U.K. Lockdown “Working” as Cases Plummet. “Thank God I Listened to Neil Ferguson,” Says Boris.

Cases of COVID-19 in England fell again today with 97,770 reported, the first time there have been fewer than 100,000 reported since December 27th and a drop of 36% in a week.

The number of Covid patients in ICU also continued to fall.

Senior Government figures said that it showed the lockdown imposed on the advice of senior advisers before Christmas was working to control the outbreak of the highly infectious Omicron variant, but warned the public mustn’t become complacent and think it is over. “Lifting restrictions too quickly will just result in a resurgence of the virus which will overwhelm the NHS,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.

With infections currently higher in Scotland than south of the border, Nicola Sturgeon said that her additional restrictions, requiring people to keep their masks on while eating, was clearly making an impact. “What we need to keep in mind is that the infection rate would certainly be much worse had we not brought in these additional measures. Modelling from Imperial College has shown that Scots are particularly infectious while eating, and without this measure there would currently be 800,000 people in ICU with Covid in Edinburgh alone.”

Michael Gove said: “Some people say that Covid waves just fall by themselves, and spread dangerous ideas online implying that restrictions are not needed to control coronavirus outbreaks. The fact that infections are falling after we brought in restrictions shows the importance of using these tried and tested measures. Government is working closely with technology and social media companies to ensure all dangerous content online is removed.”

The Prime Minister echoed these sentiments. “Thank God I Listened to Neil Ferguson,” he said. “His predictions are always spot on.”

Fact-checkers, please ensure your satire detectors are fully functioning before engaging with this post.

No Need for New Restrictions, Says Government Minister

Current Covid data does not indicate a need for new restrictions, a Cabinet minister has said. The Telegraph has more.

Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, indicated that stricter controls were unlikely to be introduced in the coming days, based on the latest hospitalisation and case figures.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson is set to review the Plan B measures brought in last month, including rules mandating masks in almost all indoor public settings and requiring Covid passports for nightclubs and large events.

Government sources told the Telegraph last week that they were not expecting to repeal any of the Plan B restrictions yet, with adults in England set to be told to continue working from home if possible. The measures are set to roll over to the next review point on Jan 26th.

Senior Tories on Sunday said Plan B must not become a new normal, warning Mr Johnson that the Government must push to “get back to Plan A”.

Mr Barclay’s comments come as daily reported infections in England drop by 24% overnight, to 123,547 on January 2nd down from 162,572 on January 1st. Even taking into account it being a Sunday, when there are usually fewer infections reported, it is a considerable drop.

Case Rates Are Currently Highest in the Most Vaccinated US States

In the US, Southern states have the lowest vaccination rates, while North Eastern states have the highest vaccination rates. This pattern appears to be largely down to partisanship: Republicans are less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats.

At the end of August, when the Delta variant was dominant, case rates were highest in Southern states like Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Meanwhile, they remained low in North Eastern states like New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey. This is shown in the map below, which gives the official case curve for each state up to 26 December:

The much higher case rates in the South seemed to provide evidence that the vaccines stop infection (in addition to protecting against serious illness and death). Hence, it was believed, vaccine passports will help to curb transmission.

Fast forward three months, and the situation is rather different. Infections are now surging in the North East. This has led to the somewhat peculiar situation whereby case rates are highest in some of the most vaccinated states. See the chart below, based on data from the CDC:

Omicron is Not ‘Surging’, Boris. There’s a Ton More Testing – and Infections Are Already Peaking

Boris Johnson said yesterday that Omicron is “surging across the country now” and warned that “we reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public and to protect public health, to protect the NHS. We won’t hesitate to take that action.” The Telegraph reports.

The Prime Minister has said the Government “reserves the possibility” to implement further Covid restrictions amid surging Omicron cases, and warned that the current situation is “extremely difficult”.

Speaking in Downing Street, Boris Johnson said the latest data will be kept under constant review “hour by hour”, and refused to rule out further measures after Christmas. 

“We will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public and to protect public health, to protect the NHS,” he said. “We won’t hesitate to take that action.”

Asked about what types of restrictions could be reimplemented, he said: “We are looking at all kinds of things to keep Omicron under control and we will rule nothing out.”

But is it really true that Omicron is surging and warrants the Prime Minister breaking his repeated promise that the lifting of restrictions in the summer following the vaccine rollout was “irreversible”?

Not according to the latest data. Yesterday’s reported infections for the U.K. were at 91,743, down from three days ago.

The peak by specimen date is still December 15th and the figures for the following days, while incomplete, do not suggest it will be topped soon.

A Doctor Writes… What We Know About the Omicron Variant So Far

There follows a guest post from our in-house doctor, formerly a senior medic in the NHS, on what we know so far about the Omicron Covid variant. He’s also written about the scandal of the Downing Street parties – Secret Santa-Gate – asking: “If Covid really was such a mortal threat as the Government have led the public to believe, do readers really think that Downing Street apparatchiks would be flocking to packed parties in small rooms? I suspect not.

It’s now two weeks since the world first heard of the Omicron variant. Travel restrictions and mask mandates were immediately reimposed on the U.K. population and have since been tightened further. Reports in the press this morning are trailing the reimposition of more curbs on liberty in the U.K. over the next few weeks. In today’s update, I will examine what we have learnt about the new variant and to what extent it may affect the situation in the NHS. This update is a bit data-heavy, so apologies in advance for the graphic fest.

South Africa is widely regarded as the epicentre of Omicron. Having spent considerable time working in that wonderful country, I can attest to the expertise of my South African medical colleagues, particularly in the field of infectious diseases. So, when Dr. Fareed Abdullah writes from the Steve Biko Hospital in Pretoria that the data so far on the Omicron variant suggests it is very much milder than the Delta variant, I’m inclined to take him seriously.

I encourage readers to examine this document themselves – this extract is worth quoting in full:

In summary, the first impression on examination of the 166 patients admitted since the Omicron variant made an appearance, together with the snapshot of the clinical profile of 42 patients currently in the Covid wards at the SBAH/TDH complex, is that the majority of hospital admissions are for diagnoses unrelated to Covid. The SARS-CoV-2 positivity is an incidental finding in these patients and is largely driven by hospital policy requiring testing of all patients requiring admission to the hospital.

Using the proportion of patients on room air as a marker for incidental Covid admission as opposed to severe Covid (pneumonia), 66% of patients at the SBAH/TDH complex are incidental Covid admissions. This very unusual picture is also occurring at other hospitals in Gauteng. On December 3rd, Helen Joseph Hospital had 37 patients in the Covid wards of whom 31 were on room air (83%); and the Dr. George Mukhari Academic Hospital had 80 patients of which 14 were on supplemental oxygen and one on a ventilator (81% on room air).

German Leaders to Debate Imposing National Restrictions On The Unvaccinated

On Thursday, German officials are set to debate whether to tighten Covid restrictions after Germany recorded an infection peak on Saturday. One of the measures to be discussed involves banning the unvaccinated from venues such as restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, with Chancellor Angela Merkel urging members of the public to get jabbed if they haven’t already. The Telegraph has the story.

These rules have been adopted in some states, but as yet have not been enforced nationwide. 

Horst Seehofer, the Interior Minister, on Saturday morning said it was the time to put in place nationally uniform Covid rules.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called upon the country’s unvaccinated to reconsider, hinting that the Government would tighten measures across the country. 

“Difficult weeks lie ahead of us, and you can see that I am very worried,” Merkel warned in her weekly video podcast.

“I urgently ask everyone who has not yet been vaccinated: please reconsider.”

She added: “It has always helped us when states and the Federal Government worked together and committed to uniform rules.”

Germany’s nationwide seven-day Covid incidence rate climbed to 277.4 per 100,000 people on Saturday, the highest on record. The previous mark was 197.6, recorded in December 2020.

Seehofer, said on Saturday that politicians needed to “demonstrate the art of governance” when meeting on Thursday by making one set of rules for the entire country to stop confusing people with changing rules. 

“I very much hope that there will be a nationwide regulation next week. We must no longer confuse the population,” he told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.

“Vaccination centres open, vaccination centres closed, continued payment of wages in (for people forced to) quarantine yes, then no again, testing free of charge, testing subject to charge.

“In terms of party politics, there is nothing for anyone to gain, but a lot for everyone to lose. There can be no fundamental opposition in such a difficult situation.”

The situation is particularly precarious in the southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg and the country’s former east, where ICU capacity is below 10%.

Worth reading in full.

Covid Cases Declining More Steeply Than at Any Time in Last Six Months

According to Government data, Covid cases have been on their steepest decline since May, while hospitalisations and deaths have also been steadily decreasing. The Times has more.

Yesterday a further 42,408 people tested positive for Covid across the UK, with the weekly average down 12%.

There were 195 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, and that weekly average was down 4%. And the latest figures on patients admitted to hospital with the virus show 868 admitted on November 7th, with the weekly average down 11%.

Analysis by the Times, looking at the week-on-week change in the rolling seven-day average of case numbers, has found a fall for 16 consecutive days, last seen in May this year.

Julian Hiscox, Professor of Infection and Global Health at Liverpool University, told the Financial Times the downward trend seen in cases was unique because unlike earlier falls it was brought about “almost entirely by the wall of immunity, rather than behavioural changes or restrictions”.

He added: “We could end up in a very nice window thanks to the timing of our booster programme, whereby our peak in population immunity coincides with the winter months when the health service is under most pressure.”

Other experts had cautioned that it was too soon to draw long-term conclusions from case data. Yesterday’s U.K. total was 13% higher than the same day a week earlier.

A separate surveillance report from the U.K. Health Security Agency, the successor agency to Public Health England, also found decreasing Covid activity nationally.

Worth reading in full.

Why Are We Still Talking About Infection Rates?

Covid’s now been with us for almost two full years. Here in the UK, we’ve had three separate lockdowns. And as of Monday, two thirds of the entire population has been fully vaccinated.

Yet people are still fretting over infection rates. Last week, the New York Times published an absurd article titled ‘Needless Suffering: Britain offers a warning of what happens when a country ignores Covid.’

If three separate lockdowns and a mass vaccination program qualifies as “ignoring” Covid, I’d hate to see what “addressing” it looks like. Spending 90% of GDP on suppression and renaming the Health Secretary ‘Minister for Covid’, perhaps?

“Cases have surged this fall,” the authors write, “more so than in the rest of Europe, the U.S. or many other countries.” So? Covid’s rapidly becoming an endemic disease, and infections will creep up from time to time. But there’s no evidence that lots of people are getting seriously ill or dying.

What’s more, infections have actually been falling for the past three weeks. Indeed, they’d already started falling when the Times article was published – a reminder that, in the era of Covid, life comes at you fast.

Given that natural immunity confers stronger protection against infection than the vaccines, case numbers are likely to remain elevated until enough people have had the virus at least once. I’m not sure what fraction of people are currently in this category, but it might be about a third.

That means we’ve got a few months to go before the disease becomes truly endemic. And as vaccine-induced immunity wanes, there are going to be more infections. Why not just get them out of the way now?

Rather than being concerned about Britain’s moderately high infection rate, maybe we should be happy about it. The more people who get infected now, the less who’ll get infected a few months hence – when the NHS comes under greater pressure.

We’ve already offered the vaccine to all over 50s – three times over in some cases. Why should it matter if another ten thousand 20 year olds catch the virus? Aside from remaining vigilant in hospitals and care homes, there’s really nothing left to do.

I’ve made an alternative headline for the New York Times: ‘Needless Panic: Britain offers an illustration of what happens as Covid becomes endemic’.

Covid Infections Fall by 20% In a Week

The number of Covid cases has dropped by 20% from last Sunday, while the number of people dying ‘with’ the virus has decreased by 16%. The MailOnline has the story.

Britain’s Covid infections have fallen by 20% in a week as health chiefs continue to urge the elderly and the vulnerable to receive their booster jabs amid an impending winter wave.    

Department of Health bosses reported a further 30,305 cases today, a drop from the 38,009 reported last Sunday.

The number of people dying with the virus also fell by 16%, with 62 deaths reported today compared to 74 on October 31st.

It comes as hospitalisations fell to 1,055 on Tuesday, the latest date data is available for. They were down 3.2% on the previous week. 

This week the Chief Executive of NHS Providers warned that health trusts in England are already at peak winter levels for bed occupancy…

From Monday the double vaccinated will be able to book their third dose a month earlier than before.

It comes as a second significant development, a new antiviral pill was also found to slash the risk of vulnerable people being hospitalised or dying from Covid. 

Ministers have faced fierce criticism over booster jabs, with the sluggish pace of the rollout blamed for high case numbers.

So far third doses could only be booked when they become due – six months after a second jab. That resulted in people waiting weeks for a convenient appointment, at a time when their immunity was waning.

But next week bookings can be made a month in advance online or by calling 119. 

Six million people in England who had a second dose at least six months ago and are eligible for a booster are yet to have it, with the gap continuing to widen, according to the Covid Actuaries Response Group.

Worth reading in full.

Covid Cases Fall For a Sixth Day in a Row

According to today’s official data, the number of Covid infections has fallen for a sixth day in a row. In addition, the most recent data available shows that Covid hospital admissions have fallen by 2%, while the death rate remains flat with no sign of a dramatic upward trend. The MailOnline has the story.

Bosses at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimate that around one in 50 people — the equivalent of 1,102,800 — would have tested positive on any given day during the seven-day spell ending October 22nd. It claims infections have risen by almost 13% in a week, soaring to a level not seen since the darkest days of Britain’s pandemic crisis in early January. 

Meanwhile, separate data from the UK Health Security Agency, which took over from the now-defunct PHE, today showed that the R rate also rose and is now thought to be around 1.1 to 1.3, up from 1.0 to 1.2. It means for every 10 people infected, between 11 and 13 others will get the virus.

However, both estimates are based on old data and the fresher Government statistics show the country’s outbreak has already started to shrink, even before children broke up for half-term. 

Today’s Government figures take Britain’s total Covid death toll to 140,392, with more than 8.98 million having been infected with the virus since the start of the pandemic.

No10’s advisers said it was likely that cases would eventually fizzle out in children because they have built-up such high levels of immunity following the back-to-class wave. They also claimed half-term would act as a natural fire-breaker by curbing indoor mixing of children. 

‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson, an Epidemiologist who sits on SAGE, yesterday argued ‘Plan B’ — which would see the return of face masks and work from home guidance if the NHS becomes overwhelmed — “shouldn’t be necessary”, if cases keep dropping and the booster roll-out continues at speed. 

Separate data from the country’s largest symptom-tracking study yesterday suggested Britain is ‘worryingly close’ to recording 100,000 new Covid infections per day. Professor Tim Spector, the Epidemiologist running the study, suggested the official Government daily count could be vastly underestimating the extent of Covid prevalence. 

It comes as Health Secretary Sajid Javid today called on all secondary school and college students to get tested regardless of symptoms before they return to classrooms next week. ONS data showed 9.1% of children in years seven to 11 had the virus on any given day last week.

Mr Javid said: “it is vital that they are taking free and easy rapid tests that will help detect Covid infections from those who are not showing symptoms to keep the virus at bay.”

Worth reading in full.