Europe

European Commission Plans Gas Sharing and Rationing Measures if Russian Supplies are Interrupted

The European Commission is planning to approve a gas sharing plan if Russian supplies are interrupted, according to a document leaked to the Spanish newspaper El Pais. Under the plan, EU member states will have to share gas sourced from other suppliers between themselves, as well as ration energy in a way that doesn’t favour those member states with alternative suppliers. The article has been translated into English by the German blog Blackout News.

Russia has already suspended supplies to Poland and Bulgaria because those countries refuse to pay in roubles. Other European countries face similar threats. El Pais reports that the EU will use the Security of Supply Regulation, in place since 2017, to guarantee the supply of gas to priority customers, such as private households and social institutions, in all EU member states. It is already feared that some European industries could face severe rationing in the event of significant shortages. Countries with supply problems would be able to enforce the solidarity clause and force their neighbours with alternative suppliers to share some of their gas with them.

Priority will be given to gas-powered electricity stations. Sources in the European Commission have stressed that: “States are asking us to come up with a co-ordinated plan to decide jointly and uniformly which industries are affected by possible rationing and to avoid creating a competition problem between them.”

Mask Mandate Dropped for Air Travel in Europe

Face masks will no longer be mandatory in airports and on flights in Europe from May 16th amid the easing of coronavirus restrictions in European countries. MailOnline has more.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it hoped the joint decision, made with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), would mark “a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel” for passengers and crews.

The agencies said the levels of vaccination, naturally acquired immunity and the lifting of Covid restrictions in many European countries were behind the decision to lift the mandatory mask recommendation, which has been in place since 2020.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” the EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky said.

Italy, France, Bulgaria and other European countries have been relaxing or ending many or all of their measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Slowly but surely… Though will masks return in winter? Some American cities have already brought back their mask mandate.

And when will America let the unvaccinated back in and drop its tourism-killing testing requirements?

Worth reading in full.

Mask Study Finds No Impact on Covid Infections From Mask-Wearing and an INCREASE in Deaths

Mask-wearing had no discernible impact on the spread of COVID-19 in Europe during winter 2020-21 and may actually have increased mortality, a study has found.

The peer-reviewed study by Professor Beny Spira from the Department of Microbiology at the University of São Paulo, published in the journal Cureus, looked at the correlation between the rate of mask-wearing in the population and the number of reported infections and deaths from October 2020 to March 2021 in 35 European countries. All European countries, including Western and Eastern Europe, with more than one million inhabitants were included, encompassing a total of 602 million people. All the countries experienced a peak of COVID-19 infections during the six months – the winter 2020-21 wave.

The results are shown in the graphs above, where a positive correlation can be seen in the case of both infections and deaths, i.e., greater mask-wearing went hand-in-hand with more infections and deaths, the opposite of the intended effect of masks. In the case of reported infections the correlation was not statistically significant, so may have been by chance. In the case of deaths it was statistically significant, particularly in Western Europe, opening up the possibility that wearing masks actually made things worse.

The Sanctions Debate is a Mess

A few days ago, I wrote a piece highlighting the energy embargo that Russia had placed on Poland and Bulgaria. Russia made clear weeks ago that they would not sell oil and gas to ‘unfriendly’ countries if they weren’t prepared to pay in roubles (which Poland and Bulgaria said they weren’t). As I noted at the time, the Russian move was clever and likely to work.

Some commentators responded to my piece that I did not understand the situation properly. In fact, they said, the embargo would not threaten Poland and Bulgaria because it only hit their gas supplies. Both countries have extensive coal-powered electricity grids and although Poland relies for almost a fifth of its electricity generation from gas, Poland is in the process of weaning itself off of Russian gas and onto alternatives, especially from Norway.

There are a few points that can be made against this argument.

  1. If Poland was going to wean itself off Russian gas anyway and Bulgaria does not rely on it for much of its energy generation, then what was the point of the histrionics? Since it has spooked energy markets and caused European gas markets to spike 20% – as firms price in the possibility of a broader energy embargo – it will give rise to inflated prices in Europe and worsen the already bad inflation.
  2. Poland and Bulgaria may not need the gas, but they do need petroleum. Most cars and trucks do not run on electricity and a new gas pipeline to Norway or additional coal power generation will not help motorists if Russia turns off the taps. If the two countries are willing to pay for the petroleum imports but not for the gas then, again, what was the point? They’ll still be sending Russia money.

These two points raise a much broader one. It appears to me that Poland and Bulgaria’s refusal to pay for Russian gas in roubles has one purpose in mind: to increasingly normalise a European boycott of Russian energy. If Russia does something in Ukraine that’s seen to merit a response from Europe, people will point to Poland and Bulgaria’s refusal, and we’ll be told that a boycott wouldn’t be that bad. This could have a cascade effect where Europe unwittingly commits itself to a catastrophically bad policy.

What Really Happened at the Start of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

At this two-year point in the pandemic, I’ve been revisiting what happened at the start to get a clearer idea of how things unfolded and whether what happened then can tell us anything useful about the virus. Here’s what we know.

In the last week of December 2019, a doctor in Wuhan noticed unusual pneumonia in six patients who all tested positive for a new coronavirus. We can surmise that to have hospitalised six unconnected people (not all linked to the Huanan market), the new virus must have been circulating in Wuhan for some weeks. Internal reporting of this cluster led to the first public message of a suspected pneumonia outbreak, with precautions advised, from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on December 31st. At this point there were just 27 identified cases in hospital, seven of them serious – which wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary for winter.

Despite this inauspicious start, Hubei province went on (according to official data) to have a deadly outbreak, though one that was notably slower burning and milder than later Covid outbreaks elsewhere. It totalled around 4,500 deaths out of a population of 57 million people, making it around a tenth as deadly as the first wave in the U.K., and peaked at 143 reported daily deaths on February 19th (suggesting the infection peak was late January). This doesn’t seem a particularly high death toll for a winter respiratory virus.

Notably, this initial deadly outbreak was very localised. Hubei was locked down on January 23rd, but prior to that the virus circulated freely for weeks, while millions of people left the province ahead of the lockdown. Despite this, no other province in China suffered a deadly outbreak (see below). While we might be inclined to question China’s official data, it fits with what happened in neighbouring countries – no other country in the region suffered a deadly outbreak of the new virus. South Korea’s outbreak peaked at six reported daily deaths on March 30th, Japan’s (which was the worst in the region) at 24 on May 1st.

Why Are Deaths in Europe Soaring When Covid Isn’t to Blame?

Deaths are running high across Europe this winter, particularly before Omicron came along. But it’s not Covid, at least, half of it isn’t. Between the start of July and mid-December, in nine European countries, around 86,000 more people than usual died. However, Covid deaths numbered around 42,000, leaving around 44,000 above-average deaths from other causes – more than doubling the excess mortality. To put this in context, in the previous winter there were no excess deaths from other causes across these countries – in fact, there were around 5,600 more Covid deaths than excess deaths – meaning the alarming trend is new this season. The question is, why? Why is winter 2021-22 seeing high non-Covid excess mortality when winter 2020-21 didn’t see any at all?

The chart below depicts the trends in Covid mortality and excess mortality (top graph) and the difference between them i.e., non-Covid excess mortality (bottom graph) in the nine countries. The data comes from Our World in Data, and the nine countries – Austria, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and U.K. – are the nine Western European countries which report excess deaths data weekly and had data available up to mid-December. Between them they have a population of 218,646,258. To ensure the comparison is as accurate as possible the two curves are aligned using the peak of winter deaths in 2020-21, which allows for additional reporting delays in excess mortality. (This is why the excess mortality line is a week shorter than the Covid mortality line, and also why the figures quoted above are rounded as the estimates are not precise.)

The lack of non-Covid excess mortality in winter 2020-21 is clear here, as is its striking rise since July 2021. Other notable features include the high non-Covid excess mortality in spring 2020, which may be a mix of misclassified Covid deaths at a time of minimal testing and lockdown deaths of the frail, and the smallish hump in summer 2020, which may be heat deaths. The mortality displacement (‘dry tinder’) effect is also clear in spring 2021, when non-Covid excess mortality drops very low, which makes the subsequent rise all the more notable.

What could be behind the recent wave of non-Covid excess mortality? It doesn’t appear to be lockdown deaths, as its appearance in autumn 2021 doesn’t coincide with when strict restrictions were in place, while when there were strong restrictions in place in most countries in early 2021, non-Covid excess mortality was low and falling.

Could it be vaccine injuries? Not it seems in a straightforward way, as when the vaccine rollout was in full swing, targeting the oldest cohorts (which dominate all-cause and Covid mortality) during the early months of 2021, excess deaths were falling sharply.

Significantly, however, it does coincide with the Delta Covid wave. The simplest explanation would therefore seem to be that they are misclassified Covid deaths, somehow missed by testing and doctors. However, doubt is cast on that hypothesis by the fact that it didn’t happen in winter 2020-21 (as noted above, there were more Covid deaths than excess deaths that winter), and by the fact that there was more testing in late 2021, not less, making it even less likely that large numbers of Covid deaths were being missed.

There’s No Hint of a Negative Association Between Stringency Index and Excess Mortality in Europe

I previously reported on Youyang Gu’s analysis of Covid death rate and average stringency index across U.S. States. As you may recall, Gu found essentially zero association between the two variables: there was no evidence that states with longer and more stringent lockdowns had fewer Covid deaths.

One weakness of Gu’s analysis is that he used the official Covid death rate as a measure of mortality. This is problematic for two reasons. First, different states may count Covid deaths in slightly different ways. And second, the official Covid death rate doesn’t account for differences in the age-distribution across states.

Since older people are much more likely to die of Covid, states with more old people will tend to have more Covid deaths. For example, more than 20% of Floridians are over 65, compared to only 12% of Alaskans. Hence you’d expect more Floridians to die of Covid, all else being equal.

Incidentally, Gu did find an association between average stringency index and the unemployment rate. (States with longer and more stringent lockdowns had higher unemployment.) This suggests that average stringency index at least partly captures the extent to which different states curtailed economic activity.

As I noted before, the ONS recently published estimates of age-adjusted excess mortality for most of the countries in Europe, covering the entire period from January 2020 to June 2021. And this measure doesn’t suffer from the two problems outlined above.  

I therefore decided to check whether there’s a negative association between average stringency index and age-adjusted excess mortality. Other commentators have produced similar plots before, but I haven’t seen one based on the latest estimates from the ONS.

Results are shown in the figure below. The left-hand chart corresponds to the ONS’s earlier estimates, covering the period up to 18 December. The right-hand chart corresponds to the latest estimates. (The reason I included the left-hand chart is that the one on the right is somewhat affected by the vaccine rollout.)

In any case, neither chart shows any hint of a negative association between average stringency index and age-adjusted excess mortality. States that had the longest and most stringent lockdowns do not have lowest mortality. In fact, both the correlations are positive.

This doesn’t mean lockdown had no effect on the epidemic’s trajectory in any country. But it does suggest that any effect it did have was swamped by other factors (e.g., geography, population density, household structure).

The countries clustered at the bottom of the right-hand chart are the Nordics, Cyprus and Malta. As I noted last time, these are all geographically peripheral countries that used border controls to contain the virus. The only one that made extensive use of lockdowns was Cyprus (see lower right-hand corner). And this appears to have paid off.

However, larger countries that made similar use of lockdowns (see centre of chart) have had much higher mortality. I take this evidence that lockdowns may work in countries like Cyprus or New Zealand when combined with border controls. But that they don’t seem to do much in large, dense, highly connected countries like Britain.

Omicron Variant Spreads to Denmark And The Netherlands – And Could Lead to Restrictions Tightening in Europe

Denmark has recorded just two cases of the Omicron variant so far, with the Netherlands reporting 13; both nations found that all carriers of the new variant recently arrived from southern Africa. The Dutch Health Minister said that he expects more cases to rapidly appear within the country, with the Danish health authorities also actively monitoring its spread. Meanwhile, the U.K. is introducing new measures to directly tackle the variant, whereas elsewhere in Europe, various nations imposed lockdown restrictions in response to a sharp increase in Covid cases before the Omicron variant landed on the Continent, and could expand the restrictions further still. The Express has the story.

With large parts of Europe, including Austria, Germany and potentially France, already vying to ramp up restrictions in response to a recent increase in non-Omicron Covid cases, eyes will now be on leaders to see how they choose to respond to the emerging variant. But numerous health officials have played down fears of the variant and two of the world’s largest Covid vaccine producers have said they will be able to “very quickly” update their jabs “if they need to”.

The latest European countries to report Omicron Covid variant infections are the Netherlands and Denmark.

Dutch health authorities announced that 13 cases of the variant were reported among passengers who arrived in Amsterdam on Friday on two flights from South Africa.

This was out of a total of 600 passengers, 61 of whom tested positive for Covid.

Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said: “It is not unlikely more cases will appear in the Netherlands.

This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg.”

Denmark also announced two cases of the variant on Sunday.

Both people who were found to have been infected by the variant had travelling from South Africa.

In response, Director of the State Serum Institute Henrik Ullum, quoted in Reuters, said: “This was to be expected, and our strategy is therefore to continue intensive monitoring of the infection in the country.”

Beyond Europe, health officials in Australia have reported two cases of the variant in people who had arrived in the country from southern Africa.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson led a press conference on Saturday afternoon after two Omicron cases were reported in Britain.

He said that “we simply don’t yet know enough” about the variant, but insisted that a “precautionary approach” must be taken against it.

This includes the reintroduction of face mask mandates and the tightening up of travel restrictions.

All people who travel to Britain must now self-isolate until a PCR tests shows they are Covid negative, even if they are displaying no Covid symptoms.

Worth reading in full.

Will the U.K. Face a Winter Covid Surge?

I’m slightly surprised to be writing this post as to my mind the answer is obvious – of course the U.K. will face a winter Covid surge. It’s winter. That’s what happens in winter; the dominant respiratory virus surges and, most years, taxes the capacity of the health service. The only question is how big it will be – unusually large like 2020-21, or unusually small like 2019-2020 before Covid hit? It’s worth remembering that more people died in England and Wales per head of population in 2008 (once adjusted for age etc.) and every year prior to it than died in 2020 or 2021, many of them succumbing during the winter flu season, as the chart below from the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries shows. In other words, there’s a winter surge in deaths-by-virus every year, and I see no reason why 2021-22 will be any different.

Standardised mortality rates (SMRs) in England and Wales

As I see it, the only realistic way there would not be a Covid surge on some scale is if another influenza-like virus takes over, which seems unlikely right now as flu is almost nowhere to be seen.

Nonetheless, I am writing this post, and that’s because some people seem to think that this year it’s not going to happen. Dr Sebastian Rushworth argues that places hit hard already, such as Sweden, New York and Lombardy, have developed enough immunity to avoid “another big wave” altogether. Andrew Lilico in the Telegraph maintains that owing to “infection saturation” and vaccine third doses, “for us, the Covid crisis is over”. Even the usual doom-mongers at SAGE are predicting a decline in hospitalisations and deaths in December, according to new modelling released on Friday. A decline in flu-like hospitalisations and deaths in December? Whoever heard of such a thing?

I freely admit that the winter surge may, because of acquired immunity, be relatively small in places like the U.K. which have already faced widespread exposure. Perhaps that’s all that Sebastian Rushworth and Andrew Lilico mean, and in which case our positions are not so far apart. But will it really be a non-event, as SAGE at least appears to be implying, so that Covid deaths decline during the winter and don’t put any further pressure on the health service?

SAGE Adviser Demands People Get Booster Jabs to Avoid Anti-Lockdown Protests

Professor John Edwards, a SAGE adviser, has openly stated that Britain will not share the same fate as much of Continental Europe which has experienced a rapid rise in Covid cases. However, Edwards has connected the necessity for booster vaccines with the emergence of anti-lockdown protests across various European countries, such as the Netherlands, urging members of the public to get triple-jabbed to avoid similar protests breaking out in the U.K. MailOnline has the story.

A SAGE adviser has moved to reassure Britons the UK will not see a spike in Covid cases like Austria and Germany, but warned Europe’s soaring infection rate lockdown riots should act as a ‘warning’ as he urged people to get their booster jabs.  

Professor John Edmunds said today that opposition to stringent restrictions on the continent have demonstrated the importance of booster jabs, warning, “it is pretty clear immunity does wane”. 

“What you see now in central Europe with these rapid increase in cases, you see the importance of vaccination,” Edmunds told Sky News

But Edmunds said the U.K. was unlikely to be hit by the Christmas chaos because the country “is in a slightly different position.”  

This comes amid a fresh wave of Covid infections on the continent that has sent nations back into draconian restrictions and could see excess deaths start to rise again.

Italy is considering a lockdown of the unvaccinated, it emerged yesterday, which would make it the second country to impose the controversial intervention after Austria.

And Germany’s incoming Government has said that it wants unvaccinated people to be barred from going to work and travelling on public transport amid what Angela Merkel calls “dramatic” infection levels. The Netherlands has also introduced a 7pm curfew for pubs and restaurants amid rising cases there.

Austria has made vaccinations mandatory and yesterday announced it would return to lockdown on Monday, with Germany poised to follow suit after health officials warned they cannot rule out a full shutdown. 

The reintroduction of restrictions across Europe have sparked a fierce backlash and fevered protests broke out in cities including Rotterdam overnight, where riot police fired warning shots, injuring protestors marching against the Covid measures.

Today, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Vienna with the far-right opposition Freedom Party among those who have called for the protest and vowed to combat the new restrictions.

Demonstrations against virus measures are also expected in other European countries including Switzerland, Croatia and Italy. 

Worth reading in full.