Has the winter ‘flu season’ begun in northern Europe, with signs of upticks in Covid positive tests in the U.K., Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and also Russia?
There’s no new variant driving these – it appears to be purely seasonal, with Delta still dominating. There’s also a lot more herd immunity around now (and high vaccination rates, if that has any effect on infection and transmission). What will a winter Covid surge look like under these conditions? We may be about to find out.
Denmark recently ended all restrictions, including abolishing vaccine passports, declaring Covid no longer a “socially critical disease”. Let’s hope it holds its nerve as winter hits, and that we, too, will resist introducing any draconian new measures as we face whatever the coming season may throw at us.
There follows a guest post by a subeditor and long-time Daily Sceptic reader who is keeping his identity anonymous. He has spotted that spectacular healthcare spending and impressive vaccination rates have not brought the U.K. obvious rewards against Covid.(Sweden is highlighted in the graph above because, by imposing the fewest restrictions, it is the closest Europe has to a control.)
Recent figures for European countries from the World Mortality Dataset, depicted in the graph above, reveal that island nations have fared particularly well during the pandemic: Iceland, Cyprus, Ireland and Malta have all recorded low levels of excess deaths. However, there is one noteworthy exception – the U.K.
In fact, even the third poorest country in Europe, Kosovo, riven by war in the late 1990s, and only an independent state since 2008, has performed better. This is despite the Balkan country having, per capita, a fraction of our health service facilities, staff and expertise.
The double-vaccination rate in Kosovo, currently 30% of the population, is a long way behind the U.K. on 66%.
Excess mortality is widely regarded as the best measure of a country’s success in coping with a prolonged health crisis, such as a bad flu season, as it allows for differing evaluations of the causes of death, notably whether they have been ‘with’ or ‘of’ Covid, and disregards arbitrary time limits, such as within 28 days of a positive PCR test. All other deaths, such as those brought on by lockdown measures, are also, of course, included in these statistics.
This evidence shows that spending billions of pounds above normal on health services and staff, and enticing a large proportion of a population to get vaccinated, do not necessarily correlate with a lower number of deaths.
The Telegraph has been told by the E.U. that integration of the U.K.’s vaccine database into the E.U. system is at an advanced stage.
“Significant progress was made on a technical front, namely when it comes to the connection to the gateway, with aim of going live [testing] soon,” said a spokesman for the European Commission.
The U.K. Foreign Office and Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have joint responsibility for the project in the U.K. They formally applied to join the E.U. scheme on July 28th, and technical work has been carrying on behind the scenes ever since.
“We have applied to link into the E.U.’s Digital Covid Certificate scheme,” said a Foreign office spokesman. “Linking up to the E.U.’s Digital Covid Certificate scheme will enable us to digitally verify each other’s Covid certificates to make journeys easier.”
The E.U. Digital Covid Certificate has quickly become the biggest vaccine passport scheme in the world and covers more than 40 countries, including all 27 E.U. states and others as far afield as Israel and Panama.
The system is effectively a giant digital platform or “gateway” through which different countries’ vaccine certificates and test results can be scanned and verified as legitimate by others quickly and easily.
It is is used on all external EU borders and also for domestic vaccine passports schemes operating in countries including France, Holland and Portugal.
The British Government was (and is) so sold on the idea that lockdowns work that it forced schools to close for more time than any other country in Europe but one over the past 18 months. Children here missed more than double the amount of school than their peers in 14 countries on the Continent. The Telegraph has the story.
Between January 2020 and July 2021, British children have been out of the classroom for nearly half (44%) of days, according to a House of Commons Library analysis of data from the University of Oxford Covid Government Response Tracker.
Italy is the only European country where pupils have had more time out of school during the same time frame, with children missing 48% of days.
Youngsters in the U.K. missed more than double the amount of school than their peers in 14 other countries including Hungary, France, Spain, Lithuania and Austria.
Elsewhere pupils in Sweden and Finland have not missed any school at all, while children in Belgium missed just 4% of days. …
After the U.K., children in Germany missed the most school days (41%), followed by Romania (35%) and Poland (34%), the analysis found.
Headteachers attacked the Department for Education’s leadership during the pandemic, saying ministers have “had a tendency to double down on flawed policy decisions before having to perform U-turns”.
Stop Press: A new study has found that when schools were closed in Scotland, teachers were 50% less likely than the general working population to be admitted to hospital, and when they were open, the risk in both groups was roughly the same. GB News has the story.
What explains the variation in COVID-19 death rates across European countries? One factor that has been mentioned since early on in the pandemic is population density.
As a BBC article from May of 2020 states: “We know that the density of population is important for the spreading of coronavirus.” The article compares the U.K. and Italy, noting that “the U.K. is considerably more densely populated”.
And indeed, it seems plausible that the virus would spread more easily in areas where people are crammed tightly together than in areas they’re spread further apart. For example, aerosols might linger in the elevator in a multi-storey building, whereas they’re unlikely to travel between one semi-detached house and the next.
This raises the question of how to measure population density at the level of whole countries. The simplest measure is the just the number of people divided by the total land area.
However, this measure doesn’t take account of urbanisation. An ostensibly sparse country could have vast swathes of land where nobody lives. So while the average population density would be low, the majority of people might still be crammed tightly together in cities.
An alternative measure, population-weighted density, is provided by the E.U.’s Urban Data Platform. To calculate this measure for a particular country, the country is first divided into ‘parcels’ of 1km2. The population density within each parcel is computed. Then the weighted average is taken, with weights equal to the population of each parcel.
For example, suppose a country comprises ten parcels, nine of which are completely empty and one of which has a population of 100 people. The average density would be only 10/km2, but the weighted density would be 100/km2.
Using average population density, the densest country in Europe is the Netherlands. But using the UDP’s measure of weighted density, the densest country is actually Spain. (And contrary to the aforementioned BBC article, Italy is slightly denser than the U.K.) While this might seem counter-intuitive, it is consistent with other evidence.
Has Europe seen two mortality peaks or three? According to manynewsoutlets, the continent experienced a deadly third wave of COVID-19 during the spring of 2021.
“Europe is enduring a grim spring,” said an FTarticle dated 4th April. “COVID-19 infections, hospitalisations and deaths are rising in many countries,” it goes on to claim. The article presents data suggesting that March saw elevated COVID-19 death rates in a number of European countries.
This characterisation is borne out by Our World in Data’s chart of the daily number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths for the European Union – which is shown below. (The chart for Europe as a whole is highly similar.)
According to the chart, there was a peak of mortality in the spring of 2020, corresponding to the first wave (which afflicted countries such as Italy, Spain and the U.K). Then there was another peak of mortality in the winter, corresponding to the second wave (when countries such as Poland, Czechia and Hungary were also afflicted).
And the chart indicates there was an additional peak of mortality in the spring of 2021, corresponding to the third wave. This peak is lower than the first two, but still quite considerable. On April 13th, there were more than 2,800 COVID-19 deaths in Europe (compared to just under 3,600 at the peak of the second wave).
Yet as I’ve notedrepeatedly, “confirmed COVID-19 deaths” can be misleading, since some of the people who die of COVID-19 (either shortly after a positive test, or with COVID-19 on the death certificate) would have died anyway. Excess mortality provides a far better gauge of the pandemic’s impact.
Estimates of excess mortality for 26 European countries are provided by researchers at EuroMOMO. The chart below plots excess mortality z-scores (numbers of standard deviations above or below the average) from week 1 of 2020 to week 27 of 2021. I’ve omitted the last three weeks of data, as these are subject to revision.
The first and second wave peaks are clearly visible: the former can be seen at week 14 of 2020, and the latter at week 3 of 2021. By comparison, the peak of the third wave (at week 16 of 2021) is barely noticeable.
It does technically rise above the red line, which the researchers oddly classify as a “substantial increase”. However, increases of this magnitude are seen every few months going all the way back to 2017. Hence the third peak cannot be regarded as a major epidemic wave.
Part of the difference between the two charts may be due to the composition of countries. For example, EuroMOMO does not cover Poland, Romania or Czechia. Having said that, the countries it does include make up the vast majority of Europe’s population, so this probably can’t account for much.
The EuroMOMO analysis indicates that Europe has seen two mortality peaks, not three. In terms of excess mortality, the third wave was just a blip.
Recent polling by the E.U. agency Eurofound suggests that only 33% of Bulgarians intend to get vaccinated against Covid. The vaccine roll-out there is so slow that doses are nearing their expiry dates. In an attempt to pick up the pace, the Bulgarian Government is considering offering vouchers and other incentives to those who get vaccinated. Reutershas the story.
Only 14.5% of Bulgarian adults are fully vaccinated, putting the country far behind its E.U. peers.
On top of a general mistrust of authorities in the former communist country, Bulgarians often cite a fear of new medical products as their reason for refusing the vaccination. Another reason is that about 400,000 people have already been infected and developed resistance.
“We do not plan to force anyone. But we are considering the possibility to offer people who are getting the second shot some vouchers,” [Prime Minister Stefan] Yanev said.
Sofia has opened special vaccination units in parks to make it easier for busy people to get a shot and is planning campaigns in Roma neighbourhoods to try to convince those communities of the benefits of the vaccines.
Failure to boost vaccine uptake may force the country to destroy shots that are nearing their expiration dates.
Yanev said Bulgaria may face such a risk at the end of August and was working with Brussels to see how it may also donate some 150,000 shots to western Balkan countries.
Many commentators, not to mention Government spokesmen, are still relying on ‘COVID-19 deaths per million people’ as a measure of the disease’s lethality. However, we know that excess mortality – the number of deaths in excess of what you’d expect based on previous years – provides a more accurate gauge of the pandemic’s death toll.
Unlike ‘COVID-19 deaths per million people’, this measure does not vary with factors like testing infrastructure or the criteria for assigning cause of death. (Though the best measure to use is age-adjusted excess mortality.)
In the U.K. and some other countries, excess deaths ran much higher than official COVID-19 deaths in the first wave, due to a lack of testing. However, since the start of this year, they’ve have been running much lower than official COVID-19 deaths in Western Europe.
As I noted in a previous post, Ariel Kalinsky and Dmitry Kobak have collected all the available data on excess mortality in one place. (Note: they use a linear trend over the last five years as the baseline, rather than a simple average, which yields more accurate estimates of excess deaths.)
The latest version of their study includes a chart showing excess deaths and official COVID-19 deaths over time in sixteen different countries:
In Peru, Mexico and South Africa, excess deaths have been running substantially higher than official COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic. By contrast, in all but four of the European countries, excess deaths closely matched official COVID-19 deaths up the end of 2020.
However, since the beginning of 2021, excess deaths have been running lower – often much lower – than official COVID-19 deaths in every European country. In Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K., excess deaths have been negative (i.e., below the baseline) for multiple consecutive weeks.
Some of these disparities could be due to reporting delays for all-cause deaths. However, the authors “excluded the most recent data points whenever there was an indication that the data were substantially incomplete”, so such delays are unlikely to be a big contributor. And in any case, the largest disparities between excess and official deaths are not seen in the most recent weeks.
Overall, Kalinsky and Kobak’s findings indicate that excess deaths has become untethered from official COVID-19 deaths in Europe, and the latter measure is now substantially overstating the pandemic’s death toll.
More than a quarter of adults in the E.U. are either “very unlikely” or “rather unlikely” to accept a Covid vaccine, according to the results of a new survey conducted by the E.U. agency Eurofound. Here are the key findings.
The stated intention to get vaccinated varies considerably among Member States, with an important east-west divide discernible across the Union. With the notable exception of Austria and France, the intention to get vaccinated is over 60% for all western Member States – with Nordic and Mediterranean countries, Denmark and Ireland having even higher rates – while among eastern Member States the rate is dramatically lower, ranging from 59% in Romania to 33% in Bulgaria.
The report notes that people in the prime age group (aged 35-49 years) are more sceptical about vaccines (29%) than younger and older age groups (26% and 27%, respectively). Unemployed people (39%), those with a long-term illness or disability (39%) and full-time homemakers (33%) are more vaccine hesitant than people in employment (26%) or people who are retired (23%). The least vaccine averse are students (13%).
According to the survey, fielded in February and March 2021, the main reason for vaccine hesitancy is a lack of trust in the safety of the vaccine. Almost half of those who are unlikely to accept a Covid vaccine believe that the risks associated with the virus are exaggerated. Eight per cent believe that Covid doesn’t exist at all.
Trust in the news media, pharmaceutical companies, national government and national healthcare system is lower among the hesitant than the non-hesitant. Use of social media as a primary source of news and information is identified by the survey’s authors as bearing a “strong association [with] vaccine hesitancy”, despite the fact that the non-hesitant report as being more trustworthy of social media (albeit only marginally).
The survey does not distinguish between different Covid vaccines, though it is likely that hesitancy rates are greater for the AstraZeneca vaccine because of fears over its relationship with blood clotting. In Denmark, where the AstraZeneca vaccine has been dropped from the national rollout, a recent survey found that far more Danes would decline to get an AZ Covid vaccine (33%) than would refuse to get a Covid jab altogether (7%).
Norway is the latest country to announce that it will introduce domestic Covid vaccine passports. Reutersreports:
Norway will introduce verifiable vaccine certificates from early June, allowing holders to use them for admittance to events held in Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said on Wednesday.
Around a quarter of Norway’s population has so far received a first dose of a vaccine against Covid, while 6.8% has received two doses.
In Hong Kong, a Government mobile app is being used to enable vaccinated people to visit bars and nightclubs – or, rather, to prevent unvaccinated people from doing the same. At restaurants, unvaccinated people must sit in designated areas, away from those who have received a vaccine. Likewise in Germany, people who are fully vaccinated or who have recovered from Covid (as proved by some form of certification) will soon be permitted to engage in certain activities from which others will be barred.
We already know that a number of “anti-Covid” measures – such as mask-wearing and caps on numbers attending large events – are likely to stay in place beyond the “end” of lockdown. The Government is said to have told football’s UEFA that crowd sizes at upcoming events will be limited to 45,000. How likely is it that these 45,000 people will have to show proof a Covid status certificate on entry to prove they don’t have Covid? MailOnline reports that the potential use of domestic vaccine passports remains unclear:
Covid vaccine passports have already been confirmed for when foreign travel resumes on May 17th but exactly how they’ll be deployed domestically remains unknown.
The PM has ruled out using them for going to the pub or supermarket but the Government is currently trialling a similar system for larger events such as concerts, sports matches and club nights.
Stop Press: The NHS mobile app, which is in line to be used as a vaccine passport for overseas travel, may not be ready in time for when holiday restrictions (partially) ease on May 17th, according to Metro.