Freedom Day

Covid Infections Continue to Plummet – as ONS Data Suggest Omicron BA.2 May Be Half as Deadly as BA.1

Covid levels continued to drop in England last week, falling to their lowest levels since the start of December before Omicron took off. MailOnline has more.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates 1.2 million, or one in 45 people, were carrying the virus on any given day in the week to May 7th, down a quarter on the previous week.

It marks the fifth week in a row that the ONS’s weekly infection survey – now the best barometer of the outbreak – has reported a week-on-week fall in cases, despite no Covid restrictions being in place.

The Government is relying on the study, based on swabs of 120,000 random people, to track the virus now that free testing has been axed for the vast majority of Britons.

Today’s estimate for England is the lowest since the week ending December 16th, when 1.2m people were also estimated to have been infected. At that point, the Omicron strain was just starting to take off and in the following weeks there were mounting calls to follow some EU countries in enforcing another lockdown.

Ministers also resisted renewed calls from NHS bosses for tougher restrictions last month when the BA.2 variant, an off-shoot of Omicron, pushed rates to record-highs.

Meanwhile, the ONS estimates one in 35 people were carrying Covid in Wales and Scotland last week and one in 55 in Northern Ireland. 

It’s good to see the Mail drawing attention to the fact that these declines happen without the need for restrictions. Interesting that Scotland is doing worse than England despite keeping masks and vaccine passports in place for longer.

England Has Had Lower Rate of Covid Deaths Since ‘Freedom Day’ Than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, In Spite of Fewer Restrictions

Raghib Ali, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and a consultant in acute medicine at the Oxford university hospitals NHS trust, has a piece in the Guardian, of all places, arguing that Boris’s decision to end Coronavirus restrictions in England has been validated.

The first Omicron (BA.1) wave, beginning in December, showed us that it was possible to get over a peak without a lockdown. The second (BA.2) wave from March to April was the first time a wave peaked in England without any government-mandated restrictions, as all legal mandates ended on February 24th.

And because England chose a different path on restrictions to the other home nations (and other western European countries) during the Omicron waves, this provides a very good “natural experiment” to assess how much difference the varying levels of restrictions made. International comparisons do have limitations, but in the absence of better evidence to judge the effectiveness of Covid restrictions, such natural experiments provide a useful guide, especially in comparing the UK home nations, which have similar populations, age structures, climate/seasons, healthcare systems and population-level immunity to Covid.

I should stress that given the uncertainty of the evidence at the time, it was perfectly reasonable for the home nations to choose different paths – and the extra restrictions outside England had widespread public support. But what will perhaps be surprising to many is that England has actually had a similar rate of infection and a lower rate of Covid deaths during the Omicron wave – and since July 19th 2021, England’s “freedom day” – than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, despite having far fewer mandatory restrictions, and none after February 24th. This “natural experiment” shows that having more mandates did not lead to better outcomes.

There was also no significant difference in overall excess mortality across the home nations to the end of 2021. And England’s is now likely to be lower as – somewhat remarkably, given the Omicron wave – excess mortality is negative in England for 2022 so far, with the lowest age-standardised mortality rates (the best comparator to previous years, as it takes population ageing into account) since the series began in 2001.

Worth reading in full.

Daily U.K. Covid Stats Axed and Moved to Twice a Week as Reporting Winds Down

The U.K.’s daily Covid statistics were axed on Monday as the country moves forward in the pandemic. MailOnline has more.

The U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA) will now only publish Britain-wide updates twice a week, on Monday and Thursday.

It follows pressure from Tory MPs and experts who warned the case numbers became increasingly unreliable after free Covid tests were stopped for the majority of Britons. They called for the daily figures to be ditched as the final part of the ‘living with Covid’ strategy.

The UKHSA will still publish daily England figures but headline U.K. numbers – used throughout the pandemic to remind public of situation – will be affected.

It comes as the UK today logged 26,280 new Covid cases in the last three days, the equivalent of around 8,700 each day on average, and 212 deaths, roughly 70 per day. 

Ministers stopped publishing the figures on weekends following ‘Freedom Day’, meaning the Government dashboard update on Monday now also includes data for Saturday and Sunday.

The Government is relying on the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) weekly infection survey, which uses random swabbing, to get a read on the virus’ true trajectory. It also reported a drop last week.

Meanwhile, latest Covid hospital data shows there were 992 admissions for the virus on May 3rd, down nearly a fifth on the previous week.

Daily hospitalisations have now fallen for four weeks in a row – despite NHS leaders calling for masks and outdoor mixing to return at the start of April.

The move to scale-back the U.K. figures was prompted by Public Health Scotland, where the national Covid dashboard will only be update on Mondays and Thursdays. From June, it will move to weekly updates. 

England should follow suit.

Worth reading in full.

Health Secretary Confirms Coronavirus Act Will Expire in March and Tells MPs He Does Not “Envisage” Ever Bringing it Back

Emergency powers brought in to tackle Covid will be consigned to history, Health Secretary Sajid Javid assured MPs today, saying he does not “envisage” ever having to bring back provisions in the Coronavirus Act because Britain has made so much progress in the pandemic. MailOnline has more.

While most of the lockdown powers were ushered in under the Public Health Act, the Coronavirus Act gave Government further abilities to control the spread of the virus.

Mr Javid admitted some of them were “quite draconian”, including the power to detain people with mental health issues which were never used but expired “very early on” in the pandemic. 

Others included the power to prohibit large-scale events, close schools and arrest infected people not following isolation rules.

Mr Javid was defending the Act  from accusations that elected MPs were unable to scrutinise controversial provisions before their introduction.

The vast majority of the Act’s remaining provisions are now due to expire on March 24th as part of a sunset clause brought in when ministers rushed them through Parliament at the start of the pandemic in 2020. 

When asked by MPs if a new Covid variant could prompt the return of the Act’s provisions, Mr Javid said he could not “envisage” ever having to do so because Britain has broad immunity against the virus and surveillance programmes to monitor its spread.

“Thankfully we have built huge and very significant defences over the past two years, the vaccinations… the treatments we have today, the testing capabilities we have today including the ability to genomic sequence,” he said.

“It’s a completely different picture that we have today than before.”

It’s certainly welcome to hear the emergency legislation will expire, and while ministers not ‘envisaging’ bringing it back is a meaningless assurance, it is nonetheless the thing we want to hear and is better than saying they are leaving it open. Will the Government now follow Denmark’s lead and reclassify Covid as no longer a socially critical disease?

The expiry of the Coronavirus Act still leaves the problem that the Public Health Act – under the generous interpretation of ministers and with the indulgence of supine judges – turned out to be far more illiberal than anyone guessed. It needs a thorough reform, at the very least to ensure that no restrictions can be imposed on the healthy without prior Parliamentary approval, or better still, to follow the example of Sweden’s constitution and rule it out entirely.

Worth reading in full.

Sunday Times Changes Tune on Covid Restrictions

The Sunday Times has a long analytical piece today about how Britain beat Covid – a combination of vaccines, natural immunity and luck, apparently. The paper’s Data Projects Editor, Tom Calver, says one contributory factor was the Government’s decision to lift all restrictions on July 19th of last year, thereby ensuring that by the time we faced an Autumn wave many people who’d been infected and recovered over the summer had natural immunity:

About 22 million have caught it since July 19th, 2021 — England’s ‘freedom day’, when many Covid restrictions were removed. Britain was one of the few countries to maintain relatively high infection rates throughout 2021, yet hospital admissions never breached unsafe levels.

There were other reasons for opening up when we did. A supporter at the time, Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “Leaving step four until the autumn carried a far greater risk. Delaying the opening of society would have pushed back more infections into the autumn, at a time when pressures on the health service may have been greater.

“There is a real case for the argument that opening society when we did and the resulting infection rates enabled us to avoid a big surge in hospitalisations and deaths this winter.”

What Calver neglects to mention is that the Sunday Times has been one of the biggest supporters of Covid restrictions.

Take this story, which the paper ran on July 18th, the day before restrictions were lifted: “Johnson swelters over ‘freedom day’ mayhem“. It begins:

Britain faces disruption to food supplies, transport networks and industry as COVID-19’s third wave intensifies, hours before Boris Johnson is set to lift most pandemic restrictions.

One of Britain’s largest retailers warned of “major disruption” that could leave gaps on shelves, while parts of the London Underground closed yesterday because of the number of staff instructed to self-isolate.

Then there was the notorious Sunday Times Insight Team report on Boris Johnson’s apparent failure to lockdown sooner and harder – “38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster” – an article that helped to frame the debate over whether to lockdown again and which, arguably, increased the pressure on the Government to impose further unnecessary lockdowns in November 2020 and January 2021. Indeed, that was probably the intention of the paper’s key source – described as “a senior adviser to Downing Street” and almost certainly Dominic Cummings. Here is an extract:

One day there will be an inquiry into the lack of preparations during those “lost” five weeks from January 24th. There will be questions about when politicians understood the severity of the threat, what the scientists told them and why so little was done to equip the National Health Service for the coming crisis. It will be the politicians who will face the most intense scrutiny.

Among the key points likely to be explored are why it took so long to recognise an urgent need for a massive boost in supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers; ventilators to treat acute respiratory symptoms; and tests to detect the infection.

Any inquiry may also ask whether the Government’s failure to get to grips with the scale of the crisis in those early days had the knock-on effect of the national lockdown being introduced days or even weeks too late, causing many thousands more unnecessary deaths.

We have talked to scientists, academics, doctors, emergency planners, public officials and politicians about the root of the crisis and whether the Government should have known sooner and acted more swiftly to kick-start the Whitehall machine and put the NHS onto a war footing.

When that inquiry does eventually come, I hope it doesn’t confine itself to the terms of reference that – until recently – the Sunday Times has been pushing for: Why didn’t our bumbling Prime Minister lock down sooner and harder in 2020? A proper inquiry would look at the role of the mainstream media, and papers like the Sunday Times, in enthusiastically supporting what we now know to be the most catastrophic policy in Britain’s history.

Unions and Scientists Say Boris is Moving “Too Far, Too Soon” – As Poll Shows Just 17% Support End of Self-Isolation, While Half Want it to Continue FOREVER

Unions are digging their heels in and scientists have voiced their concerns after Boris Johnson announced that all remaining Covid laws including the requirement to self-isolate would be scrapped within a fortnight. Free testing is also set to be phased out as the country learns to live with Covid and treat it like flu.

The resistance comes as a poll finds that three quarters of the public want self-isolation rules to continue, half say forever, while just 17% support the move. MailOnline has the story.

Unison, Britain’s largest union serving more than 1.3million members from swathes of the public sector, has accused the Prime Minister of going “too far, too soon”, insisting that the virus “hasn’t disappeared” – despite a raft of data suggesting the worst is now over. 

SAGE scientists have also warned of the “dangers” of the PM’s plan to make England the first country in the world to scrap all Covid rules, after it emerged Mr. Johnson had not discussed it with the committee which is now infamous for its gloomy predictions about the pandemic.

And business leaders desperate to get staff back into largely-empty offices costing them a fortune admit they are struggling to compel people to return because workers are now so used to working from home. 

This has been compounded by a new YouGov poll of nearly 4,500 Britons that shows three-quarters of people believe the self-isolation requirement after a positive Covid test should remain in place. Half of people questioned admitted they want the legal requirement to stay in place forever.  

Christina McAnea, general secretary of the public sector union UNISON, said: “Everybody wants to get back to normal, but Covid risks haven’t disappeared. ​This is going too far, ​way too soon. Infections are still rife in schools​. Large numbers of pupils ​and staff are off​. Allowing ​a ​premature return could lead to a further jump in infections and disrupt learning for thousands more ​children and young people.”

The resistance comes despite Covid infections falling consistently, with even the gloomiest surveillance study now accepting that the country’s outbreak has peaked – mirroring the official numbers.

The milder nature of Omicron, coupled with sky-high immunity, mean the NHS never came under the levels of pressure that No 10’s experts feared would happen, with hospitalisations and deaths both now in freefall.

The Prime Minister yesterday dramatically declared the final domestic restrictions – including compulsory self-isolation for the infected – will be axed before the end of February, provided the “encouraging” trends in the data continue.

The announcement annoyed the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales – with Nicola Sturgeon’s administration calling it a publicity stunt to divert from the Partygate scandal that has left the PM fighting for his job.

The First Minister did this afternoon pledge to ditch face masks in Scotland’s classrooms from February 28th – keeping them in communal areas – but says she will wait for expert advice before following Boris’s lead on any other rules.

Boris Johnson Announces End of All Coronavirus Restrictions

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced today that all remaining Covid restrictions in England, including the legal requirement to isolate, will be scrapped this month, saying he expects to end the remaining COVID-19 restrictions a “full month early”, on February 24th. The Telegraph has more.

Speaking in the Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions, [the Prime Minister] said: “It is my intention to return on the first day after the half-term recess to present our strategy for living with Covid.

“Provided the current encouraging trends in the data continue, it is my expectation that we will be able to end the last domestic restrictions – including the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive – a full month early.”

He intends to confirm the end of Covid isolation rules on February 21st.

Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said: “We are the freest country in Europe thanks to the strong defences we have built. We’re learning to live with Covid.”

It’s unclear how Mr. Javid can claim the U.K. is the freest country in Europe when Denmark lifted all restrictions last week.

Nonetheless, it’s good news that the Government is moving to lift the remaining pandemic restrictions and laws, which we hope will be comprehensive. For the pandemic fully to come to an end, however, the Government must also remove all pandemic-related guidance, so that the private tyrannies of organisations, employers, businesses and insurance companies are also steered towards an end. The pointless travel restrictions, including those discriminating against the unvaccinated, must also be lifted.

Panic Over? Finland to Lift All Covid Restrictions Despite Being in Deadliest Phase of Pandemic

Finland is to remove all Covid restrictions in February, Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced on Monday. Yle News has more.

Following decisions reached last week, some Covid-related restrictions are to be eased this week.

Starting on Tuesday, February 1st, establishments that primarily serve food will be allowed to stay open until 9pm. But, establishments that mainly serve alcoholic beverages will still be required to stop alcohol sales at 5pm and shut down for the day at 6pm.

Restaurants will be able to retain the right to require Covid passes from customers as a condition of admission. On the other hand, use of the passes will not exempt restaurants from restrictions on alcohol sales and opening hours, at least until mid-February.

Public gyms and swimming pools in the Uusimaa region will also be permitted to operate starting on Tuesday.

Starting on Tuesday, regulations at Finland’s borders for passengers arriving from Schengen Area countries as well as non-Schengen EU member states will be lifted.

It follows Denmark’s move to repeal all pandemic laws as of February 1st and return to “life as we knew it“, having determined COVID-19 is no longer “a threatening disease for society”. The question is, why is Finland going slowly, if it, too, has determined the pandemic is over? The extent to which Finland follows through with full repeal will become clear in the coming weeks.

Perhaps the slower place is because Finland is currently experiencing some of its highest levels of infections, hospitalisations and deaths to date. Test positivity is at its highest, though appears to have stopped rising.

Denmark Ends All Pandemic Restrictions in EU First

Denmark is to lift all remaining pandemic restrictions in the next few days, despite rising reported infections, as Omicron hospital admissions and deaths remain stable and with high rates of vaccination – the first EU country to do so. Politico has more.

“Tonight we can … find the smile again. We have incredibly good news, we can now remove the last coronavirus restrictions in Denmark,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at a press conference, following recommendations from the Epidemic Commission and with all the main political parties’ support. The last restrictions will be dropped on February 1st.

The announcement comes as a new subvariant of Omicron, BA.2, is gaining a foothold in Denmark and driving infections up, with 46,000 new COVID-19 cases recorded on Wednesday.

“Recent weeks have seen very high infection rates, in fact the highest in the entire pandemic,” Frederiksen said. “Therefore, it may seem strange and paradoxical that we are now ready to let go of the restrictions.” 

Health Minister Magnus Heunicke pointed to the decoupling of infections and serious disease, which he attributed to the high rates of vaccination – though this also happened in South Africa, where vaccination rates are much lower, so is presumably also due to the reduced virulence of the strain.

Ross Clark in the Spectator notes that as of February 1st COVID-19 will no longer be classified by the country as a ‘socially critical disease’ and the legal framework for the restrictions is also being lifted, removing the Government’s power to impose further measures without new legislation.

They beat you to it, Boris – time to get a wriggle on.

Worth reading in full.

Government Announces End of Pandemic Restrictions – Including Mask Mandate From January 26th

As Boris Johnson’s premiership unravels following the backlash from the ‘partygate’ revelations of illicit Downing Street lockdown shindigs, the Prime Minister has announced not only the end of Plan B measures from January 26th – including vaccine passports, work-from-home guidance and face masks – but his intention to end the remaining measures as well. He told the Commons:

Today’s latest ONS data show clearly that infection levels are falling in England and while there are some places where cases are likely to continue rising, including in primary schools, our scientists believe it is likely that the omicron wave has now peaked nationally.

There remain, of course, significant pressures on the NHS across our country, and especially in the North East and North West, but hospital admissions which were doubling every nine days just two weeks ago have now stabilised, with admissions in London even falling. The numbers in intensive care not only remain low but are actually also falling.

So, this morning, the Cabinet concluded that because of the extraordinary booster campaign, together with the way the public have responded to the Plan B measures, we can return to Plan A in England and allow Plan B regulations to expire.

As a result, from the start of Thursday next week mandatory certification will end. Organisations can, of course, choose to use the NHS Covid pass voluntarily but we will end the compulsory use of Covid status certification in England.

Announcing the end of work-from-home guidance with immediate effect, he said: “People should speak to their employers about arrangements for returning to the office.” 

He also said that face masks would no longer be mandated in classrooms from tomorrow, or anywhere else after Plan B measures lapse:

Having looked at the data carefully, the Cabinet concluded that once regulations lapse the Government will no longer mandate the wearing of face masks anywhere.

From tomorrow, we will no longer require face masks in classrooms and the Department for Education will shortly remove national guidance on their use in communal areas.

In the country at large we will continue to suggest the use of face coverings in enclosed or crowded spaces, particularly when you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet – but we will trust the judgement of the British people and no longer criminalise anyone who chooses not to wear one.

He also signalled his intention to end the legal requirement to self-isolate, including bringing forward the current expiry date from March 24th: