House of Commons

‘Plan B’ Style Restrictions Introduced in the House of Commons

Due to a fear that Covid will spread through the Parliamentary estate, ‘Plan B’ style restrictions have been introduced to the House of Commons. Some of the measures include mandatory mask-wearing for MP’s staff (MPs themselves are exempt from the rule), working from home whenever possible, as well as social distancing at select committee meetings. The Express has the story.

A Parliamentary spokesperson said: “The House’s priority is to ensure that those on the estate are safe while business is facilitated.

“There have been recent increases in Covid across the country and these are also being reflected in Parliament.

“The U.K. Health Security Agency has determined that the risk of transmission on the Parliamentary estate is now greater.

“As a consequence, some further action is being taken to ensure that case numbers do not continue to rise”.

A number of the new measures being imposed in Parliament, including work from home rules and compulsory mask-wearing, mirror aspects of the Government’s Covid ‘Plan B’.

This is likely to increase speculation about further restrictions being introduced across the whole of England in the coming weeks.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has been vague about what exactly would trigger the Government to introduce these measures.

Ministers were told by scientific advisors in SAGE late last month to begin preparing for the “rapid deployment” of winter Covid restrictions.

They were warned that “there remains potential for a rapid increase in hospital admissions if behaviours [among members of the public] change quickly”.

Under its ‘Plan B’, the Government would also introduce vaccine passports for all “large venues”, barring those who haven’t been jabbed from many hospitality venues, and the further communication of additional risk to the public.

Worth reading in full.

Did Denmark Achieve Focused Protection in the Second Wave?

Before the vaccines arrived, lockdown proponents argued that the only way to prevent large numbers of Covid deaths was by completely suppressing viral transmission. A focused protection strategy, they maintained, was just not workable.

The basic argument is as follows. Because the virus is so transmissible, and society is so interconnected, it would have been impossible to protect vulnerable people if we’d allowed community transmission to proceed unchecked. Without a lockdown, the virus would inevitably have found its way into hospitals and care homes, leading to lots of deaths.

It’s not an unreasonable argument, but I don’t buy it. (And let’s put aside the fact that even if lockdown does prevent more Covid deaths than focused protection, the total costs almost certainly outweigh the benefits.)

We already know that places like Utah, Sweden and South Dakota, which refused to lock down last year, did not do substantially worse than places that did lock down. We can argue about exactly how to do the comparison; the fact is that none of the dire predictions made for these locations actually came to pass.  

But is there an example of a country that achieved focused protection? Denmark might well be the closest. If we zoom-in on the second wave, and compare the country’s infection rate to that of the U.K., it isn’t dramatically lower:

Assuming the numbers are indeed comparable (which I’ll admit is a big assumption), Denmark saw 30% fewer infections between August of 2020 and May of 2021. Denmark did do more testing over this time period, but the U.K. had a higher share of positive tests.

If the lockdowners’ argument against focused protection is right, we’d expect Denmark to have had only 30% fewer deaths than the U.K. during the second wave; or at most, perhaps 50% fewer. After all, the country’s infection rate peaked at over 600 per million.

But this isn’t what we find. According to Karlinsky and Kobak, Denmark has had only 1% excess mortality since the pandemic began; the U.K.’s figure, by contrast, is 20%.

Now, more than half of Britain’s excess mortality was sustained in the first wave (which Denmark managed to avoid). But suppose that eight percentage points of the 20% were sustained in the second wave.

This would mean that Denmark’s deaths were not 30% or 50% lower than the U.K.’s, but almost 90% lower. Despite experiencing a moderately high infection rate in the winter, Denmark managed to keep deaths to a minimum.

Note: I’m not suggesting the country didn’t lock down; it did. (Though there was never a stay-at-home order, and the average stringency index was much lower than in Britain). My point is that some degree of focused protection apparently is achievable. There’s no necessary relationship between the infection rate and the death toll.

It doesn’t follow that Britain could have done as well as Denmark, which tends to finish at the top of every international league table. But with a bit of ingenuity, we could have done better than we did – in terms of both lives saved and collateral damage avoided.

The recent House of Commons report described the U.K.’s initial approach as “fatalistic”. But what was really fatalistic was assuming the only way to stop people dying of Covid was shuttering the economy and throwing civil liberties out the window.    

The House of Commons Report Ignores the Risks of a Suppression Strategy

One of the main conclusions of the recent House of Commons report is that our first lockdown “should have come sooner”. The authors even take seriously Neil Ferguson’s ludicrous suggestion that if we’d locked down one week earlier, “we would have reduced the final death toll by at least half”.

As I noted in my response, this ignores the fact that suppressing the epidemic in the spring could have led to an even bigger epidemic in the winter, when the NHS would have been under greater pressure.

In other words, even if you only consider Covid deaths (i.e., ignore all the collateral damage from lockdown), suppressing the first wave wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do. The boffins in SAGE were actually aware of this, as the report notes:

Modelling at the time suggested that to suppress the spread of covid-19 too firmly would cause a resurgence when restrictions were lifted. This was thought likely to result in a peak in the autumn and winter when NHS pressures were already likely to be severe.

However, the report’s authors dismiss this very legitimate concern on the basis that suppressing the first wave would have “bought much needed time”. And that’s true, but so is the point about risking a perfect storm in the winter.

The correct way to frame the issue (again, ignoring the costs of lockdown) would be to say: the UK faced a trade-off between the benefits of buying time versus the risks of postponing the epidemic until winter. Acknowledging this (or any other) trade-off was apparently too much to ask of the report’s authors.

As a side note, suppressing the first wave would have probably required us to act in January, and we’d have needed to completely seal the borders, in addition to imposing a temporary lockdown. The horse had already bolted by the time anyone knew what was going on, so this discussion is mostly academic anyway.

One simple way to illustrate the risks of postponing the epidemic until winter is to compare European countries that got hit in the first wave with those who missed the first wave but got hit in the second.

To do this, I noted for each 42 European countries whether the official COVID-19 death rate reached 5 per million before 1st September, 2020. Those where it did reach this level were deemed to have been hit in the first wave. Those where it did not were deemed to have missed the first wave.

I then calculated average excess mortality since the pandemic began in the two groups of countries, using the estimates reported by Karlinsky and Kobak. Note: I’m not pretending this is a comprehensive analysis. But it’s still informative.

If the benefits of buying time outweigh the risks of postponing, you’d expect excess mortality to be lower in the group that missed the first wave. However, it was actually slightly higher in this group: 21%, compared to 19% in the other group.

What’s more, the 42 countries in my sample include places like Iceland and San Marino, which you might say aren’t really comparable to the UK. If we remove all six countries with a population of less than 500,000, the disparity is even greater: 22%, compared to 16%.

Now, there are of course other factors to consider, and it’s possible that once you took those into account, there wouldn’t be any disparity, or there’d be a slight disparity favouring the first group. But there’s no evidence that ‘buying time’ led to substantially lower excess mortality.

Someone might respond as follows: it’s implausible that suppressing the first wave would have made a difference in the second. After all, only about 10% of the population had antibodies by December of 2020, and that’s nowhere near herd immunity.  

There are two points I’d make in response. Some people may have cross immunities to Covid, so the 10% figure could be an underestimate. But even if it’s about right, we know that transmission is driven by super-spreaders, and such individuals will be heavily overrepresented among the 10% who got infected in the first wave.

All else being equal, therefore, transmission would have been greater in the second wave if those individuals had not acquired immunity in the first. (Recall that age-adjusted excess mortality was actually lower in the second wave.)

The House of Commons report is in no sense a disinterested attempt to consider the arguments for and against lockdown, so it’s hardly surprising the authors would brush aside the risks of a suppression strategy. We can only hope that the official inquiry next year takes a less tendentious approach. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

House of Commons Covid Report Gets Some Things Right, Most Things Wrong

On Monday evening two House of Commons select committees – the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee – published a joint report on the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that was predictably damning. It was published in time to make the following day’s front pages – “Britain must learn from ‘big mistakes’ on Covid, says report”, reported the Times on its front page – but not in time for newspaper reporters or broadcast journalists to properly assess its findings. Not that that stopped all the usual suspects from using it as a stick to beat the Government with. For instance, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the BBC that the “damning” findings showed that “monumental errors” had been made and called for the public inquiry – scheduled for next spring – to be brought forward.

The authors of the report say in the Executive Summary that the reason they’ve published it now, when there are still a large number of ‘known unknowns’ as well as ‘unknown unknowns’, is because we urgently need to learn from what the Government got right and what it got wrong so we are better prepared for the next pandemic, which might come along at any moment. But if it’s too soon to say what was a mistake and what wasn’t, that argument collapses. Indeed, a premature report that draws the wrong conclusions, e.g. that the Government didn’t lock down in March of last year early enough, which is one of the main findings of this report, is worse than useless since it may encourage future Governments to repeat the same mistakes.

I’ve now read the report – yes, all 145 pages – so you don’t have to.

Andrew Bridgen MP Criticises Government Over “Serious Infringement on People’s Liberties” Threatened by Vaccine Passports

Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen says vaccine passports represent a “serious infringement on people’s liberties” and that he doesn’t believe they will actually be introduced. He told LBC radio that, if the Government is serious about its plans, Parliament should be recalled so as to allow for proper scrutiny. He is quoted in the Guardian:

This is a very serious infringement on people’s liberties, it is basically unprecedented in this country, and I and a number of colleagues would oppose it.

I think it is a very blunt instrument, to threaten people with domestic Covid passports. I personally don’t think it would get through the House of Commons in any event and that’s why the Government has moved on to this ‘carrot’ inducements for young people.

Bridgen, an ally of Boris Johnson during the Brexit campaign, accused the Government of “trying to aggressively coerce these young people” into getting vaccinated but said plans would not pass through the House of Commons. He did, however, concede that the Government could introduce vaccine passports by other means. He told LBC:

If [the Government] uses the emergency powers, they probably could argue with lawyers that they could bring [vaccine passports] in without having a vote in the House of Commons. But I think that is a step far too far for Boris Johnson and this Government. …

If we can’t get out of this pandemic with our levels of vaccination and antibodies, there is very little chance for the rest of the world. They will be all watching what we do in the U.K. and I think going to domestic vaccine passports would be an authoritarian step far too far.

His comments follow criticism from within the Cabinet of plans to introduce vaccine passports, with one member saying: “It’s not who we are.”

The 60 MPs Who Deserve Our Praise

These are the 60 MPs who voted against the extension of lockdown restrictions on Wednesday evening, plus two tellers.

Conservative

Adam Afriyie (Windsor)

Siobhan Baillie (Stroud)

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire)

Bob Blackman (Harrow East)

Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Peter Bone (Wellingborough)

Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands)

Sir Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West)

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire)

Steve Brine (Winchester)

Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge)

Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds)

Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington)

Philip Davies (Shipley)

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

Richard Drax (South Dorset)

Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford)

Marcus Fysh (Yeovil)

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

Chris Green (Bolton West)

Mark Harper (Forest of Dean)

Philip Hollobone (Kettering)

David Jones (Clwyd West)

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire)

Andrew Lewer (Northampton South)

Chris Loder (West Dorset)

Jonathan Lord (Woking)

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet)

Karl McCartney (Lincoln)

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage)

Esther McVey (Tatton)

Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle)

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot)

Mark Pawsey (Rugby)

John Redwood (Wokingham)

Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

Greg Smith (Buckingham)

Henry Smith (Crawley)

Julian Sturdy (York Outer)

Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West)

Sir Robert Syms (Poole)

Craig Tracey (North Warwickshire)

Sir Charles Walker (Broxbourne)

David Warburton (Somerton and Frome)

William Wragg (Hazel Grove)

Labour

Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish)

Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields)

John Spellar (Warley)

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton)

Derek Twigg (Halton)

Democratic Unionist Party

Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry)

Paul Girvan (South Antrim)

Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann)

Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim)

Tellers

Steve Baker (Conservative, Wycombe)

Jackie Doyle-Price (Conservative, Thurrock)

You can use the WriteToThem website to easily contact these MPs and thank them for their vote.

Sixty MPs Rebel Against Unlocking Delay

In a House of Commons vote this evening, 60 MPs voted against the extension of the restrictions, the largest rebellion Boris has faced yet in connection with his lockdown policies – although not enough to defeat the Government, thanks to the support of Labour MPs. MailOnline has more.

MPs have approved the extension of coronavirus restrictions in England until July 19th – but dozens of furious Tories rebelled amid demands that Boris Johnson must not “shift the goalposts” and delay Freedom Day yet again.

The Prime Minister was spared a defeat as Labour backed plans for a four-week delay to the end of lockdown measures, with MPs voting 461 to 60, a majority of 401, to approve regulations delaying the easing of the measures.

For now, limits on numbers for sports events, theatres and cinemas will remain in place, nightclubs will stay shuttered and people will be asked to continue working from home where possible.

But MPs had lined up to grill Matt Hancock in the House as he opened the debate on regulations that formally extended the lockdown into next month.

The Health Secretary defended pushing the date back, arguing the Indian – or Delta – variant has “given the virus extra legs” and stressing that July 19th should be the “terminus” for the restrictions.

Former chief whip Mark Harper voiced scepticism that the latest promise will be kept, asking whether “we are going to get to this point in four weeks’ time and what we are going to be back here again”.

And another ex-minister, Steve Baker complained about the two-week review of the change saying it only “deepens despair” if the Government “creates hope and shifts the goalposts”.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson was challenged by Tory MPs Philip Davies and William Wragg.

Mr Davies questioned why the Prime Minister was not trusting the “the common sense of the British people and his Conservative instincts of individual freedom and individual responsibility” rather than the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

Mr Johnson insisted he did not want to see Covid restrictions last forever but “a little more time” was needed to vaccinate millions more people to help combat the spread of the Delta variant.

Mr Wragg asked: “When can we expect the co-ordinated chorus of Sage members recommencing their media appearances to depress morale?”

Mr Johnson replied: “I believe that academic and scientific freedom are an invaluable part of our country and I also note that my scientific colleagues would echo my sentiments that we need to learn to live with Covid.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: You can see a list of the MPs who voted ‘No’ here. The naysayers were comprised of 49 Conservative MPs, six Labour MPs and and five Democratic Unionists. The tellers for the Noes were Steve Baker MP and Jackie Doyle-Price MP.

If Not Now, When? Tory Backbenchers Rage at the Delay to Lifting Restrictions

The Prime Minister will have to put the delay to the lifting of lockdown restrictions to a vote in the House of Commons before the end of June – a vote which he will likely win (thanks to support from Labour), but not without a swell of opposition from his own MPs. Tory backbenchers, including Sir Charles Walker, are particularly irked by the idea that “Freedom Day” could be pushed back not just by four weeks but into the month of August, and that the roadmap could later be “reversed”. The MailOnline has the story.

Mr Johnson is set to offer an olive branch to some industries that will be worst-hit by the delay, including lifting the cap on the number of guests who can attend weddings. He is also expected to permit more outdoor seated spaces at sporting events.

The concessions come as Tory MPs join hospitality and other business leaders in venting their fury at the postponement, warning it will cost firms millions of pounds.

Vice Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbench MPs Sir Charles Walker said that “existing isn’t living” as he raised concerns that the Government’s roadmap could be reversed.

“Eventually, if you say you are going to live with Covid, ultimately at times you are going to have to tough it out. Existing isn’t living,” the MP told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme. 

“So I just have an overwhelming sense of pessimism now. If you can’t lift restrictions at the height of summer, and we are in the height of summer, then you almost certainly are looking at these restrictions persisting and tightening into the autumn and winter.

“I don’t think the July 19th date will be met. If it is, it will be met for weeks before we enter further lockdowns.”

New analysis by Public Health England (PHE) has revealed that 29% of Covid deaths from the B.1.617.2 Indian strain had received two injections. And, in a further blow, the PHE report suggests the Delta variant has a 64% increased risk of household transmission compared to the Kent (Alpha) variant.

However, some hardline anti-lockdown Tories are furious about any delay at all, as they wanted the lifting of lockdown to be faster than it has been…

Former minister Steve Baker channelled classic war film The Great Escape in a message to Covid Recovery Group MPs last night, according to Politico, saying: “It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. 

“If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.”

And theatre impresario Sir Howard Panter warned the industry will suffer “significant damage” if the final lifting of coronavirus lockdown restrictions in England is put on hold. 

Worth reading in full.

Commons Speaker Speeding up the Reopening of the House

Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the Commons, hopes to speed up the reopening of the House so that Parliament may return to normal sooner than was previously anticipated. Guido Fawkes has the story.

A new message sent to MPs says he will now encourage the Commons Commission on Monday to implement “all changes possible” under the current Government guidance, due to the reduction in the Covid alert levelPreviously he was dragging his feet…

The changes he wants [include]:

~ The Chamber: Subject to final public health advice the chamber should consider moving from 2m social distancing to 1m+

~ Catering: Introduction of the rule of six – up from the current situation of tables with just one chair

~ Terrace Pavilion to open indoor and outdoor

~ Smoking room to be opened…

~ Non-pass holders: It is hoped the Commission will be able to support a limited return of access for non-pass holders for a greater variety of business reasons

Sir Lindsay has also requested that overseas committee visits resume.

Worth reading in full.

This comes as pressure from Tory backbenchers grows for Parliament to return to normal. Some MPs believe this could encourage companies across the country to speed up their reopenings. The Express has the story.

Peter Bone (Conservative, Wellingborough) told MPs: “I am afraid Parliament isn’t working. It is not holding properly the Government to account and it strikes me that Parliament should lead.

“So, could we have a statement from [Jacob Rees-Mogg] the Leader of the House telling us that Parliament – and particularly the House of Commons – is going to be restored to normal process and that we will end virtual proceedings?

“We won’t have hundreds of votes in the Deputy Chief Whip’s pocket and we’ll have proper voting and we’ll end social distancing in the chamber.

“We really need to lead and get Parliament back doing its job properly.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg says that he “hopes” the House will be back to normal from June 21st.

The Express report is also worth reading in full.