House of Commons

Back to Normal by February?

Boris all but ruled out another lockdown in the House of Commons earlier and held out the prospect of a return “closer to normality” within weeks, hinting at the abandonment of ‘Plan B’ by February. MailOnline has more.

As the U.K. recorded another 194,747 cases – up 6.4% on a week ago – the PM cautioned that the growth is “the fastest we have ever known” and older, more vulnerable people are now being affected.

However, he said bluntly that the government “does not believe we need to shut down our country again”. Instead Cabinet has agreed to stick to the existing “balanced and proportionate” Plan B restrictions in England that are “taking the edge off” the Omicron wave.

The obligation to work from home where possible, as well as wear masks in many settings and use Covid passes at large events and nightclubs will be reviewed again before they expire on January 26th – but Mr. Johnson hinted strongly that they will not be renewed.

The premier was congratulated by senior Tories including Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May for holding his nerve despite pressure to clamp down before Christmas. In another boost, Nicola Sturgeon has U-turned by following England and cutting the self-isolation period in Scotland from 10 days to seven.

Challenged by another Conservative former minister, Steve Baker, in the House, Mr Johnson said he hoped that once Omicron “blows through” the country “life will return to something much, much closer to normality” and the current restrictions will “not be necessary”.

Worth reading in full.

Return of the Jedi: Rebel Alliance in House of Commons Prepares For Battle Over Vaccine Passports

The Spectator has published a full list of those Conservative MPs who’ve pledged to vote against the ‘Plan B’ measures announced earlier this week. There are currently 60, but the number is growing by the day. If the Government is going to get the measures through the House of Commons, it will need Labour votes. Here is an extract:

When the Health Secretary Sajid Javid introduced the measures in the Commons this week, he was greeted with jeers and calls for him to “resign” from his own party members. There is now a growing backbench rebellion against the Government’s proposals, with several MPs publicly denouncing the winter restrictions, which they feel are a step too far in a society protected by what Boris Johnson once called the “huge wall of immunity” from vaccines.

The full list is below.

  1. Steve Baker
  2. Ben Bradley
  3. Brendan Clarke-Smith
  4. Graham Brady
  5. Philip Davies
  6. Richard Drax
  7. Simon Jupp
  8. Stephen McPartland
  9. John Redwood
  10. Greg Smith
  11. Dehenna Davison
  12. Marcus Fysh
  13. Gary Sambrook
  14. Pauline Latham
  15. William Wragg
  16. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
  17. Iain Duncan Smith
  18. Christopher Chope
  19. Craig Tracey
  20. Robert Syms
  21. Anthony Mangnall
  22. Greg Clark
  23. Esther McVey
  24. Liam Fox
  25. David Davis
  26. Mark Jenkinson
  27. Alicia Kearns
  28. Mark Harper
  29. Darren Henry
  30. Steve Brine
  31. Craig Mackinlay
  32. Simon Fell
  33. Andrew Bowie
  34. David Warburton
  35. Siobhan Baillie
  36. David Jones
  37. Tom Randall
  38. Ben Spencer
  39. Andrew Rosindell
  40. Charles Walker
  41. Douglas Ross
  42. Karl McCartney

Studies “Consistently” Find That Costs of Lockdown Outweigh Benefits, Say Researchers

Notable by its absence from the House of Commons’ pro-lockdown report was any mention of cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, the authors sidestepped the single most important question – was the lockdown worth it? – and went straight to saying that we should have locked down sooner!

Had they attempted to weigh up the costs and benefits, their report’s conclusions might have looked very different – assuming, of course, that they didn’t bungle the analysis. Remember: there are things to consider other than Covid outcomes.

Cost-benefit analyses published since the summer of 2020 have not been kind to lockdowns (which may explain their lack of inclusion in the House of Commons’ report). In a new paper, Ari Joffe and David Redman review 11 studies, each of which estimated impact using a common metric (e.g., the QALY).

Their results are shown in the table below. Each study’s main finding is given in the right-hand column.

All 11 studies found evidence that lockdowns do more harm than good. Among the nine that directly compared costs and benefits, the smallest ratio of costs to benefits was 2.5, and the largest was 26.

What’s more, the studies generally made assumptions favourable to lockdowns (e.g., that they have a large impact on the epidemic’s trajectory). Hence, in the authors’ words, their results “strongly suggest that lockdowns do not have a favorable cost-benefit balance”.

Joffe and Redman’s paper not only reviews cost-benefit analyses of lockdown, but also sets out an alternative plan for dealing with Covid (or, perhaps, with a similar pandemic virus in the future). Their plan specifies that the goal should be minimising harm to society “as a whole”, rather than – say – minimising the total number of Covid deaths.

It contains a number of appealing elements: increasing surge capacity; providing focused protection for the elderly; and reporting relevant information with context (e.g., number of deaths from all causes alongside the number of Covid deaths).

The paper by Joffe and Redman contains a lot of useful insights, and is worth reading in full.

‘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.