Test and Trace

Deadly Omicron Surge Hits South East Asia Despite High Vaccination Rates

South East Asian countries are experiencing their deadliest Covid waves to date despite the milder Omicron variant being dominant and high vaccination rates.

Here are the double-vaccination rates in South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, plus New Zealand, with the U.K. included for comparison.

The graphs below show record highs of reported infections in each of these countries, particularly in South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand. They also show record levels of Covid deaths in South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, though not yet in Thailand and Singapore. New Zealand has hit record deaths, though at a low level so far. Japan’s and Singapore’s curves (infections and deaths) appear to have peaked, whereas South Korea, Hong Kong and New Zealand are still on the way up. Thailand’s reported infections appear to have peaked but not yet deaths.

South Africa’s ‘SAGE’ Tells Government: End Contact Tracing and Self-Isolation for Covid Because It’s Not Worth It

South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Covid, a similar body to SAGE, has written to Health Minister Joe Phaahla recommending that all contact tracing and self-isolation of contacts for Covid be stopped because it is unnecessary and ineffective. South Africa is the original epicentre of the Omicron outbreak so this advice should be a strong signal to Boris Johnson and the rest of the world that the panic about Omicron is unwarranted.

The Committee’s experts write:

We propose that quarantining be discontinued with immediate effect for contacts of cases of Covid. This applies equally to vaccinated and non-vaccinated contacts. No testing for Covid is required irrespective of the exposure risk, unless the contact becomes symptomatic. We further propose that contact tracing be stopped.

They explain:

Crucially, it appears that efforts to eliminate and/or contain the virus are not likely to be successful. Therefore, it is critical that the role of containment efforts like quarantine and contact tracing is re-evaluated.

They add:

The inability of the current testing strategy to identify the bulk of cases is illustrated by the high SARS-CoV-2 seropositivity rates seen across multiple provinces in serosurveys, implying that only a fraction of cases (perhaps one in 10, or even less) are ever diagnosed.

It stands to reason that if the vast majority of cases are not diagnosed, then the vast majority of case contacts are also not diagnosed. This means that quarantining and contact tracing are of negligible public health benefit in the South African setting.

The Daily Sceptic has been sent a copy of the memo, which is reproduced in full below.

Test and Trace Still Spending Over £1 Million a Day on Consultants

England’s Test and Trace scheme is continuing to fork out over £1 million a day on consultants, despite being labelled an “eye-watering” waste of taxpayer money that failed to fulfil its original purpose of cutting Covid transmission by MPs. By the end of last month, the scheme employed 1,230 consultants complete with an average contractor rate of £1,100 per day, with new contracts also being handed to private consultancy firms, further inflating the cost of the project. The Guardian has the story.

Dr. Jenny Harries, the Chief Executive of the U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA), who is responsible for NHS test and trace, told MPs in July there was a “very detailed ramp-down plan” to cut the number of consultants.

But latest figures show that at the end of October it employed 1,230 consultants. Test and trace has average daily contractor rates of £1,100, potentially equating to £1,353,000 a day. The ratio of consultants to civil servants in NHS test and trace in September was 1:1, separate data shows, despite a target set a year ago to reduce the ratio to 60%.

At the same time, new contracts worth millions of pounds are still being awarded to private consultancy firms, the Guardian has found, despite repeated pledges to curb their use.

The test-and-trace system, which has a £37 billion two-year budget that is equivalent to almost a fifth of the annual NHS England budget, is designed to identify Covid cases and limit their spread. U.K. daily reported Covid cases exceeded 50,000 last month and remain at about 40,000 a day.

In November 2020, Test and Trace promised to cut the number of consultants it employed. At that time, they accounted for 51% of staff, a figure deemed acceptable by some because the system was in its infancy. A year on, the proportion has fallen but official figures show consultants still made up more than a third (34%) of the workforce in September.

The data was published by the UKHSA and the Department of Health and Social Care in response to questions from the Guardian and a series of parliamentary written questions from the shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth.

“There is no justification for continuing with these highly paid expensive consultants,” Ashworth said. “Ministers should ensure every penny piece of taxpayers’ money is spent wisely on patient care – not blown on expensive management consultants.”

Separate research by the Guardian reveals that in the last month the Government has quietly published details of at least seven new NHS test-and-trace deals with private contractors, together worth more than £17 million. One runs until at least September 2023.

The revelations come after a report by MPs concluded that test and trace had “not achieved its main objective” to enable people to return to a more normal way of life. The public accounts committee said the system’s “continued over-reliance on consultants is likely to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds”. Meg Hillier, the Chair of the Committee, said she was concerned the organisation was treating taxpayers like an ATM machine.

Some of the private consultants have been paid rates of more than £6,000 a day.

Worth reading in full.

Viral Tweet Praises Korea But Doesn’t Mention Japan

In a recent viral tweet, Vincent Rajkumar – a professor at the Mayo Clinic – said the following:

South Korea followed the textbook principles of epidemiology. Kept deaths 40 times lower all the way till 75% of population fully vaccinated. This is success.

His tweet was accompanied by a chart showing the cumulative Covid death rate in the U.S., U.K. and Korea, with the line for Korea being much lower than the other two. In a follow-up tweet, Rajkumar identified the measures that supposedly account for Korea’s success, basically masks and contact tracing.

The implication is that if only the U.S. and U.K. had “followed the textbook principles of epidemiology” like Korea, they too could have achieved very low Covid death rates. But I’m not convinced.

First, there’s one small technical detail, which is that the U.K. did try both masks and contact tracing, and neither had much impact on the epidemic’s trajectory.

A recent report by the Public Accounts Committee concluded that Test and Trace (the U.K.’s contact tracing scheme) had “not achieved its main objective”, despite an “eye watering” budget. £37 billion here, £37 billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money…

So far so bad for idea that all we needed was masks and contact tracing. But there’s another reason to doubt the implication of Rajkumar’s tweet: Japan achieved exactly the same outcomes as Korea, and it did almost nothing until the start of this year.

In 2020, Japan had zero days of mandatory business closures and zero days of mandatory stay-at-home orders. The country relied on “limited contact tracing” (a designation given in the Oxford Blavatnik School’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker). This is in contrast to Korea, which used “comprehensive contact tracing”.

The chart below plots the stringency index for Japan, Korea and the U.K. Apart from a brief period at the start of 2020: the U.K.’s index has consistently been highest, while Japan’s has consistently been lowest.

In spite of this, both Japan and Korea have had zero excess mortality to date, whereas the U.K. – the most stringent of the three countries – has had between 6 and 20% excess mortality, depending on how you compute it.

The experience of Japan, combined with the global pattern of excess mortality, suggests that some cultural or biological factor that’s unique to East Asia explains the low death rates – and indeed the low infection rates – in that region. This factor could be more diligent social distancing or perhaps greater prior immunity.  

Whatever the explanation, it’s unlikely Korea’s success could have been replicated in Britain – even if we’d ploughed the entire NHS budget into Test and Trace.

Test and Trace Call Centre Staff Are Being Laid off Because There Aren’t Enough ‘Cases’ to Keep Them Busy

Test and Trace bosses are having to lay off staff because there aren’t enough ‘cases’ to keep them busy, just weeks after they were reportedly pushed by the Government to hire thousands more. The Sun has the story.

Test and Trace call centre staff in England are being let go just weeks after a drive to hire reinforcements ahead of the dreaded third wave, the Sun can reveal.

Outsourcing firm Sitel has reportedly told phone handlers they are no longer needed because the service is overstaffed.

Officials confirmed the Department of Health is shrinking Test and Trace because of a “decrease” in case numbers over the summer – despite signs they are now rising again.

One call centre worker claimed 4,000 workers – who phone Covid positive cases and their contacts to make sure people self-isolate – could lose their jobs after Sitel started short-notice terminations in August.

But bosses would not say how many will be let go.

The source said: “Some people have only been employed for two weeks and they’re already being told to leave. We’ve been hiring 60 people a day for the last two months.

“I think sacking people in such a short space of time without any notice is bad.”

Contractors were reportedly paid to hire thousands more tracers earlier in the summer when top Government advisers warned cases could hit 100,000 a day after lockdown ended.

But infections peaked at 55,000 in July and have since fallen to around 35,000 per day.

Worth reading in full.

The ‘Pingdemic’ Is Dead, Long Live the ‘Pingdemic’!

The end of self-isolation rules for double jabbed Brits who are ‘pinged’ or contacted by NHS Test and Trace after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid is “dangerous” and “totally illogical” (but not illogical in the way that Toby pointed out earlier), says the Deputy General Secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union. He is one of the sizable number of industry leaders who have called for staff to be supported if they choose to stay at home after being ‘pinged’, despite concerns over staff shortages caused by the ‘pingdemic‘ (which is said to have finished). The Telegraph has the story.

Railway workers and doctors have been backed to stay at home if they come into contact with a Covid case despite new rules allowing double jabbed people to return to their jobs.

Meanwhile, industry leaders called for further clarity on whether staff alerted by NHS Test and Trace could be compelled to come back to the workplace. …

Steve Hedley, the Deputy General Secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union, criticised the change [to self-isolation rules] as “dangerous” and “totally illogical” and backed staff who refused to come back to the workplace.

“This is a dangerous approach by the Government because the evidence shows that the link between the virus and deaths has been weakened, but it hasn’t been broken,” Mr Hedley said.

He added: “Many workers will be concerned at spreading or catching Covid if people pinged by the app are allowed to come back to their jobs straight away. If they choose to stay at home, we would support them. No one should be forced to go back to work.

“The railway companies have assured us that it will still be voluntary for people to come back to work. It must stay that way.”

The British Medical Association added that healthcare workers who want to self-isolate “should not be penalised in any way for doing so”.

Meanwhile, business leaders welcomed the relaxed rules but called for clarity on whether staff could be compelled to return to work if they come into contact with a Covid case.

Kate Nicholls, the Chief Executive of U.K. Hospitality, said guidance should be “black and white” rather than leaving the choice up to individual employers.

“Employers want to know with more certainty what they should do in those circumstances,” she said. …

Ms Nicholls also called for a further relaxation of the rules to allow younger people who have not yet had both jabs to be spared from automatic self-isolation.

Worth reading in full.

Tens of Thousands of Brits Won’t Tell NHS Test and Trace Who They’ve Come Into Contact With

Almost a quarter of Brits contacted by Test and Trace in the week up to July 21st refused to disclose their recent close contacts, as reports suggest that people are beginning to revolt against the ‘pingdemic’. MailOnline has the story.

The controversial contact tracing system made 250,000 calls in the seven-day spell ending July 21st, making it the busiest week since the darkest period of the second wave in January.

But nearly a quarter of infected people who were contacted didn’t cooperate, in a signal that people may now be trying to protect family, friends and colleagues from having to self-isolate.

The rate of Covid-infected people who’ve avoided naming close contacts has risen consistently since the third wave started to gather steam in June, from 14.1% to 23.1%.

Government data yesterday underlined just how bad the ‘pingdemic’ has become, with a record 1.5 million quarantine instructions sent out in the same week. 

Millions of workers have been unable to do their jobs because they’ve been told to isolate, leaving supermarket shelves empty, pubs and restaurants shut, and trains cancelled across the country. …

The £37 billion Test and Trace programme – set-up last May – has been branded a monumental waste of money by politicians for failing in its only goal to stop another lockdown.

Since it was set up 14 months ago, England has faced two more national lockdowns and two Covid waves. …

If NHS Test and Trace contact tracers are unable to reach infected people, their details are passed on to local authorities to follow-up.

Of the 251,190 people asked to provide close contacts in the most recent week, just 193,000 provided the names and numbers of those who they may have passed the virus onto.

More than 58,000 refused to do so.

Worth reading in full.

End of Self-Isolation Rules for Fully Vaccinated Could Be Delayed Beyond August 16th

Earlier this month, the Government announced it would treat vaccinated and unvaccinated Brits differently when it came to self-isolation rules from August 16th, allowing those who have had two doses of a Covid vaccine to go about their lives as normal after being ‘pinged’. The Policing Minister has, however, confused things by suggesting that this change could be delayed and we will have to “wait and see” what the scientists say.

In the meantime, some ‘key workers’ have been made exempt from self-isolation rules but must still quarantine if ‘pinged’ when they are not on shift. The Sun has more.

Kit Malthouse said Number 10 will have to remain “agile” even after new infections dropped for the sixth day in a row.

He said a final decision on whether to end quarantine for the double-jabbed will be taken on the advice of scientists.

Number 10 has repeatedly insisted that the restrictions will be scrapped on August 16th come what may. …

Mr Malthouse said the school holidays are acting as a “natural firebreak” against the further spread of the virus.

And he also cited the fact that people are staycationing this year rather than travelling abroad for helping keep cases down.

He said: “It’s quite an interesting cocktail of effects going on. Six days of drop is great but we have to be very careful.

“We have to wait until mid-August, see what’s happening on the numbers, hope they continue downwards, and then take the next step.

“Let’s all hope the numbers go well. People will be assessing in the week before what the numbers look like and then taking a decision nearer the time.”

Mr Malthouse said ministers will have to “wait and see” what impact the ‘Freedom Day’ lifting of restrictions has on cases. …

“There are wiser heads than mine looking at all the data, both in this country and across the world, to assess how we need to move in the future.

“And if we have to be agile, then we’ll have to do that in two or three weeks’ time.

“But for the moment looking good so far, fingers crossed for August.” …

Under the PM’s plans, from August 16th all double-jabbed Brits will be able to replace mandatory self-isolation with testing. …

But the communication around it has been a shambles, with ministers and Number 10 contradicting each other on whether the date could be pushed back.

Worth reading in full.

Has the Government Been Undermining Social Norms by Imposing Inconvenient Rules It Cannot Enforce?

Since the start of the pandemic, the Government has introduced a plethora of rules concerning when we can and cannot leave our homes.

Anyone with symptoms is meant to self-isolate at home. Ditto for anyone who tests positive or who comes into contact with someone who’s tested positive. People travelling to Britain from overseas must self-isolate too (except football VIPs). And during the lockdown last year, we weren’t supposed to leave our homes for any reason other than work, exercise or food shopping.

Needless to say, these rules have made life difficult for a lot of people – particularly those who travel regularly, or who manage a small business. The current ‘pingdemic’ is wreaking havoc on Britain’s economy, as service-providers struggle to meet demand for lack of staff.

While asking symptomatic people to self-isolate arguably makes sense, it’s less clear whether all the other rules and regulations can be justified. In a 2019 report on pandemic influenza, the WHO recommended things such as ventilation of indoor spaces and isolation of symptomatic individuals. However, it classified “quarantine of exposed individuals” as “not recommended in any circumstances”.

Aside from the considerable inconvenience they cause, there’s another potential downside of the lockdown rules. Because they’re so difficult to enforce, large numbers of people are simply ignoring them. And might this, in turn, be undermining general norms of law-abidingness?

A major study published in The BMJ back in March found that only 43% of symptomatic people fully adhered to self-isolation – and that was based on data from last year, when the disease was seen as much more of a threat. It’s likely that a similar or even lower percentage of people have been complying with all the other rules.

Why does this matter? Studies have shown that when people observe norms being violated, they become more likely to violate norms themselves, leading to the gradual erosion of norm compliance. For example, a 2008 paper found that people were more likely to litter when there was graffiti next to a “No graffiti” sign than when there were no obvious signs of norm violation.

Regarding the pandemic itself, there’s already evidence that the scandal surrounding Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle had a negative effect on adherence to lockdown rules. People reasoned, “If he’s not following the rules, then why should I?”

But the effect might be even more general than that. After witnessing so many examples of lockdown violations over the past year and a half, might people have become more likely to break other rules in society as well? I’m not aware of any evidence of this at the present time, but it doesn’t seem at all implausible.

Of course, one might say: even if the lockdown rules have slightly undermined law-abidingness, they were worth it to control the epidemic. Given the lack of evidence on stay-at-home orders, I am rather doubtful of this. But at the very least, there’s yet another potential cost of lockdown for us to consider.

Why is This Government so Wedded to the Ruinously Expensive and Completely Useless Test and Trace Programme?

There follows a guest post by David McGrogan, an Associate Professor of Law at Northumbria Law School.

With the so-called ‘pingdemic’ well underway, and showing no sign of abating, the question naturally arises: why are our politicians obsessed with finding technological ways out of the pandemic? What possessed them to imagine that ‘Test and Trace’ could ever be successful?

The proximate cause appears to have been an unholy alliance between Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings, who looked at what had happened in South Korea and Taiwan and came to the bizarre conclusion that what had apparently worked there – in societies and circumstances totally unlike ours – could just be transplanted here and deployed as effectively. Whether this should be more properly be described as hubris or stupidity is a question I will leave to the reader to decide.

The problem, though, has much deeper roots. The Hungarian-French thinker, Anthony de Jasay, once made the observation (which, like all great observations, is deceptively simple) that there is a natural bias among politicians towards doing things. It takes a very special kind of person to get elected to national office and then resist using the power available to them. In fact, such a person may not exist at all – it is impossible to identify a leader even remotely resembling that type on either side of the Atlantic since, perhaps, Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s. Why do people decide to become politicians, after all? Because they want to do things.

The idea, then, that Boris and his Cabinet would have been able to simply sit there, apparently passively, while the virus ‘let rip’, was pretty implausible once the Chinese and Italians had gone into lockdown. The urge to do things would have been overwhelming. And it remains to this day. Letting the immune systems and common sense of the public take care of matters is anathema to our leaders, because it doesn’t involve them taking bold action or, indeed, doing anything much at all. This goes against the grain of their very psyches: in their own minds, they envisage themselves ‘winning’ in the war against Covid through their brilliant decision-making and uber-competence, and being hoisted onto the shoulders of the grateful populace and paraded through the streets accordingly. They don’t want nature to take the credit which they believe is theirs. In fact, it is pretty clear that they don’t really want the virus to reach natural equilibrium at all – they want to defeat it, preferably through some fabulous scheme.