Winter Lockdown

South Africa Brings in Restrictions to Combat New Variants – But is the ‘Wave’ Already Running Out of Steam?

South Africa has ramped up its restrictions again in response to the recent reported rise in infections associated with new subvariants Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 as the southerly country heads into winter.

South Africa never lifted its mask mandate and, though the mandate was due to end this week, has now extended it. It never lifted it despite the country skipping the Omicron BA.2 wave and having low infection levels for months, its original Omicron wave being much smaller than in other countries (see below) and the variant anyway being considerably milder and posing no threat.

Prepare For Winter Lockdowns, Says WHO

The U.K. and other countries should impose moderate lockdowns this winter to stop the virus “just infecting everybody”, WHO Special Envoy on COVID-19 Response Dr. David Nabarro has said. The Express has the story.

Following the 23,791 new Covid cases recorded on April 24th in the U.K., WHO Special Envoy on COVID-19 Response Doctor David Nabarro warned British people: “Prepare for more surges” over the winter. “Hospitals and Public Health officers are already hard at work as they know what is coming down the pipe”, said Dr. Nabarro. 

Speaking with Dr. Nabarro, Sky News presenter Niall Paterson asked: “Should we all be looking ahead to what it might be coming down the pipeline in autumn and winter this year?”

He continued: “We have always seen that deep over the summer because respiratory illnesses are transmitted the same way”

“But should we be preparing for a surge coming later on this year?”, he asked Dr. Nabarro.

Dr. Nabarro responded: “Absolutely, my language is like this.”

He firmly said: “Prepare for your surges, prevent transmission when the virus is around and protect people who are most at risk.” …

Referring to China’s no-tolerance Covid approach and strict Covid lockdown in Shanghai, the WHO chief also claimed: “I think it will take a few months for leaders around the world to come together and work out the best way to deal with Covid.”

He continued: “Right now there is still a bit of debate ‘do you try to prevent Covid completely with really strong measures as applied in China or you basically let things go and let the virus do what it wants to do?”

Referring to WHO guidance over coronavirus, he reiterated: “Those of us in the World Health Organisation what we tend to do is say ‘look it is a middle path. That middle path is to keep that virus back and to stop it just infecting everybody because it can have long-term effects”, the WHO chief explained.

“At the same time, however, try not to lockdown the whole society, because the economical and social consequences are terrible.”

Mr Nabarro concluded: “And it is that middle path than more and more countries are moving to.”

Looks like the neverendemic has a while to run yet. Will they ever let it go?

Worth reading in full.

Dominic Raab Refuses to Rule Out Imposing Further Restrictions before Christmas Day

Although Dominic Raab has insisted that Brits will experience a “much better Christmas than last year”, he also mentioned that there are no “hard, fast guarantees” that additional Covid restrictions won’t arrive before Christmas Day. Meanwhile, Government advisers have said that “significant action” needs to be taken to curb the spread of the Omicron variant and save the NHS from “real collapse”. Sky News has more.

Raab told Kay Burley: “I think we will have a much better Christmas than last year because of the vaccination level – both the overall vaccination level and particularly the impact of the booster campaign.

“People will need to be careful and cautious.

“But I do think, again subject to the data – and it’s always under review – that we’re in a better position to enjoy Christmas with loved ones this year.”

Asked if more restrictions would be imposed between now and Christmas Day, Raab said: “I just can’t make hard, fast guarantees.”

Twelve people infected with Omicron have died – Raab said 104 people with the variant are in hospital.

He added he did not anticipate parliament being recalled to vote on new restrictions before Christmas.

The Cabinet Minister said there was a time lag in the data and “we don’t yet know the severity” of the Omicron variant, adding that “it comes through day-by-day”.

He said regardless of modelling by scientific advisers, the government would “test the data in real-time against real cases”.

Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of NERVTAG which advises the Government on the threat posed by new and emerging respiratory viruses, said “significant” action needs to be taken to tackle the growing number of Covid cases.

He said: “It is of serious concern. We have an escalating number of cases that really has reached levels that we haven’t seen before in terms of the rate of increase.

“The action that’s needed really is going to be quite significant.”

Dr. Gupta added: “The sheer numbers that are going to be infected because of the increased transmissibility of this virus is going to potentially overwhelm our health service.

“So that’s a really critical situation that we’re facing.”

Worth reading in full.

Will the U.K. Face a Winter Covid Surge?

I’m slightly surprised to be writing this post as to my mind the answer is obvious – of course the U.K. will face a winter Covid surge. It’s winter. That’s what happens in winter; the dominant respiratory virus surges and, most years, taxes the capacity of the health service. The only question is how big it will be – unusually large like 2020-21, or unusually small like 2019-2020 before Covid hit? It’s worth remembering that more people died in England and Wales per head of population in 2008 (once adjusted for age etc.) and every year prior to it than died in 2020 or 2021, many of them succumbing during the winter flu season, as the chart below from the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries shows. In other words, there’s a winter surge in deaths-by-virus every year, and I see no reason why 2021-22 will be any different.

Standardised mortality rates (SMRs) in England and Wales

As I see it, the only realistic way there would not be a Covid surge on some scale is if another influenza-like virus takes over, which seems unlikely right now as flu is almost nowhere to be seen.

Nonetheless, I am writing this post, and that’s because some people seem to think that this year it’s not going to happen. Dr Sebastian Rushworth argues that places hit hard already, such as Sweden, New York and Lombardy, have developed enough immunity to avoid “another big wave” altogether. Andrew Lilico in the Telegraph maintains that owing to “infection saturation” and vaccine third doses, “for us, the Covid crisis is over”. Even the usual doom-mongers at SAGE are predicting a decline in hospitalisations and deaths in December, according to new modelling released on Friday. A decline in flu-like hospitalisations and deaths in December? Whoever heard of such a thing?

I freely admit that the winter surge may, because of acquired immunity, be relatively small in places like the U.K. which have already faced widespread exposure. Perhaps that’s all that Sebastian Rushworth and Andrew Lilico mean, and in which case our positions are not so far apart. But will it really be a non-event, as SAGE at least appears to be implying, so that Covid deaths decline during the winter and don’t put any further pressure on the health service?

Professor Neil Ferguson Says Netherlands-Style Lockdown Unlikely in Britain

Professor Neil Ferguson has declared that Britain’s Covid cases and hospitalisations may be “petering out”, adding that the country is unlikely to need a Netherlands-style lockdown because antibody levels are higher in the U.K. population due to higher case numbers earlier in the year. MailOnline has more.

The Professor at Imperial College London told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve had two or three weeks of declining cases and admission to hospitals, that may be petering out, it is too early to say.

“There is a hint of an uptick in the last few days.

“But we are in quite a different situation from those European countries you are talking about (the Netherlands, Germany).

“We’ve had very high case numbers, between 30,000 and 50,000 a day, really for the last four months, since the beginning of July.

“That has obviously had some downsides. It has also paradoxically had an upside of boosting the immunity of the population compared with countries like Germany, the Netherlands and France, which have had much lower case numbers and are only now seeing an uptick.”

The Epidemiologist, whose modelling helped instigate the first lockdown last year, said he hopes the U.K. can “avoid” returning to social distancing restrictions this winter.

He said: “I think it is unlikely we will get anything close to what we had last year, that catastrophic winter wave.

“We might see slow increases as we did in October, for instance, but not anything as rapid as we saw last year.

“We can’t be complacent, but at the moment I don’t think we’ll be in a situation the Netherlands is coming into where they really do need to get on top of rising case numbers using social distancing.

“I very much hope we can avoid that in this country.”

The expert also said modelling from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has indicated that rolling out booster vaccinations to the “younger age groups” once the most vulnerable have been jabbed could help “drive down transmission to low levels” in Britain.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: When lockdown sceptics have suggested that natural immunity can provide you with protection that’s at least as robust as the Covid vaccines – with all the attendant implications for vaccine passports, ‘No Jab, No Job’, etc. – they’ve been branded “anti-vaxxers”. Does this mean Professor Lockdown is now an anti-vaxxer?

Sajid Javid Urges the Elderly and Vulnerable to Get Booster Jabs to Avoid a Winter Lockdown

Sajid Javid has called on all those eligible for the booster jab to take up the offer and do their part to avoid the need for a winter lockdown. The Health Secretary added that, as immunity against the virus begins to decrease over time, a third dose is needed to protect the public. Sky News has the story.

Around 30% of people aged over 80 and 40% of over 50s in England are yet to receive a top-up jab of the Covid vaccine, according to the Department of Health.

Three million more people in England are being invited to have a booster shot next week – and Sajid Javid said he “strongly urges” everybody eligible for the jab to take up the offer.

The Health Secretary said: “We know immunity begins to wane after six months, especially for the elderly and the vulnerable, and booster vaccines will top-up their protection to keep people safe over the winter.

“I strongly urge everybody who is eligible for a Covid booster or flu vaccine to take up the offer as soon as you can.

“For those not yet eligible, please help your parents, grandparents or vulnerable loved ones get their jabs, as it could save their life.”

Javid also told anyone who is yet to have their first or second dose of the Covid vaccine, “it is not too late”.

“This truly is a national mission”, he added.

“If we all come together and play our part, we can get through this challenging winter, avoid a return to restrictions and enjoy Christmas”.

Worth reading in full.

There’s No Reason to Plunge the U.K. Into A Christmas Lockdown, Boris Johnson Declares

The Prime Minister has stated that there is currently “no evidence” to implement a Christmas lockdown, despite what Sky News calls a “rise” in Covid cases. (In fact, they’re falling.) Johnson also said that, instead of new restrictions, members of the public should receive a booster jab when they are offered the opportunity, admitting that the effectiveness of the first two jabs does “start to wane” after a time. Sky News has the story.

Speaking to reporters during his trip to Rome for the G20 summit, Johnson once again insisted ministers are sticking with the current plan to tackle Covid and there is no reason to activate the Government’s ‘Plan B’.

Asked if he could guarantee a good Christmas, he said: “I see no evidence whatever to think that any kind of lockdown is on the cards.”

His comments come after the NHS Confederation, the British Medical Association and scientists called on the Government to take steps to ease the growing pressure on the health service.

Covid infections have risen across the U.K., with recent Office for National Statistics estimates showing the same proportion of people in England have the virus as at the peak of the second wave in January.

However, hospitalisations and deaths remain well below the levels seen earlier this year – in part due to the vaccine rollout which has seen 45.7 million people fully vaccinated.

Worth reading in full.

How Outraged Should We Be By Yesterday’s Renewal of the Coronavirus Act Without a Parliamentary Vote?

There was plenty of outrage on Twitter yesterday from lockdown sceptics about the renewal of the Coronavirus Act 2020 without the House of Commons being given an opportunity to vote on it. For instance, Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted: “What kind of democracy do we live in when a six month extension to emergency powers to control every aspect of our lives can just be nodded through without any vote?”

But I’m a little more sanguine about this than others and have written a comment piece for Mail+ explaining why. Here is an extract:

Yes, the Act, as originally passed in March 2020, is an illiberal measure that grants the Government all sorts of sweeping powers. For instance, the ability to close businesses and schools, and restrict social gatherings.

But there are two reasons why its renewal should not set off alarm bells.

First, all the most draconian powers granted to the Government under the Act have been removed. The remaining clauses give ministers powers they would need to use in the event of another lockdown but which, by themselves, don’t enable them to impose one, such as allowing them to financially support businesses affected by COVID-19 and to stop landlords evicting tenants for unpaid rents.

However, the removal of these sweeping powers should not be a cause of comfort – which brings me to the second reason.

The last three times the Government imposed a lockdown, it didn’t need to rely on any of the authoritarian clauses in the Act. That’s because it has all the powers it needs under the Public Health Act 1984 and, unlike the Coronavirus Act, that piece of legislation doesn’t have to be renewed every six months.

That’s why Steve Baker, Conservative MP for Wycombe and Deputy Leader of the Covid Recovery Group, abstained in yesterday’s vote but didn’t call for a division of the House. He rightly understood that the renewal of the Act was small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

I go on to say that for opponents of further lockdowns the focus should be on reforming the Public Health Act, not repealing the Coronavirus Act.

If we’re going to make it harder for the Government to lock us down again without carrying out a cost-benefit analysis – which it didn’t bother with on the previous three occasions – the critical thing is to reform the Public Health Act. That is what the Covid Recovery Group is campaigning for.

Of course, reforming the act wouldn’t prevent the Government from imprisoning us in our homes again. But it would mean that in order to do so, in the absence of any kind of risk assessment, it might have to pass another act of Parliament. That would at least give MPs and peers the opportunity to scrutinise and debate the merits of another lockdown.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: For those unconvinced by this argument, you can sign a petition urging the Government to repeal the Coronavirus Act here.

Covid Infections Begin to Rise in Northern Europe as Winter ‘Flu Season’ Gets Underway

Has the winter ‘flu season’ begun in northern Europe, with signs of upticks in Covid positive tests in the U.K., Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and also Russia?

There’s no new variant driving these – it appears to be purely seasonal, with Delta still dominating. There’s also a lot more herd immunity around now (and high vaccination rates, if that has any effect on infection and transmission). What will a winter Covid surge look like under these conditions? We may be about to find out.

Denmark recently ended all restrictions, including abolishing vaccine passports, declaring Covid no longer a “socially critical disease”. Let’s hope it holds its nerve as winter hits, and that we, too, will resist introducing any draconian new measures as we face whatever the coming season may throw at us.

Flu Deaths Could Hit 60,000 this Winter Due to Lockdowns

Health chiefs have warned that lockdowns and social distancing could have led to a drop in immunity to seasonal influenza which could result in the highest number of flu deaths this winter in 50 years. The Telegraph has more.

More than 35 million people will be offered flu jabs this winter, amid concern that prolonged restrictions on social contact have left Britain with little immunity.

Officials fear that this winter could see up to 60,000 flu deaths – the worst figure in Britain since the 1968 Hong Kong Flu pandemic – without strong uptake of vaccines.

There is also concern about the effectiveness of this year’s jabs, because the lack of flu last year made it harder for scientists to sample the virus and predict the dominant strains.

Health chiefs said the measures introduced over the past 18 months to protect the country against coronavirus would now put the public at greater risk of flu.

The NHS has already begun the rollout of flu jabs and COVID-19 boosters. Health chiefs will urge everyone eligible to take up their chance, with the launch of a major campaign on Friday to drive take-up.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, said: “Not many people got flu last year because of COVID-19 restrictions, so there isn’t as much natural immunity in our communities as usual.

“We will see flu circulating this winter; it might be higher than usual and that makes it a significant public health concern.”

Officials highlighted modelling from the Academy of Medical Sciences, which suggests this winter the UK could see between 15,000 and 60,000 flu deaths.

This compares with an average of 11,000 deaths a year in the five years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The modelling warns that this winter could be far worse than normal for flu, precisely because of the physical distancing measures implemented over the last 18 months.

Worth reading in full.

Is this going to be the excuse for another national lockdown next month? Not to prevent the NHS being ‘overwhelmed’ by Covid patients, but by flu patients? If lockdowns beget lockdowns, does that mean we’re trapped in a never-ending lockdown cycle?