In this weeks briefing, the panel discusses how we might mitigate some of the risks as we enter this 3rd wave.
Covid testing isn’t available in all areas. It’s difficult to access tests in London, Middlesborough, Stockton-on-Tees and South Humberside for example. Lateral flow tests also give a very high rate of false negatives. This means we don’t have an accurate picture of the total number of cases and people who get a false negative result are not isolating. At the moment, it’s taking anything from around 24hrs to roughly 55hrs to get test results back which is a long time to wait to be told if you should be isolating or not. Lack of testing and false positives also limits the care available to long-Covid patients. There is currently a higher demand on the test and trace system and they are having to rehire staff in order to cope with the increased workload.
The Gov’t and NHS websites are currently only listing 3 symptoms – high temperature, a new & continuous cough, a loss or change in your sense of taste or smell. However there are a number of other symptoms that are not listed – headache, blocked nose, fatigue, weakness, muscle pains, runny nose, sore throat. Unfortunately, as these symptoms are not listed on the Gov’t or NHS websites, some folks are assuming it can’t be Covid and are not getting tested, which means they are not isolating, they’re not getting the treatment they probably need and there’s no follow up contact tracing either.
Despite the less than efficient process of monitoring case rates, there’s been a steep rise in the number of cases since June and we’re now getting close to the peak in January.
We’ve seen the number of primary and secondary student Covid related absences rising as each term progresses and then a dropping off immediately after the Easter holiday and after the half-term break, which is a clear indication that schools are not Covid-safe spaces. We’re also seeing a very steep rise in absences over the last few weeks, which appears to correlate with the steep rise in general case numbers nationwide.
As well as a sharp rise in Covid cases there’s also been a significant rise in the number of hospitalisations over the last 6 weeks. In fact we’re now back to where we were in mid-February.
The number of deaths within 28 days of a +’ve Covid test has now risen to the same levels as around mid-March and there were 63 deaths yesterday (15th July 2021), which is almost double the daily death toll from a week ago.
Vaccination numbers have declined dramatically since mid June and, at this time, only 53% of the population of England have had both doses (54% in Scotland, 51% in Northern Ireland and 60% in Wales).
Broadly speaking the panel were largely in agreement that they found the government’s decision to lift all lockdown restrictions completely reprehensible. When large sections of the population, including young children and immunosuppressed communities, still hadn’t received the vaccine, when the gov’t had done absolutely no impact assessment on the lifting of restrictions, when Covid case numbers and deaths were rising significantly, there could be zero justification for taking such a reckless decision. There was some suggestion that there might actually be a vaccine supply problem which is why the gov’t might have decided that herd immunity through infection was the only option but members of the panel explained that immunity through infection is not as effective as immunity through vaccination and even people who have had both doses can still get it.
On vaccine efficacy, Professor Karl Friston FRS (prof. of imaging neuroscience and a Welcome Principal Research Fellow at UCL) explained that his team has been profiling how effective the vaccine is at preventing transmission, hospitalisations and deaths, as well as at how effective it is at stopping a vaccinated person who gets infected from then passing on the infection. What’s clear is that a vaccination does not stop you from getting infected and your ability to infect others only drops to about 50%. The probability of developing a serious illness is still about 60%, although it’s about 93% effective at preventing fatalities. The advice, therefore, is to continue to follow guidelines even if you’ve been double vaccinated because you are still vulnerable and still capable of carrying and passing on infection. Dr Kit Yates (Senior lecturer in the Dept of Mathematical Sciences and Co-Director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath), added that it’s clear that we won’t have a hope of achieving herd immunity until we’ve double vaccinated 99% of the population.
There’s some suggestion that the UK strategy could well be challenged by International Human Rights lawyers and it’s also likely that many companies could be breaching health and safety at work regulations if they’re not taking steps to ensure their workers and customers have clean air on their premises. Prof. Christina Pagel (Director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at UCL and a member of Independent SAGE) added that it might also be possible to challenge the government on inequalities legislation because their actions disproportionately impact certain vulnerable groups – approx. 4 million people in this country in fact.
Prof. Martin McKee (professor of European Public Health, LSHTM and also a member of Independent SAGE) seemed to sum up the mood of the panel very well when he expressed his anger at the government… “here we have a situation where we have a government which talked about data, not dates, has thrown that out the window… has said it was following the science and it has thrown that out the window… a government that is issuing such confusing messages, undermining itself in many way… this has longer term consequences when you behave so stupidly”
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