Here is a fact check of today’s daily briefing. Is the government actually following the data, or even presenting the data accurately? TL;DR: The reality is in stark contrast to the rosy picture being presented by the government.
First published in May 2021.
So, four tests. Have we met all of them? I am going to focus on variants here.
Professor Chris Whitty: non-Kent variants are <5% at this point.
Is this really the case? No.
Data from the Sanger Institute puts this proportion higher – 11% in data ending 2 May – with exponential growth.
Sanger removes cases from travellers to England & from surge testing to get a picture of what is happening in the community.— Prof. Christina Pagel (@chrischirp) May 10, 2021
In England, within TWO weeks to 1 May, B.1.617.2 (the new variant of concern) went from 1% to 11% of cases. Other variants <1%.
A massive increase. 2/6 pic.twitter.com/L5fUBkJRkU
Professor Chris Whitty: We are not currently concerned about these variants.
Why? Whitty himself says that these have grown rapidly in the past few weeks, may be more transmissible than B117 (Kent variant) and we don’t know if vaccines are effective against them and he accepts vaccines have lower efficacy against some variants.
The numbers of the Indian variant are doubling each week with an estimated R=1.6-1.8, against a background of drop in B117 suggesting that variant cases are rising exponentially in the midst of current restrictions.
This is a sign of a variant that is much fitter than B117.
This also means that if this variant were fully dominant (100% of sequences), the current R would be expected to be much higher, with cases doubling every week. Even with the current levels of vaccination, and with the current levels of restrictions.
“But this variant isn’t dominant.”
It already is, in some parts of the UK, unfortunately. And we are seeing early exponential rises in many of those regions in keeping with expectations. At the current pace, we would expect this to be dominant in most of England in 2-4 weeks.
Data up to May 1 (community – not travel or surge testing related) showed this. 25% of sequences from the community from London were B.1617.2 on May 1 – given this doubles every week – it is entirely possible this variant is dominant in London now.
This is concentrated in a few regions: London, the NW (quickest rise), East of England and then E Midlands & SE.— Prof. Christina Pagel (@chrischirp) May 10, 2021
PHE also highlighted London and NW as particularly concerning in its Friday reporthttps://t.co/gzQtANmgim 3/6 pic.twitter.com/NnR4Jp4UuB
Although sequences are small, we are already seeing this variant become dominant (>50%) in several regions, that are now showing exponential growth. These include Bedford, Bolton, Sefton and Blackburn.
Many of these regions have had outbreaks in schools.
In the NW cases are concentrated in a few towns with v high proportion B.1.617 w/e 1 May: highest are Blackburn with Darwen (75%), Bedford (73%), Bolton (69%).— Prof. Christina Pagel (@chrischirp) May 10, 2021
These are obv low numbers of cases. But what is happening to overall covid cases here? 4/6
What has the government done to contain this?
- PHE delayed moving B.1617.2 to Variant of Concern (and so delaying surge testing) due to the local elections;
- It refused to provide data on school related infections that have likely played an important role in community spread of this variant.
The government is now doing away with masks in schools – both in classrooms and communal settings. I am not aware of any country so far that hasn’t eliminated COVID-19 that has decided to strip these protections from schools.
Even Israel with >80% adults vaccinated has masks in schools.
PM Boris Johnson was asked by a member of the public how this would impact teachers, many of whom have not received any vaccines yet. The prime minister’s response were ‘Use common sense and judgement’ and ‘Don’t worry about not being vaccinated because vaccines aren’t 100% protective anyway.’
Covid-19 Press Conference. | Number 10
But how can teachers protect themselves with ‘common sense and judgement’ when they spend hours in poorly ventilated classrooms of 30 children, unvaccinated and with no masks? And how I can I ensure that my child doesn’t get COVID-19 and then Long-COVID in school with ‘common sense’?
And please tell me, as someone on immunosuppression (and not vaccinated yet), how with ‘common sense and judgement’ can I keep myself safe from infection, Long-COVID, and severe disease, when my child goes to school in this environment that protections have been stripped from?
And if, as you say, vaccines aren’t fully effective in preventing severe outcomes why are we so reliant on them as our sole strategy to open? It can’t go both ways. We are clearly opening up fully aware that 75% of our population isn’t fully vaccinated and 50% not at all.
While Professor Whitty says that one dose reduces the risk of death by 75-80% (with B117), it is clear that protection even in those receiving a single dose is less than complete – and those who are unvaccinated can still go on to develop Long-COVID and for some, severe disease.
Impact of the vaccines.
There was no acknowledgement at all of the fact that our negligent strategy that has not sought to keep the pandemic under control – as long as the NHS didn’t completely break – has resulted in an estimated 1.1 million people living with Long-COVID, with 478,000 people with symptoms after 6 months.
Why is our government OK to expose people they perceive as not-vulnerable to an infection we barely understand – that is causing chronic illness in 22% of people it infects – including children? And a new variant, we understand even less, that we don’t even know whether vaccines can protect against?
And of course, not only are we happy to let new variants spread here, we have eased travel restrictions, so we can now export these globally as we did with B117 (which was linked to the current surge in Europe), so that others can share in our experience.
I understand this narrative helps the government politically, but I can’t imagine a worse situation than if we lose control of the pandemic now and spread this variant across Europe. What the government never understood is that we need to control the pandemic for life to return to normal.
And controlling the pandemic involves:
- Control at borders with managed quarantine – no ‘lists’;
- Good test, trace, isolate and support systems;
- Containing aerosol transmission, including in schools;
- Urgent containment of variants of concern (alongside vaccines).
This is the only way to return to normal.
Professor Chris Whitty. | Number 10
Professor Whitty says variants arise from the “blue sky” and that “we can’t see them coming”.
Yes, we can. It is transmission that leads to mutation that gives opportunities for adaptation. This wasn’t inevitable. We let this happen. We let variants of concern evolve due to long periods of high transmission. We imported variants of concern fully knowing that our failed border policy would never be able to keep them at bay. They didn’t fall from the blue sky.
They came from our failures to plan ahead.
What if we are faced with a variant that vaccines don’t work that well against? What if that variant becomes dominant? What if it is highly transmissible and fatal? (this is not hypothetical – we know such variants already exist). What will we do then? What is plan B?
We have repeatedly failed to translate evidence into policy and we still continue this. Continue flawed border strategies. Continue with a broken test, trace, isolate and support system. Continue not listening to advice from SAGE and experts on the need for mitigations in schools.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani on Good Morning Britain, 10 May 2021. | ITV
The government is saying the public should use their “common sense and judgement”. This is an abdication of responsibility.
What happens now will be completely down to negligent government policy, and they will need to own it.
And given that our Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty himself quotes incorrect data, how are we then following the ‘data’? And why has Public Health England (PHE) not passed on crucial data about spread of new variants linked to schools to unions – surely this was data relevant to deciding mask policy?
Govt has failed to provide UNISON with aggregated data on new #COVID variant cases linked to schools.— UNISON in Schools (@UNISONinSchools) May 10, 2021
Yet PM's just announced the recommendation on face coverings is to be removed from Mon. Why won’t govt share this data? What happened to data not dates? https://t.co/ejKUmBfzxe
If you want to look at exponential rises where the new variant is dominant or prevalent, here is a graph by Dr Ian Campbell.
Finally, here is a document released today from SAGE on the risk posed by new variants.
The government has been made fully aware of the risk posed by these and has ignored the advice for preventing import and adaptation.
The risks are considerable, as is clear from this document – yet the government seems happy to take them.
- PM statement at coronavirus press conference: 10 May 2021 | Number 10
- Sanger Institute
- Indian variant spreading in the UK – Why the lack of transparency? | PMP Magazine
- Removing the need for masks in schools “too much, too soon”, says UNISON | UNISON
- Face masks no longer required in classrooms | BBC News
- SPI-M-O: Summary of further modelling of easing restrictions – Roadmap Step 3, 5 May 2021 (PDF) | SAGE
▫ Dr Deepti Gurdasani, Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology, Statistical Genetics, Machine Learning, Queen Mary University of London.
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[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 10 May 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)