Day: 12 March 2021

Education Secretary Faces Legal Challenge Over Face Masks in the Classroom

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson faces a legal challenge over the wearing of face masks in schools as he is told that official guidance will have “devastating” effects for deaf children. The Telegraph has the story.

Gavin Williamson has been sent a Letter before Action by lawyers acting for the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) who say the guidance is “unlawful” and must be urgently changed.

It comes amid rising pressure on the Government over its latest guidance on masks, which says they should be worn by secondary pupils in lessons as well as anywhere indoors at school where it is not possible to socially distance.

This goes much further than the earlier official recommendations on face masks in secondary schools. During the autumn term, guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) said face masks should be worn in corridors and communal areas in parts of the country under Tier 2 or Tier 3 restrictions. Elsewhere, it was left to the discretion of headteachers.

Now Mr Williamson has been told that the guidance on face masks in schools is “unlawful, irrational and inconsistent” with his legal duties.

The NDCS say that face masks create a “wholly avoidable additional barrier” to learning and social interaction for deaf children who need to be able to see the faces of their peers and teachers in order to lip read.

Lip reading would be possible if transparent face masks were used in schools, but the guidance claims there is “very limited evidence” for their effectiveness or safety which has put headteachers off allowing them. 

The pre-action letter explains that the guidance is “irrational” since it encourages the use of homemade face masks – which it says could be made with a scarf or bandana – while discouraging the use of transparent masks.

“The suggestion that transparent face coverings may be ineffective is belied by the fact that specified transparent face coverings have been approved for use by the NHS in numerous healthcare settings and meet the standard set for face coverings,” it says.

Worth reading in full.

Two Thirds of Covid Cases in Schoolchildren Are False Positives Say Experts

Mass testing in schools as children returned this week is resulting in hundreds of positives – but viral prevalence is now so low that the large majority of them are wrong and result in children and their contacts isolating needlessly. Sarah Knapton in the Telegraph explains.

Biostaticians are concerned that infections in the community are now so low, that false positives and negatives are vastly outnumbering true cases, leading to real cases being missed and families needlessly being asked to isolate.

Pupils are currently being tested twice a week for coronavirus using lateral flow devices, but real-world data has shown they miss positive cases around 50% of the time.

Similarly, although they pick up 99.9% of negative cases, meaning fewer than 0.1% will be false positives, the prevalence rate is now low enough that false positives will be making a significant contribution to the overall figure.

Previously, positive tests were confirmed using a more accurate polymerase chain reaction (PCR) lab test, but this week the Government admitted it had quietly scrapped the process at the end of January.

It means that thousands of pupils and their families are having to isolate needlessly, and missing more school after months away from classrooms.

The latest figures from NHS Test and Trace in secondary schools found 328 positives out of 663,332 tests between February 25th and March 5th. That’s 1 in 2,000 pupils, which is far lower than the 1 in 270 that the latest ONS survey suggests is the current community prevalence. Some are concerned this means large numbers of cases are being missed, though the PCR-based ONS survey picks up many of the non-infectious cold positives which the less sensitive lateral flow tests (LFTs) do not. There is no reason to regard missing cold positives as a problem, particularly given the personal and economic cost of isolating positive cases.

In primary schools, 613 positives were found from 721,546 tests, or about 85 in 100,000. This gives an overall school prevalence rate of about 0.067%.

At this rate (if it were the true prevalence), out of a million tests 670 should come back as true positives. However, with a 0.1% false positive rate (a conservative estimate for LFTs, which were found in a report to have a 0.32% false positive rate) there would also be 1,000 false positives. That means 1,000 out of 1,670 positives, or around 60%, would be false. Of course, the 670 positives per million from the last couple of weeks of testing include the false positives, so the actual proportion of false positives will be higher.

Professor Jon Deeks, a biostatistician from the University of Birmingham, told the Telegraph:

We would expect far more false positives than true positives amongst those testing positives in schools. There are many uncertainties but given the DHSC data it seems likely that over 70% of positive test results are false positives, potentially many more. Addition of a confirmatory PCR would add little cost and would most likely reduce false positives to 1 in 1,000,000. The refusal to confirm lateral flow results with PCR is at best perplexing, will make testing less attractive, and create harm by wrongly isolating individuals, families and other close contacts.

Confirmatory PCR testing for LFT positives is unlikely to help, however, in terms of weeding out cold positives, as the PCR tests are much more sensitive than the LFTs (picking up many more cold positives) and so are unlikely to give a negative where an LFT has come out as a cold positive.

There is also the question of how many of the tests have been incorrectly carried out, perhaps on purpose, if self-administered, to avoid having to isolate?

Mass testing in schools was always a bad idea – cruel, intrusive, pointless. The high proportion of false positives, with their needless and disruptive requirement to self-isolate, only underlines that fact.

The Failure of the Political Class

We’re publishing a fantastic original essay today by James Moreton Wakeley, a former Parliamentary researcher with a PhD in History from Oxford. For him, the Government’s response to the Coronavirus crisis is an indictment of the entire political class and, in particularly, its prioritising of rhetoric, grand narratives and media management over coming up with evidence-based solutions to practical problems. Here’s an extract:

The uniformity of the new ruling class, and the games that one must play to enter it, explains the consensus on lockdown. The political class is naturally drawn to power, meaning that its members are often keen to signal how ‘on board’ they are with elite projects. This distorts the line between those responsible for policy and those who should critique it. It is evident in the tendency of mainstream journalists to discuss the pandemic within the framework set by lockdown rather than to think outside of the box, or in their total failure to ask probing questions of ministers and state scientists. They can further tell one another that they are being ‘responsible’ by refusing to question a Government policy designed, of course, to ‘save lives,’ but this means that they partake in the state’s management of society rather than in holding power to account. Many journalists will also avoid criticising lockdown because a lot of those who do are political class undesirables, notably Donald Trump, with whom they do not want to appear associated. It often appears to be a political class article of faith that frequently unreasonable people cannot, in fact, say reasonable things.

It is, moreover, hardly irrelevant to note that lockdown is also more congenial to the political class than to most people in the country. They have secure, well-paid, often interesting and usually public-sector jobs that generally just require a computer and an internet connection. They are also less likely to know personally the kind of people working in private sector service or physical jobs who have suffered the most from the societal shutdown. Home-schooling is similarly less of a problem for those with the financial means or educational attainments to tutor effectively. Lockdown can mean leisurely late breakfasts and bicycle rides.

This one is very definitely worth reading in full.

Update on Legal Challenge to the Lockdown Regulations

Robin Tilbrook, the solicitor leading one of the legal challenges of the Government’s Lockdown Regulations, has been given a date for an oral permissions hearing for his Judicial Review, which is April 22nd. The hearing, which will decide whether his case can proceed, will take place at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. He has written a guest post for Lockdown Sceptics describing the history of this particular challenge.

I am grateful for all the support that has been given to bringing our Judicial Review case against the ever changing, and multiplying, Lockdown Regulations. I thought you might like to know where I have got to in the process.

I issued the Judicial Review in October. The Ministry of Justice has taken four months to get us to the point where we got our first Order on Permission. In the meanwhile the Government has put in its Defence and I have put in a Reply pointing out the many errors and omissions in the Government’s Defence.

Our case is principally that removing healthy peoples’ liberty is a breach of the English Constitution set out, in among other places, the Bill of Rights 1688 and as vigorously confirmed in Thoburn v Sunderland City Council (DC) [2002] EWHC 195 (Admin), which makes clear that even an Act of Parliament cannot lawfully override constitutional rights (let alone mere Ministerial Regulations).

The first Order that we have obtained was from Mr Justice Holman, who it turns out is not only a Family Division Judge, but also, when in practice as a barrister, specialised in Family Law. He was therefore an interesting choice for the Ministry of Justice to pick as our Judge on a detailed constitutional case! His decision was full of demonstrable errors, which our Counsel has set out in our Notice of Renewal requesting an oral hearing.

I have now been notified of our hearing date in the Royal Courts of Justice, which is on April 22nd.

While all this has been going on we have had generous support for our Crowd Justice Appeal, where you can also find of all the legal documents in the case and read all about it!

This support has enabled me to issue a second Judicial Review to further challenge all the yet further changes that have been made to the Regulations over the last three months.

It has been calculated that the Government has been making changes to the Regulations ever since they first came out in late March 2020 approximately every 4½ days. So with that level of churning of the Regulations you can see that it is quite a job even to keep up with the latest versions of what are often very similar but rebadged Regulations. Perhaps the Government are deliberately churning their Regulations to make it more difficult to challenge them in court!

The Stricter the Lockdown, the Greater the Economic Hit

The UK’s economy is suffering worse than others because of the strictness of its lockdowns, new data shows. Kate Andrews has written on this well-established relationship in the Spectator.

Last week the Spectator highlighted new data from the OECD that offers a weekly update comparing a country’s current GDP levels to the previous year. It continues to show the UK experiencing some of the highest levels of economic damage. If you factor in lockdown stringency, you can also make out a rough correlation between countries under the strictest lockdowns and countries taking the biggest hits to GDP.

Just how reliable are these calculations? A cross-check between the OECD data and the Office for National Statistics’ monthly GDP update would suggest it’s pretty spot-on, if not slightly more positive. Today’s update from the ONS shows the economy to be 9.2% below where it was in January 2020. This roughly mirrors the OECD’s weekly estimates for January, placing the economy around 8.5% smaller than the year before. If the ONS data continues in line with the OECD, this would suggest the ONS’s February’s update will place the UK economy somewhere around 7.8% smaller than it was last year.

Bloomberg reached a similar conclusion on the relationship between lockdown stringency and economic damage in May of last year, with an added note on differences between countries.

A 10-point increase in lockdown stringency leads to a 4% drop in economic activity on average, according to Bloomberg Economics analysis of data from the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker. Yet the headline result masks differences between countries. In Spain, France and the US, unit increases in the stringency of lockdown appear to have a larger impact on activity, while in Canada, Australia, and Sweden, the impact seems to be smaller.

Kate seems hopeful that the availability of data will lead to a more frank public discussion about the trade-offs between lockdowns and economic health.

The ability to calculate this data weekly and then sense-check it against the ONS’s monthly data enables a far more honest conversation to take place about the trade-offs of having one of the strictest lockdowns in the OECD.

In November, the Chief Economic Adviser to the Treasury admitted that “we haven’t done a specific prediction or forecast of the [impact on the economy of] restrictions” before the second national lockdown. Clearly, much more could – and should – be done.

Worth reading in full.

UK Arts Rescue Fund Has Paid Out Just Over Half of Money Allocated

A Government fund established last year to support the arts and heritage sectors through lockdowns has only paid out little more than half of the money it has allocated, leaving venues across the country cash-strapped. The Guardian has the story.

The National Audit Office said the culture recovery fund had budgeted for £830 million in grants and loans funding so far, but only £495 million had been paid out.

MPs have responded angrily to the findings, urging the Government to hand over the cash while “there are still organisations left to support”.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced the £1.57 billion fund to help the cultural, arts and heritage institutions survive the pandemic last summer.

It has supported about 3,000 arts organisations in England so far, including venues such as the Royal Albert Hall and Southbank Centre in London, and M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool.

The fund was increased by £300 million in the budget earlier this month, with the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, saying: “It’s such a relief we can look ahead now so this funding is not just about survival but for planning and preparing for the reopening of theatres, galleries and gigs.”

But auditors have examined the allocation of the funds so far and found that of the £1 billion that has been made available, about £830 million in grants and loans has been awarded to different organisations but only £495 million of that has been paid out, auditors said.

The department has assumed, in the worst-case scenario, that social distancing would remain until the end of March this year, auditors pointed out, and that demand for theatre tickets and venue capacity would remain at 40% of pre-Covid levels.

But the current situation exceeds this worst-case scenario.

Last month, plans for a new 2,000-seat concert hall in London were scrapped due to the impact of lockdowns. Venues across the country have suffered greatly over the last year from the shutting down of the arts. Of course, the best approach from here would be to scrap the “rescue” fund altogether and just let the sector re-open.

Worth reading in full.

Italy Set to Impose National Lockdown Over Easter Weekend

Italy is set to impose another national lockdown over the Easter weekend. The decree is expected to be signed into law later today. Sky News has the story.

[This lockdown] will see non-essential shops closed from April 3rd to April 5th, with people only allowed to leave their homes for work, health or emergency reasons, according to a draft Government decree seen by Reuters news agency.

The country – the first in the world to impose a national Covid lockdown just over a year ago – will also enforce tighter restrictions in low-risk areas from Monday.

Those measures – which form part of an existing four-tier colour-coded system – will see movement between towns in “yellow” regions limited and restaurants and bars shuttered.

The news comes just days after Italy surpassed 100,000 coronavirus deaths – the sixth country worldwide to do so after the US, Brazil, Mexico, India, and the UK.

In February, Will Jones wrote on the first anniversary of a day that will “live in infamy” – when the Italian Government quarantined a whole local population in an effort to control a coronavirus outbreak. Over a year later, they’re trying the same failed remedy again.

Worth reading in full.

News Round-Up

New Study Confirms Lockdowns Don’t Reduce Covid Deaths

Studies which show social restrictions do not lead to lower Covid mortality and infection rates are numerous (see this collection of 31 from AIER, which is kept up to date).

We now have another paper to add to the collection. Published last week in Scientific Reports in Nature, it looks at whether the extent to which people stayed at home (measured using Google mobility data) is associated with Covid mortality in different countries. Doesn’t look like it, the researchers conclude. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract:

Countries with over 100 deaths and with a Healthcare Access and Quality Index of at least 67 were included. Data were pre-processed and analysed using the difference between number of deaths per million between two regions and the difference between the percentage of staying at home. … After pre-processing the data, 87 regions around the world were included, yielding 3,741 pairwise comparisons for linear regression analysis. Only 63 (1.6%) comparisons were significant. With our results, we were not able to explain if COVID-19 mortality is reduced by staying at home in around 98% of the comparisons after epidemiological weeks 9 to 34.

The authors add:

We were not able to explain the variation of deaths per million in different regions in the world by social isolation, herein analysed as differences in staying at home, compared to baseline. In the restrictive and global comparisons, only 3% and 1.6% of the comparisons were significantly different, respectively.

Only 10% of Manhattan’s Office Workers Return to Workplace

Reports earlier this week that “hybrid working” could become “the norm” following lockdowns have been confirmed in Manhattan, where only 10% of office workers have returned to the workplace. The Financial Times has the story.

Just 10% of Manhattan’s one million office workers had returned to the workplace by early March, according to a study indicating that most of them will still be working remotely by September.

The survey of large employers by the Partnership for New York City, a business advocacy group, suggests that Manhattan offices are still as empty as they were last October.

Expectations for returning to the office have slipped since then, however: while employers polled last October expected to bring back 48% of their office staff by July, they now anticipate having just 45% back at their desks by September.

Over the longer term, employers expect 56% of their office staff to continue working remotely at least part of the time.

On Wednesday, workspace provider IWG (formerly Regus) said “[hybrid working] works for companies, because it’s a lot cheaper”. But is the amount of money saved from making staff work at home greater than the reported cost of reduced productivity that this causes?

Worth reading in full.