Day: 15 March 2021

Thorntons to Close All its UK Stores

Thorntons is the latest major high street victim of the Government’s lockdowns, announcing the closure of its 61 stores. 600 jobs are likely to be lost as a result. The Guardian has the story.

The Thorntons brand will remain on offer in supermarkets and other retailers, while its factory in Alfreton, Derbyshire, will make more chocolate for international markets.

The 600 staff whose jobs are at risk will receive relocation support if they apply successfully for vacancies at Thorntons’ sites in Alfreton or Greenford in west London, the company said.

Coronavirus pandemic lockdowns have hit Thorntons particularly hard because they have occurred during its peak times, including Christmas and two consecutive Easters.

The closures will represent the latest departure of a longstanding high-street name. Thorntons blamed the changing dynamics of the high street and the shift to online retail, as well as the pandemic, for its decision.

Thorntons was already struggling before the pandemic. In the year to the end of August 2019 it reported a loss of £36 million, only a slight improvement from the £38 million loss the year before.

Joseph Thornton founded the company in Sheffield, using the slogan “Chocolate heaven since 1911”. It floated on the stock market in 1987, but has since struggled with competition from international rivals.

Thorntons was bought in 2015 by Ferrero, the Italian chocolate manufacturer, in a £112 million deal. At the time of the buyout Thorntons ran 242 stores in Britain and Ireland.

The chocolate retailer was clearly already struggling before 2020, but lockdown struck the final blow.

Worth reading in full.

Role of SAGE to be Reviewed Over Fears Scientists Hold Too Much Power

The role of SAGE is likely to be reviewed when the pandemic is over. Some Government insiders have already admitted to having “bowed to” the advisory group too often over the past year. The Telegraph has the story.

A future independent inquiry into the handling of coronavirus is expected to scrutinise SAGE and consider whether such a monolithic body should hold so much power. Members of SAGE have themselves expressed concern that the group holds too much sway over ministerial thinking and prevents alternative views being given equal weight. 

One possibility is that the Government sets up a so-called “red team” structure to challenge and check SAGE’s advice and the evidence behind it. Ministers could also demand more say over membership of the largely autonomous body, which changes with almost every meeting depending on who is invited by Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser.

Matt Hancock has made it clear during the pandemic that SAGE’s role is kept “under review”. Formed under the last Labour Government, SAGE had, until the Covid crisis, been a largely obscure committee of scientists that was convened a handful of times each year. It was first called into action to advise on the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, and went on to advise the Government on the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the 2016 Zika Virus outbreak and the 2018 Salisbury poisonings. 

In 2019, SAGE met just once, to discuss the feared collapse of the Toddbrook Reservoir dam in Derbyshire. However, over the course of 2020, it met 74 times.

Of particular concern is the extent to which Government officials have “bowed to” the body over the past year of madness, and the lack of a “red team” to challenge its advice, insiders say.

Worth reading in full.

Scotland’s Face Mask Hypocrisy

Scottish seniors returned to school today – or, at least, some of them did. Some are being fobbed off with “blended learning” which means they’re still stuck at home with Teams most of the time. But those lucky enough to actually return to school had to wear face masks in classrooms – and unlike in England, there were no ifs or buts. It’s mandatory, not voluntary (although many English secondary schools pretend it’s mandatory here, too). Julia Whitaker, a freelance Health Play Specialist, has written to UsForThem Scotland objecting to this and had kindly allowed us to reprint the letter in full.

The Scottish Government claims to recognise that “children’s rights and wellbeing matter now [in a pandemic] more than ever” and that “a children’s rights approach is being embedded into our response to COVID-19 and our approach to recovery and renewal”. This fits with the Government’s vision for Scotland to become the first country in the UK to directly incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into domestic law – a vision which is embedded in the UNCRC (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill currently going through Parliament. An admirable ambition and one to be celebrated.

However, it is this same UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that gives all children the right to freedom of expression (UNCRC Article 13), a right which is currently being denied by the imposition of a requirement to wear a face mask throughout the school day.

All children will not feel free to raise their hands to ask or answer questions if they know that their voice will be muffled or distorted and that they may have to repeat themselves more than once to make themselves understood. That is not freedom of expression.

All children will not feel free to actively engage with learning by sharing an opinion or participating in a discussion if their communication risks being missed or misinterpreted because they have to speak through a mask. That is not freedom of expression.

All children will not feel free to share their feelings, worries, or concerns if they cannot voice them confidently and openly. That is not freedom of expression.

Wearing a face mask may just make it too difficult, too risky, too awkward to be worth the effort trying to express oneself. It will be easier not to bother, to keep one’s mouth shut, one’s thoughts and feelings to oneself. That is not freedom of expression.

The Government already knows this. At the start of the academic session, Education Secretary John Swinney was quoted as saying that face coverings have negative effects on communication in schools and are “likely to interfere with teaching and learning”.

We may be two terms into the school year, but that fundamental truth remains. Wearing a face covering interferes with communication and self-expression which is why, when they enter the chamber at Holyrood, Government ministers remove their own face masks. I rest my case.

Either we are a country which embeds children’s rights in all decisions taken on their behalf. Or we are not.

France and Germany Suspend Rollouts of Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine Amid Blood Clot Concerns

Germany and France are the latest countries to put their rollouts of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine on hold because of fears over blood clotting. Boris Johnson, Britain’s medicines regulator and AstraZeneca itself have all defended the vaccine as safe to use. Sky News has the story on Germany’s suspension.

Germany is suspending use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in order to investigate reports of blood clots.

The country’s Health Ministry said the measure was a “precaution”. …

In a statement, the German health ministry said the reported blood clots involved cerebral veins, but did not specify where or when the incidents happened.

It said its decision to suspend the vaccine was taken on the advice of national regulator, the Paul Ehrlich Institute.

The ministry said the EMA would decide “whether and how the new information will affect the authorisation of the vaccine”.

The Telegraph has the following on France:

Emmanuel Macron said that French authorities have decided to suspend shots at least until Tuesday afternoon, when the European Medicines Agency will issue its recommendation over the vaccine.

Yesterday, Ireland and the Netherlands followed the example of other EU countries – including Norway and Denmark – in halting their AstraZeneca vaccine rollouts amid reports of “bleeding, blood clots and a low count of blood platelets” in health workers who had recently received the vaccine. One particular batch of AstraZeneca vaccines (which is implicated in reports of a death) was sent to 17 countries.

The greater the concern over the vaccine, the greater the defence from others. On March 14th, AstraZeneca addressed safety concerns in a statement.

A careful review of all available safety data of more than 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union and UK with Covid Vaccine AstraZeneca has shown no evidence of an increased risk of pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis or thrombocytopenia, in any defined age group, gender, batch or in any particular country.

So far across the EU and UK, there have been 15 events of DVT and 22 events of pulmonary embolism reported among those given the vaccine, based on the number of cases the Company has received as of 8 March. This is much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population of this size and is similar across other licensed COVID-19 vaccines. …

Furthermore, in clinical trials, even though the number of thrombotic events was small, these were lower in the vaccinated group. There has also been no evidence of increased bleeding in over 60,000 participants enrolled.

Responding to Germany’s suspension of the jab’s rollout, Boris Johnson said the vaccine is “both safe and effective”:

“[The UK has] one of the toughest and most experienced regulators in the world.

“They see no reason at all to discontinue the vaccination programme… they believe that they are effective, highly effective in driving down not just hospitalisations but also serious disease and mortality. We continue to be very confident about the programme.”

Representatives of Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency added that the evidence “does not suggest” the jab causes clots.

We are closely reviewing reports but given the large number of doses administered, and the frequency at which blood clots can occur naturally, the evidence available does not suggest the vaccine is the cause.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Professor Anthony Harden, the Deputy Chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), has hit back at claims that the vaccine increases risk of blood clotting, saying: “We’ve given 11 million doses here and there’s no evidence of increased risk of blood clots.” The JCVI can now be added to the list of organisations that have dismissed concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine which includes the World Health Organisation (WHO), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Government’s Decision Making Lacks Transparency, Commons Committee Finds

The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee has released a damning report highlighting the lack of transparency from the Government on key policy decisions relating to lockdowns. Jade Eloise Norris, a Clinical Trial Senior Research Associate at Bristol University, has written a handy thread on the key points from the report.

The report expresses particular dismay at the unwillingness of Ministers to come before the Committee and justify key decisions made over the last year.

There is a basic expectation that Ministers should be able to justify key decisions through explaining the various data considered. The Committee expected that Ministers would be able to talk us through: 

– the types of data that were considered;

– how public health and other considerations were balanced;

– the governance and accountability arrangements underpinning decisions. 

So it is deeply worrying that Ministers were unable to answer basic questions about the decision to lift the first lockdown. 

Lifting any of the lockdowns must have considered a range of factors, including health, economic and educational outcomes. 

It is, therefore, our judgement that such decisions can only be made by the Centre of Government, in the Cabinet Office or Number 10. When we have asked about these decisions – both in writing and in person – the Cabinet Office has passed the buck to the Department of Health and Social Care. 

This is both confusing and unacceptable because the Department of Health and Social Care is clearly not well placed to make decisions that include wider considerations beyond health.

This passing of the buck continued long after the ending of the first national lockdown. In November, the Treasury admitted that it did not forecast or predict the impact of the second national lockdown on the economy before it came into force. Maybe it thought that this too was the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Care.

Worth reading in full.

Florida is Already Making Up for Lost Time

Much of America is only just beginning to emerge from almost a year under lockdown, but in Florida people are living their lives as close to normal as currently seems possible. The New York Times has the story.

Spring breakers flock to the beaches. Cars cram the highways. Weekend restaurant reservations have almost become necessary again. Banners on Miami Beach read “Vacation responsibly”, the subtext being, Of course you’re going to vacation.

Much of life seems normal, and not just because of the return of Florida’s winter tourism season, which was cut short last year a few weeks into the pandemic.

Florida reopened months before much of the rest of the nation, which only in recent days has begun to emerge from the better part of a year under lockdown. Live music returned this weekend to the bars of New Orleans. Crowds were pouring into restaurants in Atlanta and Kansas City, Mo. Movie theatres in California were poised to open their doors soon.

Texas reopened this past week from one side of the state to the other, with spring breakers revelling on South Padre Island. Playgrounds are packed in Chicago, and the Texas Rangers are preparing to fill their stadium to capacity next month for the debut of, by god, baseball season.

None of this feels particularly new in Florida, which slowed during the worst of the pandemic but only briefly closed. On the contrary, much of the state has a boomtown feel, a sense of making up for months of lost time.

And what of the state’s economic health? A comparison of its unemployment rate with that of states which imposed stricter lockdowns fits in with the (now well-established) relationship between more stringent lockdowns and greater economic suffering.

The unemployment rate is 5.1%, compared to 9.3% in California, 8.7% in New York and 6.9% in Texas. That debate about opening schools? It came and went months ago. Children have been in classrooms since the fall.

For better or worse, Florida’s experiment in returning to life-as-it-used-to-be offers a glimpse of what many states are likely to face in the weeks ahead, as they move into the next phase of the pandemic – the part where it starts to be over.

“If you look at South Florida right now, this place is booming,” Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, recently gloated. “Los Angeles isn’t booming. New York City isn’t booming.”

It’s not all roses, however, as Patricia Mazzei – the piece’s author – points out.

To bask in that feeling – even if it is only that – is to ignore the heavy toll the coronavirus exacted in Florida, one that is not yet over.

More than 32,000 Floridians have died, an unthinkable cost that the state’s leaders rarely acknowledge. Miami-Dade County averaged more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases a day over the past two weeks, one of the nation’s most serious outbreaks. And Florida is thought to have the highest concentration of B117, the more contagious virus variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

But despite the prevalence of the B117 variant (or the “Kent variant”), cases and hospitalisations continue to plunge across Florida as a whole. The Mail reports that Florida “has seen a 75% decline in total cases since early January”. Florida is actually coping better (in terms of its Covid death rate) than many other states which have enforced stricter lockdowns, Patricia highlights.

Florida’s death rate is no worse than the national average, and better than that of some other states that imposed more restrictions, despite its large numbers of retirees, young partyers and tourists. Caseloads and hospitalisations across most of the state are down. The tens of thousands of people who died were in some ways the result of an unspoken grand bargain – the price paid for keeping as many people as possible employed, educated and, some Floridians would argue, sane.

Worth reading in full.

News Round-Up

No, Boris, You Didn’t Lock Down Too Late

The anniversary of the start of the pandemic has occasioned a rash of review pieces, replete with all the standard lockdowner myths that have become part of the Official Narrative in the past year. Not least of which is that lockdown came too late, as Boris has apparently now admitted according to Telegraph sources, which bodes ill for the future.

One of these review pieces, by Telegraph Associate Editor Gordon Rayner, takes a look back at the road to lockdown last March, and includes new insights from insiders, including several ministers.

It rehashes several myths, half-truths and clangers, which we will do our best to debunk.

By mid-March last year new Covid cases were running at an average of 271 per week, though the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was estimating there were 5,000 to 10,000 cases nationally.

Questions over why Britain was not following other nations, such as Italy, into lockdown were rebuffed because government modelling suggested Mr Johnson’s “squash the sombrero” strategy of flattening the peak would prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.

Suddenly, on Friday, March 13th, everything changed. It was Gold Cup day at the now notorious 2020 Cheltenham Festival, which had been allowed to go ahead despite well-founded concerns that it would become a super-spreader event and SAGE realised it had underestimated the numbers.

Meeting in a conference room at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in Victoria Street, London, the scientists decided a 5-7-day lag in data provision meant the country was “further ahead on the epidemic curve” than they had thought, though SAGE did not at that stage recommend an immediate lockdown and warned that “measures seeking to completely suppress spread of COVID-19 will cause a second peak”.

Five hundred yards away in Downing St, Ben Warner, a young data specialist who had been No 10’s eyes and ears in SAGE meetings, conducted his own analysis of the numbers and concluded that the NHS would “fall over” in a matter of weeks because the virus was spreading exponentially.

Mr Warner took his findings to Mr Cummings, and at an emergency meeting in the Prime Minister’s Downing Street office the next morning, March 14th, Mr Cummings wrote Mr Warner’s projections on a whiteboard and said the course the Government was following would result in potentially tens of thousands of additional deaths.

“The PM was stunned,” said one source. “That was the key meeting in deciding we had to go into lockdown.”

“Our priority had always been to make sure the NHS could cope,” said another, “but the new analysis showed Covid wasn’t going to just pass that line on the graph, it was going to really smash through it.”

Reassuring to know the Government was being advised by a broad range of the best scientists in these crucial decisions, with Professor Cummings and Professor Warner drawing wobbly red lines on white boards…

What Happened to the Good Old British Bobby?

We’re publishing an original piece today by James Moreton Wakeley, a former parliamentary researcher with a PhD in History from Oxford who wrote the recent essay entitled, “The Failure of the Political Class“. This one is a reflection on the events of Saturday evening when Metropolitan Police officers employed strong-arm tactics to disperse the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common. As James points out, George Orwell praised the British police for being quite unlike the highly-politicised and faction-riven police forces of Republican Spain, or other such continental gendarmeries. A British police officer wasn’t someone to be feared, but, rather, someone to be turned to for help.

What went wrong? Here is an extract:

It is perhaps unsurprising that pictures of young women being dragged around and pushed to the floor by often male police officers has caused such outrage. Whatever one’s private thoughts on how society should respond to such bitter, senseless, and cruel tragedies as the murder of a young woman, it is impossible not be moved by scenes of the brutal treatment meted out to those who felt a deep need to commemorate a girl with whose situation they felt such a connection. As the editor of this website has already pointed-out, however, the Metropolitan Police’s behaviour is wholly unsurprising in the context of the past year, their relative temerity in the face of last summer’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests notwithstanding.

Other police forces, in other parts of the country, have also made a habit of over-enforcing the Government’s poorly-written and confusing Lockdown measures, damaging trust in the fairness and integrity of British policing. The whole country, for example, is familiar with the case of the Peppermint Tea Two, who were farcically ambushed by a gang of policemen when out walking a short distance from their homes and fined for apparently breaking the ‘spirit’ of the Lockdown restrictions rather than the letter. Public pressure forced Derbyshire Police to rescind the fines and to apologise.

This, however, was but one instance of a wider trend. Individual police officers and commanders appear to have been routinely over-interpreting their powers and capriciously fining people whose behaviour has been in line with the law. Figures from the end of last year show that three forces, Merseyside, Staffordshire, and Derbyshire, were forced to cancel almost half of the fines they had by then levied. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, of the 14 cases brought to court under the Coronavirus Act this January, 10 have had to have been withdrawn. The number of fines levied by different forces across the country varies enormously, suggesting that the way in which the law is understood and enforced is more postcode lottery than clear, objective exercise.

Worth reading in full.

Boris Johnson Believes He Made a Mistake in Delaying First Lockdown

Boris Johnson believes that he handled the response to Covid poorly in the early days… in that the first lockdown did not come soon – or hard – enough. Supporters of the Prime Minister claim that he was let down by his scientific advisers. The Telegraph has the story.

Boris Johnson accepts it was a mistake to delay the start of the first national lockdown, close allies have said, while insisting the Prime Minister was let down by scientific advisers.

Mr Johnson would act “harder, earlier and faster” if he had his time again, supporters say, raising the possibility of a mea culpa moment in a future inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.

As the first anniversary of lockdown approaches, Mr Johnson has rightly won plaudits for the runaway success of Britain’s vaccine rollout, but knows he will eventually have to confront the question of why the UK has suffered the highest death toll in Europe and the fifth-highest in the world.

The Telegraph has learnt that the pivotal moment in imposing lockdown came on March 14th last year – nine days before lockdown started – when Mr Johnson was shown evidence that ministers and scientific advisers had badly miscalculated how quickly the NHS would be overwhelmed.

The Prime Minister was “stunned” to be told by a Number 10 data analyst at a hurriedly-convened Saturday meeting that his “squash the sombrero” policy was not working and that hospitals were as little as three weeks away from being past capacity.

Mr Johnson had, until then, been making decisions based on out-of-date projections provided by Government departments.

But he waited until March 23rd to issue his “stay at home” order, a decision which scientists have claimed doubled the death toll in the first wave.

Ministers and officials involved in the Covid response have said it should not be viewed through the prism of “20-20 hindsight”, but admitted the Prime Minister’s instinct for delaying decisions as long as possible was the “worst” approach in the midst of a pandemic.

In December, Professor Neil Ferguson admitted that the implementation of lockdowns in the West was viewed as being unviable until Italy acted (hard, early and fast).

[China is] a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.

The Prime Minister’s confession lays the groundwork for future pandemic responses – that of imposing an even harder lockdown even sooner. Has he learnt nothing?

Worth reading in full.