Day: 19 March 2021

Backlog in Scottish Court Cases Due to Lockdown to Last Until 2025

Lockdowns have caused a “significant backlog of criminal cases” in Scotland, according to the country’s Courts and Tribunals Service. The Telegraph has the story.

The backlog in Scotland’s court cases due to Covid will not be cleared until 2025, justice system chiefs announced on Friday.

There is now a “significant backlog of criminal cases”, according to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS), and cases are taking longer to come to trial while the number of people held on remand has increased.

This creates “downstream impacts” on community justice services and prisons, they warned.

The SCTS has announced plans to expand remote jury centres and create additional courts from this September as part of a court recovery programme to deal with the backlog.

New jury trials were put on hold for several months last year due to the virus outbreak.

There will also be four additional High Courts, two additional Sheriff Courts for solemn cases and up to 10 more Sheriff Courts for summary cases.

With these extra resources, the SCTS said it predicts the backlog of High Court and Sheriff solemn cases will be cleared by 2025, and summary trial backlogs will be dealt with by 2024.

The picture isn’t much more positive in England and Wales. In January, four criminal justice watchdogs said that they had “grave concerns” about the impact of court backlogs caused by lockdowns. They highlighted that some crimes committed in 2020 will not go before a jury until 2022. The number of outstanding cases for Crown Courts increased by almost 10,000 between March and December 2020.

The report on the Scottish court backlog is well worth reading in full.

ONS Admits Ignoring Manufacturer Instructions in PCR Testing

The Office for National Statistics has admitted that in its Covid infection survey it has been reporting PCR tests as positive when only a single coronavirus gene is detected, despite this being contrary to the instructions of the manufacturer that two or more target genes must be found before a positive result can be declared.

According to a rapid response in the BMJ this week by Dr Martin Neil, a statistics professor at the University of London, targeting only a single gene in this way massively increases the risk of a false positive because of the possibility of cross-reactivity with other coronaviruses as well as prevalent bacteria or other contamination.

Digging into the detail of the methods followed by the lighthouse laboratories which process the tests for the ONS, Professor Neil writes:

The kit used by the Glasgow and Milton Keynes lighthouse laboratories is the ThermoFisher TaqPath RT-PCR which tests for the presence of three target genes from SARS-COV-2. Despite Corman et al originating the use of PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2 genes there is no agreed international standard for SARS-COV-2 testing. Instead, the World Health Organisation (WHO) leaves it up to the manufacturer to determine what genes to use and instructs end users to adhere to the manufacturer instructions for use.

The WHO’s emergency use assessment for the ThermoFisher TaqPath kit includes the instruction manual and contained therein is an interpretation algorithm describing an unequivocal requirement that two or more target genes be detected before a positive result can be declared. The latest revision of ThermoFisher’s instruction manual contains the same algorithm. The WHO have been sufficiently concerned about correct use of RT-PCR kits that on January 20th 2021 they issued a notice for PCR users imploring them to review manufacturer instructions for use carefully and adhere to them fully.

The ONS’s report of December 5th 2020 lists SARS-CoV-2 positive results for valid two and three target gene combinations and the report of December 21st does the same, for samples processed by the Glasgow and Milton Keynes lighthouse laboratories. However, it also lists single gene detections as positive results.

Between a quarter and two thirds of positive results were affected, Professor Neil found.

Over the period reported the maximum weekly percentage of positives on a single gene is 38% for the whole of the UK for the week of February 1st. The overall UK average was 23%. The maximum percentage reported is 65%, in East England in the week beginning October 5th. In Wales it was 50%, in Northern Ireland it is 55% and in Scotland it was 56%. The full data including averages and maxima/minima are given in [17].

Although the non-compliant practice was clearly indicated in the ONS reports and confirmed in correspondence, it was denied by key figures when writing in the press.

Professor Alan McNally, Director of the University of Birmingham Turnkey laboratory, who helped set up the Milton Keynes lighthouse laboratory, contradicted what was stated in the ONS report in a Guardian newspaper article about the new variant. He reported that all lighthouse laboratories operated a policy that adhered to the manufacturer instructions for use: requiring two-or-more genes for positive detection.

In correspondence with Mr Nicholas Lewis about single gene testing, in February 2021, the ONS confirmed that they do indeed call single gene targets as positives in their COVID-19 Infection Survey and also confirmed that the samples are processed by UK lighthouse laboratories.

Is this one reason the ONS consistently reports higher Covid infections than the ZOE Covid Symptom Study, which tracks symptomatic Covid? In its latest report published today, the ONS estimates 192,300 people had Covid in the UK in the week ending March 13th, whereas ZOE estimates 109,400 people had symptomatic Covid in the middle of that week – almost half the number.

France Limits AstraZeneca Covid Jab to Over-55s

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) yesterday declared the AstraZeneca Covid jab “safe and effective” to use, but the sustained fear over rare but serious cases of a brain blood clot disorder means a number of countries are still treading cautiously. France, for example, has limited the rollout of this jab to the over-55s. The Guardian has the story.

France has said only people aged 55 and over should receive the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine, and three Scandinavian countries have reserved judgment until next week, a day after Europe’s health regulator declared the shot safe and effective for all age groups.

As politicians launched an urgent effort to convince citizens of the vaccine’s safety, the French health regulator said the shot’s use should resume “without delay”. France was among more than a dozen EU states to suspend the shot this week.

But Dominique Le Guludec, the head of the regulator, said it should be provisionally reserved for people aged 55 and over until further information was available, on the basis of rare but serious cases of a brain blood clot disorder known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST).

Le Guludec said 25 people who had received the AstraZeneca shot had fallen ill with the disorder in Europe, and nine aged under 55, most of them women, had died. The cases needed further investigation, she said.

In a statement yesterday, the EMA said it “cannot rule out definitively” a link to the rare clotting disorder. The Telegraph reported:

The European Medicine’s Agency has said they “cannot rule out definitively” a link to a rare clotting disorder.

The agency will update its guidance to include an explanation about the potential risks on both the patient leaflet and in the information for healthcare professionals, the chief of the EMA said.

But Emer Cooke said in a briefing the “clear” conclusion of the review was that the vaccine “benefits in protecting people from Covid with the associated risk of death or hospitalisation outweighs the possible risks”.

For a number of European countries, including Norway, Denmark and Sweden, the EMA’s findings were not reassuring enough. More from the Guardian:

Norway, whose expert panel said on Thursday it was “convinced” of a link between the shot and the rare brain blood clots, Sweden, which reported one death from clotting and heavy bleeding, and Denmark said they needed more time before making a decision.

Norway’s Institute of Public Health said it “took note” of the EMA finding but felt it was “premature” to come to a final conclusion, saying it would issue its own guidance late next week.

Sweden said it would “examine the information” and hoped to decide within days “on the best way to use this vaccine in the future”. Søren Brostrøm, head of the Danish health authority, said it needed “time to get to the bottom of this… We need to look for causal relations and see if there are other explanations”.

Finland said it was suspending the use of the jab while it investigates two possible cases of blood clots.

Worth reading in full.

Professor Lockdown Strikes Again

Scarcely a week passes without Neil Ferguson popping up to issue a dire warning about the risks of opening up too soon. This morning, he appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme to warn about the risk posed by the new South African variant which he linked to the resurgence of the virus on the continent. His solution? Ban summer holidays. MailOnline has more.

Professor Neil Ferguson warned today that Britain must keep out the South African variant of coronavirus amid spiralling cases in Europe, suggesting foreign holiday plans may have to be shelved.

The SAGE adviser – dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ because his gloomy modelling of the first wave spooked ministers into the spring shutdown – said the troubling Covid strain was accounting for a “significant” amount of new cases on the continent.

He stopped short of calling for an outright travel ban but hinted that tough surveillance and quarantining at airports and borders would need to remain in place.

MailOnline notes that Professor Ferguson is assuming that vaccines are our only protection against infection from SARS-CoV-2.

But antibodies make up just one part of the immune response to Covid – for example white blood cells also play a critical role.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: A new study out of Oxford has concluded that the Covid vaccines are more effective against the Brazilian variant than previously thought and may be effective against the South African variant, too. The Times has more.

The study from Oxford, which has yet to be peer reviewed, suggests that the antibodies created by existing jabs and by natural infections can still neutralise the Brazilian and South African variants. This happened at lower levels than recorded with a strain that circulated during the first months of the pandemic.

Worth reading in full.

New Anti-Lockdown Party Seeks Candidates

A new political party has been set up to give opponents of the lockdown policy an opportunity to stand as candidates in the forthcoming local elections.

The Democratic Network, set up by Nigel Jacklin, a statistician and market researcher, is looking for candidates to stand in May. To date, it is the only party that’s pledged support for anti-lockdown campaign group Time for Recovery’s ‘Five Reasonable Demands’.

1. Behave with humanity

2. Give equal regard to all lives

3. Hold a comprehensive public inquiry and a balanced public debate

4. Safeguard all that makes life worth living

5. Get the economy moving for the sake of our children

Nigel says about his reason for setting up the new party:

People want to send a message to the political establishment, and we can do that in May. We have no national ambitions. Our focus now is on the May local elections and we want to get elected.

If you’d like to be a candidate, or support other candidates, you can do so by completing the short survey (‘the Network Survey’) at the bottom of the page at www.TheDemocraticNetwork.org.

Jon Dobinson, the tireless organiser behind Time for Recovery, is supportive of the venture. He says:

Although Recovery has strong supporters in all the main political parties, the Democratic Network is the first to back our Five Reasonable Demands for good Government during COVID-19 as a party. I congratulate them on a very smart move – polling shows that the Five Reasonable Demands have the overwhelming support of the British public, for whom they represent a far less damaging way to overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19.

As the country starts to open up, we must face up to the huge damage that the harsh measures taken during the pandemic have done. As the charity MIND has highlighted, we now face a mental health pandemic caused by loneliness and the Government’s campaign of fear, which is costing millions of adults and even worse, our children their peace of mind.

There’s a massive NHS crisis that must be fixed urgently, with vital screening programmes cancelled and almost five million people now on waiting lists. Plus we have the worst economic outlook in living memory. Yet many politicians still back rules which are making all this worse.

Unbelievably, we still even have the Ofcom restrictions telling broadcasters to censor good news in case people think that COVID-19 restrictions are unnecessary – rules which are worsening the mental health problems of millions of us on a daily basis. It’s time to return to our senses: we urgently need all our parties to follow The Democratic Network’s lead.

The November online poll that Jon’s referring to was carried out by Yonder and involved a representative sample of over 2,000 people. It found that three quarters of people (77%) would support the adoption of the Five Reasonable Demands by the Government. Half (49%) would strongly support them, and only 3% opposed them.

Be warned: several friends of mine who got involved in the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 ended up being pursued mercilessly through the courts by the Electoral Commission in the aftermath of Vote Leave’s victory, often at the behest of embittered Remain activists. It’s a safe bet that if any of the Democratic Network’s candidates actually win in May, their defeated opponents will submit vexatious complaints to the Commission and, if its track record is anything to go by, those complaints will be energetically followed up. If it can find any pretext for doing so, it will make the lives of those candidates and the party’s officers absolutely miserable – a task made easier by the fact that the Conservative Government will be aligned with the Commission in this instance. From what little due diligence I’ve done, Nigel seems like a responsible, decent bloke who is doing his best to comply with the voluminous red tape that any political party has to wrestle its way through. But tread carefully.

Covid “Certificates” Under Consideration for Large Events

The Government is considering introducing Covid “certificates” without which people would be unable to attend larger events post-lockdown(s). Reports suggest the documents would show whether individuals have had a vaccine or tested negative in the last few days. The Guardian has the story.

Coronavirus “certificates” that would show whether people have had a vaccine or a negative test are being considered by the Government as a way of getting people back to larger events, the Culture Secretary has said.

Oliver Dowden told Sky News that he hoped people would be able to return “in significant numbers” from June 21st if “all goes to plan”.

“We’re piloting the different things that will enable that to happen – clearly it will have to be done in a Covid-secure way,” he said. 

There would be tests of one-way systems, masks and hand-hygiene, he added. “Another thing that we are considering is a Covid certification, and we will be testing whether we can use Covid certification to help facilitate the return of sports.”

He said final decisions had not been made and the department was working with the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, who is leading a review.

Dowden said: “Social distancing makes it very, very difficult… for theatre productions to be run profitably. It makes it very, very difficult for our football clubs to run profitably if you have to have those large distances between people.” But the Government was proceeding with caution because it wanted to ensure a “permanent reopening”.

The Sun reports that the scheme will be “piloted indoors at the World Snooker Championship at Sheffield’s legendary Crucible on April 17th, and then outdoors too during the FA cup final on May 15th at Wembley”.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: A reader has got in touch to point out that if the vaccines don’t stop people catching the disease and transmitting it, but only reduce the severity of the symptoms, what’s the point of vaccine “certificates”? People allowed into football matches who’ve been vaccinated will still be able to infect others.

Yesterday I received a Government leaflet – “COVID-19 Vaccination; A Guide for Older Adults” – along with an invitation to have the vaccination. It includes the following sentence (p.11): “We do not yet know whether it [the vaccine] will stop you from catching and passing on the virus.”

This is astonishing and contradicts all the propaganda that the Government pumps out daily. If it isn’t known whether the vaccine will prevent infection or transmission of COVID-19, how can it possibly be used as a ‘passport’ when the passport holder could have – and be able to pass on – the virus? In the Government’s own words, the statement on page 11 undermines its whole case for vaccination passports.

Government Borrowed £19 Billion in February, Pushing National Debt Up to £2.13 Trillion

The Government borrowed £19.1 billion in February, the highest since comparable records began in 1993. Serious measures are needed to flatten the UK’s growing mountain of debt, but the Government hopes to stop short of introducing another period of “austerity”. The Mail has the story.

Rishi Sunak renewed his vow to balance the books today as the Government broke another borrowing record.

The £19.1 billion figure for last month was the highest February figure since comparable records began in 1993. 

It means that net debt has risen by £333 billion since coronavirus chaos kicked in last April, with the UK’s debt mountain reaching £2.131 trillion – equivalent to 97.5% of GDP.

Responding to the ONS figures, the Chancellor said: “Coronavirus has caused one of the largest economic shocks this country has ever faced, which is why we responded with our £352 billion package of support to protect lives and livelihoods.

“This was the fiscally responsible thing to do and the best way to support the public finances in the medium-term.

“But I have always said that we should look to return the public finances to a more sustainable path once the economy has recovered and at the Budget I set out how we will begin to do just that, providing families and businesses with certainty.” …

Rather than go ahead with another period of “austerity” – which Boris Johnson has already ruled out – it is more likely that tax rises and borrowing would increase instead to make up the shortfall, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said.

The UK’s tax burden is already set to hit the highest level since the 1960s as Mr Sunak raises billions by dragging more people into higher income tax rates and increasing rates for businesses.

The relationship between the stringency of lockdowns and the level of economic suffering is well established, as is highlighted here.

Worth reading in full.

News Round Up

Stop Press: Jonny Peppiatt, a regular contributor to Lockdown Sceptics, has written a book, Frustrations of a Sceptic, that’s now available on Amazon, both as an ebook and in paperback and includes some of his pieces for this site.

The 12 months from 19th March 2020 saw the collapse of sanity, the war against science (which, unfortunately, science lost), the loss of my life in London, the loss of friends over the war on science, and the most severe depression I’d experienced since my school years.

This book is a collection of pieces written in these 12 months. The first half is made up of musings on depression and anxiety. The second half is made up of articles, poems, and some slightly sillier pieces, including 11 of my pieces published in Lockdown Sceptics, outlining all the many, many reasons why I believe that the lockdowns have been such a catastrophic mistake.

Jonny is between jobs so please support him by buying a copy of his book. Only £4.99 on Kindle.

Is There a Third Wave in Europe?

Europe shared in the worldwide fall-off in coronavirus infections in January and February but, unlike in the UK, that trend has reversed in the past few weeks and the continent, especially in the east, is beginning to see sharp rises again.

The World Health Organisation’s Emergencies Lead in Europe, Dr Catherine Smallwood, has said she is “particularly worried” about the situation in the Balkans, the Baltic States and Central Europe, where hospitalisation and death rates are now among the highest in the world. The Telegraph has more.

The numbers of new cases per million people are also rising so fast that in some countries – notably Estonia, Bosnia, Hungary and Poland – the graphs tracking the virus point almost vertically upwards. 

Experts said that the combination of the spread of the more transmissible UK variant coupled with slow Government reactions, as well as a lack of vaccinations in some countries, could all be contributing to the spiking numbers and Europe’s looming third wave. 

The jury is still out on how much more transmissible the UK variant really is. As Dr Clare Craig notes in relation to the UK: “The ONS Survey had it falling before Lockdown 3 was announced. At peak cases ONS reckoned 61% of COVID cases in England were new variant, 33% in Northern Ireland, 22% in Scotland and only 5% in Wales – yet all had a winter wave.” The assumption that “slow Government reactions” make a difference is also not in line with the findings of most studies, which find no association between restrictions and spread.

The WHO said that the situation was “most acute” in areas that had been successful “in controlling the disease [sic] in the first six months of 2020”, suggesting for many of the countries this is more an extended first wave than a second or third.

Nonetheless, it looks like the region may be in for a rough ride over the next few weeks.

Positive rates from Our World in Data