Michael Curzon

Israel Begins to Ease Lockdown Restrictions as around 80% Of Its Population Are Now Vaccinated

With almost 80% of its population having been vaccinated, Israel has scrapped the requirement for people to wear face masks outdoors. The rule has been in place – for all outdoor activities not relating to exercise – for the past year. The Mail has the story.

Israel has dropped its almost year-long outdoor mask mandate as it inches towards total immunisation of its adult population. 

The restriction, which required masks to be worn outdoors unless exercising, was lifted on Sunday as Reuters reported that the country had vaccinated around 80% of its adult population. 

“The rate of infection in Israel is very low thanks to the successful vaccine campaign in Israel, and therefore it is possible to ease [restrictions],” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said on Thursday, adding that masks will still be required indoors.

Israel’s highly successful vaccination campaign has seen close to five million of its 9.3 million people vaccinated, according to Reuters.

The drive has drastically cut hospitalisations and deaths from coronavirus. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu obtained millions of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines in part by agreeing to share with Pfizer medical data on the product’s impact.

The vaccines have transformed life in Israel. In mid-January the country had a peak of some 10,000 new infections a day but the rate is now about 200 cases a day.

The rate of new infections has remained low even after in-person learning resumed and restrictions were loosened on bars, restaurants and indoor gatherings.

Strict measures also remain in place for anyone entering the country with citizens and foreigners alike required to self isolate.   

“We are leading the world right now when it comes to emerging from the coronavirus,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters. “(But) we have still not finished with the coronavirus. It can return.”  

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla was a guest of honour at a Government ceremony on Wednesday evening marking the 73rd anniversary of the founding of Israel…

Throughout the festivities marking the anniversary, thousands of people held barbecues, lounged on beaches and celebrated at parties, often without masks.

“Breathing Freely,” read the cover headline of the mass-circulation daily Israel Hayom, as reported by Reuters.

The Mail’s report is worth reading in full.

International Travel Restrictions Likely to Be In Place For Some Time, Says Nicola Sturgeon

Concerns over new Covid variants continue to hamper the narrative regarding Britain’s unlock. Nicola Sturgeon has warned that restrictions on international travel should not be lifted too soon because of the “big risk” of importing Covid variants into the UK. Scotland’s First Minister also told Sophy Ridge on Sky News that the British Government’s “traffic light” system for international travel is not fit for purpose because “we don’t know where the next dangerous variant will come from“.

The Daily Record has the story.

Nicola Sturgeon has warned Scotland faces a “big risk” of importing new variants of the coronavirus if restrictions on international travel are lifted too soon.

The First Minister admitted lifting travel abroad “too quickly” last year which allowed the virus to re-seed amongst the population, which then lead to a second national lockdown.

Speaking on the Sophy Ridge on Sunday show, the SNP leader said Scots face living longer with international travel restrictions due to the risk of importing new strains of Covid. 

She added: “The big risk that we face, not just in Scotland but in the UK, is the importation of new variants of the virus.

“Variants that might be faster spreading, that might be more severe, and crucially variants that might undermine the efficacy of the vaccines.

“We have to be very careful about that which is why I think one of the restrictions we’re all going to have to live with for longer is a restriction on international travel.

“We must not allow the progress we are making domestically to be undermined by a too lax position on international travel.”

… Asked about the fast-spreading Indian variant, Sturgeon said: … “It is a variant of interest as oppose to a variant of concern.”

Worth reading in full.

Too Early to Tell If Hospitality Can Reopen On May 17th, Says Minister

It is still “too early to say” whether the reopening of indoor hospitality can take place on May 17th, according to the Environment Minister. George Eustice told Andrew Marr on the BBC that while Britain’s vaccine rollout is “on track” (with 10 million second doses expected to have been administered by the end of the weekend), the risk of Covid variants could delay the next step in the Government’s “roadmap” out of lockdown. He is quoted on the Guardian website:

Well, it is too early to say. But I think we are on track in the sense that we are on track with the rollout of the vaccination programme. We have now vaccinated everybody over the age of 50 and this week they are offering vaccinations as well to those under the age of 50, starting with the 45-to-59 year-olds – so that bit is on track.

But we are being a bit cautious here. So although we have now got 60% of the adult population vaccinated we do just have to keep a close eye on these variants of concern.

Also, see what the impacts are of the easements we have just made, the loosenings we have just made, before moving to the next stage.

He delivered a similar message to Sophy Ridge on Sky News:

The biggest threat to everything we’re doing at the moment is that at some point there will be a variant that manages to evade the vaccine or largely evade it, so it is high on our concerns which is why while the vaccine rollout has been incredibly successful with over 60% of the adult population now vaccinated, we continue to proceed with some caution as we come out of lockdown.

The impact of the partial easing of lockdown earlier this month has been tempered by the weather (of course!) and by the fact that a “large proportion” of hospitality businesses do not have access to sufficient outdoor space. Kate Nicholls, the Chief Executive of UK Hospitality, said that even those venues which were able to reopen outdoors “still aren’t going to break even… the best they are going to achieve outdoors is 20%”, highlighting the need to allow businesses to open fully – that is, indoors.

Imperial College’s Danny Altmann said on Friday that “we should be terribly concerned” about the emergence of the Indian Covid variant in Britain, which could “scupper” the “roadmap” out of lockdown – a statement which a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) says is “pessimistic“. The Evening Standard reported:

Imported coronavirus variants are unlikely to set lockdown easing back to “square one” because immunity from vaccines “won’t just disappear”, according to a key figure on the UK’s immunisation committee.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, said he expected a “gradual erosion” of vaccine protection as the virus evolves but not enough to “scupper” the Prime Minister’s roadmap, as one leading scientist had predicted.

Meanwhile, Covid cases have fallen to a seven-month low in England.

Britain’s Regulator Missed Early Blood Clot Cases Linked to AstraZeneca Vaccine

By the time cases of blood clotting in patients who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine had begun to emerge on the Continent (in March), Britain had already administered 11 million doses (the first ones having been given in January). No such adverse events had been reported publicly in Britain, but not for a lack of cases, according to the findings of a new investigation. Clotting cases were recorded in the UK’s Yellow Card database (a website for reporting adverse drug reactions) in January but were missed at first by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) – possibly due to the algorithms it uses to interrogate UK data. The Telegraph has the story.

On March 11th, the MHRA put out a statement saying it could see no evidence of a problem…

But the MHRA was, it appears, wrong. An investigation by the Telegraph has established that signals had been firing unnoticed in the UK’s Yellow Card database for at least a month, perhaps longer.

In January, a patient suffered a brain clot following their first dose of the AstraZeneca jab… Then in early February, two similar cases followed, including a death and a life-changing CVST clot in a young adult. All had low platelets and all were reported into the Yellow Card system.

On Friday, the MHRA told the Telegraph: “We are aware of thromboembolic events that occurred in January, however, our first report was received in the week commencing February 8th…. we cannot disclose information about individual cases to protect patient and reporter confidentiality.”

… The MHRA faces serious questions as to why it did not detect the signals sooner. The issue is not that it has been left looking flatfooted or even that earlier detection would necessarily have altered its advice, but that the delay left it unable to shape international policy and confidence in what remains a vital vaccine in the fight against Covid for the world.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol studying the rollout of Covid vaccines, told the Financial Times on Friday: “The MHRA was slow in responding to the emergence of a specific constellation of symptoms associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine and slow to communicate what they were finding – and I am not the only one who thinks so.”

This slow repose was caused, it is said, by algorithms which were not as sensitive as the ones used by European health agencies to sift through data.

From January 4th to March 14th, a total of 532 “blood system events”, including 20 deaths, came through the UK’s Yellow Card system relating to the AstraZeneca jab, according to an analysis of published MHRA data by Dr Hamid Merchant, a pharmaceutical scientist at the University of Huddersfield. There were thousands of non-blood-related reports besides.

Of the thrombotic events recorded, four related to CVST (but no deaths were recorded), 55 were non-site specific and there were clusters of 64 and 66 cases in the lungs and deep veins respectively. There were then 267 general bleeding events and six deaths, three of which resulted from cerebral haemorrhage. Finally, there were 60 cases of thrombocytopenia, including two deaths.

To sift such data, regulators build algorithms that must balance “sensitivity” against leg-work. The more sensitive the algorithm, the more warning signals it will throw up to investigate – and many of those labour-intensive investigations will prove fruitless.

It is not known exactly what parameters the MHRA set but it is clear they were not as sensitive as those used by some regulators in Europe. 

U.S. States Say They Are Running Out of People Willing to Take a Covid Vaccine

Reports of low Covid vaccine uptake have mainly come from the Continent in recent months – largely due to fears about the AstraZeneca vaccine’s links to blood clots. But vaccine hesitancy now seems to be spreading in America, where a number of states say they are running out of people willing to take a Covid vaccine.

On Tuesday, Federal health agencies called for the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine (which has already been given to nearly seven million Americans) to be paused immediately due to some recipients developing rare blood clotting disorders within two weeks of being vaccinated. The vaccine is also under investigation by Europe’s medicines regulator. Cases of blood clotting among those who have received the J&J vaccine are likely to have contributed to vaccination refusal rates in the US, in the same way that similar fears regarding the AZ vaccine have added complications to Europe’s rollout. The Mail has the story.

The U.S. supply of Covid vaccines is beginning to rapidly outpace demand, as appointments remain unfilled across the country and states say they are running out of people willing to get the shots.

As of Friday, 49% of U.S. adults had received at least one vaccine dose…

Health officials have suggested that the country needs to achieve a vaccination rate of 70% to 90% to achieve coronavirus herd immunity, the point at which a virus no longer circulates freely because it cannot find susceptible hosts…

On Friday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued a desperate plea for residents to get vaccinated, as clinics in the state reported hundreds, if not thousands, of available appointments that were not being filled each day…

She said the fact that nearly half of Pennsylvania’s nursing home workers have declined the vaccine is further evidence of “how far we have to go and how much of a challenge overcoming this vaccine hesitancy will be in the near future”.

Vaccination rates are so low in some states that their leaders are considering various “creative” ways of increasing uptake.

Louisiana has gotten creative in its vaccine push, with brass bands playing at a 24-hour drive-thru coronavirus vaccine event, and doses delivered to commercial fishermen minutes from the docks…

Almost 15% Of English Health Service Workers Remain Unvaccinated

Reports are emerging that many health service workers in England are refusing the vaccine, as the numbers coming forward to receive a Covid jab have fallen significantly over the past couple of weeks. But despite (or, perhaps, because of) an ongoing Government consultation into making Covid vaccinations mandatory for care staff (which would likely extend into other health-related fields), opposition to coercing staff in this manner appears to be growing. The Guardian has the story.

Nearly 15% of health service workers in England remain unvaccinated, and the numbers coming forward for a jab have decreased sharply in the last two weeks, NHS figures have revealed, prompting concerns that many frontline staff are refusing the vaccine.

But health leaders, patients’ groups and unions have been quick to dismiss any suggestion of mandatory vaccinations after it emerged that Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, had embarked on a plan before the pandemic to make flu vaccinations compulsory for NHS staff.

The latest figures show that only 6,259 NHS staff in England had their first dose in the seven days before April 11th, down from 11,483 the previous week and substantially lower than the average of 22,985 per week during March. Now 190,697 workers out of 1,378,502 directly employed by the NHS remain unprotected against the coronavirus, four months after they became eligible for vaccination. The figures do not include agency workers, and will include some under-45s who are not frontline staff and are still waiting their turn.

Some NHS trusts would like to introduce mandatory vaccination because they believe efforts to persuade remaining staff are a distraction from other important tasks such as tackling the enormous waiting lists that have grown during the lockdowns.

Lesley Watts, the Chief Executive of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Foundation Trust, wrote to other NHS trusts with a draft letter to staff saying Covid vaccination would be mandatory. After the letter was leaked, Watts said there was “no intention to mandate vaccination of our staff”, but did not explain why the letter was written or distributed.

Hancock was a strident critic of anti-vaxxer movements before the pandemic, and told a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference in 2019 that he favoured making vaccinations compulsory for all childhood diseases. He then asked civil servants at the Department of Health and Social Care to work out how to make flu vaccines mandatory for NHS staff. The DHSC did not say if the proposal was still being considered.

In perhaps the biggest intervention on the question of mandatory vaccination for health service workers yet, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) – which has a membership of 450,000 registered nurses – said in a statement released on Friday that health and social care staff should not be “coerced” into having a Covid vaccine.

Like the wider population, health and care staff are a diverse group and there are both physical and societal barriers for some on the take up for the vaccine. 

The RCN do not support staff being made or coerced into having the vaccine. Staff vaccination should not be used as part of staff contracts, it should not be a condition of employment or part of employment contracts, linked to terms and conditions of employment or to pay.

The RCN do not believe that this approach is effective in improving uptake of vaccination in staff. The RCN recommend that all organisations have a proactive approach and make sure their staff have easy access to the vaccine within the working day. Staff should also have access to support with the right information, encouragement and clear explanation of the benefit and value of the vaccine. These measures will help to achieve a high vaccine uptake.

The Guardian’s report is worth reading in full.

Vaccine Immunity “Won’t Just Disappear” in Face Of Covid Variants, Says JCVI Member

A member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) says claims that the Government’s “roadmap” out of lockdown could be “scuppered” by Covid variants are “pessimistic”, saying that the immunity gained from vaccines “won’t just disappear”. The Evening Standard has the story.

Imported coronavirus variants are unlikely to set lockdown easing back to “square one” because immunity from vaccines “won’t just disappear”, according to a key figure on the UK’s immunisation committee.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, said he expected a “gradual erosion” of vaccine protection as the virus evolves but not enough to “scupper” the Prime Minister’s road map, as one leading scientist had predicted.

Imperial College’s Danny Altmann said on Friday that “we should be terribly concerned” about the discovery of 77 cases of the Indian Covid variant in Britain. He is quoted in a Sky News report:

[Covid variants] are things that can most scupper our escape plan at the moment and give us a third wave. They are a worry.

But Professor Finn of the JCVI said he thought the immunology expert’s assessment was “a bit pessimistic”.

We’ve all expected evolution of this virus to occur from the start.

I also think that we know from other viruses and previous experience that the immunity that vaccines give won’t just disappear.

It will be a gradual erosion. It won’t be back to square one. I would be really surprised if that happened.

So, I think, possibly, that interpretation is a bit pessimistic.

He added, however, that “we’re going to need to continue to be really quite careful” and that many aspects of life, including overseas travel, “won’t go back to normal yet” as we need to “avoid moving the virus around”.

The Evening Standard’s report is worth reading in full.

Pregnant Women Should Be Offered Covid Vaccine, New Government Advice Says

Pregnant women should be offered a Covid vaccine at any stage of their pregnancy, according to new Government advice. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advises that it is “preferable” for pregnant women to be “offered” the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines “where available” due to there being more “real-world data” from the US on these vaccines. The AstraZeneca vaccine (the primary Covid vaccine in the Government’s rollout) will, however, still be administered where an alternative is not available, despite the JCVI saying that “more research is needed” on this vaccine because pregnant women were not included in trials. It will “continue to closely monitor” the impact of the AZ vaccine on pregnant women as it is administered. BBC News has the story.

Pregnant women should be offered a Covid jab when other people their age get one, the UK’s vaccine advisers say.

They say the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are preferable because data from the US in 90,000 pregnant women has not raised any safety concerns.

Up until now, only women with underlying health conditions or those whose risk of exposure to the virus was high were eligible…

The JCVI now advises that pregnant women should all be offered the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines where available, at the same time as the rest of the population. 

They are encouraged to discuss the risks and benefits of the vaccines with their doctor before making the appointment, but it is not a requirement.

“There is no evidence to suggest that other vaccines are unsafe for pregnant women, but more research is needed,” it added.

Currently, there is a lack of data on the AstraZeneca vaccine in pregnancy because pregnant women were not included in trials, but the JCVI says more evidence may be forthcoming in the near future…

Women who are planning pregnancy or are breastfeeding can be vaccinated with any vaccine, depending on their age and clinical risk group, the JCVI said.

It said it would closely monitor the evidence on Covid vaccination in pregnancy and update its advice as required.

Worth reading in full.

Royal College of Nursing Comes Out against Mandatory Vaccination for Health and Social Care Staff

Health and social care staff should not be “coerced” into having a Covid vaccine, says the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). The union, which boasts a membership of 450,000 registered nurses, has encouraged all staff to take a vaccine but says that those who decide not to should be supported. In some cases, however, it notes that it may be “appropriate for employers to consider redeploying [those who choose not to take the vaccine] to lower risk areas”. In a statement, the RNC said there are “serious concerns around mandating vaccines”.

Like the wider population, health and care staff are a diverse group and there are both physical and societal barriers for some on the take up for the vaccine. 

The RCN do not support staff being made or coerced into having the vaccine. Staff vaccination should not be used as part of staff contracts, it should not be a condition of employment or part of employment contracts, linked to terms and conditions of employment or to pay.

The RCN do not believe that this approach is effective in improving uptake of vaccination in staff. The RCN recommend that all organisations have a proactive approach and make sure their staff have easy access to the vaccine within the working day. Staff should also have access to support with the right information, encouragement and clear explanation of the benefit and value of the vaccine. These measures will help to achieve a high vaccine uptake.

In their supplementary guidance to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, the HSE say that employers should explain the advantages and disadvantages of immunisation versus non-immunisation. Immunisation should be seen only as a useful supplement to reinforce physical and procedural control measures, not as the sole protective measure. 

The HSE adds that employees may not wish to take up the offer of immunisation, or they may not respond to a vaccine and will, therefore, not be immune. If so, employers should consider the effectiveness of the other controls and consider whether any additional controls should be implemented to allow them to work safely.

If RCN members decide they do not want the vaccine the reasons should be explored. If they remain anxious about having the vaccine, the RCN would support their decision. It may be appropriate for employers to consider redeploying them to lower risk areas.

The Government is currently conducting a consultation on making Covid vaccinations mandatory for care home staff working with elderly residents. As it stands, the vaccine rates among staff at older adult care homes are below SAGE’s recommended level in more than half of England’s local authorities.

The RCN’s statement is worth reading in full.

Cost of Covid Tests for Holidaymakers Still Too High, Says Travel Firm

When overseas travel returns this summer, holidaymakers – including those travelling to countries on the Government’s “green list” – will have to take at least one Covid test. Unfortunately, these don’t come cheap, with the average cost sitting at around £120 per person, per test. This, clearly, is enough to price out many families from holidays abroad. Competition between the companies offering PCR test kits is bringing prices down, but slowly. Randox, a firm based in Northern Ireland, has halved the cost of its kit to £60. Even then, testing costs will still add almost £250 to the holiday bill for a family of four (returning from a “green list” country).

The Chief Operating Officer at Hays Travel says that £60 is still too high and that the Government should step in to help make the cost of testing more manageable. Sky News has the story.

The cost of Covid tests for holidaymakers should be cut to £30 to encourage people to start travelling again, a boss at one of Britain’s biggest travel chains has told Sky News.

Jonathan Woodall, chief operating officer at Hays Travel, said that the current price of up to £200 for PCR tests was too high and will be a “barrier for customers” as restrictions ease next month.

He said the Government should help bring the cost down…

Industry figures including easyJet boss Johan Lundgren have said that the rule [on testing] threatens to price ordinary travellers out of returning to the skies.

Speaking to Sky’s Ian King Live, Mr Woodall said the cost of the tests would “cause a barrier” – especially for families looking at total bills of around £600 for the tests.

“We are hoping that Government will help us get those tests reduced,” he added.

Jonathan Woodall said that Randox’s price reduction was a step in the right direction but that the figure should be lower still.

From our point of view, we would like to see that price to be around £30, we think that would be acceptable…

It’s important that we can get our industry back to some normality, it’s important the customers can start to travel.

Worth reading in full.