Rise in UK Covid cases above 1,000 a day breached government target

1,000 confirmed new cases of Covid-19 a day.

For comparison ONS latest estimate is 3,700.

The Covid symptom study estimates 1,626.

The Covid symptom study tracking the day by day evolution shows cases falling until July 8/9 then rising to July 27/28, and now falling slowly again.

However East Devon is currently showing as a potential local hot spot with 798 active prevalent cases per million i.e.includes period of continuing infectivity. (Around 55 cases).

Sarah Boseley www.theguardian.com 

The rise above 1,000 daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK breaches the ceiling that the government’s own Joint Biosecurity Centre said was acceptable in May, it has emerged.

After the number of tested and confirmed cases rose to 1,062 in 24 hours at the weekend – the first time the daily total has exceeded 1,000 since late June – a senior public health expert said the escalation was “unacceptable, ineffective and dangerous”.

Prof Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine and a member of Independent Sage, said the government was failing to suppress the virus by its own standards.

“Something’s got to change, otherwise we are really in for an extraordinarily difficult time,” he said.

“It’s bad, and at the back of it all is that the government does not have a strategy. The last time they published a strategy for Covid-19 was 3 March. What they have published is a strategy for removing social restriction, but that’s not about dealing with the virus. They have no strategy for dealing with the virus that they have ever made public.”

In a 20 May document on the website of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the Joint Biosecurity Centre set out targets that it felt needed to be met if “flare-ups” of Covid-19 were to be avoided.

Top of the list was keeping the caseload below 1,000 confirmed infections a day. “Decreasing daily incidence of symptomatic cases in all regions across the UK until the target acceptable incidence is reached, then incidence kept below that target. This target is yet to be specified and needs to be spelt out. We suggest 1,000 new symptomatic swab +ve [positive] cases per day in the UK,” it says.

The government’s official dashboard says there were 1,062 tested and confirmed cases as of 9am on Sunday 9 August. New cases dropped to 816 on Monday morning, the government said; infections counted on Sunday tend to be lower than on other days.

Other sources, including the Office for National Statistics, suggest far more infections are not being picked up by testing, many of them symptomless. Last week they estimated that there were 3,700 new cases per day. The NHS test-and-trace programme has appealed for more people to come forward for testing.

Independent Sage, the group of scientists who came together amid concerns over government policy and lack of transparency, said the current test-and-trace system in the community does not work. The centralised, privatised call centre system should be scrapped when it comes up for renewal on 23 August, they said in a report published on Monday.

Contracts with the private providers Serco and Sitel should be cancelled, it added. Their contact tracers reached only 56% of the 91,785 contacts of newly infected people transferred from the test system over nine weeks, the report said.

The group called for help and support, including financial assistance, for people asked to self-isolate, and warned that many would be living in crowded conditions or in multi-generational families and that those on zero hours contracts would feel obliged to carry on working.

“If we don’t take isolation seriously, our economy will spiral downwards. We should have had an effective isolation policy in February, with better pandemic planning. Not to have one six months later is nothing short of public health malpractice,” said the report.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said of the rise in cases to more than 1,000 in a day: “The UK continues to have low levels of disease compared to the start of the pandemic and, thanks to our large testing capacity, we are able to detect more cases now than ever before. We will not hesitate to take necessary steps to stop the spread of the virus and continue to urge the public to play their part by following government guidance.”

Another 21 deaths were added to the official government statistics on Monday, bringing the total confirmed to have died with Covid-19 to 46,526. More than 1,000 people are in hospital, of whom 67 are on ventilators.

Government paid Vote Leave AI firm to analyse UK citizens’ tweets

Two issues raised in this article: privacy; and whether social media posts  provide an accurate insight into public attitudes. – Owl

Privacy campaigners have expressed alarm after the government revealed it had hired an artificial intelligence firm to collect and analyse the tweets of UK citizens as part of a coronavirus-related contract.

Faculty, which was hired by Dominic Cummings to work for the Vote Leave campaign and counts two current and former Conservative ministers among its shareholders, was paid £400,000 by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for the work, according to a copy of the contract published online.

In June the Guardian reported Faculty had been awarded the contract, but that key passages in the published version of the document describing the work that the company would carry out had been redacted.

In response to questions about the contract in the House of Lords, the government published an unredacted version of the contract, which describes the company’s work as “topic analysis of social media to understand public perception and emerging issues of concern to HMG arising from the Covid-19 crisis”.

A further paragraph describes how machine learning will be applied to social media data.

Silkie Carlo, the director of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, which discovered the updated contract, expressed alarm at the details. “This is effectively AI-powered mass political surveillance, and it’s been done in a very secretive way, apparently to inform policy,” she said.

“It seems from the contract this social media monitoring has been going on for three months, and machine learning has been used for that time. We don’t know what the impact is.”

A Faculty spokesperson declined to comment on the criticism, but said that the project analysed public posts from Twitter containing words relating to the pandemic, such as “covid” or “coronavirus”, as part of an endeavour to help the government detect emerging issues relating to the pandemic in local communities.

They said personally identifiable information, such as Twitter usernames or profiles, was stripped out from the data at the point of collection, meaning it would be impossible to use the information to profile any individual or group of people.

Carlo expressed scepticism that social media posts would provide the government with an accurate insight into public attitudes. “Twitter is not representative of public opinion as a whole,” she said. “I think there are a lot of questions to be asked about the premise.”

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “We are satisfied that the service provided by Faculty was of a high standard, and delivered on value for money.” They added that the contract expired in July.

The MHCLG social media work is one of several government contracts awarded to Faculty relating to coronavirus. In March an existing contract to support the NHS with AI initiatives was expanded so that the firm could help create a “coronavirus datastore” for the government, visualising NHS data to help inform ministerial decision-making.

The company has several links to figures in the Vote Leave campaign and the Conservative party. Two of its investors, Theodore Agnew and John Nash, are current or former Conservative ministers.

In 2016 the firm was recruited by Cummings to provide data science and machine learning technology for the Vote Leave campaign. The work was carried out by Ben Warner, the brother of Faculty’s CEO, Marc Warner.

Ben subsequently worked on the Conservative party’s 2019 general election campaign, and was later recruited as a data science adviser to Downing Street.

Last month the Guardian reported Cummings had paid more than £250,000 to Faculty via his private consultancy firm, Dynamic Maps. Both parties have declined to explain what the payments were for. Faculty has previously said it would no longer accept political work.

The Scott Trust, the ultimate owner of the Guardian, is the sole investor in GMG Ventures, which is a minority shareholder in Faculty.

An Independent SAGE discussion document on contact tracing and self-isolation

https://www.independentsage.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/An-Independent-SAGE-statement-on-contact-tracing-and-self-isolation-FINAL.docx

On 13 February, 83 British men, women and children were allowed to leave 14 days of isolation from Arrowe Park hospital, after evacuation from Wuhan at the end of January. (1)This was an appropriate quarantine response to potential contacts of a deadly new virus. On the same day, a nurse in Brighton was placed into ‘self-isolation’ by Public Health England. (2)She was a contact of the first UK super-spreader’ who had returned from Singapore via a skiing trip in France (3). She had some symptoms and was astonished at the poor response. She was sent home wearing a medical mask, in a taxi with a driver without a mask. No advice was given about how to stop the spread of the virus. She had to arrange her own grocery and takeaways to be delivered to her door. Her immune system was compromised so she was fearful that the infection could be fatal. Her children were distressed when she immediately got everyone out of her house. When she called NHS111 she had to wait 15 hours to get a test. She told the Brighton Argus that self-isolation was not effective. “I thought there would be a plan in place for something like this, but in my case, I know there wasnt one.”

Six months later, in England, little has changed. Most mild cases and contacts are told to self-isolate over the phone. We have no data on whether they follow any instructions or comply for the full 14 days. A contact may take more than a week to become infectious and longer to develop symptoms. How many of them live in multigenerational households or crowded accommodation, a possible explanation of local outbreaks as those in Leicester? How many are from the five million people working in the gig economy, where 14 days without pay means a family without income to buy food or pay the bills? Does the government collect any data on the number of isolated contacts who become cases, arguably the best indicator of isolation success, as suggested by the Royal Statistical Society? (4) Why are we not offering the financial and on-the-ground support as in South Korea, China, and Germany? We can do as many tests and trace as many contacts as we like, but without effective isolation or quarantine, the epidemic will spread.

South Korea set up a national network of community treatment centres for isolation of positives with mild or no symptoms. (Vietnam did the same.) Patients reported signs and symptoms twice daily using an app. Medical staff reviewed vital signs and provided video consultation to patients twice daily, so fewer staff were needed for tests or to respond to emergencies.

In China people were asked to wait at the clinic for the result of their test. If positive, they stayed in community medical facilities until free of the virus, indicated by two consecutive negative PCR tests. Contacts were asked to self-isolate at home for two weeks but with regular visits by community teams, and with all rental, food and bills covered. Daniel Falush, professor at the Institute Pasteur, Shanghai reported that “Family members no longer infected each other… families with sick individuals stopped passing it on to other ones during inevitable provisioning trips… (later) epidemiologists went house to house looking for individuals with potential symptoms and this reduced the rate of transmission even further.” (5)

In Germany, devolved local power, far more than in the NHS, was the key to success. Local mayors control hospitals. Testing had to be scaled rapidly so GP practices met and set up their own diagnostic centres to relieve local hospitals. The rapid, sufficient availability of testing and co-ordination by primary care meant cases were identified much earlier. (6) Meanwhile central government focused on financial support. Berlin launched a massive economic package, ten per cent of GDP, larger than any in Europe. It helped that Chancellor Merkel is a scientist and her chief of staff a doctor. Germanys 400 local health authorities, the Gesundheitsämter, were made the centre of the public health response. They organised people who required isolation to be checked up for symptoms or deterioration by teams of ’scouts

In England we have done none of these things, except for NHS and care home cases monitored and managed successfully by over-worked health protection and district public health teams. They achieve 99% success in contact tracing and provide follow-up to cases and contacts. Testing should be organised by GPs, primary care networks or local public health clinicians to increase reliability and trust of communicating test results rapidly. This will ensure appropriate advice, monitoring, and care for positive cases and contacts; far more efficient and sustainable than car parks in remote locations.

But local authorities are disempowered and sidelined. GPs are ignored. Volunteer scouts remain largely unused. A huge contract issued to SERCO has led to thousands of contact tracers sitting at home, many doing almost nothing for weeks on end. No person asked to isolate by this centralised privatised system is followed up and workers not on PAYE are not offered financial support. Our summer lull may not last long, with signs already of increasing transmission. Without supported isolation, massive testing and tracing programmes will make little difference in a surge. The centralised contact tracing system is not working, not improving and is fundamentally the wrong design with some localities setting up their own local test, trace and isolation systems. (7)

What should be done? Independent SAGE recommends the following:

The central call centre system should be scrapped and contracts with SERCO and others cancelled. On 23rd August the government will decide whether to extend the current deal worth £108 million up to a maximum of £410 million. The Table shows that SERCO contact tracers had 91,785 contacts of newly infected people transferred from the test system over 9 weeks. They reached just 56% of them (51,524 contacts) during the same period, less than 2 contacts per tracer in more than two months. A fifth of contacts had no contact details and another fifth did not respond to contact attempts. The centralized system has no recourse to check details or find other ways of making contact (e.g. home visits). Call centre tracers also treat each individual contact separately. So with four children and two parents in a household of contacts, up to six different contact tracers might call the family, causing annoyance and confusion and charging separately for each contract. These features make it highly unlikely that the SERCO contract is cost-effective. Budgets should be shifted so contact tracers are recruited and trained by local authority public health teams.

The Deloitte testing contract for community tests in car parks should be ended. In the most recent week’s statistics, only 72% of home test results were received within 48 hours of the test being sent out.

Home testing should be ended and every person in England should have access to a test within a short distance from where they live. Local public health and primary care doctors should get real time information about test results and patient details.

A national framework should be agreed whereby local authorities can make their own decisions about new community restrictions, and set up community centres for quarantine and support of mild cases who cannot isolate effectively at home.

Central government should focus on a) strategic guidance based on evidence, b) financial support to local authorities, and c) financial support guaranteed to all cases and contacts (not just those employed on PAYE) to offset wage losses.

If we don’t take isolation seriously our economy will spiral downwards. We should have had an effective isolation policy in February, with better pandemic planning. Not to have one six months later is nothing short of public health malpractice.

Troubled test and trace system to be scaled back as local authorities given more control

The failing test and trace system will be scaled back under plans to replace thousands of call centre workers with council staff knocking on doors.

The local system has been available from the outset – so why was it sidelined by the Government? Answers on the back of a postcard please to…Owl

By Laura Donnelly, Health Editor and Henry Bodkin, Health and Science Correspondent www.telegraph.co.uk 

 

The major overhaul of the system follows warnings that it is now reaching less than half of contacts of those who test positive for coronavirus. On average, those working for call centres are reaching just one case a month, research shows.

Councils have warned that many of those being called reject attempts to contact them because they assume the unfamiliar “0300” number is a cold caller. There is also concern that translation services have not been made available to those for whom English is not their first language.

Those working for the call centres, run by Serco and Sitel, have said the job was akin to being “paid to watch Netflix”. Under the overhaul, around 6,000 of the 18,000 call handlers will be axed.

Instead, councils will be encouraged to send their own workers out to chase up the contacts of infected cases who have failed to respond to phone calls.

The changes follow warnings that the safe reopening of schools next month depends on improving the performance of test and trace.

Research by the Independent Sage group of scientists suggests that the test and trace workforce of 25,000 staff – which includes around 7,000 clinical case workers and health protection staff – reached fewer than 52,000 close contacts of coronavirus cases in two months.

Under the overhauled programme, council teams can track down anyone who cannot be reached by the national system after 48 hours to tell them to self-isolate. Every council will also be told they can have “dedicated ring-fenced teams” from the national service to help with local contact tracing.

Councils in areas with some of the highest infection rates had already taken matters into their own hands amid concern that the national system was failing to stop the spread of the virus.

Last week, Blackburn with Darwen (see video below) followed Sandwell in sending out its own staff amid frustration at failings in the national system.

Leicester and Luton also tried similar approaches to engage with those who are not responding to calls.

Dido Harding, the chair of NHS Test and Trace, said on Monday that the moves followed “successful trials in a small number of local areas”.

But last week Dominic Harrison, the director of public health in Blackburn with Darwen, suggested the council had become frustrated with the national system. He said: “We are developing our own system. The national system is simply not tracing enough cases and contacts fast enough.”

Earlier this month, Sandwell public health director Lisa McNally said the council was contacting cases as soon as they came in “rather than waiting for Test and Trace to fail to reach them”.

Last week, a study suggested that reopening schools without an improvement in the reach of test and trace could cause a second coronavirus wave more than twice the size of Britain’s first peak.

The study by University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine simulated how the disease might spread (see graphic below) when schools open in September.

It found that if test and trace was more successful, so that 68 per cent of contacts of positive cases were traced, then the spread could be held in check.

Since then, test and trace’s performance has deteriorated further to reach just 46 per cent of contacts in the week ending July 29.

The Department of Health and Social Care said the new approach was a “partnership” with Public Health England and local authorities.

Baroness Harding said: “NHS Test and Trace is one of the largest contact tracing and testing systems anywhere in the world and was built rapidly, drawing on the UK’s existing health protection networks, to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“At the height of the pandemic, we ensured the system had extra capacity in place to cope with potential peaks in the virus.

“We have always been clear that NHS Test and Trace must be local by default and that we do not operate alone – we work with and through partners across the country.

“As we learn more about the spread of the disease, we are able to move to our planned next step and become even more effective in tackling the virus.”

The shadow health minister, Justin Madders, said: “Labour has been calling for a locally-led contact tracing system for months – it’s welcome that local authorities are now finally being given additional support to tackle the virus in their areas.

“But it’s clear Boris Johnson’s £10 billion centralised contact tracing system is nowhere near ‘world beating’, as he claims, and the system is unable to fight local outbreaks successfully.”

Keith Neal, emeritus professor in the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said: “The biggest issue has been that 20-25 per cent of cases have not been contactable. Allowing local authorities to chase up will ensure more are contacted.

“Visiting houses will help, but there is no mention as to what they will do if they are not isolating for 10 days as they should be.”

Under the test and trace programme, call handlers aim to make contact with all infected people and all the contacts they have passed on in order to advise them to self-isolate. If they cannot do so after 10 calls, they are advised to move on to the next case.

In total, fewer than four in five of those who test positive are reached by contact tracers, of whom less than four in five pass on contacts. And of those, less than three-quarters of contacts are reached, equating to overall coverage of 46 per cent.

It’s no use shouting ‘back to work’ when Britain’s industries are in a jobs meltdown 

“Cries of “back to work!” sound as moronic as the old Tory exhortation to get on your bike and look for a job – not a meaningful answer to an unprecedented emergency, but yet another indication that the gap between rhetoric and reality is now so huge that it is starting to look downright absurd.”

I recently spent a weekday afternoon in the centre of Bristol, chasing the small comforts of retail therapy, and trying to do my bit for a few of my favourite shops. The experience was dreamlike, and unsettling: businesses smattered with hazard tape, half-deserted streets, and a rush hour that seemed to amount to little more than a few momentary traffic jams. Most of the city’s office workers, it seemed, were either furloughed or working at home. Normality – whatever that is – was nowhere to be seen; perhaps the most forlorn sight was that of empty buses adorned with faded adverts for films that came out before the pandemic.

The same day, alluding to both Rishi Sunak’s “eat out to help out” scheme and the near silence of our business districts, the front page of the Daily Mail featured the headline “We’ve had our lunch, now let’s get back to work!”. Returning to workplaces in the midst of a possible second wave is a self-evidently dire prospect; big companies from Google to Mastercard have recently told their employees they can remain at home. But here was another example of the idea – indicative of the reflexive Tory belief that we are at heart a nation of idlers, and lately voiced by such fans of the work ethic as Iain Duncan Smith and Kirstie Allsopp – that we might be able to return to the pre-Covid world by a sheer act of collective will.

The truth, of course, is that making that argument in the midst of such a grave crisis is not just cruel and condescending, but a denial of huge changes to working lives that might turn out to be a lasting social shift. Besides, how can you report for work if your job has gone? As the Bank of England projects a fall in GDP of nearly 10%, the list of high street names who are either shedding staff, or warning that they soon will, now extends into the distance: WH Smith, Pizza Express, Dixons Carphone, Boots, Pret a Manger. In the first two days of this month, 4,500 jobs were cut by major British employers.

Independent businesses, too, are staring into the void: I know of cafe proprietors who reckon they are doing no more than 25% of their pre-Covid trade, and pub owners who say that a combination of staffing costs and dismal customer numbers means that they will soon have to give up.

There is another aspect of our mounting jobs crisis that is still overlooked. Contrary to the idea that we are now a nation of shoppers and service industries, Britain still has a manufacturing sector, a lot of it located beyond our major cities, and a rare source of skilled, well-paid employment. And here, the news is not only just as depressing, but replete with the sense of a country at risk of losing something whose absence will make the future even more perilous. Jobs in aerospace, automotive production and much more besides are disappearing at speed; both management and unions are crying out for dedicated help from the government, apparently in vain.

Between its retailing and manufacturing wings, the UK car industry is reckoned to have already lost 11,000 jobs. Given that the prime minister affects a fondness for buses, he may or may not be aware that Alexander Dennis, a manufacturer of double-deckers whose key site is in Falkirk, are set to cut hundreds of staff. Given the awful state of demand for air travel, in such places as Derby, the south Wales valleys, the parts of north Wales just beyond Chester and the industrial cluster that sits on the northern edge of Bristol, aerospace is in equally dire straits. Airbus intends to shed 1,700 British jobs; the figure for Rolls-Royce is 3,000.

The fates of troubled workplaces are closely linked to those of scores of smaller businesses – from the makers of all-important parts, to hotels and caterers. Just about all of the key firms, moreover, are unionised, with cultures far from the kind of flimsy, insecure practices increasingly common in other parts of the economy. Perhaps the most vivid example is the cluster of aerospace factories in Northern Ireland, which extends from the transport manufacturing giant Bombardier to two major producers of aeroplane seats. Prior to March, Brexit was these businesses’ biggest worry; now, what remains of 2020 will fuse those concerns with the misery and anxiety of immediate job losses.

Even if many jobs are shed via voluntary redundancy schemes, that still means a huge loss of opportunity for future generations. Besides, many of the people involved say they expect an initial round of job losses to be followed by more. And in places that have already been through 40 years of deindustrialisation, what will replace the work that is lost? People may just about be able to find work as security guards, Amazon “associates” and delivery drivers, but that is no foundation for the future.

Even if most of the businesses in question are still based on carbon-intensive technologies, if Britain is to get anywhere near a Green New Deal, their workers’ skills will be indispensable, particularly if these companies are to be made more environmentally sustainable. You can’t engineer a greener future if there are no engineers around to do it.

By way of parrying our burgeoning economic disaster, the government has its across-the-board job retention scheme, but after the tapered phase that began at the end of July, it will soon come to a close.

Last month, the government repromoted its plan to give £200m in grants to boost research and development to make air travel “safer and greener”; manufacturers have also drawn on state-backed loans and help with exports. But all this pales in comparison to what is happening elsewhere. France has launched a €15bn (£13.5bn) support plan for its aerospace industry, exchanging government help for faster progress towards greener aviation; Germany has established a €50bn industrial fund aimed at “climate change, innovation and digitisation”.

Both countries, moreover, have systems in place that will continue subsidising short-time working to protect jobs – something the Labour party is now loudly proposing, but the Johnson government still refuses to do.

The prime minister and his allies still profess to be driven by the idea of “levelling up” the parts of the country that are still defined by the economic disasters and Conservative cruelties of the past. But whatever he says is increasingly drowned out by the sound of doors closing and redundancy payments dropping into bank accounts. Between thinly populated town and city centres and factories frantically cutting back their payrolls, we are now in a watershed moment that will decide our economic future, and whether we will retain the industrial strength necessary for a green future, and at least reduce the damage caused by our exit from Europe.

Cries of “back to work!” sound as moronic as the old Tory exhortation to get on your bike and look for a job – not a meaningful answer to an unprecedented emergency, but yet another indication that the gap between rhetoric and reality is now so huge that it is starting to look downright absurd.

• John Harris is a Guardian columnist