£100Bn “Moonshot” – could there be a more cost effective solution under Boris’ nose – Dilyn?

Has superforecaster Dominic Cummings the lateral thinking to follow-up this “low tech” solution in No 10’s  high-tech “Mission Control”. – Owl

Helsinki Airport to use dogs to sniff out passengers infected with coronavirus


An airport in Finland will trial using trained dogs to sniff out passengers who are carrying coronavirus.

The pilot project, taking place at Helsinki Airport, will start this week with 16 dogs – four per shift – enrolled in the scheme.

It follows a study by the University of Helsinki’s Veterinary Faculty, which demonstrated that trained dogs could smell Covid-19 with close to 100 per cent certainty.

Finnish airport operator Finavia also said the dogs could detect coronavirus from a much smaller sample: they needed between 10 and 100 molecules to identify the virus, compared to the 1.8 million required by the PCR test.

“The pilot that will be kicked off on 22 September 2020 is unique and a world first,” said director of Helsinki Airport Ulla Lettijeff.  

“No other airport has attempted to use canine scent detection on such a large scale against Covid-19.  

“This might be an additional step forward on the way to beating Covid-19.”

There will be no direct contact between the dogs and passengers. Instead, travellers will be required to swab their skin with a test wipe.

These wipes will be sniffed by the dogs, and anyone they identify as carrying coronavirus will be directed to a health information point.

The dogs have been trained by Wise Nose, a Finnish agency that specialises in smell detection.

Most of the dogs have previous scent detection experience, with the amount of time it takes to teach them the coronavirus scent varying according to their backgrounds.  

One of the dogs, eight-year-old greyhound mix Kössi, learned to identify the smell in just seven minutes.


Eighty years ago the nation had Churchill. In 2020 we have a poundshop imitation

It’s Boristime v Coronatime, and there’s only ever one winner

Some men are born mediocre. Some achieve mediocrity. Others have mediocrity thrust upon them. In 1940 we had Winston Churchill. In 2020 we have Boris Johnson, a man who believes himself to be Churchill’s reincarnation, but is nothing more than a poundshop imitation.

John Crace www.theguardian.com 

Where to start with the prime minister’s TV address to the nation? The trademark smirk? The nervous hand gestures? The fact he thinks he’s fighting a war, not a pandemic? Or just the brazen cheek as Boris tried to claim the credit for what he called the stunning triumph over the coronavirus so far? The 50,000 dead and the endless screw-ups of his own government, from care homes to test and trace, were simply airbrushed out of history. The prime minister is not just a man without quality. He is a man without shame.

All this was just a warm up for the grandiose announcement of a few extra restrictions that had already been announced and would almost certainly prove to be insufficient to cope with the second wave. Boris apologised for the new measures, though he laid the blame squarely on the British people for not having been able to abide by the existing measures. Perhaps he should have run that line past Dominic Cummings who set an example so many followed.

“Never in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behaviour,” he said, winding up the Churchill rhetoric. “There are unquestionably difficult months to come. And the fight against Covid is by no means over. I have no doubt, however, that there are great days ahead. But now is the time for us all to summon the discipline, and the resolve, and the spirit of togetherness that will carry us through.” Qualities that have yet to be found in Johnson.

It had been much the same story in the Commons earlier in the day and you had to feel for Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, who must now be wondering why they had gone to so much trouble the previous day to explain just how critical the coronavirus rates of infection had become and that the threat had now risen back to level four. For after a few token nods to the gravity of the situation – “a stitch in time saves nine” – Boris Johnson used his commons statement to introduce a few minor tweaks to lockdown restrictions that rather suggested he wasn’t too bothered.

He wanted schools, colleges, universities and businesses to remain open – with the one proviso that all those he had previously threatened with the sack if they didn’t go back to work were now advised to work from home if at all possible. His biggest change was that pubs, restaurants and bars should now all close at 10pm – it has apparently been proved that the coronavirus is mainly a nocturnal creature and is most contagious after dark – though people were obviously free to go home in groups of six, get totally hammered and infect one another afterwards.

Like most Johnson statements it felt rather as if it had been written on the fly. By a committee of his left and right brain, with little synaptic contact between the two. There were few attempts to explain the situation carefully and carry the country with him. Just a load of off the cuff measures – mandatory face masks for shop and hospitality workers etc – and the threat of stricter measures to come if people didn’t comply or the restrictions proved ineffective.

This time he was really, really serious, he said, trying not to smirk. He understood that, unlike the Hun, we Brits were too freedom loving to comply with every law – nothing to do with the government’s mixed messaging obviously – but there were limits. There was nothing the public liked less than one law for the powerful and another for everyone else, so unless it involved driving up to Durham for eye tests it was time to rein in our libertarian instincts.

These restrictions could last for up to six months, Boris added. Which immediately raised eyebrows on both sides of the Commons. Because the prime minister’s idea of time rarely coincides with anyone else’s. It was Boris who had initially said the worst of the pandemic would be over in 12 weeks. It was Boris who had said we should be back to normal by Christmas. Now he was saying we were in for another half-year. Which probably meant that you could probably double it. Maybe he was thinking of Christmas 2021.

The pandemic has highlighted the stark difference between Boristime and Coronatime. Because he is unable to treat the country as grownups and can’t handle being the bearer of bad news, Boris invariably shortens any given Covid timeframe. Years become months, months become weeks. Meanwhile Coronatime has the last laugh of turning each of his strategies from months into weeks and weeks into days. You sometimes can’t even tell if one of his promises is going to last till the end of a sentence.

If Keir Starmer was put out that his powerful virtual conference speech had been all but forgotten by lunchtime he showed no sign of it. Rather he maintained his familiar tactic of broadly supporting the government’s new measures, before pointing out some of their more obvious shortcomings. Were there any signs that localised lockdowns were proving effective? What financial support was he planning to offer for jobs and businesses affected by the new restrictions? And whatever had happened to the world-beating test-and-trace system that everyone had agreed was essential to containing the virus?

Mostly, though, Boris’s concentration was focused on keeping his own backbenchers happy, as half of them want to avoid any further restrictions to keep the economy open and half have genuine concerns that the party will not be forgiven if the death toll in the second wave matches or exceeds that of the first one. And by and large he succeeded in treading an uneasy balance between being too bullish and too pragmatic. Up until the end, that is. Then his natural enthusiasm got the better of him. The ludicrous £100bn “Operation Moonshot” was still on course and with any luck everything would be fine within a matter of a few months.

We were back on Boristime. Though not for long, as moments after he had finished speaking Nicola Sturgeon made her own statement to the Scottish parliament. Where Boris had sounded somewhat rambling and, at times, contradictory, in his statement, Nicola was a model of clarity and precision. She has a clear grasp of her priorities and sticks to them. She had listened to the advice of Whitty and Vallance and concluded it was necessary to go a lot further than England. In Scotland the “rule of six” was a goner, and there would be no unnecessary socialising between families indoors for the foreseeable future.

With Northern Ireland having already reached a similar conclusion, that left Boris as something of an outlier. Already people were taking bets that his new restrictions would have to be updated within a week. In the battle between Boristime and Coronatime, there’s so far only ever been one winner.


Government scientists’ 50,000 Covid infections graph based on few hundred cases

[The problem of trying to get on top of events using the best evidence available – very pragmatic “science”- Owl]

The government’s estimate that infections were doubling every seven days was based largely on smaller-scale studies involving only a few hundred cases rather than test and trace, amid fears that failings in national community testing meant it was critically underestimating the spread.

Tom Whipple, Science Editor www.thetimes.co.uk 

Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical adviser, said yesterday that at present rates of growth Britain could be looking at 50,000 cases a day by the middle of October.

The projection was based on an assumption that the number of infected people would double each week — a figure that appeared to contradict testing data.

Official figures show that it has taken a fortnight for the epidemic to grow from around 2,000 confirmed cases a day to 4,000.

Graham Medley, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, sits on the modelling committee for the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, Spi-M. He said that they had realised their best estimates of doubling times were out of date, and they became worried that the epidemic had gathered pace.

“The estimates from Spi-M are ten to 20 days’ doubling time, but these are largely based on data from two to three weeks ago,” he said. “The concern was that the more recent doubling time is shorter. There was also concern that the problems with testing meant that the data were not particularly reliable.”

A spokeswoman for Sir Patrick said that the seven-day estimate had instead been based heavily on the findings of the weekly survey of the Office for National Statistics, and a similar less-frequent survey called React-1, run by Imperial College London.

These studies both test a random sample of more than 100,000 people to track the progress of the virus. Because the virus is still at low levels, however, it involves making projections on the basis of small numbers of positive cases. In its latest study the React-1 team sampled 153,000 people and found 136 cases, the last on September 7.

On the basis of the change in the proportion of positives over the period they were sampling, they estimated a seven-day doubling time.

Steven Riley, from Imperial College, said that having several different sources of data is crucial, particularly if one is suffering from problems.

“The very well reported issues in the test and trace system mean that the proportion of infections that are picked up over time might not be constant,” he said.

“Studies like ONS and React are providing timely data, that is an alternative source to the test and trace data. There is a lot of value in having these parallel sources.” However, he acknowledged that there was an inherent uncertainty. “In the end it’s 136 positives. It’s the positives that give you the information. So it’s not perfect, and when you’re estimating from 136 observations you have to make sure you give an accurate sense of the uncertainty.”

Ewan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, said that the nature of a pandemic made it inevitable that decisions were made on the basis of imperfect data.

“In this epidemic there is a lag until we start to see hospitalisation data and death data from infections. That is not a fault of measurement; it’s biology. There’s no way of improving it.

“There are a variety of sources that the government will use to show that now is the time for action,” he said.

“Imperial’s React study and the ONS study are both really good.”

He said that despite their low number of positive cases, because they use random community sampling, rather than relying on people to volunteer, they would be crucial pieces of information even if community testing was working perfectly.

“It is critical to have as unbiased data as possible. Big numbers won’t solve your bias problem — that’s why we have these studies.”


If this bonkers coronavirus messaging continues, Britain may start to ignore it 

Go to the pub, but don’t come into contact with other people. Only meet in groups of six, but also sit in a restaurant with 30 other diners. Go to your office, but don’t go by public transport. Listen to the scientists, except when we’re ignoring them. Relax. Under no circumstances should you relax.

Imogen West-Knights www.theguardian.com 

It is sometimes difficult, in the face of such mixed messages from the government, to resist the urge to crescendo directly into a full-throated scream on getting out of bed in the morning.

The government has an unenviable job in dealing with coronavirus, as the situation changes from day to day, but other governments have undoubtedly done it better. According to a June YouGov poll of 27 countries, Britons had the second lowest level of confidence in their government’s handling of the pandemic.

The level of trust in those making the decisions dictates whether or not people will follow their advice – so this is a pretty huge problem. Part of it is that the decision-making has seemed so erratic and opaque. Rules and advice are issued after balancing priorities and risks, but the fact that the government’s process is never made clear makes you wonder whose priorities are being valued over others’.

Getting children back to school means a risk of increased infections, so we need to limit people’s contact elsewhere, for instance in domestic social settings. This we can understand and get on board with. However, when the government pushes to get people back in the office to appease commercial landlords, and then offsets that risk by, for instance, banning your birthday picnic, it feels like being kicked while you’re down.

Then there are the times it has flagrantly revealed that there is one rule for them, and another for the rest of us. First there was Dominic Cummings’ tour of the north-east during lockdown. Now, groups larger than six aren’t allowed to meet, unless you happen to be running around in a special little costume shooting at birds for fun – which just happens to be very popular in Rishi Sunak’s Yorkshire constituency.

People have a knack of remembering past events and making their own judgments. The government can’t go from having said that nobody should leave their homes when the infection rates were rocketing in April to saying that you should get on a packed train to engineer a reunion with your colleagues’ coffee breath when the infection rates are climbing again at a similar rate. If it was dangerous then, it’s dangerous now.

To calm these fears, the government is constantly rummaging in the hat for a new rabbit to present as the magic trick to end the pandemic. The latest is Operation Moonshot, the patently bonkers idea that we are going to be able to deploy between 2m and 4m tests per day by December, and 10m by early 2021.

“It should be possible,” Johnson said last week, “to deploy these tests on a far bigger scale than any country has yet achieved.” I’m not sure what part of the last six months gives anybody in the government confidence that this “should be possible”. Under our existing testing programme, it’s difficult to get a coronavirus test any closer than Belgium – and if you’re lucky enough to have had one, there is currently a backlog of 185,000 swabs to be processed.

Before Operation Moonshot, there were the proposed immunity passports, despite the fact that scientists didn’t know how immunity to coronavirus even worked, the tracing apps that have yet to materialise, and the Covid risk monitoring system that sank without trace.

There is, of course, a delicate balancing act to achieve between stopping the economy from completely tanking, allowing people some small freedoms and protecting the most vulnerable among us from unnecessary danger. But scattergun messaging isn’t getting us anywhere, except knee-deep in the worst recession of all the G7 nations and unforgivably high death tolls. If the advice from the government continues to be this conflicting, the easiest thing for people to do will be to trust their own instincts to protect those around them.

  • Imogen West-Knights is a writer and journalist based in London


Symbol of Europe’s pandemic – Italy – keeps the virus in check

When Covid-19 struck Europe, Lombardy’s flooded hospitals and spiralling death toll provided a grim template for Italy’s neighbours. In the past weeks, however, it is offering a more upbeat, alternative path: while Spain, France and the UK are experiencing a second surge in infections after loosening lockdown restrictions, Italy has kept the disease under control.

Miles Johnson and Davide Ghiglione in Rome, John Burn-Murdoch in London www.ft.co

New daily cases are on the rise to 1,535 from the low hundreds in June, when restrictions started easing. But this compares with over 10,000 new cases in Spain and France. Life feels normal in most of Italy: restaurants and bars are open, people enjoy late-summer trips to the beach and children have returned to school.

Experts highlight three main reasons for Italy’s resilience.

First-mover advantage

For Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at the University of Milan, “Italy is in a better situation than other countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain or France because we were among the first in the world to face the Covid hurricane.” Its health system and government have had more time to plan its post-lockdown response and the lifting of restrictions have been relaxed more gradually, allowing the government greater agility in reintroducing restrictions when needed.

Prime minister Giuseppe Conte has kept on reminding Italians to remain vigilant. Under Italy’s Covid-19 state of emergency he has the power to rule by decree, meaning his government was able to react swiftly to an uptick in new cases over the summer. By contrast, Spain’s state of alert, which granted the central government emergency powers over the regions, lapsed on June 21.

In August, Rome ordered a closure of discos and introduced a rule that face masks must be worn in all crowded places between 6pm and 6am. The measures, which were initially in place for a month, were extended for a further 30 days in early September. 

High public compliance and stricter enforcement

Public health officials cite the high public acceptance of restrictions, such as compulsory mask wearing in shops and on public transport. Visitors to bars and restaurants must write down their names and numbers, a measure largely complied with during the summer.

According to a survey conducted by Imperial College London, 84 per cent of Italians surveyed said they would be “very or quite willing” to wear a face mask advised to by their government. This compares to 76 per cent in the UK.

Those in breach of rules are punished. In late August, Italian media reported that a 29-year-old man was fined €400 for refusing to wear a mask near Rome’s Trevi fountain and telling the officers that “Covid doesn’t exist”.

On Monday alone police checked 50,602 people and 4,939 businesses, sanctioning 227 individuals and ordering the closure of three companies.

“Italians are more respectful of the measures of social distancing and against the transmission of the virus, even in the smallest commercial activity all measures are observed very scrupulously,” said Andrea Crisanti, a professor of microbiology at the university of Padua.

Individual behaviour, although hard to quantify, has played an important role, said Ferdiando Luca Lorini, director of intensive care at a hospital in Bergamo.

“We have gone from the most affected country to one of the virtuous countries in the management of the pandemic thanks to the clarity of the rules from the very beginning, and the willingness of everyone to respect them,” he said.

Effective testing and monitoring

Andrea Crisanti, professor of microbiology at the University of Padua, said the public health response has focused on not just mass testing but also effective surveillance of cases to track and trace anyone who has come into contact with an infected person.

About 2 per cent of tests give a positive result, compared with about 13 per cent of tests performed in Spain, suggesting the virus is way more widespread in the latter. 

“Once there is a positive we test all those who may have come into contact with them. The real problem of the epidemic are the cases with no symptoms, if you do not intercept these, you do not come out of it,” he said.

In August, when Sardinia, a popular holiday destinations for Italians, emerged as a hotspot for the virus — former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Formula One boss Flavio Briatore both contracted the virus on the island — authorities introduced drive-through testing at the port of Civitavecchia on the mainland where ferries shuttle holidaymakers to and from the island. Positive cases were isolated more quickly, preventing the outbreak in Sardinia from spreading to other regions.

While few want to tempt fate ahead of winter, there is confidence that Italy’s efforts can continue to keep the virus under control.

“If Italians, who have been very diligent so far with regard to all the measures, keep holding on then we should be able to manage the situation and get used to coexisting with the problem until a vaccine arrives,” said Mr Pregliasco.

Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Adrienne Klasa in London and Victor Mallet in Paris