Covid lockdowns are cost of self-isolation failures, says WHO expert

Lockdowns affecting entire populations is a price countries pay for failing to ensure people with coronavirus and their contacts self-isolate, according to an expert from the World Health Organization.

Sarah Boseley

The WHO does not recommend that countries enter lockdowns. It has consistently said that the key to controlling epidemics, whether Covid-19, Sars or flu, is to test people, trace their contacts and ensure all those who are positive or who have been close to those infected are quarantined.

While countries like the UK have been massively increasing the numbers of tests carried out, contact tracing has fallen short, and studies have shown that as few as 20% of people in England fully comply with self-isolation.

“For me, the big missing link in what’s going on in many European countries is management of isolation,” said Dr Margaret Harris of the WHO. “That’s not just isolation of people who are sick – it’s isolation of people who have contacts and are first-degree contacts.

“They don’t think they have Covid, because they feel fine, and even if they are told they should stay home, they don’t feel a strong social obligation or they do not necessarily have that reinforced as happens in some countries.

“So for instance, in a place like Hong Kong, you would be called every day, or the police come to your house,” she said.

Across Asia, there is a mixture of economies that have managed the virus well – not just those that may be non-liberal, non-democratic command economies, she added. “Taiwan, for instance, probably has the best management. They are definitely a highly liberal society.”

A lockdown which effectively isolates everyone does work, Harris said, “but it also causes massive dislocation, massive disruption. And unless you’ve worked out how you can possibly put that pause button on and maintain your economic and social lives, the price you pay is very, very high.”

The WHO doesn’t say don’t do it, she said. “We just say, if you’re doing it, you’re paying a very high price, so therefore get some return for what you pay.”

That means getting test and trace to work efficiently “and you could think very hard about how to make self-isolation doable” she said.

“You’ve got to do it at grassroots level, because it’s very different, say, in London from somewhere rural, it’s different in housing estates, you may have people living on the streets, you may have people living in institutions. So, you have to really know your society, and know how you’re going to make it possible for them to self-isolate.

“There will be people who cannot possibly self-isolate, because they live in crowded conditions or on the streets. You may have to think of offering them somewhere else to stay.

“It does require a lot of planning. It requires a lot of a great deal of partnership with community and with local authorities, and really listening to your mayors and your councils and all the people in your local groups or your NGOs who understand how communities really function and ensure that you’re reaching everyone.

“You might have communities who don’t have access to standard English-language channels and all the rest of it, and don’t really know what is being asked of them or whether it’s possible.”

Harris said that some countries, such as Hong Kong, isolate those who have Covid-19 by putting them in hospital with even mild symptoms, which means it is far easier and quicker to spot those who deteriorate and treat them, saving lives. Early medical monitoring helped with getting people the right treatment, she added, and although it’s not yet clear, getting earlier care to people could also save some from the after-effects known as long Covid.

Doubts over ‘rapid turnaround’ Covid tests pledged by Johnson

The “rapid turnaround” coronavirus tests the prime minister announced on Saturday are not approved for the public to interpret themselves without an expert’s help and so will not provide results in the promised 15 minutes, the Guardian has learned.

Sarah Boseley

Boris Johnson’s briefing about this week’s national lockdown in England included the promise of a mass rollout of “tests that you can use yourself to tell whether or not you are infectious and get the result within 10 to 15 minutes”, which would be made available at universities and across whole cities.

He said the army would be deployed to roll out the “many millions of cheap, reliable and above all rapid turnaround tests” everywhere they were needed.

Three of these rapid antigen tests, called lateral flow tests, have passed an assessment by Porton Down with Oxford University. The government has bought one of them. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced the government had signed a deal for 20 million, from the company Innova Tried and Tested, on 19 October.

But the Innova tests are not for people without symptoms, such as university students or people wanting to get on a plane or go to the theatre. They are designed for people who already have Covid symptoms. And the devices, which look like a pregnancy test, are intended to be read by a healthcare professional.

The company is clear about their limitations on the instructions for use, which can be found on its website. The tests analyse throat and nose swabs “from individuals who are suspected of Covid-19 by their healthcare provider, within the first five days of the onset of symptoms”. The test is designed for use by trained lab and healthcare staff, it says.

Johnson hopes the tests will help show the way out of the pandemic. They will be deployed in a wide range of situations, he said, “from helping women to have their partners with them in labour wards when they’re giving birth, to testing whole towns and even whole cities.

“The army has been brought in to work on the logistics and the programme will begin in a matter of days, working with local communities, local government, public health directors and organisations of all kinds to help people discover whether or not they are infectious, and then immediately to get them to self-isolate and to stop the spread.”

Prof Jon Deeks from Birmingham University and a member of a working group of the Royal Statistical Society, which is looking at coronavirus tests, said they were not ready for this type of use.

“At the moment, if you were bought this test, you would not be using it for this purpose,” he told the Guardian.

Lateral flow tests are now being offered to students at two universities – Durham and De Montfort – in a pilot study. Deeks questioned whether those involved had the right information.

“There are real issues in what people are being told in these studies,” he said. There was no transparency around the assessment of the lateral flow tests, he said. The announcement that the three tests had passed did not explain how they were assessed or how well they performed.

While everyone agrees that lateral flow tests, which could use either swab samples from the nose and mouth or saliva, have huge promise, Deeks said the technology at the moment appeared to struggle to register low levels of virus. They may pick up people who are infected and have high virus levels and may have symptoms, but they tend to miss people who are asymptomatic, as many young and fit people are.

A second test approved by Porton Down, from the Korean company SD Biosensor, has been validated by the World Health Organization and a package of support has been agreed to supply low- and middle-income countries that do not have access to PCR lab testing. However, these tests are also to be read by a healthcare professional.

Mass testing was part of the government’s controversial Moonshot plans. Last week the Guardian revealed that local health leaders had been asked to sign up to testing 10% of their populations every week using lateral flow tests, following the announcement of the deal with Innova.

In a leaked letter, Alex Cooper, the director of rapid testing at NHS test and trace, said the ambition was “to make this technology available for local areas to roll out at pace”, adding that the programme would go nationwide “as quickly as possible”.

Labour has called for frontline workers and vulnerable people living in coronavirus hotspots to be tested every week. NHS staff and those working in education, transport, retail and hospitality, as well as at-risk groups in areas with high infections, should be given access to rapid saliva tests, the party said.

It urged ministers to use the November lockdown to expand testing and fix contact tracing, saying that a plan to roll out strategic mass testing would provide a roadmap for containing the virus.

Tim comments on Exmouth’s Albatross saga

Owl is mortified to find this comment by Tim got lost in 266 items of spam (a couple of week’s worth).

It deserves repeating as a full post.

In reply to A Budleigh Correspondant.

Congratulations to the lady or gentleman who put this account together for it has seldom been an easy task to determine the real facts of a matter under the old Tory regime.

I would like to add a couple of observations, the first already hinted at. Frankly the ducking and diving performed by the old regime, both from various officers and members, in their efforts to hide much of what was going on. It was shameful. I submitted numerous FOI’s including that which confirmed the £50k on the covenant purchase. It was like trying to draw blood from a stone.

I cannot readily find the reference but I am pretty sure that there were £10k legal fees on top of the £50k paid for the covenant, a covenant incidentally that EDDC at one point claimed they didn’t need for the Ocean!

In regard to the retail element, we were promised something exceptional by way of tenants, something that would act as a draw to Exmouth without adversely affecting the town’s businesses. Initially a water-sports business operated in one part but I seem to recall that the rates were excessive and they moved their operation elsewhere.

So what ‘exceptional’ retail did we end up with, a grocery type outlet which popular though it may be, would go bust I suspect if its alcohol licence were removed. The retail element of the Ocean leads me to wonder what sort of retail we shall see at the newer water-sports centre, what amazing year-around draws will rent the brick garage-like structures. So far it looks like more take away cafes. Expect longer queues at the inadequate newest loos!

Cllr Moulding amongst others has held the Ocean up as an example of excellent development.; well the writer of the account above has debunked that well and truly. Cllr Moulding has always failed to provide evidence for his praise of Exmouth developments not least for the fact that EDDC has never carried out the necessary research.

I should like to know more about LED, their involvement, and the cost to the taxpayer- but they are not covered by FOI so that element remains largely hidden from public inspection.

I had not appreciated the involvement of FWS Carter at an early stage: I should have known better.

Notwithstanding all of the above, we are now stuck with the Ocean and must make the best of it. After years of parts of it not being used, I believe that most of it is in use apart from those restrictions due to Covid. I hope that it does get used to the fullest and make some money for the public purse .

Finally, to address the Budleigh commentator’s valid concern over availability of records, the website, with it’s record of FOI applications (although some refs/links may no longer work) sits alongside EDW as a repository of some of EDDC’s darker planning years .

UK house price boom will collapse once buyers lose their jobs

Bars are closing. Restaurants are seeing bookings cancelled. Retailers are worried about the impact of tightened Covid-19 restrictions on their businesses in the run-up to the crucial period. Everywhere there are signs of an economy rapidly losing momentum after its summer growth spurt.

Larry Elliott 

Everywhere apart from the housing market. There demand is booming, with the Bank of England reporting that mortgage approvals in September were the highest since 2007, the year the last crisis started.

Stronger demand for property is feeding through into higher prices. The Nationwide building society said in its monthly report that prices rose at an annual rate of 5.8% in October, the highest house-price inflation in six years.

There are two big questions about what Martin Beck of the consultancy Oxford Economics calls “a very peculiar housing boom”: what is causing it, and how long will it last?

The answer to the first question is that a bunch of factors have come together to boost activity. For a start, the housing market – like much of the rest of the economy – went into deep freeze in the spring, normally the time when house hunters are out in force. When restrictions were lifted, there was plenty of pent-up demand to tap into.

Rishi Sunak did his bit to keep the market hot by announcing a temporary reduction in stamp duty in his July mini budget. Past experience, the pre-announced end to double mortgage relief in 1988, for example, shows that the British public does not need much encouragement to buy property, and a stamp duty exemption for homes worth up to £500,000 is quite an incentive to bring forward purchases.

Beck also makes the point that the property market has been insulated from the wider economy’s troubles because the job losses that have been seen so far have been concentrated among the young, who tend to be renters not owner-occupiers.

The answer to the second question – how long before the market comes back down to Earth? – is simple: not all that long. The Nationwide itself injected a strong note of caution into its statement accompanying news of the latest house price rise, noting that the outlook remained “highly uncertain”.

It warned that activity was likely to slow, perhaps sharply, over the next few quarters if the expected increase in unemployment materialised, especially when the stamp duty holiday comes to an end in March.

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What the chancellor’s tax break has done is to bring forward house purchases that would have taken place anyway, leading to a bunching effect. The flipside of that is a drop-off in demand from next spring onwards.

That, in itself would not be enough to lead to a full-blown housing market correction. For that to happen house buyers have to face severe difficulties paying their mortgages, either because interest rates go up sharply or because they are losing their jobs.

With interest rates at rock-bottom levels and certain to stay there, the first of these is not a threat. The second, though, most certainly is.

Marcus Rashford backs Unicef after it steps in to feed 15,000 British kids over Christmas

HOW shocking is it that Unicef, which aids the world’s poorest kids, will hold its first-ever emergency response in the UK to help feed 15,000 children at Christmas?

Jonathan Reilly

MARCUS Rashford has backed Unicef after it stepped in to feed 15,000 British kids over the Christmas holiday.

The football ace and food poverty campaigner, 23, welcomed the UN children’s charity’s allocation of just under £750,000.

It is Unicef’s “first ever emergency response within the UK”. The money will feed youngsters through local charities, community and support groups over the festive holiday and half term next February.

The England and Manchester United striker has been urging the Government to fund free meals during school holidays.

He told The Sun: “Unicef’s emergency response just reinforces the absolute need to identify a long-term sustainable framework to stabilise the households of our most vulnerable children.

“There’s an evident gap in accessibility to provision for children and this needs to be reviewed as a ­matter of urgency.

“I stand with Unicef and thank them for their support.”

The Sun Says

HOW shocking is it that Unicef, which aids the world’s poorest kids, will hold its first-ever emergency response in the UK to help feed 15,000 children at Christmas?

But the announcement is further vindication of the admirable free school meals campaign fronted by footballer Marcus Rashford, MBE.

Whatever the long-term solution, the pandemic means there is a real crisis, and the Government must up its game.

Unicef — more used to helping the world’s poorest children — has handed out grants to seven charities, with another 21 set to be announced.

Tulip Siddiq, Shadow Minister for Children and Early Years, said: “The Government should be ashamed that Unicef has had to step in to feed our country’s hungry children.

“Charities and businesses have done a brilliant job but it should have never come to this.”

Labour’s Tulip Siddiq says the Government ‘should be ashamed’Credit: PA:Press Association

Rio Ferdinand compares Marcus Rashford’s performance to an older kid bullying younger kids and “taking their dinner money”

‘It should be me giving food’: people made poor by Covid turn to Devon charity

“Most people we see never thought they would ever be in the position of having to ask for help,” says Stella West-Harling, the founder of the Dartmoor Community Kitchen Hub. “We do ask ‘have you used food bank before?’ Most reply they’ve never even thought about it.”

Patrick Butler 

The hub has helped growing numbers of local people in food poverty as a result of Covid, and has witnessed close-up the emerging phenomenon of the “newly hungry” in which previously relatively comfortably off families have been forced to resort to food banks and the benefit system to survive.

Out of 130 people who approached the Devon-based hub for food support between March and September, 110 had never previously needed charity food help. “I’m seeing people dropping into poverty because Covid hit, and they suddenly realise they don’t have any reserves,” says West-Harling.

Many are young families “up to their neck in debt,” she says, people who have taken advantage of easy credit or over-extended to get on the housing ladder. “If you are on the minimum wage and 20% goes [under furlough] you still have bills and debts. Many can’t afford to feed themselves.”

It is not only the young who have suffered. West-Harling originally set up the hub, a not-for-profit company, to provide a nutritious meals-on-wheelsstyle service for isolated older people in the county. Many of them, sometimes living in draughty old houses in lonely “genteel” poverty, have struggled under Covid.

Self-employed people, often running their own businesses, have found themselves in unexpected hardship and feel acute shame about relying on charity, says West-Harling. “I delivered food round to a chap who owned a tool repair business. He was devastated, saying: ‘I should be the one taking food round to people.’”

In one case, they took food to a vulnerable young woman who was stranded alone in rural isolation. She had been too scared to leave her house during the pandemic. “She eventually phoned in terrible distress as she had not eaten in three days and had eked out what little food she had over a period of weeks.”

West-Harling, who founded and runs the Ashburton cookery school, says Covid has highlighted hidden areas of rural deprivation in Devon as well as the fragility of the tourism-farming-hospitality economy. The hub has been supported well by local volunteers and food banks, but needs financial help to keep going.

It is a shame the UK has never eradicated food poverty, she says, though she believes there will always be people who need help. “The way forward is a compassionate society. You cannot deal with poverty, social isolation and loneliness without compassion.”

COVID rates are not surging

Data press release 30 October

According to the ZOE COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey figures, the number of daily new COVID-19 cases in the UK are continuing to steadily increase and not surging as other sources have suggested this week.

Key findings from ZOE COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey this week: 

  • There are currently 43,569 daily new symptomatic cases of COVID in the UK on average over the two weeks up to 25 October (excluding care homes) 
  • This compares to 36,251 daily new symptomatic cases a week ago
  • Rates in the North of England are still around four times higher than the South of England although the gap is narrowing
  • In Scotland cases are potentially levelling off
  • London rates continue to climb in a steady linear fashion (see full table of regional results below)
  • The doubling rate for cases is currently 28 days 
  • The UK R value is 1.1 
  • Regional R values are: England 1.1, Wales 1.2 and Scotland 1.1
  • Infections nationally have stopped increasing in children and are still rising fastest in 30-59 year olds with only gradual increases in the over 60s (see graph below)

According to this week’s Tier Prediction Model, Bradford, Leeds and Sunderland are the next regions most likely to be moved into the tighter restrictions of Tier 3.

The ZOE COVID Symptom Study UK Infection Survey figures are based on around a million weekly reporters and the proportion of newly symptomatic users who have positive swab tests. The latest survey figures were based on the data from 12,390 recent swab tests done between 11 October to 25 October. 

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, comments: 

“While cases are still rising across the UK, we want to reassure people that cases have not spiralled out of control, as has been recently reported from other surveys. We are still seeing a steady rise nationally, doubling every four weeks, with the possible exception of Scotland which may be showing signs of a slow down. With a million people reporting weekly, we have the largest national survey and our estimates are in line with the ONS survey. 

“Data on covid-19 can be confusing for the public and we can’t rely simply on confirmed cases or daily deaths, without putting them into context. Hospital admissions are rising as expected, but deaths are still average for the season. As we become citizen scientists it’s important to look at multiple sources to get a broader view. Trends can be different at the local level and our app allows users to monitor this themselves.” 

Campaigners hail dramatic government climbdown in battle to protect post-Brexit food standards

A dramatic government climbdown will protect post-Brexit food quality, delighted campaigners say – after fears that chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef would be allowed in.

Rob Merrick Deputy Political Editor 

In another U-turn, Liz Truss has bowed to pressure to give teeth to a new watchdog to prevent trade deals, particularly with the US, watering down food and animal welfare standards.

Now the new Trade and Agriculture Commission will be made properly independent, permanent and given the power to scrutinise each deal for its impact on food, welfare and environmental standards.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) hailed “a landmark moment”, saying: “This significant commitment to primary legislation on food standards is exactly what we have been calling for.”

And Neil Parish, a Tory rebel on the issue, said: “It’s been hard work, but I think we’re in a much better place now. We wanted firm guarantees in legislation and that is what we’ve got.”

Anne McIntosh, a Conservative peer and campaigner, said: “All our farmers ever wanted was fair competition and a level playing field and the government has recognised this and addressed these concerns.”

Ms Truss was forced to concede the setting up of the commission in the summer – but it had no budget, an advisory function only and was due to be wound up after six months.

Once permanent and independent, campaigners believe it will not sanction lower standards, achieving the “same objective” as an outright legal ban on acid-washed chicken, for example.

However, the climbdown is a huge blow for Ms Truss’s hopes of striking a quickfire trade deal with Washington, which has insisted access for its agricultural products is a red line.

Ms Truss had urged MPs and worried groups to simply trust the government when it said it would not cut food standards.

But they feared she did not want her hands tied – noting the UK has already proposed allowing in chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef in the US trade talks, albeit with higher tariffs.

Jamie Oliver had stepped up his warning of an influx of cheap food if ministers are able to prevent “proper parliamentary scrutiny”, saying: “I don’t like the smell of it.”

Announcing the U-turn, Ms Truss, along with environment secretary George Eustice, said, in a newspaper article, that an amendment had been tabled to the Agriculture Bill.

“It will place a duty on the government to report to parliament on the impact of trade agreements on the maintenance of food, welfare and environmental standards,” the pair wrote.

“Also, we have the independent Trade and Agriculture Commission, under the chairmanship of the trusted former Food Standards Agency head Tim Smith.

“Thanks to the commission’s excellent work, we are announcing today that it will be made a statutory body which will give independent advice on trade deals as they go through parliament.”