Most vulnerable at front of the queue for Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine

The NHS is planning a “get out the vote” style operation to ensure people have two doses of a coronavirus vaccine as it prepares to start immunising vulnerable people before Christmas.

However, Owl is reading reports that the trial continues: “by the third week of November, half of the patients in the study will have been observed for two months following their second dose. At that point, Pfizer will spend two to three weeks analyzing the data before sending it to regulators for approval.”

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor 

Hospital fridges are likely to be used to store a Pfizer vaccine that must be kept at -70C if it is approved by regulators, with health chiefs believing that it could be feasible to use existing infrastructure at least to reach health and care staff and care home residents, who will be first in line.

Initial plans envision a relatively limited vaccination programme targeting the most vulnerable, with communication efforts at first focused on urging people to wait their turn.

The NHS “help us to help you” slogan is expected to be deployed to encourage people to be patient, with some involved in planning concerned that sufficient supplies for non-priority groups may not be available for some time.

Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, predicted last night there would be “very significant demand in the elderly in particular for this vaccine and ones that follow” and that “even with enormous planning from the NHS, it is going to take time to roll that kind of programme out”.

While saying that he was “hopeful but not yet certain that we could begin to see some vaccine by Christmas” he emphasised: “Making vaccines is really difficult. Many things can go wrong during manufacture — indeed, each batch has to be quality assured before it can be released.”

The Pfizer jab requires two doses three weeks apart and Professor Van-Tam stressed that the other “big name contenders” also required two shots, with people not fully protected until five weeks after their first dose.

The Times revealed on Saturday that a Whitehall unit has been set up to promote a vaccine and allay people’s concerns about a new jab. Officials are also planning an individualised campaign involving GPs writing to their patients to ensure people turn up when requested.

Those involved likened this to election “get out the vote” operations, stressing the challenge of ensuring people turn up as requested on two separate occasions. Take up of routine vaccination can fall ten points or so between the first and second dose. “A lot of work is going on to make sure people who come for the first dose also come for the second” a source said, though details are still being finalised.

Once a jab becomes widely available, drive-through vaccination centres are being planned to cope with the huge logistical challenge of administering vaccines to tens of millions of people without it becoming a “social-distancing nightmare”.

Training is due to begin imminently of an army of physiotherapists, midwives and other health professionals who will be used to administer the vaccine after the law was changed to allow a wider group of staff to give jabs.

The armed forces are also expected to be called upon to help with logistics.

Under a provisional ranking drawn up by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, care home residents and staff would be first to be vaccinated, followed by all NHS and care workers and people over 80.

People aged 75-80 would be next and jabs would then be sequentially offered to the general population by decreasing five-year age bands, with experts saying that age-based programmes are faster and ensure higher uptake.

Once all those over 65 had been offered the vaccine, it would be offered to younger adults at high risk because of health conditions, which could include diabetes and obesity. Other over 50s would be next in line, with the under 50s at the back of the queue.

This plan is likely to be tweaked when details of the vaccine are finalised, and consideration will also be given to offering priority to those most likely to catch and spread this disease, potentially including people from ethnic minorities and workers such as taxi drivers and shop assistants.

Martin Marshall, head of the Royal College of GPs, said it “makes sense” for family doctors to help distribute the vaccine but said: “There will likely be logistical challenges to overcome, for example around supply and storage of the vaccine — which may require new or additional equipment for some practices.”

Provisional priority list

1 Elderly care home residents and care home staff

2 All those aged 80 and over and NHS and social care workers

3 All those 75 and over

4 All those 70 and over

5 All those 65 and over

6 High-risk adults under 65

7 Moderate-risk adults under 65

8 All those 60 and over

9 All those 55 and over

10 All those 50 and over

11 The rest of the population

Caution turns to elation at ‘a truly seminal moment’

In a human body only the brain is more complex than the immune system. Until you put a vaccine into someone, you have no idea what it will do (Tom Whipple writes).

So when scientists tried to guess how coronavirus vaccines would fare, they had little to go on. The best indication came from the natural immunity conferred by its established virological cousins. And, as anyone who gets the same cold twice can tell you, they don’t confer much.

Virologists, not wanting to oversell what could be the most important vaccine of the 21st century, tried to manage expectations. “The reason there was caution early on probably involved several things,” Dan Davis, professor of immunology at Manchester University, said. “Coronaviruses are not thought to trigger strong long-lasting immunity.”

Then there was the novelty of the technology. “We have tried to make vaccines against many things before, and even when ideas seem good they’ve fallen down. There’s still no vaccine for HIV.”

No one, he said, wanted to predict a magic bullet only to see it turn out to be a more leaden kind.

“For the sake of society, it may have been better to give the message we are in it for the long haul and had to push on,” he said.

But now, we have the answer, and it is better than any predicted: 90 per cent efficacy.

“It’s a huge moment, a truly seminal moment.”

East Devon skate parks and games areas closed under second lockdown

Skate parks and multi-use games areas in East Devon have been shut until Thursday, December 3, under national Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

East Devon Reporter 

Whitehall and Sport England guidelines have seen facilities in Exmouth, Honiton, Budleigh Salterton, Ottery St Mary, Seaton and Axminster temporarily closed.

Councillor Geoff Jung, coast, countryside and environment portfolio holder for East Devon District Council, said: “I appreciate that users of our skate parks and multi-use game areas will be disappointed, but the safety of our residents is paramount.

Cllr Jung added: “We, as a council, are working very hard to ensure that their health and wellbeing is protected from any identified risks from coronavirus.

“We have endeavoured to follow the government guidance as closely as possible and will continue to do so as further information is received.”

Shut East Devon skate parks:

  • Budleigh Salterton (Lime Kiln);
  • Exmouth (Phear Park);
  • Honiton (Allhallows);
  • Seaton (Underfleet).

Closed multi-use games areas in the district:

  • Phear Park, Exmouth (x 2);
  • Liverton Copse, Cumberland Close, Exmouth;
  • King George’s Field, Carter Avenue, Exmouth;
  • The Crescent, Exmouth;
  • Foxhill, Axminster;
  • St Mark’s, Honiton;
  • Davey Playing Field, Honiton;
  • Thorne Farm Way, Ottery St Mary;
  • All Hallows, Honiton;
  • Winter’s Lane, Ottery St Mary;
  • Greenway Lane, Budleigh Salterton.

The district’s play areas, nature reserves and parks and 20 of its public toilets currently remain open.

Outdoor gyms are off-limits and the area’s LED-run sports centres and swimming pools have also closed until December.

Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine announcement is cause for cautious celebration

It is not yet the end of the pandemic, but the announcement by Pfizer/BioNTech that their vaccine has been 90% successful in the vital large-scale trials has got even the soberest of scientists excited.

Sarah Boseley

These are interim results and the trial will continue into December to collect more data. The two companies – a tiny German biotech with the big idea and the giant pharma company Pfizer with the means to develop it – have not yet published their detailed data, so it is all on trust. And yet, nobody is suggesting the results have been over-egged. It looks as though the vaccine not only works, but works better than anyone hoped.

Most of us will not be vaccinated by Christmas, but it is possible the first shots will be given before the end of the year. The World Health Organization has said health and care workers should be first in line, but some countries including the UK may want to vaccinate their elderly populations first, as long as it appears the vaccine works well in that age group and has no significant side-effects.

Europe, the US and the UK have all pre-bought supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – there will be 200m doses going to the EU, 100m to the US and 40m to the UK. But although manufacturing is already well under way, there will not be enough to supply everyone who wants it straight away.

Experts have said that we need more than one vaccine to end the global pandemic. There are several more on the horizon, notably the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine that uses a different technology. The great news for all the vaccine makers out there is that it is possible. A vaccine can actually prevent infections – and not just stop people dying by attenuating the illness they get.

“I very much welcome the news that it appears for the first time that a coronavirus vaccine can provide protection against disease, which is hugely important for public health,” said Prof Andrew Pollard, head of the Oxford vaccine group, which at one time looked as though it might be the first to declare efficacy results.

“For global equitable access, we will need multiple vaccines to be successful and so we continue in our efforts to test the Oxford vaccine and hope to be able to share interim results before the end of the year.”

At Imperial College London, Prof Robin Shattock, who is heading development of another mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccine said it was “not yet the endgame, but hopefully the beginning of global efforts to control this pandemic. A significant light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s a breakthrough for Pfizer/BioNTech, but also for vaccines in general. It also demonstrates the speed and utility of RNA vaccines technology.”

Remarkably, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could be the first vaccine to be approved using the new technology called mRNA, which delivers the genetic code of the virus into the body, rather than any part of the virus itself. Shattock has said it is very safe, for that reason. He was working on mRNA vaccines before Covid-19 struck, seeking to use the technology for other viruses in low-income countries. If it works on Covid-19, he believes it will be a game-changer for the wider fight against deadly viruses.

There is one downside to overcome. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine needs ultra-cold chain. That means freezers that can store it at -80C (-112F). Low-income countries do not have them, although UN organisations are already working on supply in case it is necessary.

Right now, the scramble among countries to ensure they get supplies of the first vaccine to show efficacy while taking political credit is on. The US has already tried to stake a claim, with some Republicans, including Mike Pence, the vice-president, asserting that Operation Warp Speed was partly responsible for the success. But Pfizer was having none of it.

“We were never part of the Warp Speed,” Kathrin Jansen, Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development told the New York Times. “We have never taken any money from the US government, or from anyone.”

Vaccine taskforce chief may benefit from £49m UK investment

Kate Bingham, chair of the government’s vaccine taskforce, is facing questions over whether she will benefit from a $65m (£49m) UK taxpayer-backed investment into a fund run by her private equity firm.

Heather Stewart

Bingham, a venture capitalist married to Treasury minister Jesse Norman, has already come under fire over allegations she revealed sensitive information to a private investors’ conference and insisted on hiring costly PR advisers.

She is expected to leave her post at the end of the year, according to a government source who said her contract ran until January 2021 and she had always intended to leave at that point.

Bingham “stepped away” from her role at private equity firm SV Health Investors in May to take an unpaid post as chair of the vaccine taskforce, which aims to ensure the UK population has access to vaccines as soon as possible.

Two months later, SV Health Investors announced it had secured a $65m investment into its SV7 Impact Medicine Fund from British Patient Capital (BPC), which is entirely funded by the UK government.

Accounts filed with Companies House show SV Health Investors earned at least £1.9m in management fees linked to its operation of the Impact Medicine Fund in 2019, before the government invested earlier this year.

The accounts suggest Bingham, as one of the company’s two managing partners in the UK, receives an annual share of profits generated by SV Health Investors, suggesting she could stand to benefit personally from the performance of the fund.

Her appointment to the vaccine taskforce was cited in the press release announcing BPC’s investment.

“In May 2020, Kate Bingham, managing partner, SV Health Investors, was appointed chair of the UK’s vaccine taskforce. In her work for SV, Kate’s biotech investments have resulted in the launch of six drugs for the treatment of patients with inflammatory and autoimmune disease and cancer making her uniquely qualified for the role,” the press release said.

The shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves, said: “It is vital that the government immediately show how they have managed any real or perceived conflict of interest with this appointment. Especially when you consider how many nurses wages $65 million could have paid for.

“We need answers quick. Otherwise this appears to be another in a string of government appointments and contracts handed to friends without due process.”

Nick Dearden, director of campaign group Global Justice Now, said: “There’s absolutely a conflict of interest. It’s deeply inappropriate. If governments in less wealthy countries behaved like this, we’d be lecturing them on ‘good governance.’”

Asked whether the prime minister had full confidence in Bingham, a No 10 spokesman said: “Yes. The work of the vaccine task force is obviously of great importance and we have secured agreements for 350m doses overall of six leading vaccine candidates.”

Labour had asked cabinet secretary Simon Case to investigate claims that Bingham disclosed sensitive information about potential targets for the government’s vaccines push to a $200-a-head private conference.

According to a video of the event obtained by the Sunday Times, she showed financiers a detailed list of vaccines which the UK government was closely monitoring and could later invest in.

Bingham reportedly told the event: “We haven’t necessarily signed contracts with all of them so far. But they’re all in our sights.” Several of the vaccines are owned or funded by publicly traded companies.

Appearing before a joint select committee hearing last week, Bingham denied any wrongdoing and described the report as “nonsense”, “inaccurate” and “irresponsible”.

She insisted her presentation had relied “on publicly available information and said little that expert delegates at the conference could not deduce themselves”.

Bingham, who reports directly to the prime minister, has spent more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money on hiring PR consultants from a firm called Admiral Associates, rather than rely on civil service press officers, according to leaked documents also obtained by the Sunday Times.

The government has repeatedly been accused of cronyism in its management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dido Harding, who was appointed to run the £12bn NHS Test and Trace programme without an open appointments process, is married to Conservative MP John Penrose. Harding is not taking a salary for her role, and an advertisement for her permanent replacement is expected to be placed shortly.

The Department for Business, which oversees BPC and the vaccine taskforce, said: “Kate Bingham stepped back from her full-time role at SV Health Investors when appointed as chair of the vaccine taskforce. She declared her interest in BPC’s investment in a fund run by SV Health Investors, and appropriate mitigations are in place.” A BEIS spokesperson previously said: “As we have already made clear, Kate Bingham’s role as chair of the vaccine taskforce includes appearing at conferences, speaking to media and liaising closely with wider stakeholders.”

North Devon link road upgrade starts this month – Western Morning News

TRANSPORT: Improvements along a 7.5km stretch of the notorious North Devon Link Road have been agreed by the Department for Transport, as Daniel Clark reports. 

The ‘biggest transport investment in North Devon for a generation’ will begin this month after the Department of Transport has signed off on the major improvements to the North Devon Link Road.

The upgrades to the A361 will help unlock the ‘true potential of the local economy in Northern Devon’, with work to begin imminently thanks to £60m of investment announced today by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

The funding will kick-start major works on the A361, also known as the North Devon Link Road – slashing journey times, boosting connectivity and unlocking housing across the region.

The major project, being led by Devon County Council, will boost the local economy by supporting plans for 6,700 new homes in the region, making it easier for people to access job opportunities, and for businesses to get around.

Confirmation of the funding is a victory for the Western Morning News, following the ‘We Need It Now’ campaign launched for the upgrades to the road to be delivered as a matter of urgency in August 2017 after a series of tragic deaths on the road.

Mr Shapps said: “I am delighted to announce this funding to upgrade a vital gateway between Devon and the rest of the country. These works will boost connections, cut congestion for drivers and improve people’s quality of life.

“It is a clear indication of our commitment to levelling up and investing in transport infrastructure. Through these works, we’ll improve people’s ability to travel across the South West while providing thousands with greater access to new homes and new jobs.”

Cllr Andrea Davis, Devon County Council Cabinet Member for Infrastructure, Development and Waste, said: “This announcement is fantastic news for local residents and for Devon’s economy. The upgrade of this road is the biggest transport investment in North Devon for a generation. It will help unlock the true potential of the local economy in northern Devon, and with the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic, that is vital at this time.

“We have been working tirelessly on this project for a number of years so it’s great to see that effort rewarded with this Government funding. We will now be looking to get work started as soon as we can.”

The works will focus on a 7.5km stretch between South Molton and Barnstaple and the route will be modernised with a wider carriageway, which will greatly improve overtaking opportunities, safety and resilience.

The road’s capacity and eight key junctions will be upgraded – and to boost active travel, facilities for pedestrians and cyclists will be introduced along the route.

Green light for longer and heavier lorries on roads

How is Sidbury, as an example, going to cope with this? – Owl

Click to Download SidburyTrafficJam

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said that trials of longer trailers “clearly show the benefits for business and the environment”.

Graeme Paton, Transport Correspondent

A new generation of “mega-lorries” could take to roads under government plans to cut overall vehicle emissions.

Ministers are preparing to outline proposals that would allow heavier and longer HGVs to operate, enabling them to carry more freight. The Department for Transport (DfT) plans are aimed at cutting down the number of journeys needed to transport goods.

The maximum weight of lorries on British roads would increase by four tonnes to 48 tonnes and trailer lengths would be extended by two metres.

There are concerns that population growth and demand for online shopping is leading to a sharp increase in lorry traffic. Latest DfT figures show that HGVs covered 17.4 billion miles on Britain’s roads last year, a rise of almost 13 per cent compared with the mid-1990s.

Road safety groups have opposed bigger lorries, insisting that the extra length and “tail swing” when turning threatens pedestrians and cyclists. Many cyclists have been killed at junctions by left-turning lorries.

However, the government insists that previous trials show that the larger vehicles cut emissions and accidents by taking more lorries off the road.

Under the reforms, the maximum length of a “semi-trailer” — a trailer without a front axle which is pulled by a lorry tractor unit — will increase. These trailers are limited to 13.6 metres at present but the reforms would create a maximum length of 15.6 metres.

The DfT said that the longer trailers would be able to carry two more rows of pallets or at least three rows of supermarket goods cages on each journey.

An official trial started in 2012 and was intended to last 15 years. However, the DfT is proposing to end it early and reform laws around HGVs to permit all operators to use the longer trailers.

A consultation on the measures will open today and run until the new year. Separately, the DfT will run a second consultation on plans for a trial involving heavier lorries. The change would allow the direct transportation of heavier containers from freight trains to lorries, making it easier to shift cargo between rail depots and road distribution centres.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said that trials of longer trailers “clearly show the benefits for business and the environment”.

In Europe only the Netherlands and Norway allow lorries bigger than the proposed 48 tonnes, with 50-tonne limits. In the US, lorries are limited to 36 tonnes for interstate journeys, but individual states allow higher loads.

White Stuff boss loses bid to save unlawful Devon skate park

A millionaire fashion mogul has lost a bid to save a skate park, tennis court and garage unlawfully constructed on a Devon beauty spot.

Retrospective in AONB turned down by South Hams District Council – Owl

BBC News 

Aerial image of site

image South Hams District Council/Apex

Sean Thomas, founder of the White Stuff fashion brand, had his plans to plant 1,000 trees to screen the site turned down by South Hams District Council.

The authority said the construction near Salcombe was “detrimental” to the “highly sensitive” local environment.

It said formal enforcement action would begin. Mr Thomas is yet to comment.

Mr Thomas has six months to appeal against the decision. He may have to tear down the development, the Local Democracy Reporting Service reported.

He built the additions to land adjoining his home in the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and alongside the Salcombe to Kingsbridge Estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest.

After complaints from residents about the “eyesore” development, a retrospective planning application was refused in 2019.

In April, Mr Thomas submitted the plans to plant more than 1,000 native trees.

Refusing the proposals, the council report described the constructions as an “incongruous development in a highly sensitive area of the open countryside”.

The district council report said: “The development has a detrimental impact upon the surrounding landscape… resulting in adverse impacts to the natural beauty, special qualities, distinctive character, landscape and scenic beauty of the South Devon AONB.”

Control of Exmouth seafront flood gates taken over by East Devon District Council

Control of highway flood gates in Exmouth will be taken over by East Devon District Council.

Remember in February Council Leader, John Hart’s solution to flooding: encourage a modern day dad’s army of individuals, villages and Parish Councils, where they care, to do more for themselves. Self-help, he said, is going to be the order of the day. – Owl

Daniel Clark

Installed on the seafront, the flood gates are considered essential, and if they are not operated, up to 1,500 residential properties plus numerous commercial properties will remain at flood risk during a storm event.

They have been operated by the Environment Agency, but with it facing cutbacks, East Devon’s cabinet meeting on Wednesday (October 28) night it was no longer feasible for them to be the primary responder and in charge of closing the flood gates when storm events are predicted.

Councillors unanimously agreed that it would be sensible for East Devon District Council (EDDC) to be the primary operator of the highways gates, and a community group operating under Exmouth Town Council, will be the primary operators of non-highways gates.

Exmouth seafront

Supporting the move, Cllr Geoff Jung, cabinet member for coast, country and environment, said: “The scheme to get volunteers to work on the gates has worked elsewhere in Devon and this will be very welcome for the residents of Exmouth to be protected from storms and rising sea levels.”

In the event of storm conditions forecast, EDDC would receive a warning from the Environment Agency at least six hours before gate closures would be required.

EDDC would then close the central route, via Alexander Terrace, with gates opposite Morton Road and the Eastern Route, via the Esplanade, and adjacent to the Premier Inn.

The western route, via the Esplanade, with gates adjacent to The Grove, would be the last gate to be closed, as it has the highest threshold.

Once the central and eastern route gates have been closed, EDDC staff would man the western route gates, only allowing vehicles out of the impounding area. Once all vehicles have been removed, the western route gates would be closed.

Once the storm, or series of storms has passed, the Environment Agency will indicate the gates can be opened. EDDC will then open the gates at the earliest opportunity, the meeting heard.

In regards to the non-highway gates, it is envisaged there will be two separate community volunteer groups, one based at the Camperdown area, and another based at the seafront, which will be responsible.