How a string of failures by the British government helped Covid-19 to mutate

“The prime minister’s repeated dithering, delays and seeming inability to make unpopular decisions have led Britain to have one of the worst death rates in the world. We have now cancelled Christmas and triggered international alarm. We can only hope that we’re not still in this position by Easter.”

Anthony Costello

During the first wave of Covid-19 in Britain, many scientists – myself included – said the government should be pursuing a “maximum suppression” or “zero Covid” strategy. One of the many reasons for this was to stop natural selection doing its work. When a virus is allowed to spread, spending time in different hosts, it evolves and mutates. Scientists have now found a “mutant” variant of the virus that causes Covid-19, which has 17 alterations to its genetic sequences, including changes in the spike protein that enables the virus to enter our cells.

Despite the warnings, the government’s strategy throughout the pandemic has been to slow the spread of the virus and reduce pressure on the NHS, rather than eliminating Covid altogether. As late as 13 March, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) minutes recorded that “measures seeking to completely suppress [the] spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak”. Advisers warned that countries such as China, where heavy suppression was already under way “will experience a second peak once measures are relaxed”. Instead of eliminating coronavirus, the logic seemed to be, Britain would learn to live with it.

Nine months later, China and South Korea have recorded three and 12 deaths per million people respectively. By contrast, based on the government data for deaths occurring within 28 days of a positive Covid test, the UK has recorded 970 deaths from Covid per million people.

Scientists only expected the virus that causes Covid-19 to undergo one to two mutations each month – but with an estimated 2 million people now infected with Covid in the UK, there are many more opportunities for the virus to mutate. The new variant seems to be accelerating transmission. Many have asked whether this will affect the efficacy of a vaccination programme – but this is something scientists could likely fix reasonably quickly by adjusting the RNA coding of the new vaccines. It’s not possible to tell yet whether the new variant of the virus will change the severity of Covid-19 in those who catch it.

What’s certain is that the greater the number of people who are infected, the more chance a virus has to evolve. The government rightly fears that a surge in cases in southern England, where transmission is worryingly high, will spread across the country, and EU member states have banned travel and limited freight from the UK in an attempt to stop the variant spreading. Measures to prevent the spread of Covid are much the same as before – restricting household mixing, social distancing, travel bans, rapid testing, contact tracing and isolation, face masks, hand hygiene and working from home. Workplaces and schools will remain shut over Christmas, and the tier 4 lockdown in London and the south-east should dampen the opportunities for infections. For now, the government’s priority should be scaling up vaccinations as quickly as possible, and offering proper support to those affected by lockdown and self-isolation measures.

But none of this was inevitable. The recent surge cannot be blamed on a mutant virus alone; in fact, government mismanagement of the pandemic meant that many more people became infected, creating the conditions for mutations to occur.

The failures of the government’s pandemic response are legion. An earlier lockdown by just one week in the spring could have halved the death rate, according to Nick Davies, a Sage adviser. Ministers wasted billions on outsourcing an allegedly “world-beating” test-and-trace system to private companies. It has failed to monitor rates of self-isolation and provided scant financial support to those asked to quarantine at home, relying on workers who don’t get sick pay, such as those in the gig economy, to isolate while losing wages. After Britain’s spring lockdown, infection rates fell, but the government again failed to do what was needed in time to suppress the virus.

The government’s poor control of Covid-19 has increased the force of the infection and allowed more mutations to happen. On top of the economic costs of lockdown measures, the UK has now been effectively placed in quarantine by the international community. The prime minister’s repeated dithering, delays and seeming inability to make unpopular decisions have led Britain to have one of the worst death rates in the world. We have now cancelled Christmas and triggered international alarm. We can only hope that we’re not still in this position by Easter.

  • Anthony Costello is professor of global health and sustainable development at University College London and a former director of maternal and child health at the WHO

Led by Donkeys – a second attempt

Occasionally, Old Owl sets New Owl a cryptic challenge.

This one is to find the “right” led by Donkeys update.

The one posted yesterday, though entertaining, wasn’t the one intended! Ooops.

So let’s try this.

East Devon public toilets set to close for Christmas

East Devon’s 20 Covid-safe public toilets will be closed on Christmas Day and will re-open as usual from Boxing Day onwards. 

Don’t get caught out! – Owl

Daniel Wilkins​ 

Due to the level of staffing needed for the required enhanced cleaning for Covid 19 compliance, the council has decided to close the public toilets on Christmas Day.  

An East Devon District Council spokesman said: “Closing the toilets on Christmas Day will allow staff to be with their extended families – their  ‘Christmas Bubble’ –  which, due to national restrictions, is the only day where they can meet their family and friends.”

Since the first national lockdown, the majority of East Devon’s public toilets have remained open with enhanced Covid cleaning – three times a day in the winter and five times a day over the summer. 

New contractors to roll out fibre broadband across region – News centre

Three companies have been selected to roll-out full fibre broadband networks on behalf of the Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) programme, backed by Government funding.

Three for the price of one?

Everyone jumping on the bandwagon – why has it taken so long to get going?

In March Owl wrote:

“Owl recommends searching the archive using a combination of these terms: Twiss; broadband supremo; omnishambles. How far back can you go?”

Posted on: 23 December 2020 

Airband, Truespeed and Wessex Internet will be installing full fibre broadband across Devon and Somerset to more than 56,000 rural homes and businesses over the next four years.

The combined public and private sector investment of around £80million will be in the vanguard of the Government’s ambitions to build a Gigabit capable network across the UK.

The three companies all have experience of working in the region and, between them, have already delivered connections to nearly 41,000 premises in the CDS region.

In the new roll-out, Airband will be expanding its full fibre coverage into rural areas of Somerset West and Taunton, parts of Sedgemoor, East Devon, as well as areas of Mid Devon, South Hams and Teignbridge.

Truespeed will be working in B&NES (Bath & North East Somerset), North Somerset, Mendip and part of Sedgemoor, while Wessex Internet will deliver in rural communities of South Somerset.

Work is due to start next year for completion in 2024. The initiative is being funded by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Heart of the South West LEP, CDS local authorities, European Regional Development Fund and the Rural Development Programme for England.

Minister for Digital Infrastructure, Matt Warman MP, said: “Today’s announcement marks a major step forward in our mission to build back better in the South West, with thousands of homes and businesses set to be linked up to lightning fast gigabit broadband thanks to an £18.4 million investment by the government. With Airband, Truespeed and Wessex Internet now on board I am confident we will deliver on our ambition for an infrastructure revolution in Devon and Somerset.”

Councillor David Hall, CDS Board Member and Somerset County Council Cabinet Member for Economic Development, Planning and Community Infrastructure, said: “We’re pleased to confirm the appointment of three well-established, regionally-based suppliers to help with the challenge of delivering the next phase of the CDS programme. They have significant experience of delivering broadband connections in rural areas of Devon and Somerset, so they have an understanding of the remote areas where CDS is looking to improve connectivity. This investment will deliver full fibre broadband ahead of many other parts of the country.”

Councillor Rufus Gilbert, CDS Board Member and Devon County Council Cabinet Member for Economy and Skills, said: “These contracts will deliver vital connectivity to a significant number of rural communities across Devon and Somerset helping our businesses and supporting local jobs. Access to services online, home working and staying connected has never been more important, and these investments will provide a much needed boost to our rural and coastal communities”.

Redmond Peel, Founder and Director of Airband, said: “We are thrilled to have won these contracts. As a company, we passionately believe that rural communities should have access to the same level of high-quality connectivity, and therefore opportunities, as those in urban areas. Today’s announcement is a step towards closing the digital divide and delivering industry leading connectivity to those who need it most.”

Evan Wienburg, Truespeed CEO, said: “We are delighted to have won these prestigious contracts with CDS to bring Gigabit-capable full fibre broadband to harder to reach communities in the south west. As a Somerset-based business focused on building out our own full fibre infrastructure to areas left behind by the industry giants, we are the natural partner for CDS. The requirement for full fibre broadband is essential as more people study and work from home. Many Truespeed customers are already benefiting from our ultra-reliable, ultra-fast broadband service and we will continue to work as hard and as fast as we can to accelerate our roll out.”

Hector Gibson Fleming, Managing Director of Wessex Internet, said: “This hugely exciting programme will allow us to focus on delivering even more connectivity to rural homes and businesses across South East Somerset. We already have a track record of delivering in this challenging geography and the programme will allow us to accelerate our work while still retaining our collaborative approach. We now look forward to partnering with more farmers and communities across the area to deliver full-fibre connections to even more of the countryside that has been overlooked by the major network providers.”

Karl Tucker, Chair, Heart of the South West LEP, said: “The appointment of the three suppliers to deliver the rollout of full fibre coverage to people and businesses into thousands of rural homes and businesses in the Heart of the South West LEP area is good news. It has never been more vital than it is now to ensure our communities and businesses have access to good connectivity and the three companies all have extensive experience of working in our area. The HotSWLEP is delighted to be supporting this programme through our Growth Deal funding.”

CDS has delivered connectivity to more homes and businesses than any other broadband programme in England.

Nearly one million homes and businesses in Devon and Somerset now have access to superfast broadband thanks to the Government supported CDS programme and stimulation of the commercial market which is an important element of CDS’s role. Of these, over 300,000 homes and businesses have access to superfast broadband as a direct result of public funding.

As part of its Fibre Extension Programme, CDS is currently funding fibre broadband connections to over 6,000 homes and businesses being delivered by Airband. Thanks to the high level of take-up of broadband services in the region from previous connectivity delivered by Openreach, CDS is also re-investing a £6 million dividend to extend full fibre coverage to over 2,000 premises, again working with Openreach, through the Government’s “Gainshare” agreement with the company.

CDS is also working closely with the Government’s Rural Gigabit Voucher programme to support communities who wish to contract with telecoms providers to design bespoke broadband solutions for their communities. To date, over 3,400 premises in Devon and Somerset have been connected to fibre through the Rural Gigabit Voucher Scheme, with another 2,800 vouchers approved for build over the next 12 months. This represents a voucher investment of nearly £7.4 Million in full fibre across the CDS region.

Investment from CDS can only take place in areas where there are no current or credible future plans to deliver Next Generation Access (NGA) broadband infrastructure capable of download speeds of at least 30Mbps.

The whole Connecting Devon and Somerset programme is expected to deliver an £800 million boost to the regional economy.