What is happening with Covid infection rates?

As the ONS publishes its latest COVID – 19 insights Owl tries to make sense of what, superficially, appear to be conflicting data from: the ONS; daily published case rates from the government dashboard and the Zoe symptom app.

From the ONS:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continued to increase in England and have increased in Wales and Northern Ireland in the week ending 24 July 2021, but decreased in Scotland.

The estimated percentage of the community population (those not in hospitals, care homes or other institutional settings) that had COVID-19 was:

  • 1.57% (1 in 65 people) in England, up from 1.36% (1 in 75 people) last week
  • 0.62% (1 in 160 people) in Wales, up from 0.47% (1 in 210 people) last week
  • 1.48% (1 in 65 people) in Northern Ireland, up from 0.59% (1 in 170 people) last week
  • 0.94% (1 in 110 people) in Scotland, down from 1.24% (1 in 80 people) last week

From daily case rates:

Since the end of April, daily case rates (the data given most publicity via the government dashboard) have been volatile, swinging up and then down, best illustrated graphically:

From the Zoe symptom tracker app:

This is now showing, as with the ONS data, much higher prevalence than the current reported case rates but in the past few days has indicated a turning point, again best illustrated graphically:

How might we interpret all this?

The first point to make is that there is no perfect measure of the extent of infection in the population. All  these are good data sources but each has its strengths and limitations.

For example, the ONS data come from a randomised sample i.e. includes those who are showing no symptoms but it is a lagging indicator in that it takes time to collect the samples and collate the information. So it is a week or so behind. 

Case rate reporting has a shorter time lag but is a record of those coming forward for testing i.e it misses asymptomatic and mild cases. The government list of symptoms is also regarded by many experts as being too restrictive. With all the publicity given to the “pingdemic” it is possible that some may be less likely to present for testing. It is worth pointing out that both the ONS and Zoe data indicate much higher rates (about twice for the Zoe data). 

The Zoe data has the advantage of daily reporting from a very large sample, about a million contributors, but it uses symptoms as proxy measures and the sample, although large, is self-selecting.

Pandemic data doesn’t usually move in such dramatic fashion as shown by the case rate data without an underlying intervention or event such as a lockdown. As a community moves towards herd immunity, one would expect infection rates gradually to plateau, then gradually to fall.

Big swings most likely reflect some sort of behavioural change. The problem with interpretation is that we have had a number of these, some positive, some negative: school closure; a heat wave; people gathering to watch Euro 2021 etc. There are other changes stemming from “Freedom Day” which may only just be beginning to affect the data: opening up of enclosed spaces to large gatherings such as nightclubs, pubs and cinemas.


Owl’s interpretation, for what it’s worth, is that, despite the publicity given to case rates, there is a high level of Covid in circulation. The implication of this is that incautious behaviour could trigger a rapid surge in cases, a superspreading event. However, there now seems to be evidence that, all else being equal, we may be on the threshold of some sort of herd immunity and could see a sustained gradual decline. The ONS shows numbers declining in Scotland.

More on the impact of second homes – Hope Cove where hope is fading

The Devon village where 80% of properties are second homes

Will Humphries, Southwest Correspondent www.thetimes.co.uk

In the picturesque seaside village of Hope Cove, second home ownership is running at an alarming 80 per cent.

The ageing residents who remain in the south Devon parish, close to Salcombe, fear the march of the holiday home is increasing after their objections to two hotels being converted into holiday homes and apartments have been dismissed by the local council.

“Out of 400 homes only about 80 have permanent residents and the rest are second homes,” said Tom Windle, a retired oil exploration geologist from London who moved to the parish in 2009.

In winter the dark streets are often only punctuated by lights in the windows of every third or fourth house in a row.

Windle, who at 70 describes himself as “one of the younger ones”, said: “There has been no attempt to bring in young families or anything that is affordable. It has always been a question of ‘let’s knock down and build holiday homes’.”

South Hams district council has granted planning permission in recent years for the demolition or conversion of two local hotels in favour of holiday apartments and residential flats which locals believe will quickly become yet more second homes.

The parish council opposed both projects.

Lantern Lodge Hotel, which had 14 guest bedrooms, is being demolished to make way for nine holiday apartments, five residential homes and a staff residence in a £3.3 million redevelopment project.

In 2016, the council refused planning permission for the demolition of the hotel and construction of five homes because it would cause the “loss of a valued tourist facility in a prime location” and didn’t “provide affordable housing provision in an area with an exceptional and demonstrable local need”.

Trinity Square Developments said the approved holiday apartment, with uninterrupted views over the English Channel, would be aimed at the UK’s growing “staycation” market.

Further up the hill from the Lantern Lodge is the ten-bedroom Sand Pebbles Hotel, which was sold earlier this year with planning permission for conversion into five holiday cottages, plus owners’ accommodation.

Paul Green, 79, a parish councillor and former aircraft technician who retired to the parish from Coventry 16 years ago, said the present owners of the Sand Pebbles “wanted to do something different than is in the plans”.

“They called a meeting of the parish council and asked us what we wanted to see there and we said we wanted it back as a hotel again because we are losing so many in the area,” Green said.

“The two hotels we have left in Hope Cove are fully booked and so they are clearly viable businesses. It appears, as far as money making goes, that developers think it’s easier to make money from holiday flats than from hotels.”

Green said second homes were vital for the local economy, with those who spend about six months a year in the village helping to raise funds for the local lifeboat station from their permanent homes in places like Bournemouth.

But he said the sheer number of second homes had left too few residents to run village organisations and associations.

“Locals don’t think the hotels should be converted unless they can be proven to be operating at a loss and they haven’t done that,” Green said.

The South Huish neighbourhood plan, passed in May this year, states that a hotel or tourism-related site should only be deemed no longer viable and granted permission for a change of use if it can be determined through an independent assessment that the vacant unit has been actively marketed and offered at a reasonable sale price for at least two years.

The Sand Pebbles Hotel said in its planning application that there had been a steady fall in turnover from £208,000 in 2015 to £150,000 in 2019.

“It is clear that the demand for the hotel has been falling over several years,” its agent said in a report.

The South Hams planning officer agreed, adding in his final report: “It is also relevant that trends in this sector are changing, with a shift towards family accommodation that cannot be met through single hotel rooms which often do not cater for families of four and more.”

Green said he believes it is now “too late” for government legislation to save villages such as Hope Cove from being swallowed by second homes and holiday apartments.

Labour calls for PM to explain ‘advisory board’ for wealthy Tory donors

Labour has called for Boris Johnson to explain the existence of a secretive “advisory board” for wealthy Conservative donors who have received regular access to the prime minister and Rishi Sunak.

Heather Stewart www.theguardian.com 

The Financial Times reported that party chair Ben Elliot, charged with beefing up Tory fundraising efforts, had created the club for some of the party’s most generous donors, some giving £250,000 a year or more.

The Conservative party confirmed the existence of the board, and the fact that its members meet with senior party figures for “political updates”.

News that the chancellor and prime minister have been holding discussions with super-rich donors comes as the government is facing a series of key decisions on tax and spending, including how to pay for rebuilding the creaking social care system.

Elliot founded Quintessentially, a concierge service for the rich, as well as PR firm Hawthorn. The FT reported he had hosted a drinks party at one donor’s home, at which Johnson was present.

Mohamed Amersi, a businessman and Tory donor, told the paper the club was “like the very elite Quintessentially clients membership: one needs to cough up £250,000 per annum or be a friend of Ben”.

Labour party chair Anneliese Dodds said: “This appears to be less of an advisory board than a means for a select group of elite donors to gain privileged access to the prime minister and the chancellor.

“The Conservative party needs to explain what access this group had, what they have used that access to lobby for, and why they think it’s OK for there to be one rule for high-ranking Conservatives and another rule for everyone else.”

A Conservative party spokesperson said: “Donations are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.

“Fundraising is a legitimate part of the democratic process. The alternative is more taxpayer-funding of political campaigning, which would mean less money for frontline services like schools, police and hospitals.”

Johnson was recently criticised for defying the House of Lords appointments commission by giving a peerage to Peter Cruddas, a former Conservative co-treasurer involved in a previous cash-for-access scandal.

Cruddas resigned as Conservative co-treasurer in 2012 after the Sunday Times claimed he was offering access to the prime minister for up to £250,000. A year later Cruddas won £180,000 in damages in a libel action, although that was subsequently reduced to £50,000 after aspects of the original allegations were upheld when the paper appealed.

Boris Johnson ‘regularly complains he can’t afford to do his job’

Claims have again surfaced that Boris Johnson often moans his £157,000 salary is not enough to get by on.

Sam Courtney-Guy metro.co.uk 

The PM had to give up several lucrative gigs when he took office including £275,000 a year to write a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph, slashing his total earnings from a reported £830,000.

Meanwhile his expenses have ramped up, including a divorce settlement with ex-wife Marina Wheeler which is rumoured to have left him ‘cleaned out’.

It is now commonplace to hear Boris complain about money problems, according to Downing Street insiders interviewed for a new investigation into the PM’s personal finances.

Mr Johnson is said to occasionally come out with tear-jerkers such as: ‘I just can’t afford to do this job’.

Rumours of his financial difficulties crystallised around the ‘Wallpapergate’ scandal earlier this year, when it emerged that a refurbishment of the Downing Street had been paid for by Tory donors and that tens of thousands of pounds of costs had not been declared – though the party insists it was registered ‘correctly’.

Although the PM eventually picked up the tab, the report, by the Financial Times, now indicates was initially advised to pay for the work with a loan.

One Downing Street staffer told the newspaper: ‘Boris would come down and complain about how much it was all going to cost.’

The recommendation is said to have come from the Conservative party’s co-chair, Ben Elliot, who, in contrast to his close friend Boris, is known in Tory circles as a fundraising virtuoso who is never short of cash or wealthy connections.

Mr Johnson then briefly explored setting up a charitable trust to make the works more financially efficient, but the idea collapsed as the flat was a private space.

The PM’s property portfolio also appears to have shrunk in recent years.

While divorce proceedings with Ms Wheeler, his second wife, were underway in 2019, the pair sold their Islington townhouse for £3.35 million.

Mr Johnson then bought a house with his future wife Carrie Symonds in Camberwell, south London, for £1.2 million.

His other properties are his Grade II cottage in Oxfordshire, which is now rented out for £4,250 a month, and a 20 per cent share of the Johnson family home in Exmoor.