PCR tests in Devon unavailable for second day

How to keep Omicron at bay – stop testing! – Owl

“The Prime Minister has now found himself caught between the Covid Recovery Group and supporters and the scientists.”

Does this rate as another Omnishambles?

James Johnson www.devonlive.com

No PCR test centres Devon have booking slots available for the second morning running as the Government comes under pressure to up the capacity of its testing.

A new record was set for the daily number of coronavirus cases on Wednesday, as all four UK nations reported their figures for the first time since Christmas Eve.

At times yesterday, there were no PCR tests or lateral flow tests available to order online, and in the morning there were no drive-in test centres available.

This morning in Devon, there are no test centres showing as having bookings available. For a short time there was availability but by 9.20am this had switched to none available.

The Government’s website showed availability for home-delivered tests but again by 9.20am this had reverted to none available.

Officials acknowledged that during periods of exceptional demand there could be “temporary pauses” in ordering or receiving tests, in an attempt to manage distribution across the system.

The reduced postal system over Christmas has also added to the issues.

No test centres available in Devon for the second day running.

No test centres available in Devon for the second day running.

But Health Secretary Sajid Javid admitted there were global supply issues to a senior Tory MP.

Sir Roger Gale said that Mr Javid had confessed there was a problem with supplies – previously ministers and officials had insisted they had sufficient stocks but the problems were in delivering them to people’s homes or pharmacies.

The North Thanet MP said: “Saj was very honest with me, he said, ‘look, there isn’t a quick fix’.”

Sir Roger said “we have created the demand in England which we now can’t satisfy” as a result.

He added: “The Prime Minister has now found himself caught between the Covid Recovery Group and supporters and the scientists.

“We are now facing the situation where No 10 is saying go and get tested and the Department of Health is saying we haven’t got the tests, we can’t do it.”

He said Mr Javid is “busting a gut” to get supplies, “but we’re competing with a global market”.

Without lateral flow tests government policy is in jeopardy

It is almost a cruel hoax that is being perpetrated on the people of England.

Editorial www.independent.co.uk 

Whereas in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland there are restrictions on new year and Hogmanay festivities, and they have already had their disappointments, in England the apparently magnanimous UK government has said the parties can go ahead, virtually unhindered. Boris Johnson may even have saved his premiership by following the instincts of his rebellious backbenchers in sweeping away the puritan doubts of his advisers, and restoring Merrie England in the face of a pandemic: trebles all round. 

“Enjoy yourselves … but be cautious” is the message from his health minister, Gillian Keegan, doing the broadcast rounds. The key to that, though, is to take a lateral flow test (LFT) before venturing out or greeting guests for a home celebration. All very practical and sensible – except of course that there is a shortage of lateral flow tests, and has been for a while. The independent pharmacists describe the situation as “patchy”.

Visits to the NHS website are met with a message that postal deliveries are not possible. Parallel problems have arisen with the more accurate and involved PCR tests. Given the timings, it will now be impossible for many would-be revellers to swab themselves before they try to remember the words to “Auld Lang Syne” and they say hello to 2022. The temptation to skip the test is obvious; but so are the grim consequences.

The dire situation with the tests also threatens the ability of people to return to work after an infection. The condition for coming out of self-isolation is for two negative LFT tests taken 24 hours apart. Without these, it is impossible for anyone to tell if they are still infectious, even if they feel well. A further reduction in quarantine times to five days – which would help more people return to work and normal family life – while there is such a shortage of tests looks impossible. In England, despite the formal stance of lightened restrictions, the shortage of LFTs means that self-imposed lockdowns for many will feel as complete as at any other time during the past 21 months of crisis. The test shortages also distort the Covid statistical system and detecting the rise of Omicron in relation to the Delta coronavirus variant.

Therefore, much of the basis of the government’s policy towards Omicron is in jeopardy, because the tests people need aren’t there, and, in fact, because the effective rate of booster vaccinations remains too low overall to gain full herd immunity (given the lag of at least seven days for the booster jab to be properly effective), the successful booster campaign needs more time to rebuild the wall of coronavirus protection. It seems quite certain that the spread of the virus will be greater than if the tests were available freely. Even if Omicron doesn’t overwhelm the NHS, the inevitable spikes in hospitalisations will add to the challenges facing the health service, and make treating non-Covid cases harder.

While parliament is in recess, the prime minister invisible until now, and with the seasonal distractions, it’s worth noting that there has been little attempt by the authorities to explain exactly why the LFT shortage has arisen. The UK Health Security Agency blames “supply-side difficulties”, which is merely a restatement of the problem. It is said that there is no shortage of stock, but just of logistical capability, which, again, is no use to anyone (and sounds like a disturbing echo of the excuses offered last year for the severe shortages of personal protective equipment).

The Royal Mail, other delivery services and the pharmacies have done an admirable job in supplying these invaluable kits over many months. Why are they now being blamed by some for the problem? Why does there seem to have been little attempt to boost their supply? Is it poor planning by the UKHSA over many weeks as the limited plan B restrictions (which implied more lateral flow testing) were being contemplated? Perhaps the contracts with suppliers based in China were faulty. Some Tory MPs are claiming there is a global shortage of LFTs.

There may be many factors at work, but the public has a right to know what has gone wrong and why. With a relatively long shelf life, it should have been possible to stockpile many more lateral flow tests, and indeed PCR tests as the Omicron variant emerged a month ago, and case numbers were forecast to ramp up. It wasn’t done. Why? 

Hospitals in England asked to look for up to 4,000 emergency Covid beds

Hospitals have been asked to identify sites for up to 4,000 emergency beds to deal with a potential wave of Omicron admissions in England, as cases hit a record 183,000.

Rowena Mason www.theguardian.com 

On Wednesday, more than 10,000 patients were in hospital with Covid, a figure not reached since March.

NHS England confirmed that it was creating new small-scale “Nightingale” facilities with up to 100 beds each at eight hospitals across the country. The health service said it had asked trusts to identify empty spaces to accommodate beds in places such as gyms or teaching areas. NHS managers are aiming to create up to 4,000 beds as surge capacity if needed, with work on the first tranche, in temporary structures, starting this week.

A number of huge temporary hospitals, called the “Nightingales”, were built in exhibition halls in the first wave of the pandemic but were dismantled without being used to capacity.

The new approach will ask for surge capacity to be built in the grounds of hospitals to make it easier for staff to move between new and old sites and keep patients closer to diagnostics and emergency care. The first sites will be at Preston, Leeds, Birmingham, Leicester, Stevenage, St George’s in London, Ashford and Bristol. There are currently almost 90,000 adult acute and general beds available in England, with occupancy at about 90% on 19 December.

The announcement came as new data showed there were 10,462 people in hospital in England with Covid as of Wednesday, although it is still unclear how many were admitted with the disease and how many are there for another reason while also testing positive.

The number of patients on mechanical ventilation has remained fairly stable in recent weeks and even reduced since November. On Wednesday the number of deaths reported was 57.

Boris Johnson returned from his Christmas break at Chequers on Wednesday with a visit to a vaccine centre to urge people to get their booster jabs, saying up to 90% of people in intensive care had not received their third dose. He said people should celebrate New Year’s Eve but called on them to exercise caution and take tests.

The prime minister also warned that Omicron continued to “cause real problems” even though it was “obviously milder than the Delta variant”.

The NHS has called on people to have a “jabby new year”, highlighting research from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC) that found that at the start of last month about three out of five patients in London’s intensive care units had not received a jab, a figure that it said was rising.

Prof Stephen Powis, the NHS national medical director, said the health service hoped never to have to use the surge beds but added: “Given the high level of Covid-19 infections and increasing hospital admissions, the NHS is now on a war footing.”

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, also said it was “absolutely right that we prepare for all scenarios and increase capacity”.

With the government still concerned about the possibility that the high case numbers of Omicron could overwhelm the NHS, Johnson is holding off from cutting the Covid isolation period to five days for those without symptoms.

The prime minister has come under pressure to reduce the UK’s isolation period again, after the US decided to halve it for those without symptoms from five to 10 days as long as they wear a mask in public.

The UK reduced its quarantine period from 10 to seven days last week if people test negative by lateral flow, but some other countries around the world are now looking at going further.

Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and the government’s life sciences adviser, has indicated support for a shorter isolation period “if it was supported by lateral flow data”.

A No 10 source said everything was “kept under review” but insisted that there were “no immediate plans” to revise the quarantine period again so soon.

Several Tory backbenchers called on the government to consider a move similar to the US. Andrew Bridgen urged Johnson to reduce the isolation period, saying the biggest threat to the NHS was “forced absentees due to self-isolation”.

David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, said a five-day isolation period followed by a lateral flow test “sounded sensible” for Omicron cases. “If the Americans are doing it, the question is why are we not doing it, not why we should,” he said.

Davis also called on the government to make sure it has enough doses of therapies such as Paxlovid that can reduce the risk of hospitalisation in severe Covid cases and to improve data on how many people are in hospital because of the coronavirus, rather than for another condition while also testing positive for the virus.

Lee Anderson, a 2019 intake Tory backbencher, said “all options to get people back to work quicker should be looked at”. Another MP added said “isolation could be a bigger issue than actual illness” and they would “support a review at the very least”.

Chloe Smith, the minister for disabled people, health and work, said on Wednesday there were “no current plans in England to change the period” for isolation. She told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday: “Of course, we have actually only recently taken it down from 10 to seven, and we want to look at that – we want to make sure that that is working as we believe it ought to. We think the current period, therefore, is the right one, so we haven’t any plans to change that further.”

NHS managers have said they are as worried about the impact on patient care of staff shortages from people having to isolate as they are about surging admissions from Covid.

The chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson,said the effect of greater social mixing over Christmas was still to come. He told BBC Breakfast: “We’re now seeing a significant increase in the level of staff absences, and quite a few of our chief executives are saying that they think that that’s probably going to be a bigger problem and a bigger challenge for them than necessarily the number of people coming in who need treatment because of Covid.”

In response to the new Nightingale sites, Hopson said it “must be the right ‘no regrets later’ move to make these preparations now” but highlighted the difficulty of staffing them.

“Given the other pressures on the NHS and the current level of staff absences, staffing this capacity would be a major challenge,” he said. “But co-location on existing hospital sites maximises the NHS’s ability to meet that challenge.”

Exclusive: the drug of choice for Tory rebels

Hopium – a judgement altering hallucinogenic derived by distilling minced facts and discarding all but the most volatile condensate, the so-called opinion fraction. Dulls the critical faculties.

Usually taken aurally in tea rooms and bars, especially in the Palace of Westminster.

Particularly effective in those of a conservative and rebellious disposition, especially with libertarian tendencies.

Common side effects include: delusions of infallibility and loss of sense of reality.

Contraindications: not to be taken by anyone seeking to be taken seriously. 

Suppliers can be found through various WhatsApp groups and from any registered Tory Shaman.

(With acknowledgements to London Playbook for seeding the idea)

Shrinking real incomes are a new year nightmare for the chancellor

Is the Government losing control over when to call the next election?

Not so long ago it seemed possible that Boris Johnson could call an early election, as early as the end of 2022 or maybe early 2023, on the back of a successful vaccination programme, after declaring “victory over Covid.” Now so many dark clouds are gathering on the economic front that it is hard to see either him or his successor having many favourable options (e.g. after a “give away” budget or with rising income expectations) prior to hitting the buffers on Thursday, 2nd May 2024. – Owl


There’s little cheer for the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, as he looks to spin a positive narrative about the UK economy in the year ahead.

Wage growth is expected to stay below inflation throughout 2022, according to a forecast from the Resolution Foundation, an economic think tank that examines living standards. In its words: “The medium-term outlook for wages is uncertain but far from rosy.”

The upshot: families can expect an extremely painful £1,200 hit from next April on average, as taxes and energy prices rise.

The holiday season was cancelled for some Treasury officials when the Bank of England revealed in mid-December that it now believes inflation could reach 6 per cent in spring next year. Few officials can remember a time when price growth was so strong. The central bank’s forecast is three times the Bank of England’s 2 per cent inflation target.

But few economists expect there to be much aid from Threadneedle Street in the coming months. Higher domestic interest rates can do nothing to quell energy price spikes on international markets.

So, what can No 11 do? It can hope that wages stop climbing across the board, as wage growth can end up feeding inflation in a self-perpetuating spiral. This was the nightmare scenario of the 1970s, as Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at UK in a Changing Europe, told The Independent on Wednesday – the worst possible fear for the Treasury.

The Treasury could rethink April’s tax rises, intended to help pay for NHS repairs after the pandemic via higher national insurance contributions. These will eventually be switched towards funding social care against the backdrop of an ageing population.

Yet that would force the chancellor to borrow more, particularly if GDP growth continues to lose momentum or even swing negative in the first half of next year – and he will be keen to avoid further borrowing, having already had to offer huge sums to support the economy through the pandemic.

After the epic costs of furlough, and other mitigations to help businesses and consumers through the impact of Covid-19 restrictions, many Tory MPs and cabinet ministers are opposed to any further splurges.

Swift tax cuts to ease the pressure on household budgets are unlikely to be introduced. Although Sunak’s Budget underlined his ambition to be a low-tax chancellor, the tax burden is now at its highest level since the early 1950s.

The chancellor has tasked officials with creating a blueprint for lower taxes in recent weeks, with the aim of reporting early on in 2022, and Sunak is set to deliver a spring statement in March next year. Still, it is not clear whether he might announce tax-cut plans early in 2022, particularly as the Treasury wants to have just one annual Budget each autumn.

Investment in skills and infrastructure, along with relaxing immigration rules, are potential routes for boosting productivity – the “goldilocks” growth that increases profits and wages without feeding inflation. The Treasury has shown it is keen to try to focus on these areas, with policy ambitions such as those laid out in its net zero review.

Still, productivity growth has been the holy grail of many governments, to little avail. And where policy efforts have paid off, none have been short-term wins.

Sunak is very eager to boost productivity, and has made a close personal study of the issue, but he will also understand it is no overnight salve in the face of rising inflation.

The impact on the UK’s poorest households is likely to be so severe that the government will be forced to act. The harder question is whether even the weak GDP growth the UK has achieved in recent months can be sustained if consumers, particularly those who have added to their savings during lockdowns, are too worried about the economy to go out and spend.

Households will be feeling the pinch in 2022, but there may still be some pent-up demand to tap once the cloud of Omicron lifts a little. That could help improve the outlook for the chancellor’s ability to borrow – based on his fiscal rules.

However, Sunak will be left with few tools in his armoury if savers do not become spenders in the year ahead. It will be similarly bleak if wages continue to climb, because businesses may be forced to slash headcount to allow them to offer above-inflation salary increases to key staff. And higher wages could further feed inflation.

Although this kind of wage-driven domestic inflation is something that the Bank of England can address, raising its key interest rate adds to businesses’ and households’ borrowing costs, potentially acting as a handbrake on GDP growth.

A hard, lasting squeeze on incomes in the run-up to the next general election – something that some inflation and GDP forecasts are starting to hint at – could be very costly indeed. There is no stronger example of cut-through than what is left in the bank account at the end of the month.

What to do about the UK’s unvaccinated? No 10’s (and Simon Jupp’s) Covid dilemma

Covid cases Wednesday catch up with delayed holiday reporting

Daily reported coronavirus cases in the UK jumped to a record 183,037 on Wednesday. (Close to the doomsters’ forecast). See BBC here. (Reports over the next few days may be subject to test availability).

And a total of 10,462 people were in hospital with Covid in England as of Wednesday morning, figures from NHS England show.

This is up 48% from a week ago and is the highest number of admissions since 1 March.

Not all the patients in hospital will have been admitted for Covid – latest data suggests about three in 10 have the virus but were admitted to hospital for something else.

Hospital numbers are rising more slowly than cases though, once again showing the Omicron variant is leading to milder illness.

However, the numbers who are seriously unwell with Covid are still going up. (Small percentages of a very large number can still be large).

The high stakes gamble

Boris Johnson has staked everything on the booster programme to avoid the need for further restrictions. Indeed, thanks to rebel MPs such as Simon Jupp he has no other political choice and his future, and our health and welfare, may depend on its success. 

The article below suggests there is growing frustration with the unvaccinated. If all forms of exhortation, nudges and persuasion fails and restrictions are deemed necessary, Johnson may have to confront a difficult choice, unpalatable to his party, about whether everyone – the vaccinated and the unvaccinated – are all in it together any more. 

So how does a “Libertarian”  such as Simon Jupp react: back further restrictions or mandatory vaccinations? Owl assumes he will be getting advice from someone he trussts.

Get the message?

Johnson broke cover on Wednesday, having laid low for a week, to talk to the press. He used the term “booster” in just about every other sentence, suggesting a sense of desperation. His message wasn’t subtle news.sky.com: 

“I’m sorry to say this but the overwhelming majority of people who are currently ending up in intensive care in our hospitals are people who are not boosted,”

“I’ve talked to doctors who say the numbers are running up to 90% of people in intensive care, who are not boosted.

“If you’re not vaccinated, you’re eight times more likely to get into hospital altogether.

“So it’s a great thing to do. It’s very, very important. Get boosted for yourself, and enjoy New Year sensibly and cautiously.” [This overlooks the fact that all covid vaccinations take a couple of weeks to become effective.]

No 10’s Covid dilemma

Rowena Mason www.theguardian.com

A growing sense of frustration with people who have not been vaccinated against Covid has been creeping into the speeches of senior government figures from Sajid Javid to Boris Johnson in recent weeks.

The health secretary has accused those who have chosen not to take up the offer of free vaccination of taking up hospital beds, damaging society and potentially harming their families as well as themselves.

The prime minister also began rolling the pitch for a possibly tougher approach towards the unvaccinated when he spoke of the need for a “national conversation” about how the NHS would cope with the Omicron wave and further new variants.

“I don’t believe we can keep going indefinitely with non-pharmaceutical interventions, restrictions on people’s way of life, just because a substantial proportion of the population still, sadly, has not got vaccinated,” he said.

Given the libertarian instincts of today’s Tory party, No 10 has followed the path of allowing people to choose freely whether or not to get vaccinated, unless they want to work in the NHS and the care sector.

A mandatory vaccination policy would almost certainly result in a challenge to Johnson’s authority from his backbenches. Those same MPs, however, are also opposed to national restrictions that hit all of society to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.

If another Covid wave were to push the health service to the point of collapse, Downing Street would face two possibilities: lock down everyone or reserve the harshest restrictions for the 5 million people who have declined to be vaccinated in the hope it would ease the burden on hospitals and slow the spread of an outbreak.

Javid has estimated that 90% of the most severely ill in hospital at the moment are unvaccinated.

Urging people to have a “jabby new year”, the NHS said on Wednesday that research from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC) found that at the start of last month about three in five patients in London’s intensive care units had not had a jab, and that the figure was rising.

Some countries have already decided that choosing not to be vaccinated should carry a cost, given the impact on wider society of Covid spreading more quickly among the unvaccinated and the greater potential for hospitalisation.

Greece and France went down the Covid passport route as early as July. Israel and Denmark also adopted pass systems early, phased them out, and then brought them back when infections were surging.

In Italy, proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test has been required for many indoor public places since October and a new super-green pass was added in December that is available only to people who have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid in the last six months.

All moves by the UK government so far to encourage vaccination have been firmly rooted in persuasion and “nudge” theory. It has been almost all carrot and no stick, even when it comes to Covid passports. Ministers insist they should not be called “vaccine passports” because people will be allowed to show a recent lateral flow test result instead.

The approach of encouragement is continuing, with a campaign texting everyone to “get boosted now”. But there also now appears to be an attempt to introduce an element of social stigma to vaccine refusal, and a move to suggest it is people’s civic responsibility to get jabbed.

No 10’s view is that there is still scope to drive up vaccination rates further – particularly when it comes to the booster – and that this is preferable to using vaccination status as a dividing line. Almost 90% of over 12s have now had a first dose, 82% have their second and 56.5% are boosted.

One major missing piece of the puzzle, currently under consideration, is a strategy that gets to the bottom of why 5 million people remained unvaccinated, especially those in communities with an ingrained distrust of authority.

No 10 even turned to an artificial intelligence (AI) company earlier in the year to determine the causes of vaccine hesitancy, but Whitehall sources acknowledge there is still a lack of understanding about how many of the unvaccinated remain so because of entrenched anti-vax ideology, misconceptions that could be turned around, a lack of time or transport to get to vaccine centres, or just apathy.

One option being weighed is the idea of greater personal outreach – learning from the personal touch of GPs who have phoned all their most vulnerable vaccine refusers. Ministers are even thinking about teams of door-to-door vaccinators who could deliver shots on the spot.

If this last push were not to work, however, and further restrictions are deemed necessary, Johnson may have to confront a difficult choice, unpalatable to his party, about whether everyone – the vaccinated and the unvaccinated – are all in it together any more.

Tory aristocrat uses £300k from government’s Levelling Up Fund to fill potholes on his driveway

What else would you expect a Tory Eton Toff, estimated to be worth £15 million, to do with a “Levelling Up Fund” – the clue is in the name! – Owl


A Conservative aristocrat dipped into the government’s Levelling Up Fund to the tune of £300,000 in order to fill half a mile of potholes on his driveway, it has been revealed.

The fund, which was supposed to support left-behind communities, was used by the Eton and Oxford-educated former Tory peer to repair roads on his land in East Sussex.

The track leads to Charleston Farmhouse, an independently run museum and art gallery within the grounds of his Firle Estate.

Charleston Farmhouse

The museum applied for the funds, even though the drive itself is owned by the millionaire aristocrat.

Visitors to the former home of Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, had complained for years about the potholes.

One warned in a review: “You risk your car’s suspension – and you need to wear a sports bra.”

But despite the viscount’s wealth being estimated at £15 million, his Firle Estate Management team helped the Charleston Trust secure the cash from the Getting Building Fund, part of the Levelling Up Fund specifically aimed at helping Covid-hit infrastructure, the Mail Online has reported. [The Mail account contains a more colourful report about the “Virile Viscount” and close friend of Prince Philip]

“Arms around people”

Boris Johnson announced the Getting Building Fund to show his administration was “putting its arms around people at a time of crisis”.

The Trust blamed ‘poor drainage’ for corroding the driveway to obtain the grant.

But according to Harry Fone, grassroots campaign manager at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the cash injection doesn’t represent value for money for the public.

The Charleston Trust said: “Our charity is grateful to South East Local Enterprise Partnership and the Government’s Getting Building Fund for providing the funding needed to rebuild the severely damaged access track.

“The new road provides safer, easier, and greener ways for visitors to reach Charleston and will help support the recovery and growth of the region’s creative and visitor economy.”

The South East Local Enterprise Partnership, through which the grant application was made, said the fund has created 11 new jobs and “helped to boost the local creative and cultural sector”.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “Charleston is internationally recognised as a site of cultural importance and this funding will help open it up to more visitors and improve its contribution to the local economy.”