UK Covid cases rising among those aged 55 and over

Covid cases appear to be rising in older people as increased socialising, waning immunity and a more transmissible version of the Omicron variant threaten to fuel a resurgence of the virus.

[Boris Johnson confirmed at the end of February that packs of lateral flow tests would no longer be available for free from 1 April for most of the British public, excluding the vulnerable and over-75s.]

Ian Sample www.theguardian.com 

Tests on nearly 100,000 swabs from homes across England reveal that, while infections have fallen overall since the January peak, one in 35 people tested positive between 8 February and 1 March, with cases either level or rising in those aged 55 and over.

Scientists on Imperial College’s React-1 study said the R value – the average number of people an infected person passes the virus to – remained below 1 for those aged 54 and under, meaning cases were in decline. But for those aged 55 and over, R stood at 1.04.

The suspected uptick has raised concerns as older people are more prone to severe Covid and have had more time for their immunity to wane, as many had their booster vaccines several months ago.

The findings come as the latest government figures showed a sharp 46% rise in new recorded UK cases week on week – to 346,059 over the past week – and a 12% rise in hospitalisations to 8,950.

The total number of confirmed UK Covid-19 patients in hospital on Tuesday, 8 March 2022 was 11,639.

Prof Paul Elliott, director of the React study, said the rise was probably driven by factors including the lifting of all Covid legal restrictions in England on 24 February, more mixing between age groups and waning protection from booster shots.

One idea experts are investigating is whether hospitalisation rates are being driven by “unshielding”, where people who have been extremely careful for two years have emerged into a world where infections are still rife.

Another driver is thought to be the BA.2 form of Omicron, a relative of the original BA.1. While BA.2 does not seem to evade immunity any more than BA.1 or cause more severe disease, it spreads faster and increases R by 0.4 compared with BA.1, the Imperial researchers found. “From what we see, BA.2 is more transmissible and may prolong the Omicron wave of the pandemic,” Elliott said. “It’s taking over, so that could explain higher infection rates.”

Since the first BA.2 cases were discovered in December, it has steadily gained ground and now accounts for about half of all Omicron cases in England, with levels currently highest in London. It is unclear how large a wave of infections and hospitalisations BA.2 could drive given widespread immunity from vaccines and past Covid infections.

A further push on vaccinations is due in early April when over-75s and the clinically vulnerable will be offered a fourth shot. “Additional doses of vaccine are almost certainly going to be necessary,” said Prof Peter Openshaw, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag).

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said it was “impossible to make a sensible prediction” about the size of any BA.2 wave but the situation needed close monitoring. “The worry is that it’s hard to see anything happening in the next few weeks that will reverse the growth of BA.2 unless, that is, people decide on their own account to step up precautions.”

Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College, who is not on the React-1 study, said the recent rise was foreseeable. “We’ll see a great deal more of this, along the lines of recent resurgent spikes in Scotland and Hong Kong,” he said. “Caseloads were by no means low or under control as we came out of all mitigations and, when you add in waning immunity and the enhanced transmissibility of BA.2, it looks like we are in for a difficult period, especially for the elderly.”

He said a lack of measures such as mask-wearing and testing potentially left only the option of “a wider push for fourth shots, beyond the over-75s” but cautioned that very regular boosters may not be sustainable long-term.

Openshaw said the rise in cases and hospitalisations should remind people the pandemic is not over. “I think it’s a shame that the message that seems to have got out to the population is that it’s all over and we don’t need to be cautious any more,” he said.

Tory peer attended Cop26 summit for Russia, UN list shows

A Conservative peer attended Cop26 in Glasgow as part of Russia’s group of participants at the UN climate summit, the Guardian can reveal.

Jasper Jolly www.theguardian.com

Greg Barker, a former energy minister when David Cameron was prime minister, attended the talks as part of the party of the Russian Federation, according to a list published by the UN.

Lord Barker resigned on Monday as chair of the Russian mining company En+ Group. The company is part-owned by the Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who was sanctioned by the US in 2018. En+ confirmed that Barker attended with a pass from Russia’s allocation.

His resignation followed intense scrutiny of his relationship with the company, including by senior Tory party colleagues, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Share instruments in En+, which is incorporated in Russia, were suspended from trading on the London Stock Exchange on Thursday.

The presence of Barker on the list emerged in analysis of lobbying at the summit by three non-government organisations – Global Witness, Corporate Accountability and Corporate Europe Observatory.

Barker was ennobled in 2015 by Cameron, after serving for four years as minister of state for climate change. Barker had served as Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle. However, he is not thought to have attended the House of Lords since 2019.

A source familiar with the matter said Barker did not participate in, or attend, any official Russian government functions, meetings or receive any briefings at the climate summit.

Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party chair, said: “The Conservatives have serious questions to answer about why it seems one of their peers was allowed to attend Cop26 as part of Russia’s party.”

Dodds added that “urgent action” was required from the Conservatives to remove people from the political party who have links to Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Barker had been heavily criticised by Conservative party colleagues and other political parties for his prior involvement with En+. The former Tory minister David Davis said: “As a matter of law, people like him should be disqualified from holding office in those companies.”

Murray Worthy, a gas campaign leader at Global Witness, said: “Lord Barker has serious questions to answer as to why he was registered to the world’s most important climate talks as part of the official Russian delegation.

“As do the Conservative party, whose government was entrusted to host Cop26 and made a huge fanfare about its importance in reaching the necessary climate action to stop the heating of our planet.”

While Barker will step down as chair of the listed company, En+ said on Monday that it was considering carving out a large part of the aluminium business, which included the international business of Rusal, a part-owned subsidiary.

The new company would be owned by management and non-Russian investors, and potentially led by Barker, according to a report by Bloomberg News that was referenced by EN+ in its stock market statement.

En+, which mainly produces aluminium but also makes significant profits from coal and other commodities, escaped direct sanctions by the US in 2019 through a deal with the Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac) in which Deripaska’s stake was reduced to below 45%, and his voting rights were reduced to 35%.

Barker received £6m in pay and bonuses in part as a reward for orchestrating the deal.

Deripaska has sought to have the sanctions removed, and has consistently argued that he should not have been designated. A spokesperson for Deripaska said the US sanctions relied on “baseless accusations” and “false claims”.

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Deripaska has in recent days expressed opposition to war in Ukraine. According to Reuters, Deripaska said: “We need peace as soon as possible. The whole world will be different after these events and Russia will be different.”

A source close to Barker said: “The heartbreaking situation in Ukraine and the terrible consequences that flow from it are bad enough without now trying to play politics with the climate agenda.

“Lord Barker has a long history of climate activism, and while he stands by his decision to leave En+, he remains very proud of the progress he was able to achieve in helping one of the world’s largest producers of low-carbon aluminium and hydropower lead the way into the low-carbon economy. Pretending that all Russians are bad is, frankly, appalling.”

Landowner facing legal action over ‘decimation’ of Herefordshire river

A landowner is facing legal action for what environmental regulators say is the decimation of a protected river.

Sandra Laville www.theguardian.com 

Natural England and the Environment Agency (EA) say the charges against the landowner include causing damage to a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), carrying out clearance and reprofiling of the riverbank which was likely to cause damage to or endanger the stability of the river and allowing silt to discharge into the river.

The agencies investigated the actions at the River Lugg near Kingsland, Herefordshire, after complaints that clearance was taking place along the bank in December 2020.

The agencies were alerted after reports of activities including dredging, illegal felling of trees and profiling of the riverbanks over nearly a mile (1.5km) of the river.

The officials, along with the police, issued a stop notice to the landowner to halt the works, which the local wildlife trust said had devastated the river and would have dire consequences for wildlife and water quality.

After a long investigation, the EA and Natural England said on Wednesday they had begun legal action. The charges also relate to further works which are alleged to have been carried out by the landowner in December 2021.

Oliver Harmar, the chief operating officer at Natural England, said: The decimation of this section of the River Lugg has been devastating to the local environment and to local people, destroying the habitats of iconic wildlife such as otters, kingfisher and salmon. It was heartbreaking to see this beautiful riverside illegally damaged.”

The area is protected as an SSSI owing to its importance for nature. Consent is required before any works are carried out within an SSSI, which had not been granted, the agencies said.

Greens call for buses to be run by councils

Green councillors in Exeter and East Devon want buses to come under the control of the local councils.

Radio Exe News www.radioexe.co.uk 

It would be similar to the system that operated until privatisation of bus services in 1986 before which local authorities decided which routes should run and what fares should be.

The two Greens on the city council are to meet Stagecoach Southwest’s managing director Mike Watson this week to discuss what they call “the crisis facing bus services.”

Stagecoach may not necessarily disagree that the service is facing difficulties. In January, Mr Watson to a meeting of the Exeter highways and traffic orders committee (HATOC), that inflation, pay rises, grants being cut, and the number of people using buses being down 30 per cent on pre-pandemic level, are causing pressures.

As a result, service levels “will almost certainly reduce,” he said, but they would try to avoid withdrawing entire routes and that any reductions are done “sensitively” in consultation with the county council.

The Greens think that Stagecoach’s decision are driven by profit and that councillors would be better running the service.

Councillor Amy Sparling said: “Buses are now scheduled to run every half hour but even at this massively reduced frequency often don’t turn up and the app isn’t reliable.  

“So many people rely on bus services to get to work, shops, hospitals, business parks, schools and colleges. Severe service cuts impact particularly on the old and the young and those who cannot or choose not to own cars.”

“Greens are calling for a London-style system where fares, ticketing, routes and timetables are managed by local authorities instead of private operators.”

Green councillor, Diana Moore said: “Private bus operators are driven by profit. This has put the interests of shareholders above passengers and resulted in poor pay and working conditions for drivers and an emphasis on the most profitable routes.” 

  “As Greens we want to see local authorities have the power to ensure bus services reflect all the principles of a public service, including setting routes, frequencies and fares and tickets that work across all buses and trains. 

Green councillor in East Devon, Henry Gent, added:  “In East Devon many have been left stranded. We must see sufficient levels of investment to end transport poverty and ensure estates and villages have at least an hourly bus service that will increase social mobility and equality.”

Stagecoach had been planning a merger with coach operator National Express, but that deal was being looked at by the Competition and Mergers Authority. Now German firm DWS Infrastructure is expected to buy Stagecoach.

Devon covid goes up

Covid cases have risen in some parts of Devon, following the recent end of national restrictions.

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk

Figures for the week to last Thursday [3 March] show the rate in Torbay rose by almost a third, with smaller increases in Plymouth and the Devon County Council area.

All are lower than the 39 per cent national increase in cases last week, but the county remains steadfastly above the UK covid rate. The national average is 388 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 527 in Torbay, 440 in Plymouth and 435 in the county council area.

At district level, the biggest increases were in Torridge and North Devon – both with over 15 per cent more cases. Elsewhere the picture is largely stable, with small fluctuations up or down.

Despite the increase, Torridge remains the least prevalent area for the virus in Devon at 309 cases per 100,000. East Devon still has the highest rate at 519.

The rise in cases comes after all covid restrictions ended in England at the end of February, including the legal requirement to self-isolate with the virus. Free mass testing will stop on Friday 1 April.

However, health bosses in Devon are still encouraging people who have covid to isolate for five days, and then wait until they have two negative tests. This guidance will be reviewed soon.

HOSPITALISATIONS

The most recent government data from Tuesday 1 March, shows 172 patients with covid are in Devon’s hospitals, an increase of 22 from a week ago. The biggest number – 80 – are being treated in Plymouth.

Elsewhere, 60 patients were at the RD&E in Exeter, 19 in Torbay, nine in North Devon and four in Devon Partnership mental health trust sites. Of the total, only one person was in intensive care with covid.

DEATHS

Four more people died in the county within 28 days of testing positive for covid in the latest complete weekly period (up to Wednesday 2 March). Three were in the Devon County Council area and one in Plymouth.

A total of 1,637 people in Devon (including Plymouth and Torbay) have died within 28 days of a positive test since the pandemic began (as of 6 March).

VACCINATIONS

The number of people aged over 12 who have received their booster (third) covid vaccination is 71 per cent in the Devon County Council area, 66 per cent in Torbay and 61 per cent in Plymouth.

Take-up for at least one dose of a vaccine is 89 per cent in the Devon County Council area, 86 per cent in Torbay and 85 per cent in Plymouth.

The proportion of people who have had two jabs is 84 per cent in Devon, 82 per cent in Torbay and 80 per cent in Plymouth.

The national rates are 92, 85 and 67 per cent respectively.