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Sensemaker: Life after the vaccine

Tuesday 6 April 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Jordan’s former crown prince, who released a video statement that he was being imprisoned, has now made a statement pledging his loyalty to the king. 
  • North Korea withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics, citing fears over the coronavirus. The two Korean states have used past Olympic games to build diplomatic ties, even entering a joint team in the 2018 winter games.
  • Australia and New Zealand have bubbled: the two states, which have kept virus numbers at very low levels, announced that it will be possible to move between the two countries from mid-April without quarantine.

Life after the vaccine

Britons are in the happy position of being one of the most heavily vaccinated populations in the world, and the country is lifting restrictions. Much of the political debate is about why the government is not being more bullish. But wait a minute: it isn’t over yet. The headlines from new state-sponsored research – released yesterday – on what that means are quite sobering. 

  • Things aren’t going to end with the first vaccine rollout. As the Imperial College team, one of the contributors to the work, put it: “Due to eligibility, vaccine hesitancy, and the high transmissibility of the circulating variant, vaccination alone will not be sufficient to keep the epidemic under control.”
  • Some of the numbers from Imperial’s modelling: the English government is planning to end many of the current restrictions on 21 June – but, as things stand, that will be when only 45 per cent of the population has protection from severe disease. As a result, if the government hits its target reopening, the central estimate is that a further 15,700 people will die of the virus by June 2022.
  • This number is very sensitive to modest changes in assumptions: if you assume the rate of spread is a little higher or the vaccines are a little worse than we assume at the moment, Imperial finds the numbers suddenly balloon – tens of thousands more dead. 
  • The official summary of the research notes “scenarios with little transmission reduction after Step 4 or with pessimistic but plausible vaccine efficacy assumptions can result in resurgences in hospitalisations of a similar scale to January 2021”. 
  • The report notes that it is “highly likely that new vaccines will be required in the medium term; preparation for this requirement as well as measures to extend the period before said new vaccines are deployed will reduce the risk of a major surge in hospitalisations”.

The big point is that it is prudent not to bank on the current programme of easing of restrictions being a one-way process, nor things going back to normal too fast. A further wave is expected. This will not be the last round of vaccinations.

This is the context in which ministers are considering allowing institutions to ask for “Covid passports” – proof of vaccination or a negative test status to allow people to attend otherwise dangerous events. A review, released yesterday, said: “COVID-status certification could potentially play a role in settings such as theatres, nightclubs, and mass events such as festivals or sports events.”

The roll-out of these ‘passports’ is the current political squall. But something less discussed is about the fact that, at the moment, the model assumes the UK will top out with 61 per cent of its population protected – the low number coming from not vaccinating children and the fact that vaccines are not 100 per cent effective. 

It is also why children being jabbed might become a significant issue – not least to prevent another round of school closures. You might recall we need the so-called “reproduction rate” (known as R) to drop below one to smother a pandemic. At the moment, the modellers assume keeping schools open adds 0.5 to that R-number, a huge chunk of our capacity to cope with the pandemic.

Britain’s vaccine roll-out is not a panacea.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

AstraZeneca woes, Mk 18,291
There is now growing concern in the UK about a link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and a very rare blood-clotting problem. It is all deep into the domain of small risks and tiny numbers: get your jab, any jab, when you can. The cost-benefit of a speedy roll-out remains very much in favour of continuing with vaccination – but Channel 4 has now reported that the authorities are now considering whether younger people ought to be recommended a different vaccine so as to minimise the risks yet further. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

The curse of comment sections
A very interesting experiment from the US, where a local newspaper decided to stop running opinion pieces about national politics for a spell, leading to a measurable decrease in political partisan vitriol in the local area. While people continued to disagree strongly on the issues, they were less likely to think ill of their opponents. Moreover, the local ‘paper got way more hits. It is nice to get some evidence for one of my unevidenced hunches that opinion pages are a large part of the brain-rot in our political culture. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Zoomed out
Last week, Google asked its staff to plan to restart office working – and it is not alone. The tech giant has said that it expects its staff to live within commuting distance and would need to apply if they wanted to work from home for more than 14 days per year. Twitter, which had said employees could stay at home forever, has given up on that – or, rather, revealed a set of unspoken caveats about that announcement. Amazon and Microsoft, too, intend to come back to in-person. Even the tech giant which makes Microsoft Teams is nervous about relying too much on remote working. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Taking credit
The Nature Conservancy, a major US environmental non-profit, is launching an internal review into its own projects after an investigation by Bloomberg last year found that the organisation was selling “meaningless” carbon offset credits to large companies. Each credit sold is meant to save one tonne of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, and the projects claimed to do that by preserving at-risk forests. But in fact, the trees “saved” were never in any danger of being chopped down. Buying offset credits lets companies reduce the emissions they publish in their annual reports, but these credits appear not to actually offset anything.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Trumped up
A somewhat amazing story from the NYT ($): in the dying days of the Trump campaign, donations made through one major platform started to be delivered with a “do you want to make this a recurring payment?” tickbox ticked. One man gave all he could – $500. “Another $500 was withdrawn the next day, then $500 the next week and every week through mid-October, without his knowledge – until Mr. Blatt’s bank account had been depleted and frozen.” Lots was returned – $122 million! – but the Trump campaign, in effect, borrowed that money from those donors. To be clear, this is a new thing: Biden’s campaign made just $21 million of refunds.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Chris Cook

Photographs Getty Images

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