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Sensemaker: The great Covid gamble

Tuesday 13 July 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Vaccination bookings surged in France after President Macron said proof of vaccination or a negative test would be required for eating out and shopping.
  • The EU told Athens not to push asylum seekers away as footage emerged of coast guard personnel preventing refugees landing on Greek islands.
  • The UK government said it would give MPs a vote on whether to restore aid spending at 0.7 per cent of national income. 

The great Covid gamble

Boris Johnson said vaccines “weakened” the link between Covid infections and hospital admissions to justify lifting the remaining pandemic restrictions in England on 19 July. The prime minister was more bullish last week when he had told parliament that vaccines had “severed” the link between infections and serious illness. What changed?

Covid hospital admissions in England increased by about 70 per cent over the week. Vaccines have significantly weakened – not severed – the link between infections and serious illness, and the path ahead looks messy.

  • Infections have been rising sharply since the government relaxed social-distancing rules at the end of May but, thanks to vaccines, there have been fewer hospitalisations than in previous waves. During the start of the second wave, the ratio of hospital admissions to infections registered two weeks earlier (a standard measure) was about 8 per cent. Now, it’s around 3 per cent.
  • But this has always been about absolute numbers. The government enforced restrictions and told us to take precautions to allow capacity in the NHS for it to treat severe Covid cases. So while the ratio of hospitalisations to infections has fallen, the government is effectively allowing the denominator to grow again. Daily new cases increased from around 2,200 at the end of May to about 30,000 now, which matters.
  • Unless the ratio of hospitalisations to infections drops to zero – that is, a “severed” link – then this current rise in infections must mean that there’ll be a higher absolute number of hospitalisations. Sure enough, daily hospital admissions have gone from 74 at the end of May to around 500 now. 

It’s still a much smaller number than in previous waves. The thing is, if the ratio of hospital admissions to cases stays at its current level of 3 per cent, then health secretary Sajid Javid’s warning that daily new cases may soar to 100,000 after the 19 July easing implies 3,000 new hospital admissions, a level last seen around the peak of the second wave. 

The government can choose ratios over absolute numbers, but hospital staff can’t. At the end of the day, what matters to them is the number of people presenting with severe Covid symptoms on top of all the other patients they have to treat. 

“It’s simply untrue to say that the link between hospitalisations and infections has been broken,” Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, tells the Sensemaker. “While the risk has fallen, both cases and infections are rising rapidly. The policy the government is pursuing can only make things worse.”


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Rashford’s dream
“I’m Marcus Rashford, 23 year old, black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else I have that. For all the kind messages, thank you. I’ll be back stronger. We’ll be back stronger.” With those lines Rashford ended a moving message to fans and his country after racists defaced a mural in the town where he grew up. Of the support he’s received since he said it has moved him close to tears. “I dreamt of days like this… The communities that always wrapped their arms around me continue to hold me up.” Of Sunday’s match he said: “My penalty was not good enough, it should have gone in.” Of the England team, he said “a brotherhood has been built that is unbreakable”. The statement is essential reading. England’s next World Cup qualifier is against Hungary on 2 September.


New things technology, science, engineering

Fake voices
Intonation, hesitation, pausing for breath. These are human things. But AI’s got them covered. In disturbing news for voice actors, deep learning by computers has produced such authentic-sounding voices for companies in search of a consistent tone of voice that the humans who used to provide it may go out of business. We are way beyond Alexa here. The MIT Technology Review has a piece complete with sound clips for comparison that shows AI can now voice text better than most people. Humans are not cut out of the process altogether. The deep learning software likes a couple of hours of real voice recordings to work with, but then it’s on its own. Customers have no actors’ wages, benefits or overtime to worry about, and more importantly they have a new dimension to their brands. They’ve thought about their colours, says Rupal Patel, a professor at Northeastern University and audio entrepreneur. “They’ve thought about their fonts. Now they’ve got to start thinking about the way their voice sounds as well.” Note: we can still hang up on them. 


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

Mix vaxx
Thailand will use AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine as a second dose for those who received China’s Sinovac shot as the first. It’s the first publicly announced mix-and-match of a Chinese vaccine and a Western-developed shot, and follows a new preliminary Thai study that has thrown doubt on the long-term protection offered by two doses of the Sinovac vaccine. The study indicates that Sinovac’s protection level ranged between 60 and 70 per cent for the first 60 days after the second dose, but then appeared to halve every 40 days. Separately, hundreds of medical workers in Thailand were infected with Covid despite having received two doses of Sinovac. Thailand is in the midst of a Covid spike.The mix-and-match move is intended to “improve protection against the Delta variant and build a high level of immunity against the disease”,  Thai Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told Reuters. There have been no studies focusing specifically on the mixture of Sinovac and AstraZeneca yet, but a growing number of countries are looking for a different vaccine for second doses or a third booster as concerns about Chinese vaccine efficiency and new variants spread.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Joe the driller
The Biden administration has been issuing oil drilling permits at a faster rate than the Trump administration did for most of its time in office. 2,500 have been issued so far this year, putting the Department of the Interior on course to approve 6,000 all told in 2021. New Mexico and Wyoming have had the highest number approved, followed by Montana, Colorado and Utah. “Gas and oil production will continue well into the future and we believe that is the reality of our economy and the world we’re living in,” Deb Haaland, Biden’s interior secretary, told a Colorado Republican by way of reassurance. There’s an awful lot of that sort of reassurance going on – a simple function of having a one-vote Senate majority and a Democrat in West Virginia who can torpedo any item of the Biden agenda at will. Democracy in action. So much for the planet.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Cameron’s millions
If ex-PM David Cameron never quite made it to the big leagues as a lobbyist, it was not for want of trying. The FT and others report that his deal with Greensill Capital was worth $1 million a year at $40,000 a day, 25 days a year. Nice work, except when it becomes excruciatingly embarrassing, as it must have been as he fired off at least 56 texts and calls to ministers and senior civil servants in the nadir of the pandemic last year, offering Greensill’s services as an intermediary for emergency government loans. When eventually he secured the company’s participation in a scheme for large firms, its entire £400 million allocation was steered to companies linked to Sanjeev Gupta, who is now under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. The Telegraph reports separately that a number of texts between Cameron and top Treasury officials including permanent secretary Tom Scholar can’t be released because the department wiped 117 of its 2,100 mobile phones in 2020. How unfortunate.

Thanks for reading, and please share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia
@pcaruanagalizia

Sophia Sun
@sophiaasun

Photographs Virgin Galactic, Getty Images


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