How’s the new Covid variant affecting Britain?

If nothing changes before June 21, England will lift all its restrictions on social gatherings. 

Unless, of course, it doesn’t. Because since that date was penciled in, something has changed: We’ve got a new Covid variant and anyone who’s even marginally awake is nervous about it. On the other hand, anyone who’s even marginally in government is nervous about not ending the Covid restrictions. Because the national mythology of the moment is that We’re on Top of This.

With capital letters.

The new variant’s the one that’s devastating India, although it’s up for grabs still whether its impact is because of conditions in India or because of the variant itself. It’s also up for grabs whether it’s turning into Britain’s dominant variant because it spreads more easily or because it’s been lucky. 

Irrelevant photo: bluebells

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I said England would lift the last restrictions if nothing changes, but the government may already have changed its mind about the parts of the country where the variant’s spreading most quickly. 

Or it may not have.

You have to love this government. It’s a gift to satirists and wiseacres everywhere. 

What’s happened is that the government website changed its Covid recommendations but did it quietly, with none of the usual trumpeting and drumming and press releasing. No one made an announcement. No one told local governments that things were changing. 

No one told local residents. It didn’t even call out the morris dancers. And nothing happens in this country without morris dancers.

You can see already how effective the changes are likely to be.

The website now carries advice for Bedford, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester, and North Tyneside. Stare at that list long enough and you’ll figure out that it’s dangerous to live in a town or city that starts with a B.

But never mind that. What’s the advice? Don’t enter or leave those areas unless you really, really have to. And if you  live in one of them, don’t meet people indoors unless you really, really have to. And get tested. And to get vaccinated. And to keep 2 meters away from people unless you share a kitchen table with them or have included them in that imaginary relationship called a bubble, into which you may or may not be able to fit a kitchen table.

Is that just friendly advice or is it a legal requirement? Initially, it wasn’t clear, but the government’s now said it’s just advice. You should feel free to ignore it if you want, because if the variant causes a spike the government will need someone to blame and there you’ll be, in all your beauty and convenience.  

 

How worried should we be about the variant?

The chief medical officer of Wales says we should be worried. Even though the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are effective against it, they seem to be less effective than they are against the Kent variant. And they’re noticeably weaker if you’ve only had one dose of vaccine instead of two. 

All of that is to the extent that data’s available. 

The votes aren’t all in yet even on whether the new variant spreads more quickly than the Kent variant–the one we used to worry about because it spreads more quickly than the one it replaced. But this isn’t one of those competitions where the audience gets to vote. We have to wait for the judges and they don’t like to just pick a side and stick with it. They want information. 

You know what scientists are like. Fussy, fussy, fussy. So don’t turn off your TV set just yet.

In the meantime, Public Health England says that 12.5% of the close contacts of a person with the new variant will get infected. For the Kent variant, that was 8.1%. That’s called the secondary attack rate.

No, I’d never heard of it either.

That makes it look like it spreads more easily, but we haven’t gotten to the buts yet. 

  • But they have compared the vaccination status of those contacts.
  • But they have compared how close those close contacts are. 

Once the buts get factored in, the variant may not be quite as transmissible as it looks right now, but the early signs are that we should pay attention to this. Even if it’s not quite as bad as it looks, it could still be pretty damn bad. 

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One of the things that worries me is that government actions are weighted toward avoiding the kind of serious illness that clogs hospitals and threatens to collapse the National Health Service. I don’t advocate an onslaught of serious Covid, but I’m very aware of the dangers of milder Covid, and of long Covid, and of isolated cases of Covid. I’d like us to avoid them too if anyone’s taking orders, thanks. I’m not happy about avoiding only the worst outcomes.

 

The political side of it all

A screwup in the test and trace system (or the £37 billion test and trace system, as the paper where I found this reminds me) might have opened a door for the new variant when it was still sampling the air in the country and deciding whether to settle here. A coding error meant that information about positive cases didn’t get passed to local authorities, so they couldn’t follow up on them. 

Did that make a difference? We’ll probably never know but it seems like it would. For three weeks, some 700 people, plus the people they shared a kitchen table, bubble, or work changing room with, weren’t contacted, so unless they got actively sick they felt free to float through the world shedding germs.

The number of missing cases was highest in one of those areas starting with a B, Blackburn with Darwen, which has one of the biggest outbreaks, but it also affected other places starting with B, including Blackpool, Bristol, Bath, and York.

Sorry: Byork. 

The government assures us that the screwup only lasted a short time and it handed out large if irrelevant numbers related to the number of people it had traced. 

Go back to sleep. Everything’s fine. 

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Meanwhile, a government minister is urging people not to go to Spain unless they really, really want to. And I mean really seriously badly want to.

Okay, what she actually said was without an “urgent family reason and so on,” but my version is what people who really seriously badly want to go will hear, because Spain’s lifted its restrictions on visiting Brits and Britain’s put Spain on the amber list of countries–the ones that aren’t recommended but where no one’s going to do anything to stop you going if you really seriously think you have a compelling reason, such as wanting to eat paella. 

When I say no one’s going to stop you, though, what I really mean is that no one’s going to stop you unless the situation changes while you’re there and you come home to find that you have to go into a very expensive quarantine. But no one ever thinks that’ll happen to them. 

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In spite of the new variant, England lifted its mask mandate for school kids. Interestingly enough, a pre-print report from Public Health England included data on the spread of the new variant in the schools.

In the final edition, that page had vanished

Cue accusations of political meddling.

Cue denials of political meddling. 

Cue end of post.

Is it safe to lift Covid restrictions?

The latest Covid statistics from Britain are both cheering and worrying, although they’re starting to tip toward worrying. 

Nothing’s ever simple, is it?

On May 12, the country had only 11 Covid deaths and 2,284 cases. Compare that to January 22, when 1,401 people died of Covid and January 8, when the country had 68,053 cases. (Deaths peak a bit later than cases, which is why I seem to be cheating here.)

Some 67% of the British population is at least partially vaccinated. 

That’s the cheery part. So why don’t I just shut up and celebrate?

Blame those pesky experts. Also the pesky data they work with. And more to the point, blame the government–I’d think something was missing from my day if I didn’t–which dithered about whether to quarantine travelers coming in from India and about changing its let’s-all-proclaim-lockdown-over-and-be-happy plans.

 

Irrelevant photo: Ornamental cherry blossoms. We tried growing non-ornamental cherries. The birds didn’t even bother to say thanks.

Stephen Reicher, from Sage, the government’s science advisory group, is warning that the government has to be prepared to not to “dither and delay as in the past” if it turns out that one of the Indian variants has figured out how to sidestep the vaccines. He talks about acting hard and fast, which–well, unless the government gets a politico-personality transplant, isn’t in the cards.

Three of the Indian variants are known to be in the U.K., and one of them in particular is keeping the scientists up at night. It’s called B.1.617.2 by people who can remember that it’s called that, and in a week the number of cases showing its profile doubled in Britain. 

Sorry, It didn’t double, it more than doubled, although we’re not talking about a big block of people yet. A few days back, it was 520. What’s worrying is that it could be more transmissible than the Kent strain of the virus, which is the one that used to keep scientists up at night. Possibly as much as 50% more transmissible.

To some scientists, the tea leaves are looking frighteningly similar to the ones they saw before the Kent variant caused a surge in December of last year.

Come Monday, pubs and restaurants will get the okay to serve people indoors, and indoors among maskless people is exactly where the Covid virus likes to come out and play. So that adds to the worry.

Other restrictions are on a let’s-get-rid-of-these-soon list, including working from home if at all possible. And the travel industry’s been pushing hard to get people going on vacations again. Or on holiday if you speak British.

The new system to allow overseas travel involves traffic lights. Red, yellow, green–all those soothingly familiar colors. Arrive from a red-light country and you go into the kind of hotel quarantine that signals We’re Serious about This. Right after you mixed in the airport with people coming from green-light countries, who get to take a test and go home. 

What’s on the test? Three math questions, one logic question that the government will get wrong, and the old standby, Who was buried in Grant’s tomb? (The answer’s below.)

Any virus that violates the rules will pay a fine. 

Assorted scientists are warning that viruses don’t play by the rules and that it’s very hard to collect fines from them. 

Will the government back away from the planned reopenings? It’s dithering. 

The assumptions behind this are: 1. that 72% of the population will be vaccinated by August or will be protected by having recovered from Covid. 2. that most of the deaths will occur in people who’ve been vaccinated, since although the vaccines are startlingly effective none of them gives 100% immunity–not even against hospitalizations and deaths, although early reports said they did. No one’s to blame there. We’re learning as we go, every last weary one of us.

 

Controlling the variant

One way that Britain’s hoping to keep control of the variant is by intensifying the vaccination programs in areas where clusters are found. I have no argument with vaccinating more people, but there’s a two-week delay between vaccination and a decent level of protection, this isn’t an immediate solution.

On top of that, although the vaccines provide a much greater level of protection than we had any right to expect, they’re not like having your big sister or brother ride the school bus with you. In other words, they don’t give you 100% protection against either bullies or Covid. And when we’re talking about numbers as large as, say, the population of a country, a 2% gap in the protection can end up affecting a lot of people. 

So even though we don’t have any indication yet that B.whatever-whatever can run faster than the vaccines, its transmissibility alone means it’s dangerous. 

Modelers are warning about the possibility of a third wave of infections that could be larger than last January’s. If, that is, the new variant’s as transmissible as they fear.

Am I worried? I’m not losing sleep, but I wouldn’t advise anyone I love to start a travel business right now. Or to eat indoors at a cafe or pub. Because there’s no way to eat or drink without taking that damn mask off, and busy as scientists have been since the pandemic hit, they haven’t sunk their teeth into a solution to that problem.

 

WHO weighs in on a related topic

The World Health Organization has warned that vaccinations are “life-saving, but on their own, they are not enough.” 

That’s in response to the US’s optimistic and (I think) mistaken decision that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks in many indoor settings. 

According to WHO’s Mike Ryan, “Relaxing measures and taking away mask mandates should only be done in the context of considering both the intensity and transmission in your area, and the level of vaccination coverage.

“Even in situations where you have high vaccine coverage, if you’ve got a lot of transmission, then you wouldn’t take your mask off.”

 

Collapsing the curve or watching it skyrocket

Almost from the beginning of the pandemic we heard the phrase flattening the curve. It was one of those word clusters–a bit like herd immunity–that we came to think we understood because we’d heard so often. Or read it.

Well, a new approach to modeling the epidemic says that if you make enough changes at a crucial stage, the curve doesn’t flatten, it collapses. In other words, you get to lace on your big muddy boots and stomp the little bastard. 

And if you miss that crucial time? 

Um, yeah. You have a massive damn outbreak on your hands. Or feet, if we want to hang in there with the boots metaphor. 

The most interesting thing is that the modelers couldn’t come up with a scenario that put the results anywhere between those two extremes.

One of the most powerful ways to control an epidemic is to test known contacts of infected people (which of course means finding them first and quarantine them if they test positive). But there’s a limit to how many people you can trace and test every day. If the number of cases goes past that limit, the disease spreads and congratulations, you’ve just lost control of your epidemic.

The key is to act early and decisively. (See above, Mr. Johnson.)

“A policy that would have worked yesterday will not only take much longer to take effect, but it may fail entirely if it is implemented a single day too late.” Björn Hof, the central mind behind the modeling, said: “Most European countries only reacted when health capacity limits became threatened. Actually, policy makers should have paid attention to their contact tracing teams and locked down before this protective shield fell apart.”

What Hof didn’t say but what seems to be implied here is that Britain’s strategy of lifting restrictions anytime the virus settles down to a less threatening level is self-defeating and leads to another spike later on. 

 

 

All right, gloomy guts, how about some good news?

Okay. In animal trials, a nasal spray vaccine has created sterilizing immunity. That’s the kind of immunity that (in words of one syllable) could wipe this bug from the face of the earth–or at least from your lungs. It would stop you from getting Covid and it would stop you from giving it to someone else. 

The current vaccines can’t go that far. They minimize the risk, and with it they minimize transmission, but they don’t eliminate it.

The vaccine needs only one dose, you don’t have to look away while someone pokes a needle into your arm, and it doesn’t have to be transported at temperatures so cold that sound freezes from the air and thoughts shatter. You probably wouldn’t want to deep fry it, but you don’t need to refrigerate it either. 

But it’s still got a series of trials to go through before we can get our mitts on it. Keep your eye on this one, though. It sounds promising.

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A cheap Covid test is being developed that reports back in four minutes and is 90% accurate. 

This one can work with either a nasal swab or a saliva sample and it’s actually a bit more accurate with saliva samples, meaning people could stop sticking thin objects up their noses. 

Didn’t our mothers all warn us not to stick things up our noses? Do you have any idea what we’re messing with, using swabs to test ourselves?

It can also spot infections in the early stages, which is important since that’s when they’re most contagious.

Have I written about this one before? I’ve lost track. It seems like some fast, accurate test is always in development. And then we hear nothing more about it. I’m hoping we’ll hear more about this one.

 

So who is buried in Grant’s tomb?

Grant is buried in Grant’s tomb. (That’s Ulysses S., Union general during the Civil War and later president.) 

When I was a kid, some hundred or so years ago, we used to ask each other this. Repeatedly. Maybe we thought the answer would’ve changed. I don’t know if kids in New York still do it. Grant’s tomb is along the Hudson River, begging for kids to use it as the base of stupid questions. 

I haven’t tried the question on anyone in a British airport. I probably should.