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UK’s ‘herd immunity’ Covid strategy a ‘public health failure’: Inquiry

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A wife adjusts her husband’s mask before entering a shop in Hampshire, England, UK

Peter Titmuss | Collection Mix: Subjects | Getty Images

LONDON — The U.K government’s approach to tackling the coronavirus outbreak at the start of the pandemic has been called one of the country’s worst ever public health failures, following an inquiry by British lawmakers.

The report, which examined the U.K.’s initial response to the Covid pandemic, found that the government made major mistakes at the start of the global outbreak, including its apparent decision to allow Covid to spread throughout the population in a bid to achieve “herd immunity,” and its hesitation to lock down the country.

“Decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic — and the advice that led to them — rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced,” the 150-page report, which was published on Tuesday following an inquiry by two parliamentary committees, found.

The British government, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was accused of dithering as the Covid pandemic hit Europe in early 2020 and appeared reluctant to impose restrictions on public life, travel or borders.

Although it was never formally announced, the U.K.’s initial approach to Covid (which went from trying to ‘contain’ the spread of the virus, to trying to ‘delay’ it) was widely seen as a way to achieve “herd immunity.”

‘Serious early error’

A high level of immunity to a virus in a population can be achieved by both natural infection (through the forming of antibodies when the body fights a virus) and by vaccination.

The latter route is generally preferred as it avoids adverse effects such as excess deaths caused by a virus. However, with no Covid vaccines available at the start of the pandemic, some countries, like the U.K. and Sweden, appeared to favor allowing the virus to spread among the population to some extent in a bid to achieve a level of herd immunity in their populations.

The strategy saw Covid-19 cases rapidly sweep through the U.K., however, causing thousands of deaths among elderly people and strains on the National Health Service. The British government (and later, the Sweden too, to a lesser extent) changed tack and imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 26.

The inquiry, which involved evidence from over 50 “witnesses” including high-profile public officials and health experts who have advised the government throughout the pandemic, was damning in its assessment of the government’s initial approach, noting that it “amounted in practice” to an ill-fated pursuit of herd immunity.

“When the Government moved from the ‘contain’ stage to the ‘delay’ stage, that approach involved trying to manage the spread of Covid through the population rather than to stop it spreading altogether. This amounted in practice to accepting that herd immunity by infection was the inevitable outcome, given that the United Kingdom had no firm prospect of a vaccine, limited testing capacity and there was a widespread view that the public would not accept a lockdown for a significant period,” the report said.

By doing this the U.K. “made a serious early error in adopting this fatalistic approach and not considering a more emphatic and rigorous approach to stopping the spread of the virus as adopted by many East and South East Asian countries,” the inquiry found.

Medics take a patient from an ambulance into the Royal London hospital in London on January 19, 2021.

Tolga Akmen | AFP | Getty Images

Groupthink

The report added that the the fact that the U.K. approach reflected a consensus between official scientific advisers and the government indicated “a degree of groupthink” which “meant we were not as open to approaches being taken elsewhere as we should have been.”

The inquiry, which was overseen by the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee (which consist of lawmakers from the U.K.’s main three political parties)  examined six key areas of the country’s response to Covid-19. These included how prepared the U.K. was for a pandemic and its willingness to use non-pharmaceutical interventions such as border controls, social distancing and lockdowns to control the pandemic.

Read more: As Covid mutations spread, will herd immunity ever be possible?

It also looked at the use of test, trace and isolate strategies and the impact of the pandemic on social care and specific communities and, lastly, the procurement and roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines.

Highlighting its findings, the inquiry concluded found that:

  • “The delays in establishing an adequate test, trace and isolate system hampered efforts to understand and contain the outbreak and it failed in its stated purpose to avoid lockdowns.”
  • “The initial decision to delay a comprehensive lockdown — despite practice elsewhere in the world —reflected a fatalism about the spread of Covid that should have been robustly challenged at the time.”
  • “Social care was not given sufficient priority in the early stages of the pandemic.”
  • “The forward-planning, agility and decisive organisation of the vaccine development and deployment effort” was a big positive, and should be a guide to future government practice.

In addition, the inquiry found that the U.K.’s preparedness for a pandemic had been widely acclaimed in advance, but performed less well than many other countries in practice. It also said that the pandemic underlined the need for an urgent and long term strategy to tackle health inequalities.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, visits a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility during a visit to the north east of England on February 13, 2021.

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Nonetheless, there were also bright spots in the report and examples of “global best practice,” with praise for the government’s procurement and rapid rollout of Covid vaccines which saw the U.K. order, authorize and deploy Covid vaccines before most countries. To date, government data shows that 85.5% of the U.K. population over the age of 12 is fully vaccinated, with booster shots now being rolled out to the most vulnerable.

‘Big mistakes’ in dark times

The U.K. has been sorely hit by the pandemic, recording over 8.2 million cases of the virus and over 138,000 deaths. Critics argue that inadequate responses by the government in some areas of the pandemic, such as the test and trace system which has been wracked with issues during the pandemic, has cost thousands of lives.

In its conclusions, the inquiry noted that both the positive and negative consequences of the government’s response to the pandemic must be reflected on to ensure that lessons are learned, in the hope that these can inform future responses to emergencies.

Read more: Here’s why herd immunity from Covid is ‘mythical’ with the delta variant

In all, 38 recommendations were made in the report that lawmakers said could better equip the U.K., including that a “greater diversity of expertise and challenge” both from home and abroad should be called upon to help plan for any future pandemics.

Issuing a joint statement summarising their findings, the heads of the two parliamentary committees that oversaw the inquiry said that the U.K. response “combined some big achievements with some big mistakes.”

“Our vaccine programme was boldly planned and effectively executed. Our test and trace programme took too long to become effective. The government took seriously scientific advice but there should have been more challenge from all to the early U.K. consensus that delayed a more comprehensive lockdown when countries like South Korea showed a different approach was possible,” Jeremy Hunt, chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, and Greg Clark, chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said.

They acknowledged that so much was unknown at the start of the public health emergency that it was “impossible to get everything right” and thanked a variety of sectors, from the NHS and public workers to the scientific community and millions of volunteers, “who responded to the challenge with dedication, compassion and hard work to help the whole nation at one of our darkest times.” 

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New homes in England must have electric vehicle charging points

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A charging cable plugged into a Volvo electric vehicle in London on November 18, 2020.

TOLGA AKMEN | AFP | Getty Images

New homes in England will be required to have charging points for electric vehicles, according to plans announced by authorities in the U.K.

“We’re regulating so as to require new homes and buildings to have EV charging points, with another 145,000 charging points to be installed thanks to these regulations,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said during a speech at the Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference.

During his speech, Johnson touched upon his own experiences of driving electric vehicles. “I tried the first Tesla for sale in this country for GQ,” he said. “It expired in the fast lane of the M40, I’m sad to say, though I think they’ve got a lot better.”

In an announcement released on Sunday prior to Johnson’s remarks, the U.K. government fleshed out details of the plan.

Alongside new homes and buildings such as workplaces and supermarkets being required to install EV charge points from 2022, the regulations will also apply to buildings where major renovations are taking place.

The plan to expand charging points comes as the U.K. attempts to develop the necessary infrastructure to cope with its target of stopping the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2030. It will also require, from 2035, all new cars and vans to have zero tailpipe emissions.

Adequate charging options will be crucial when it comes to challenging perceptions surrounding range anxiety, a term that refers to the idea that electric vehicles aren’t able to undertake long journeys without losing power and getting stranded.

Among those reacting to this week’s announcement were Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs.

“Our homes and buildings should be designed to help meet the challenges of the climate crisis, including charging points as electric vehicles have a significant role to play in building a zero-carbon future,” Childs said.

“Ministers must also introduce financial incentives, such as a scrappage scheme, to help encourage people to switch to cleaner vehicles,” Childs said, before adding that people need to be encouraged to use their cars less.

“New housing should also include secure bike storage and access to safe cycling routes and high-quality public transport to provide real alternatives to driving,” he said.

Read more about electric vehicles from CNBC Pro

As concerns about the environmental footprint of transportation mount, major economies and companies are looking to find ways to develop and roll out low and zero emission vehicles at scale.

Earlier this month, signatories to a declaration at the COP26 climate change summit said they would “work towards all sales of new cars and vans being zero emission globally by 2040, and by no later than 2035 in leading markets.”

While the U.S., China and carmakers including Volkswagen and Toyota were absent from the declaration, signatories did include the U.K., Indian and Canadian governments and major automotive firms such as Ford, General Motors and Volvo Cars.

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Home sales rose in October as investors rushed into the market

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Real estate broker Rebecca Van Camp places a “Sold” placard on her sign in front of a home in Meridian, Idaho, on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.

Darin Oswald | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

Sales of previously owned homes in October rose 0.8% to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 6.34 million units, according to the National Association of Realtors. Sales were 5.8% lower than October 2020. October of last year was the cyclical high in the market.

This measure represents closed sales for existing single-family homes and condominiums in October, so contracts that were likely signed in August and September. The closing process can take one to two months on average.

Realtors are now predicting full-year sales of over 6 million, which would be the highest number of sales since 2006.

“Sales remain very strong and I would attribute that to continuing job additions,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors.

Yun also pointed to an increase in investors in the market, likely driven by soaring rents for single-family homes. Investors made up 17% of October buyers, up from 13% in September and 14% in October of 2020. All cash buyers represented 24% of buyers. Most investors use all cash.

First-time buyers represented 29% of sales compared with 32% a year ago. Historically that share is around 40%.

The supply of existing homes for sale continued to weaken. There were 1.25 million homes available for sale at the end of October, which is 12% lower compared with a year ago. This represents a 2.4-month supply at the current sales pace. A 5 to 6-month supply is considered a balanced market between buyer and seller.

Weak supply and strong demand pushed the median price of an existing home to $353,900. That is 13.1% higher compared with October 2020.

By price category, sales of homes priced under $250,000 fell 24% year over year. Sales of homes priced between $750,000 and $1 million rose 25%. Sales of million-dollar plus homes were up 31%.

Buyers in October did not get a break from mortgage rates. They rose steadily from the start of August through September. The average rate on the popular 30-year fixed loan was 2.78% on August 3rd, according to Mortgage News Daily. By October 29th it was 3.22%. The rate as of last Friday was 3.16%.

The latest read on sales of newly built homes from September showed a 14% jump from August. Builders continue to see strong demand, due to the low supply of existing homes for sale. Some of the largest national builders, however, have said they are slowing sales due to supply chain and labor issues. They are concerned they might not be able to deliver the homes on time.

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Germany’s next coalition government: Who’s who

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German Minister of Finance and Social Democratic Party (SPD) top candidate for the federal elections Olaf Scholz.

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Germany’s next government is about to take another big step toward completion, with a coalition deal set to be announced imminently after almost two months of talks following the country’s federal election in September.

As no one party gained a big enough share of the votes to govern alone, coalition talks have been taking place between the center-left Social Democratic Party, the Green Party and pro-business Free Democratic Party to try to find a compromise that would allow the parties to govern together.

The possible alliance has been described as a “traffic light” coalition in reference to the parties’ traditional colors.

Now, after almost two months of talks which have been widely described by the parties involved as “constructive,” it looks like a coalition deal will be announced on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s candidate, is set to be Germany’s next chancellor while Christian Lindner, the head of the FDP, is set to be the next finance minister, according to two people close to the coalition discussions who wanted to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the talks.

The Green Party’s co-leaders, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, are poised to take on the roles of foreign minister and economy minister, respectively, the same sources said.

German Greens Party co-leaders Robert Habeck, German Greens Party co-leaders Annalena Baerbock, Olaf Scholz of the German Social Democrats (SPD), and Christian Lindner, head of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) give a press statement on October 15, 2021 in Berlin, Germany.

Jens Schlueter | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Germany’s long-standing chancellor, Angela Merkel, is stepping down from the role in the next few weeks after 16 years in office, marking a significant change in Germany’s political landscape.

Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union, have been largely left out in the cold during coalition talks following the election.

The CDU and CSU have been dominant in German coalitions for decades but will now find themselves in opposition after the alliance’s candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet, failed to inspire voters. Laschet stepped down as state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and is expected to be replaced as head of the CDU.

Scholz is a seasoned politician, having been the country’s finance minister in Merkel’s last government and Germany’s vice chancellor.

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