Omicron: Not Ebola

Rolling out the Blunderbuss 

For reader’s of last week’s HART bulletin article describing the media’s role in promulgating government propaganda, the ‘Omicron escalation’ over the weekend will come as no great surprise. It is almost as if a lack of an actual emergency had derailed the package of measures that HM Government has been itching to deploy, such that a bit of theatre was required to ratchet up levels of panic. Whatever happened to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’? 

While one expects viruses to ‘mutate down’ due to natural evolutionary pressure, thus making them less deadly, it is sensible to monitor their progress and plan accordingly. But Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, who was one of the first doctors to observe patients with this strain of Covid-19, has described Omicron’s symptoms as “extremely mild”.  Professor Angus Dalgleish has pointed out that “the early signs are distinctly encouraging. Many patients have reportedly recovered quickly from what have been very mild symptoms”.

So while we should take nothing for granted, any reaction must be proportionate: after all, everyone knows what happened to the boy that cried wolf too many times. HART favours a rational & scientific response — the checks and balances on executive overreach are there for a reason. The stakes are high: anyone who thinks the precautionary principle justifies the destruction of the status quo should read this harrowing report from a GP about attempting to care for a nation of sick people. 

The concertina of rapid-fire measures announced by HM Government are deeply concerning. They are a reversion towards measures that have been unsuccessful in the past and elsewhere, and potentially distract more attention away from fixing more pressing healthcare issues. In the summer, many panic-mongers were aghast at the removal of restrictions, pointing at the ‘success’ of those places that had kept masking restrictions in place and introduced unethical vaccine passports. But it is open societies — like those of Sweden and England and States such as Florida — that have so far avoided the feared epidemic spikes that threaten to overwhelm emergency care. 

  • The reintroduction of mask wearing in certain situations seems totally gratuitous, almost a deliberately provocative act to pour fuel on the fire. Community masking has known harms, and any meaningful impact on Covid transmission is equivocal at best. Professor Jim Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Oxford, said that mask mandates had done little to prevent the spread of the Delta variant in Scotland and were “unlikely to stop Omicron”. In the dim and distant bad old days of 2018, Boris Johnson (then not Prime Minister, of course), argued thatbusinesses and government agencies should be able to ‘enforce a dress code’ that allowed them to see customers’ faces”. It beggars belief that only a few years later, he should be PM of a government that introduces — at incredibly short notice — secondary legislation that is so diametrically opposed to this view. Will the public comply? Many think not. In any case, it is discriminatory to challenge those that are exempt from mask wearing, who are under no obligation to wear a lanyard or display any badge. As pointed out elsewhere, if this measure was an attempt to win hearts and minds, it is likely to be utterly counterproductive.
  • Uselessly, a red travel list has been resurrected, essentially randomly putting a few countries on the list, despite this variant already being identified in at least 20 countries across the world. This serves nothing other than to create disruption and cost to the economy — just another Omicron Absurdity
  • The UKHSA’s technical reports show that prevalence in children is falling. Dr Camilla Kingdon, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has called for an end to mass testing in schools as it is causing “unnecessary chaos”. So what does HM Government announce in a very underhand revelation late on Sunday? That restrictions on children are being ramped up. Even if not considering the direct harms to children’s education, there is just no point in doing this. It is worth reminding ourselves of expert opinion on the matter: “circulation of SARS-CoV-2 may in fact be desirable, as it is likely to lead to primary infection early in life when disease is mild, followed by booster re-exposures throughout adulthood as transmission blocking immunity wanes but disease blocking immunity remains high. This would keep reinfections mild and immunity up to date”.
  • The widening and acceleration of the vaccine booster programme is a highly questionable development. As per UKHSA data, it is clear that infections are more prevalent in those who are vaccinated. Is it wise to push out more vaccines into the wider populace just as we are about to enter the winter respiratory disease season? These vaccines were designed for the alpha variant, and it is unclear what the justification for these boosters is. In fact, developments in the USA are instructive: the former director and deputy director of the Office of Vaccines Research and Review at the FDA resigned in protest at the Oval Office’s decision to proceed with a booster programme, and published a letter in The Lancet denouncing the decision. Back at home, just to complicate matters, it seems that — essentially totally arbitrarily — a ‘full course’ of vaccines for some people now consists of three injections, and that the fourth one is the booster. Whatever this government is doing, it does not seem to be following ‘the’ science.
  • Finally — and most extraordinarily — the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has snuck in advice for second doses to be offered to children over the age of 11. The decision to proceed with the first dose was ethically unsound, the UK Chief Medical Officers going against JCVI advice based entirely on modelling around missed schooling rather than any attempt to justify a clearcut net benefit to the individual. The second dose was clearly associated with severe adverse effects, and not recommended at the time. Since then, various countries have suspended the use of the Moderna vaccine for those under the age of 30, and places like Taiwan have suspended the second dose of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine for teenagers due to risks of myocarditis. Are British children genetically materially different from those in Taiwan? With infections in schools having peaked earlier in the term without a material impact on hours of schooling lost, it is barely believable both that the JCVI should now recommend the second dose (when they did not recommend the first), and that HM Government should accept this advice. Given recent data relating to excess mortality in different age groups post vaccination, and continued concerns being raised by cardiologists, HART would have instead expected a pause for these signals to be investigated further. How far we have travelled since the days of “There is going to be no vaccination of people under 18”, the words of Vaccine Tsar Kate Bingham back in October 2020. 

These measures make no sense. In fact, they give the impression that the leadership is obsessed with implementing its wishes, regardless of rationality, common sense or public sentiment. The Health Secretary’s pushy manner getting Sky’s Jon Craig into the vaccine booster tent is not just a little… odd. HM Government is still using incorrect claims backed up by shoddy statistical manipulation (for example ludicrously claiming that the unvaccinated are 32x more likely to die), despite the recent admonishment of the ONS by the Office for Statistics Regulation. It should not be up to former ONS staffers to have to continually take time out of their daily lives to hold HM Government to account. 

In fact, the prognostications from the leadership are more and more beginning to resemble the absurd counter-factual soundbites of Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, otherwise known as ‘Comical Ali’. But this is no time for comedy. People’s lives are at stake, and blunderbuss diktat is no way to run a Western democracy. 

It does make one wonder who is writing the script

We are not alone in calling for a return to normality: “a dystopian nightmare looms and it’s time to speak up and stand up”. Professor Dalgleish, in describing his experiences caring for people in hospital, writes that “even the most compassionate individual must realise that public policy cannot be founded on trying to mitigate against a death that, however sad, was due sooner rather than later”. Former enthusiasts for early restrictions have also laid out why we should move on and put Covid behind us

HART believes that all human life is sacred, and we should not be obsessing about one particular cause of mortality to the extent that we ignore other — and more deadly — threats which, moreover, target younger age groups with many years of life ahead of them.

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