Covid-19 News In Brief

Overtaken by events? Here is a compendium of our coronavirus News Bites during the past two months.

Vaccination passports ‘will be here by summer’
Britons dreaming of a beach holiday in the Mediterranean can start planning the trip after EU leaders agreed last night to introduce vaccine passports by the summer. “Everyone agreed that we need a digital vaccination certificate,” Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, told reporters after an EU virtual summit. “This will make travelling within the EU possible and could pave the way for further travel from third countries into the EU.” However, she said that it could take three months for the European Commission to set up the technology for such documents, meaning the scheme may not be ready by the time the British government expects overseas travel for non-essential purposes to begin on 17 May. The Times, February 26

Paris govt calls for three-week lockdown
The Paris city government has called for a full three-week lockdown to bring infections back under control, but the central government said on Friday it was sceptical about whether the plan would work. Emmanuel Grégoire, deputy Paris mayor, said the city preferred a complete lockdown, arguing the strategy would ultimately pay off since it could allow the possibility of “reopening everything” after three weeks. A nationwide 6pm-6am curfew is in force and cafés and restaurants are closed in the capital. “We can’t be forced to live in a semi-prison for months,” Grégoire told France Info radio. “We now have to take courageous decisions.” The cities of Nice in the south and Dunkirk in the north are subject to weekend lockdowns after a rapid rise of coronavirus cases from new, highly infectious variants of the virus. Gabriel Attal, central government spokesman, said the Paris proposal would be studied. But he added: “I hear very few scientists saying you can crush the virus in three weeks … In Germany they announced a three-week confinement in December, and they still have it.” Financial Times, February 26

Covid tests and masks not compulsory at English schools
It will not be compulsory for school pupils to take Covid tests twice a week, nor wear face coverings in class, the schools minister Nick Gibb has confirmed. But Gibb said he hoped most students would wear masks and volunteer to take tests twice a week in school, before being given home testing kits. In interviews on Thursday, Gibb also said that while this summer’s exams had been scrapped, teachers would have to show evidence for the grades they gave, as part of checks against grade inflation. The Guardian, February 25

J&J vaccine: FDA finds the single-shot jab safe
US regulators have found the single-shot Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine is safe and effective. It paves the way for it to become the third Covid-19 vaccine to be authorised in the US, possibly within days. The vaccine would be a cost-effective alternative to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and can be stored in a refrigerator instead of a freezer. Trials found it prevented serious illness but was 66 per cent effective overall when moderate cases were included. The company has agreed to provide the US with 100 million doses by the end of June. The UK, EU and Canada have also ordered doses and 500 million doses have also been ordered through the Covax scheme to supply poorer nations. BBC news, February 25

Test-and-trace work helps Serco pay first dividend for seven years
Serco has restored its dividend for the first time in seven years as it benefits from work running the UK government’s Covid-19 test-and-trace programme. The group, one of the biggest suppliers of outsourced services to governments worldwide, said it would pay a 1.4p a share dividend after its full-year underlying trading profit rose by over a third to £163m, on revenues that were up a fifth to £3.9bn. Rupert Soames, chief executive, said the board had “thought carefully” about the decision to restore the dividend “in the light of current circumstances” but that, as the Covid-related work accounted for just 1 per cent of underlying profits, the board felt it was justified. Serco is one of five companies running Covid-19 testing sites and also provides call handlers on the NHS’s contact tracing programme, both of which came under strain as coronavirus cases climbed. The company has already paid a £100-a-person bonus to its 50,000 frontline staff and paid back £3m of furlough money in an attempt to defuse controversy. Financial Times, February 25

England’s Covid catch-up plan for pupils
Secondary schools in England are to be funded to run summer schools for pupils worst affected by the pandemic, the government has announced, as part of its latest education recovery plans to help children catch up on lost learning. The new measures include £200m to expand the government’s national tutoring programme, plus an additional £300m “recovery premium” which will go direct to schools to support the most disadvantaged children. There was, however, no mention of more radical measures which have been mooted in recent weeks, including extending the school day or shortening the holidays to give pupils time to catch up. Critics warned the government’s latest package was nowhere near enough to address the yawning educational divide that has opened up between poor children and their more advantaged peers during the pandemic and called for a more ambitious recovery plan. The Guardian, February 24

Covid testing rules mean schools will struggle to reopen in March, say heads
Head teachers say that very few secondary schools in England will fully reopen classrooms on March 8 as they criticised the government for failing to introduce rotas or prioritise exam-year groups. Parents believe that all pupils are going back a week on Monday but hardly any secondary schools will start face-to-face lessons for every child on that date, school leaders have said. Boris Johnson should have been more explicit that many pupils would not start in-person lessons for up to two weeks after that date, they said. Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We think it is extremely unlikely that there will be secondary schools able to welcome back all of their pupils on March 8. Testing all secondary school pupils three times on site is a huge logistical challenge. Without significant extra support some schools and colleges may need longer than a week to enable all students to be tested prior to returning to the classroom. We expect the government to show a spirit of understanding, particularly as it has handed schools and colleges the job of carrying out a medical task with very little support.” The Times, February 24

WHO scheme Covax delivers first vaccines
Ghana has become the first country to receive coronavirus vaccines through the Covax vaccine-sharing initiative. The World Health Organization programme aims to ensure that vaccines are shared fairly among all nations. Covax is aiming to deliver about two billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines globally by the end of the year. Many rich nations, who began their own vaccinations months ago, have faced criticism for buying or ordering more vaccines than they need. A total of 600,000 doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford Uni arrived in Ghana’s capital Accra on Wednesday. In a joint statement, the WHO and the United Nations children,s fund (Unicef) said it was a “momentous occasion”. “The arrival of the Covid-19 vaccines into Ghana is critical in bringing the pandemic to an end,” they said. BBC news, February 24

PM sets four tests for ending lockdown
The Prime Minister will today set out the government’s roadmap for cautiously easing lockdown restrictions in England. It will seek to balance health, economic and social factors with the very latest epidemiological data and advice, Boris Johnson said in a statement. Four key tests “must be met before we can move through each step of the plan”. The vaccine deployment programme must continue successfully; vaccines continue to be sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated; infection rates must not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS and the government’s assessment of the risks must not be fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern. “The four tests are currently being met so the first step will proceed from 8 March, at which point the top four priority cohorts for vaccinations … will have received a degree of immunity, three weeks after being offered their first dose,” Mr Johnson said. 10 Downing Street, February 22

NHS mental health hubs for traumatised staff
The NHS is setting up dozens of mental health hubs to help staff who have been left traumatised by treating Covid patients during the pandemic. There is mounting concern that large numbers of frontline workers have experienced mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder over the last year. NHS personnel will be able to ring one of the 40 new hubs in England, receive advice and be referred for support from psychologists, mental health nurses, therapists and recovery workers. Frontline workers who are struggling with their mental health will be encouraged to use the service, and hub staff will call workers deemed at highest risk directly to offer their help. Higher-risk groups are likely to include those who work in intensive care, on Covid wards and in A&E units. Almost half of doctors, nurses and other ICU staff have reported symptoms of PTSD, severe depression or anxiety, according to research published last month. Of these, about 40 per cent had probable PTSD – far higher than the rates seen among military veterans. The Guardian, February 22

Covid jab impact on serious illness ‘spectacular’
The first results of the UK vaccination programme suggest it is having a “spectacular” impact on preventing serious illness. Research led by Public Health Scotland found in the fourth week after the first dose, hospitalisations were reduced by 85 per cent and 94 per cent for the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs respectively. It is the first sign of the real-world impact of vaccination in the UK. Figures for England are expected to be released later. Among the over 80s, there was an overall 81 per cent reduction in the numbers admitted to hospital. The researchers did not look at the impact on transmission – whether people who were vaccinated passed it on – or whether immunity waned over time. The preliminary data from the EAVE II project covers 1.14 million vaccinations given in Scotland between 8 December and 15 February. The study looked at the numbers being admitted to hospital with Covid among this population and compared it to those admitted who were not vaccinated. In total, there were just over 8,000 people who ended up in hospital. Lead researcher Prof Aziz Sheikh said the results were “very, very” impressive and both vaccines were working “spectacularly”. BBC news, February 22

UK acted unlawfully over disclosure of Covid contract awards, court rules
The UK government acted unlawfully in failing to publish timely information about billions of pounds worth of public contracts to tackle the coronavirus crisis, the High Court in London ruled on Friday. Campaign group the Good Law Project and three opposition MPs brought a legal challenge over the government’s failure to meet strict time limits, which specify that any state contract award notices must be published within a 30 day period of the deals being finalised. Parliament’s spending watchdog in November criticised the government for a series of shortcomings when it awarded more than £17 billion of contracts to private companies to counter the Covid-19 pandemic, including deals to supply personal protective equipment to NHS staff. Among other things, the National Audit Office censured the government for failing to publish contracts in a “timely manner”. The High Court ruled that the government had not complied with its obligations to be transparent and said the disclosure rules on contract awards were a “vital public function” that were “no less important during a pandemic”. Financial Times, February 19

Matt Hancock’s ex-neighbour under investigation by UK’s medicine agency
The former publican and neighbour of Matt Hancock who secured lucrative work producing millions of vials for NHS Covid tests is under investigation by the UK’s medicine agency, the Guardian can reveal. Alex Bourne, who used to run the Cock Inn near the health secretary’s old constituency home in Thurlow, won about £30m of work producing the test tubes despite having no prior experience in the medical devices industry. Prior to the pandemic, his company, Hinpack, made plastic cups and takeaway boxes for the catering industry. Now it supplies tens of millions of vials from its production site on an industrial potato farm complex in Cambridgeshire. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency confirmed it has launched an investigation into Bourne’s company. “We take all reports of non-compliance very seriously,” said Graeme Tunbridge, director of devices at the MHRA. “We are currently investigating allegations about Hinpack and will take appropriate action as necessary. Patient safety is our top priority.” The Guardian, February 21

Macron proposes sending 4-5% of Covid vaccines to poorer nations
French President Emmanuel Macron has called on Europe and the US to urgently send up to 5 per cent of their coronavirus vaccine supplies to developing nations. Mr Macron told the Financial Times the failure to share vaccines fairly would entrench global inequality. The vast majority of vaccinations have been administered by high-income countries so far. Mr Macron proposed his plan to address the imbalance ahead of a G7 virtual summit of world leaders on Friday. “We’re not talking about billions of doses immediately, or billions and billions of euros,” Mr Macron told the FT. “It’s about much more rapidly allocating 4-5 per cent of the doses we have. It won’t change our vaccination campaigns, but each country should set aside a small number of the doses it has to transfer tens of millions of them, but very fast, so that people on the ground see it happening.” … The White House has said US President Joe Biden will announce a pledge of $4bn (£2.8bn) in funding for a global vaccine-sharing scheme, known as Covax. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who will chair the meeting – is expected to dedicate surplus doses to Covax. BBC news, February 19

Budget to provide fresh Covid rescue package
Rishi Sunak’s March budget will be a fresh Covid rescue package that will defer plans for significant tax increases as the chancellor throws his weight behind a cautious approach to reopening the economy, government sources have confirmed. Boris Johnson signalled on Wednesday that the government would take a slow path towards reopening hospitality, which could mean pubs and restaurants are not able to serve customers without restrictions on groups until June or July. Even then, venues are likely to need to continue to have social distancing measures in place. The budget will now be dominated by measures to protect jobs and shore up support for shuttered sectors. With the vaccination programme proceeding rapidly, Sunak had hoped to be able to focus on rebuilding the economy for the long term and helping businesses to expand and take on more workers. The Guardian, February 18

UK garment factory workers at higher risk of dying with Covid – study
Sewing machinists and others with jobs in garment factories have among the highest rate of coronavirus deaths among working women in the UK, according to an analysis by the Office for National Statistics. Twenty-one Covid-19 deaths among women aged between 20 and 64 in the “assemblers and routine operatives” category were registered between 9 March and 28 December 2020, giving the group a death rate of 39 per 100,000 women. The analysis, published in January and now highlighted by the campaign group Labour Behind the Label, found that sewing machinists as a subgroup had the highest fatality rate among women of any group, at about 65 deaths per 100,000 – although with 14 deaths recorded, the ONS cautions that the small size of the underlying group makes that calculation less reliable, and the rate may be as low as 35 or as high as 110 per 100,000. The central estimate for sewing machinists is almost four times the overall rate of deaths among women in the UK, of about 17 per 100,000. The Guardian, February 18

Thousands of uni students want jobs in nursing
Students are flocking to “safe” careers, with the pandemic driving tens of thousands more to apply for nursing, medicine and engineering courses. More than 60,000 people applied to study nursing this academic year, an increase of a third on the previous year, according to the university admissions service Ucas. Applications also increased for medicine and dentistry, from 103,910 to 124,160, and for engineering, from 148,450 to 154,970. The numbers for teaching and architecture are also up … Overall university applications rose by 11 per cent on last year. For the first time more than 40 per cent of all 18-year-olds sought a place. The number of applications from mature students aged 35 and over to train in nursing exceeded 10,000, suggesting that people are looking to switch careers. The Times, February 18

EU prepares research funding boost as it confronts virus variants
Brussels is set to announce plans to plough millions of euros into research on new coronavirus variants as it seeks to step up its response to the rapidly evolving pandemic. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, is preparing to announce €150m in funding for research into novel mutant strains of the pathogen and related work, using money from the EU’s Horizon scientific research programme. In addition, at least €75m of EU funding will be ploughed into developing specialised tests for emerging variants of the disease, according to people familiar with the plan. The spending is part of an effort by von der Leyen to regain the initiative on the coronavirus battle after weeks of critical headlines over the bloc’s sluggish vaccine rollout. One big question that has been raised is whether the commission and member states put in sufficient money up front to boost companies’ efforts to develop vaccines and build manufacturing capacity. Financial Times, February 16

Vaccines minister pledges ‘tens of millions’ more doses for UK
The UK is in line for “tens of millions” more coronavirus vaccine doses as the rollout extends beyond individuals most vulnerable to infection, the jab deployment minister Nadhim Zahawi has said. More than 15m individuals in the UK have been given their first shot in just over two months and the country has raced ahead of most others in protecting its population. Zahawi on Tuesday said that supplies would increase in March and April, as over-50s are in line for a shot and the most vulnerable groups begin to receive their second jabs. “I see much greater volume in March and April – tens of millions of doses coming through,” he said on Sky News. The government would double its vaccine deployment capabilities in the next 10 or so weeks to maintain the break-neck pace, he said. Financial Times, February 16

Vaccine success is a shot in the arm for FTSE
The FTSE 100 had its best day since early January as official figures confirmed that the Covid-19 vaccination programme was ahead of schedule and ministers spoke optimistically about easing lockdown restrictions. Britain’s leading share index rose yesterday by 2.5 per cent, or 166.32 points, to 6,756.11 to post its largest one-day percentage gain since climbing by 3.5 per cent on January 6. The rally in the export-heavy FTSE 100 came as the pound strengthened to its highest level against the dollar in 33 months, up 0.5 per cent to $1.39. Sterling also hit a nine-month high against the euro, of €1.15. The Times, February 16

Cummings’ role in handing Covid contract to firm run by ‘friends’
Dominic Cummings was instrumental in the process of awarding a government contract without tender to a company run by his “friends”, according to court documents that raise questions about whether the Cabinet Office may have misled the public. The documents reveal the central role the prime minister’s former chief adviser played in the awarding of the contract to Public First, a research company owned and run by two of his longstanding associates. Public First was paid £564,393 to research the public’s understanding of the coronavirus and the government’s messaging around the pandemic, and one of its partners was seconded to work in Downing Street. The company is run by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, who are both former colleagues of Cummings and the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove. In 2019 Wolf co-wrote the Conservative party’s general election manifesto. The Guardian, February 15

China arrests leader of fake vaccine scam
China has arrested the leader of a multi-million-dollar scam that passed off saline solution and mineral water as Covid-19 vaccines. The man, identified as Kong, had researched the packaging designs of real vaccines before making more than 58,000 of his own concoctions. A batch of the vaccines were smuggled overseas, but it is not known where they were sent to. Kong is among 70 people who have been arrested for similar crimes. The arrests, involving more than 20 cases, came as Beijing vowed to crack down on fraudulent vaccines. Even though most of the cases surfaced late last year, new details were released this week. BBC news, February 16

First travellers arrive in UK for hotel quarantine
The first travellers required to stay at quarantine hotels have begun arriving at Heathrow Airport. All British and Irish citizens and UK residents who arrive in England after being in a high-risk Covid country now have to self-isolate in hotels. The “red list” of 33 countries includes Portugal, Brazil and South Africa. The new regulations, which aim to stop Covid variants entering the country, apply to arrivals who have been in one of those places in the past 10 days. They have to pre-book and pay £1,750 to spend 10 days in government-sanctioned hotels. The cost covers the hotel stay, transport and testing. In Scotland the rule to stay in a hotel applies to travellers from all countries – rather than just those from the 33 “high risk” countries. BBC news, February 15

EHRC urged to investigate ministers for ‘equality failures’ in Covid response
The UK’s equality watchdog is facing demands to investigate claims that ministers have side-lined key gender laws in their response to the Covid pandemic. In the wake of a damning report from MPs that said the UK risked turning back the clock on gender equality, a coalition of organisations including the Trades Union Congress, Amnesty International, Save the Children and the Fawcett Society have accused the government of taking decisions that are deepening inequalities. Two dozen signatories, including leading gender equality experts, signed a letter to the Equality and Human Rights Commission that argues that the government has failed in its duty to consider the impact of key policies on women and other groups protected under the Equality Act. The letter states: “This is a time of crisis for women. The coronavirus pandemic is having a significant and disproportionate impact on women’s health, jobs and livelihoods. The policy decisions taken by government and other key public bodies in response to coronavirus are worsening the impact of the pandemic and deepening inequalities faced by women. The consequences of these decisions will affect women for years to come.” The Guardian, February 15

Melbourne back in lockdown after outbreak
Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, will plunge back into strict lockdown after more failures within the pandemic hotel quarantine system which the UK is adopting. A system modelled on Australia’s 14-day mandatory hotel quarantine for overseas arrivals is due to begin in the UK on Monday but rising fears about the ability of Covid-19 to rapidly spread through poorly ventilated hotels has triggered a re-think in Australia. Daniel Andrews, the Premier of the state of Victoria, warned on Friday that he was moving to end hotel quarantine in Melbourne, the state’s capital, all together or limit overseas arrivals to only compassionate cases. “I’m making it clear to you that I’m looking at hotel quarantine and whether it can be done at an acceptable risk level. And I don’t think I’ll be alone in doing that,” he told reporters after announcing the south eastern state of 6.2 million would enter a five-day hard lockdown from midnight on Friday (1pm GMT). The Times, February 12

Care homes failed by lack of PPE in first wave
Care homes were left exposed and vulnerable by a lack of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, while the government’s handling of the procurement left ministers open to accusations of conflicts of interest, MPs have found. A damning report published on Wednesday by the Commons public accounts committee concludes that the Department of Health and Social Care’s decision to prioritise hospitals for PPE meant care home workers and residents were not properly protected. “Frontline workers were left without adequate supplies, risking their own and their families’ lives to provide treatment and care,” said the committee’s chair, Meg Hillier. “We’re at a dangerous new phase of the pandemic, in our third national lockdown with no defined end in sight. The government needs to acknowledge the errors and be better prepared.” Ministers have been accused of running a “chumocracy” after it emerged that contracts worth £1.5bn have been awarded to firms with links to the Conservative party during the pandemic. Many contracts were awarded without proper tender processes and departments were criticised for not publishing many of the details in the usual manner. The Guardian, February 10

10-year jail term for travel lies defended
A maximum 10-year jail term for lying about recent travel history has been defended by the government. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the British public “would expect pretty strong action” and the maximum sentence reflects the seriousness of the crime. It was criticised by former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption who said lower tariffs exist for sex offences. From Monday, people arriving in England from “red list” countries must isolate for 10 days in hotels, costing £1,750. New border measures also require international arrivals to pay for additional tests during their quarantine period – and tougher enforcement for those who lie about where they have arrived from. It follows concerns that existing vaccines being rolled out in the UK may struggle to control new virus variants identified around the world. BBC news, February 10

EU citizens who left during Covid pandemic set to lose right to stay in Britain
Thousands of European citizens who returned home during the Covid-19 crisis face losing their long-term right to stay in Britain, under strict new Home Office rules. Ministers have decided not to relax the pre-Covid-19 residency restrictions agreed in the Brexit withdrawal agreement for those who chose to return home during the pandemic. Campaigners said the move was “morally wrong”. The decision applies to 1.5 million people who were given provisional right to remain at the end of the transition period but have yet to gain full settled status. If any of them left for more than six months during the pandemic they will lose their automatic right to gain “settled status” and live in Britain within the next five years. The matter has been raised with the Independent Monitoring Authority, which was set up to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. Ministers believe they are acting within the law but have admitted that the withdrawal agreement is “not Covid friendly”. The Times, February 9

Irish-EU meeting in bid for fix after vaccine row
Irish officials are due to meet the European Commission in a bid to work out ways of avoiding more controversies involving Northern Ireland. The meeting on Tuesday follows the commission’s decision last month to attempt to stop Covid-19 vaccines made in the EU arriving in Northern Ireland. After condemnation from London, Dublin and Belfast, Brussels made a U-turn. There are reports that any new EU laws will be checked early on to see if it has implications for Northern Ireland. Irish national broadcaster RTÉ reports that the Republic of Ireland’s EU Commissioner, Mairead McGuinness, will have a role to play in cases in which issues are raised. The Brexit deal guarantees an open border between the EU and Northern Ireland, with no controls on exported products. However, Article 16 of the part of the deal relating to Northern Ireland allows the EU and UK to choose to suspend any aspects they consider are causing “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”. On 29 January the EU announced it would trigger the clause and introduce the export controls on its vaccines entering Northern Ireland in a bid to prevent the region becoming a backdoor for jabs to be sent to Great Britain. It was another development in a deepening dispute about delays to the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines across the EU. BBC news, February 9

10,000s of UK nurses yet to receive first dose
Tens of thousands of nurses across the UK have not had their first coronavirus vaccine, sparking fears that they could contract Covid-19 or infect patients. A Royal College of Nursing survey of 24,370 nurses found that 85 per cent had had at least one dose, with the remaining 15 per cent unvaccinated. The findings show that the government is in danger of failing to deliver one of the main elements of its pledge that all 15 million Britons in the top four priority groups for immunisation – which includes all health and social care staff – should have been offered a first shot by next Monday, 15 February. “It is extremely worrying that, as our survey suggests, many thousands of nursing staff have yet to be given their Covid-19 vaccine less than a week before the government’s deadline,” said Dame Donna Kinnair, the RCN’s chief executive and general secretary. “With only days to go, every effort must be made to reach all nursing staff to ensure their protection and that of the patients and vulnerable people they care for.” The RCN said scaling that 15 per cent up to its 450,000-strong membership suggested an estimated 75,000 nurses had still not had their initial jab. The Guardian, February 9

Travellers entering UK face tougher testing rules
All travellers entering the UK from abroad will have to take two Covid-19 tests after arriving in the country as the government seeks to bolster its borders against new variants of the disease. The new system, to be announced as early as Tuesday, will mean all arrivals must have a negative test from before their departure – which is already the case – then take further tests on days two and eight of their self-isolation after entering the UK. Passengers will be responsible for paying for the tests themselves. The changes mark a significant tightening of the current regime, under which most people arriving in the country self-isolate for 10 days in a private home without having to take any post-flight tests. At present only those arriving from risky “red list” countries such as South Africa or Brazil will – from February 15 – have to stay in government-mandated hotels for 10 days under close security guard. Financial Times, February 8

Ministers urged to ‘clean up’ Covid contracts
Labour is challenging the government to “clean up” how it awards contracts for Covid work. In a speech later, shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves will say procurement during the pandemic has been “rife with conflicts of interest”. She will call for a new ethics watchdog to “guarantee standards” for spending public money. The government said it has “robust rules and processes” to ensure that conflicts of interest do not occur. During her speech, Ms Reeves is expected to raise questions about contracts awarded to companies that she says have links to the Conservatives. It comes after a National Audit Office report last November found that more than half of contracts by the end of July 2020 had been awarded without competitive tender. BBC news, February 8

Three UK companies to make rapid Covid tests
The UK government has selected three British companies to make rapid Covid-19 tests, as it seeks to shake off its reliance on foreign producers and create a domestic diagnostics industry that is prepared for future outbreaks of infectious disease. The Department of Health has chosen Omega Diagnostics, SureScreen and Global Access Diagnostics to produce up to 2m lateral flow devices per day for the UK, according to two people briefed on the decision. In a separate development on Sunday the government announced that SureScreen would supply 20m tests on top of another 2m it procured from the Derby-based company last month. Ministers have also revealed a new drive to increase workplace testing using these devices in sectors where workers cannot work from home during lockdown, easing the criteria for joining the programme to businesses with more than 50 employees. Previously only firms with over 250 employees were able to join the programme. Financial Times, February 8

Covid set to shave as much as £60bn from corporate pension costs
The cost to companies of “final salary” style pension schemes could fall by as much as £60bn because of the impact of Covid-19, according to new analysis. Modelling, which quantifies the financial impact of the pandemic on company retirement schemes for the first time, suggests that pension liabilities for individual companies could fall by tens, or even hundreds of millions of pounds, as life expectancy estimates are revised down, shrinking funding holes. In the UK, about 5,300 businesses fund defined-benefit pension plans, which promise to pay secure pensions for life to about 11m members and surviving spouses. In recent years, improvements in life expectancy have added to the costs of meeting these pension pledges, which can run decades into the future. But in-depth analysis by XPS, an actuarial firm, suggested that the impact of the pandemic on the NHS and the economy would shave about seven months from the projected life expectancy of a typical 65-year-old. Financial Times, February 8

Pandemic business borrowing could hit £60bn
Companies will have borrowed more than £60 billion to help them to survive the pandemic by the end of this year, according to forecasts that lay bare the precarious state of corporate Britain’s finances. Net lending to non-financial firms jumped to £35.5bn last year, from a net £8.8bn in 2019, as companies tried to secure emergency government-guaranteed loans from banks, the EY Item Club has found. The debt burden is set to rise still further. The EY Item Club forecast that bank lending to businesses, including through the government schemes, would increase by 5.4 per cent this year, which equates to an extra £26bn net of repayments. Many companies have had to borrow to shore up their finances during the Covid-19 outbreak and the provision of state-backed debt through commercial lenders has been at the heart of government measures to aid the economy. However, there are fears that many SME businesses have taken on debt they will struggle to repay, inflicting loan losses on banks. The Times, February 8

Care workers use up leave to avoid losing pay while sick with Covid
Some UK care workers are having to take holiday when they are off sick with Covid or see already low wages fall to £96 per week, raising fears they may not self-isolate. Staff on the minimum wage claim to have been offered only statutory sick pay when ill with Covid or self-isolating. This contravenes government policy that they should be paid in full to limit infection spread. One care worker involved in an ongoing outbreak at a nursing home involving several fatalities told the Guardian the employer does not provide sick pay, so the worker and other infected colleagues had to take holiday to prevent their earnings falling. One colleague took holiday pay to maintain earnings while very ill with Covid in intensive care, the care worker said. The trade union Unison, which represents care workers, said it had been contacted by multiple staff complaining about the practice, which appears to affect a minority of care workers, with many employers offering full pay for isolation or sickness. The Guardian, February 8

South Africa halts AZ vaccine over new strain
South Africa has put its roll-out of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on hold after a study showed “disappointing” results against its new Covid variant. Scientists say the strain accounts for 90 per cent of new Covid cases in South Africa. The study, involving around 2,000 people, found the vaccine offered “minimal protection” against mild and moderate cases of Covid-19. South Africa has received 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab and was due to start vaccinating people next week. Speaking at an online news conference on Sunday, South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said his government would wait for further advice on how best to proceed with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in light of the findings. The trial was carried out by the University of the Witwatersrand but has not yet been peer reviewed. In the meantime, he said, the government will offer vaccines produced by Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer in the coming weeks. BBC news, February 7

Govt plans vaccine passport for foreign holidays
British officials have started work on a “vaccine passport” as Greece prepares to waive quarantine rules for tourists who can prove that they have been inoculated against coronavirus. A certification system is being planned, The Times has learnt. The Foreign Office, Department for Transport and Department of Health and Social Care are working on options for travellers to countries that may demand it as a condition of entry. Early data suggesting that the jabs reduce transmission as well as prevent serious disease and death has revived the debate over whether individuals who have been vaccinated should have more freedom. British tourists may be welcomed to Greece in May provided they can provide proof of inoculation against the coronavirus, tourism officials said. The Times, February 5

Record household spending spree to regenerate British economy after pandemic
The economy could return to pre-pandemic levels by early next year as households start spending their £125 billion of lockdown savings and the vaccination programme reopens the country, the Bank of England said. Households have built up record levels of excess savings, stashing away five times as much as in any previous nine-month period on record, as the economy was repeatedly shut down. The Bank expects £6.25bn of the “pent up” savings to be spent but said that the recovery would be even swifter if the public spent more. The latest forecasts are that national income will have recovered all the ground lost since the end of 2019 within 12 months, despite the severe lockdown … Rather than spend it all, the Bank expects people to use almost £120bn of the extra savings to top up their pensions, pay off debts or to invest. The Times, February 5

Oxford trial to test a mix of Covid vaccines
Volunteers are being sought for a world-first trial to establish the efficacy of giving people a first dose of one vaccine and a second dose of a different vaccine. The trial, which is being run by Oxford University and is funded by the government’s vaccine taskforce, has been described by ministers as “hugely important”. It will recruit 820 people over the age of 50 who have not yet had a vaccine, to receive a first dose of either the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine or the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Some people will then get an alternative vaccine at a second appointment within 12 weeks, and others will get the same vaccine again. Public Health England’s Green Book on vaccinations already tells the NHS that in exceptional circumstances if people arrive for their second dose and the vaccine they originally had is not available, they can be given a different one. Scientists want to know whether protection from mixing vaccines is the same, reduced or even better, compared with adhering to the same vaccine throughout. The Guardian, February 4

Covid coughing study suggests NHS staff at far greater risk than thought
The NHS has been urged to rethink safety for thousands of frontline staff after new research suggested that Covid patients’ coughing is putting them at far greater risk of catching the virus than previously thought. The study found that coughing generated at least 10 times more infectious “aerosol” particles than speaking or breathing – which could explain why so many NHS staff have fallen ill during the pandemic. The research has led to fresh demands that anyone caring for someone with Covid-19, or suspected Covid-19, should be provided with the most protective equipment – including FFP3 respirator masks – and that hospital ventilation should be improved. Health workers are up to four times more likely to contract coronavirus than the general population, with infection rates among those on general hospital wards approximately double those of intensive care unit staff – who do have access to the most protective PPE. The Guardian, February 3

GSK and Curevac to develop variant vaccines
Glaxosmithkline and a German biotechnology company are to develop a new generation of Covid-19 jab to tackle multiple emerging variants in one vaccine as part of a new €150 million collaboration. The FTSE 100 pharmaceuticals group, which is based in west London, will also support the manufacture of up to 100 million doses of Curevac’s existing “first generation” vaccine candidate, which is in trials, through its facilities in Belgium this year. The venture, which builds on an existing partnership struck last year, is designed to offer broader protection against a variety of different variants using mRNA technology and to deliver a fast response as the variants potentially emerge in the future. The companies are seeking to launch the vaccine next year, if it is approved by regulators. The Times, February 3

Vaccine concerns rise as UK variant mutates
The more transmissible B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant that has come to dominate in the UK is evolving further mutations, which scientists say will make existing vaccines less effective at preventing infection. Public Health England said in a technical briefing on Tuesday that researchers had detected 11 cases in the UK of B.1.1.7 acquiring a mutation called E484K, which is present in the variants fuelling Covid-19 surges in South Africa and Brazil. The development came as public health officials in eight areas of England began door-to-door “surge testing” of tens of thousands of people after, coincidentally, 11 cases of the 501.V2 variant from South Africa were detected in people with no foreign travel history. The news came as the total number of first doses of Covid-19 jabs administered in the UK reached 9.6m, with another 352,935 vaccinations reported. Speaking in the House of Commons, health secretary Matt Hancock told MPs that 11 cases of a “mutation of concern” had also been found in Bristol and 32 in Liverpool. Surge testing will be introduced to certain postcodes to both cities. Financial Times, February 2

Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine does reduce spread
The Oxford vaccine provides about 75 per cent protection against Covid and significantly reduces its spread after only one jab, suggests a new study that has raised hopes over the lifting of lockdown. The single dose eliminates severe illness among those who contract the virus, according to the results, which have been taken as a vindication of Britain’s strategy. It also appears to have a “substantial” effect on transmission of the virus. Ministers regard this as a hopeful sign that mass vaccination can speed the lifting of restrictions because not only are people less likely to become ill once they have had the vaccine, they are also less likely to get infected and pass on the virus. After several European Union leaders cast doubt on Britain’s strategy of prioritising the first dose, the new analysis of the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine trial suggests to the contrary that a 12-week delay improves results. The Times, February 3

Extend furlough or risk mass unemployment
Rishi Sunak has been warned by the leaders of Britain’s most influential business groups and the trade union movement that he risks plunging Britain into a period of mass unemployment unless he extends the furlough scheme. Before the budget on 3 March, both sides of industry told the chancellor that the economy was too fragile to end the wage subsidy scheme at the end of April and that he risked undoing the efforts to protect jobs over the past year if he did so. Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, said Sunak should not wait until the budget but should announce immediately that furlough – which has cost the Treasury almost £50bn so far – would remain in place until the end of the year. The government, she said, had a moral obligation to prevent a return to 1980s levels of unemployment. The Guardian, February 3

DHL boss: lack of ‘foresight’ in vaccines rollout
The head of DHL has accused governments of failing to prepare adequately for the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, blaming distribution delays on a lack of local storage and delivery solutions. “Overall, we have not seen enough foresight for how the ‘last mile’ will work,” Frank Appel, Deutsche Post DHL chief executive, told the FT. “That is the key bottleneck – how do you get it to the patient?” The company, which operates more than 260 aircraft, is among those contracted to deliver the BioNTech/Pfizer jab. It has revamped its forwarding facilities across Germany to handle dry ice and keep the product stable at about minus 70C during transport. While Mr Appel conceded that managing dry ice was “a challenge for local doctors”, the former neurobiologist insisted infrastructure could easily be built in large car parks to facilitate local distribution, saying: “It’s not rocket science.” The DHL boss excluded Germany from his criticism. The Bonn-based group has warned that logistics providers will have to increase capacity to deliver an expected 10bn vaccine doses worldwide over the next two years, which it says will require 15,000 flights, as well as 200,000 shipping pallets and 15m cooling boxes. Financial Times, February 2

UvdL accuses UK of compromising vaccine safety
The vaccination programme in the UK has enjoyed a head start through compromising on “safety and efficacy” safeguards, the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has claimed. The former German defence minister, who took command of the EU’s executive branch in 2019, said she had a responsibility to take time to ensure the success of the bloc’s mass vaccination programme. In the face of heavy criticism, including from her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, Von der Leyen said she was committed to her role and should be judged at the end of her term in 2024. “Some countries started to vaccinate a little before Europe, it is true,” she said, asked about the UK. “But they resorted to emergency, 24-hour marketing authorisation procedures. “The commission and the member states agreed not to compromise with the safety and efficacy requirements linked to the authorisation of a vaccine. Time had to be taken to analyse the data, which, even minimised, takes three to four weeks. So, yes, Europe left it later, but it was the right decision. I remind you that a vaccine is the injection of an active biological substance into a healthy body. We are talking about mass vaccination here, it is a gigantic responsibility.” The Guardian, February 2

PM tells MPs to abstain in vote to shut borders
Boris Johnson will order his MPs to abstain on a Labour motion to secure the country’s borders amid backbench pressure to enforce compulsory hotel quarantine for all arrivals. Labour will force a symbolic vote this afternoon calling on ministers to require all arrivals from abroad to quarantine for 10 days in a hotel, to stop potentially vaccine-resistant variants of coronavirus being brought here. The vote puts Priti Patel, the home secretary, in an awkward position after she pushed for the policy last month but was overruled by Johnson. Instead, the government announced that only people arriving from about 30 high-risk countries with significant mutations, including South Africa, Brazil and surrounding nations, would have to pay to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days. A Labour source said: “People are absolutely incredulous as to how the country is closed yet our borders are open. It doesn’t make any sense. The home secretary can’t credibly talk tough on borders and then leave us exposed to mutations.” The Times, February 1

AZ ‘agrees to boost EU vaccine supplies’
The EU says UK-Swedish drug firm AstraZeneca will now supply an additional nine million Covid vaccine doses by March, after days of criticism of the bloc’s vaccination programme. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was a “step forward” … In a tweet, Ms von der Leyen said AstraZeneca would “deliver 9 million additional doses in the first quarter (40 million in total) compared to last week’s offer & will start deliveries one week earlier than scheduled”. She said this represented a 30 per cent increase on the previous amount. Irish broadcaster RTE is reporting that the country will get another 100,000 doses as a result. The EU signed a deal in August for 300 million AstraZeneca doses, with an option for 100 million more. BBC news, February 1

NHS confirms Covid jab offered to all eligible care homes in England
The NHS has said official figures are expected to confirm on Monday that it has offered a coronavirus vaccine to every older care home resident across England. In another milestone for the vaccine programme, coming after it set a new daily record of almost 600,000 people being inoculated against Covid-19 on Saturday, nurses, GPs and other NHS staff have offered the jab to people living at more than 10,000 care homes with older residents. The small remainder have had their visits deferred by local directors of public health for safety reasons during a local outbreak. Those homes will be visited and jabbed as soon as NHS staff are allowed to do so. The Guardian, February 1

Britons who broke Covid rules held in swoop
Several Britons are among 133 foreign tourists caught taking skiing holidays in the Tyrol region of Austria, breaking the country’s pandemic restrictions. The local authorities have filed 96 criminal complaints after police raided 44 hotels and other properties in the resorts of St Anton and the Stanz valley. The tourists were put into quarantine and ordered to take Covid tests. It is unclear whether any UK citizens have been charged. Breaking the rules carries a fine of up to €2,180. Unlike Germany, Austria has kept its ski slopes open to locals, but foreign holidaymakers are supposed to have been banned. The Times, February 1

AZ contract must be published, says EC chief
The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has called for the EU’s vaccine contract with drug-maker AstraZeneca to be published, in a growing row over reduced supplies. The contract signed in August contained “binding orders”, she told German radio, and she demanded “plausible explanations” for the hold-ups. UK-Swedish AstraZeneca is blaming production delays at two plants. Its vaccine is expected to be approved by the EU medicines regulator later. The August deal was for 300 million doses for the European Union to be delivered after regulatory approval, with an option for 100 million more. But EU sources say they now expect to get only about a quarter of the 100 million vaccines they were expecting to receive by March, a shortfall of about 75 million jabs. AstraZeneca says the production problems are at its plants in the Netherlands and Belgium … Mrs von der Leyen said in Friday morning’s radio interview: “There are binding orders and the contract is crystal clear. AstraZeneca has also explicitly assured us in this contract that no other obligations would prevent the contract from being fulfilled.” BBC news, January 29

Novavax vaccine nearly 90% effective in UK trial
Another vaccine against Covid, trialled in the UK, has been shown to be nearly 90 per cent effective and to work against the UK and South African variants of the virus. The UK vaccines taskforce has bought 60m doses of the Novavax vaccine, one of seven in its portfolio, and it will be manufactured on Teesside in the UK. If it is given emergency authorisation by the UK regulator, it could boost the country’s immunisation programme and solve the potential problems over the supply of the other two vaccines in use. Results show that the Novavax vaccine, which has been going through late-stage trials in the last few months, is highly protective against variant of coronavirus that emerged in Kent. It also gives some protection – though less – against the variant causing even more concern in South Africa, which scientists think may be capable of evading the vaccines currently in use. The Guardian, January 29

EU warned by business group on plan to curb Covid vaccine exports
Brussels has been warned by a leading business group that its plans to give EU member states powers to block vaccine exports threatens to trigger retaliation and have a “devastating” impact on global jab supplies. The International Chamber of Commerce said in a letter to Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, that the move to limit exports – which is expected as early as Friday – could “very rapidly erode essential supply chains”. The warning came as the battle over scant supplies of Covid-19 jabs in rich countries intensifies, with Ms von der Leyen ramping up pressure on AstraZeneca, the company at the centre of controversy this week over vaccine availability. Speaking to German radio, Ms von der Leyen said the company had not provided any “plausible explanation” for why it will not supply the agreed number of doses. Financial Times, January 29

EU could block millions of Covid vaccine doses entering UK
Millions of doses of coronavirus vaccine could be blocked from entering Britain from the EU within days after Brussels said it had to respond to shortages emerging in member states. Following reports of a lack of doses across the bloc, the European commission announced plans to give national regulators the power to reject export requests. The development raises concerns over the continued flow of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, for which the UK has a 40m-dose order, from its plant in Belgium. “There is a possibility in certain circumstances not to allow the export to come forward,” an official said. “Indeed, that would be the final option.” The Guardian, January 28

EU and AZ fail to resolve vaccine supply dispute
The EU and AstraZeneca failed to end a crisis over coronavirus vaccine supplies, as Brussels attacked the company’s “continued lack of clarity” on its delivery schedule and demanded it come up with a clear plan. While both sides said high-level emergency talks held on Wednesday night had been “constructive”, they did little to resolve the dispute over whether the company should deliver tens of millions more doses to the EU than it plans to over the first three months of the year. The negotiations came after a dramatic escalation of the spat when the European Commission said AstraZeneca must use production from its UK plants to make more deliveries to the EU. The company insists that its contract with the European bloc does not bind it to stick to its original delivery schedule, but only to make its “best effort” to do so. Stella Kyriakides, the EU’s health commissioner, said late on Wednesday that the European bloc remained “united and firm” in its belief that “contractual obligations must be met”. Financial Times, January 28

Belgium launches investigation of AZ plant
Belgian regulators have launched an investigation into AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine production site near Brussels on the request of the European commission, in an escalation of the row over shortages within the EU. A visit by officials from the Belgian federal medicines agency was completed on Wednesday at the site in Seneffe, in Hainaut, the health ministry in Belgium said. Samples and records were taken from the plant and a further inspection of the facility is expected in the coming days. The investigation was requested by the EU’s executive branch due to doubts over AstraZeneca’s explanation of an expected shortfall in vaccine deliveries to the EU. The Anglo-Swedish company has said it will only be able to deliver to EU member states around 25% of the 100m doses expected by the end of March due to a production problem at the Belgian site owned by the French life-sciences company Novasep. The vaccine is expected to be authorised by the European medicines agency on Friday. The Guardian, January 28

Valneva vaccine starts production in Scotland
Boris Johnson said that the strength of the Union will be crucial to rebuilding after the pandemic as a French pharmaceutical company announced that it will start mass production of a new coronavirus vaccine in Scotland. Valneva SE will go ahead with making the vaccine “at risk” at its plant in Livingston, West Lothian. This means that the vaccine, which has not yet been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, will be destroyed if it is not shown to be effective in clinical trials. The prime minister will visit Scotland today to highlight UK institutions’ efforts in the crisis. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, said that the journey was unnecessarily risky. Valneva entered a £415 million contract with the UK government last September to deliver 60 million doses, with options for another 130 million doses before 2025. Its VLA2001 vaccine is being tested in a trial that involves 150 participants and is due to conclude next month. The Times, January 28

‘Poor decisions’ to blame for UK death toll
“A legacy of poor decisions” by the UK before and during the pandemic led to one of the worst death rates in the world, scientists have said. Labour also criticised “monumental mistakes” by the prime minister in delaying acting on scientific advice over lockdowns three times. As the UK passed 100,000 deaths, Boris Johnson said: “We truly did everything we could.” Minister Robert Jenrick said ministers took the “best possible” expert advice. Professor Linda Bauld, public health expert from University of Edinburgh, said the UK’s current position was “a legacy of poor decisions that were taken when we eased restrictions”. She told the BBC that the lack of focus on test and trace and the “absolute inability to recognise” the need to address international travel had also led to a more deadly winter surge. Professor Sir Michael Marmot, who carried out a review of inequalities in Covid-19 deaths, said the UK had entered the pandemic “in a bad state” with rising health inequality, a slowdown in life expectancy improvements and a lack of investment in the public sector. BBC news, January 27

Boris Johnson ‘deeply sorry’ as UK’s Covid death toll passes 100,000
Britain’s Covid-19 death toll passed 100,000 on Tuesday, more than twice the number of civilians killed in the Blitz, with Boris Johnson declaring: “I’m deeply sorry for every life that has been lost.” As the disease continued to destroy lives and sear a place in the nation’s collective memory, the prime minister told a Downing Street press conference: “It’s hard to compute the sorrow contained in that grim statistic.” Mr Johnson said he took “full responsibility for everything the government has done” during the pandemic, which has seen the UK bearing one of the heaviest tolls in loss of life and economic damage. Financial Times, January 26

AstraZeneca defends EU vaccine rollout plan
The head of AstraZeneca has defended its rollout of the coronavirus vaccine in the EU, amid tension with member states over delays in supply. Pascal Soriot told Italian newspaper La Repubblica that his team was working “24/7 to fix the very many issues of production of the vaccine”. He said production was “basically two months behind where we wanted to be”. He also said the EU’s late decision to sign contracts had given limited time to sort out hiccups with supply. Mr Soriot, chief executive of the UK-Swedish multinational, said a contract with the UK had been signed three months before the one with the EU, giving more time for glitches to be ironed out. He told La Repubblica that problems in “scaling up” vaccine production were being experienced at two plants, one in the Netherlands and one in Belgium. “It’s complicated, especially in the early phase where you have to really sort out all sorts of issues,” he said. “We believe we’ve sorted out those issues, but we are basically two months behind where we wanted to be.” BBC news, January 27

Sanofi to speed up Pfizer’s vaccine production
French pharmaceuticals group Sanofi is to help accelerate the production of the BioNTech/Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine and add millions to the EU supply, as concern grows about the availability of doses around the world. Sanofi plans to start working on late-stage manufacturing of the vaccine in the summer, initially in its Frankfurt plant, and would supply more than 125m doses for the EU, the group said on Wednesday. “We are very conscious that the earlier vaccine doses are available, the more lives can potentially be saved,” said Sanofi chief executive Paul Hudson. “Today’s announcement is a pivotal step towards our industry’s collective goal of putting all the effort in to curb this pandemic.” The company also gave an update on its own Covid-19 vaccines. One of its candidates, which it is developing with GlaxoSmithKline, is set to enter Phase 2 trials next month with a possible Phase 3 study starting later in the first quarter. Sanofi’s other vaccine candidate is being developed with Translate Bio, and is set to enter a Phase 1/2 study in the first quarter of this year. Financial Times, January 27

Warn us before Covid vaccines go to Britain, EU tells Pfizer
The European Union has told Pfizer and other drug companies that they must secure its permission before exporting vaccine doses to Britain amid concerns about the level of supply. Brussels announced plans yesterday for new controls on the export of vaccines in response to public anger at the slow pace of immunisation programmes in the EU. Companies will have to provide “early notification” of exports of all vaccines manufactured in the bloc to try to prevent shortages. The intervention will raise fears that Britain’s supplies of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine, which is made in Belgium, could be disrupted. Germany has suggested that vaccine exports could be blocked to safeguard supplies within the EU. Britain has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine, which is one of the “workhorses” of its vaccine programme … Astrazeneca told the European Commission last week that it would reduce supply of its vaccine to the EU by 60 per cent as a result of production problems at its site in Belgium. European officials have told the company that it must honour contractual obligations to supply 100 million doses by the end of March. The Times, January 26

Vaccine minister ‘confident’ of supplies
Supplies of vaccines are “tight” but the UK is confident it will receive enough doses to meet its targets, the vaccine minister has said. Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Breakfast that manufacturers were “confident” they would deliver for the UK amid warnings of production delays. It comes as the EU said it might tighten vaccine export controls. Countries should avoid “vaccine nationalism” and ensure a fair global supply, Mr Zahawi said. Mr Zahawi said the vaccination programme was still on track to deliver a first dose to 15 million of the most vulnerable by mid-February and to offer all adults their first dose by autumn. He said the UK had supplies of the Oxford vaccine made domestically by AstraZeneca as well as the Pfizer one, which is made in Belgium. BBC news, January 26

Denmark offers mink farmers more than $3bn
Denmark is to offer more than $3bn in compensation to mink farmers following a controversial decision last year to eradicate the country’s stock of the creatures in an effort to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. Danish MPs agreed late on Monday night to give mink farmers up to DKr19bn ($3.1bn) to recoup losses for the up to 17m animals culled and the future loss of earnings in a deal judged by many to be generous to an industry already in decline. Denmark was the world’s largest producer of mink pelts but the centre-left government abruptly put an end to the industry in November amid fears that a mutant strain of coronavirus that had passed back from mink to humans could threaten the efficacy of some vaccines. But the cull descended into a political, logistical and scientific farce as it transpired that the government had no legal basis to order the killing, and authorities were forced to exhume the mass graves after swollen mink corpses came to the surface and threatened drinking water supplies. Financial Times, January 26

Uncertainty over 12-week Covid jab interval
Experts have called for greater clarity about the monitoring in place to assess the 12-week dosing interval for Covid vaccines, as the UK’s vaccination programme ramps up. According to government data released on Sunday, a total of 6,353,321 people in the UK have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine. A further slew of vaccination centres are due to open on Monday to speed up delivery of the jabs … However, there is continued controversy about the government’s decision to increase the interval between the two doses of the jabs to up to 12 weeks in an effort to offer protection to as many people as possible. While there is some evidence from trials that a 12-week gap does not reduce the efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, Pfizer has said it has no data on whether protection after the first dose is sustained beyond three weeks. The British Medical Association is among those voicing concerns, saying the gap between doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab should be reduced to six weeks. But others have defended the shift towards a longer interval, saying it is evidence-based and is the best option once the risks and benefits are weighed up. The Guardian, January 25

Gout drug colcichine could cut Covid hospital admissions by 25%
A study has raised hopes that a pill that costs less 30p and is commonly used to treat gout could reduce the risk of people who catch Covid-19 having to be admitted to hospital. A trial by Canadian researchers involving more than 4,000 subjects suggested that taking a daily dose of colchicine at home reduced the risk of hospital admission by 25 per cent in people with underlying health conditions. The scientists behind the study said the results were “clinically persuasive and should change clinical practice”. Other experts said that the results were encouraging but more details needed to be published to be sure of the drug’s effects. The Times, January 25

US joins global vaccine effort on Biden’s 1st day
Joe Biden’s administration will join global efforts to make Covid-19 vaccines and drugs available around the world, reversing the position of his predecessor Donald Trump and ushering in a new era in health diplomacy. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Thursday that the US would sign up to the World Health Organization’s Covax programme to “advance multilateral efforts” to halt the spread of coronavirus. Speaking to the WHO’s executive board a day after Mr Biden’s inauguration as president, Dr Fauci said he was “honoured” to say the US would remain a member of the global body. “The US stands ready to work in partnership and solidarity to support the international Covid-19 response, mitigate its impact on the world, strengthen our institutions, advance epidemic preparedness for the future and improve the health and wellbeing of all people throughout the world,” Dr Fauci said. Financial Times, January 22

South Africa paying more than double EU price for Oxford vaccine
South Africa will have to buy doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine at a price nearly 2.5 times higher than most European countries, the country’s health ministry has said. The African continent’s worst virus-hit country has ordered at least 1.5m shots of the vaccine from the Serum Institute of India, expected in January and February. A senior health official on Thursday told AFP those doses would cost $5.25 (€4.32) each – nearly two and a half times the amount paid by most European countries. European Union members will pay $2.16 (€1.78) for AstraZeneca’s shots, according to information leaked by a Belgian minister on Twitter. AstraZeneca France told AFP in November that its shots would be capped at €2.50 (around $3) per dose “to provide vaccines to the widest population, with as fair access as possible”. It did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the health ministry’s price quote. The Guardian, January 22

More support for people forced to self-isolate
Ministers in the UK are drawing up plans to give people greater financial support if they are forced to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid-19, amid fears that some are ignoring the rules because they cannot afford to miss work. But allies of Rishi Sunak, chancellor, rejected as “bonkers” one idea that people should be paid a one-off flat rate of £500 to self-isolate, a scheme that would be vastly more expensive than the current one. According to leaked documents obtained by the Guardian, the scheme would cost £453m a week, 12 times the more limited compensation currently offered in England. “It’s the first we’ve heard of it and frankly it’s bonkers,” said one aide to the chancellor. However, ministers recognise there is a problem that needs to be resolved to keep the pandemic under control. Financial Times, January 22

England’s lockdown fails to suppress rise in Covid transmissions
The lockdown in England has failed so far to suppress coronavirus transmission, according to the latest survey, which indicated a “worrying” possible uptick in infections. The closely watched React-1 study led by Imperial College London concluded that prevalence of the virus, known as Sars-Cov-2, was “very high with no evidence of decline”. The finding was based on the analysis of 142,900 nose and throat swabs from a representative sample of the English population between January 6 and 15. The researchers estimated that the reproduction number R, which measures the average number of people one individual infects, was between 0.94 and 1.15, with a central estimate of 1.04 – meaning the rate of infection is rising slowly. Financial Times, January 21

EU could ban travellers from Britain to contain Covid variants
The European union could ban travellers from Britain and restrict movement at the bloc’s own internal borders under proposals to be debated by leaders at a videoconference summit. The need to clamp down on the spread of the new variants of coronavirus will dominate discussions between the 27 heads of state and government on Thursday evening. The prevalence of the variants in any area, whether the country is in the EU or outside the bloc, would be sufficient to ban travel under one proposal paper drafted by the German government. For those outside the EU, such as the UK, the prohibition on movement would be countrywide, according to Berlin. “Where member states consider this necessary to protect public health, they are free to impose further-reaching temporary bans on entry and on transporting passengers entering from third countries with virus variant areas,” German officials write. The Guardian, January 21

BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine found effective against Covid-19 variant
The Covid-19 vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer is likely to be effective against a rapidly spreading strain of the virus that was first discovered in the UK, a laboratory-based study by the companies has shown. The variant, known as B.1.1.7, has a high number of mutations, which has led to concerns that could bypass the immune defences built up by vaccines being rolled out worldwide, a large proportion of which have been made by BioNTech and Pfizer. However, researchers at BioNTech’s headquarters in Mainz found that a test-tube version of the virus carrying all the new strain’s mutations was neutralised by antibodies in the blood of 16 patients who had received the vaccine in previous trials, half of whom were over 55 years old. In a paper that has yet to be peer-reviewed, the companies said there was “no biologically significant difference in neutralisation activity” between the results of the lab tests on surrogate versions of the original strain of the coronavirus, sequenced in China last January, and the new variant. But the authors warned that the “ongoing evolution of Sars-Cov-2 necessitated continuous monitoring of the significance of changes for maintained protection by currently authorised vaccines”. Financial Times, January 20

Cost of living up despite Covid Christmas curbs
Prices rose at a faster rate in the UK in December, despite Covid curbs that forced non-essential shops to shut. Consumer Prices Index inflation jumped to 0.6 per cent, from 0.3 per cent in November, pushed higher by rising transport and clothes prices, the Office for National Statistics said. Many people rushed to travel and beat Christmas restrictions, forcing up prices. The rise was slightly higher than many economists’ forecasts of 0.5 per cent. BBC news, January 20

England: almost 30% of Covid patients readmitted to hospital after discharge
Nearly a third of people who were discharged from hospitals in England after being treated for Covid-19 were readmitted within five months – and almost one in eight died, a study suggests. The research, which is still to be peer-reviewed, also found a higher risk of problems developing in a range of organs after hospital discharge in those younger than 70 and ethnic minority individuals. “There’s been so much talk about all these people dying from Covid … but death is not the only outcome that matters,” said Dr Charlotte Summers, a lecturer in intensive care medicine at the University of Cambridge who was not involved in this study. “The idea that we have that level of increased risk in people – particularly young people – it means we’ve got a lot of work to do.” The Guardian, January 18

Extend Covid relief now, businesses tell No 10
The government is under mounting pressure from business leaders to provide more support to the economy before the budget in early March. The CBI has written to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, calling for the furlough scheme, the business rates holiday and the deferral of VAT to be extended until at least the summer.Tony Danker, director-general of the lobby group, said that business resilience was at a “sobering new low” and added that staff morale had taken a hit from the latest lockdown restrictions. “Many tough decisions for business owners on jobs, or even whether to carry on, will be made in the next few weeks. If the government plans to continue its support, then I urge them to take action before the budget, which is still more than six weeks away,” he said. The Times, January 19

Trump decree on Covid visiting rules rebuffed
US President-elect Joe Biden has moved to dismiss a new White House decree on Covid travel rules, as Donald Trump enters his final full day in office. In one of his last orders, Mr Trump had tried to end travel bans for visitors from much of Europe and Brazil. Mr Biden’s spokeswoman said now was not the time to be easing travel measures. Joe Biden will take office at around midday on Wednesday, although much of the spotlight is on Mr Trump’s final moves, including presidential pardons. Security is intense in Washington DC ahead of the inauguration ceremony. Thousands of National Guard reserve soldiers have been deployed in the wake of the storming of the Capitol building by a pro-Trump mob on 6 January that left five people dead. BBC news, January 19

NHS in most precarious position in its history
Dealing with the deadly second wave of Covid has left the NHS in the most precarious position in its 72-year history, chief executive Sir Simon Stevens has warned, as ministers said they were aiming to get all adults in the UK vaccinated by September. The over-70s and clinically extremely vulnerable, who number more than 5.5 million nationwide, will be invited to receive the vaccine from Monday in areas where most of the first priority groups of care home residents and the over-80s have now had the jab. Stevens said on Sunday that the NHS was now giving 140 jabs a minute, as the race to vaccinate the public picks up, but warned of the stress the service was under. Stevens said: “The facts are very clear and I’m not going to sugar coat them. Hospitals are under extreme pressure and staff are under extreme pressure. Since Christmas Day we’ve seen another 15,000 increase in the inpatients in hospitals across England. That’s the equivalent of filling 30 hospitals full of coronavirus patients and, staggeringly, every 30 seconds across England another patient is being admitted to hospital with coronavirus.” The Guardian, January 17

Insurers must pay small firms for Covid losses
Tens of thousands of small businesses are set to receive insurance payouts covering losses from the first national lockdown, following a court ruling. The Supreme Court found in favour of small firms receiving payments from business interruption insurance policies. For some businesses it could provide a lifeline, allowing them to trade beyond the coronavirus crisis. The ruling could cost the insurance sector hundreds of millions of pounds. The City watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority, brought the test case, with eight insurers agreeing to take part in proceedings. One of the insurers set to make significant payouts is Hiscox, which was challenged by 30,000 policyholders as part of the case. Richard Leedham, who represented the Hiscox Action Group – on behalf of small businesses, said: “This is a landmark victory for a small group of businesses who took on a huge insurance player and have been fully vindicated. What is important now is that Hiscox accepts the Supreme Court’s verdict and starts paying out to its policy holders, many of whom are in danger of going under”. Other insurers involved in the test case are Arch, Argenta, MS Amlin, QBE and RSA – but as many as 60 insurers sold similar products. BBC news, January 15

EU leaders draw up virus vaccine passports
European Union leaders will discuss plans next week for coronavirus vaccination “passports” to allow people who have had the injections to avoid travel restrictions and go on holiday. British vaccination certificates would not automatically be accepted by the EU, and Britons’ holiday plans could be delayed until European travel plans have been agreed. Greece, Poland, Cyprus and Denmark have already announced plans to issue vaccination certificates that could allow people to travel freely, especially in time for this summer’s tourist season. Next Thursday Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, will urge other European leaders to agree on certificates “facilitating the freedom of movement of persons who have been vaccinated against Covid-19”. In a letter to the European Commission he wrote: “People who have been vaccinated should be free to travel. It is urgent to adopt a common understanding on how a vaccination certificate should be structured so as to be accepted in all member states.” The Times, January 15

Fake news causing UK South Asians to reject jab
Fake news is likely to be causing some people from the UK’s South Asian communities to reject the Covid vaccine, a doctor has warned. Dr Harpreet Sood, who is leading an NHS anti-disinformation drive, said it was “a big concern” and officials were working “to correct so much fake news”. He said language and cultural barriers played a part in the false information. A GP in the West Midlands told the BBC some of her South Asian patients had refused the vaccine when offered it. Dr Sood, from NHS England, said officials were working with South Asian role models, influencers, community leaders and religious leaders to help debunk myths about the vaccine. Much of the disinformation surrounds the contents of the vaccine. He said: “We need to be clear and make people realise there is no meat in the vaccine, there is no pork in the vaccine, it has been accepted and endorsed by all the religious leaders and councils and faith communities.” BBC news, January 15

Biden unveils $1.9tn coronavirus stimulus
Joe Biden has unveiled a $1.9tn coronavirus relief proposal, aimed at urgently combating the pandemic and the economic crisis it has triggered. As the US faces its deadliest stage of the pandemic, Biden described the moment as “a crisis of deep human suffering”. The ambitious, wide-ranging plan includes $160bn to bolster vaccination and testing efforts, and other health programs and $350bn for state and local governments, as well as $1tn in relief to families, via direct payments and unemployment insurance. “There’s no time to waste,” Biden said. “We have to act and we have to act now.” The Guardian, January 15

Covid victims gain immunity from the virus
Contracting coronavirus gives “at least as good” an immune defence against future infections as a vaccine, according to the most comprehensive study into reinfection rates. Previous illness provided about 85 per cent protection against both asymptomatic and symptomatic reinfection, researchers said after following thousands of people who caught the virus in the spring. Although they found that a small number among the group did get infected twice, typically they suffered a milder form of the disease. With an estimated one in five having been infected, the findings, based on a study of 21,000 UK healthcare workers, suggested that herd immunity could already be slowing the course of the pandemic. However, scientists warned that they still did not know how long immunity lasted. The Times, January 14

GPs in England say inconsistent supply of Covid vaccine causing roll-out issues
Inconsistent vaccine supply is making it difficult for GPs in England to book patient appointments more than a few days in advance, experts have warned, as the prime minister admitted there were significant disparities in local immunisation rates. Doctors, NHS specialists and MPs told the Guardian that batches of the Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine frequently arrived with only a couple of days’ notice, requiring last-minute planning and creating uncertainty for patients. Insiders said the distribution system was operating on a “push model” meaning that doctors could not order the vaccine but simply had to be ready to receive batches whenever the NHS was able to deliver them. Ruth Rankine, director of the primary care network for the NHS Confederation, said “it’s no secret that consistency in supplies is an issue” and that the 800-plus GP surgeries already delivering jabs had capacity to do more if the drugs were available. The Guardian, January 14

Nearly half of NHS critical care staff report PTSD, depression or anxiety
Nearly half of intensive care staff reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression or anxiety, according to research that led experts to say NHS workers are “suffering more than combat troops”. The findings, based on responses from 709 doctors, nurses and other clinical roles across six NHS hospitals in England, date from June and July 2020, after the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. About 45 per cent reported symptoms consistent with a probable diagnosis of PTSD, severe depression and anxiety. There are now 50 per cent more coronavirus patients in UK hospitals than in April, with Prof Chris Whitty saying this week that the health service faces its worst month of the pandemic. More than one in seven clinicians and nearly one in five nurses working in ICU reported thoughts of self-harm or suicide, according to the study, published in the journal Occupational Medicine. The Guardian, January 13

Retail giants clamp down to halt coronavirus
John Lewis became the first big retailer to suspend its click-and-collect service yesterday amid pressure on shops to do more to help to contain the virus. The chain said that it was acting after a “change in tone” from government, adding that it wanted to help the national effort by removing reasons for non-essential travel. Tesco, Asda, Aldi and Waitrose joined Morrisons and Sainsbury’s in banning shoppers without masks from stores unless they have a medical reason. Supermarkets in England will be spot-checked by council staff to ensure that they are Covid-secure. Limits on customer numbers in stores, clear marking and enforcement of social distancing at checkouts are among the measures to be assessed, along with requiring shoppers to wear masks. The Times, January 13

Pharma warns against extending Covid jab times
The pharmaceutical industry has warned against straying from tried-and-tested dosing intervals for Covid-19 vaccines, saying doing so risks public confidence in the shots. The main pharmaceutical lobby groups in the US and Europe on Wednesday said they supported “adhering to the dosing that has been assessed in clinical trials” and that “emerging discussions regarding dosing strategies” may not be supported by drug labels or published data. Any changes in dosing and inoculation schedules “should follow the science and be based on a transparent deliberation of the available data”, the International and European Federations of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations and US industry groups BIO and PhRMA said in a joint statement. The UK has opted to extend the dosing regimen for the two approved vaccines it is currently deploying against coronavirus – those made by BioNTech/Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca – to 12 weeks, igniting a fierce scientific debate and attracting criticism from manufacturers. Financial Times, January 13

Joan Bakewell threatens legal action over delays to second Covid vaccine dose
The journalist and Labour peer Joan Bakewell is threatening the government with legal action over its policy to delay the second dose of Pfizer/BioNTech’s Covid vaccine. Lady Bakewell, 87, said there were grounds to show the decision taken by ministers to widen the gap between doses – from the three weeks recommended by the manufacturer to up to 12 weeks – was unlawful. She has instructed the law firm Leigh Day to start proceedings in response to the new dosing strategy, and names the respondent as the health secretary, Matt Hancock. In a letter, the firm said Bakewell was “concerned that the government’s instruction to delay the provision of the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine is potentially unlawful and unsafe and would therefore impede rather than advance the pandemic response”. The letter sets out three potential grounds for judicial review, including flouting the conditions of authorisation and breaching legitimate expectations. The Guardian, January 12

GCSE and A-level pupils could sit mini exams
A-level, AS and GCSE students in England could be asked to sit mini external exams to help teachers with their assessments after formal exams were cancelled last week. In a letter to the exams regulator, Ofqual, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said this would help teachers to decide “deserved grades”. He promised not to use an algorithm which led to controversy last summer. Head teachers said the “devil was in the detail” for these plans. The letter was published on Wednesday morning, as Mr Williamson appeared before the Education Select Committee. In the letter to Ofqual he said: “A breadth of evidence should inform teachers’ judgments, and the provision of training and guidance will support teachers to reach their assessment of a student’s deserved grade. In addition, I would like to explore the possibility of providing externally set tasks or papers, in order that teachers can draw on this resource to support their assessments of students. We should seek views in the consultation on what broader evidence should determine a teacher’s assessment of a student’s grade and whether we should require or recommend the use of the externally set tasks or papers.” BBC news, January 13

Roving teams and hundreds of centres for biggest coronavirus jab rollout
Ministers have set out details of the “biggest vaccination programme in British history” that aims to get 32 million people protected against the coronavirus by the end of April. Under the vaccine delivery programme 15m people from the groups that have accounted for 88 per cent of Covid-19 deaths will have received their first dose by February 15. The programme will then be extended to 17m 50 to 70-year-olds and other vulnerable adults by the end of April. Health experts say that 99 per cent of all deaths from Covid-19 are in risk groups, who will have been vaccinated by the end of this second campaign. The Times, January 12

UK retailers see little respite from Covid gloom
UK retailers enjoyed little respite from the prolonged coronavirus gloom over the Christmas period while the broader consumer sector was hit by the cancellation of festive plans and tighter restrictions on the hospitality sector, the latest data show. Retail sales over a five-week period from late November to early January were 1.8 per cent higher than a year earlier, according to figures compiled by the British Retail Consortium in association with the consultancy KPMG. The figures suggest that the surge in online shopping, and the initial reopening of non-essential stores after November’s lockdowns, did not boost sales enough to offset the impact of renewed restrictions from the middle of December across many parts of England. Although sales growth picked up from November’s near-stagnation, it remained well below the rate in October, and left retail sales for the year as a whole 0.3 per cent below 2019 levels – the worst performance in the 25 years for which the BRC has kept records. Financial Times, January 12

German grab threatens EU Covid vaccine scheme
The EU is trying to prevent its collective scheme for buying and sharing vaccines from unravelling after Germany was criticised for breaking ranks to secure 75 million extra doses for itself. Brussels warned member states yesterday against buying their own vaccines after Germany unilaterally ordered 50m shots from two suppliers, as well as about 26m doses that had been turned down by other countries. Witold Waszczykowski, the former foreign minister of Poland, who is an MEP for the ruling Law and Justice party, accused Germany of ignoring the rules that applied to the rest of the EU. “It is selfish behaviour to buy medicine by yourself, disrespecting common decisions,” he said. “It is another example of the German policy of respecting their own interests above the interests of other EU countries.” The Times, January 12

China agrees to let in WHO team investigating Covid origins
A World Health Organization team of international experts tasked with investigating the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic will arrive in China on 14 January, China’s national health authority has said. The team was initially aiming to enter China in early January but China blocked their arrival, saying visas had not yet been approved, even as some members of the group were on their way. China’s foreign ministry called the delay a “misunderstanding.” At the time, the WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, expressed his dismay and said he had called on China to allow the team in: “I’m very disappointed with this news, given that two members have already begun their journeys, and others were not able to travel at the last minute,” he said. “But I have been in contact with senior Chinese officials. And I have once again made it clear that the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team.” The Guardian, January 11

Insurance risks prompt UK care homes to reject hospital patients
Care homes across the UK are refusing to take hospital patients because they are struggling to secure adequate liability insurance, adding to pressure on the NHS as it struggles to cope with a surge in Covid-19 admissions. Hospitals across the country are facing a shortage of beds because of the Covid-19 crisis and in London they will be overwhelmed in two weeks unless the current infection rate drops significantly, health service officials have warned. But many care homes said they cannot risk taking Covid-19 or other patients because they cannot get the insurance coverage they want. They have asked the government for support but no decision has been made. Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, the industry lobby group, said: “Care England has been calling for the government to help with insurance and indemnity and now it is crunch time. Care homes need support too or we will be back where we were at the beginning of this dreadful pandemic”. Financial Times, January 11

‘At least 250,000 small firms will fold’ as restrictions devastate trade
A record number of small businesses expect to shut this year unless the government steps in with more help, according to a survey of the sector. At least 250,000 companies with fewer than 50 staff will fold after haemorrhaging sales and taking on debt during the coronavirus pandemic, the quarterly monitor by the Federation of Small Businesses found. With the economy closed for a third lockdown, confidence within the small company sector has sunk to the second lowest level in the decade the survey has been running. Only last year’s March lockdown reported a lower level. One in five small businesses shed staff in the three months to December, including the November lockdown, and one in seven expect to make redundancies this quarter. The Times, January 11

EU hits back as over vaccine procurement blame
The EU has hit back at criticism from member states that its bloc-wide vaccine procurement plan has failed to secure enough doses to enable a rapid start to inoculations. In a letter to German parliamentarians seen by the FT, Jörg Wojahn, the EU’s representative in Berlin, described accusations that the European Commission had been overly cautious in reaching agreements with vaccine manufactures last year as “meaningless”. “The Member States themselves decide on the purchase of the vaccines; they are also the ones who pay for them,” Mr Wojahn said in the letter. “It is not the EU that pays for the vaccines.” The EU official’s intervention came as a blame game escalated over the slow pace of the vaccine rollout in many European countries. While Britain has vaccinated more than 1m people, as of Tuesday, Germany, Spain and France had vaccinated 367,00, 139,000 and 5,000 people respectively. Financial Times, January 8

Arthritis drug offers new hope for Covid patients
An arthritis drug that cuts the risk of death for the sickest Covid-19 patients by 24 per cent could save thousands of lives just as the NHS starts to be overwhelmed. Tocilizumab was also found to reduce the time that critically ill patients spent in intensive care by up to 10 days, offering help to hospitals facing what the head of the health service called last night an “incredibly serious situation”. Boris Johnson promised: “These lifesaving drugs will be available through the NHS with immediate effect.” Updated guidance will be issued to NHS hospitals today encouraging them to use tocilizumab in their treatment of Covid-19 patients who are admitted to intensive care units. The Times, January 8

London hospitals take 800 Covid patients a day
London hospitals are admitting 800 coronavirus patients every day and will be overwhelmed in two weeks unless the current rate drops significantly, NHS officials have warned. Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, on Thursday said the health service was experiencing a surge in admissions across the UK. “We’ve seen an increase of 10,000 hospitalised coronavirus patients just since Christmas Day,” he said. The 800 patients being admitted each day in the capital was “the equivalent of a new St Thomas’ hospital, full of Covid patients, fully staffed, everyday”, he told a Downing Street press conference, referring to one of London’s bigger hospitals. “The entirety of the health service in London is mobilising to do everything it possibly can,” Sir Simon added. “But the rate of growth in admissions – that is what collectively the country has got to get under control.” Financial Times, January 7

Travellers to UK will need a negative test result
All international passengers will soon have to test negative for Covid-19 before travelling to the UK. People arriving by plane, train or boat, including UK nationals, will have to take a test up to 72 hours before leaving the country they are in. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said travellers “can’t board … without having that negative test”. It will be on top of the rule to self-isolate for 10 days when arriving in the UK. Mr Shapps said the government was “very keen to do it now” because of the new variant of the virus circulating in South Africa, which he said was “causing great concern with the scientists”.  “They’re not sure whether, for example, the vaccine will be able to deal with it in the first place, and we’re very, very keen to keep it out,” he told BBC Breakfast. The new measures are expected to come into force across the UK from next week, and “as soon as possible” in Scotland. BBC news, January 8

November lockdown plan leak linked to ‘surge in new infections’
The leak of plans for a November lockdown in England to the media approximately a week before restrictions came into force has been linked by researchers to a jump in Covid-19 cases caused by people rushing to socialise before the deadline. “There was a surge in new infections starting a couple of days before the lockdown – and running for about a week or so after the lockdown was implemented,” said the study’s lead author, Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia. The three-tier system, with varying degrees of restrictions, was introduced in England in mid-October. On Friday 30 October multiple outlets, including the Times, Daily Mail and Sun, reported that the government planned to announce a national lockdown the following Monday, prompting the launch of a leak inquiry. The lockdown eventually came into force on 5 November and ended on 2 December. The Guardian, January 6

Sunak sets out fresh £4.6bn business support
Rishi Sunak has announced a new £4.6bn support package for struggling UK companies a day after the government imposed its toughest Covid-19 restrictions since last spring. The chancellor said the Treasury would provide £4bn of one-off “top-up grants” for an estimated 600,000 retail, hospitality and leisure companies, which can each claim up to £9,000. There will also be a new £594m discretionary fund for councils to support other businesses that are not eligible for those grants but are affected by the restrictions. Under new restrictions, which will last at least seven weeks, schools, hospitality, leisure and non-essential retail businesses across England will close and the general public has been urged to stay at home apart from for specific urgent tasks and exercise. Ministers are poised to announce new restrictions on entry into England from abroad, with visitors having to prove they have had a negative pre-flight coronavirus PCR test taken less than 72 hours before departure. Financial Times, January 5

Lockdown in England likely in place until March
The third national lockdown imposed in England to try to deal with the huge increase in Covid-19 cases is likely to remain in place into March at least, with some measures lasting even longer, the government has indicated. The cabinet secretary, Michael Gove, said he hoped the gradual lifting of restrictions could begin in mid-February, but that the time it took for the vaccines to take effect meant it was likely to be at least another couple of weeks before measures could start to be eased. “We can’t predict with certainty that we’ll be able to lift restrictions the week commencing the 15 to 22 [February], what we will be doing is everything we can to make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated so that we can begin progressively to lift restrictions,” Gove told Sky News on Tuesday. “I think it’s right to say that, as we enter March, we should be able to lift some of these restrictions – but not necessarily all.” The Guardian, January 5

BioNTech warns ‘no data’ to support UK plan to space out Covid shots
BioNTech, the German biotech group behind the first approved Covid-19 vaccine, warned there was “no data” to support plans to delay the second dose of the jab with the aim of reaching as many people as possible with limited supplies. Germany is considering following the UK in delaying second doses amid growing concern over a more infectious variant of the virus, which emerged in England. The German health ministry confirmed to the FT that it had asked the country’s vaccination commission “to review and evaluate the available data and studies and to issue a recommendation on this issue”. However, the European Medicines Agency told the FT that the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine – the only shot currently approved for use by the regulator in the EU – had been authorised as two injections, given at least 21 days apart, and that diverging from this regimen would require separate authorisation. Financial Times, January 5

Doctor unease at delay to second doses of UK jab
Doctors are having their second dose of the Covid vaccine delayed, amid concern from medical organisations about the policy to widen the gap between injections and the threat to medics and their patients if they are not fully protected. A survey of doctors across the UK by the campaign group Everydoctor found that medics in many places who had had their first dose of a Covid vaccine had since had their appointments for the second dose cancelled. The government announced last Wednesday that it was shifting its vaccination policy to delay the period between administering the two doses from the recommended three to four weeks to 12 weeks, as it made frontline health and care staff a key priority group for vaccination. The change aims to give as many people as possible some immunity from one jab as soon as possible, rather than half that number maximum immunity with two. The Guardian, January 5

Supermarket websites feel strain of lockdown
Supermarkets’ online shopping operations have come under strain with customers rushing to book deliveries as the new coronavirus lockdown began. Within a couple of hours of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech to the nation on Monday, shoppers reported problems with Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Sainsbury’s had grocery app problems, and soon after the announcement, 5,311 Ocado shoppers were in a queue. A spokeswoman said on Tuesday that the supermarket was investigating. The surge in demand echoes consumers’ reaction at the start of the pandemic. After the first lockdown in March, supermarkets reported panic buying and a rush to book online delivery slots despite grocers insisting there would be no shortages if consumers shopped sensibly. BBC news, January 5

Oxford man first to get Oxford/AZ Covid vaccine
An 82-year-old retired maintenance manager has become the first person in the world outside clinical trials to receive the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca. Brian Pinker, a dialysis patient, received the jab at 7.30am on Monday from Sam Foster, a nurse at Oxford University hospitals NHS foundation trust’s Churchill hospital … Prof Stephen Powis, the national medical director of NHS England, described the distribution of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine as “another turning point in our way out of this pandemic”. The Guardian, January 4