Covid-19 News In Brief

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

UK economy to grow at record pace post-Covid
Britain is on course for its strongest year of economic growth since the Second World War as households spend their lockdown savings and businesses step up investment, the Bank of England has said. After contracting by 9.8 per cent in the worst recession since 1709 last year, growth will bounce back to 7.25 per cent this year. GDP is expected to be at pre-crisis levels by December, faster than forecasts for much of Europe. The Times, May 7

Modi’s popularity slips as Covid crisis hits India
Narendra Modi’s popularity has fallen during India’s deepening Covid crisis, according to an opinion poll, as the country reported more than 400,000 daily infections in a brutal second wave. The prime minister’s approval rating fell to 65 per cent on May 4, down from 74 per cent at the end of March, according to Morning Consult, the US data company – the lowest level since the agency began tracking Modi’s rating in August 2019. The Indian leader’s disapproval rating also rose to its highest level since the tracker was launched, climbing to 29 per cent from 20 per cent. Modi’s approval rating remained high compared with other global leaders, but the country’s health and humanitarian crisis has taken a toll. The prime minister has a strongman reputation but has been accused of indifference in the face of the Covid-19 disaster as he campaigned in state elections even as the outbreak worsened. Financial Times, May 7

Alcohol-related deaths rise 20% over Covid year
The number of deaths linked to alcohol increased by almost 20 per cent last year, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. There were 7,423 deaths in England and Wales from alcohol-specific causes, compared with 6,209 in 2019. It is the highest annual total since comparable records began in 2001. Experts said the increase could reflect people drinking more during lockdown, with fatal consequences for those already consuming excessive amounts. The Times, May 6

US jobs market gets a shot in the arm from stimulus and vaccinations
The US labour market is expected to have added nearly another 1m jobs last month, highlighting the acceleration of the economic recovery thanks to widespread coronavirus vaccinations and hefty fiscal stimulus. According to the consensus forecast assembled by Refinitiv, employers in the world’s largest economy added 978,000 positions in April, exceeding even the strong 916,000 gains posted in March, while unemployment is predicted to drop to 5.8 per cent. The data will be released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics at 8.30am Eastern time on Friday. Despite the expected improvement, it will show that US employment is still far below pre-pandemic levels. In March, 8.4m fewer Americans were working compared with February 2020. Financial Times, May 7

Biden admin backs lifting vaccine patents
The Biden administration said yesterday that it would support lifting patent protections on Covid vaccines, a breakthrough for efforts to produce more doses globally. “The extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Katherine Tai, the US trade representative, said in a statement. The US had opposed a proposal at the World Trade Organization to suspend intellectual property protections in an effort to ramp up vaccine production. But its new support, made under growing pressure as the pandemic rages in India and South America, is no guarantee that a waiver will be adopted. The European Union. has also been standing in the way. The pharmaceutical industry responded to the decision with anger. The president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America called the announcement “an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety”. New York Times, May 6

EU ready to discuss IP waiver for Covid vaccines
The European Union has said it is willing to discuss the proposal, now backed by the United States. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said today: “The EU is also ready to discuss any proposals that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner. That’s why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective.” She was speaking to the European University Institute in Florence. In the video address, she also said that, “In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine-producing countries to allow exports.” The Guardian, May 6

India’s Covid surge rocks global shipping
India’s huge wave of Covid-19 infections has hit the international shipping industry, which relies on the country for seafarers, as crews come down with the disease and ports deny entry to vessels. Ports including Singapore and Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates have barred ships from changing crew members who have recently travelled from India, notices from maritime authorities show. Zhoushan in China has banned the entry of ships or crew that have visited India or Bangladesh in the past three months, according to Wilhelmsen Ship Management, a crew provider. Industry executives also said that crews coming from India were testing positive for Covid-19 on ships, despite quarantining and testing negative before boarding. Financial Times, May 6

UK boosts laboratory capacity to tackle Covid-19
The UK government is to step up its efforts to fight coronavirus variants by doubling the capacity of its Porton Down laboratories to test vaccines against new strains. The government announced on Wednesday a £30m investment in new labs that will assess the effectiveness of vaccines against so-called “variants of concern”, underscoring worries that new strains of coronavirus pose the greatest threat to the UK’s current success in controlling Covid-19’s spread. While there are growing signs that hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19 will fall further in the UK, concerns persist that a variant could render the current crop of vaccines ineffective. The new labs will be based at Public Health England’s Porton Down research facility in Salisbury, south-west England – better known for the Ministry of Defence’s top secret military laboratory and chemical weapons research centre. Financial Times, May 5

Over £600m of UK Covid consultant contracts
The UK government has awarded more than £600m of Covid-19 related contracts to consultants, more than a third higher than previously disclosed. The figure for spending on consultants, based on new analysis by contracts research company Tussell, follows criticism of the government’s reliance on outsourcing to bolster its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The true amount spent on consultants is likely to be even higher because details of many contracts have yet to be published. One firm, Deloitte, has been awarded 26 contracts worth up to £278.7m, primarily to support the rollout of the UK’s test-and-trace programme. PwC, another of the Big Four professional services groups, has won 36 coronavirus-related contracts, more than any other firm. PwC, which had revenues of almost £4.4bn in the UK last year and paid its partners an average of £685,000 for the 12 months to June, was paid £37.6m by the British Business Bank, the Cabinet Office, the Department of Health and other parts of the public sector. Financial Times, May 4

Vaccinated tourists could soon visit the EU
The European Union took a crucial step on Monday toward reopening its borders to vaccinated travellers after the bloc’s executive released a plan for allowing journeys to resume after more than a year of stringent coronavirus restrictions. The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, proposed that the 27 member countries reopen their borders to all travellers who have been fully vaccinated with shots approved by the bloc’s medicine regulator or by the World Health Organization. The commission also outlined other, looser, pandemic-related conditions that should permit people to travel. The proposal would see more regular travel to the bloc gradually restart in time for the summer tourism season, which provides economic lifeblood for several member states. New York Times, May 3

UK households deposit £200bn in bank accounts since start of pandemic
UK households have accumulated nearly £200bn of bank deposits since the start of the pandemic, according to official data that suggest savings could boost the recovery as the economy reopens. Households have been depositing significant amounts, with an additional £16.2bn placed in March, data published by the Bank of England showed on Tuesday. This is well above the £2.6bn monthly average in the year to February 2020, before the first coronavirus-induced restrictions. Financial Times, May 4

Women face significant jobs risk in pandemic
Working women are facing a significant risk in the labour market, with far greater numbers being made redundant as a result of the pandemic than during the 2007 financial crisis, according to analysis seen by the Guardian. Women are experiencing much higher levels of redundancies during the Covid pandemic than in previous recessions, according to the Trades Union Congress. Female redundancies in the UK hit 178,000 between September and November 2020, according to its analysis – 76 per cent higher than the peak reached during the height of the financial crisis when female redundancy levels hit 100,000. In the same 2020 period 217,000 men were made redundant – 3 per cent more than the peak of male redundancies during the financial crisis. The Guardian, May 4

NHS exodus of doctors after Covid pandemic
Thousands of UK doctors are planning to quit the NHS after the Covid pandemic because they are exhausted by their workloads and worried about their mental health, a survey has revealed. Almost one in three may retire early while a quarter are considering taking a career break and a fifth are weighing up quitting the health service to do something else. Long hours, high demand for care, the impact of the pandemic and unpleasant working environments are taking their toll on medics, the British Medical Association findings show. In a survey of 5,521 doctors 1,352 (31.9 per cent) of the 4,258 who replied to a question about whether their career plans had changed over the last 12 months said they were now more likely to retire early than they were last year – more than double the 14 per cent who said the same in June 2020. The Guardian, May 3

How Europe sealed its Pfizer deal
The European Union will finalise a deal this week for 1.8 billion doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, after a striking alignment of personal diplomacy, political survival and corporate hustle.  For a month, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, exchanged texts and calls with Albert Bourla, chief executive of Pfizer. Then, finally, a breakthrough: Pfizer might have more doses it could offer the bloc – much more. And the EU would be thrilled to have them. Although many other leaders were also in talks with Pfizer, Bourla said he and von der Leyen had “developed a deep trust, because we got into deep discussions.” He added: “She knew details about the variants. She knew details about everything. So that made the discussion way more engaged.” The contract will permit the EU to resell or donate the vaccines to partners, empowering the bloc to conduct vaccine diplomacy and to support struggling efforts to immunise people in poorer countries. New York Times, April 28

International aid arrives in India
International aid has been arriving in India and a number of countries have pledged to join in the fight against Covid, as the country’s healthcare is system pushed to the brink of collapse by a deadly second wave. On Tuesday morning, a flight from the UK carrying vital medical supplies including ventilators landed. Six oxygen containers will also be flown in from Dubai on Tuesday and in a phone conversation between Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden on Monday, Biden pledged “America’s steadfast support” to India by providing oxygen-related supplies and vaccine raw materials. The US also committed to sharing with India some of its unused 60m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not been given approval by US authorities. India is due to open up its vaccine programme to all adults on Saturday, but the country is already suffering from shortages of the jabs. “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need,” Biden wrote on Twitter. The crisis prompted the German army to provide a large oxygen production plant while France has said they will send supplies to India via air and sea, including eight oxygen concentrators, containers of liquid oxygen and 28 respirators. The EU said it would be sending medicine and oxygen to India in the coming days. Pledges of support have also come from Denmark, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Australia and Bhutan. The Guardian, April 27

Indian security forces fight against Covid wave
India has called in security forces to bolster its fight against Covid-19, deploying soldiers and building field hospitals as the country’s health system threatens to collapse under a deluge of infections. In the capital New Delhi, one of the hardest-hit cities, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police reopened an emergency treatment facility built during the first wave of coronavirus last year. The armed forces said they would add more sites, while recently retired military medics will be recalled to treat sick patients, according to General Bipin Rawat, chief of India’s defence staff. Financial Times, April 27

US and UK lead efforts to help India Covid crisis
International efforts to help India fight its devastating coronavirus crisis have stepped up as the White House said the US would immediately provide raw materials for vaccine manufacture and the UK announced it had dispatched ventilators and oxygen to Delhi. France and Germany are also set to send much-needed oxygen to India in the coming days as it battles the world’s worst outbreak. Pakistan, a traditional foe, offered medical equipment and supplies after the prime minister, Imran Khan, tweeted prayers for a “speedy recovery”. India reported 349,691 new cases on Sunday, a record increase for the fourth consecutive day, and 2,767 people dead. Hospitals are running short of life-saving oxygen and patients are dying while they wait to see doctors … The UK package includes 495 oxygen concentrators, which can extract oxygen from the air when hospital systems have run out, 120 non-invasive ventilators and 20 manual ventilators. The Guardian, April 25

One dose of Pfizer or AZ jab reduces Covid infection rate by 65%
One shot of the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine reduces coronavirus infections by nearly two-thirds and protects older and more vulnerable people as much as younger, healthy individuals, a study has found. The results from Oxford University and the Office for National Statistics are a welcome boost to the vaccination programme and the first to show the impact on new infections and immune responses in a large group of adults in the general population. By driving down rates of infection the vaccines will not only prevent hospitalisations and deaths but help break chains of transmission and so reduce the risk of a damaging resurgence of disease as the UK reopens. The researchers analysed Covid test results from more than 350,000 people in the UK between December and April. They found that 21 days after a first jab – the time it takes the immune system to mount a decent response – new Covid infections dropped by 65 per cent. The Guardian, April 23

Covid pushes UK to borrow most since WWII
The coronavirus pandemic forced Britain’s government to borrow more than at any time since the second world war, the Office for National Statistics said as it published the first provisional estimates of the public finances for the 2020-21 financial year. The UK borrowed £303.1bn in the year ending in March, an increase of £246.1bn on the previous year when borrowing was only £57.1bn. Although historically large, the level of government borrowing was not as bad as had been feared. This prompted the Treasury to tell financial markets on Friday morning that it would issue £43.3bn less debt in 2021-22 than it had planned as recently as the Budget on March 3. The lower than expected borrowing numbers did not diminish the scale of the deficit in 2020-21 as the economy reeled from the effects of coronavirus. Tax revenues fell while public spending on health services and furlough schemes surged. Financial Times, April 23

VIP lane for Covid suppliers left UK civil servants ‘drowning’ in non-credible bids
Civil servants found themselves “drowning” in bids for Covid contracts that failed to meet due diligence standards after the government created a “VIP lane” for politically connected suppliers, a court has been told. Evidence disclosed as a result of a legal action brought against the government by the Good Law Project suggests the controversial scheme resulted in a deluge of non-credible offers to supply personal protective equipment, some of them recommended by MPs and ministers. The government has repeatedly refused to reveal which companies were awarded public money after having their bids assessed through the VIP lane, citing “commercial confidentiality”. It denies that ministers had any role in dictating which companies received contracts, or that the scheme was used to direct public money to applicants favoured by the government. The Good Law Project case, however, illustrates how in at least two instances the political connections of companies appear to have factored into their bids for government Covid contracts being referred into the VIP lane. The Guardian, April 22

Fifth of UK Covid contracts ‘raised red flags for possible corruption’
One in five government Covid contracts awarded between February and November 2020 contained one or more red flags for possible corruption and require urgent further investigation, a respected campaign group has warned. Transparency International UK said a “seriously flawed” arrangement, whereby companies bidding for contracts were prioritised if they were referred into a “VIP lane” by their political connections, had “damaged trust in the integrity of the pandemic response”. The group said Boris Johnson’s government must urgently disclose the identities of companies awarded public money through the VIP lane, which was set up by the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care in the early days of the pandemic. The government has so far refused to name the companies granted public money through the scheme, citing “commercial confidentiality”. It has previously claimed the purpose of the arrangement was to triage large numbers of offers to help from the private sector. The Guardian, April 22

Covid passports ready from May 17
Covid passports are being readied for use from May 17, it has emerged. The Department for Transport wants official certification that British travellers can use to show at overseas borders and is asking for the scheme to be in place by the date Boris Johnson is set to lift his ban on foreign holidays. The news comes as MPs called for families to receive free or subsidised NHS coronavirus tests to allow them to travel. The UK is likely to be one of the first foreign nations whose citizens are allowed into Europe once borders are opened to holidaymakers again. EU officials are planning to allow entry to visitors from countries that have had a robust vaccination programme. The Times, April 22

J&J to resume Europe vaccine rollout
Johnson & Johnson will resume the rollout of its single-shot coronavirus vaccine in Europe after the EU drug regulators said that the shot’s benefits outweighed the risks of side effects. The agency also said a warning should be added to the product indicating a possible link to rare blood clots. The agency noted that regulators in EU member states should decide how to proceed, taking into account their countries’ particular case loads and vaccine availability. In the US, the vaccine had already been given to nearly eight million people before regulators called for a pause. An advisory committee at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to make a recommendation on Friday on how to proceed. New York Times, April 21

Pandemic hits UK household finances harder than EU peers
UK households have suffered a bigger income shock during the Covid-19 crisis than their French and German counterparts, and are more likely to have run up debts, according to research highlighting the inadequacy of the UK’s welfare safety net. Typical household income levels were similar in all three countries in the year before the pandemic, but higher levels of inequality meant that the poorest fifth of UK households entered the crisis in a weaker financial position, the Resolution Foundation think-tank said in a report published on Wednesday. Average income in this bottom quintile stood at €14,700 in the UK, compared with €16,600 in Germany and €18,500 in France, and both the rate and level of savings was far lower in the UK. The Resolution Foundation’s research, combining official data with a cross-country survey conducted in January and February, found that a larger share of UK households had suffered a fall in income over the past year, and that this was not only due to the greater length and stringency of the UK’s lockdowns. Financial Times, April 21

Lockdown closure pays for French restaurants
French chefs who forecast the death of national gastronomy when the country was placed in lockdown last spring appear to have been exaggerating. Restaurant federations now admit that state help has been so generous that many of their members have seen their revenue increase despite being shut for eight months out of the past 12. A study found that 3,300 bars, cafés, bistrots and restaurants went out of business in 2020 – 39.1 per cent less than in the previous 12 months. The trend is continuing, with the number of bankruptcies in the sector falling by 51.6 per cent in the first quarter of this year in comparison with the same period in 2020. The Times, April 21

India to start vaccinating all adults over 18
India has widened its vaccination programme as infections surge and the capital goes into lockdown. All adults over the age of 18 will be offered a coronavirus jab starting from 1 May, the government said on Monday. However, with vaccines in short supply in many states, it is unclear where the additional doses will come from. The government said last week that it only had 27 million doses – or enough jabs for nine days at current rates of vaccination. India is currently vaccinating health workers, front line workers and people over 45, but a number of states – including the worst-affected Maharashtra state – have reported insufficient supply. There have been reports of people being turned away from vaccination centres in many areas. Vaccine suppliers such as the Serum Institute of India have been unable to meet international requirements and have also warned of raw material shortages affecting production. The institute’s CEO pointed to US export bans on specific items needed to make vaccines. BBC news, April 20

EU may not renew vaccine contract with AZ
Thierry Breton, the European commissioner responsible for the bloc’s vaccine supply, has said the EU may not renew its contract with AstraZeneca because of persistent shortfalls in the Anglo-Swedish company’s deliveries. “We are pragmatic,” Breton told French TV station BFM-TV. “My priority, as the person in charge of vaccine deliveries, is that those we have contracts with deliver the quantities stipulated at the time stipulated.” Breton said AstraZeneca had committed to supply 120m doses to the EU in the first quarter of 2021 but had delivered just 30m, while the company had already cut its 180m-dose second-quarter commitment to 70m. Its contract with the bloc expires at the end of June. “Nothing is definitive and we will continue to negotiate,” Breton said, adding that any final decision would “not be related to an epidemiological or medical reason – the data shows the AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits are huge compared with the illness”. The Guardian, April 19

EU to receive 100m extra Pfizer vaccine doses
The EU will receive 100m extra Covid-19 vaccines this year as part of its agreement with Pfizer and BioNTech, bringing the bloc’s total to 600m doses for its 27 member states. Brussels will exercise its option to buy the extra shots under an agreement signed in February. “We remain committed to moving as quickly and safely as possible to bring this vaccine to more people in Europe,” said Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chair and chief executive, adding that the US pharmaceutical group has met its supply commitments to the EU. Pfizer plans to deliver 250m doses to the EU in the second quarter, he added, a fourfold increase on the previous quarter’s agreed quantity. The global race for Covid-19 vaccination has pushed producers to raise capacity and ensure supply lines. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech aim to produce 2bn doses this year. Financial Times, April 19

Global savers’ $5.4tn stockpile offers hope for post-Covid spending
Consumers around the world have stockpiled an extra $5.4tn of savings since the coronavirus pandemic began and are becoming increasingly confident about the economic outlook, paving the way for a strong rebound in spending as businesses reopen. Households around the globe accumulated the excess – defined as the additional savings compared with the 2019 spending pattern and equating to more than 6 per cent of global gross domestic product – by the end of the first quarter of this year, according to estimates by credit rating agency Moody’s. And booming global consumer confidence suggests shoppers will be willing to spend again as soon as shops, bars and restaurants reopen when restrictions to control the spread of the virus are eased. In the first quarter of this year the Conference Board global consumer confidence index hit its highest level since records began in 2005, with significant uplifts in all regions of the world. Financial Times, April 18

Covax seeks funds for global vaccination drive
Covax, the WHO-led effort to promote Covid-19 vaccination in the world’s lowest-income countries, is trying to raise an additional $2 billion to help secure access to doses before they are snapped up by wealthier nations. The US has already pledged $2bn to the initiative in 2021, with another $2bn to come next year. The money would go to reserve future production capacity to supply nations that have either had not enough doses or, in some cases, none at all. A fund-raising event brought in more than $380 million in pledges, most of it from Sweden, with smaller amounts coming from other countries and private foundations, including one sponsored by Google. Leaders of the effort have also appealed to wealthier countries to donate a portion of their own vaccine supplies, to help rectify a vast and growing inequity in global distribution between richer and poorer parts of the world. New Zealand announced it would donate enough doses for 800,000 people in lower-income countries. New York Times, April 16

Workers in insecure jobs twice as likely to die of Covid, TUC research finds
Workers on zero-hours contracts and other insecure jobs are twice as likely to have died of Covid-19 as those in other professions, according to a report revealing stark inequalities in the workplace. The research from the Trades Union Congress in England and Wales showed those on the frontline of the pandemic, such as care workers, nurses and delivery drivers, were at a higher risk of death. It said many of these key workers were in insecure work, such as zero-hours contracts and agency employment, landing them with a “triple whammy” of no sick pay, fewer rights and endemic low pay, while having to shoulder more risk of infection. According to analysis of official figures by the trade union umbrella group, Covid-19 mortality rates among male workers in insecure jobs was 51 per 100,000 people aged 20-64, compared with 24 out of 100,000 in more secure work. For female staff the rate was 25 per 100,000, compared with 13 per 100,000 in higher-paying secure work. Insecure jobs were defined using occupations with a higher proportion of workers employed on contracts that did not guarantee regular hours or income, or low-paid self-employment. The Guardian, April 16

MPs accuse spads of ‘running shop’ in Covid funding decisions
Questions over checks and balances in government have been raised after political special advisers (spads) were accused of “running the shop” in a meeting with civil servants about handing out emergency pandemic funds to charities. MPs raised concerns about the process run by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to decide how much money from a £750m pot should be given to other departments to allocate to voluntary and community organisations last April. Quoting private correspondence from DCMS in a meeting of the public accounts committee on Thursday, MPs said it seemed as if some bids had initially been “red-listed” by civil servants – meaning they were deprioritised after “scoring very low” on internal assessments – before being approved by ministers. The Tory MP Richard Holden said the convening of a meeting known as a “star chamber” with three officials and five spads – three from No 10, one from the Treasury and another from DCMS – seemed “unusual” and amounted to a “filtering process” by political appointees instead of impartial civil servants. The Guardian, April 15

Test & Trace civil servant seconded from US firm
One of the most senior civil servants in the health department is on secondment from an American healthcare giant that has recently taken over NHS services covering 500,000 patients. Tim de Winter, the deputy director of the government’s Test & Trace programme, has signed a one-year contract that allows him to return to the private sector later this year. Simon Case, the head of the civil service, has instructed senior staff to declare any second jobs by the end of the week after it emerged that Bill Crothers, the former head of procurement, was allowed to combine roles at Greensill Capital with one of the most senior positions in the Cabinet Office. In September, de Winter will go back to working at Operose, a subsidiary of US health insurer Centene. He has given up all his responsibilities at Operose during the 12 months he is employed by the government. Operose recently took over 37 GP practices in London in a deal rumoured to be worth £140 million, taking its total portfolio to 58 GP practices caring for over 500,000 patients in cities including Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham. The Times, April 16

Hancock and sister own shares in NHS contract firm
A company in which Health Secretary Matt Hancock and his sister have shares has won contracts from NHS Wales, it has emerged. NHS Wales gave the company, which specialises in the secure storage, shredding and scanning of documents, £300,000 of business this year. Labour said it amounted to “cronyism at the heart of this government”. A government spokesman said that Mr Hancock had acted “entirely properly” and there was no conflict of interest. In March this year, Mr Hancock declared in the MPs’ register of interests that he had acquired more than 15 per cent of the shares of a company called Topwood Ltd. But the register did not mention that his sister Emily Gilruth owned a larger portion of the shares and is a director of the firm, or that Topwood has links to the NHS – as first reported by the Guido Fawkes blog and Health Service Journal. Public contract records show that the NHS awarded Topwood a place in its Shared Business Services framework as a potential supplier for local NHS trusts in England in 2019, the year after Mr Hancock became health secretary. BBC news, April 16

Gordon Brown calls for Covid vaccine patents to be waived to help poorer nations
Gordon Brown is among a group of former world leaders and Nobel laureates calling on President Biden to waive intellectual property rules for Covid vaccines to accelerate global access to the jabs. The former Labour prime minister is one of 175 former government heads and leading thinkers to co-sign an open letter to Biden. It says they are “gravely concerned” by the slow progress in making coronavirus vaccines readily available to people in low and middle-income countries. The letter, which includes the former French president Francois Hollande and the Nobel laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz among its signatories, urges the US to support a proposal from the South African and Indian governments at the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive intellectual property rights related to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. This would allow for an urgently needed “scale-up” in the manufacturing and supply of vaccines around the world, it argues. The Times, April 15

Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine research ‘was 97% publicly funded’
At least 97 per cent of the funding for the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine has been identified as coming from taxpayers or charitable trusts, according to the first attempt to reconstruct who paid for the decades of research that led to the lifesaving formulation. Using two different methods of inquiry, researchers were able to identify the source of hundreds of millions of pounds of research grants from the year 2000 onwards for published work on what would eventually become the novel technology that underpins the jab, as well as funding for the final product. The overwhelming majority of the money, especially in the early stages of the research, came from UK government departments, British and American scientific institutes, the European commission and charities, including the Wellcome Trust. Less than 2 per cent of the identified funding came from private industry, the researchers said, a finding they said posed a challenge to the views of people such as Boris Johnson, who has said that the record-fast development of Covid-19 vaccines was “because of capitalism, because of greed”. The Guardian, April 15

Covid-status certificate scheme may be unlawful
Covid-status certificates being considered by ministers to help open up society could amount to unlawful indirect discrimination, the government’s independent equalities watchdog has advised. As ministers decide whether the documents should be introduced as passports to certain events later this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has told the Cabinet Office they risk creating a “two-tier society”. The watchdog also said employers should not be allowed to hire workers on a “no jab, no job” policy until all young people had been offered a vaccine, and that plans to make them mandatory for care workers helping older people may not be lawful. According to a submission seen by the Guardian, the EHRC said Covid-status certificates could be a “proportionate” way of easing restrictions, given the toll lockdown has taken on people’s wellbeing and livelihoods. But it said they risked further excluding groups among whom vaccine take-up is lower – including migrants, those from minority ethnic backgrounds and poorer socio-economic groups – from access to essential services and employment. The Guardian, April 14

EU bets big on BioNTech/Pfizer jab
The European Union has unveiled plans to increase massively its supply of the BioNTech/Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, as Denmark became the first European country to end use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said 50m doses of the Pfizer shot originally intended for the fourth quarter of 2021 would be delivered between April and June, raising the EU’s anticipated supply of the vaccine in the second quarter to 250m doses. In addition, Von der Leyen said she had opened negotiations with BioNTech and Pfizer to supply a mammoth 1.8bn additional doses of the vaccine for 2022-2023, as the bloc turns long-term to mRNA-based vaccines and the companies’ jab in particular. “We need to focus now on technologies that have proven their worth,” Von der Leyen said on Wednesday in a video statement. “MRNA vaccines are a clear case in point.” The BioNTech/Pfizer partnership — which developed the vaccine in Germany – had “delivered on its commitments and it is responsive to our needs”, she added. Financial Times, April 14

UK study on mixing Covid vaccines between jabs to be expanded
A major UK study examining whether Covid vaccines can be safely mixed with different types of jabs for the first and second doses is to be expanded. Researchers running the Com-Cov study, launched in February to investigate alternating doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines for the first and second doses, will now include a shot of Moderna or Novavax. The study is examining whether mixing vaccines might give broader, longer-lasting immunity against the virus and new variants of it, and offer more flexibility in the administration of vaccines. Led by the University of Oxford, the study will seek to recruit adults aged over 50 who have received their first vaccination in the past eight to 12 weeks. Matthew Snape, associate professor in paediatrics and vaccinology at the University of Oxford, who is chief investigator on the trial, said: “If we can show that these mixed schedules generate an immune response that is as good as the standard schedules, and without a significant increase in the vaccine reactions, this will potentially allow more people to complete their Covid-19 immunisation course more rapidly. This would also create resilience within the system in the event of a shortfall in the availability of any of the vaccines in use.” The Guardian, April 14

J&J delays vaccine rollout in Europe after US health agencies call for pause
Johnson & Johnson said it would delay the planned rollout of its Covid-19 vaccine in Europe after US health agencies called for a pause of the jab’s use on Americans while they investigate several incidents of rare blood clots. In a joint statement on Tuesday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said they were reviewing six reported US cases of “rare and severe” blood clots in individuals who had received the J&J vaccine. The individuals were all women aged between 18 and 48, who developed symptoms six to 13 days after vaccination. Peter Marks, the head of the division at the FDA that oversees vaccines, said scientists believed the J&J vaccine was causing similar severe reactions to those experienced by a small number of people who have received the AstraZeneca shot … The European Medicines Agency said it was a continuing a probe announced last week with a view to deciding whether “regulatory action may be necessary”. It was “currently not clear” if there was a causal link between the vaccine and the blood clot symptoms, it said. However, J&J took pre-emptive action, announcing that it would halt its planned rollout of the jab in Europe, which was due to start on Wednesday. Financial Times, April 13

Asthma drug ‘speeds Covid recovery’
A widely-used asthma drug is the first treatment to be proven to speed up the recovery of Covid patients who stay at home. Budesonide, which is taken through an inhaler, was found to cut the time it took higher-risk patients to feel better by an average of three days. It also reduced the chances of them relapsing after an initial recovery. The trial, which was run from Oxford University, recruited people with Covid who were either aged over 50 with an underlying health condition that put them at more risk of serious disease, or aged over 65. The Times, April 13

Almost all Dutch-made AZ doses will stay in EU
AstraZeneca has agreed that almost all the Covid vaccine doses made in the Netherlands over which the UK has made a claim will stay in the EU, as Brussels’ vaccine tsar said Europe was now on track for an “almost normal” tourist season. Thierry Breton, the European commissioner leading the bloc’s vaccine taskforce, said the chief executive of AstraZeneca had confirmed to him that all but 1.2m to 1.5m doses at the Dutch plant would now be delivered to EU member states. The Dutch factory, where the Anglo-Swedish firm’s subcontractor, Halix, makes the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, produces around 7.5m doses a month, over which the UK claimed it had a contractual right during recent talks. Whitehall officials had proposed a 50/50 split but Breton, a French former finance minister, said Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s French-born CEO, had recognised that all but one batch of the jabs would go to EU residents. The Guardian, April 8

Further setbacks for AstraZeneca’s vaccine
Britain said on Wednesday that it would offer alternatives to the AstraZeneca vaccine for adults under 30 as European regulators described a “possible link” with rare blood clots, a setback for the world’s most widely used vaccine and a blow to the more than 100 countries relying on it to save lives amid a global surge in coronavirus cases. The European regulator, the European Medicines Agency, stopped short of advising that use of the vaccine be curbed in the 27 EU countries, saying that it was up to the national authorities to decide who should receive which vaccine. Until the announcement, Britain had never wavered in its use of the vaccine, making it a holdout in Europe even as many countries detected unusual, sometimes fatal, blood clots in some recipients. But evidence has mounted that very small numbers of Britons had also been afflicted, forcing the country to reduce the use in younger people of a vaccine that is the backbone of its world-beating inoculation program. New York Times, April 8

Brussels urges unity over AZ jab
The EU’s 27 member states have been urged by Brussels to bolster public confidence by coming up with a unified response to the finding by regulators that blood clots are a rare side-effect of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab. At a meeting of health ministers and officials from the European medicines agency, which announced the finding about the Covid vaccine while also insisting it should still be widely used, the EU’s governments were divided over what restrictions, if any, should be imposed on its use. The EU’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, said in a statement after the meeting that it was vital that a common policy was formed, given the faltering confidence among the public in the vaccine. She said: “The safety of our vaccines has always been paramount under our EU vaccines strategy. Today’s assessment shows that our pharmacovigilance system works: suspected side-effects are reported rapidly, information is shared and our experts come together swiftly to assess all available evidence”. The Guardian, April 7

UK vaccine rollout ‘breaking link’ between infections and death
Increasingly strong evidence shows that the UK’s vaccination programme is breaking the link between Covid-19 cases and deaths, scientists tracking the epidemic have said. A study found infections had fallen by roughly two-thirds since February, before beginning to level off. This is probably because people are beginning to mix more – but deaths have not followed the same pattern. This was not the case before January, when the vaccine rollout began. The research, commissioned by the government and run by Imperial College London, is based on swabs taken from 140,000 people selected to represent England’s population. Of that group, who were tested for the virus between 11 and 30 March, 227 had a positive result, giving a rate of 0.2 per cent, or one in 500 people. But in people over the age of 65, the infection rate was half that with one in 1,000 people testing positive for Covid. BBC news, April 8

Shifting commentary on AstraZeneca’s vaccine
Regulators may soon issue their first formal warnings about AstraZeneca’s vaccine and rare blood clots, threatening to cloud the critical global rollout of a cheap and easy-to-store vaccine, after a top vaccine official at the European Medicines Agency said that there did appear to be a link. The agency said it would meet this week to consider updating its guidance, but it has not formally changed its formal advice, issued last week, that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh the risks. By the numbers: The clots are, by all accounts, exceptionally uncommon, with 44 cases of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, 14 of them fatal, among 9.2 million people who received the vaccine equivalent to a risk for one in every 100,000 people under 60 given the vaccine. New York Times, April 7

AZ vaccine trial paused amid fear of blood clots
A trial of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in British children has been paused while regulators investigate possible links to rare blood clots in adults. The announcement came after a day of confusion over whether the European Medicines Agency had found a link between the vaccine and the clots, which have been associated with the deaths of seven vaccinated people in Britain. Boris Johnson has urged people to get their vaccines as science advisers estimate whether younger people’s fears over the Oxford jab could threaten a resurgence of the virus. The Times, April 7

EU regulator to probe ethical standards of Sputnik vaccine trials
The EU drug regulator will launch an investigation next week into whether clinical trials of Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine contravened ethical and scientific standards. The European Medicines Agency’s probe into whether Sputnik V trials met “good clinical practice” standards comes as people familiar with the regulator’s approval process told the FT of their concerns that they had not been ethically run. GCP is an internationally agreed standard aimed at ensuring that drug trials are designed and conducted properly. Russia has said military servicemen and state employees were involved in trials of the jab developed by a state-run laboratory and funded by the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the Kremlin’s sovereign wealth fund. The Reuters news agency has reported that some who took part described being pressured to do so by their superiors. Financial Times, April 7

India may resume exports of AZ vaccine in June
The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, could resume exports of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in June provided domestic cases of coronavirus are falling, the company’s chief executive has said. Adar Poonawalla warned that the company would have to satisfy Indian demand, further delaying exports, if infections in the country of 1.4bn people continue to climb. India recorded a record 115,269 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, as its second wave outpaced those seen in Brazil and the US. The Serum Institute has “chosen to prioritize India temporarily for two months” and hopes to then restart exports, Poonawalla said in an interview. Financial Times, April 7

Covid may raise risk of depression and dementia
People diagnosed with Covid-19 in the previous six months were more likely to develop depression, dementia, psychosis and stroke, researchers have found. A third of those with a previous Covid infection went on to develop or have a relapse of a psychological or neurological condition. But those admitted to hospital or in intensive care had an even higher risk. This is likely to be down to both the effects of stress, and the virus having a direct impact on the brain. UK scientists looked at the electronic medical records of more than half a million patients in the US, and their chances of developing one of 14 common psychological or neurological conditions, including brain haemorrhage, stroke, Parkinson’s, Guillain-Barré syndrome, dementia, psychosis, mood disorders and anxiety disorders. Anxiety and mood disorders were the most common diagnosis among those with Covid, and these were more likely to be down to the stress of the experience of being very ill or taken to hospital, the researchers said. BBC news, April 7

Unis angry at PM’s failure to include reopening plan in Covid roadmap
University leaders said it was deeply unfair that students could get haircuts or work in pubs next week but still had no idea when their campuses would reopen, as the government announced that school pupils in England will be expected to wear masks until the middle of May. Many are angry at the government’s failure to include higher education in its latest coronavirus roadmap updates, saying they have had no guidance about when campuses in England can fully reopen. While Boris Johnson confirmed that non-essential shops would reopen to customers from Monday, there was no mention in the prime minister’s briefing of how soon universities would be able to welcome back the bulk of their students to access libraries or seminars in person. The Guardian, April 6

UK drugs watchdog considers restricting Oxford-AZ jab in young
The medicines watchdog is considering restricting use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in younger people, it was reported last night. Channel 4 News said sources had told it that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency could decide as soon as today after concerns about very rare cases of blood clots potentially linked to the vaccine. The British government has ordered 100 million doses of the jab, making it the workhorse of the national vaccination programme so far … A government spokesman said: “The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is safe, effective and has already saved thousands of lives in this country. As the UK’s independent regulator has said, when people are called forward, they should get the jab.” The Times, April 6

Labour opposed to ‘discriminatory’ and ‘confusing’ Covid status certificates
Labour has warned that Covid status certificates, whereby people would have to prove they have been vaccinated to enter shops, pubs and other indoor settings and mass events, could be “discriminatory”, with Keir Starmer poised to vote against the measures. The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, accused the government of “creating confusion” by not explaining clearly where the documents may be needed, after Boris Johnson confirmed they were being investigated but would not be introduced earlier than mid-May. “I’m not going to support a policy that, here in my Leicester constituency, if someone wants to go into Next or H&M, they have to produce a vaccination certificate on their phone, on an app,” Ashworth told BBC Breakfast. “I think that’s discriminatory.” He added it made sense to ask people to get tested before going to events such as a football game, but warned that forcing everyone to carry an “ID card” proving they had been jabbed was not fair. The Guardian, April 6

Everyone in England to be offered twice-weekly Covid tests, PM to say
Boris Johnson is to unveil a plan for routine, universal Covid-19 tests as a means to ease England out of lockdown, as the government faced a renewed backlash over the idea of app-based “passports” to permit people entry into crowded places and events. Six months after Johnson unveiled plans for “Operation Moonshot”, a £100bn mass testing scheme that never delivered on its stated aim of preventing another lockdown, all people in England will be offered two Covid tests a week from Friday. The prime minister is to announce the rollout of the lateral flow tests at a press conference on Monday afternoon, at which he will also outline a programme of trial events for mass gatherings, as well as proposals for potentially restarting foreign travel. The Guardian, April 5

J&J takes over US Covid vaccine factory
A pharmaceutical plant that was producing ingredients for Covid-19 vaccines developed by both AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson will exclusively supply the latter company after a mistake by workers spoiled millions of doses. US-based J&J said it was “assuming full responsibility” at the plant in Baltimore owned by Emergent BioSolutions. UK-based AstraZeneca said it would move Covid-19 vaccine production out of the facility to another location. A reported 15m doses of J&J’s vaccine were ruined last week after workers accidentally mixed ingredients for the jab and those for the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot. The error was a setback to efforts to instil confidence in people wary of the vaccines developed to combat a virus that has killed more than 550,000 people in the US. Financial Times, April 4

Four-year reading catch-up for 200,000 pupils
A four-year emergency catch-up plan is reportedly being considered by Boris Johnson as figures suggest that 200,000 pupils will start secondary school behind in reading. About 180,000 children started secondary school in 2019 without reaching the expected standard in reading. This number is thought to have surged during lockdown. Schools in England closed and switched to online learning for much of the summer term last year and between January and March this year. Thousands of other pupils were sent home during outbreaks. Youngsters are usually assessed in core subjects in Year 6, with 73 per cent reaching the required reading level in 2019. This means about 182,000 were not at the level expected at the end of primary school. The Times, April 5

Tory donor awarded £164m contracts after call
A prominent Conservative donor had discussions with the procurement minister about “unblocking” barriers to PPE orders before being awarded £164 million in contracts, according to official documents. Lord Bethell was asked by David Meller, the co-owner of Meller Designs, to help to deal with “a block in ordering facemasks” in April last year. Meller, who has given £60,000 to the Conservative Party, helped to run Michael Gove’s leadership campaign in 2016. Documents obtained under freedom of information laws do not reveal what blocks Meller faced. However, they show that his concerns were passed on to the NHS’s chief procurement officer. A month later Meller’s company, which supplies beauty products to high street retailers, was directly awarded the first of several lucrative contracts. The Times, April 2

UK reports 25 new cases of blood clots after jab
The UK has received 30 reports of the rare blood clotting events that some scientists have linked to the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine and have caused precautionary restrictions to be placed on its use in many European countries. On Thursday, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency released information on 25 cases of severe and very rare blood clotting events, on top of five it had already reported this month. The MHRA also clarified that it had not seen any of the same reactions in individuals that had received the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. Concern has been growing about possible links between the AstraZeneca jab and a very specific and rare type of blood clotting event. The news that a growing number of such cases have been identified in the UK is likely to call into question the view that the phenomenon has purely been observed in mainland Europe. Financial Times, April 2

MPs criticise ‘divisive’ Covid passports
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and senior Tory Iain Duncan Smith are among more than 70 MPs to launch a campaign opposing Covid passports in England. Any demand to prove vaccination status to access jobs, businesses or services would be “divisive and discriminatory”, the cross-party group said. It comes as the Daily Telegraph reported that a series of pilot tests for Covid passports were being planned. The government said no final decision had been made on Covid certificates. A review is taking place into whether such a system could help to reopen the economy in England, with discussions also taking place across the devolved nations. BBC news, April 2

Almost third of UK Covid hospital patients readmitted within four months
Nearly a third of people who have been in hospital suffering from Covid-19 are readmitted for further treatment within four months of being discharged, and one in eight patients dies in the same period, doctors have found. The striking long-term impact of the disease has prompted doctors to call for ongoing tests and monitoring of former coronavirus patients to detect early signs of organ damage and other complications caused by the virus. While Covid is widely known to cause serious respiratory problems, the virus can also infect and damage other organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys. Researchers at University College London, the Office for National Statistics, and the University of Leicester, compared medical records of nearly 48,000 people who had had hospital treatment for Covid and had been discharged by 31 August 2020, with records from a matched control group of people in the general population. The records were used to track rates of readmission, of deaths, and of diagnoses for a range of respiratory, heart, kidney, liver and metabolic diseases, such as diabetes. The Guardian, April 1

Test and Trace ‘limited’ by majority ignoring Covid symptoms
Fewer than one in five people with symptoms request a Covid-19 test, calling into question the effectiveness of the NHS Test and Trace system. Experts said the findings, published in the British Medical Journal, suggested the benefits of the £37 billion government initiative were “limited”. The report found only half of the people knew the main Covid symptoms – these included a cough, high temperature and loss of taste or smell. The report’s authors said: “With such low rates for symptom recognition, testing, and full self-isolation, the effectiveness of the current form of the UK’s test, trace, and isolate system is limited.” The survey was carried out from March 2, 2020 to January 27 this year, with a total of 74,697 responses to online surveys from 53,880 people aged 16 or older living in the UK. The Times, April 1

Batch of J&J vaccines failed quality standards
Johnson & Johnson has said that a batch of its Covid-19 vaccines failed quality standards and can’t be used. The drugmaker didn’t say how many doses were lost, and it wasn’t clear how the problem would impact future deliveries. The drugmaker said on Wednesday it had found a problem with an ingredient used in the Covid vaccine, which was being produced at a production site in Baltimore, Maryland, belonging to Emergent Biosolutions, one of about 10 companies that J& J is using to speed up manufacturing. Workers at the plant manufacturing coronavirus shots for J&J and AstraZeneca accidentally conflated the vaccines’ ingredients several weeks ago, the New York Times earlier reported, adding that federal officials attributed the mistake to human error. The issue was identified and addressed with Emergent and shared with the US Food and Drug Administration, J&J said, adding it was sending more people to supervise manufacturing at the plant. The Guardian, April 1

Wealthy nations create a ‘vaccine apartheid’
A chorus of activists are calling for changes to intellectual property laws in hopes of beginning to boost Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing globally, and addressing the gaping disparity between rich and poor nations’ access to coronavirus vaccines. The US and a handful of other wealthy vaccine-producing nations are on track to deliver vaccines to all adults who want them in the coming months, while dozens of the world’s poorest countries have not inoculated a single person. Activists have dubbed the disparity a “vaccine apartheid” and called for the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies to share technical know-how in an effort to speed the global vaccination project. “The goal of health agencies right now is to manage the pandemic, and that might mean not everyone getting access – and not just this year – in the long-term,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s access to medicine program. “If we want to change that, if we’re not going to wait until 2024, then it requires more ambitious and a different scale of mobilization of resources.” The Guardian, March 31

One in four NHS workers more likely to quit job
A quarter of NHS workers are more likely to quit their job than a year ago because they are unhappy about their pay, frustrated by understaffing and exhausted by Covid-19, a survey suggests. The findings have prompted warnings that the health service is facing a potential “deadly exodus” of key personnel just as it tries to restart normal care after the pandemic. A representative poll of 1,006 health professionals across the UK by YouGov for the IPPR thinktank found that the pandemic has left one in four more likely to leave than a year ago. That includes 29 per cent of nurses and midwives, occupations in which the NHS has major shortages. Ministers must initiate a “new deal” for NHS staff that involves a decent pay rise, better benefits, more flexible working and fewer administrative tasks, the IPPR said. The Guardian, March 30

World leaders call for treaty on pandemics
PM Boris Johnson has joined more than 20 world leaders in calling for a new global settlement to help the world prepare for future pandemics. In a newspaper article the leaders, including the German chancellor and French president, said Covid posed the biggest challenge since World War Two. The pandemic has shown “nobody is safe until everyone is safe”, they said. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the UK would need a surplus of vaccines before it could export supplies. Writing in the Daily Telegraph and publications such as Le Monde in France and El Pais in Spain, the 24 leaders argue that a treaty similar to that reached in the wake of World War 2 is needed to build cross-border co-operation. The signatories, who include the head of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said: “At that time, following the devastation of two world wars, political leaders came together to forge the multilateral system. “The aims were clear: To bring countries together, to dispel the temptations of isolationism and nationalism, and to address the challenges that could only be achieved together in the spirit of solidarity and co-operation – namely peace, prosperity, health and security.” BBC news, March 30

Britain seeks Covid vaccine security by making 60m Novavax doses
Almost 60 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine shown to be effective against the South African variant will be made and packaged in Britain. Boris Johnson called the Novavax jab a “significant new weapon in our armoury against Covid” as ministers plan autumn booster jabs for older people to prevent a damaging surge next winter. The vaccine is already being made on Teesside and Johnson announced that Britain’s largest pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline, has agreed to finish and bottle it at its Barnard Castle plant in County Durham … The Novavax jab, which is yet to be approved by regulators, is not expected to be available before July. The Times, March 30

One jab halts most Covid care homes infections
A single dose of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine was effective at stopping 62 per cent of coronavirus infections in care homes, a study has found. A team at University College London looked at data from 10,000 adults in England with an average age of 86. The research also suggested that those who did catch the virus after vaccination may be less infectious. “Our data suggests that both vaccines are effective in frail, older adults,” said UCL’s Dr Maddie Shrotri. The study analysed coronavirus test-result data for 10,412 long-term residents, all aged over 65, at 310 care homes. BBC news, March 29

India bans Covid-19 vaccine exports
India has imposed a de facto ban on vaccine exports as it puts its own needs first. The country is in the grip of a second wave of Covid-19, which is worsening rapidly. The Serum Institute of India, the largest maker of vaccines in the world, has been told to halt exports until it can cover what India needs, according to sources in the Indian health ministry and Unicef. More than 53,000 new cases were reported on Wednesday, the highest single-day figure in five months. The country’s total of 11.7 million cases is the third largest after the US and Brazil. So far only 53 million Indians have been inoculated, far short of the target of 300 million by June. Delhi recently ordered 100 million vaccines from SII, which can make 60 million to 70 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine a month at its factory in Pune. The Times, March 26

EU stops short of vaccine export ban
European Union leaders have stopped short of banning vaccine exports after a protracted row with the Anglo-Swedish manufacturer AstraZeneca. At a summit on Thursday, they gave backing in principle for toughening export controls. But a post-summit statement emphasised the importance of global supply chains needed to produce vaccinations. Elements of the AstraZeneca vaccination are manufactured in a number of EU states. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said AstraZeneca must “catch up” on deliveries to the EU before exporting doses elsewhere. “[It] has to honour the contract it has with European member states before it can engage again in exporting vaccines,” she said. “We want to explain to our European citizens that they [can] get their fair share.” BBC news, March 25

Biden doubles 100-day vaccine goal to 200m
Joe Biden has doubled his goal for coronavirus vaccinations to 200m in his first 100 days in office, as he used his first presidential press conference to claim progress against the pandemic and set the stage for battles with Republicans on immigration, the economy and voting rights. After waiting 64 days to meet formally with the White House press corps, the 78-year-old US president dismissed accusations of mishandling an increase in migrants crossing the southern border and said he intended to run for re-election in 2024. In an indication of his determination to fight for the rest of his sweeping agenda, Biden sent the strongest signal yet that he supported changes to Senate rules that would make it easier for legislation to pass without Republican support. Financial Times, March 26

England: 40,600 people likely caught Covid while hospital inpatients
More than 40,600 people have been likely infected with coronavirus while being treated in hospital in England for another reason, raising concerns about the NHS’s inability to protect them. In one in five hospitals at least a fifth of all patients found to have the virus caught it while an inpatient. North Devon district hospital in Barnstaple had the highest rate of such cases among acute trusts in England at 31 per cent. NHS England figures also reveal stark regional differences in patients’ risk of catching the virus that causes Covid-19 during their stay. Just under a fifth (19 per cent) of those in hospital in the north-west became infected while an inpatient, almost double the 11 per cent rate in London hospitals. The Guardian, March 26

Germany to classify France as a high-risk zone
Reports say Germany will classify France as a high-risk zone for Covid-19, Chancellor Angela Merkel said, in a move that could see Berlin tighten border controls and require mandatory quarantine to enter the country. Agence France-Presse says the decision will come into force on Friday and be announced by the national health institute, the Robert Koch Institute, according to the newspaper FAZ. Covid-19 incidence rates, which measure the number of infections in every 100,000 people over the previous seven days, have crossed the threshold of 200 in numerous French departments. In Ile-de-France, the region which encompasses the capital of Paris, it has passed 600. “While we see such a high incidence it is simply a necessity … a practically automatic process,” Chancellor Merkel told a press conference in Berlin on Thursday as part of an EU summit focused on the fight against Covid-19. The Guardian, March 26

Hospital cash to get post-Covid surgery on track
NHS trusts will be given cash incentives to raise the number of elective surgeries as part of an £8.1 billion scheme to get the health service back up to speed. From April NHS trusts in England will receive more money if they carry out more than 70 per cent of their pre-Covid elective, or non-emergency, activity. The threshold rises to 75 per cent in May, 80 per cent in June and 85 per cent from July to September. The extra funding will be put towards elective surgery, officials say. Before the pandemic trusts received money for each elective treatment. This was suspended at the start of the pandemic and trusts were put under block contracts. The latest rules apply until September, suggesting that the NHS does not expect full service before then. … There is £1bn available to reboot elective surgery in an £8.1bn plan for recovering from the winter wave of Covid-19. The Times, March 26

Covid: UK govt and EU joint statement
We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes co-operation between the European Union and United Kingdom even more important. We have been discussing what more we can do to ensure a reciprocally beneficial relationship between the UK and EU on COVID-19. Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take – in the short-, medium- and long term – to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens. In the end, openness and global co-operation of all countries will be key to finally overcome this pandemic and ensure better preparation for meeting future challenges. We will continue discussions. 10 Downing Street, March 24

EU leaders to discuss boosting vaccine supplies
EU leaders are to hold virtual talks to discuss ways of boosting Covid vaccine supplies and improving the rollout of doses across the 27-nation bloc. The European Commission will on Thursday ask leaders to support plans for added controls on vaccine exports, which could affect supply to the United Kingdom. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier warned against imposing “blockades”. The virtual summit comes as a third wave of coronavirus infections sweeps across much of mainland Europe. US President Joe Biden will also dial in to the talks later on Thursday to discuss EU-US relations. BBC news, March 25

Low-income countries face vaccine delays
Poor countries will be hit by delays in coronavirus jab supplies due to problems securing export licences in India, the Gavi UN-backed vaccine alliance said, stoking fears of global supply squeezes. Gavi said the troubles would affect countries in the global Covax scheme supplied by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. “Deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines to lower income economies participating in the Covax facility will face delays following a setback in securing export licences for further doses” that are produced by the Serum Institute of India and expected to be shipped in March and April, Gavi said in a statement on Thursday. The Serum Institute, which makes the Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine under licence, has said its exports will be affected while New Delhi assesses the demand for the next stage of its domestic rollout as it battles an accelerating wave of new infections. Financial Times, March 25

NAO: lack of social care strategy left system weakened when Covid struck
The government’s failure to get a grip on England’s social care crisis left the care system weakened when the pandemic struck and has left thousands of people unable to access the help they need, according to the public spending watchdog. The National Audit Office said Covid-19 had focused attention on social care in England “as never before”, highlighting pre-existing shortcomings in services as well as major gaps in the government’s understanding and oversight of the care system. It urged the government to prioritise the setting out of a properly funded plan that would enable the provision of high-quality, sustainable social care for rapidly increasing numbers of vulnerable adults over the next few years. The NAO report came as Boris Johnson told the Commons liaison committee that social care reforms were in preparation. The Guardian, March 25

Fauci rebukes AZ over ‘misleading’ vaccine data
President Biden’s chief medical adviser said yesterday that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was probably “very good” but rebuked the British drugmaker for releasing inaccurate data on how well it works. Dr Anthony Fauci said that trial results made public by AstraZeneca yesterday had given an “outdated” assessment of the jab’s efficacy. The company had claimed that the vaccine was 79 per cent effective in preventing Covid-19, citing results from a study that recruited more than 32,000 volunteers, most of them in the United States … Dr Fauci suggested that AstraZeneca had made “an unforced error” that would add to vaccine hesitancy. The Times, March 24

Johnson under fire for putting UK vaccine success down to ‘greed’
Boris Johnson has been criticised after telling a private meeting of Conservative MPs that the UK’s successful Covid-19 vaccination programme was the result of “greed” and “capitalism”. “The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends,” the UK prime minister said during a Zoom chat with backbenchers from the 1922 Committee. “It was giant corporations that wanted to give good returns to shareholders,” he said in comments first reported by The Sun newspaper. AstraZeneca, which is producing Britain’s main vaccine alongside Oxford university, is not making a profit from the initiative – at least “during the pandemic”. Johnson “very insistently” withdrew the comments straight after making them, according to government figures. Rapidly realising his mistake, he tried to backtrack, saying “remove that comment from your collective memory”, according to MPs on the call. “Actually, I regret saying it,” he added, urging colleagues to “forget I said that”. Financial Times, March 24

EU prepares to tighten vaccine export rules
Brussels plans to expand the EU’s capacity to stop coronavirus vaccine exports in supply disputes such as its escalating battle with the UK and AstraZeneca. The European Commission proposals, seen by the FT, would widen the basis for stopping shipments to countries that import from the EU but refuse to export their own vaccine production. The plans take aim at countries that restrict vaccine exports to the EU, “either by law or by any other means”. The draft law also targets states that block EU access to “the raw materials” from which vaccines are made. Such practices, the draft law says, could “pose a threat to the security of supply” of vaccines within the EU. The text also calls on EU governments to take into account whether a country is ahead of the European bloc in its vaccination rollout before allowing further shipments of jabs there. The plans, set to be unveiled on Wednesday, are intended to strengthen the EU’s ability to ease the vaccine supply squeeze it has suffered at home, while exporting tens of millions of doses to the rest of the world. Financial Times, March 23

UK & EU may share Netherlands Covid vaccine
Ministers will seek to calm tensions over a potential EU ban on vaccine exports to the UK in a diplomacy blitz this week as sources raised the possibility of sharing jab supplies from a Dutch plant. Sources said the UK government was keen to offer support and expertise at the AstraZeneca vaccine production plant in the Netherlands, run by the subcontractor Halix, to help scale up production. The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has mooted blocking exports to the UK amid claims that AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish manufacturer, is favouring supplies to the UK. EU officials have said the bloc could ban exports from the plant until AstraZeneca provides the doses they say it is contractually obliged to supply. One Whitehall source said there were early talks on what the UK could offer to avoid a major international dispute, but it was too early to say whether supplies were likely to be shared. Sir Tim Barrow, the former ambassador to the EU, is among the senior advisors trying to negotiate a solution to the dispute. The Guardian, March 23

UK extends overseas travel ban until July
Holidays will be banned until the end of June with people who try to leave the country facing £5,000 fines as ministers tighten border restrictions. Boris Johnson warned yesterday that a third wave of coronavirus in Europe would “wash up on our shores” as a health minister raised the prospect of banning travel from all EU countries. Quarantine-free holidays may not be possible to most destinations until August or September. France is likely to be added to the “red list” this week … Under draft laws published yesterday to implement Johnson’s road map out of lockdown, leaving the UK without a “reasonable excuse” such as work or education will be illegal until June 30. People who travel from England to another part of the UK with the aim of leaving the country, or who go to an airport trying to do so, face fines of £5,000. The Times, March 23

US agency questions AZ Covid-19 vaccine trial
AstraZeneca might have included outdated information from a clinical trial of the Covid-19 vaccine it has developed with Oxford university, a US federal health agency said on Tuesday, throwing previously published positive results into doubt. In a rare move, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said it had been notified by the trial’s data and safety monitoring board that “it was concerned by information released by AstraZeneca on initial data from its Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial”. “The DSMB expressed concern that AstraZeneca may have included outdated information from that trial, which may have provided an incomplete view of the efficacy data,” the NIAID said. The group is led by Anthony Fauci, an adviser on coronavirus to the US president. The NIAID said it had urged AstraZeneca “to work with the DSMB to review the efficacy data and ensure the most accurate, up-to-date efficacy data be made public as quickly as possible”. AstraZeneca and Oxford university did not immediately respond to requests for comment early on Tuesday. Financial Times, March 23

Care home workers in England face mandatory Covid jabs
Care home workers in England could be legally required to have a Covid-19 vaccination under plans being considered by the government. According to details of a paper submitted to the Covid-19 operations cabinet subcommittee last week and leaked to the Telegraph, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, have agreed to the proposal in order to protect vulnerable residents. The move would prove highly controversial and could result in legal challenges. The cabinet subcommittee paper warned a large number of social care workers may quit if the change is made, and said that lawsuits on human rights grounds could be possible. A government spokesman insisted “no final decisions have been made” but did not rule out jabs being made compulsory for care workers. The government is also reviewing the introduction of vaccination passports. If the change is approved it would affect most of the 1.5 million workers in England’s adult social care sector, who would be obliged by law to have a Covid jab. The Guardian, March 22

AZ vaccine 79% effective with no increased blood clot risk – US trial
The Covid-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca was 79 per cent effective in preventing symptomatic illness in a large trial in the US, Chile and Peru, the company said on Monday, paving the way for it to apply for US approval. The vaccine was 100 per cent effective against severe or critical disease and hospitalisation and was safe, the drugmaker said on Monday, releasing results of the late-stage human trial study of more than 32,000 volunteers across all age groups. The data will give credence to the British vaccine after results from earlier, separate late-stage studies raised questions about the robustness of the data. It will also help allay safety concerns that have disrupted its use in the EU after a small number of reports of rare blood clots in people who had received the jab. The Guardian, March 22

UK starts trials of 48-hour ‘variant test’
The UK has begun a trial of a coronavirus “variant test” that will ascertain which Covid-19 strain an infected person has, with results within 48 hours. The tests could halve the time it takes to identify if a positive Covid-19 sample contains a variant of concern, which takes up to five days for genomic sequencing. Trials of the technology, known as “genotype assay testing”, are being carried out at NHS Test and Trace laboratories, the Department for Health and Social Care said. Financial Times, March 22

Unvaccinated sailors risk to global supply chain
The international shipping industry is warning that unvaccinated seafarers threaten to tip the global supply chain into deeper crisis as countries introduce vaccine requirements at their borders. Of the world’s 1.7m seafarers, 900,000 are from developing nations, where vaccines might not be available for all until 2024, according to the International Chamber of Shipping, a trade association. Guy Platten, secretary-general of ICS, said it had received reports that three ports in China had prevented sailors from disembarking because they had not received a specific Covid-19 vaccine, foreshadowing a potential repeat of last year’s welfare crisis for seafarers and the challenges to rebooting international travel. “If our workers can’t pass through international borders, this will undoubtedly cause delays and disruptions in the supply chain,” he said. Financial Times, March 22

Britain’s genome-busters use Covid success to target superbugs
Britain’s world-leading coronavirus sequencing infrastructure can be repurposed to help to tackle the “silent pandemic” of antibiotic resistance, scientists have said, as the government predicted superbugs could cause 20 million deaths a year worldwide by 2050. Last week the integrated review of security and foreign policy identified the evolution of drug-resistant microbes as a critical strategic threat alongside the rise of China and Russia … The development of antibiotics has stalled at the same time as their overuse has encouraged the evolution of strains of bacteria that can evade them. Scientists believe that routinely decoding the genomes of infectious bacteria, in the way that has been shown possible during the coronavirus pandemic, will be a vital tool in controlling the spread of drug-resistant strains until new antibiotics can be found. The Times, March 21

EU export ban would delay UK Covid vaccine drive by two months
Britain’s Covid vaccine programme faces a two-month delay in the event of an EU export ban, derailing the government’s plans to reopen the economy this summer, an analysis for the Guardian reveals. A ban, due to be debated by leaders of the 27 EU member states on Thursday, would badly stall the UK vaccination effort, and would be likely to force the government to extend restrictions on people’s lives. It would not, however, provide a significant boost to EU member states’ troubled programmes, according to a report by the data analytics company Airfinity. The comparatively small number of doses that would be kept within the bloc would speed up the full vaccination of every adult in the EU by “just over a week”, the research suggests. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is expected to speak to his European counterparts ahead of Thursday’s meeting. The Guardian, March 21

Health chiefs confirm AZ Covid jab safe to use
European countries rushed to resume use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine yesterday after regulators gave it their backing. Germany, France and Italy are due to restart today after the European Medicines Agency reached a “clear scientific conclusion” that it was safe. Emer Cooke, the EMA’s director, said an investigation by scientists did not find a link between the vaccine and blood clots, reports of which had prompted 17 EU countries to suspend its use in recent days. She added: “Its benefits in protecting people from Covid-19 outweigh the possible risks.” The Times, March 19

Doctors suggest Covid-19 could cause diabetes
A cohort of scientists from across the world believe that there is a growing body of evidence that Covid-19 can cause diabetes in some patients. Prof Francesco Rubino, from King’s College London, is leading the call for a full investigation into a possible link between the two diseases. Having seen a rise in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes in people who have caught coronavirus, some doctors are even considering the possibility that the virus – by disrupting sugar metabolism – could be inducing an entirely new form of diabetes. Rubino first realised the possibility of a link during a tea party with colleagues over Zoom where anecdotal cases were being exchanged. Rubino and others set up a registry to start pooling and analysing these reports. The principal investigators of the registry which has received reports from more than 350 individual clinicians who suspect they have encountered one or more cases of Covid-induced diabetes – have said the numbers were hard to ignore. The Guardian, March 19

Fight against TB set back 12 years by pandemic
Twelve months of Covid-19 has reversed 12 years of global progress against tuberculosis, worse than previously estimated. The pandemic has resulted in nearly a 25 per cent decrease in diagnosis and treatment around the world, according to research published on Thursday by a coalition working to end TB. Due to the impact of the Covid pandemic on services, the number of people diagnosed and treated for TB in the worst-affected countries has dropped back to 2008 levels, said Stop TB Partnership’s executive director, Lucica Ditiu. A modelling study published last year estimated a setback of five to eight years. “Twelve years of impressive gains in the fight against TB – including in reducing the number of people who were missing from TB care – have been tragically reversed by another virulent respiratory infection,” said Ditiu. “I hope that in 2021, we buckle up and smartly address, at the same time, TB and Covid-19 as two airborne diseases with similar symptoms.” The Guardian, March 19

EU threatens tougher export curbs
The European Union on Wednesday threatened to invoke emergency powers to block European exports of Covid-19 vaccines to ensure “reciprocity” with other suppliers, urging Britain to send Europe more jabs. France 24, March 17

Rising India demand for AstraZeneca vaccine blamed for UK supply delay
Rising demand for supplies from a key Indian manufacturer of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is hampering its ability to send doses to the UK, people familiar with the situation have told the FT. The latest development emerged as the UK government comes under growing pressure to explain a “significant” reduction in vaccine supplies which has delayed the rollout to people aged under 50 with no underlying health conditions. People briefed on the situation suggested a key pinch point was supply that had been expected to arrive from the Serum Institute in India to boost the volumes already available. A total of 10m doses had been expected to enter the UK although there had been no timeframe specified for the shipments, they said. Of that, 5m doses were sent several weeks ago … Discussing vaccine exports in the Indian parliament on Wednesday, foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar did not say they had been banned but said supply was “based on assessment of adequate availability at home”. Financial Times, March 18

Setback for UK’s Covid vaccine rollout
Under-50s will have to wait longer for their coronavirus jab after the NHS warned last night of a four-week supply drought. Vaccine centres were told to halt any booking of new appointments for next month after NHS England said that it had been abruptly told of a “significant reduction” in supplies. Very few people will receive their first doses next month after what is understood to have been a fall in provision from AstraZeneca. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said that the country was still “on track” to hit vaccination targets to take England out of lockdown as he sought to play down the significance of supply problems. However, he effectively ruled out offering jabs to people under 50 before the second half of next month. In a letter from NHS chiefs, vaccination centres were told to focus on higher-priority groups and to invite younger adults for vaccination only in “exceptional circumstances” … A government source emphasised that supply problems had been anticipated and built into vaccination targets. The issue was related to manufacturing and not linked to a row with the EU, they said. The Times, March 18

Delaying England’s winter lockdown ‘caused up to 27,000 extra Covid deaths’
Delaying the winter lockdown caused up to 27,000 extra deaths in England, the Resolution Foundation thinktank has claimed as it accused the government of a “huge mistake” which should be central to any public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the pandemic. In an assessment of policy over the last year, it said delaying the start of the latest lockdown until January, despite evidence of fast-rising cases before Christmas, led to around a fifth of all fatalities caused by the virus. It said these could have been avoided if restrictions were put in place quickly enough to prevent the death rate rising from early December. While it praised the vaccination programme – delivering jabs three times faster than Europe – and financial support for firms and workers which has included £6,700 for every household on average, it said mistakes on lockdowns were repeated “three tragic times”. It added that allowing extra deaths did not limit economic impacts, but rather increased them, because it only precipitated longer and more onerous lockdowns. The Guardian, March 18

Concern over ‘do not resuscitate’ decisions
Individuals’ human rights may have been breached in more than 500 cases where “do not resuscitate” decisions were made during the Covid pandemic, the care watchdog for England has said. Some 508 ‘do not attempt resuscitation’ decisions made since March 2020 were not agreed in discussion with the person or their family, a report found. The Care Quality Commission is calling for improvements to care planning. An NHS spokesman said decisions should be made in consultation with families. The CQC has recommended that a ministerial oversight group be created to work with health and care providers, local government and the voluntary sector to deliver improvements. It wants to see a consistent national approach to advance care planning, with staff training, accessible information for families and records of conversations and decisions agreed. BBC news, March 18

Pandemic funding for English primary schools absorbed by other cuts
The majority of primary schools in England will have their pandemic catch-up funding more than absorbed by an administrative change that has denied additional money for tens of thousands of children who have recently fallen into hardship, according to a survey. The research carried out by the National Association of Head Teachers, a union, showed that 62 per cent of primary schools in England will miss out on at least £6,725 as a result of a decision to allocate “pupil premium” funding for disadvantaged children based on data collected last October rather than January this year. The shortfall exceeds the average of £6,000 of funding these primary schools will receive as part of the government’s £1.7bn catch-up package, jeopardising schools’ ability to help children recover from a year of disrupted education. “The government is giving with one hand while knowingly taking away with the other,” Paul Whiteman, the association’s general secretary, said. Financial Times, March 18

NHS chiefs collision with ministers over backlog
Hospital bosses are bracing themselves for a clash with ministers over how quickly they can clear the backlog of NHS care that built up during the pandemic. They are warning that it will take “years” to treat all those whose care was cancelled because Covid disrupted so many hospital services, particularly surgery and diagnostic tests. Staff shortages, exhaustion among frontline personnel after tackling the pandemic and their need to have a break mean that progress will be slower than the government expects, NHS trust chiefs say. “We can’t say with certainty how long it will take to tackle the backlog of planned operations because we don’t really know how big that backlog will end up being,” said Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers. “The NHS will obviously go as fast as it can, as we always do. But it’s already apparent that clearing the entire backlog will take years rather than months.”. The Guardian, March 18

Public support for Covid inquiry more than twice as high as opposition – poll
Public support for a statutory public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is running more than twice as high as opposition to the idea, exclusive polling for the Guardian has revealed. As a growing number of doctors, nurses, scientists and the bereaved call on the prime minister to trigger a formal independent investigation, 47 per cent of people said they supported a public inquiry which has legal powers to compel people to give evidence under oath. Only 18 per cent said they were opposed. Thirty-five per cent said they neither supported or opposed it or didn’t know, according to polling carried out by ICM last weekend. The top priority among those wanting an inquiry was an investigation into the government’s preparedness for a pandemic which has left the UK with the highest mortality rate of any of the world’s largest economies. The death toll among people who tested positive reached 125,690 on Tuesday. Those polled believe an inquiry’s next highest priorities should be examining how the UK controlled the movement of people through its borders and the timing and strategy of lockdowns, which epidemiologists have concluded cost lives. The Guardian, March 17

One in four with Covid signs fail to take tests
A quarter of individuals with signs of coronavirus fail to take tests and more than a third of adults are unable to identify the three main symptoms, a UK study has found. The authors called on the authorities to do more to improve public knowledge and access to testing, more than a year into the pandemic that has caused nearly 150,000 deaths in the country. Claire Steves, the lead scientist of the Zoe Covid Symptom Study, urged the UK government to ensure that everybody understands that if they feel unwell, they should act as if they have Covid-19 and get a test. She also called on the government to extend the list of symptoms. “Focusing NHS testing solely on people experiencing cough, fever and loss or change in smell risks missing many thousands of cases,” added Steves, reader at King’s College London. The NHS is administering the biggest mass vaccination campaign in its history, yet scientists said effective testing remained crucial to containing the pandemic especially as lockdown restrictions are eased. Financial Times, March 17

EU Covid vaccine certificates
Brussels will table plans for coronavirus vaccine certificates today with the aim of opening up travel to and within the European Union for the summer. Spain, Greece, Italy and other Mediterranean countries will be able to agree bilateral deals with Britain or others after agreement with Brussels, based on vaccination and low infection rates. The European Commission’s plan for a “digital green certificate” will be a proof of vaccination, immunity and test results, preventing the need for quarantines or travel bans … If agreed, the digital document, which is deliberately not being called a “passport” will show details of vaccination, a negative test or proof of recovery from the virus confirming immunity. EU governments are divided over the proposals which countries such France or Germany fear will discriminate against people who through no fault of their own have not yet been vaccinated. The Times, March 17

WHO experts to discuss AZ vaccine safety
World Health Organization safety experts are preparing to meet over the AstraZeneca/Oxford coronavirus vaccine, whose rollout has been halted in several European countries over blood clot fears. The three largest EU nations – Germany, Italy and France – joined others in suspending the shot on Monday, dealing a blow to the global immunisation campaign against a disease that has killed more than 2.6 million people. Sweden paused its use of the vaccine on Tuesday. The WHO, AstraZeneca, and the European Medicines Agency have insisted the shot is safe, and that there is no link between the vaccine and reported blood clots. “We do not want people to panic and we would, for the time being, recommend that countries continue vaccinating with AstraZeneca,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said on Monday. “So far, we do not find an association between these events and the vaccine.” The Guardian, March 16

Supplier of unusable PPE made £17m
A former investment banker who sold millions of masks deemed unusable by the NHS has said that his company made £17 million in profits from its government contracts. Tim Horlick, chief executive of the family investment company Ayanda Capital, won contracts worth more than £250 million to supply millions of masks. He told the BBC that the company had made estimated net profits of £17m after tax and expenses and insisted that the profit margin was low by industry standards. About £155m worth of face masks delivered by Ayanda were deemed unfit for purpose because they had ear loops rather than head ties. Ayanda has previously said that it delivered masks to the agreed specification and that it is not yet known to what use the government may put the PPE … The company was among 47 that benefited from being placed in a high-priority lane set up by the government for suppliers with links to ministers, MPs, peers or senior civil servants. The Times, March 16

Third wave of Covid in autumn is inevitable
The national statistician has warned of a further wave of Covid-19 infections in autumn despite strong early evidence of vaccine protection. Sir Ian Diamond, head of the Office for National Statistics, said that although the case rate was the lowest since September it was still much higher than last summer when the first lockdown was lifted. The latest ONS survey found that the infection rate in England was 0.37%, equal to about 6,000 cases a day, compared with 0.04% last summer when it was deemed safe enough to lift the first lockdown. Diamond agreed with Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, that a new wave in autumn was “inevitable”. The Times, March 15

Indian vaccine makers decry US use of wartime powers to protect supplies
Two of India’s top vaccine manufacturers making AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson shots have warned that the world’s vaccine production is being threatened by America’s pandemic export controls. Mahima Datla, chief executive of pharmaceutical company Biological E, said US suppliers claim they may not be able to fulfil orders to global clients because of Washington’s use of the Defense Production Act. Calling for urgent international intervention, Datla told the FT: “It’s not only going to make the scale up for Covid vaccines difficult, but because of this it’s going to make manufacturing of routine vaccines extremely difficult.” Both US President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump have invoked the Korean war era DPA during the pandemic to secure priority supplies of materials needed to control the disease. But with the US having ordered more than enough doses for every adult in the US, American suppliers are struggling to make enough to fulfil contracts outside the country. Financial Times, March 15

UK economy set to hit pre-Covid levels this year
The economy is on track to return to pre-Covid levels by the end of the year, the governor of the Bank of England said this morning. Andrew Bailey said that a recent rise in interest rates in financial markets was consistent with an improvement in the economic outlook. “We have seen some increase in interest rates over the last month or so, as have other countries. My assessment so far is that that is consistent, I think, with the change in the economic outlook”. “I’m now more positive but with a large dose of caution,” Bailey told Today on Radio 4. “There are now risks on the upside.” He said that the economy would recover and get back to its late 2019 level by about the end of this year. The Bank is expected to keep interest rates at their historic low of 0.1 per cent and its bond-buying programme unchanged at £895 billion ($1.25 trillion) on Thursday at the end of its March meeting. The Times, March 15

Lockdown GDP fall of 2.9% is less than feared
Lockdown has caused less economic damage than expected as businesses adapted to the latest restrictions but Brexit is causing severe disruption to trade, with exports to the EU plummeting a record 40 per cent at the start of the year, official figures show. The economy shrank 2.9 per cent between December and January, below forecasts for a 4.9 per cent decline and a fraction of the 18.3 per cent collapse in April last year, the last time schools were ordered to close. The steepest falls in output were in hospitality and education, reflecting the school closures. The drop was deeper than during the mini-lockdown last November, when GDP contracted 2.3 per cent but schools remained open, the Office for National Statistics said. The Times, March 12

Novavax vaccine 96% effective
Novavax’s coronavirus vaccine is 96 per cent effective at preventing illness from the original form of the virus, the US pharmaceutical firm announced yesterday. The late-stage trials, which were conducted in the UK and involved more than 15,000 people, revealed that no one who received the jab developed severe illness or died from the virus, raising hopes that the vaccine will gain regulatory approval soon. The vaccine was also found to be 86 per cent effective in protecting against the more contagious variant of the virus which was first discovered in Kent and is now prevalent across Britain. This gave an overall effectiveness of 90 per cent, combining data from people infected with both variants of the virus. The UK has secured 60 million doses of the jab, which are set to be delivered in the second half of the year, while manufacturing is set to take place in Teesside in the north on England. The Times, March 12

Biden says all adults in US will be eligible for coronavirus vaccine by May 1
Joe Biden said every US adult would be eligible for a coronavirus vaccination by May 1, as he touted “some real progress” in America’s fight against the pandemic and set the July 4 Independence Day holiday as a target for a return to some normality. The goals were announced by the president during his first televised primetime address to the nation, which combined a more optimistic assessment of America’s ability to tame the virus with an emotional appeal for the country to keep its guard up against the disease. “I need you, I need every American to do their part,” Biden said. “That will make this Independence Day something truly special, where we not only mark our independence as a nation, but begin to mark our independence from this virus.” Biden’s remarks came on the 50th day of his presidency, the anniversary of the first coronavirus lockdowns, and just hours after he signed a $1.9tn economic stimulus package into law in the Oval Office. Financial Times, March 12

EU has exported 34m doses, including 9m to UK
A total of 34 million doses of coronavirus vaccine have been exported from the EU despite shortages for people living in the bloc, including 9m sent to the UK and 1m to the US, which has a ban on sales abroad. The internal figures were leaked as the EU was embroiled in a tit-for-tat with Boris Johnson over claims that the UK had an export ban in place. A European commission spokesperson conceded on Wednesday that the UK had not imposed a ban, following the allegation made by the European council president, Charles Michel, on Tuesday. But officials said Michel wanted to know how many exports had been made from the UK as they highlighted the role of EU-based production sites in the global effort. “We know that different countries have got different measures in place – that doesn’t concern vaccines, as far as we understand, coming from the UK,” a commission spokesperson said. “But we know as well that we, the EU, are a very, very active exporter of vaccines and that this is not necessarily the case of all our partners.” According to the latest figures seen by the Guardian and accurate as of 9 March, of the 34,090,287 doses exported from the EU to 31 countries, 9,106,162 went to the UK, 3,917,640 to Canada, 3,134,204 to Mexico, 2,720,210 to Japan and 1,368,900 to Saudi Arabia. Other beneficiaries of EU exports included Hong Kong (1.3m), Singapore (967,030), the US (953,723), Chile (942,825) and Malaysia (751,140). The Guardian, March 11

Cancer patients ‘lack same protection’ after first jab
Cancer patients are much less protected against Covid-19 than other people after one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, the first real-world study in this area suggests. With a 12-week wait for the second dose this could leave them vulnerable, says the King’s College London and Francis Crick Institute research team. An early second dose appeared to boost cancer patients’ protection. Cancer charities are calling for the vaccine strategy to be reviewed. But Cancer Research UK said the small study had not yet been reviewed by other scientists and people undergoing cancer treatment should continue to follow the advice of their doctors. The government said it was focused on “saving lives” and the antibody response “was only part of the protection provided by the vaccine”. About 1.2 million people at very high risk of being seriously ill with Covid-19 were prioritised for a first vaccine dose in the first phase of the UK rollout, which includes people with specific cancers. The UK government decided to extend the gap between first and second jabs from three to 12 weeks in late December to give more people some protection as soon as possible. BBC news, March 11

No evidence £22bn test-and-trace scheme cut Covid rates in England, say MPs
There is no evidence to show that the government’s £22bn test-and-trace programme to combat Covid-19 in England contributed to a reduction in coronavirus infection levels, parliament’s spending watchdog has concluded. In a report which examined the rush to invest in the scheme, the cross-party public accounts committee has challenged ministers to justify the “staggering investment of taxpayers’ money” and criticised the use of private consultants who are paid up to £6,624 a day. The programme, which has a budget that exceeds that of the Department for Transport, is run by Dido Harding, who was appointed by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, last year. At the time, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, said the country would have as “world-beating” system. The timing of the report’s conclusions is an embarrassment for the government as it continues to refuse to give a pay increase of more than 1 per cent to health workers. Ministers had justified the vast expenditure on preventing a second national lockdown, but – questioning the programme’s effectiveness – MPs who compiled the report noted that England is now living under its third. The Guardian, March 10

Russia seeks to make Sputnik V in Italy
Russia’s move to produce its Sputnik V vaccine in Italy has underlined Moscow’s efforts to meet a surge in overseas contracts for the jab while many Russians snub it at home. The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which oversees the Covid-19 vaccine’s distribution, on Tuesday said it had signed an agreement with Swiss-based pharmaceutical company Adienne for its Italy-based unit to produce the two-injection jab, the Italian-Russian Chamber of Commerce said in a statement. Production first requires approval from local regulators, according to Italian officials, and the region of Lombardy, where the factory is based, said it was not involved in an “exclusively private-law agreement”. Adienne did not return calls for comments. But if it comes to fruition, the Italy manufacturing plan would be the first such partnership inside the EU, where the bloc’s medical agency is reviewing the Russian vaccine for authorisation. Financial Times, March 10

Hospital fears over Covid push up home deaths
The number of people dying at home is about two fifths higher than normal and shows no signs of decreasing, despite deaths in hospitals and care homes falling to near or below usual levels. There are “big questions” about whether those people are receiving enough support, an end of life charity said. In the week ending February 26 deaths were 9.2 per cent above the five-year average for England and Wales, with 1,066 excess deaths registered. That was down from an 18.8 per cent excess the week before. The downward trend could lead to no excess deaths by Easter, statisticians have predicted. However, while there were 334, or 13 per cent, fewer deaths in care homes than would be expected based on the past five years, and 275, or 5 per cent more in hospitals, there were 1,147, or 44 per cent more, in private homes. The Times, March 10

Raab summons EU official as anger grows over UK vaccine export claims
Dominic Raab has summoned the EU’s UK representative amid government fury over claims by the president of the European council that the UK has banned exports of vaccines, which the government says are entirely false. In a row that threatened to reopen the rift between the UK and EU over vaccine policy, the foreign secretary wrote to Charles Michel expressing considerable concern at the statement he released on Tuesday and accused him of publishing false information. Anger in Whitehall has been building for a number of days about the portrayal of the UK’s export policy in Brussels by senior EU politicians, not just Michel, as well as worry that the claim is widely circulating in European media. A government source said the claim had been repeated at various levels within the EU and the commission and the UK had repeatedly privately corrected the record on every occasion – but intimated that Raab now needed to “draw a line in the sand”. A representative of the EU’s delegation to the UK has since been summoned to a meeting at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The Guardian, March 9

Labour calls for audit of UK’s preparedness for next pandemic
Ministers must start war-gaming the next pandemic and their plans should be independently audited to prove the UK is prepared for global health threats to come, Labour’s Jon Ashworth has said. The shadow health secretary will give a speech on Tuesday attempting to refocus the blame for the catastrophic UK death toll on government failings, after polls showed support for Boris Johnson surging on the back of the vaccine programme. Ashworth said Labour would introduce statutory duties to plan, audit and invest in pandemic response, alongside obligatory training for ministers in “germ-gaming”, imitating how the military prepares for conflict scenarios. Speaking to the Guardian, Ashworth said Labour needed to highlight not only that the UK was “ill-prepared and ignored the warnings” about the Covid-19 pandemic but that there was more it could be doing now to prepare for future threats. The Guardian, March 9

We’re close to cutting care, NHS chiefs warn
NHS chiefs have warned that they will have to start cutting patient care unless Rishi Sunak finds £8 billion this week for extra Covid-19 costs. Ministers are themselves fighting the health service on two fronts this morning, with the talks on additional coronavirus funding stalling as unions prepare for strike action over pay. Patients already on record waiting lists will face longer delays for treatment because the Treasury has toughened its line on NHS spending since the budget, health chiefs have told The Times. They say the chancellor appears to be trying to “renege” on his commitment to cover Covid costs and is attempting to pay for the pandemic out of normal health service spending pots. Hospitals accuse Sunak of “robbing NHS budgets” by refusing to meet the full cost of treating 8,021 coronavirus patients in hospitals at present after ministers offered a lower-than-expected 1 per cent pay rise to frontline staff. The Times, March 8

NHS pay rise offer is a kick in the teeth
Health unions have accused ministers of failing in their “moral duty” to NHS staff by offering a 1 per cent pay rise instead of the 12.5 per cent they asked for. Ministers said that the economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus meant that big pay rises were unaffordable, pointing out that NHS staff would get a rise denied to other public sector workers. Doctors and nurses called the award “pitiful” and a “kick in the teeth” after their work during the pandemic. Economic forecasts suggest that it may amount to a real-terms pay cut. Labour accused Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, of being “too cowardly” to mention the figure when delivering his budget. Boris Johnson was already on the defensive over what the Institute for Fiscal Studies called “implausibly low” spending plans, including a £30 billion reduction in healthcare budgets next year, and a lack of social care reform 20 months after he promised a plan. The Times, March 5

Immigration rule change to fill NHS vacancies
Priti Patel tweaked immigration rules yesterday to make it easier for the NHS and social care providers to recruit staff from abroad after the Covid-19 crisis. Senior care workers, nursing assistants and pharmacists are among several professions that were added to the government’s list of occupations with labour shortages. It will be easier for foreign workers in these sectors to obtain a skilled work visa in the UK as long as they are offered a job with a salary of at least £20,000. The government also announced that its new two-year visas for graduates will open for applications in July. All international students will be able to stay in the UK for up to two years after completing their degree without having a job. It reverses Theresa May’s policy that allowed international students to stay for only four months after finishing their studies. The Times, March 5

Italy uses EU rule to stop the export of vaccine
Italy and the EU have blocked a shipment of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines heading to Australia from a factory near Rome as anger simmers in Europe over the slow supply of doses. The decision to stop 250,000 doses leaving the bloc is the first time a rule on controlling vaccine exports has been used since it was introduced last month … Australia was to start inoculations with the Oxford vaccine today. Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, said that the blocked shipment was understandable and would not affect Australia’s vaccine programme. “This particular shipment was not one we had counted on for the rollout, and so we will continue unabated,” he said. He also expressed sympathy for the high rate of the virus in Italy. “In Italy people are dying at a rate of 300 a day and so I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe,” he said. “They are in an unbridled crisis situation. That is not the situation in Australia.” The Times, March 5

France backs Italy’s decision to block vaccine exports to Australia
France has backed Italy’s blocking of a shipment of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia, as Canberra urged Brussels to review Rome’s move to “tear up the rule book” in a sign of global vaccine supply tensions. “We could do the same,” Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, said in an interview on French television, in response to a question about Rome’s halting of 250,000 Oxford/AstraZeneca doses destined for Australia. Italy’s move is the first intervention since the EU introduced rules for the transport of vaccines outside the bloc, which came in response to delays in the rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to member states. The commission has the power to object to the Italian decision but did not, officials said. Rome said it had made the decision to retain the shipment because Australia was not considered a “vulnerable country”. Financial Times, March 5

Covid contracts unpublished despite PM’s claim
Dozens of Covid contracts had not been published when Boris Johnson told MPs they were “on the record for everyone to see”, campaigners say. The Good Law Project said the PM’s assurance last month was “not true” because government lawyers had said 100 contracts were yet to be revealed. The group successfully sued the government over its failure to reveal details about Covid deals last month. The government said remaining contracts would be published as soon as possible. The Department for Health and Social Care struck deals worth hundreds of millions of pounds during the coronavirus pandemic. The government is required by law to publish a “contract award notice” within 30 days of them awarding any contracts for public goods or services worth more than £120,000. BBC news, March 5

Sunak plans to extend furlough until September
Rishi Sunak will announce today multibillion-pound plans to extend the furlough scheme until September, and pledge to use the “full measure of our fiscal firepower” to save jobs as Britain emerges from the lockdown. The chancellor will say that the country is facing a “moment of crisis” as he extends furlough for another five months at an estimated cost of at least £10 billion, taking it beyond the final easing of restrictions on June 21. It will form part of measures worth at least £30bn in the budget to support those hardest hit by the lockdown, including grants for the self-employed, a six-month extension of the £20-a-week rise in universal credit, business rates relief and VAT cuts. The Times, March 3

Vaccination passport to unlock Europe for UK
European leaders in Brussels have pledged that a vaccination passport scheme will be open to British travellers in time to save the summer holidays. A proposal for a “digital green pass” will be put forward by the European Commission on March 17 to “kick start” tourism by the end of June. Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, announced the plan after European Union leaders agreed last week that a Covid-19 certificate or “passport” would need to be in place by the summer. “We’ll present a legislative proposal for a ‘digital green pass’,” she said yesterday. “The pass should facilitate Europeans’ lives. The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the EU or abroad – for work or tourism.” Along with vaccinations, the “pass” or certificate will include information on an individual’s most recent Covid test results and “statements of recovery”, such as test data showing immunity owing to the presence of antibodies. The Times, March 2

France lifts restrictions on AZ jab for over-65s
France is to expand its use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine after additional clinical data proved its efficacy among people aged over 65, reversing the position Paris took a month ago. Health minister Olivier Véran announced the change in an interview with France Télévisions on Monday night, pointing to advice from a panel of experts advising the French government. “The Haute Autorité de Santé now considers as of today that all three vaccines that we have in France have a remarkable efficacy to protect people against the risk of severe forms of Covid-19,” said the minister. “As a result, I can announce that from now on people aged 50 and above who have comorbidities such as diabetes, high blood pressure or a history of cancer can be vaccinated with AstraZeneca, including those aged 65 to 74.” Financial Times, March 1

Trumps quietly got Covid vaccines last month
Donald and Melania Trump received the coronavirus vaccine before leaving the White House, according to multiple news reports on Monday. Citing unnamed advisers, the New York Times, CNN and other outlets reported that while other officials, including Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the former vice-president Mike Pence, chose to get their shots publicly to encourage confidence in the vaccines, the Trumps opted to quietly get vaccinated in January. There was no detail on which shot they received or how many doses they had been given. Both Donald and Melania contracted and recovered from Covid-19 during the 2020 presidential campaign. The revelation first came to light after Trump took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida. “Everyone should go get your shot,” he told the audience, prompting questions from reporters about whether he had had his. The Guardian, March 2

AstraZeneca cashes in on Moderna’s rising star
AstraZeneca has sold its stake in Moderna for more than $1 billion after the American biotechnology company’s shares soared on the back of its coronavirus vaccine breakthrough. The British-based drugs company has disposed of its 7.7 per cent holding, which had made it Moderna’s second largest investor last year. Unlike Moderna’s, Astra’s Covid-19 vaccine, produced in partnership with Oxford University, is being sold on a non-profit basis during the pandemic. The cash from the Moderna share sale, thought to be about $1.2 billion, will bolster Astra’s finances as it develops its own drugs pipeline and completes its biggest acquisition, the $39 billion purchase of Alexion, an American rare diseases specialist. Moderna’s fortunes have been transformed by the success of its novel mRNA technology, which has led its shares to surge from about $29 a year ago to a peak of $186 last month on the Nasdaq index. The stock closed at $154.81 on Friday, valuing Moderna at about $62 billion. The Times, March 1

Critical care beds shortage prompts review calls
The NHS’s “insufficient” critical care capacity has been laid bare by the pandemic, with the UK having one of the lowest number of beds per head in Europe, NHS Providers has said. The group, which represents trusts in England, is calling for a review of the health service’s capacity. The UK has 7.3 critical care beds per 100,000 people, compared to Germany’s 33.8 and the US’s 34.3, analysis found. The government said it was investing £72bn in the next two years in the NHS. The east of England, South West and South East are areas of key concern. “The UK is towards the bottom of the European League table for critical care beds per head of population,” NHS Providers said. The group added that the UK had comparatively fewer critical care beds than France, Italy and Spain. “It’s neither safe nor sensible to rely on NHS hospital trusts being able to double or triple their capacity at the drop of a hat as they’ve had to over the last two months, with all the disruption to other care and impossible burdens on staff that involves.” BBC news, March 1

EU must prepare for ‘era of pandemics’: VdL
Europe must prepare its medical sector to cope with an “era of pandemics”, the European Commission president said, as she warned the bloc was still in its most difficult period for Covid-19 vaccine deliveries. Ursula von der Leyen told the FT that the EU could not afford to sit still even once Covid-19 has been overcome, as she described her plans for a Europewide fast-reaction system designed to respond more quickly to emerging medical threats. “Europe is determined to enlarge its strength in vaccine production,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s an era of pandemics we are entering. If you look at what has been happening over the past few years, I mean from HIV to Ebola to MERS to SARS, these were all epidemics which could be contained, but we should not think it is all over when we’ve overcome Covid-19. The risk is still there.” Financial Times, February 28

Vaccine acceptance rises in some countries
More people in the United Kingdom, the United States and even vaccine-sceptical France now accept the idea of getting a coronavirus jab, KekstCNC, an international consultancy, said in the survey conducted in February. The survey also covered Germany, Japan and Sweden where a similar trend was clear, it said. “As vaccine rollouts commence, higher numbers of people in all countries say they would take the vaccine,” the study said. The highest percentage was found in the UK with 89 per cent of those questioned in favour of taking a vaccine, up from 70 per cent in December. In Sweden, the rate was 76 per cent against 53 per cent in December, in the US 64 per cent against 58 per cent, in Germany 73 per cent against 63 per cent and in Japan 64 per cent against 50 per cent. France was the country in the study with the least enthusiasm at 59 per cent, but favourable opinions about vaccines were still sharply up from the 40 per cent level seen in December. The Guardian, March 1

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