21 November: Covid crowing?; More Galician road madness; Bonny bishops; China fingered again; HOGO; &

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Dawn%2BBox%2BDay%2B2015.JPG
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops
Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable
Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Covid  

The UK: There seems to be a lot of optimism in Britain along these lines: Once derided for relaxing restrictions as virus cases rose, Britain can now look forward to a relatively better Christmas than in Europe. See the 2 articles below. But is is too soon to crow? 

The EU: In France, Spain, Portugal and Italy cases remain low but are rising. Explanations vary: from the south of Europe benefiting from warmer weather for longer to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as vaccine passports and masks being more consistently deployed and adhered to. But perhaps most persuasive for Spain and Portugal are their high vaccination rates, which at over 80% of the population, are far above those in the UK, Austria and Germany.

Cosas de España/Galiza

On the other hand . . . El País explains here Why the Covid-19 vaccines don’t stop the virus from circulating.

Yes another senior citizen here in Galicia has been killed on a zebra crossing. I continue to suspect this is the way I’ll shuffle off this mortal coil.

And we’ve had yet another kamikaze driver on the AP9. This one drove the entire 27km on the wrong side of the motorway from Vigo to Pontevedra, crashing through a toll barrier en route. Maybe there’s something in our water. A lot of granite, possibly.

Yesterday’s Diaro de Pontevedra featured a foto of our regional president – we have a lot of presidents in Spain – with 40-50 Galician bishops. As far as I could see, they were all as far from being underfed as those Castelao used to have in his early 20th century paintings of local events.

China

China’s blatant obfuscation of any investigation into the origins of Covid and corruption of international science has been documented in stark detail by a new book – ‘Viral’ – by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley, 

(A)GW

Looks like very good news . . .Britain’s Royal Air Force has set a World Record for completing the world’s first flight powered only by synthetic fuel. This is made by capturing CO2 from the air and converting it to fuel by adding hydrogen molecules from water. It delivers the same energy density as fossil fuels without adding to carbon emissions, and it can be used in conventional engines without modifications. More here.

The Way of the World/Quote of the Day 

Can anyone deny that a new spectator sport has emerged, not dissimilar to those staged at the Colosseum; a sport that gives vicarious pleasure to millions? Unlike in ancient Rome, where the slaughter of the combatants was determined by a simple thumbs up or down by the presiding authority, today it is determined by the arbitrary gyrations of social media, driven by algorithms that amplify the emotive and sensationalistic, with craven institutions all too often bowing to the force of these ethereal contagions.  And I don’t think we have yet grasped how perilous this sport has become, nor how it is shredding our social fabric. It is not just the famous whose lives have been devastated by retrospective inquisition; it is also teachers, police officers, university students and Australian cricket captains.

English 

A new acronym – HOGO (hassle of going out) is hitting the UK hospitality industry. People are not turning up to restaurants or even events for which the’ve bought tickets and businesses can’t fully understand why. One possibility is that folk became too used to nights at home watching TV during the lockdowns.

Finally  . . .

Three weeks after I contacted them, Premier Inns have replied to my email saying they can’t help me. The message – from ‘Kay’, the Guest Relations Advisor – ends with: Thanks so much and we can’t wait to see you soon. Which seems unlikely.

I got a call yesterday from a  Mauritanian number, which fortunately I missed. This is the “one ring” scam, where the caller hangs up before you get a chance to answer, hoping you’ll call back and incur large charges. It’s been going on for years, apparently, but they only just got round to me.

Filched joke: How can you tell if someone’s a vegan? Don’t worry — they’ll tell you.  

This blog can be seen on Twitter and on the Facebook group page – Thoughts from Galicia.  

If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here

THE ARTICLES

1. Authoritarian Europe’s slide back into lockdown vindicates the UK embrace of freedom: We were denounced as ‘Plague Island’, but our relatively high vaccination rate has allowed us to learn to live with Covid: Camilla Tominey, theTelegraph

The hills are not alive with the sound of music in Austria, where the authorities this week took the quite extraordinary step of locking down the unvaccinated before deciding to shut down the Alpine country altogether. An entire nation, von Trapped, all over again – 20 months on from the first coronavirus case being confirmed there in February 2020, amid unconfirmed reports of corpses being stored in overcrowded hospital corridors. The Austrian chancellor has also announced deeply authoritarian plans to make it a legal requirement to get vaccinated against Covid by next year.

Swathes of the rest of Europe are also getting tough in a bid to tackle a fourth wave with yet more restrictions – even though the need to do so suggests that the restrictions didn’t work well enough in the first place.

Warning that “unspecified” rules would be introduced in some of Germany’s worst-hit states, Chancellor Angela Merkel set the tone for the Continent on Thursday as she dramatically declared: “It is absolutely time to act.” She announced that the unvaccinated would be stopped from visiting bars, restaurants and theatres if hospitalisation rates got too high. It came as hospitals in Bavaria have come under so much pressure that patients are having to be transferred to neighbouring countries for treatment.

The problem is even more acute in parts of Eastern Europe, where endemic corruption has led to a distrust in the medical system that makes concerns about the PPE contracts awarded to Matt Hancock’s pub landlord look piffling by comparison.

All of which makes Britain appear rather less of a basket case than the world has been making out. Since the summer, the UK has been condemned internationally as “plague island”. The New York Times trashed Freedom Day, arguing that it was “too soon to declare victory”. Overcautious Americans from Democratic states have tiptoed over the Pond with trepidation since travel has been allowed again, nervous about Britain’s apparent sense of Covid carelessness. Meanwhile, our fellow Europeans have treated us like a petri-dish of coronavirus infection, ever since we ditched mandatory measures. At one point over the summer, British travellers to countries like Croatia found themselves singled out – and asked to take an extra Covid test, along with travellers from Russia, where only 35% of the population are fully vaccinated, and tourists from India, where the rate is just 28%. Yet without wishing to sound complacent, which would be foolish given that UK infections are still among the highest in Europe, it now seems that Britain wasn’t quite so reckless after all to embrace freedom over the summer.

Rather than mandating scientifically questionable measures like face-masks, we have followed the actual science of inoculation – vaccinations like the Oxford AstraZeneca jab that Angela Merkel initially refused to take after the German authorities had declined to approve it for those over 65. Remember the reputational damage French president Emmanuel Macron sought to inflict on the jab by deeming it only “quasi-effective” for older people? The figures, however, speak for themselves. A study by the UK Health Security Agency this week found that at least 20 weeks after being fully vaccinated with two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, effectiveness against symptomatic disease was 44%, while two weeks after receiving the booster dose, protection against symptomatic infection increased to 93 %

There appears to be a common theme running through the countries that are now toying with the idea of lockdowns in the post-jab era – and it is their comparatively low rates of vaccine take-up. Germany’s 67% vaccination rate is higher than in Austria, but not by much. In Saxony, just 58% of the population are fully vaccinated. Eastern European nations mistrustful of the state following communist rule also have hesitancy rates proportional to bed occupancy.

Britain’s total vaccination rate is no longer world-beating, but it is still relatively high. And on boosters we are doing well, with 24% having received a third dose – crucially focused on those most vulnerable to falling seriously ill from Covid. Yes, we wrongly delayed vaccinating children, but the truth is that while Boris Johnson has spoken of storm clouds gathering over the Continent, our hospital admissions, which have fluctuated at between 700 and 1,000 a day for nearly four months, now also seem to be starting to trend downwards as the boosters take effect. It was also, arguably, not unhelpful for people to have acquired immunity naturally during the summer and autumn months. As Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, put it: “The UK is now in a better position in terms of immunity than most of Europe because we’ve had a lot of infections and we’re now rolling out the booster jab.”

Of course, we must remain vigilant, since there is always a chance that a new Covid variant or a flu epidemic could once again overwhelm the NHS, which struggles to cope even in a normal winter. But it would be absolute madness to slavishly follow Europe down the path of yet more lockdowns. It was one thing to do it when the country was unvaccinated – but quite another to do it now. Moreover, the UK surely provides Europe with all the evidence it needs to realise that it is vaccinations – rather than passporting and mask-wearing, let alone lockdowns – that have reduced serious illness and hospitalisations? 

What is clear, as Europe heads for a “serious emergency” and a “terrible Christmas” is that their supposedly mitigating measures have not stopped the virus from spreading. So the time has surely come for our Continental cousins to accept that there isn’t much more they can do besides encouraging the minority of people who remain resistant to accept the jab. Had they followed Britain’s lead on vaccinations in the first place and not indulged in political attacks on the AstraZeneca jab – I doubt they would be needing to lock down again, or resort to making jabs mandatory, which many will view to be a breach of people’s right to choose.

There also needs to be a shift in thinking across the Channel. Thanks to more than 3 months free of restrictions, the British have gone someway towards once again accepting death as a consequence of life. Of course it is tragic that hundreds of people still die of Covid every day – but many of us have come to realise that Covid is likely to become endemic and that we cannot continue to live in fear.

It is perhaps worth remembering what the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said about this pandemic at the very beginning. “The great majority of people will not die from this,” he said during a Downing Street press conference on May 11, 2020. “A significant proportion of people will not get this virus at all … Of those who do, some of them will get the virus without even knowing it … Of those that get symptoms, the great majority, probably 80 per cent, will … not need to go to a doctor. An unfortunate minority will have to go as far as hospital, but the majority of those will just need oxygen and will then leave hospital. And then a minority of those will end up having to go to severe and critical care and some of those sadly will die. But that’s a minority – it’s 1 per cent or possibly even less than 1 per cent overall.”

That was long before anyone had even come up with a jab. It’s a sad statistic, but one the vaccinated majority can live with.

2. Will Europe’s 4th Covid wave hit the UK? With lockdowns announced in Austria and looming elsewhere, questions resurface as to why some countries have avoided another outbreak: Anne Gulland, The Telegraph

When the Prime Minister said he could see “storm clouds” gathering over parts of continental Europe, he wasn’t wrong. Europe is again at the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic with a new wave of infections that has swept in from the east now forcing lockdowns and pushing hospitals to the brink in parts of western Europe.

The new surge – which has hit German-speaking countries particularly hard – could lead to almost 450,000 additional deaths before February, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned earlier this month. Austria is battling one of its most severe outbreaks yet and on Thursday parts of its health system were coming under severe pressure. Hospitals in Salzburg and Upper Austria are overloaded and there were unconfirmed reports of corpses being stored in corridors. “You put dead corona patients in an airtight plastic bag, zip it shut, and that’s it,” an ICU nurse told the Austrian Press Agency.

Austria became the first European country to impose a nationwide lockdown on the unvaccinated earlier this week, affecting some two million people, and a full lockdown could be reimposed in Salzburg and Upper Austria from Monday.

“If there is no nationwide lockdown, Upper Austria and Salzburg will go into lockdown from next week,” said Thomas Steltzer, the regional chief minister for Upper Austria. “Today, we have another enormous development in numbers. We see no alternative to a lockdown beginning next week,” said Wilfried Haslauer, the regional chief minister of Salzburg.

Germany, which like Austria has pockets where vaccine rates are dangerously low, is also battling a surge in cases. Hospitals are struggling to find space for new patients, Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s national disease control centre, warned on Thursday. 

“We are currently heading toward a serious emergency,” Mr Wielers said. “We are going to have a really terrible Christmas if we don’t take countermeasures now.”

New wave

Europe’s fourth wave started in September in eastern Europe, where vaccine rates in many countries are spectacularly poor and few, if any, restrictions were in place. It has dramatically gathered pace in western Europe as colder weather has pushed people indoors in recent weeks, again hitting hardest where vaccine rates are low. 

Vaccine skepticism is driven by different factors, note experts. In eastern Europe, the legacy of communism has eroded trust in the state. And in German-speaking countries, trust in the healing power of nature – a “Birkenstock-ism” – is common and is thought to have slowed vaccine take-up in some areas. Saxony, once part of Soviet east Germany, has the lowest vaccination rate of all German states with just 57.6 per cent of the population being fully vaccinated.

But it is not only German-speaking countries that have been hit – or areas with low vaccination rates. The Netherlands, where 73 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated, last week imposed a partial lockdown after a surge in cases, with restaurants and pubs forced to close from 8pm and large events banned. Dutch virologists are now proposing extending school holidays over Christmas to slow infections among children. Infections in children aged five to nine jumped almost 85 per cent in the week to November 16. “Keeping primary schools closed for longer is an effective way to keep the virus under control,” immunologist Ger Rijkers told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper. “Children are virus factories and infect adults as well as each other.”

In France, Spain, Portugal and Italy cases remain low but are rising. Explanations for these lower rates vary: from the south of Europe benefiting from warmer weather for longer to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as vaccine passports and masks being more consistently deployed and adhered to. But perhaps most persuasive for Spain and Portugal are their high vaccination rates, which at over 80 per cent of the population, are far above those in the UK, Austria and Germany.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control puts the new wave down to the more transmissible delta variant, middling vaccination rates and a relaxation of social distancing measures in some European countries. It predicts that only countries with vaccination rates of over 80 per cent – such as Spain, Portugal and Malta – will escape pressures over winter. “These few countries are likely seeing very little waves with a very low impact in terms of hospitalisations and mortality,” it said.

A study by modellers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, published as a pre-print last week, calculates many countries in Europe could still face large waves of cases and hospitalisations, particularly among older people. Researchers looked at 19 countries and highlighted Austria, Finland, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and Slovenia as all having the potential to see more deaths and hospitalisations. They put this down to a combination of lower vaccination rates in older people, lower exposure to the virus in previous waves of the disease and older populations generally.

NHS stress

When Boris Johnson talked of storm clouds gathering over continental Europe last week he implied the UK could also be next. But most experts think this unlikely. Cases have been high here since the summer, with more than 14,000 Covid deaths recorded since Freedom Day on July 19. Hospital admissions, which have fluctuated at between 700 and 1,000 a day for nearly four months now, are also now starting to trend down as booster vaccines take effect. Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, believes that continental Europe is now behind the UK. “The UK is now in a better position in terms of immunity than most of Europe because we’ve had a lot of infections and we’re now rolling out the booster jab,” he said.

Restrictions in the form of vaccine passports and mask mandates are in place again in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but England remains restriction free. Most experts think this is only likely to change if a new variant of Covid or an epidemic of flu were to suddenly start to overwhelm hospitals.

Asked if he could foresee a situation in which the NHS became overwhelmed, Alastair McLellan, editor of the Health Service Journal, told The Telegraph: “We don’t live in a world where things are okay [in the NHS] and then there’s a crunch. We live in the crunch. We already have [ambulance] waiting times of nearly an hour for stroke and heart attack. The crunch has become normalised”.

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