How serious is the Omicron variant? There is so little data that everything is informed conjecture — back of the envelope calculations with uncertainties so large that the same figures can be used to give succour or presage doom. Possibly here.
Good news: The drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline has said that its Covid-19 antibody treatment is shown to work against the Omicron variant.
Possibly great news: Omicron could turn out to be a “storm in a teacup” that has come and gone in a 2 weeks, according to the former head of the UK government’s vaccine task force. If the new variant is more infectious than Delta but causes less severe symptoms, it might be sensible to relax restrictions in the long term to allow Omicron to become dominant. However the government is right to be cautious until more was known.
Cosas de España/Galiza
Ell Pais tells us how to minimise the risk of getting Covid over Xmas. Basically, I guess, forget it’s Xmas.
The disgraced ex-king is back in the news, with tales of monies paid to another of his lovers. Three of Spain’s largest companies paid a former lover of Juan Carlos more than €5m (£4.2m) to prevent her from revealing their affair. And from exposing an explicit video.
Startling starlings up in Ferrol
Like Spain, now concentrating on the unvaccinated few.
I must be behind the times; my jaw dropped to read that Birmingham is rated one of the 22 best places in the world in which to live.
Social distancing UK-style . . .
Wow. . . Angela Merkel backs compulsory Covid jabs as Germany agrees de facto lockdown for the unvaccinated. The German chancellor said that people who aren’t vaccinated will be excluded from nonessential shops, as well as cultural and recreational venues. She called the measures an ‘act of national solidarity’. Perhaps unfortunate language for a German Chancellor
Two critical articles below, headed:-
– Von der Leyen’s threat of compulsory vaccinations is an ominous reminder of why we left the EU. Mandatory vaccinations are another example of the mission creep that has characterised the EU since its inception, and
– Europe’s omicron panic has left the Continent in a very dark place.
Probably not for convinced Remainers
Emmanuel Macron privately branded Boris Johnson a “clown” and a “knucklehead”. What took him so long?
The Way of the World
On Monday, the Royal College of Midwives published “safer sleep” guidance for those sharing a bed with their newborns and for helping them get to sleep. However, it made no reference to “women” or “mothers”, instead referring to “postnatal people”. The publication sparked a backlash on social media, and by yesterday morning the College had apologised for ‘erasing’ women and removed the guide from its website.
Dear Dog. . . Boris Johnson has criticised Facebook and other social media companies for letting people-smugglers advertise their services on their platforms.
Finally . . .
In Irish myth, man named Stinky Jack tricked the Devil. As punishment, Jack had to roam the earth for eternity. People carved turnips with demonic faces to scare away his soul. Irish immigrants to the USA used pumpkins and these became jack-o’-lanterns.
If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here.
1. Von der Leyen’s threat of compulsory vaccinations is an ominous reminder of why we left the EU- Mandatory vaccinations are another example of the mission creep that has characterised the EU since its inception: Ross Clark
European countries have been administering a life-saving vaccine which has been eagerly taken up by most people, but still 23 per cent of adults have declined to take it up — not, in most cases, because they have fallen for nutty conspiracy theories on the internet but because they are simply worried about potential side effects from a drug which they feel was rushed through the approvals process. What should those nations do? The answer, as far as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is concerned, is to force people under the syringe under pain of stiff fines.
If there ever was a course of action which is sure to turn more people against their state healthcare systems this is it: trying to force medical treatment on citizens. It is true that we do have some laws to protect people against their own actions, such as compulsory seatbelts and motorcycle helmets — neither of which I oppose. But trying to mandate medicines is a wholly different matter. When we submit ourselves to medical procedures — from accepting a vaccine to having open heart surgery — we are placing a huge amount of trust in doctors and pharmaceutical companies which offer the treatment. You don’t have to be much of a libertarian to see how that trust is going to be damaged if treatment is forced on us.
What is wrong with appealing to our sense of reason? There is much more data available on vaccination effects and side effects now than there was when vaccination programmes began a year ago. We can quantify the risks of having a vaccine — and the counter-risks of not. A government which wanted to boost confidence in vaccination would present that evidence, clearly and without hectoring us, and then let people make up their minds — rather than forcing people to accept it. The use of fines to enforce vaccination is doubly objectionable because it is the poor who will be deprived of the agency to make decisions over their own bodies – while the wealthy will be able to afford to resist.
Von der Leyen, of course, is not the leader of a government, which makes her intervention especially troubling. She knows full well — and admitted as such – that vaccination programmes remain outside the competence of the European Commission. Yet she tries to expand her powers regardless. “It is not for me to make such a recommendation,” she said — just after telling us “how we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union, this needs discussion. This needs a common approach.” In other words, she is leaning on member states to join Austria and Greece in fining people who refuse the vaccine.
It is an example of the arrogance and mission creep that has characterised the EU since its inception. Yes, of course member states are sovereign, and can make their own decisions, the likes of von der Leyen are apt to say — until, that is, suddenly they are not. Time and time again the bloc has bypassed discussion and moved straight to diktat, on the usual pretext that the EU “needs a common approach”.
But why does the EU need a common approach on persuading citizens to have a Covid vaccination? Countries have very different histories which goes some way to explaining differences in vaccine uptake. As a former doctor practicing in Germany von der Leyen will know very well that suspicion of pharmaceutical-heavy healthcare runs very deep in the country, on the left as well as the right, for obvious historical reasons. Selling a state vaccination programme to the public there is very different from doing so in Spain and Italy, where vaccination rates are significantly higher.
Our own government, at least, can now be sure of being able to take its own approach to vaccination. Indeed, it has won many plaudits for its approach, and vaccines have been taken up very eagerly by most adults – albeit with a bit of persuading to do in some communities. It would have been a very different matter, I feel, had Ursula von der Leyen the power to command us to the sharp end of her syringe.
2. Europe’s omicron panic has left the Continent in a very dark place. Britain has become the new Sweden as other governments race to implement tough policies.
It may be tempting fate to say it, but Britain is perhaps the best place in Europe to spend this Christmas. Bavaria’s winter markets have closed, France’s bistros won’t let anyone in without a pass sanitaire, Belgium has banned private parties and Ireland’s pubs are all under curfew. But in Britain, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated can walk, work, eat and drink where they like. Unless the omicron variant changes everything, we may well see in the New Year having overcome the virus and upheld the basic values of liberty.
Things are rather different in Germany, where hospitals are filling up and the government is planning to lock down the unvaccinated. Olaf Scholz, the incoming chancellor, favours making vaccinations compulsory and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, is suggesting that all 27 EU members consider doing the same. Freedom should not mean freedom to infect others, runs the fairly clear argument. So it’s time for governments to take back control.
This would be an easier argument if science backed it up, but studies so far make this a hard case to defend. Vaccines offer strong protection against serious illness but no guarantee against either acquiring the virus or passing it on. This makes it impossible to declare that a restaurant full of jabbed diners is “safe”. The no-jab, no-job argument also comes up against the case of the unjabbed who have had the virus. An Israeli study of 750,000 people showed that natural immunity was far stronger than vaccine-acquired immunity. So, on what grounds can someone with post-recovery immunity be fired?
In France, vaccine passports have had some success in narrowing the uptake gap between young and old. But in Scotland they have proved a flop, with vaccination rates rising no faster than those in England after Nicola Sturgeon’s scheme was announced. Anyone proposing to make life harder for the unjabbed also needs to be honest about who they tend to be: ethnic minorities, the poor and the otherwise-marginalised.
The unvaccinated that Angela Merkel is now squaring up against, in her final act as chancellor, are far more likely to live in her old East Germany where Alternative for Germany (AfD), the populists, are strongest. One poll found that half of unvaccinated Germans voted AfD in the recent election. This fits a trend. Across Europe, the anti-lockdown cause has tended to be picked up by Eurosceptic populists who find blunt ways of making their objections known. This has complicated the debate, with politicians often seeing the face of their political opponents in the various protests.
The arrival of booster jabs makes the idea of compulsion harder still: if top-ups are needed every three to six months, how will this affect vaccine passports? Will people have to receive every top-up for the ongoing right to enjoy their liberty? Otto Schily, a minister in Gerhard Schröder’s government, yesterday pointed out that even Communist China isn’t considering mandatory vaccines. So where, he asked, will Merkel’s idea lead? Will Mr Scholz now yield to the activist lawyers advocating prison sentences for vaccine refuseniks?
The politics of all this is just as divisive in Italy, now in its 19th consecutive week of anti-restriction protests. Next week, it will bring in a “super green pass” where a negative test is no longer enough. Austria will start issuing fines for the unvaccinated from February, as Greece will do next month (but only for pensioners). Even Sweden, having defied the world for so long by rejecting mask-wearing and lockdowns, has now succumbed to vaccine passports. Britain is starting to look like the new Sweden: keeping calm and carrying on.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, has flatly ruled out compulsory vaccination, seeing it as not just illiberal but counterproductive. “If you make the vaccine attractive, people will want it,” says one senior official. “If we start to threaten people, it all changes very quickly.” Right now, Britain has face masks on public transport. And non-binding advice from one minister to go easy on “snogging under the mistletoe”. And, so far, not much else.
This shows Javid’s difference in style. Rather than leaping to worst-case hypotheticals, he’s keeping his eye on the data – and they show virus levels still under control. Among pensioners, vaccine uptake is 93 per cent and antibody levels are at 98 per cent: figures unlikely to be pushed much higher by restrictions. The omicron variant could put everything back to square one – and if so, there are no end of emergency buttons to press. But so far, there is no cause for alarm.
Javid and others took plenty of political heat in the summer when they ended lockdown. The idea then was to face whatever Covid had in store when the health service was better able to take it – and specifically to be ready for winter. That’s why there is such reluctance to follow the rest of Europe into lockdown now. Why take the hit on the economy and the health service in anticipation of a variant that might not be so bad?
Prof Philip Thomas, who predicted the third wave with modelling for Bristol University, envisages Covid steadily petering out over the next few weeks. Omicron has not (yet) changed his mind. Against this come studies – one from South Africa yesterday – saying there’s a decent chance that omicron has “substantial” ability to reinfect. It will be weeks, most likely, until anything is known for sure.
Nothing is ever certain with Covid, and bumps (like yesterday’s case spike) are a reminder of how quickly things might change. Inside No 10, there are plenty of people ready to reach for vaccine passports, given half an excuse. But even Sturgeon had to give up on her plan to roll them out when the evidence showed they didn’t work. There are plenty in Government who think ending lockdown in summer did enough to “save Christmas” and don’t want it imperilled now.
Last time around, Britain locked down longer and harder than anyone else in Europe. This time, Javid’s instinct is the opposite: not to jump too soon, trust the boosters and see what happens. Quite a gamble. But this time, it’s one the Government is willing to take.