Richard North, 20/12/2021  

I don't suppose that it particularly helps the case for lockdown restrictions over the Christmas period to have the Guardian publish a photograph of what appears to be a convivial social gathering in the Downing Street garden and terrace on 15 May 2020.

The insert (pictured) shows Johnson and (then) girlfriend with newly-minted sprog, together with Cummings very much at ease with glass of wine in hand, along with an unnamed person. A cheese board is in evidence and, altogether, there are 19 persons (not including sprog) enjoying cheese and wine in the spring sunshine.

This was at the height of the Covid lockdown when social mixing between different households was limited to two people, who could only meet outdoors and at a distance of at least 2 metres. In workplaces, according to then current guidance, in-person meetings were limited to those which were "absolutely necessary", with social distancing maintained.

Altogether, it is claimed that about 20 staff drank wine and spirits and ate pizza following a press conference on the day, some in offices inside No 10 and others going into the garden. Some staff, we are told, stayed drinking until late into the evening, they alleged. Sources describe the event as having a "celebratory" feel given the initial loosening of some restrictions and the good weather in London that day.

Downing Street insists that the photograph shows colleagues having work meetings, which, given the hours involved, sometimes included drinks, and were not against the then regulations.

The Guardian invites the "watching public" to make up their own minds as to whether to accept the official explanation that this was purely a work event. For many, it muses, "this could feel like quite a leap of faith".

With a suspicion that there is more to come on the "Partygate" front, this picture reinforces the widely-held view that there is an "us and them" regime prevailing in this country, where the rules apply only to the plebs, leaving the political elites to pick and choose what they apply to themselves.

The emergence of evidence confirming their disdain for the rules has very much soured the debate on Covid restrictions and is undoubtedly responsible for the rebellious mood which is emerging, a mood which cannot help but be strengthened by the increasing indications that the "experts" have lost the plot over the omicron variant.

Perversely, it is the Guardian - the self-same paper which is stoking the fires of discontent – which is pushing the panic button hardest, retailing the SAGE view that the daily number of infections could reach between 600,000 and 2 million by the end of the month if new restrictions are not brought in immediately.

It also retails the view of the government's SPI-M-O group, which reports to SAGE. This has warned that, based on their modelling, hospitalisations could peak between 3,000 and 10,000 a day and deaths at between 600 and 6,000 a day.

These projections are nothing more than unfounded speculation, dressed up in the veneer of science, and reflect the consensus SAGE line that there is "no evidence" that omicron is less severe than the delta strain.

This finding is supposedly based on a report from Imperial College, dated 16 December, but the main comment in this respect is confined to a single sentence which states that: "Hospitalisation and asymptomatic infection indicators were not significantly associated with Omicron infection, suggesting at most limited changes in severity compared with Delta".

However, while the report then goes on to elaborate, saying that: "We find no evidence (for both risk of hospitalisation attendance and symptom status) of Omicron having different severity from Delta", it does concede that "data on hospitalisations are still very limited". But then, unstated in media reports, we see the qualification:
There are several limitations of this analysis. While case numbers are increasing quickly, there are still limits in our ability to examine interactions between the variables considered. The distribution of Omicron differed markedly from Delta across the English population at the time this analysis was conducted, likely due to the population groups in which it was initially seeded, which increases the risks of confounding in analyses.
Yet, despite this, the report asserts that, "Our analysis reinforces the still emerging but increasingly clear picture that Omicron poses an immediate and substantial threat to public health in England and more widely".

In fact, the report does no such thing. Furthermore, it is a very long way from substantiating any claim that there is "no evidence" of differences in severity, and even when we read the detail of the media reports (such as the FT report sited), all we see is the assertion that the report "casts doubt on the hopes of some experts, based on reports from medics in South Africa, that a change in the virulence of the new variant would limit pressure on health systems".

In fact, the South African work did constitute evidence of a milder variant emerging and, while the findings were equivocal and not necessarily directly comparable with the situation in the UK, they nevertheless do constitute evidence – a building block on which to work, as we increase our knowledge of the new variant.

Now, it appears, courtesy of the Telegraph, there is another strand of evidence on which to work, coming from an analysis of omicron figures from South Northamptonshire – which has been a "hotspot" of the new variant.

According to data collected by the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the area was one of the first areas to suffer a cluster of cases, with more than 926 cases per 100,000 people - the highest in the country. However, the hospital admission rate at the Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust is not experiencing a similar surge.

As of December 12, its rolling admissions rate was steady at about 11 percent of the January peak, broadly matching those trends of high cases but lower admissions seen in South Africa.

The area, we are told, is helped by very high vaccination rates - 83 percent of people have had a second jab and 50 percent have had a booster, compared to the national average of 40 percent. Furthermore, vaccination rates are particularly high amongst the over-60s and illness has started to decline in this age group.

Notably, the Guardian does not repeat this news, but instead offers a stern editorial declaring that: "The science is clear: the case for more Covid restrictions is overwhelming". Without hard and swift action to curb transmission, the paper says, "the NHS faces a battering".

So far, the politician have yet to decide whether to impose pre-Christmas restrictions, but there is room here for an optimistic scenario. If omicron is displacing previous variants, which it appears to be doing, and turns out to be less virulent, then we can expect a significant decline on hospital admission rates. On top of that, there are early indications that the length of stay for patients treated in ICUs is shortened.

Far from the panic stations that we are currently getting from (some of) the media, therefore, there actually some cause for hope. If this epidemic is eventually to fizzle out (as epidemics always do), this is how it happens.

Significantly, we have The Times reporting that at least ten cabinet ministers are questioning the SAGE modelling on the omicron surge, which suggests that the modelling bubble may be about to burst – and not before it's time.

Perhaps there is something good to come out of all this, especially if the junk modelling on climate change is also ditched and we can return to something approximating real science, leaving the modelling to Airfix.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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