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As the national statisticians found that the prevalence of Covid-19 cases rose to 1 in 65 people in the week to 24 July, Professor Stephen Reicher of St Andrew’s University warned the ONS findings suggest that the recent drop in infections shown in Public Health England’s daily “findings are due to changes in testing behaviour”.
Meanwhile, lawyers are expecting a wave of legal action against UK companies over attempts to make sure staff are double-vaccinated against Covid, amid growing fears of draconian “no jab, no job” policies in the workplace.
Using NHS app for vaccine passports an ‘abuse of democracy’, Lib Dem leader says
Sir Ed Davey has accused the government of an “abuse of democracy” by making changes to the NHS app to allow it to double up as an electronic vaccine passport – while parliament is in recess.
“We’ve all agreed that for international travel you’ll need to have Covid options,” the Lib Dem leader said, “but domestically, sort of Covid ID cards … this would be a real attack on people’s freedoms and particularly hit businesses and young people – it is unworkable, it is expensive and it is divisive.
“That’s why the government haven’t gone ahead with it previously. Now we hear, in the recess when parliament can’t debate it, they’ve by stealth changed the rules so your NHS app could be used as a Covid ID card across venues.
“That’s completely wrong, it is undemocratic, they are not being held accountable to it, so Liberal Democrats are saying, given that serious undermining of civil liberties without any debate in parliament, parliament should be recalled.”
He added: “Frankly, this government has given everybody many reasons, time and time again not to trust them. I do not trust Boris Johnson, I do not trust his ministers and we will watch them like hawks, and we will come down on them – that’s what we are doing now.
“… It is an abuse of democracy, it is an abuse of power and it threatens taking people’s freedoms away and stigmatising young people, hitting businesses – that is not acceptable.”
Union urges reprieve for furlough scheme, as Rishi Sunak cuts payments
As employers brace for a cut in government support for furloughed workers, chancellor Rishi Sunak is facing union demands to keep on the scheme beyond its planned conclusion at the end of September, our political editor Andrew Woodcock reports.
From Sunday, government support for staff unable to work because of coronavirus will be cut from 70 to 60 per cent of wages, with employers expected to top them up to 80 per cent, up to a maximum of £2,500.
The move has prompted fears that some of the estimated 1.9m workers still receiving furlough payments will be made redundant, as employers respond to the demand to contribute more towards the salary bill without necessarily getting any additional economic activity.
Almost 2m jobs still supported by emergency scheme, due to close at end of September
Despite some scientists finding worrying takeaways from the ONS data, the overriding message seems to be that further data is still needed before definite conclusions can be drawn.
Prof Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia, said: “The important point to point out is that the ONS survey largely covers a period prior to the decline in cases, especially as this is a prevalence survey and people can be positive for some time after acquiring their infection.
“We will have to wait till next week before we can see any indication of the recent decline in cases. Generally changes in ONS data lag about 2 weeks behind daily cases data.”
And Professor Steven Riley of Imperial College London told The Guardian: “Cases are volatile at the moment, so [it is] not good to over-interpret short periods of time,”
“I’m thinking about the next three months in two halves. There are quite a few reasons [why] prevalence will remain stable or in decline up to the start of September, but then the return of schools, increased workplace mixing, bad weather and a genuine attempt at ‘return to normal’ behaviour will bring upwards pressure.”
Dr Daniel Howdon of the University of Leeds said: “It is important to distinguish between the number of people currently testing positive and the number of new infections.
“Given that some people continue to test positive for long periods of time after an initial infection, the number of people testing positive can continue to rise while the number of new infections falls – this is a particularly important distinction to make when we observe sharp recent large spikes in cases.
“It is worth noting that while the ONS provide estimates for the number of people testing positive up to the week ending 24 July, due to methodological difficulties in accurately estimating recent new infections, figures for the latter are only presented up to week ending 10 July.
“This was the day before the European Championship final, an event that plausibly caused the most recent large increase in cases, and the effects of which will be visible in ONS incidence estimates published next week.”
Daily government figures ‘currently a worthless guide to what is happening’, expert says
Following the Office for National Statistics’ study suggesting higher case rates than the daily testing figures reported by Public Health, a number of scientists have suggested that the recent drop in reported Covid cases is not an accurate indication of the virus’s true prevalence.
Professor Stephen Reicher says the ONS findings echo with those of the King’s College London ZOE app study of around 60,000 new infections per day, and suggest the recent drop in reported daily cases “are due to changes in testing behaviour”.
Prof James Naismith of the University of Oxford went further, suggesting that the figures reported daily by the government “are currently a worthless guide to what is happening”.
“The test positive daily data showed the beginning of a sharp drop in positive cases, we can now say this is not an accurate description of where things are,” Prof Naismith said, also pointing to the ZOE app study.
“Thus the breathless commentaries and confident predictions based on these data are misleading the general public.”
Calculating that the ONS numbers indicate around 60,000 new daily infections in the period studied, he added: “We are back to our old problem, around half the infected people are not being identified. I am not qualified to offer an explanation as to why the daily test numbers lost track of the infection at the moment (they will recover I am sure).”
Still ‘too early to say’ whether Covid wave abating in England, ONS says
The most recent statistics from the Office for National Statistics – based on swabs collected from randomly chosen households across England – suggest that 1 in 65 people had the virus in the week to 24 July, a rise from 1 in 75 the previous week.
According to the government’s dashboard, the number of daily reported infections, collated by Public Health England, spiked at 60,665 on 15 July, before falling to a low of 22,380 on 24 July.
Duncan Cook, the deputy director of the ONS study, said: “These new official statistics do not reflect the recent dip in the daily testing figures in England, so it’s important to understand the differences between the two sources. Our survey tests a large randomised sample of the population and provides an independent estimate of infections in the wider community.
“It’s notable that around 40 per cent of positive tests in the ONS study are from people who show no symptoms of infection. This group is therefore less likely to show up in the daily figures.”
However, Cook said it would take time before the trends became clear. “Together with our partners across the UK we will continue to investigate whether the current wave of infections is stabilising or not. On that it remains too early to say,” he said.
Seven test and trace executives paid more than health department’s top civil servant
Amid an ongoing row in the NHS over staff pay, with nurses confirming they will take strike action over the government’s proposed 3 per cent pay rise, it has been reported that seven executives working on the Test and Trace programme were paid more than the Department of Health’s (DHSC) most senior civil servant.
Each of the individuals took home salaries of at least £200,000 – £30,000 more than the DHSC permanent secretary Sir Chris Wormald, according to the Health Service Journal.
Revelation comes amid ongoing row over NHS staff pay
So just how likely is it that some employers could introduce “no jab, no job” policies?
Transport secretary Grant Shapps has said it is a “good idea” for companies to insist staff are double-jabbed – leading trade unions to criticise the government for encouraging the idea of mandatory vaccination for office staff.
Tech giant Google has said mandatory jabs for US employees will later be rolled out to staff in 40 countries where it operates, and Mr Shapps said he expected some British firms will also soon “require” full vaccination.
‘No jab, no job’ policies set to spark deluge of employment tribunals, lawyers warn
Employment lawyers have told The Independent that British companies have been in touch to explore their options on putting Covid vaccination requirements in place.
“We’re definitely going to see a lot of employment tribunals on this,” said Elissa Thursfield, head of employment lawyer and a director at Gamlins Law – predicting a wave of vaccine-related discrimination claims in the months ahead.
My colleague Adam Forrest has the full story here:
Unions lead backlash after minister claims ‘good idea’ for companies to insist staff are double-jabbed
Good morning, and welcome to The Independent’s live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. You can follow here for rolling updates on the latest news and statistics.