Why is no-one talking about herd immunity?

At the start of the pandemic, it is generally accepted that Boris Johnson wanted to let the virus spread and form some kind of herd immunity amongst the population. It was only when it became apparent that this approach would overwhelm the hospitals and kill over a million that he made a sudden u-turn and introduced the first lock down. Ever since then, the phrase “herd immunity” seems to have been banished from the language of both politicians and scientists.

And yet, in the UK, herd immunity appears to be exactly what we are looking for. All restrictions have been removed and the virus numbers are really high. But because of vaccination, relatively few are getting really ill and dying. So long as this remains the case, politicians and epidemiologists seem happy to let Covid-19 spread. By doing so we are increasing immunity across the population, whether in children, where maybe 60% have now had Covid, or amongst vaccinated adults. In either case, every time someone gets ill, their immunity increases, and their chance of getting seriously ill decreases.

I think what we are really aiming towards is a situation where we all live with Covid. Children will be expected to catch it when young and it is a mild disease (think of chickenpox as an analogy). People will then catch it again a couple of times during their life but each time, natural immunity will mean it is not generally serious. If necessary vaccinations will top us up. Herd immunity will have been reached.

Personally I see only two problems with this approach. The first is that the rest of the world is not following it. Instead, tight lockdowns continue to be used. So will the UK become a plague state that everyone else is scared to visit? The second is that leaders are not being honest that this is our approach. They are terrified that when someone dies, they will be blamed for letting it happen. But if this is what they are doing they should be honest about it.

What do you think? Is herd immunity a goal worth aiming for, or should we go back to locking down the disease?

Have the jabs made you invincible?

Today marks a milestone for me. Two weeks after my second vaccination means that my immunity to Covid is about as high as it will get. My chance of getting the disease is much lower now, and even more importantly, the chance of me getting seriously ill and dying is very small. It makes me feel invincible.

Yesterday lunchtime Mandy and I felt invincible enough to go across the road for lunch at our local bistro. This new café opened at the start of last year and the owner, Kumar, was immediately faced with months of lockdown, and yet no reduction in costs for things like council tax and licensing. We have really wanted to support this local business but it is a small room and we were honestly scared, so yesterday was the first time. Kumar could not have been more welcoming. I had their oriental vegetarian burger, made with lentils, lemongrass and coriander and it was delicious. And maybe because we have both had two jabs/jags now, we did not feel nervous at all. Thanks Kumar.

I was reading this morning a report from the Bank of England, saying that the UK economy is growing rapidly as we have opened up again. That is good news and I guess we all need to put particular effort into supporting local businesses. Amazon has had quite enough of my trade this past year.

The other thing I should have been be getting excited about this week was our expected trip down to England with our narrowboat. We were meant to be leaving our marina on Tuesday for a little tour of the Scottish lowland canals, before lifting the boat out of the water near Glasgow, and taking it down south. Unfortunately Scottish Canals have a big problem this week with the main water feed into the Forth and Clyde canal, and all boat movements have been stopped. This is immensely frustrating because there is nothing we can do. Even being invincible is no help.

Grrrrrrr.

How are you feeling this week? Invincible? Frustrated? Excited?

Enjoy your weekend, Pete

Of the world population, what percentage lives in low-income countries?

I have been reading a book this week called “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling. It is a fascinating read because it uncovers many of the misconceptions we have about the world. For instance our brains love the simplicity of splitting the world into haves or have nots, rich and poor; while the truth is that most of the world is in the middle. We also tend to have a negative view of the world because we hear many more negative stories than positive ones. As Hans says, a journalist would not last long writing stories such as “plane does not crash” or “child does not die early”. And us slightly older people tend to romanticise our memories of youth, remembering the great days playing out, rather than the nights we went to bed hungry.

The really positive news in the book is that key measures across the world continue to get better. When you read the title of this blog, what percentage did you come up with? Typically people choose a number well over 50%. That was true until about 1990. But it has been decreasing from around 85% in 1800 and the decrease has accelerated. The figure today is around 9%. I have spent a lot of time in India over the past twenty years, and a common comment from me is that alongside the wealth you see so much poverty, But I realise now that comment is based on what I first saw. When I started visiting, around 40% of the Indian population were very poor. The figure today is more like 10%.

The book was written in 2017 so does not have as clear a view as we do today of climate change and the pandemic. Do they halt the progress in its tracks? No, but they are both catastrophic events. Global warming is too late to reverse and some of the same challenges to how we think stop us paying attention. Newspapers in the UK this week have had headlines about the hot weather, but all in a positive light. And the pandemic continues to cause larger numbers of excess deaths than we have seen for years. But if the stats from the UK and US are to be believed, vaccination can break the link between transmission and death, so I remain optimistic that in 12 months time we will have bounced back. And the underlying improvements in society we have seen will continue – less poverty, less hunger, more gender equality, cleaner and available energy, improved health.

There are a whole range of free online quizzes on this subject available at gapminder.org. Go and have a look. You may well find your view of the world needs an upgrade!

Have a positive weekend, Pete

Ten reasons to meet people again

I have been on a bit of a tour this week. From Scotland I drove down to Sheffield for a walk with my son, daughter in law and dog, and then on to Market Harborough for training courses in plumbing and electrics at the Narrowboat Skills Centre, Debdale Wharf, working in a classroom with four other students and an instructor. Since I was in England, I took the opportunity to meet up with a friend from when I was working, and I visited an aunt and her family. Both live relatively close to where I was training. I have eaten in restaurants and pubs. I have even been to a cinema. Then tonight I head on to stay with my Mum for the weekend. We talk most days, but as with my son, it will be the first time I have been with her in eighteen months.

With Simon at Hambleton, Rutland Water

I have to confess that after so long being generally isolated, it has felt very strange to be with people again – strange and a little scary. In some ways I would like to retreat back into my safe bubble at home. News from countries like India continues to be frightening. But there are good reasons to start meeting people again:

  1. Isolation is not great for my mental health. I know that everyone has reacted differently, but now is the time for me to come back blinking into the light.
  2. The economy needs growth. Forecasts are for a huge “bounce” in the second half of this year, but that will only happen if we get back to work and back to leisure activities.
  3. I need to relearn social skills. I have written in a previous blog that I have introvert and extravert traits. This last year has made me more introvert and now I need to get out there, or hide in a corner.
  4. There are many things I want to do in my retirement and I can’t do them if I am scared of being with other people.
  5. The vaccines work. Even where the faster spreading variants are prevalent, vaccinated people seem to be relatively safe from severe symptoms.
  6. Gossip is fun. I am not sure if you have found the same, but remote conversations lack nuance and body language, and so the “water cooler” gossip doesn’t happen the same way. I know it is naughty but we all like it!
  7. If not now, then when? I can’t wait for everything to get fully back to normal, because I think that may take decades.
  8. Teams work. Next week I am meeting a couple of fellow narrowboaters to see if we can travel the river Clyde together late in June. It is a big tidal river and frightening alone on a flat bottomed boat, but as a team we will all feel safer and can help each other.
  9. People are interesting. I have always been a people watcher. I love the ways we are all different and can learn from each other.
  10. I have really missed my friends and family. Zoom, FaceTime and Teams are great, but are not the same as being with people.

What about you? Have you sneaked out of lockdown to meet people, are you still prohibited, or like me are you now just beginning again?

Is there light at the end of the tunnel, or is that a narrowboat coming towards you?

I have been walking through a couple of canal tunnels this week. Some of the most exciting and scary times on a narrowboat are travelling through tunnels. Most canal tunnels have very little space around the boat profile. This is deliberate because when the canals were designed, the boats were pulled by horses, and the horses would not go through tunnels, so the boats were “legged” through by two strong men, lying on either side of the barge roof and using their legs to “walk” along the tunnel. These days we have engines and we have to steer 50-60 foot long boats through the tunnel with often less than a foot space on either side.

Falkirk Tunnel

There are two keys to success. Don’t be overconfident and don’t panic. Fluid mechanics give us a big advantage because the water being pushed either side of the boat as you travel through the tunnel, gives pressure to keep the boat away from the walls. But if you are overconfident and drive too fast, or if you panic and over-react to each boat movement, then before you know it, you are bouncing the boat off the walls side to side.

I wonder of there is an analogy. Here in the UK the Covid numbers have fallen right back. Deaths and hospitalisations are very low, since so many of the population are now vaccinated. Society is reopening, with shops, bars, gyms, cinemas now back or soon to be back. In a month or so we will be nearly normal. There is talk about Coronavirus treatment in pills taken at home next winter. It really feels that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

But two things could get in the way. One would be overconfidence. If we relax the rules too fast, give up on social distancing, refuse to self isolate, then it will be back. The other would be to panic. There are some horrible new variants out there, but the science is working and we can steer our way through this perilous tunnel.

Have wonderful weekend. Let me know hat you think.

Ten reasons to get the Vaccine

On Sunday my wife and I had our first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and it made me reflect on why we all should be vaccinated if we are able.

  1. It can save our lives. Admittedly, as an overweight mid fifties man, I am more at risk, but the evidence shows that the vaccines prevent near 100% of deaths from Covid-19, in all age groups.
  2. It will save other people’s lives. There is clear evidence now that the vaccines reduce the transmission of Covid from you to others and therefore helps stop the spread of disease to those that are not yet vaccinated.
  3. It protects the health service. Sadly we have seen some health services across the world come close to breaking down in recent weeks. In the UK, we got pretty close in January. None of us want to see people get sick and die without the support of doctors and nurses.
  4. Even for young adults, Long Covid is a real risk. The vaccine helps stop the disease and protects you against long term symptoms.
  5. The vaccine does not discriminate. Unfortunately the disease is more prevalent in some ethnic groups, The vaccine however, is effective for all. In Scotland, the biggest challenge with vaccine take-up is amongst Polish and some Black communities. We need to protect them too.
  6. It gives our children a future. Not only does the vaccine for adults mean that fewer children will lose their parents, but it means that they can have normal lives at school and with their friends. There has been more than enough damage in the past year.
  7. Any side effects are well worth it. My wife had no real side effects at all. I had a pretty bad 24 hours, with fever and muscular ache. But a day later I was feeling fine. And the benefits far outweigh any issues. If I got Covid it would be so much worse. If anyone is worried about the risk of getting blood clots for instance, the most likely way of getting a clot that will kill you is to catch Covid.
  8. The vaccines have been properly tested. Some people are suggesting that because the vaccines were approved in months rather than years, there is more risk. This is not true. No corners were cut. Instead, literally billions of pounds were spent accelerating the testing.
  9. All the vaccines work. In the UK we have Pfizer and AstraZeneca with millions and millions of jags now given safely. The other approved vaccines are also rolling out effectively – Moderna, Sputnik, Sinovac. I am looking forward to the new French vaccine Valneva being approved because it is manufactured a couple of miles from where I live. The evidence I have seen is that against hospitalisation and death, they all protect equally well.
  10. It is better than another lockdown. I have written before about how fed up we are all getting with the restrictions. We have a clear route map out now, but it can only happen with the extensive vaccine rollout.

I apologise for writing a preachy blog. I also apologise for winding up those that really want the vaccine and have not yet been offered it. But this is important. If you have been offered the vaccine, please take it up. I respect people who choose not to take up the vaccine. But I think they are mistaken.

And if you are not sure, rather than listening to internet guff (even this blog!) please talk to a healthcare professional.

Ten reasons life is sh*t. Ten reasons it isn’t

I can’t decide whether to be glass half full or glass half empty this week.

Let’s consider the facts. First looking at the bleak side:

  1. We have given up hope that the Scottish government will allow us to travel in March or April for the Orkney holiday we originally planned for January.
  2. My wife Mandy and I have not received a vaccine invitation, but our younger son, Tin, who is just 31 years old, has. No idea why.
  3. The sunny weather promised for this week has turned into low cold cloud. So much for spending time in the garden.
  4. The backup disk for my PC has failed, and the new one does not work.
  5. We bought 3 cubic metres of wood for the fire, and it will not burn.
  6. The heating is not working in our boat.
  7. My niece is going to have her first child in a few weeks, and we aren’t allowed to see her.
  8. Having spent several days last week trying to sort out funding for my Dad’s care home, I still do not know whether the council will allow him to stay in the one where he is now.
  9. The things I have been doing this week, such as painting and reading, are a waste of time.
  10. I am really missing the people contact I used to get at work.

Reframing these in a more positive way:

  1. We have rebooked Orkney for the whole of November. As with our original plan, this should be dark enough to catch the Aurora Borealis at least once.
  2. Our son is super lucky to get the vaccine early, and for Mandy and I it should be just a few weeks away. So close!
  3. Monday was a lovely day here and looking at the crocuses, spring is definitely coming.
  4. There are many reasons to hate Amazon, but if something doesn’t work, they replace it without quibble.
  5. I have 3 cubic metres of wood stacked neatly in my wood store, and by the autumn it will be perfectly seasoned.
  6. Pierre, the best narrowboat mechanic in Scotland, has promised to fix my heating this week, so I may be able to get back there at the weekend.
  7. All being well, the reopening of Scotland will allow me to travel up to Fife to see my niece and her new child very soon.
  8. Wiltshire council have agreed to pay for a bed for my Dad, and if his current care home does not have a “council bed” available, we can pay a top up. He will not have to move.
  9. The things I have been doing this week, such as painting and reading, are relaxing and good for my mental health. They are exactly the kinds of things I never had time for when I was at work.
  10. I am not missing at all being on constant zoom meetings. My time is my own.

What do you think? Half full or half empty?

How do you show respect to anti-vaxxers?

In the UK the rollout of vaccines has massively beaten expectations. About a third of all adults have now had at least one jab. I am looking forward to my own in the next few weeks. We are already seeing a reduction in hospital admissions and deaths supported by more vaccinated people as well as lockdown. This is allowing the rules to be eased, slowly but surely and I am sure we are all so looking forward to the time when we can get back to normal. Personally I am desperate to leave this house and travel again.

Photo by Reuters

But I still see articles and posts from people refusing to take the vaccine. Such articles usually receive very divisive and angry comments from both sides of the argument, shouting at each other about how stupid the other view is. Personally I strongly support vaccination, but I want to treat the other point of view with respect.

I realise there are different views but the argument against vaccination seems to summarise as:

  • It is my body and I get to decide what I put into it
  • It normally takes years to prove vaccines are safe. This has been rushed
  • I believe in my natural antibodies
  • There are many rumours about why government want us vaccinated. I do not trust them
  • I do not need to be vaccinated if others are

I do not agree with any of these but I have to respect that others do. The one thing I would say however, is that these arguments come from a point of view based on self rather than society. They do not take account sufficiently what a decision not to vaccinate means to others. If a large proportion of the population decides not to vaccinate, it puts the rest of us at risk. For this reason, once we have all been offered a jab, I support the idea of a vaccine passport for people who have been vaccinated, or who have a medical reason from their doctor as to why they should not vaccinate. Just as an individual has a right to choose whether to vaccinate, a business owner should have the right to choose whether to serve someone without such a passport. For instance if I ran an airline, or a sports venue, or a restaurant, I would want to ensure the maximum safety for my other customers.

This week, my 90 year old aunt is in hospital after a bad fall, and has caught Covid-19. Fortunately she was vaccinated a few weeks ago and her immune response appears to be fighting it off. So yes I am prejudiced. I am trying to be prejudiced with respect.

Am I missing something?

Is lockdown damaging your mental health?

A couple of things have made me reflect on my mental health this week. I read an excellent blog from someone managing depression. I won’t share it here because it is personal but it reflected on how difficult it is to balance taking ownership for solving mental health issues yourself, with the need to ask for help. The author is in the final year of university, with the stress of coursework and exams reinforced by demoralising rejections for job applications. That would be the same in any year, but layer on a lockdown when the opportunity to get out, get away and get support is more difficult, and depression looms all too easily.

The second thing is much more positive for me. For some reason this week I have had quite a few friends reaching out to check in. It is amazing how much difference it makes to receive a message asking how you are. I have certainly found this lockdown the hardest. I am not sure if that is because now I am retired, I do not have work to distract me; or if it is because vaccines make the end seem so close and so far at the same time. But the small contacts with friends have certainly helped. A lesson for me that I should make more effort to stay in touch. Not a strength for me!

My wife and I have been talking about what we do with our plans for this year. We were meant to be staying on Orkney for six weeks and then travelling the English canals in our narrowboat. Realistically the Scottish government seems to be saying it will be summer before we are allowed to travel. Perhaps we should see more of Scotland and postpone moving the boat. Or move it at the end of the season. We are just looking forward to the time we can make decisions without restrictions.

Has the lockdown affected your mental health too? If so, how are you managing it? I’d love a comment to hear from you.