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Matt Hancock’s “scientifically valid” answers

Yesterday evening Matt Hancock was behind the lectern for the latest of Her Majesty’s Government’s Covid-19 “daily briefings”. Here’s a recording of the whole show:

There follows our edited highlights. First of all note that at around 5:00 into the video Matt says:

Building on successful pilots, we’ll be rolling out testing of asymptomatic residents and staff in care homes in England and to patients and staff in the NHS. This will mean that anyone who is working or living in a care home will be able to get access to a test whether they have symptoms or not. I’m determined to do everything I can to protect the most vulnerable and we now have the capacity to go further still. So from now, we’re making testing available to all over 65s and their households with symptoms and to all workers who would have to leave home in order to go to work and members of their households, again, who have symptoms. So from construction workers to emergency plumbers, from research scientists to those in manufacturing. The expansion of access to testing will protect the most vulnerable and help keep people safe and it’s possible because we’ve expanded capacity for testing thus far.

However he doesn’t go so far as to commit to a time scale for that “roll out”! Allegedly front line NHS staff are having problems getting tested, so when will the necessary extra testing capacity for OAPs and care workers be rolled out? Matt didn’t say.

We have previously mentioned the New Scientist’s coverage of the coronavirus crisis, and their chief reporter Adam Vaughan asked the final question of the evening at ~56:15:

Hi, you said you were recruiting 18,000 contact tracers. I wanted to ask, how many do you have today, what date will you hit 18,000 and how important are those tracers as a strategy for controlling the virus after the lockdown? And secondly, we heard today that the NHS contact tracing out where will be ready within three weeks. What’s your goal for the number of people you want to download it and how will you incentivise them to do so?

After a brief(ish) hesitation Matt answered as follows:

I knew we’d get some tough questions from the New Scientist! The answer to your questions are as soon as possible and as many as possible. But I know that’s not exactly a numerical answer. We’re recruiting the contact tracers. I’m sorry I don’t have the information to hand as to exactly how many we’ve recruited, but that is underway. We hope to have the contact tracers who will help when we find a positive test to work out who they’ve been in contact with and make sure they do the appropriate thing. We hope to have the contact tracers in place before or at the same as the app goes live and you’re right on the app.

We’re expecting that to be ready by the middle of May and both of these things together, because they work together along with the testing and they’ll help us to keep the level of new cases down once we’ve used social distancing measures to get those new cases down. That’s the best thing for health and it’s the best thing for the economy. It’s a work in progress. I appreciate that, other than saying the middle of May, I haven’t given you numerical details. I don’t have the data to hand, but I’ll try to find that for you. And then on the how many people, the more people who download the app and keep their Bluetooth on, the more effective the app is going to be.

So there is no answer other than as many as possible because if everybody downloads it will just be more effective at spotting who people have been in contact with through contact tracing and helping alongside the human contact tracing for people to be able to keep the R down by catching those who they may have transmitted the disease to. It’s also of course tied with the rules around isolation because if you are … What really also matters is if you’ve been in substantial contact with somebody who’s tested positive, making sure we get the right rules around what that person is then required and asked to do is also a critical part of this, this infrastructure that we’re building.

It seems Adam wasn’t entirely happy with that answer, so he asked a supplementary question:

From what you’ve just said, you said that the human contact traces and the app will work in tandem, and you’re saying if the app is coming in three weeks, does that mean the target for the 18,000 is in three weeks?

Mr. Hancock retorted, quick as a flash:

Before or at the same time as the app. Yeah.

Okay. Good stuff. Thank you very much indeed. Great to have the New Scientist at the Downing Street briefing and I hope my answer was scientifically valid. Thank you very much for joining us and no doubt see you again soon.

I paraphrase the Health Minister’s words only slightly:

“I know that’s not exactly a numerical or a scientific set of answers.”

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Wear homemade masks when you venture outdoors

The Guardian repeats today what we have been saying for quite some time:

The public should wear homemade masks when they venture outdoors to help reduce the spread of coronavirus, according to scientists who claim Britain’s masks policy does too little to prevent infections.

Prof Sian Griffiths, who led the Hong Kong government’s investigation into the 2003 Sars epidemic, said Britain should adopt the same approach as the US, where people are advised to make their own “cloth face coverings” and wear them in public spaces.

Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care health sciences at Oxford University who recently completed a review on face masks, also advocated the use of masks in public and suggested an old T-shirt combined with kitchen paper would suffice.

The Guardian has some suggestions on how to make your own face mask, as indeed do we. Take a look here.

However some would have you believe that wearing a face mask is not such a great idea. The New Scientist for example. According to Jessica Hamzelou in a possibly paywalled article:

As cases of covid-19 continue to rise, many people are choosing to wear a face mask when out in public – but do they work?

Some have also been using cloth face coverings, but these aren’t up to the job, says Raina MacIntyre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

In 2015, MacIntyre and her colleagues ran a clinical trial pitting cloth masks against medical ones. The team provided 1607 healthcare workers at 14 hospitals in Hanoi, Vietnam, with either disposable medical masks or reusable cloth ones, which could be washed at home at the end of the day they were worn. Those that wore cloth masks were significantly more likely to catch a virus, the team found.

It seems that I need to point out to Jessica that just because an academic study finds that DIY masks aren’t as effective as pukka medical masks that doesn’t mean that they are useless. She continues:

But what about the rest of us? In an attempt to answer this question, Paul Hunter at the University of East Anglia, UK, and his colleagues looked at 31 published studies on the efficacy of face masks.

Overall, the evidence suggests there may be a small benefit to wearing some kind of face covering. They do seem to prevent sick people from spreading the virus, but the evidence is weak and inconsistent, says Hunter.

“Our view is that there was some evidence of a degree of protection, but it wasn’t great,” he says. “So we still don’t effectively know if face masks in the community work.”

It seems masks “prevent sick people from spreading the virus”. You can spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus before you show any symptoms, so wear a mask to prevent other people possibly catching your bugs!

Scientists say so, and somewhat grudgingly so does the New Scientist. In the current climate I wouldn’t go out in a public place without one: