Tuesday 16 March, 2021

Russia at the heart of British government

This comes to you fresh from the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

A Russian-owned company played a key role in the £2.6m renovation of No.9 Downing Street in an undisclosed contract to get it ready for White House-style televised media briefings, a source has told HuffPost UK.

According to the source, Megahertz carried out crucial work, including installing computers, cameras, microphones and a control desk, to get the building ready for briefings from Boris Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton.

In 2013, Megahertz was bought by the UK arm of Okno-TV – a Moscow-based firm that has carried out technical work for state-controlled broadcasters Russia Today, Channel One, and Public Television of Russia.

Most of Megahertz’s current shareholders are either current or former workers at the Russian firm, according to Companies House.

That’s the great thing about sovereignty: you can do your own thing without being shackled by Brussels red tape about competitive tendering and so on. I mean to say, under those old Brussels rules the UK would have had to put the job out to tender. And when Huawei came in with the lowest bid, they’d have to get the job, backdoor and all.

What’s going on with the AstraZeneca vaccine?

The Financial Times today reports that Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands suspended all use of the jab on Monday. They all described their actions as ‘precautionary’. At the same time the UK is steaming ahead with the vaccine.

The reason for the suspension seems to be a smallish number of people who suffered blood clots after having the jab. In Austria one person, under the age 50, was reported to have died with blood clots after receiving the shot. Denmark, Iceland and Norway halted AstraZeneca vaccinations altogether last week after further so-called thromboembolic events, including the death of one woman in Denmark. One Norwegian health worker has died and two have been hospitalised with what health authorities there called “rare clinical pictures” after taking the vaccine. Their symptoms included severe blood clots in both large and small blood vessels, low platelet counts and bleeding. Dutch authorities said 10 cases of problems, including possible thrombosis or embolisms, had been reported by people who had received the jab. Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, suspended all use of the shot on Monday.

These are all serious side-effects, obviously, but it seemed to me to be a surprising over-reaction, given the numbers of people who have already (like me) had the jab. But then, I’m no expert. On the other hand, a real expert — Penelope Ward, Penelope Ward, a professor of pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London — who has reviewed data collected by the UK medicines regulator, told the FT that “the number of reports of blood clots among recipients of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was still comparatively low”. In the UK, she went on,

“about 165 people a day might suffer a thrombotic episode, some of which will be fatal. In contrast, the number of reports from the ongoing vaccine programme in the UK and EU, which includes 20m individuals vaccinated to date, is just 37. By chance alone, at least 15,000 such events might have been expected from a population of that size.”

In a way, therefore, one could argue that the AstraZeneca vaccine has already had the biggest public study there’s ever been. So what’s going on in the EU?

Seeking enlightenment, I phoned a Dutch friend who has high-level experience of policy-making in the Netherlands. His view was that the decisions should be seen in the context of higher levels of vaccine hesitation and suspicion in Continental countries, together with the proliferation of anti-vaxx conspiracy theories and misinformation on social media and — not least — the fact that there’s a Dutch general election on March 17 in which there’s a serious prospect that a right-wing opposition populist party might come out on top.

In these circumstances, he argued, even if most public-health authorities actual believe that the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe, they think it would be dangerously counter-productive to appear to discount the side-effects issue out of hand. The days are over when a government minister or a senior medic in a white coat would get away with declaring that there was nothing much to worry about. (Which, in a way, is what British health authorities did those years ago when the dodgy claims about the MMR vaccine first surfaced.) In an age of social media, distrust of experts and erosion of deference taking such a stance would be wilfully counter-productive. Far better to be seen to be taking the doubts seriously, to await further examination and more data . In other words: be seen to be “putting public safety first”.

That sounds like a plausible argument to me. And, in a way, it’s corroborated By Derek Lowe, writing in Science Translational Medicine the other day.

It’s a mess. And it’s a mess that leads us right into the third problem, which is public confidence. The AZ/Oxford vaccine has been in trouble there since the day the first data came out. The efficacy numbers looked lower than the other vaccines that had reported by then, and as mentioned, the presentation of the data was really poorly handled and continued to be so for weeks. Now with these dosing suspensions, I have to wonder if this vaccine is ever going to lose the dark cloud it’s currently sitting under. Even if EU countries start dosing again in a few days, what are people going to think? And this fear and uncertainty can spill over into hesitancy for all the vaccines, of course, and that’s the last thing we need.

Let’s say, he concludes, that when the next set of figures about the vaccine come in

at a solid, inarguable 60%. You would want to see a higher number in a better world, but 60% is a damn sight better than not getting vaccinated at all. Which is effectively what a number of European countries have chosen to do instead. If I were living in one of those countries where the cases are heading right back up, I would bare my arm immediately for a 60% effective vaccine and hope that as many other people as possible did the same.


Quote of the Day

”Lady Capricorn, he understood, was still keeping open bed.”

  • Aldous Huxley, Chrome Yellow

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Máire Ní Ghradha (Uileann pipes) and Mick Daly (Guitar) | The Trip to Athlone and The Peacock’s Feather | Live | 1996


Wonderful piping. And tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day, after all.

Long Read of the Day

Far-right news sources on Facebook more engaging

We kind-of knew that right-wing sources on social media are much better at generating the ‘user engagement’ that tech platforms prize so highly, but this NYU study of 8.6 million posts provides an empirical confirmation of their ability to get people worked up.

In conclusion, we found that far-right sources receive considerably more engagement per follower than pages with other political leanings. Furthermore, far-right misinformation sources are the only ones that engage better with their followers than non-misinformation sources of the same partisanship as an aggregate. Which is why liberals are fighting a losing battle on these platforms.

Chris Clark’s tribute to Jonathan Steinberg…

… is now on the Cambridge History Faculty’s website. Chris is a great historian and was a good friend of Jonathan’s. His is a lovely, informed, generous memorial.

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