UK COVID-19 Update: 1.7 million Added to Shielding List, Antibodies Increase in Vaccinated Over-80s

Peter Russell

February 16, 2021

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

An Extra 1.7 million Added to Shielding List in England

Up to 1.7 million more people will be added to the shielding list in England after more adults were identified as at serious risk from COVID-19.

Over 800,000 adults will now be prioritised to receive a vaccine as part of the current vaccination cohorts, the Department of Health and Social Care said.

The move followed introduction of new technology which analyses a combination of risk factors to assess whether an individual might be more vulnerable than was previously thought.

The research, commissioned by Prof Chris Whitty, England's Chief Medical Officer, and funded by the National Institute of Health Research, found that health and personal factors, such as age, ethnicity, and BMI, as well as certain medical conditions and treatments, could combine to increase risk from COVID-19.

Those patients identified are expected to receive a letter from NHS England over the next few days with advice on precautionary measures and inviting them to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible if they have not already received one.

A spokesperson for the Royal College of Physicians said: "The adoption of this risk-assessment model by the NHS will play an important role in supporting clinicians and patients with conversations about COVID-19 and enable decisions to be made with a greater understanding of personal risk.

"As with all research during the pandemic, we are constantly learning and so can continue to further enhance the model as data becomes available."

The predictive tool, called QCovid, was developed by Prof Julia Hippisley-Cox from the University of Oxford in partnership with collaborators across the UK. NHS Digital used the model to develop a population risk assessment.

Dr Jenny Harries, England's deputy chief medical officer, said: "This new model is a tribute to our health and technology researchers."

Vaccinated Over-80s Show Growth in SARS-CoV-2 Antibodies

People in the community aged 80 and over in England have the highest proportion of people testing positive for antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus compared with other age groups.

Analysts at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said it was "most likely due to the high vaccination rate in this group".

ONS figures showed that 40.9% of people in the 80 plus age category tested positive for antibodies in the 28 days up to February 1.

That compared with 25.7% in the last infection survey a fortnight ago.

The next age group most likely to have antibodies against the virus in England were people aged 16 to 24, where the figure was 25.9%. The percentage only increased a small amount from the 21.3% two weeks ago, most likely due to this age group not being part of the current vaccination programme.

People aged 16 to 24 in Wales and Scotland were more likely to test positive for antibodies, while those aged 25 to 34 were more likely to test positive in Northern Ireland.

Overall, among people aged 16 and older in the UK, statisticians estimated antibody levels in the 28 days up to February 1 were:

  • 18.5% in England

  • 14.4% in Wales

  • 13.6% in Northern Ireland

  • 11.7% in Scotland

The ONS said there was a higher degree of uncertainty in the figures for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland due to a lower number of samples, compared to England.

Esther Sutherland, principal statistician for the COVID-19 Infection Survey said: "Antibody positivity rates have increased across all four nations and the effects of the vaccination programmes have begun to appear, especially in the older age groups."

Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at The Open University, commented to the Science Media Centre: "In next month’s antibody data, we should see the percentages with antibodies in the slightly younger age groups increasing a lot, and the antibody prevalence will continue to move down the age scale as vaccinations are given to more and more younger people."

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, noted that it was "not possible to separate antibodies produced in response to vaccination, from those which have been induced by infection".

Phased Reopening of Schools in Scotland

The youngest schoolchildren in Scotland will be allowed back to their classrooms next week, the First Minister announced this afternoon.

Nicola Sturgeon said the move will mean all children in P1 to P3 and those at pre-school returning from Monday February 22.

She told the Scottish Parliament that she hoped to announce a second phase of school reopening in two weeks' time, with the ambition of getting more pupils back to school later in March.

Ms Sturgeon urged parents not to treat Monday's "milestone" as a return to normality, warning that "if the return to school leads to more contacts between adults over the next few weeks, transmission of the virus will quickly rise again" and "jeopardise our ability to sustain even this limited return, and it will make it much less likely that we can get more pupils back soon".

The Scottish Government was planning to publish next week a strategic framework setting out how the country might emerge from lockdown.

In the meantime, Ms Sturgeon said: "We are very likely to advise against booking Easter holidays, either overseas or within Scotland, as it is highly unlikely that we will have been able to fully open hotels or self-catering accommodation by then.

"However, for the summer, while it is still highly unlikely that overseas holidays will be possible or advisable, staycations might be, but this will depend on the data nearer the time."

Deaths from COVID-19

A total of 7320 deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending February 5 mentioned COVID-19 on the death certificate, a decrease of 1113 (13%) on the previous week, official figures showed.

Of those, 6521 had this recorded as the underlying cause of death (89.1%), the Office for National Statistics said.

In Week 5, deaths involving COVID-19 accounted for 42.6% of all deaths in England and Wales, the third highest recorded during the pandemic.

Deaths involving COVID-19 declined in all regions, with South East England registering the largest decrease.

In today's daily data another 10,625 UK positive tests were reported and 799 deaths.

Another 1487 COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospital. The total is now 21,001 and 2805 ventilator beds are in use.

As of yesterday, 15,576,107 people have had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 546,165 a second dose.

New SARS-CoV-2 Variant Found in UK

Scientists have discovered a new variant of SARS CoV-2 in the UK.

The new variant, VUI202102/03, features a specific set of mutations which are currently referred to as lineage B.1.525, Public Health England (PHE) said.

The set of mutations includes the E484K spike protein mutation which is present on a number of other variants of concern and variants under investigation.

The variant has been detected in other countries, including Denmark, Nigeria, and Canada.

Cases were geographically dispersed across England, according to PHE, which said that enhanced contact tracing and genomic sequencing was underway to monitor the situation as it develops.

"There is currently no evidence that this set of mutations causes more severe illness or increased transmissibility," said Prof Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE.

'Tsunami' of Vaccine Disinformation

The Government said it was committed to tackling a "tsunami of disinformation" about COVID-19 vaccines.

Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, told Sky News that those who were "vaccine hesitant" tended to "skew heavily" towards Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic communities.

He said it was important to distribute accurate information about the vaccination programme in languages including Arabic, Farsi, and Hindu.

Mr Zahawi said: "There is a tsunami of disinformation, misinformation," and "we have a unit across Government that is dealing with the technology platforms to take down this fake news."

Last night Sir Simon Stevens, NHS England chief executive, described "a dual epidemic" – COVID-19 and "a pandemic of disinformation".

Study Underlines Pitfalls of Reopening Pubs and Bars

Tim Martin, chairman of the pub chain Wetherspoon, called this week for the Government to allow pubs to reopen at the same time as non-essential shops.

He argued that his premises had registered more than 50 million customer visits to its pubs, using the test-and-trace system, without a single outbreak of COVID-19, as defined by health authorities.

However, research, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs , found that despite the efforts of bar operators, "potentially significant risks of COVID-19 transmission persisted in a substantial minority of observed bars".

It found that the problem was particularly serious when customers were drunk.

The investigation by a team at the University of Stirling involved phone interviews with a small number of people in the hospitality business and in-person observations in bars in Scotland.

Dr Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, told the Science Media Centre: "Despite the best will and intentions in the world, pub owners and their clients are not very good at reducing social contact within the pubs during drinking hours – and the virus is likely to spread amongst unvaccinated, unmasked, non-socially distanced adults because of this."

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the findings underlined "the difficulties that will be faced as we open hospitality venues in [the] coming months".

The British Beer and Pub Association estimated that 60% of all UK pubs would remain closed if outdoor service was permitted from April because most lack large enough gardens or open spaces.

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