Brexit Event Horizon and Covid Mutation Deliver Lumps of Coal to UK for Christmas

One has to wonder if all the bad karma that the UK incurred in its imperial days has finally come home to roost with a vengeance. The UK has found that the Brexit cliff edge arrived early thanks to a Covid cordon imposed by its trade partners, and as we’ll discuss soon, the real Brexit cliff is bearing down on the UK.

But for the Brexit part, one doesn’t have to look that far back in history to find causes. Even though Thatcher did pump for the UK joining the EEC, her initial enthusiasm turned to distaste. That led among other things to the UK having a half-in, half out attitude, regularly looking for ways to play the spoiler to its advantage. That spectacularly backfired when the UK pushed hard for Eastern European countries to join the block, anticipated that they would become allies in opposing the Germany-France axis. The UK estimated that the entry of Poland would result in first year emigration of Poles to the UK of 50,000. It turned out to be 500,000, putting pressure not just on wages but on low-end housing in a country already at the very low end for residential square footage per capita among advanced economies.

And that’s before getting to the great damage Thatcherism did to the UK, and how UK membership in the EU helped accelerate neoliberalism taking hold on the Continent. As readers know too well, the Tories would regularly scapegoat the EU for austerity the UK imposed all on its own.

But to the Covid lockdown imposed on the UK by its trade partners. Unless you took an Internet break over the weekend, you have probably heard that there are two new Covid mutations that have health authorities worried, one in the UK and one in South Africa. The one in South Africa may wind up being even more dangerous since it appears to increase the severity of infections and more heavily afflict the young than early strains.

But the UK mutation sounds bad enough. It appears be markedly more contagious, even though there seems to be no evidence (so far) that resulting infections are more serious than under previously-circulating strains of Covid.

This mutation is taking hold just after the UK managed to engineer an internal mass migration by announcing a Tier 4 lockdown of the London in advance, inducing anyone who had anywhere else to go to decamp. As usual, the Daily Mail last Friday (hat tip Kevin W) tells the story: Escape from the capital! Huge queues as desperate families flee London ahead of Tier 4 misery – as PM’s critics mockingly congratulate him for causing the city’s ‘first evacuation since 1939.

And more contagion fun from the Daily Mail account:

An announcement warned passengers that it would not be possible to maintain social distancing on the train.

So the Government scored a Covid own goal with its handling of the lockdowns even before the mutation bad news was out, on Saturday. From the BBC:

Top health officials said that there was no evidence the new variant was more deadly, or would react differently to vaccines, but it was proving to be up to 70% more transmissible.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new strain “was out of control. We have got to get it under control”, admitting that this was “an incredibly difficult end to frankly an awful year”.

The Biologist sent an e-mail with more details, starting with:

After Saturday’s presser (with PM announcing new Tier 4 lockdown) I was bit skeptical given lack of data and given previous hypes of new mutants with 0 evidence of shifts in transmissibility. However these data have swayed me to ‘better safe than sorry’. It’s minutes from UK’s ‘New and Emerging Respiratory Virus.”

We’ve embedded the short, readable, and not at all cheery document at the end of the pos, which describes the increase contagiousness of the new variant and how it appears to have a “selective advantage” over other strains. The Biologist highlighted:

No evidence for increased disease severity
Vaccine effectiveness effects unknown
4 ‘probable’ reinfections (big if true)

This is part of a very good thread for those who are interested in the mechanics of the mutations:

Some experts are less alarmed. As the Biologist explained,

Alternative explanation is that this variant happened to be highly prevalent in areas undergoing rapid spread, basically surfing a local (super) spreading. This demographic (vs. selective explanation above) was my initial thought, and some scientists feel that’s still best explanation, see:

Since this is a rapidly evolving situation (pun not intended), we could know a lot more as soon as during the day US time.

But in the meantime, having seen the high cost of reacting to Covid threats too slowly, the UK’s trade and travel partners are taking no chances. From Politico’s morning European newsletter:

BRITAIN CUT OFF: At least 15 countries have announced restrictions on travelers from the U.K. over concerns about a new, super-infectious strain of the coronavirus that is spreading fast in southern England. Both the Eurotunnel and Eurostar have suspended services, while the Port of Dover said it would be closed to “all accompanied traffic leaving the U.K. until further notice.” According to Bild, an EU-wide flight ban could be imposed until January 6. The Times declares “Europe shuts its door on on Britain,” while the Mirror dubs the U.K. the “Sick man of Europe” over “mutant virus fears.”

Chaos at the border: The travel restrictions appear to have caught the U.K. off guard. “Following the French Government’s announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48hrs, we’re asking the public & particularly hauliers not to travel to Kent ports or other routes to France,” Britain’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tweeted. “We expect significant disruption in the area,” he continued, adding his department was “urgently working” to implement contingency measures to minimize disruption….

Don’t hamster! Industry body Logistics UK urged British shoppers not to hoard supplies and said it was working with the government to maintain stocks of fresh produce: “Shoppers should not panic buy — retailers will be making every effort to ensure there is stock within the system, including fresh produce, and it is important that we remember that inbound traffic still has access to the U.K.”

What’s next: The German presidency of the Council of the EU called an urgent crisis response meeting today at 11 a.m. The U.K. government will also hold a crisis meeting today.

And from the Financial Times:

A move by Paris to impose a 48-hour block on people and truck-borne freight coming into France from Britain from Monday prompted the closure of transport services across the English Channel, notably between Dover and Calais.

It raised the prospect of crippling delays on the UK’s main freight link with the EU, which usually handles up to 10,000 trucks a day…

French officials said the 48-hour suspension will allow time for the 27 EU member states to co-ordinate their response. They envisage a system allowing traffic from the UK, with pre-departure Covid-19 tests, from December 22.

The road approaches in England and France to the main freight routes across the English Channel had already been congested for two weeks, largely because of stockpiling by UK companies ahead of the imposition of customs controls between Britain and the EU on January 1.

The French move caused alarm in UK industry. Although freight was still allowed into England from France, hauliers were questioning whether to make the journey if lorries could not return.

Having gotten an antigen test, they take about 20 minutes to process. That doesn’t allow for the time to get to a test location and any queuing. Plus they are subject to false positives. In other words, any Covid testing and/or test verification is only going to make the border backups worse.

However, that EU “taking no chances” part might be a bit of an exaggeration:

In any event, the virus news has trumped Brexit news and probably planning too. Because the Brexit deadline “wolf” has been cried one too many times, the press is under-reacting to the failure to come to an agreement over the weekend. This is an event horizon. It even resembles the way the real-life version is supposed to work, that there’s no obvious change when an object gets irrevocably sucked into the gravitational field of a black hole. The two sides are bizarrely still talking about a deal that now can’t get done in time as opposed to changing focus to what happens on January 1 and what can be done to ameliorate the damage.

In fairness, the EU now looks to be engaging in an empty exercise simply to preserve its claim that it didn’t leave the negotiating table. But Barnier would need a new mandate to do anything different, or at least some interim guidance from the Commission.

Nevertheless, the talks appear to be terminal even though both sides are still meeting. The headlines in the UK press are also making it sound as if fish, which to Brexiteers means EU intransigence, are scuppering the deal, when the critically important “level playing field” is still unresolved. The Financial Times is playing the scapegoating game too. Its Brexit update is headlined Brexit talks remain blocked over fishing rights. Yet this is paragraph two:

British officials insisted the EU offer on fisheries and the fair competition level playing field remained “unacceptable” and accused member states — an apparent reference to France — of not showing enough “flexibility” to get a deal over the line.

Reuters also flagged fish and level playing field as the two obstacles to closing a deal. Admittedly, Macron is not helping by piping up to demand continued access to UK fishing grounds.

Tony Connelly of RTE, admittedly a bit far into his piece, has EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness saying in a not-coded manner that no deal text Monday means the EU Parliament can’t ratify by January 1:

Earlier, EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness said the situation regarding post-Brexit trade deal talks is serious now, and that there needs to be a broader understanding from the UK side of what they are getting, as opposed to what they must concede….

The European Parliament needs the text of trade deal today in order to ratify a deal by 1 January, and while talks remain ongoing, no agreement has yet been reached on the issue of fisheries.

Ms McGuinness said it was “not accurate” to say that fisheries was the last issue blocking a trade deal, but was getting the most attention, adding that while progress has been made on other issues such as governance and level playing field, they were still not fully resolved.

The Guardian was more pointed, in UK faces Brexit limbo after talks deadline missed:

The failure to meet the European parliament’s deadline means that ministers on the EU council representing the bloc’s capitals may need to “provisionally apply” a deal on 1 January to avoid a no-deal exit until parliament votes later in the month.

If the talks go much deeper into December, however, there may not be time for the EU capitals to translate and scrutinise the agreed text, leaving the UK to exit the transition period without new trade and security arrangements with Brussels.

Contingency measures would have to be agreed to bridge the gap before a deal could come into force, but such a scenario raises the danger of ports and security services being left in legal limbo.

This scenario looks optimistic in light of the very next paragraph:

Bernd Lange, the German chair of the parliament’s trade committee, the key body in the chamber’s ratification process, tweeted: “The consequence of no deal tonight is obvious: the [European parliament] does not know the consolidated text, is not in a position to scrutinise before the end of the transition period. So make preparations now for a no-deal period and agree emergency measures with UK.”

And if you are hoping for a Monday save, if you want a happy ending, watch a Disney movie. Earlier in his account, Connelly noted:

A Government source acknowledged the 11th-hour negotiations had taken a turn for the worse.

At least someone in the UK understands what is up, even though an extension is na ga happen1:

Not that there appears to be anywhere enough of the latter in place aside from building the giant lorry park in Kent (in fairness, France appears to have some investments in infrastructure and systems for its major UK interface points). For instance, during Theresa May’s premiership, when it looked conceivable that the UK could crash out 24 months after pulling the Brexit trigger, the EU set forth a list of priority sectors. It would keep some limited transition measures in place for a maximum of nine months. These were selected to reduce damage to the EU, not out of any consideration for the UK.

The EU’s posture has been that it wasn’t announcing contingency plans out of concern that it would be depicted as an effort to influence the negotiations. Perhaps EU mandarins have been planning in secret, but it’s hard to do that given the need of the Commission to coordinate with member nations, combined with Brussels being a leaky ship. Or perhaps Brussels has been advising and working with countries that are particularly exposed to Brexit fallout, and even quietly passing best practice plans around (“Denmark is doing XYZ…”).

Needless to say, with the UK in a cordon sanitaire, last minute Brexit supply scrambling is now off, plus EU officials will be preoccupied with trying to get their hands around the Covid mutation data and dealing with the immediate fallout from the travel restrictions.


1 EU officials have repeatedly ruled it out as no longer possible, as in there does not seem to be enough (any) support for it. It would also amount to a treaty amendment. Those take time to approve and thus at this late date could not solve the Jan. 1 cliff problem. Plus Johnson would have to ask. He’s not just painted himself into a corner on that issue, he’s also nailed his shoes to the floor.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    One can only wonder how long Johnson can escape personal blame for his incompetence.

    It was typical of him and his underlings to use the new variant as an excuse for yet another u-turn on restrictions, but in doing so they precipitated the rush out of London and gave EU countries absolutely no choice but to cut off all transport, at the worst conceivable time. I think its likely that everyone will conclude that the new variant isn’t such a big deal, but by then it will be too late, the damage will have been done.

    In all the confusion, its passed everyones notice (including, it seems, Mr. Market), that the talks have failed. EU ratification is now pretty much impossible by the end of the year. The EU Parliament will not rubber stamp a deal they don’t have time to read, and plenty of national capitals will probably take the same move. Even Ireland, the most desperate of all for a deal, is less than happy at some of the fishing concessions Barnier seems to have made.

    The only thing that could save the UK now from utter January chaos is for Johnson to as for an extension. He actually has the perfect excuse now with the new Covid strain, so he could probably get away with it politically. I’ve little doubt that the tiny handful of Cabinet members who aren’t idiots (i.e. Gove and Sunak) know this. But it seems impossible for him to make the biggest u turn of all, and its quite possible that the EU are in the mood to make him grovel for it if he does ask.

    My guess is that the EU will make the offer of a 6 months unilateral extension and put him on the spot. But the very fact that its a unilateral offer may make it harder for him to say yes. The only silver lining is that the sheer extent of the chaos we will see this week will propel him into making the right decision.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      As I said in the post, it isn’t operationally possible for the EU to offer an extension by Jan 1. It would be a treaty amendment, which has the same approval requirements as a treaty. They very same reason a deal can’t be done by Jan 1 is the same reason an extension can’t be either.

      The only “out” that MEPs have apparently discussed is provisional application of a treaty, per this tweetstorm from your favorite Tony Connelly:

      You can have provisional application only if you have a completed text.

      Other standstill ideas again have been mooted only in the context of a deal being agreed, as to fudge ratification.

      The idea of an extension has been repeatedly rejected by all sorts of experts and pols. I don’t see any way for it to happen outside terms having been settled.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, sorry, I posted too soon, I meant to clarify that I know an extension would be almost impossible to implement at such short notice, although given the emergency situation I would have thought someone could have found some sort of emergency provision if that was in any way feasible.

      2. Tomonthebeach

        One look at Kent and you can foresee the trainwreck BREXIT is about to create. So, it sure seems that COVID-19 Wave 2 offers the perfect excuse to REMAIN in the EU rather than to crash out into an economic & public-health brick wall. The UK is beginning to look like Jonestown on the eve of self-destruction.

    2. Halcyon


      I can’t see how this doesn’t end with some sort of a fudge. If there is no fudge, or extension, or last-minute mini-Treaty, or “effective standstill arrangements” or whatever it may be negotiated, then we are living in Jonestown here in the UK.

      The price of that extension and procrastination may well be that the “deal” is agreed to in principle. I just think Johnson will buckle. It’s his MO: wait until after the last possible sensible moment to make a concession on his position, then abruptly U-turn. Every single COVID and Brexit decision by him has been taken in the same way.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        The core problem is that we’ve simply run out of time for even the fudgiest of fudges. There are simply too many legal knots to tie and untie and you’d be asking traders to take a huge risk that it can all be done in time. At this stage, things have moved onto the plate of the European Parliament and individual capitals, and they’ve enough on their hands right now without having to short circuit their own systems to help out the UK.

        This really is the mother of all converging crises. I’m wondering when the markets wake up to this and the sell orders on Sterling start.

        1. ambrit

          I’ve noticed Sterling inching up in ‘value’ over the past few weeks. Punters setting up a ‘short’ position?
          For us here on the other side of “the pond,” the possibility of financial contagion spreading to the American markets should be a worry.
          If financial “players” flee to safe havens for the nonce, it will be educational to watch where they flee to. Will the USD still be the world’s “reserve currency?” Or will some of the up and comers bite out a chunk of the ‘action?’
          We live in interesting times.

            1. ambrit

              Bitcoin puzzles me. On the surface it has all the hallmarks of being in a “bubble.” Also, does it have full convertability? It looks to be a sort of “walled garden” phenomenon. As such, it looks prone to overt manipulation. For more traditional “stores of value,” manipulation is usually at second hand. Commodities are manipulated through futures contracts, the same with funds flows. Where is the futures contract market for Bitcoin?
              Oh well. I’m beginning to understand why I do not have a ‘sterling’ career in finance.

              1. fajensen

                Where is the futures contract market for Bitcoin?

                Blocks of Cannabis, Meth, Gunz and used Pickup Trucks?

                “They” trade Bitcoin to set a market value, then net out the difference between Actual and Market by swapping “goods and services” in the “OTC-markets”?

                That’s what I would do, anyway. And if I can work that out, I think pretty much anyone can too, which is why I loathe Bitcoin.

                1. Robert Dudek

                  Bitcoin is traded pretty much like any other currency. Most currency traders are speculators: they don’t actually need the currencies they buy/sell. Bitcoin is designed to be deflationary, since supply is strictly limited.

                  There is plenty of use of bitcoin in the online gambling world – it is by far the easiest way to move “money” on and off gambling sites.

      2. fajensen

        The price of that extension and procrastination may well be that the “deal” is agreed to in principle.

        The EU can’t legally do it without getting the full travelling circus of the 27 members to agree on it, which is the same work as approving an actual treaty and will be extremely hard to sell politically, given that we know well that at the end of any deadline, we will just be back where we are now, and the swivels will veto any deal “agreed in principle” because they will see it as “Brussels” weakening.

        … AFTER lots of EU politicians has burned favours to get it approved – such is the way of the swivels!

        What they should have been “negotiating”, I.M.O. was the emergency transition mechanisms. Brexiteers will find issues with those as a matter of principle and it will be hard work for the UK government to get them agreed.

    3. Inert_Bert

      I think that, perversely, Covid was the last element missing for Johnson to suffer no political consequences for his mishandling of Brexit.

      Even disregarding Covid, I see no mechanism by which he could be held accountable. The ’19 election result alone serves to shield him from any Tory-on-Tory parliamentary violence: his margin is too large for any small insurrection to get out of hand and the ease with which he won the party-leadership showed he has no credible internal rivals at all.

      And even worse, by the time he does face the electorate again it’ll be 2024: the country will be entirely acclimated to its “new normal” and the election will be focused on new crises (mostly caused by the same catastrophic policies that caused or exacerbated the current ones), as well as fake scandals to distract the populace from said crises.

      And now there’s Covid – Brexit’s short term consequences look like the kind of disruptions Covid causes: trade disruptions, job-losses, volatility in the financial markets and (hopefully) deficit spending. So with the help of the ever mendacious British press, he can deflect blame sufficiently in the short term to see off any severe internal and street-level moves against him.

      Brexit’s long term consequences, in contrast, are basically a Tory think-tanker’s wet dream: chaotic, ad-hoc deregulation as the UK’s remaining industries fall out of EMA, REACH, EASA, Euratom etc without any spin-up time for national regulators to fill up the holes*, never mind get recognised and certified internationally for export-purposes. So even as the UK’s real economy is ravaged further, I don’t see how or why Johnson would lose so much public or political backing over it, that he’d be vulnerable to a intra-party coup.

      So I think he’l be fine until he gets bored or something stupid happens…

      *I may be off base re: the level of preparedness of the UK’s national regulators to go it alone. Since the election I’ve just assumed the worst and haven’t kept up with North, Grey etc who would’ve covered any hopeful signs on that front.

      1. Anonymous 2

        You may well be right in all of this – though four years is a long time and Johnson is both lazy and incompetent so much could go wrong.

        I would, however, add a few observations.

        Governments rarely wait the full five years before going to the electorate in the UK. The Fixed Term Parliament Act is to be repealed in this respect. The track record of governments which wait till the end of the five years is not good – see the results in 1950, 1964, 1979, 1997, 2010. Things can go wrong in the last few months and the government is exposed to the charge that it is afraid to go to the electorate. The current government will therefore at present probably be hoping to be sufficiently well placed in opinion polls in 2023 to go the country, probably in October(?). Failing that, I would expect them to target Spring 2024 rather than any later.

        The immediate consequences of no-deal Brexit, although attempts will undoubtedly be made to confuse the electorate again, will differ from the impact of Covid. The latter has hit services above all – hospitality and entertainment in particular. No-deal Brexit will hit manufacturing, which so far has held up relatively well. There are sadly too many people in England who can be spun by the influence technicians but some at least will spot the con.

        As for what the Tories do with their power, your suggestions may well be proved correct. Johnson is clearly no ideologue – on the contrary he is a man without any convictions but an inordinate appetite for power. He can be pushed into anything he is persuaded will benefit his self-interest. In these circumstances one needs to consider what the agenda of the puppet-masters behind the scene will be. One of these is unquestionably Murdoch. Another might be Putin. A third group is the ‘Tufton Street Gang’ (Adam Smith Institute etc.) whose anonymous backers probably include the fossil fuel industry (I believe Charles Koch is still alive?). I suspect part of the agenda will be to make the UK a sort of Pirate Island, sucking in dirty money from all around the globe, assisting oligarchs to subvert the rule of law around the world. Brittannia Goes on the Game?

        Murdoch will undoubtedly want to tighten his grip politically so we can expect efforts to gerrymander constituencies and suppress votes from the poor and the young. We can also expect the UK to pick quarrels (or appear to) with their neighbours to whip up anti-Europeanism. Employee rights and environmental protection will probably also be weakened.

        You hope for deficit spending and I can understand why. I suggest though that one needs to think whose pockets the money will end in. Some may go to Tory marginals but a lot will go to friends, I fear.

        A key question is what happens to the integrity of the UK. If Putin is one of the powers behind the scene (reportedly funnelling money to senior Tory party members – $800bn of Obshchack is an awful lot of money) then this may be one of the targets. It has been said Putin backed Brexit in order to damage the EU and destroy the UK. Certainly the Russians regard Brexit as a major victory for them. But would Murdoch be pulling in the same direction? He is said to hate the English so maybe. So Scotland and Northern Ireland could both go?

        One question where I feel especially ignorant is what if anything Biden can or will want to do about this. Perhaps those who feel able to comment from superior information might kindly do so?

        1. rosemerry

          “It has been said Putin backed Brexit in order to damage the EU and destroy the UK. Certainly the Russians regard Brexit as a major victory for them. ” I have not heard this before and wonder how this could be true, and how Putin would have time to involve himself in this, between poisonings, hackings, killings of journalists, helping elect/toss out his friend/ sanctioned to death mate Donald and all his other nefarious activities to cooperate with China and most other nations NOT in the EU.

          1. Polar Socialist

            Well, it has been said, but never found to be true. The Parliament recruited the most heinous russophobes to prove this, and they failed miserably only to blame the British intelligence for not collecting any evidence of what they knew to be true.

            Putin is on the record before Brexit saying he prefers UK in EU, but it’s up to the British people to decide the relationship. Russian foreign ministry has stated many times that Russia would prefer stable and peaceful Europe to have commerce and collaboration with — Brexit is not really bringing stability, peace or commerce, so it would seem to be not in Russian interests.

            It’s hard to assume Britain is more than minor annoyance to Russia, with all those tax-evading looters being given safe harbour with their ill-gotten fortunes. That and the habit of blaming Russia for every dumb thing the British do to themselves.

            1. Roberoo

              Well if Putin says something and the Russian Foreign Ministry states the same thing – many times – then I am convinced! Why you would believe anything coming out of Moscow its beyond me.

  2. Lex

    So although this particular strain — Covid 19 — has a ‘proofreader’ that prevents easy mutation into new strains, it does not prevent new lineages? And one new lineage (SA) is even more transmissible?

    Further, the collective concern here at NC about the first vaccines available to the public this winter is that while they may suppress symptoms, it is still debatable as to whether they prevent transmission?

    1. Ignacio

      Having a proof reading mechanism doesn’t mean there aren’t mechanisms for generating genetic diversity. This only means that the speed of variant generation is somehow lower compared particularly with other RNA virus that are known to be able to generate a large amount of variants to the point of being termed ‘quasi-species’ made of heterogeneous RNA populations with lots of variants in a single cell. As long as from an epidemiological point of view there are still very large swathes of human populations that are immunologicaly naive and susceptible to the new virus, the potential for selection of virus lineages that transmit more easily is very high so it wouldn’t be that surprising if the new lineages are indeed more easily transmissible.

      That said, the mechanisms that make a particular lineage more transmissible can be different, from increased virus particle stability outside the body to increased ability to infect human cells and or expanded host cell range particularly in the upper mucosae, increased replication within the host cells and virus loads etc. Lots of things to look at to have an idea about what is going on, and lots of possible speculations. I am doubtful about the founder effect mentioned in the Twitter thread as de embedded document below provides some data against that hypothesis.

      It is easily conceivable that at this point of the epidemic, the new virus is still adapting to the new host and that the infection of alternative hosts (such as visons) provide for an expanded ability to generate new lineages with different ability to be transmitted.

      Regarding your second question, let’s be clear. With respiratory virus in general and Coronavirus in particular, prevention of virus transmission through vaccination is nearly mission impossible (so eradication of the disease is nearly impossible) and sterilizing immunity through vaccination is usually very transient (months at best). Vaccines will indeed reduce virus transmission very significantly, particularly soon after vaccination, not so well later on. Take flu as an example with never ending vaccination campaigns. Take a look at the epidemiology of the other human Coronavirus that can re-infect a single subject many times in her/his lifetime. But the very good thing about massive vaccination is that, if massive and fast enough, it changes the epidemiological landscape for the virus. With fewer and fewer naive subjects the evolution of the virus changes and those lineages that are less ‘noticeable’ to the immune system (generally milder) will tend to prevail and the infections will tend to be restricted to the upper respiratory mucosa with a reduction in the incidence of severe pneumonia and other nasty outcomes. Just as the other human Coronavirus.

      1. Jabbawocky

        I share this fear that vaccination will not offer a route out of this mess. It’s like painting the Forth Bridge.

      2. Lex

        Thank you for your reply, Ignacio. You seem to be describing a two-tiered strategy. I thought mutation was the ‘mechanism for generating genetic diversity’, but when I asked Google for clarity, it referred to DNA. DNA mutation carries a greater risk, while smaller, slower, more subtle changes in RNA can get the job done as well, with so many naive human hosts to choose from? These old life forms are the definition of the word ‘insidious’ (adjective: ‘proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects’).

        1. Ignacio

          Mutation is one of the mechanisms to generate diversity (another one is recombination, think of sex between viruses). Such diversity is subjected to selection at various levels: transmission, infection, and pathogenesis that is a simple word to group all virus-host interactions, including our immune system, resulting in a more or less severe disease..

    2. TroyIA

      COVID-19 does strange things.

      Mutant coronavirus in the United Kingdom sets off alarms but its importance remains unclear

      Scientists, meanwhile, are hard at work trying to figure out whether B.1.1.7 is really more adept at human-to-human transmission—not everyone is convinced yet—and if so, why. They’re also wondering how it evolved so fast. B.1.1.7 has acquired 17 mutations all at once, a feat never seen before. “There’s now a frantic push to try and characterize some of these mutations in the lab,” says Andrew Rambaut, a molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh.

      . . .

      On 8 December, during a regular Tuesday meeting about the spread of the pandemic coronavirus in the United Kingdom, scientists and public health experts saw a diagram that made them sit up straight. Kent, in the southeast of England, was experiencing a surge in cases, and a phylogenetic tree showing viral sequences from the county looked very strange, says Nick Loman, a microbial genomicist at the University of Birmingham. Not only were half the cases caused by one specific variant of SARS-CoV-2, but that variant was sitting on a branch of the tree that literally stuck out from the rest of the data. “I’ve not seen a part of the tree that looks like this before,” Loman says.

      Andrew Rambaut, University of Edinburgh
      Scientists, meanwhile, are hard at work trying to figure out whether B.1.1.7 is really more adept at human-to-human transmission—not everyone is convinced yet—and if so, why. They’re also wondering how it evolved so fast. B.1.1.7 has acquired 17 mutations all at once, a feat never seen before.

      But scientists have never seen the virus acquire more than a dozen mutations seemingly at once. They think it happened during a long infection of a single patient that allowed SARS-CoV-2 to go through an extended period of fast evolution, with multiple variants competing for advantage.

      One reason to be concerned, Rambaut says, is that among the 17 mutations are eight in the gene that encodes the spike protein on the viral surface, two of which are particularly worrisome. One, called N501Y, has previously been shown to increase how tightly the protein binds to the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 receptor, its entry point into human cells. The other, named 69-70del, leads to the loss of two amino acids in the spike protein and has been found in viruses that eluded the immune response in some immunocompromised patients.

      . . .

      Getting definitive answers could take months. But Ravindra Gupta, a virologist at the University of Cambridge has made a start. The 69-70del mutation appeared together with another mutation named D796H in the virus of a patient who was infected for several months and was given convalescent plasma to treat the disease. (The patient eventually died.) In the lab, Gupta’s group found that virus carrying the two mutations was less susceptible to convalescent plasma from several donors than the wildtype virus. That suggests it can evade antibodies targeting the wildtype virus, Gupta wrote in a preprint published this month.

  3. Jony Phoreiner

    This is the end of the bs spread by the Anglosphere “intelectuals”, even in this funny blog.

    This is, almost, a reprise of the Grexit but instead the moron Varoufakis, we got the moron Boris leading the decadent show.

    They are both the same kind of morons, in the past applauded by Yves and her minions in this same funny blog.

    Good luck rotten Anglosphere, after the Brexit & especially after the Trump / U$D collapse.

    Best Regards from the €U.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You appear to have us confused with some other site.

      I suggest you check our history. We were alone in calling early that the Greece 2015 negotiations would fail and took a tremendous amount of heat for that. We were also just about the only party to notice the strong parallels between this negotiation and Greece 2015 (no overlap in bargaining position, weaker party way overestimating the other side’s fear of no deal and deciding to play chicken) and say the odds of the negotiations failing were high.

      1. nlowhim

        genuine question then as to why Yanis’ position was anywhere close to a Tory’s? Seems miles apart (apart from the “weak must suffer what they can”). And the crushing austerity placed on Greece was and is something else entirely as well.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          We said repeatedly that even though Varofakis was correct about his economic analysis, he had no clue about the politics.

          Greece had already lost its arm-wrestle with the Trokia when it agreed to accept the terms of the IMF memorandum to get interim funding in February 2015. As we wrote on February 21 (with much more detail following in the post):

          Greece and the Eurozone have entered into what amounts to a letter of intent in the form of a memo released yesterday. It’s important to understand, even as a basis for further negotiations, what this document is and is not. Because this is not a definitive agreement, as in it explicitly states that Greece’s detailed structural reform proposals must be reviewed and approved by “the institutions,” the new name for the Troika, as well as approval by the Eurogroup finance ministers before any funds are released, there is still uncertainty as to how its deliberate ambiguity will be resolved.

          General Observations

          There is no way of putting a pretty face on this document. It represents a huge climbdown for Syriza. Despite loud promises otherwise, they’ve agreed to take bailout funds, and the top and the close of the memo confirm that the baillout framework is still operative (emphasis ours):

          The Eurogroup notes, in the framework of the existing arrangement, the request from the Greek authorities for an extension of the Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement (MFFA), which is underpinned by a set of commitments. The purpose of the extension is the successful completion of the review on the basis of the conditions in the current arrangement, making best use of the given flexibility which will be considered jointly with the Greek authorities and the institutions…

          We remain committed to provide adequate support to Greece until it has regained full market access as long as it honours its commitments within the agreed framework…..

          There is also language in the memo that looks to authorize the return of the Troika monitors: “In this context, the Greek authorities undertake to make best use of the continued provision of technical assistance.” The Financial Times reads it the same way:

          It also leaves the IMF and EU institutions — the European Central Bank and European Commission — in control of evaluating Greece’s economic reform measures and the disbursement of bailout funds, despite Mr Tsipras’ vow to rid Greece of the hated “troika” of bailout monitors.

          Mind you, despite the foregoing, it is doubtful that Greece could have done much better, particularly in light of the way the ECB had worked to intensify the already-in-progress bank run and boxed the Greek government in by giving it only a thin increase in the ELA limits. A contact told me the Greek government would have had to impose capital controls over the weekend in the absence of a deal; the Financial Times reported close to the same thing by stating that Greece was on track to hit the limits of the ELA on Tuesday (the day after a long holiday weekend). And let us not forget that the Greek government is also slotted to run out of cash by February 24.

          In other words, Syriza had capitulated in February. It spend months trying to act as if it hadn’t agreed to what it had agreed to. This went over with the Troika as well as Johnson trying to repudiate the Withdrawal Agreement via his Internal Market Bill and the Taxation Bill. The press did a simply dreadful job of reporting on the substance of the negotiations and the power dynamics. They were caught up with the romantic image of the plucky (and abused) Greeks standing up to the Eurozone.

          Varoufakis, and Tsipras, greatly overestimated their bargaining position. They though that having no deal in June 2015 would have devastating consequences for the Eurozone and they thought the Troika believed that too. So they played chicken, just like Johnson, incorrectly assuming the EU would blink.

          In fact, when Syriza pulled yet another stunt (a Greek Constitution violating referendum that was also legally pointless, since it was on a bailout offer that had expired), the EBC nuked the Greek banking system, bringing the country to its knees in three weeks.

          1. Robert Dudek

            All true – and it’s comforting to know that the EU will treat one of its own as an enemy when push comes to shove.

    2. vlade

      I’d really really like to see evidence of Yves applauding Johnson, never mind Tories. In fact, I find it hard to think of just about anyone (who is anyone) in the UK politics that Yves applauded anytime recently, with the possible exception of Sturgeon.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        You have a good memory. Sturgeon strikes me as the most accomplished pol in the UK, which is still a height competition among peanuts. And yes, she is still dragging around some skeletons, so she far from perfect.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      It’s easily found on Google. Don’t ask me to locate things for you that you could access had you bothered.

  4. larry

    With regard to the new EU/UK strain, some discussion has been devoted to its greater transmissibility but none as to how this might happen. One comment I have seen linked greater transmissibility to mobile phones and urged people to clean their phones as well as their hands. So, in short, I do not understand how this increased transmissibility takes place. What are the mechanisms outside the virus that enable this increased transmission?

        1. John Zelnicker

          @Lex – Not only the possibility of a penalty box, meaning every one of your comments goes to moderation, but also banning from the site for continually violating the site Policies (above).

          Yves & Co. are very serious about maintaining the high caliber of the comments here. It’s one of the best features of NC.

    1. Halcyon


      According to the NERVTAG meeting on the new strain, there is a suggestion that patients with this strain have a greater viral load, and therefore may shed more virus, which means an increased probability of transmission if you are exposed to them. I think this is the proposed mechanism (as it actually says in the Balloux thread above)

  5. Jabbawocky

    I think the new strain is worthy of note and it’s interesting that it has a average ct gain of 2 in PCR tests. This basically means that there is around 5 fold more virus in positive PCR tests for the new strain than for the others.

    As the helpfully provided summary of the Nervtag minutes point out, this could be for many reasons, including increased viral load and people presenting for testing at a different stage of infection. If it is viral load increasing this would also mean that it is easier to detect an infection with this variant and thus maybe this is giving more positive tests so it looks like it’s spreading more. My guess would be that you can be asymptomatic with a higher viral load but this is a guess. If so it could even be less harmful, but this would just be speculation at this stage.

  6. skk

    Hell, I’ve been shorting sterling since Sep, near and far expirations losing money on that side as it went up from 1.28 to briefly 1.36 mainly to hedge my uk pension money. And now after the Dec expiration, UKL drops to 1.325!

    1. vlade

      Heh, as usual. I lost money on hedges (so not really, losing money on hedges is cost of the hedge, comes one way, goes the other), decided not to hedge this year and.. Whoosh.

      That said, at least I moved most of my pension to non-sterling denominated assets.

  7. John A

    I personally think the move by France, is to give the Brits a taste of what is to come if they refuse to agree a deal on fishing. Already Scottish seafood companies are squealing, especially as shellfish exports are big for Christmas in France and Spain and will spoil if stuck outside Dover for too long. If Britain does not see sense on the seafood issue, the French will not allow British catches to be imported into Calais in any case, the port will be blockaded by fishing boats for a start. Brits dont buy local fish, they prefer cod from Norwegian and Icelandic waters.

  8. Brick

    Top ho chaps up the COVID leader board the UK goes with our N501Y which we did not get from rich Londoners Australian Nannies. Off to the isle of wight for our hols before lock down avoiding the lashings of supermarket queuing. Jolly well done giving people jobs for life printing ration books.By jove we will stick it to those Frenchies sinking their fishing boats. Golly gosh the electorate are going to love us bringing back that good old war time feeling. Pip pip I of to read my boys own annual to get some whizzy jests to play on the oiks next year.

  9. David

    I doubt if it has anything to do with bad karma from Empire to be honest . On the other hand, it has a great deal to do with the forces set free in the Thatcher years coming to the end of their destructive cycle, and all the neoliberal chickens of then and after coming home to roost.

    Thatcher was actually quite a conservative (small “c”) politician, who largely worked within the system. It’s a great irony that her political career was saved in 1982 by the armed forces, who had yet to be Thatcherised to any important extent. Later, the “rebate” that she gained from the EU was largely the doing of skilled negotiators. Even at the end of her reign, she bequeathed to John Major a government machine that was still competent enough to manage the end of the Cold War and the Maastricht Treaty negotiations. But the forces she set in motion, like demons escaping from a tomb, steadily took over the machine, and had reduced it, by Cameron’s time, to a system that could just about cope with the ordinary day-to-day business of government in un-challenging times. But either Brexit or Covid by themselves would’ve taxed the capacities even of the kind of government we had forty years ago. A combination of the two of them is far beyond the ability of the current system to cope with, and, in turn, will probably complete the destruction of those bits of the system that are still standing.

    And it is a combination, not just a coincidence. Brexit and Covid have now become a single, ghastly, interdependent set of intractable problems for the UK (and to a much lesser extent to some EU countries.) There’s almost nothing you can do in one case that doesn’t have implications for the other, and progress in one direction can result in regress in another. This isn’t entirely new: in politics, subjects sometimes become totally enmeshed with each other, but seldom at this level of seriousness. For example, the original EU Treaty negotiations became hopelessly mixed up with the question of how to deal with the crisis in the Former Yugoslavia, and both of them with the question of the future of NATO. But at least those were relatively classic subjects that experts could try to disentangle. By contrast, today’s dysfunctional system where Nothing Really Matters, where media management is all and the top priority is keeping the Tory Party together, would have been challenged by a foreign policy dispute with Luxembourg, and out of its depth with a measles epidemic. I’ve been saying for a while that the Uk system is on its last legs, and it now seems to be just staggering on, kept up more by inertia and habit than anything else.

    But in a way, it’s not surprising. I said last week that I think the Brexit situation alone has now passed the point where anyone can sensibly claim to understand the ramifications . Add Covid to that (Macron is a casualty of course) and you have a nine-dimensional mess that probably no politician in Europe has much of an idea how to get out of. It may simply be that Brexit is “resolved” by changing the name of the problem or something. In any event, the EP had better not be too obstructive, or it will be curtly invited to shove off.

    1. fajensen

      I doubt if it has anything to do with bad karma from Empire to be honest .

      Well, when one has an empire, ambitious folks who for some reason or another (long criminal records, f.ex) were crowded out in The Homeland, will travel to the colonies in the hope of “working themselves up”.

      Those few that succeed come back loaded up with treasure, connections and practical knowledge of “getting things done”, which of course they apply in the furthering of their career objectives within the homeland.

      Now shielded and propelled into “proper circles” by their great wealth, spreading their influence on tricky things like indigenous population management, poverty, the proper use of force – all watered down of course – but still, The Ways of The Colonies gradually comes Home, Eventually gets seats in The House of Lords and from there they will guide The Lawmakers!

      1. David

        All that was a long time ago, and in my own experience, certainly by the 1970s, Empire had long ceased to be a factor in how the British saw the world. It was always marginal anyway: expensive, difficult to defend, likely to involve the country in wars. After 1945, successive governments looked for other ways of keeping Great Power status, and largely succeeded in getting rid of the Empire peacefully. Even in the halcyon days, the Empire was a minority political enthusiasm for itself, hated by the Treasury (the cost) the Army (never enough troops to defend it) and the Foreign Office (competition).

        1. vlade

          The Empire sounds great, but really was pretty much India, which has fallen to the UK more or less by accident, as to avoid East India Company going bankrupt past the Indian Rebellion. The other parts weren’t that important and by early 20th century were really all “Commonwealth” more than “Empire”.

          The EIC in general played an outsized role in the history of the UK’s “Empire”, which is sort of funny.

          It was indirectly behind the US independence, as the Tea Act that was (at least nominally) behind Boston Tea Party was to save EIC (again).

          Next, the first China opium war (which netted the UK Hong Kong) was the UK acting on behalf of EIC, to save its China trade (and by extension, EIC’s bacon. Again).

          Scotland became part of the UK as a result of the disastrous Darien scheme (where Scotland wanted some colonies and an EIC of its own), which pretty much bankrupted Scottish elites (and nation), and the English saved them at the cost of Scottish independence. Oh, and did I say EIC was involved too (amongst other things, legal battling by EIC forced Darien scheme to rely on Scottish investors only..)

          Ireland was a disaster for English/UK as a state from the word go till now (of course, few people made tons of money out of it, of course, but few people made tons of money from any disasters I mentioned above). I’m not sure of any EIC involvement with Ireland, but I’d not be surprised if there was some.

          1. M Quinlan

            Shortly after the founding of the EIC, James the 1st of England, gave Derry to the Guilds of the City of London.
            No doubt the same there was some cross pollination.

          2. Michaelmas

            “We seem to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absent-mindedness,” as one notable Victorian said, in other words.

            Well, to an extent. John Company was frequently the tail that wagged the dog, with at one point an army substantially larger than the regular standing British army.

            Still, the empire came in a couple of iterations.

            Empire 1.0 at the time of George III and the loss of what became the U.S. might have looked to be a dwindling thing, mostly about the West Indies and Canada.

            With victory over the French in the Napoleonic Wars accomplished, however — and Wellington and the Rothschilds working hand in hand — the Industrial Revolution swung into full play in the U.K. (with the Rothschilds financing it in no small part) and the British lost interest in the West Indies given the far greater profits to be made in India and Asia generally, as well as potentially in Africa’s interior. This is Empire 2.0 and it’s different in many ways.

            As you say, in 1857 Her Majesty’s Government nationalized the East India Company after the Indian Mutiny and took over the running of its territories there. The empire still ran another century, taking the Suez crisis of 1956 as its finish.

            1. Anonymous 2

              Your Victorian quote is another example of British laxity with the exact truth. The war of 1756 to 1763, which saw such a major expansion in British power, was a premeditated act of aggression, cooked up between Pitt and City of London merchants among others

    2. Tom Bradford

      I doubt if it has anything to do with bad karma from Empire to be honest – David

      Agreed that it’s largely a consequence of fifth-rate politicians failing to comprehend the problems let alone manage them competently but I fear there are still powerful elements of “Rule Britannia” at play here, particularly in the Tory Party and its comfortably monied, expiring devotees in the Shires who are old enough to remember their parents talking about India and Kenya as back-gardens abroad.

      1. David

        Well, not to beat the subject to death, but Rule Britannia was written in 1740, a century and a half before the Empire proper, and is a celebration of British naval power keeping the coasts safe from Muslim slave-raiders from North Africa, which had been quite a problem before. (“Britons never shall be slaves.”) The nostalgia for Great Power status (and who wouldn’t be nostalgic, frankly, had they known it) is a different thing from nostalgia for Empire, which is pretty limited, and in my experience has next to no political force. (There were never more than about 20,000 European settlers in Kenya, for example, and by no means all of them British).

        1. M Quinlan

          Yougov 2014 survey of British attitudes begs to differ. My personal experience would back this up, a substantial number of my UK colleagues over the years, but not a majority, held this view, and quite vocally too.
          They also tended to be the ones who swallowed Tory propaganda. The exception are the Scots, who could be all for Empire and despise the Torys at the same time.

  10. chuck roast

    Our recent blue, blue skies here over the northeast flyways are again being smudged by high-flying aluminum tubes and their resultant emissions. A beautiful sunny Saturday was turned into a hazy mess by early afternoon. Saturday and Sunday typically delivered relatively clear skies as most of the international air travel took place during the work week. Doubtless Newark, Kennedy and Logan have extended warm welcomes to this little modified life form. Back to our usual programing…whatever that is.

  11. flora

    Watching from the US, which has it’s own problems (oh boy, do we have problems), a couple thoughts come to mind.

    NC has been posting since Brexit passed that significant operational considerations weren’t being addressed properly for a successful Brexit to occur. Politicians hand waving – ‘and then a miracle occurs – was substituted for serious analysis of the hard, on-the-ground problems in the divorce – N.Ireland, the ROI, and the Good Friday Agreement being but one example.

    Now in the C19 pandemic the govt official agencies in charge of health directives in UK and the US nearly unanimously exclude existing options for prophylaxis and early outpatient treatment even while a proven vaccine is still unavailable to millions. They never mention vit D3, a proven immune system helper – not that it can prophylax or cure – but it does make the body’s immune system stronger, and populations with worst levels of vit D deficiency have worse outcomes than people with higher levels of vit D. Not a word sbout this in the official pronouncements that I see.

    Earlier in the past 10 years, EU tensions gave rise to NC comments that ‘it was beginning to look like the run up to WWI’. Between Brexit and C19 – and this applies to both UK and US, imo – the failures of the ‘raised to rule, highly credentialed’ class have become obvious to almost everyone. That was certainly one of the outcomes of WWI. The ‘ruling class’ then showed itself unfit for purpose. The Red Tabs were discredited as unquestionably expert. I think our new ‘ruling class’, our neoliberal ‘ruling classes’ in both US and UK show themselves unfit for purpose. My fear is that nothing will change until they fail even worse and more disasterously, and then they’ll blame the big bad bear instead abandoning neoliberalism. My 2 cents.

    1. flora

      adding: govt neoliberals replaced the ‘evidenced based’, competency, and impartiality directive of the old civil service in the US with the magic beans of ‘markets and profits’ in the new version.

  12. Rohan

    Your analysis and commentary is so lucid and well researched, Yves. Such a rarity in these chaotic times. Thank you!

    One indeed despairs for the common people of the UK during these dark times. The imperial past may have attracted the bad karma, but the public of today will suffer. Quite unfortunate and unfair.

    1. eg

      “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation”

  13. Blue Pilgrim

    While it is possible the new variation (variation, not strain) might increase infectivity, that has not been shown and there is good reason to reserve judgement. It may well be that the spread is the result of someone who just happened to be infected with this variation was at the center of a superspreader event, or had a night out going to many different pubs, transmitting it to many people in an area, who of course would be infected with that variation. Tracking inconsequential variations is a major way of finding paths of transmission often used by epidemiologists. There is a lack of data about this.

    What can be said, however, is that the lack of masks, isolation, and other provisions to stop the spread of the virus will increase transmission, and politicians can be criticized for that — and touting a ‘new strain’ is an easy excuse for the increased cases to get them off the hook for failure to take proper measures, or allow superspreader events to occur. This story is being pushed by the media and alarmist reporters, possibly with disingenuous agendas.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I don’t understand your basis for this assertion. From the attachment:

      • It was noted that whilst previous variants have successfully emerged in periods of low prevalence without clear evidence of having a selective advantage, the emergence and subsequent dominance of VUI-202012/01 in a period of relatively high prevalence suggests VUI-202012/01 does have a selective advantage over other variants.
      • It was noted that VUI-202012/01 has demonstrated exponential growth during a period when national lockdown measures were in place.

      1. Blue Pilgrim

        See RT story “… The data provided by the British scientists on the new strain is still incomplete, Drosten said, adding that even preliminary analysis results would arrive within a week. The fact that discovery of a new strain coincided with a sharp rise of new infection cases in southeast England also does not necessarily mean that the new virus is to blame, the virologist believes.

        “The question is … whether the virus is to blame or whether it was just a local epidemic outbreak, or the lockdown was not so strict … and transmission mechanisms were in place … in an area where this particular strain happened to be,” he said.

        It was also too early to say whether this virus actually transmits faster. To do so, one needs to “look at who infected whom and how long it took,” Drosten explained, adding that “one would be surprised” if such a parameter as the virus infectiousness would significantly change all of a sudden now. …”.

        The RE — effective reproductive rate — varies by factors besides R0 — the rate of spread in a population with naive immunity. The argument given is that this variant has a higher R0, but it could spread fast due to a number of factors, such as lack of protective measures compared to other areas, changes in behavior such as groups meeting, as in the US with Thanksgiving gatherings, the weather, or just random variations, resulting in a local epidemic, with the particular variant just happening by chance to be the one spread (founder effect). The same issues arose with D614G / G614 variants.

        Selective pressure may not be in the virus but in more or less random circumstances of who has and who is spreading it. TWiV 696: Tear down that SARS-CoV-2 manuscript has some discussion about this.

    2. SKM

      +++++++++ I as hoping someone would say what you just said. There is as yet no firm evidence that these changes lead to higher transmissibility (tho of course they could). It takes a lot of work to demonstrate real life changes in this property and therefore time. Politicians ran immediately with a scientific expression like ” these changes might lead to more transmission which rapidly became “does” do same. Media world wide fast echoed this. Of course this suited Johnson and co as the infection rates had taken off again for reasons of human behaviour. The cluster driven nature of transmission of this virus means any given variant can become predominant by chance events fortuitously running together,
      We simply don`t know yet if this variant is more infectious.

  14. Rtah100

    Understatement of the year considering Alex Salmond and Craig Murray. Are you an honourary Right Pondian, Yves? :-)

Comments are closed.