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UK ends all Covid restrictions after study? No, blog mangles announcement, letter to the Lancet and surveillance report

“The first domino has fallen…” begins a long message about Covid restrictions in the United Kingdom, circulating on Facebook in January 2022.

It says UK prime minister Boris Johnson has announced “that all COVID-19 restrictions in the U.K. will end on January 26”. This, it claims, is a direct result of a study published in the Lancet medical journal.

The message has been widely copied and reposted on Facebook, including in South Africa. The original is a blog by Jeff Brown, founder of investment research firm Brownstone Research, posted on the company’s website on 20 January.

“On December 30, prestigious medical journal The Lancet published the results of a study that demonstrated that 89% of new U.K. COVID cases were among those fully vaccinated. 89%!” Brown writes.

But Brown’s blog is full of inaccuracies, and his most prominent claims are simply incorrect. Let’s explain why.


Letter to Lancet – not study – discusses Covid in 60-plus age group

Johnson did not announce that “all COVID-19 restrictions in the U.K. will end on January 26”. He announced “the end of all Covid measures introduced to combat the Omicron variant” – the so-called Plan B – and that “the legal requirement on people with coronavirus to self-isolate would be allowed to lapse when the regulations expired on 24 March”.

Plan B measures included mandatory mask-wearing on public transport and in shops and recommendations that people who were able to should work from home.

And there is no evidence that Johnson’s announcement was prompted by a 30 December Lancet “study”.

Brown does not give the authors or title of this study. And the Lancet didn’t publish anything on 30 December 2021.

The journal comes out weekly, on a Saturday. Its final issue for December is dated 18 December, with no issue published the following Saturday, Christmas Day. The next issue appeared on 1 January. No article on the Lancet website’s online first page, which posts before print publication, is dated 30 December (a Thursday).

Brown got the date wrong, but does quote from the piece. So with a bit of digging, we tracked it down.

The “study” is actually a short letter posted online on 19 November and published in the Lancet’s 1 December issue. It quotes actual studies and published data, but does not include any original research. And Brown misrepresents the results of these studies.

The letter refers to the UK’s weekly Covid-19 surveillance report of 18 October 2021.

In the three weeks before, the report says, 89.7% of people aged 60 or older who tested positive for Covid were fully vaccinated. This sounds alarming on its own, but does not take into account the UK’s high vaccination rate.

In the UK’s 60-plus age group, the number of fully vaccinated people is much larger than the number of unvaccinated people. So when breakthrough infections occur, they will make up a higher percentage of Covid-positive cases.

As the surveillance report points out: “In the context of very high vaccine coverage in the population, even with a highly effective vaccine, it is expected that a large proportion of cases, hospitalisations and deaths would occur in vaccinated individuals, simply because a larger proportion of the population are vaccinated than unvaccinated and no vaccine is 100% effective.”

Vaccine protection declines with age

Also missing is the context that more than 80% of people in the age group had been fully vaccinated at least 17 weeks – roughly four months – before the surveillance report’s recording period began.

Dr Nathan Bartlett, a viral immunologist and associate professor of biomedical sciences and pharmacy at the UK’s University of Nottingham, has written that because vaccine protection declines with age, “we’d expect vulnerable groups like the elderly to be the first at risk of disease as immunity wanes, as will people whose immune systems are compromised”.

The surveillance report also warns: “The case rates in the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations are crude rates that do not take into account underlying statistical biases in the data.”

These include the possibility that “people who are fully vaccinated may be more health conscious and therefore more likely to get tested for Covid-19” and “may engage in more social interactions because of their vaccination status, and therefore may have greater exposure to circulating Covid-19 infection”.

The report says all vaccines administered in the UK display “high levels of protection (over 90%)” against death due to Covid-19 (for notable variants in circulation at the time), as well as high ability to protect against hospitalisation, prevent transmission and prevent symptomatic cases of Covid-19.

And contrary to Brown’s claim that “the COVID-19 ‘vaccines’ didn’t stop the spread”, the report quotes estimates that by 24 September 2021 around “127,500 deaths and 24,144,000 infections” had been prevented by the UK vaccination programme.

Covid vaccines most effective way to prevent infection, serious illness

Brown also claims that Covid-19 vaccines “are not at all a vaccine in the traditional sense”. Africa Check has debunked this false claim several times, warning that it mirrors more extreme claims that vaccines are intended to alter human genes or have some other sinister effect. Africa Check - as well as other fact-checking and public health organisations - have repeatedly found these claims to be false.

No vaccine is expected to be 100% effective at protecting people from a disease. Vaccines against Covid are no exception and, as the World Health Organization (WHO) has explained, even some fully vaccinated people will become infected and transmit the disease.

Covid vaccines have been thoroughly tested to ensure they are safe and effective. To learn more about how vaccines are approved for use, see Africa Check’s factsheets on the vaccine approval process in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.

As well as being safe, vaccines also demonstrably lower the risk that a person will contract, transmit or suffer severe symptoms of Covid-19.

An August 2021 review of several large real-world studies analysed the effectiveness of three Covid-19 vaccines in five countries. Among other findings, the report concluded: “Most importantly, the currently available Covid‐19 vaccines appear to be very effective in preventing severe complications and deaths from Covid‐19 in adults of all ages.”

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