COVID-19 plus flu disaster in the USA?

This 19 September 2020 video says about itself:

COVID-19 crisis escalates across Europe

France has seen a record number of new coronavirus cases, with more than 13,000 infections registered in the past 24 hours. The health ministry says 154 people died in hospital on Thursday, the highest number in four months.

The United Kingdom government is considering whether to impose a second national lockdown, after daily cases in England nearly doubled – to around 6,000 – in the past week. More restrictions have also been announced for the North West and Midlands areas.

Many other European countries are introducing new measures to curb the spread of the virus.

Movement is being limited in Spain’s capital, Denmark is applying a curfew for bars and Iceland will close pubs in the capital for four days.

Meanwhile, Israel has returned to a nationwide lockdown for a second time, following a spike in numbers.

This has come at the height of the Jewish holiday season.
Globally, the number of COVID-19 cases has now passed 30.5 million.

Al Jazeera’s Nadim Baba reports from London.

By Tina Hesman Saey in the USA:

What will happen when COVID-19 and the flu collide this fall?

The upcoming face-off in the U.S. could lead to one virus dominating or a deadly combo

September 18, 2020 at 4:43 pm

The specter of a “twindemic” — two epidemics at the same time — looms as cold and flu season is set to start in October in the Northern Hemisphere. No one can predict what will happen when flu meets COVID-19, but public health officials are urging people to prepare for the worst.

In this case, the worst would be a bad year for influenza, which in the United States has killed 12,000 to 61,000 people annually and hospitalized between 140,000 and 810,000 each year since 2010, combined with a resurgence of coronavirus infections. Together, the two could stress health care and public health systems beyond their limits.

“We could see a perfect storm of accelerated COVID-19 activity as people gather more inside in particular, as they become increasingly fatigued with the mask wearing, social distancing and the hand hygiene, and as they are exposed to seasonal influenza,” said Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the infectious diseases division of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, during a news briefing from the Infectious Diseases Society of America, or IDSA, on September 10.

Some states are getting coronavirus spread under control, but hospitalization levels haven’t gone down much, she said. “Overall, we still are on … a razor’s edge when it comes to COVID,” and influenza remains unpredictable. “We really can’t be complacent about this.”

Infectious diseases experts worry about a conjunction of influenza and coronavirus for multiple reasons, beyond overburdened health systems. Teasing out whether a person has flu or coronavirus — which have very similar symptoms — will require testing for both viruses, at a time when turnaround for COVID-19 tests is often slow. And some people may get infected with multiple viruses simultaneously, which could make symptoms more severe.

But hints from the Southern Hemisphere give hope that the worst may not happen. Scientists usually forecast flu seasons’ severity in the north by watching what happens south of the equator, where flu season falls in the middle of the year. This year, the preview held good news: a mild season for flu and some other respiratory viruses.

Southern exposure

Countries in the Southern Hemisphere normally start seeing flu cases in May, and the flu season typically peaks in July and peters out around October. For the past five to six years, flu seasons in Australia have been bad. For instance, in 2019, Australia got an early flu season that started in March and “went on for a very long time,” says Kanta Subbarao, a virologist who directs the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Doherty Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

It wasn’t looking good for 2020 either. This year, flu season started even earlier, she says. “We started seeing some flu activity in January and February,” summer in the Southern Hemisphere. “Then it just completely stopped. It just fell off a cliff at the end of March, essentially when COVID-19 started appearing.”

From April through July, only 33 people had positive flu results in Australia out of 60,031 people tested, an international group of influenza researchers report September 18 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The flu was also nearly nonexistent in South Africa and Chile in the late spring and early summer months. Together, the three countries recorded just 51 flu cases among 83,307 people tested, for a positivity rate of 0.06 percent. By contrast, over the April through July periods in 2017, 2018 and 2019, a total of 24,512 out of 178,690 people had positive flu tests, a positivity rate of 13.7 percent.

Travel restrictions that closed Australia’s borders may have prevented influenza from being imported from elsewhere. Lockdowns, school closures, mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing — all measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — may have also quashed any influenza outbreaks that remained. Other Southern Hemisphere countries have also reported unexpectedly low levels of influenza and another common respiratory virus called respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, she says.

Public health officials anticipated a resurgence of influenza and RSV once Australia reopened schools, but that hasn’t happened, Subbarao says. “We have looked very long and hard,” but have found very little of either disease, Subbarao says. Instead, “what we’re finding is rhinovirus,” which cause colds, Subbarao says, suggesting that rhinovirus hasn’t been phased by all the public health measures.

Northern predictions

Flu season may also be lighter than usual in the Northern Hemisphere as a result of reduced travel, former CDC director Tom Frieden said in an IDSA news briefing on September 15. Flu “gets around the world when people travel, and there’s not much traveling going on.” But COVID-19 remains a threat, he warned “If you doubted that COVID was more infectious than flu, look at South Africa or Chile, where COVID is spreading like wildfire and flu isn’t spreading at all.”

In the United States during the 2019–2020 flu season, flu cases also took a nosedive after public health measures were put in place to limit coronavirus spread. Flu cases started increasing in November 2019, and between December 15 and March 7, more than 20 percent of flu tests were coming back positive each week, according to the MMWR report. By the week of March 22, plenty of people were still getting flu tests, but only 2.3 percent of the results came back positive. Many of those influenza-like illnesses that weren’t due to flu may have been COVID-19 (SN: 6/25/20).

Since the week of April 5, fewer than 1 percent of flu tests have detected the virus, and off-season flu counts are at historical lows. From May 17 to August 8, only 0.2 percent of flu tests gave positive results, compared with 2.35 percent last year, 1.04 percent in 2018 and 2.36 percent in 2017. The sharp drop-off of flu cases might just have been the natural end of the flu season. However, the decrease in percent positivity after March 1 “was dramatic, suggesting other factors were at play,” the researchers wrote.

If social distancing and other measures to contain COVID-19 remain in place, the flu season in the United States might be blunted or delayed, the researchers wrote. But don’t bank on it, other experts say. If there’s anything experts who try to predict influenza activity have learned is that flu is unpredictable.

Battle for dominance

Predicting how flu will play with COVID-19 is trickier still.

Richard Webby, a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., is involved in efforts to predict which flu strains will dominate so that vaccines can be designed accordingly. One pattern Webby and other flu researchers have seen over and over again is that when a new pandemic influenza strain arises, it pushes out another strain. For instance, when the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic strain emerged, another H1N1 flu strain that had been circulating since 1977 disappeared.

SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — and influenza will be competing for hosts to infect, which may result in one virus squeezing out the other, Webby says.

“I find it difficult to believe that there’s going to be widespread flu and widespread COVID activity at the same time. I think one of them will dominate. I couldn’t tell you which one it will be,” he says. Admittedly on the fence, he says that if asked to bet which disease will predominate, “I’d put a little bit of money each way.” He says the two diseases probably won’t both go gangbusters, “but I could easily be horribly wrong.”

Getting a double dose

In the battle for hosts, sometimes both viruses win, infecting a person at the same time.

As New York and New Jersey became hot spots of coronavirus spread in the spring, COVID-19 “patients were coming around the clock” to St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson, N.J., where Balraj Singh works. Singh, a hematologist and oncologist, was called in to treat the patients’ blood clots and plummeting blood cell counts. As he did so, he decided to also test his patients for infections with other viruses that produce similar symptoms. He and colleagues discovered that three of their patients were infected with SARS-CoV-2 and influenza at the same time. They reported the cases August 18 in Cureus.

Two of the patients had to be intubated, but Singh and colleagues can’t say whether the dual infections made their illnesses worse. All were eventually discharged. It was important to publish the case reports “so somebody else can have a little bit of a head start” in recognizing that some people may have double trouble from viruses, he says.

flue shot sign

Coinfections with SARS-CoV-2 and influenza will probably be uncommon, says David Morens, a virologist and infectious diseases doctor who is the senior scientific advisor to the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md.

One analysis suggests only about 3 percent of COVID-19 patients were simultaneously infected with another virus, researchers reported online May 27 in the Journal of Infection. Those researchers examined 30 studies, mostly from China, that reported on dual infections with bacteria or viruses in people sick with COVID-19. The most common viruses to double up with SARS-CoV-2 were RSV and influenza A.

Broad defenses

It’s not impossible to catch viral infections at the same time or in quick succession, but getting one viral infection generally makes it harder to get another one, Morens says. That’s because viral infections tend to rev up the immune system’s generalized antiviral defense system, known as the innate immune system. Catching one virus sets off alarm bells in the form of virus-fighting immune chemicals known as interferons (SN: 8/6/20). For a short period after an infection, maybe weeks to months, the immune system stays on high alert with defenses at least partially raised to ward off any subsequent intruders.

That battening of the hatches against other viral invaders is different from the specific kind of immunity that comes from making antibodies against a particular virus. But it still might be useful. For instance, immunologist Ellen Foxman has long suspected that catching colds caused by rhinovirus may have delayed the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic in Europe.

“For years I’ve been looking for a way to test” that idea, says Foxman, of Yale School of Medicine. She and colleagues confirmed that flu and rhinovirus don’t seem to mix by examining data from three later flu seasons, spanning November 2016 to March 2019. They found that people were less likely than expected to have dual infections with rhinovirus and influenza, the team reported September 4 in Lancet Microbe.

Infecting human lung cells growing in laboratory dishes provided some clues to why. First, the researchers infected the cells with rhinovirus. Then they tried a few days later to infect the same cells with flu virus. Rhinovirus infections turned up activity of genes involved in the interferon response, preventing flu viruses from replicating in rhinovirus-infected cells, the researchers found. Blocking interferon allowed the flu viruses to reproduce in cells already infected with the cold virus. But interferon response doesn’t last long, “maybe a week or two,” Foxman says.

And that type of protection isn’t perfect, Subbarao says. About 10 percent of the respiratory illnesses are coinfections with two or more viruses.

Some scientists theorize that vaccines against tuberculosis, measles or polio — which contain live, weakened virus or bacteria — might give some measure of protection against COVID-19 by generally toughening the immune system, Subbarao says. FluMist, a nasal spray flu vaccine mainly used for children, might also provide a little nonspecific armor against other viruses, though she cautions that the protection is short-lived and intended only as a stop-gap until there’s a safe, reliable and widely available coronavirus vaccine.

Injected flu vaccines are usually made with killed viruses and don’t offer the same generalized virus protection as live vaccines. But public health officials are urging people to get flu vaccines, to reduce the chances of getting infected with both viruses and hopefully ward off a nasty flu season.

“If there’s ever a year you need to get your flu shot, get your kids vaccinated, this is the year,” Marrazzo said.

Wildfire disasters in the USA

This 11 September 2020 United States TV video is called ‘Everything Is A Total Loss’: Entire Towns Devastated By Oregon Wildfires | NBC News NOW.

Ten percent of Oregon’s population ordered to evacuate as wildfires continue to ravage the US west coast. By David Fitzgerald, 11 September 2020. At least fourteen people have died in the latest outbreak: a one-year-old boy in Washington, three people in Oregon, and ten in California, and the death toll is expected to rise.

NIGHTMARE IN OREGON: 500,000 EVACUATE Stunned residents of the small Oregon town of Phoenix walked through a scene of devastation after one of the state’s many wildfires wiped out much of their community. By Thursday evening, the number of Oregon residents evacuated statewide because of fires had climbed to an estimated 10% of the state’s 4.2 million population. Some firefighters in Clackamas County were told to disengage because of dangerous fire activity as two large fires in the area were believed to be merging. Across Oregon, California and Washington, many towns have been destroyed. [AP]

10 DEAD IN MASSIVE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA WILDFIRE A Northern California wildfire became the state’s deadliest of the year Thursday when authorities announced seven more deaths, bringing the total to 10 and the unnerving prospect the toll would climb as searchers looked for 16 missing people. Among those unaccounted for are Sandy Butler and her husband, who called their son to say they were going to try to escape the flames by finding shelter in a pond. [AP]

London Grenfell disaster killed photographer Khadija Saye

This 2 September 2017 video from Britain says about itself:

Khadija Saye tragically lost her life in the Grenfell Tower fire at the age of just 24. In this interview filmed a month beforehand, she talks about her ambitions and her photography exhibition in Venice.

The footage is taken from the BBC Arts programme Venice Biennale: Britain’s New Voices.

BY LUCY LAVER in Britain today:

Khadija Saye: Breath is Invisible

Khadija Saye 1992-2017 236 Westbourne Grove W11 2RH Until August 7th

WITH THE reconvening of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry on Monday and the recent and ongoing global Black Lives Matter uprising, this is a pertinent and timely outdoor exhibition of the remarkable photographic works of the late Khadija Saye.

The exhibition was unveiled by Labour MP David Lammy earlier this week in Notting Hill.

The large intriguing prints are displayed across the façade of 236 Westbourne Grove W11, and the powerful exhibition coincides with the launch of an art project, the Khadija Saye IntoArts Programme, that aims to diversify the industry, working with young people from disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds.

It was founded in her memory by the charity, IntoUniversity, who had nurtured Khadija’s artistic talents as a North Kensington student from childhood, and her mentor Nicola Green, a British portrait painter and the wife of David Lammy.

Khadija Mohammadou Saye, also known as Ya-Haddy Sisi Saye, was a London born British Gambian artist and activist who lived and worked in the flat she shared with her mother, Mary Mendy, on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower in urban North Kensington.

Although Kensington and Chelsea is one of the smaller and wealthier boroughs in London, North Kensington is a relatively deprived area where its pockets of poverty often sit in stark contrast to the wealth of those around them.

Despite this, at 16 Khadija won a full Arnold Foundation scholarship to the esteemed Rugby School and went on to study a BA in photography at UCA Farnham with a particular interest in post-colonial theory and identity politics.

Her graduate exhibition, ‘Crowned’ was a series of thought-provoking portraits shot in her home against a black velvet background depicting the traditional hairstyles such as braids, locks and cornrows worn by her friends, family and neighbours.

Saye had a passionate drive to make art a more inclusive space and had worked at Jawaab, a creative campaigning group aimed at legitimising young Muslims to become politically and artistically active.

The series used in the current exposition is entitled Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe.

The portfolio of self-portraits is a very personal exploration of the notions of identity and spirituality, inspired by Khadija’s Muslim and Christian religious heritage and portraying traditional Gambian rituals with culturally significant and meaningful objects.

The sepia-toned images have been described by critics as heartwarming, haunting and relic-like, with an ancient feel.

The aged look was achieved by an early photographic process created in 1851 called Wet Collodion Tintype.

The technique entails adding a soluble iodide to a collodion solution and then coating a glass plate with it.

This method results in images steeped in ethereal tones of grey and black.

Khadija’s use of this process and her characterisation of traditional African practices results in powerful and memorable portraits that are reminiscent of the sepia-toned images of early 19th century photographs.

Following her death, Tate Britain announced that they would exhibit a screen print of one of her tintype photographs from the Dwelling series.

Earlier in the year, they had been exhibited in the Diaspora Pavilion at the prestigious 57th Venice Biennale, where Saye was their youngest-ever participant, at just 24 years old.

Described by those that knew her as kind, funny, bright and extremely talented with an infectious laugh, Khadija had been nervous and thrilled to be selected for such an undertaking and had reportedly caught the eye of a prominent director.

The event had heralded the cusp of her recognition, and the images were still on display when the fire tragically engulfed her home and took her life, aged only 24, in June 2017.

Today, in this urban public space however, Khadija’s art lives.

Breath Is Invisible is a public art project which will show four artists’ work in a shared public space to celebrate, reflect, question and heal, and work collaboratively with young creative and local non-profit community arts organisations. It is a project born of urgency to address issues of racism and injustice.

English Grenfell fire disaster scandal continues

This 20 June 2017 video from the USA about England is called Grenfell Tower Disaster Could’ve Been Avoided.

From daily News Line in Britain, 10 July 2020:

Grenfell Inquiry bans survivors and relatives while safety experts didn’t even bother to read about cladding

GRENFELL survivors and relatives of the 72 people killed in the Grenfell Tower inferno are furious that they have been excluded from the inquiry that re-started on Monday under strict social distancing rules.

Despite the fact that the Tories have been driving forward relaxation of these rules when it comes to re-opening pubs, restaurants and shops and exhorting people to come out and spend, spend and spend to save the economy, none of this applies to the bereaved and their supporters.

They are banned from attending the hearing which is taking place with only the inquiry panel, witnesses and their lawyers along with cross-examining inquiry counsel permitted to be present.

Monday saw the opening of the second phase of the Grenfell Inquiry which will hear testimony from corporate witnesses from the firms responsible for creating the death trap at Grenfell Tower.

In February these witnesses and the companies they work for were granted immunity by the Tory attorney general from prosecution arising out of the evidence they give following the threat that they would refuse to give evidence that would reveal crimes they had committed.

This immunity was also granted to the Kensington and Chelsea Management Organisation (TMO), the private company paid by the council to run and maintain Grenfell Tower.

In fact, the fear of prosecution for the criminal acts carried out against Grenfell Tower residents was well grounded.

It emerged in the first phase of the inquiry that there existed overwhelming evidence that the designers and contractors who installed the cladding responsible for turning the Tower into a death trap knew in 2011 that this cladding had failed fire safety tests and was ‘not suitable for use on building facades’.

This total disregard for human life and the cavalier dismissal of all risk was brought home by the first witnesses’ statements heard this week.

Terry Ashton, the lead fire and safety consultant of the cladding refurbishment told the inquiry that he had ignored the documents outlining the proposed insulation and cladding materials to be used.

Ashton said he didn’t read an email from the project architects detailing the cladding system because he was not the ‘primary recipient’ and he had not bothered to read the plans because they were ‘very lengthy documents’.

Ashton is employed by the materials and testing firm Exova employed to assess the refurbishment and has been a fire consultant for 25 years despite having no formal training.

He produced a fire safety strategy that made no mention of plans to reclad the tower, and concluded that: ‘The proposed changes will have no adverse effect on the building in relation to external fire spread, but this will be confirmed by an analysis in a future issue of this report.’

Ashton has already told the inquiry he gave advice on the fire safety of the refurbishment and cladding without even once visiting the tower block.

No wonder the inquiry was desperate to keep survivors and relatives of those killed out of the room while those with responsibility for overseeing the fire risk from cladding already known in the industry to be a massive danger testify they couldn’t be bothered to read relevant documents because they were too ‘lengthy’.

This entire inquiry has been a sham from the start.

The public are excluded out of fear that they will explode in anger as they listen to the contemptuous disregard for the lives of workers living in a death trap.

It was a death trap built by companies out to make a profit out of using cheap, deadly materials and relying on them being passed as safe by companies that ignored the most fundamental safety oversight.

There must be no immunity for these criminals.

Grenfell was not an accident. It was the inevitable result of a Tory government working hand in glove with these companies to make a profit out of building deathtraps for workers and their families.

Justice for the crimes committed for profit will not be achieved through this sham inquiry but only by bringing down this Tory government and bringing in a workers’ government that will arrest the real criminals and force them to answer in court for their murderous crimes against the working class.

Boeing corporation cover-up of lethal aircraft problems

This 18 June 2020 video from the United States Senate says about itself:

Lawmakers rip FAA for not disclosing documents on Boeing 737 MAX

Key senators say the FAA is blocking their attempt to get documents that might explain how the agency approved the Boeing 737 MAX before two deadly crashes.

Translated from Dutch NOS radio today:

Boeing did not report crucial modification of 737 MAX to aviation authority’

US American aircraft manufacturer Boeing has not reported an essential modification to the type 737 MAX to aviation regulator FAA. This is evident from research by the United States Department of Transportation, published by the news agencies Reuters and AP.

These are changes to the warning system that automatically pushes the nose of the device down if it rises too quickly. Mainly due to errors in this so-called MCAS system, two planes crashed in Ethiopia and Indonesia in five months, killing 346 people.

The U.S. department has created a timeline of the aircraft’s history, running from the drawing board in 2012 to grounding in March 2019 after the two crashes.

This shows that Boeing initially dismissed the MCAS system as a relatively insignificant system, which would rarely be activated in practice. But in 2016, after the first test flights with the 737 MAX had taken place, the system was modified.

This pushed nose down with more force when the system was turned on. However, this change was never formally communicated to the FAA, so it was not examined by inspectors. …

Survivors of victims have filed lawsuits against the corporation.

US regulator approves re-certification flights for Boeing’s deadly 737 Max. By Bryan Dyne, 30 June 2020.

BOEING 777 GROUNDED AFTER ENGINE FAILURE Boeing told airlines to stop flying the wide-body 777 jet with the type of engine that broke apart over Colorado last week, showering the area with broken parts. United, the only U.S. airline that uses Boeing 777s with the type of Pratt & Whitney engine that failed, grounded its fleet on Sunday. Dramatic footage of United Flight 328 showed the engine of a Boeing 777-200 in flames minutes after it took off from Denver International Airport. [HuffPost]

Three years after Grenfell, still dangerous cladding

 The burned-out remains of the Grenfell Tower block in London, England

From daily The Morning Star in Britain, 12 June 2020:

Fire chiefs condemn failure to replace cladding three years on from Grenfell

IT IS “wholly unacceptable” that buildings are still covered in unsafe cladding three years after the Grenfell Tower disaster, fire chiefs have said.

The National Fire Chiefs Council called for “a fundamental reform of building safety” ahead of Sunday’s third anniversary of the fire that killed 72 people.

Council chairman Roy Wilsher said: “Everyone has a right to feel safe in their homes” and called on ministers to speed up changes.

“In many cases, building owners are not doing enough to support residents. Some leaseholders are paying unacceptable fees to maintain safety measures which were meant to be temporary,” Mr Wilsher said.

His comments came after a parliamentary committee warned that fixing all serious fire-safety defects in high-risk residential buildings could cost up to £15 billion.

Some 2,000 residential buildings are still wrapped in dangerous cladding, meaning that thousands of homeowners sleep in potential fire traps every night, according to the report by the housing, communities and local government committee.

Grenfell campaigners, firefighters and Labour blast government’s inaction for justice and fire safety over last three years: here.

After Grenfell disaster, British Conservatives still anti-safety

The remains of Grenfell Tower in London, England

By Lamiat Sabin in Britain, 11 June 2020:

Grenfell campaigners and Labour slam ministers for failing to meet deadline for removal of flammable cladding

THE Tory government was slammed today after it failed to meet its own deadline for removing all flammable cladding from buildings.

There are still about 300 buildings covered in aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, three years on from the anniversary this Sunday of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people.

In July 2019, then Housing Secretary James Brokenshire set a deadline of June 2020 for all Grenfell-style cladding to be removed and replaced on tower blocks.

London Grenfell disaster inquiry continuing onlilne?

The burnout remains of the Grenfell Tower block in London, England

From daily The Morning Star in Britain today:

Grenfell inquiry could resume via video conferencing

THE Grenfell Tower inquiry could resume via video conferencing, organisers said today.

The second phase of hearings into the disaster was halted last month due to coronavirus restrictions.

Now the inquiry has written to key witnesses and victims of the 2017 blaze with three options for how evidence may continue to be heard.


Still ‘Grenfell’ flammable cladding in Britain

This 8 March 2019 video from Britain says about itself:

Grenfell: The Deadly Cladding No One is Removing

After the Grenfell fire killed 72 people, many promises were made. Politicians vowed they would never let such a tragedy happen again.

But survivors say lessons are not being learned fast enough.

21 months after the fire, 354 buildings in England still have flammable cladding on them. In London, at least 176 high-rise buildings are yet to remove their Grenfell-style cladding.

Residents living at Northpoint in Bromley say they are facing bankruptcy and have been “abandoned” by the government.

It comes as police say criminal charges over the Grenfell Tower fire won’t be considered until the end of 2021. Survivors group, Grenfell United, say they feel “frustrated and disheartened” by the lack of progress.

By Alice Summers in Britain:

Nearly three years after the Grenfell Tower inferno, flammable cladding still widely used in UK

4 April 2020

A widely used type of building cladding has proven in tests to be highly flammable.

Nearly three years after the inferno at Grenfell Tower in June 2017, when aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding led to the rapid spread of a fire that killed 72 people, high-rise buildings across the UK are still covered in dangerous combustible material.

The test carried out on High Pressure Laminate (HPL) cladding resulted in flames ripping through the test structure in minutes, failing the safety assessment by a large margin.

While the exact brands of cladding and insulation were not released, the Metal Cladding and Roofing Manufacturers Association (MCRMA), an industry association, said it used a structure made of a “standard” version of the widely used HPL cladding and phenolic foam insulation to carry out the large-scale fire test known as British Standard (BS) 8414. This is the official test to which combustible materials must be subjected to in order to assess compliance with building regulations.

In 2018, insulation company Kingspan revealed that a system using HPL cladding had previously failed at least one BS 8414 test. Yet HPL has continued to be widely used across the country. In the recent MCRMA assessment, flames reached the top of the nine-metre-high test wall in just seven minutes and 45 seconds, with temperatures exceeding 700°C, forcing the test to be halted early. The test should last at least 30 minutes and the temperature recorded must stay below 600°C for a material to pass.

The fire spread inconsistently, with the flames not immediately catching hold extensively across the cladding and appearing relatively benign before suddenly taking hold in the joints between the panels and ripping through the cladding system in minutes. Panels “pinged off” the rivets holding them in place, creating air space and rendering the fire barriers almost useless in slowing the spread of the flames.

The results demonstrate that HPL systems pose a similar level of risk to the polyethylene-cored ACM cladding used on Grenfell, which failed the same test in six minutes and 35 seconds in the summer of 2017.

While it is not known exactly how many buildings are clad in HPL, research conducted by the housing publication Inside Housing found that 91 of the 1,612 high-rise buildings it surveyed were covered in this material. However, there are approximately 12,000 high-rise buildings over 18 metres tall across the country, with a further 100,000 buildings between 11 and 18 metres, so the real number of tall buildings using this cladding is probably in the thousands.

An additional survey by insulation manufacturer Rockwool identified 340 high-rise buildings with non-ACM cladding, many of which will be using HPL materials.

Warnings have been made about the danger of HPL for years, with industry experts calling on the government to implement large-scale testing and removal.

No tests were carried out to assess any HPL materials until midway through last year, when an HPL product treated with a fire retardant narrowly passed a BS 8414 test, despite temperatures rising to over 600°C after 25 minutes. The government issued guidance to local housing authorities stating that HPL could still be used on existing buildings if it was not combined with flammable insulation.

“Standard-grade” HPL was not subjected to any tests until the test in March this year, despite it being much more widely used than flame-retardant versions.

In a letter to the government, Dr Jonathan Evans, technical committee chair at the MCRMA who helped organise this recent test, said that he had called for the government to test standard-grade HPL in its post-Grenfell testing programme, but they had “flatly refused.”

“The foundation of [the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s] independent expert panel’s advice has been the ‘view’ that ACM [cladding] presents a unique danger despite there seemingly being no test evidence to support this. This is not ‘expert advice’—it is little more than wishful thinking. You can’t hide forever how these materials perform,” Dr Evans wrote.

He added, “From a fire and rescue perspective, the performance of a standard HPL system is practically the same as that of polyethylene-cored ACM—you’ve got just a few minutes to prevent a very serious fire from rapidly developing.

“Arguably, due to the higher fuel content, an HPL fire might be more difficult to fight than ACM due to the greater heat release rate,” he warned.

A 2019 study led by Professor Richard Hull, professor of chemistry and fire science at the University of Central Lancashire, already highlighted the danger of HPL materials, which have been associated with previous fire fatalities. Window panels using this material were installed at Lakanal House, a tower block in south London where six residents lost their lives in a fire in 2009 and another 20 were injured.

HPL cladding was also used on a student accommodation block belonging to the University of Bolton in the north of England, known as The Cube, where a massive fire broke out in November 2019. There were no fatalities, but two students had to be treated by paramedics for injuries, and the 211 students lost all their belongings.

Hull’s study found that HPL cladding releases heat 25 times faster and burns 115 times hotter than non-combustible products. Speaking to Inside Housing in 2019, Hull stated, “I think that HPL has been neglected, and shouldn’t have been neglected.

“One would fear that because of all the attention that has gone to the ACM buildings [that] the next disaster is likely to involve HPL rather than ACM—because they haven’t had the fire risk assessments and so on.”

Next to nothing has been done by the authorities to even address the danger posed by ACM cladding. According to government data, more than 400 residential blocks, in the public and private sectors, were found, after testing, to have flammable cladding. Yet as of January 16, 2020, at least 315 private and public high-rise buildings in England remain covered in ACM cladding. Remedial work has been completed on only 135 buildings, all but one in the public or social sectors, for which a pitiful £400 million has been made available since October 2018.

A further paltry sum of £200 million was made available in May last year, supposedly to handle at-risk buildings in the private sector. Taking account of the negligible remedial work done so far, between 13,300 and 17,100 households, comprising tens of thousands of people, live in unsafe privately owned homes. At the current rate, remediation on public sector blocks covered in ACM would take until October 2022, and private blocks not until October 2033.

With popular revulsion at government inaction growing, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in his March 11 Budget an additional £1 billion “Building Safety Fund” for the removal of dangerous cladding of all forms from high-rise buildings. Sunak’s announcement came after the National Housing Federation calculated that total costs for removal work are expected to easily top £10 billion in the social housing sector alone.

The lack of testing and removal work carried out thus far is testament to the deplorable levels of contempt evinced by central and local government for the lives of working-class residents. In March, the government-established Grenfell Recovery Taskforce reported that while 194 of the 201 households made homeless by the Grenfell fire are now in permanent homes, six households are still in temporary accommodation and one household is still in a hotel.

Last month, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry was halted due to the coronavirus crisis. While necessary to protect its participants, the inquiry is further delayed. A timescale that was not set to publish the findings of phase two of its proceedings until 2023 will be pushed back even further, while those corporations and government bodies guilty of social murder roam free under protection from prosecution offered by this state-orchestrated whitewash.

Dangerous combustible cladding still not replaced on 70% of buildings: here.

Zagreb, Croatia earthquake disaster

This 22 March 2020 video says about itself:

The streets of Zagreb after 5.3 magnitude earthquake hits Croatian capital | AFP

An earthquake of magnitude 5.3 hit the Croatian capital Zagreb, causing extensive damage in the city centre and scenes of panic. A 15-year-old boy was reportedly killed in the rubble of a badly damaged building, according to media reports. The epicentre of the tremor was located 7 km north of Zagreb. IMAGES of streets in Zagreb.