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Thursday 10 September 2020


What just happened

London, Uk
From: Matt d’Ancona

Long stories short

  • Micheál Martin, the Irish Taoiseach, warned Boris Johnson to ditch plans relating to the UK’s future relationship with Northern Ireland that would – by the UK Government’s own admission – breach the terms of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
  • Three people died in a Californian blaze as dozens of wildfires continued to sweep the US Pacific Northwest, described by Oregon Governor Kate Brown as potentially “the greatest loss of human life and property” caused by such fires in the history of the state.
  • The world’s largest luxury group, LVMH, announced it was pulling out of its $16.6 billion takeover of US jeweller Tiffany – sending jitters through a sector already deeply unsettled by trade tensions and the retail impact of the pandemic.

It would be nice to think that Boris Johnson’s leaked plans for an “Operation Moonshot” to deliver mass population testing for coronavirus before Christmas were at least partly inspired by Tortoise’s own Moonshot proposals two weeks ago to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

In truth, the Prime Minister’s plan – set out in a slide show presentation dated last month – has much more to do with political panic than heroic scientific collaboration or visionary leadership.

  • Ministers have been seriously spooked by the spike in reported cases of infection – now oscillating between 2,400 and 3,000 a day – and the prospect of a second wave that cannot be controlled by local or sectoral restrictions. According to the leaked documents, the PM believes that a mass testing programme is “our only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown before a vaccine”.
  • Though the fatality rates remain mercifully low – eight deaths reported yesterday – the government fears that, as schools reopen and the university term begins, young people, much less likely to suffer serious symptoms if infected, will nonetheless transmit the virus to more vulnerable family members and friends – leading to a spike in hospital admissions in the late autumn.
  • The most important discovery about the virus since the pandemic struck is that 70 per cent of the infected are asymptomatic. In and of itself, this is good news. But it also means that, absent of an effective testing regime, almost three-quarters of those with coronavirus have no idea that they may be spreading the infection everywhere they go.
  • There is no prospect whatsoever – for fiscal and scientific reasons alone – of the PM’s supposed “£100 billion” plan for a universally-available routine, locally-accessible test being available before Christmas.
  • The “Moonshot” scheme is better understood as a benign version of President Trump’s wall: a populist symbol of intent and determination, designed to mobilise public support and confidence, with little or no chance of being completed. It is surely no accident that the plan leaked on the very day that Johnson urged the country to behave with greater responsibility, limited gatherings to six and reminded people to wash their hands, wear masks and observe social distancing. After the stick, this was a carrot-shaped moonshot.

Do not underestimate the degree of panic that lurks beneath the (occasionally risible) rhetoric. Johnson knows that for economic, educational, social and psychiatric reasons the country simply cannot afford a full second lockdown. On that score, he is quite right.

Today in the app… following this week’s File on Evin Prison and the repressive Iranian state, do look at our list of suggested further reading on Iran. Today we’re hosting our G7bn Summit with speakers including Samantha Power, Jeffrey Sachs, David Miliband, Sir David Adjaye, and Lisa Nandy. And tune in to Sensemaker Live tomorrow when we’ll be looking at the tragic death of Mercy Baguma.


wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Goodbye Piccadilly
Two interesting findings in the latest monthly survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors: first, that there is a surge of demand for UK homes with gardens and other private outdoor space. This correlates with the growing expectation that many expect to work from home from now on, or at least to adopt a new hybrid pattern in which the five-days-a-week commute is a thing of the past. Second: property prices generally are rising – except in London. In property trends, as in all else, the capital tends to be sui generis: so one should interpret this data with care. But it might just be a sign, consistent, again, with changing work patterns, that the gravitational pull of life in the Great Wen is starting to fade.


new things technology, science, engineering

Do no harm?
An unpleasant form of digital bullying is reported in the FT: menacing notifications sent to the phones of Kenyans with small loans from Silicon Valley, threatening to report borrowers to Kenya’s credit reference bureau unless payment is received immediately. The sums involved are pitifully small for a US West Coast lender – $20, say – but that can represent 20 per cent of a Kenyan’s monthly earnings. Thus has the supposedly constructive practice of micro-credit as a means of lifting people out of poverty been grotesquely manipulated into so-called “debt-shaming”, a practice that has reportedly led to at least one suicide. Sad to say that within every form of technological emancipation there lurks the potential for ill-intentioned control.


our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

The audacity of hope
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the world’s animal population has fallen by more than two-thirds in the last 50 years. A study of 4,000 species of mammal, fish, bird, reptile and amphibian between 1970 and 2016 identifies the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history – but the first to be caused by humanity (climate change, deforestation, and the conversion of natural habitats into farmland being the main factors). But there are glimmers of hope: evidence of the impact made by properly-implemented conservation projects such as the legal protection given to forest elephants in Ghana, blacktail reef sharks in Australia and tigers in Nepal. There is still time, as Sir David Attenborough writes in the report, to “achieve a balance with the rest of the natural world and become stewards of our planet”.


the 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Follow the money
Donald Trump told the legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward as long ago as 17 February that he was well aware of the threat of coronavirus (“deadly stuff”), that transmission could be airborne (“you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed”), and that “it’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus”. All this flatly contradicts what Trump was telling US citizens at the time. That he is a liar is not news. What’s intriguing is the conflict between standard journalistic practice (Woodward had a book to write for publication in the autumn, and wanted to save his scoop) and the reporter’s ethical duty to reveal information immediately that might have a bearing on the health of millions. In an amusingly evasive interview with the Washington Post, Woodward says he wasn’t sure in February whether Trump was telling the truth to him and wanted verification that the US administration really was deeply concerned in February. Hmm. I wonder what the young Woodward would have done in the days when he brought down the Nixon administration with Carl Bernstein – when he seemed to care more about advance knowledge than book advances.


Belonging Identity, Society, Beliefs, Countries

Diversity should include indy films
From 2024, contenders for the Best Picture category at the Oscars will have to meet at least two of four new “diversity standards” ranging from on-screen representation by performers to representation on-set and in marketing teams. Five years since April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag electrified the Academy Awards, the film industry is mindful that it has not yet done anything like enough to match modern expectations of diversity and inclusion. Already, the new rules have inspired a backlash, characterised as an unconscionable attack on artistic freedom. Ironically, big studios, with their huge teams, will not find it hard to meet these relatively flexible criteria: it is independent moviemakers filming with iPhones, with small budgets and tiny crews, that may find them challenging – and the Academy should keep this in mind.


Stay safe and enjoy the autumnal sun.

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner


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