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Sensemaker: Is 70 per cent enough?

Monday 23 November 2020

What just happened


Long stories short

  • AstraZeneca reported that its Covid vaccine is, on average, 70 per cent effective (more below).
  • Downing Street said non-essential shops would be allowed to reopen in England when lockdown ends on 2 December. 
  • Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong democracy activist, pled guilty to unlawful assembly and could face five years in jail. 
  • Joe Biden let it be known he wants Tony Blinken, a lifelong internationalist, and keen singer, as his secretary of state.

Is 70 per cent enough?

The most eagerly awaited vaccine news in British and possibly world history arrived at 7am in a press release from AstraZeneca that at first felt like a disappointment. Early results suggest the vaccine the company has developed with Oxford University offers 62 per cent protection when delivered in two full doses and around 90 per cent when a half dose is followed by a full one, for an average of 70.4 per cent. 

That is lower than Pfizer’s or Moderna’s, whose preliminary phase III clinical trial results indicated 95 per cent efficacy. However…

  • Unlike the other two, the Oxford vaccine is built for global distribution because it doesn’t have to be heavily refrigerated. It needs to be stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius – household fridge temperature – compared with minus 70 and minus 20 for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines respectively.
  • It’s also cheap, so low- and middle-income countries are depending on it. AstraZeneca says it will make the vaccine available at cost for “a few dollars” or around £3 per dose, compared with close to $20 for the Pfizer vaccine and more for the Moderna one. 
  • Mass production is already under way in the UK and elsewhere under supply deals agreed earlier this year, notably with the Serum Institute of India and in Brazil. Before today’s results the UK government ordered 100 million doses and AstraZeneca said it could in principle produce three billion doses a year.
  • The regimen that appears to offer 90 per cent protection against Covid – a half dose followed by a full dose – may also give better protection against transmission by asymptomatic carriers, according to Professor Andrew Pollard, the trial’s lead investigator. If so, he said, “we might be able to halt the virus in its tracks”.
  • The 95 per cent numbers from the US trials raised expectations beyond what even their own investigators hoped for. Even the 62 per cent protection offered by the full dose regimen would drive down infection rates given sufficient uptake.

Four million doses of the vaccine have already been stockpiled in the UK. Assuming it is approved for public use the first people to get it will be care home workers and residents, followed by people over 80. 

Questions:

  • Will some people demand the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine over the Oxford one for the sake of a few extra points’ worth of protection? If so, will they have the choice? Would they have to pay?
  • What if uptake is not sufficient? A Pew survey in the US in September found that 49 per cent of Americans would not accept a vaccine. Tom Tugendhat, the Tory MP, has a solution: don’t let people who haven’t had it into pubs.
  • Is it easy to repackage full doses of a vaccine as half doses? One hopes it is.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Hollow city
New office construction in central London fell by half in the six months to September compared with the six months before, and by 60 per cent in the City. In the later period there were just ten big schemes being worked on in the Square Mile compared with 16 in the preceding one, according to Deloitte. “The crowd flowed up the hill and down King William Street,” the poet wrote. Not anymore. Covid drove it away, Zoom kept it busy at home and the chance of lower overheads means the big question is whether it will ever return. 


New things technology, science, engineering

Vanadium batteires
The FT’s big read on batteries opens on the north Kent coast, where locals are worried that a giant new solar farm and containers full of lithium ion batteries will spoil the view. But the tech news buried in the piece is the emergence of vanadium-based batteries for large-scale power storage to even out supply curves from renewable sources. Vanadium batteries have the twin merits of low flammability and long life (up to 30 years). The catch: vanadium is scarce and its price is volatile, which may be why scientists have been so slow to take another look at it after Nasa proved the concept of so-called redox flow batteries early in the space race. So far battery progress has been generally glacial. Are we due a Great Acceleration?


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

Lockdown scapegoat
The premier of South Australia has blamed the state’s latest Covid lockdown on a single 36 year-old pizza worker accused of lying to a contact tracer. The unnamed culprit told the tracer he only ordered pizza from the Woodville pizza bar in a western suburb of Adelaide, when in fact he worked there. When the truth emerged along with his Covid positive status, officials assumed the outbreak was wider than it really was and ordered the lockdown. Steven Marshall, the premier, said at a press conference on Friday that he was “fuming”. Critics accuse him of scapegoating an individual for a collective failure to account for low-income workers’ need to keep on working.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

H2 for Hyundai
Jim Ratcliffe is getting into fuel cells. Britain’s fifth richest man has signed a deal with Hyundai that appears to involve swapping hydrogen for hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology. The details are sketchy but Hyundai is one of the world’s two big users of automotive fuel cell drive trains (Toyota is the other), and Ratcliffe’s Ineos chemicals groups produces 300,000 tonnes of hydrogen a year as a byproduct of other processes. He’s pouring money into a high-risk project to bring a new off-roader to the market based on the old Land Rover Defender, and he wants it ultimately to be zero emission. A fuel cell drive train would take care of that, but only if the hydrogen it consumes is produced from the electrolysis of water using renewable power. That’s expensive, and as Ratcliffe knows you don’t get rich by spending. We’ll keep a close eye on where he gets his hydrogen. 


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Guatemala aflame
Guatemalans have set their Congress on fire for passing a budget that gives parliamentarians a raise while cutting funds for human rights programmes and combating malnutrition. Flames poured from the Congress building in Guatemala City on Saturday as protesters filled the streets outside. President Alejandro Giammattei has so far refused to veto the budget or resign, despite being invited to by his own vice president. Guatemala’s crop yields are falling as its climate warms. Tourism has been devastated this year by Covid and the country’s malnutrition rate is among the highest in the world. As one bystander at the protests told Al Jazeera, “they are leaving us without anything to eat”.

opinion: Matthew d’Ancona

The two Rishi Sunaks

This week’s Spending Review will reveal a chancellor torn between a yearning to balance the books and the needs of a new era

When Rishi Sunak became chancellor of the Exchequer on 13 February, only eight cases of coronavirus had been recorded in this country. So deferential to Number 10 was he assumed to be (in contrast to his predecessor, Sajid Javid) that, at the time, the 39-year-old was nicknamed “Baby CHINO” – Chancellor-In-Name-Only.

How much has changed in the past nine months. Yesterday, 18,662 new coronavirus infections were recorded in the UK. The Covid death toll now stands at 55,024.

And Sunak, for his part, is no longer teased as anybody’s stooge. In less than a year, he has overseen a mind-bogglingly expensive economic rescue package, established his own shiny political brand, and made little secret of his irritation at the failure of his Cabinet colleagues’ public health strategy to bring the virus under control.

On Wednesday, he will deliver his first Spending Review – setting departmental budgets not for three years, as Boris Johnson had hoped, but only for 2021-22. “This will be like a situation report,” says one senior source. “But it will give you a clear idea of where Rishi thinks the road-map should be heading.”

And where is that? First, there will be reassurances that the Chancellor is not about to “deflate the Covid lifebuoy”, as the same source puts it (Sunak has already extended the furlough scheme, by which the Treasury pays 80 percent of the wages of staff who might otherwise be made redundant, until March). Not yet, anyway.

Second, there will be a mini-spending spree on schools, the police, border control, further education, rough-sleeping and a few other line items.

And third – and most important in Sunak’s mind – there will be brutal honesty about “the scale of the economic shock” that has been caused by anti-Covid restrictions, and an equally blunt indication of the “tough decisions” that lie ahead.

To which end, the chancellor will signal a pay freeze for all public sector workers outside the NHS. The commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on international aid – a principal pillar of David Cameron’s Tory modernisation project – is in peril. So too is the so-called “triple lock” whereby state pensions rise by whichever is greatest of inflation, average earnings growth, or 2.5 per cent (though its future is not expected to be settled on Wednesday). And although the Spending Review is not a moment to unveil tax decisions, Sunak will leave us in little doubt that increases are coming.

Splits within politicians are often more interesting than splits within political parties. And Sunak, for all his poise and media aplomb, is a chancellor torn in two quite different directions: by ideology and ambition; by the habits of prudence and the needs of a new era; by the future and the past.

In accepting the job after Javid’s resignation, he aligned himself – at least officially – with the prime minister’s fiscal inclinations, which are to put the decade of austerity firmly behind us and invest prodigiously in transport, health care, green industry, and (it now transpires) defence. It cannot be stressed sufficiently that Johnson’s yearning to spend, spend, spend long predated the pandemic.

In his March Budget, Sunak duly pledged that £640 billion would be spent on infrastructure over the next five years, and that expenditure on public services would increase by £100 billion in cash terms by the end of this parliament. This, he said 26 times, was a government that “gets things done”.

Well, up to a point. The Covid crisis has disclosed a bleak inventory of systemic failure: the flaccid attempt to secure sufficient PPE for front-line health workers; the shambles of the test-and-trace strategy; the scandal of coronavirus infections in care homes; epic dysfunction in Number 10; and much else besides.

Sunak’s record during the emergency has not been without blemish. The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) has scarcely worked as it should have; he was slow to deal with the plight of the self-employed; he has not always appreciated the need to protect certain sectors as quickly as he should.

In general, however, he has escaped the public pummelling to which Johnson and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, have been subjected, especially since the second wave of the virus struck and national lockdown measures were restored.

What worries Sunak more than the prospect of unpopularity is the prospect of failure, and failure – crucially – as he defines it. As is clear from Michael Ashcroft’s new biography, Going for Broke, Sunak may be Johnson’s chancellor but he is a fiscal conservative to his finger-tips – which is to say, he believes, as a first principle, that a nation should seek to spend no more than it earns.

In a Budget debate in July 2015, only two months after his election as MP for Richmond (in succession to William Hague), he declared that “in normal times, public spending should not exceed 37 per cent of GDP”. His background as a Stanford MBA and employee of Goldman Sachs has ingrained in him an unrelenting sensitivity to the markets, and a fear of what might happen to an unduly indebted UK plc in years to come.

His quip about the PM in this weekend’s Sunday Times – “I should take his credit card away” – perfectly illustrated the Freudian maxim that a joke is truth wrapped in a smile.

Though a committed (and early) champion of Brexit, Sunak is not a true disciple of Johnson or the recently departed Dominic Cummings. He believes in “levelling up”, but not at any price. In this sense, his fiscal instincts owe much more to the Cameron-Osborne era than to the new age of Boris Bounty.

Hence his determination to freeze public sector pay. As he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge yesterday: “When we launched the Spending Review, I did say to departments that when we think about settlements it would be entirely reasonable to think about those in the context of the wider economic climate…. Secondly, I think it would be fair to also think about what’s happening with wages, with jobs, with hours across the economy, when we think about what the right thing to do in the public sector is.”

To decode: my Cabinet colleagues are going to have to make cuts whether they like it or not; and public sector employees have enjoyed much greater protections during the pandemic than their private sector counterparts, and cannot expect special treatment.

This illustrates perfectly the difference between logic and common sense. In fact, it is politically callow. Sunak may be technically right about the greater security enjoyed by those who work for the state. But he might reflect that he will be delivering his speech before the end of lockdown, in the middle of a punishing second wave of the virus, at a time of national bereavement and soaring mental health problems, and exactly a month before Christmas.

Is this really the moment to be getting tough on teaching assistants paid £16,000 a year? Or the million or so public sector workers who earn less than the living wage? Sunak is right to think about the state of the public finances as a matter of urgency, but he should think about the state of the nation first. Politics is not a branch of economics, and no chancellor who believes otherwise is worthy of the top job.

More to the point: Sunak presents himself as the very incarnation of modernity, effective yet relaxed, fun yet professional, a hoodie-wearing Conservative who loves Star Wars and Emily in Paris.

But these are the trappings of modernity, rather than its essence – which is always changing. And Sunak’s predicament symbolises a deep fissure in the Conservative psyche about its future trajectory and its identity. Specifically, there is a dawning recognition among thinking Tories that the 21st Century will offer fewer and fewer opportunities to roll back the frontiers of the state.

Climate emergency; the prospect that something like a universal basic income may be needed to compensate for the impact upon employment of automation and the insecurities of the labour market; the growing health, social care and retraining needs of an ageing population: there will be market-based solutions for some of these challenges. But it is idle to deny that we are entering an age in which we shall need more government, not less.

This is a hugely challenging prospect for Conservatives reared on Thatcherism, elected during the austerity years, and – to varying degrees – persuaded that the state is a necessary evil rather than an expression of social solidarity and resilience. For this tribe, the pandemic has been a ferocious psychic jolt.

In the past few weeks, three Conservative MPs have separately mentioned to me The Deficit Myth by Stephanie Kelton, former chief economist on the US Senate Budget Committee, which systematically attacks the very foundations of fiscal conservatism. I have no idea whether these troubled Tories have actually read the book. What interests me is that they should be talking about it at all.

Sunak stands at the very centre of this debate, the product of one era tasked with steering the economy into another. He personifies the strains within a hitherto-robust party orthodoxy that has yet to be replaced by a coherent alternative, other than: keep on spending, Rishi.

The tension is fundamental to the future of Conservative statecraft. On Wednesday, we shall see how close the Chancellor is to resolving it.


the week ahead

UK
23/11
– Boris Johnson outlines post-lockdown plan; weekly Covid testing for homecare workers begins; Shamima Begum’s citizenship appeal to be heard by Supreme Court; Brexit negotiations continue virtually, 24/11 – health secretary Matt Hancock appears before select committee session on Covid; HM Inspectorate of Probation publishes annual report on youth offending services, 25/11 – chancellor Rishi Sunak presents government’s spending review; National Infrastructure Strategy published; domestic abuse numbers released for year ending March 2020; Office for Budget Responsibility publishes economic and fiscal outlook, 26/11 – government expected to announce which tiers each English region will fall into post-lockdown, 27/11 – new circuit breaker lockdown begins in Northern Ireland, 28/11 – SNP autumn conference; FA Cup second round, 29/11 – one year anniversary of 2019 London Bridge terror attack

World
23/11 – former president Barack Obama and US health adviser Anthony Fauci take part in live discussions with the Washington Post; Imarc annual mining conference begins, 24/11 – president-elect Joe Biden expected to announce cabinet picks; Chinese foreign minister visits Japan; French president Emmanuel Macron gives national address; Germany announces third quarter GDP; International Air Transport Association hosts virtual Annual General Meeting, 25/11 – WHO publishes yearly malaria report; Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam gives annual policy address; US Federal Reserve due to publish monetary policy meeting minutes, 26/11 – Thanksgiving Day, 27/11 – France and India release third quarter GDP, 28/11 – Alternative for Germany (AfD) annual conference; Mike Tyson fights Roy Jones Jr. in exhibition match, 29/11 – Brazil holds second round of municipal elections 

And finally… A must-read to start the week from the NYT: Andrew Higgins and photographer Emile Ducke travel the road of bones into the heart of the old Gulag, and the breeding ground of Russia’s epic amnesia. 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell