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Sensemaker: The final stretch

Sensemaker: The final stretch

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UK announced a plan to shorten quarantine for people arriving in the country who test negative for Covid after five days.
  • Mike Pompeo joined Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a “secret” meeting in Saudi Arabia.
  • The leader of Tigray’s dissidents rejected a demand from the Ethiopian prime minister to surrender within 72 hours, and said his people were “ready to die”.

The final stretch

The central forecast for the next year must be that the capable vaccines now entering their final checks before deployment mean we are in the home straight. Vaccine deployment is going to be difficult, and there will be mis-steps. It is going to be a huge logistical conundrum. But it is certainly doable – and, in richer countries, should be doable pretty fast.

The challenge is how we all get to the finish line without needless further fatalities: a vaccine makes it increasingly clear that an infection delayed can now become an infection prevented. This is the way to think of the challenge from here. 

A new paper in Nature suggests this will be a particular difficulty in some places with more conservative partisanship – a real problem across the US, where the outbreak remains at its worst in Republican heartlands like South Dakota, North Dakota and Iowa.

There is also a particular challenge with handling the various winter saturnalia. In the US, there is a current worry about whether people can celebrate Thanksgiving safely. The governor of New York revealed his mother was travelling to see him for the holiday – and then was forced to cancel her trip. 

In England, national restrictions are expected to be eased next week, and replaced by a tiering system. Areas with higher rates will continue to be locked in. But a lot of focus is on Christmas: UK-wide plans are expected for a five-day window when rules will be relaxed. This is a solution to a difficult policy problem: do not make rules that will not be enforced or be enforceable. 

But the government also needs to think about communicating this decision to people who are indifferent about Christmas. Hanukkah falls outside the proposed travel window. There was no such carve-out for Diwali. A lot of areas with large Muslim populations were locked down over Eid. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Sarkozy in court
The former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been in court – the first former president to personally fight charges since the trial of Marshal Pétain (Jacques Chirac was tried in absentia on health grounds in 2011). This is the first of a sequence of potential cases for Sarkozy. In this one he is accused of offering preferment to a judge in return for information about another corruption case against him. Others will follow. The imperial presidency may be passing into history. 

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

Donald Trump, still president of the US, has acknowledged that he needs to permit Joe Biden, the president-elect, to begin his transition to the presidency. (This does not mean, of course, that he accepts he lost.) Trump’s increasingly preposterous legal challenges ran into the sand – and were thrown out of court with some vigour by judges. The Trump campaign recently had to disavow one of its lawyers for her madcap theories, while other lawyers retained by the campaign realised they had to think of their reputations before presenting baseless claims. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Yellen returns
One very striking appointment by the incoming administration: Janet Yellen will be treasury secretary – and comes with the most remarkable experience. As a former chair and vice-chair of the Federal Reserve, she has had the longest and best possible training for the job. The New York Times reports ($) on her longstanding concerns about the national debt, while the FT reports (£) that she has recently been bullish on using the low interest rate environment to increase public investment. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

CO2 and C19
The pandemic has not led to a significant dent in our carbon emissions, according to the UN. While the annual output of CO2 dropped by as much as 7 per cent, this was less than the noise in the changes in emissions levels that we see from year to year. The UN’s key evidence is that the latest data from atmospheric observatories show a continuing overall rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – not any sort of pause. I want to be sceptical about this, largely because of my motivated reasoning: it would be so depressing if we cancelled as many flights and shipping journeys as we have this year and got no decent climate crisis benefit from it.

New things technology, science, engineering

British telecoms companies caught using 5G gear from Huawei, the giant Chinese supplier, face fines of £100,000 per day, under new legislation being drafted in the UK. The plan is to ban new installation of their kit by 2024, and root it out of British networks by 2027. This is all quite a volte-face from the indecision about Huawei that marked the UK’s approach to the company – but it reflects three concerns: that Huawei could be required to co-operate with the Chinese security services, that enabling a stronger Huawei is playing into China’s strategic ambitions and that Britain is a bit too entangled with an increasingly authoritarian regime in Beijing. 

Stay safe, wash your hands.

Chris Cook