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Sensemaker: Lockdown 3

Sensemaker: Lockdown 3

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Israel has authorised use of the Moderna vaccine and ordered six million doses.
  • Iran has begun enriching uranium at 20 per cent purity, in breach of the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • Mexico offered political asylum to Julian Assange after the US said it would appeal the UK’s decision to deny America’s extradition request.

Lockdown 3

Everyone knew a lockdown was coming to England. It has been blindingly obvious for weeks: we can all see the data. The new Kentish virus variant has been a disaster, tearing through the country: spare some thoughts and prayers for people in the health service and for patients for the coming weeks. Tens of thousands more British people are likely to die in this wave as hospitals buckle under the strain of a wave that took off after we established that we had safe vaccines en route. It is an astounding failure of public policy to let people die of a disease we can now prevent. 

One of the most puzzling mysteries has been why Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, fought, until yesterday, not to close schools for a sustained spell. Other European countries have closed schools as a last resort – and we have been deep into last resort territory for weeks. The R-number is above 1, and we need something to take it down. Schools will be remote until mid-February, seemingly to create a window of opportunity for vaccine roll-out.

It is worth reiterating that, on Sunday morning, the prime minister went on TV and said there was “no doubt in my mind that schools are safe”. Primaries outside London were expected to reopen on Monday, while secondaries were expected to go remote until mid-January. This was always a peculiar, undercooked plan. 

Part of this is the politics of education: since 2010, in particular, ministers have been able to win support from the rightwing press for theatrically seeing off phantom union plots – despite decades of union-busting laws having made it a very unequal fight. As late as this Sunday, the Mail was attacking “left-wing councils and unions” for wanting school closure. 

This was a recipe for disaster. For one thing, the teaching unions of 2021 are better led than they have been in decades. The National Education Union is now led by Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, who have been smart about staying aligned with their membership’s general desire to keep schools open, only moving towards asking for closure in the autumn. 

As a consequence, as in 2017, when they ran a very effective campaign against school budget cuts, the unions built a broad coalition that includes parents. At one point in this journey, they were signing joint letters with the Church of England. But they have also brought along hardline school providers like Islington council, who commissioned research that argued for schools to stay open in November – and the quiet support of some Tory shires. 

But the fundamental reason why the NEU won this fight is that they were obviously right. Indeed, the core reason why the government was beaten up this week is that it stopped following its own scientists’ advice. The NEU could not have taken on the government scientists – but when a minister ignored the scientific consensus it ate him for breakfast. 

The immediate problems now are about delivering schooling online: we still do not have free data packages for school children to access lessons. We still have children who need devices to work on. The old problems of whether kids have somewhere safe and quiet to work persist. This raises huge questions about childcare. And now we know some exams will be cancelled in the summer – but not what will replace them. The exams regulator has been asked to sort something out to allow assessments to go ahead. But what? Who knows. 

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

Border controls
The UK government will also, belatedly, introduce border controls. Anyone entering will soon need pre-flight PCR tests, according to the FT, meaning anyone coming to England will need a negative Covid test no more than 72 hours before traveling – something that other countries have been doing for months. Britain’s weird aversion to using border controls as a weapon against the virus is finally ending just as we enter the endgame, and at a moment when any given Briton is more likely to have the disease than most incomers. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Georgia on my mind
The US Senate run-off elections take place today – or, given how much early voting now happens, perhaps we should say, the voting period ends today. Two seats are up for grabs – and if the Democrats win both, the senate will be split 50-50. That will mean a razor-thin Democratic majority in the senate because Kamala Harris, the vice-president-elect, can cast a tie-breaking vote. A reminder: the Republicans are running a guy with a long history of trading off privileged information and a candidate whose ad I teased months ago in this newsletter for its high-level bonkersness. But their campaigns are also riding the strange wave of denial and lies about ballot-rigging that have poisoned the US political process. Getting rid of them in favour of two more honest people (the lowest of bars!) would be a win for democratic norms.

New things technology, science, engineering

Big Tech
A theme I’ve been puzzling over for a while – including in this newsletter – is the driverless car. As I’ve said before, we’re supposed to all be able to snooze at the wheel already – but the hype is slowly deflating from the self-changing tyre. The FT (£) carries an interview with John Krafcik, head of Waymo, a Google sister company that has launched a driverless taxi service in Phoenix. They have 600 vehicles – not quite the 62,000 that they had stated two years ago. I find his lead quote funny: “It’s an extraordinary grind,” he said. “I would say it’s a bigger challenge than launching a rocket and putting it in orbit around the Earth . . . because it has to be done safely over and over and over again.” Who’d have thought, huh? 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Commercial real estate
An op-ed in the New York Times ($) asks about the future of the office – and speculates about whether we will get more mixed-use areas. It’s a really good, pertinent question – especially in the UK, when the politics of the country are so landlordist. “At the end of the 19th century, most American urbanites walked to work; as late as 1930, Manhattan’s residential population was larger than it is today, meaning the city was more mixed in terms of land use, not dominated by office towers.” 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

The world’s least environmentally friendly pseudo-currency is on a tear at the moment – hitting new highs. It’s important to think about what this means. It does not mean it is a good investment (it is digital gold, in that its price is largely determined by the weird theories of other investors). A high price and high volumes also do not mean it is more or less viable as a “currency”, rather than a speculative asset. It also still doesn’t much matter, except as a means of evading law-enforcement, and for the fact a higher price encourages people to devote resources into “mining” Bitcoin – a process that involves running computers to solve puzzles. The whole thing already consumes more power than the Kingdom of Jordan. Despite everything, a higher price will draw more people into it. 

Stay safe, wash your hands, open windows when you can. 

Chris Cook

Photographs Getty Images