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Sensemaker: Cut off

Friday 12 February 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Yulia Navalnaya flew to Frankfurt after being detained twice in Russia since the arrest and imprisonment of her husband, Alexei Navalny.
  • Meghan Markle condemned the “dehumanising” practices of the Mail on Sunday after winning a two-year legal battle against the paper for printing parts of a letter to her father.
  • China banned BBC World News from broadcasting in China, a week after Ofcom withdrew CGTN’s license to broadcast in the UK.

Cut off

Inward travel to the UK is banned for nationals of 33 red-listed countries. UK and Irish nationals coming from those countries have to quarantine in government-approved hotels for ten days at their own expense from Monday. All outward travel for UK residents is banned except in exceptional circumstances. Ministers advise against booking summer holidays in Britain or abroad, and the government’s quarantine hotel booking system crashed last night soon after going live.

Has Britain reached peak isolation?

That depends. The red list is based more on Covid variants than Covid prevalence, which is why South African and South American countries dominate it. For now the South African variant that appears to dent some vaccines’ efficacy is not widespread in the UK, and the Brazilian one that has paralysed the Amazonian city of Manaus has not been detected here. If the quarantine plan holds the line against these variants, the red list might get shorter rather than longer.

On the other hand. The trend in Germany is towards more border restrictions and trends can be contagious. Yesterday the interior minister Horst Seehofer said travel from the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol region will be banned from Sunday because of worries about variants – and about a repeat of last year’s Ischgl disaster, in which intense après-ski in one resort seeded Covid outbreaks from Iceland to eastern Europe. 

Hope springs Imperial. Imperial College London’s Professor Neil Ferguson – Professor Lockdown to both critics and admirers – tells Politico that UK infections are halving every 17 days and, barring new outbreaks, it should be safe to reopen primary schools next month. Then the government has to heed the lessons of past lockdowns, chief among them to reopen the economy cautiously and slowly. If it does, Ferguson “is hopeful [this] will be the final lockdown”. 

To note: he says at least 30 per cent of UK residents are now thought to have had the virus. That is not close to herd immunity, which is where vaccines come in, and Ferguson isn’t banking on them yet. He sees the next few months as a key test of their “real-world effectiveness”. Translation: they’d better work.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Old money, meet new
The Bank of New York Mellon, America’s oldest bank, is starting to think of bitcoin as real money. The WSJ reports ($) that it now recognises clients’ bitcoin holdings as part of their asset portfolios rather than seeing them as a flutter on the side. “It will hold, transfer and issue bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies on behalf of its asset-management clients,” the paper says. What BNY Mellon will do with bitcoin for mere individuals is not yet clear, and it reckons the time when Wall Street is completely comfortable with cryptocurrencies is still three to five years off. But this story is significant because BNY Mellon is not a normal bank. It’s a custody bank, one of whose main tasks is to tot up clients’ net worth at the end of every working day. And bitcoin – trading at a record $48,635.84 per coin on Thursday night, up by a factor of more than 200 since February 2015 – is now part of that arithmetic.

New things technology, science, engineering

Hydrogen flight
A six-engined hydrogen-powered propeller plane with a 1,000-mile range is gaining a following at Airbus. It doesn’t exist yet – it’s one of three zero-emission aircraft concepts Airbus unveiled (or in at least one case re-unveiled) last year to show it was making a real effort to lower aviation’s carbon footprint. Bloomberg says (£) the plane could carry 100 people from Dublin to Rome and might use fuel cell pods under its wings to produce electric power to drive the props, rather than actually burning the hydrogen. This story should be read at least partly as Airbus getting a leg up on Boeing in the clean flight hype business, but at least it’s optimistic. Note: hydrogen storage remains a huge hurdle. There’s a Carnegie-scale fortune for whoever cracks H2 storage in lightweight carbon nanostructures. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Offshore wind bonanza latest
Earlier this week we passed along the news that Shell and BP had bid way over the odds to secure North Sea offshore wind farm leases whose sale could net billions for the Crown Estate and the royal family. Startled by what the oil majors are now willing to pay for a piece of renewable action, the Crown Estate Scotland, which is separate from its English cousin and doesn’t pass money on to the royals, is now pausing its own offshore lease auctions to review their structure and make sure it gets “a fair price”. The money goes to the Scottish government. The Guardian reports that environmentalists are worried that Big Oil may be driving up the cost of meeting climate targets. Is the Scottish National Party meanwhile licking its chops at a whole new way of funding independence?

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

Roll on summer
Is Covid seasonal after all? Harvard’s Michael Mina has been talking to David Wallace-Wells of New York Magazine (again) and Mina, billed as one of America’s most outspoken epidemiologists, foresees an imminent reprieve from Covid infections across the country as winter loosens its grip. He says most coronaviruses hit hardest during the three coldest months and “it’s not uncommon for [them] to essentially start dropping now”. Readers will recall that this was Trump’s fond hope a year ago. What’s changed since then is the arrival of vaccines on the plus side and variants on the minus. Mina, a bit like Ferguson (see above) is on balance optimistic. Asked if it’s crazy to hope that vitamin D from sunlight will boost immune responses as the snow melts, Mina says: “I don’t think it’s crazy at all.”

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Charged on abortion
Marta Lempart has been charged in Warsaw with insulting a police officer and “posing an epidemiological threat”. Not by chance, these supposed offences were noted by police at a protest for abortion rights following Poland’s recent outlawing of abortion in all but exceptional circumstances. Lempart is a leader of Polish Women’s Strike, which has led protests across the country since a constitutional court ruling earlier this month banned abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when a mother’s life is in danger. MEPs have condemned the ban. Whether they can do anything for Lempart and her movement now is a serious test of the EU’s influence over reactionary governments taking root in the east.

And finally… If you’re feeling pangs of unrequited wanderlust, click here to drive the streets of the city of your choice, listening to local radio and congratulating yourself on choosing the mini-break money can’t buy.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Getty Images