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Sensemaker: Optimism and truth

Monday 22 February 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Boeing grounded type-777 planes with Pratt & Whitney engines after one blew up over Colorado. 
  • Myanmar’s junta warned of more loss of life as mass pro-democracy demonstrations continued three weeks after the coup.
  • Jasmine Harrison said she ate mainly biscuits and chocolate while becoming the youngest person to row the Atlantic, at 21.

Optimism and truth

At 3.30 this afternoon a newly cautious British prime minister will explain his strategy for getting the country out of lockdown one step at a time, starting with the reopening of schools on 8 March, with each new step subject to four tests to check the previous one hasn’t let the virus spread again. 

The idea is that each step is irreversible and this lockdown is the last. There are signs that lessons have been learnt from last year’s triple-lockdown stop-go 90,000 death disaster. 

Common sense has returned to the White House to boot. “America is back,” Joe Biden told the Munich security conference on Saturday. Diplomacy is back. Hope is back. Vaccines are working. Spring is in the air and the Atlantic has published a piece by one of its in-house doctors holding out the hope of “a quite possibly wonderful summer”.

It could happen. But whenever the pandemic ends it has been a tragedy, and there is no reason to compound it by forgetting how it started and ran out of control. There is little danger of that in the US or Italy, where new governments have been brought in to replace those that failed on Covid last year. There is a danger of that in the UK.

Ministers are taking every opportunity to try to rewrite history. Case in point: yesterday’s claim by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, that his staff’s efforts to procure PPE last April saved lives. The truth is:

  • Had no efforts been made even more lives would have been lost, but the UK was late to realise its PPE stockpile was inadequate; late to spot that much of it was beyond its use-by date; and late to start re-stocking.
  • People died as a result. Frontline medics started issuing desperate requests for PPE in March and at least 126 health and care workers died from Covid contracted at work between April and October last year, according to reports submitted to the Health and Safety Executive. The National Audit Office has called for a comprehensive “lessons learned” review but no review or inquiry has been ordered by government.
  • It is not enough to draw attention to 18-hour days worked after policies have already failed. Ministers’ role is to make good decisions in good time, knowing they will be held accountable for decisions that turn out to have been bad or late. 

Skirmishes with government over the first draft of history are inevitable, but this feels more like a battle that has to be won.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Griddy energy
Texas’s deregulated energy market allows retailers to offer tracker deals based on wholesale energy prices. That means prices change from month to month and even week to week, and usually they’re low. Last week they were high ($). Hundreds of customers of Griddy Energy were charged $5,000 or more for five days of power. Scott Willoughby, a 63 year-old army veteran, had to empty his savings account to pay his latest bill, for $16,752. “It’s broken me,” he told the NYT. Governor Greg Abbott is holding emergency meetings to try to find ways of protecting those who can’t pay these bills. Griddy says it advised all its 29,000 customers to switch providers before the ice storm that knocked out most of the state’s power supply, but many of them couldn’t. One senses the lawyers, at least, will do well out of this.

New things technology, science, engineering

Power beams
Staying with electricity – not least because it’s going to dominate our lives long-term if net zero comes to anything – a New Zealand firm is experimenting with transmitting power via microwave beams, without cables or pylons. So far Emrod hasn’t beaten Nasa’s record for sending power through the air, which stands at a modest 1.6 km, but the Economist (£) says the company plans to start by sending a few kilowatts 1.8 km and to build from there. Apparently if you walk through a microwave beam of this sort it doesn’t kill you, as long as you keep walking. Possible applications are said to include getting power wirelessly to factory machinery and remote military bases. Surely the real prize, though, is recharging electric cars on the go.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Scrappage gets real
Coventry is piloting a scheme to pay drivers of dirty diesels £3,000 each to have their cars towed away, with the money spent on public transport, bikes, electric scooters or (presumably non-diesel) taxis. This is scrappage made flesh (£). The idea of paying people to get rid of diesel vehicles has been widely floated since dieselgate showed how millions had been gulled into buying them at least partly on a promise that they were good for the environment. Some diesels really were better than comparable petrol cars in terms of grams of CO2 per kilometre – but not much better, and vastly worse in terms of particulates. Despite this scrappage hasn’t caught on widely, because it’s expensive. It has taken a push from Andy Street, the restless West Midlands mayor, to get this £22 million scheme going, although the money is from central government. Given the proven health benefits of cleaner air it should prove well spent.

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

Silk Road vaccines
China has built a freezer the size of a football pitch on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. It’s within the perimeter of the Ethiopian capital’s international airport, to which Beijing plans to start airlifting millions of doses of its Covid vaccines even though its domestic rollout isn’t going as fast as planned. Such are the realities of vaccine diplomacy, which offers China “a real win-win opportunity”, Ray Yip of the Gates Foundation tells the WSJ ($). The double win would consist of the soft-power prestige of helping African and other developing countries get vaccinated while the US and Europe focused on themselves; and the public health benefit of resilience against Covid in countries with which China wants to maintain busy travel corridors. For now, though, the freezer’s empty. China’s two biggest Covid vaccine makers are aiming for 2 billion doses this year but they’ve a long way to go. Fewer than half the 100 million doses promised to China’s own citizens by mid-February have been administered.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Meghan and Harry
“Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!” It shouldn’t take a 46-year-old Python script to remind us of the essential absurdity of hereditary monarchy, but sometimes needs must. The idea that Meghan and Harry should observe a different standard when commenting on a (botched, pompous) Buckingham Palace take on “service” than they would commenting on anyone else’s is simply not for the 21st century. There are two stories working their way to some sort of conclusion in the Windsor family. One is of two brothers who’ve fallen out but may yet get back together. The other is of a tornado of talent who married into the family, was shocked by the bizarre edifice of deference and entitlement she found there and wisely got out with her husband before it wrecked their marriage. 

The week ahead

22/2 – Boris Johnson to announce lockdown exit plan; Schools re-open in Wales and Scotland, 23/2 – Infected blood inquiry hearings continue; Chelsea to play Atlético Madrid, 24/2 – Heathrow reports full-year results; Home Secretary Priti Patel appears before the Home Affairs select committee; England to play India in third cricket test, 25/2  – Lords set to approve Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill; ONS publishes annual statistics on homicides, 26/2 – Ballot closes in Scottish Labour leadership election; Supreme Court ruling on whether Shamimna Begum can return to the UK to contest the removal of her citizenship. 

22/2 – US Secretary of State Tony Blinken addresses UN Conference on Disarmament; virtual meeting of eurozone fisheries ministers, 23/2 – Apple to hold annual shareholders’ meeting; South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma attends pre-trial hearing in corruption case, 24/2 – Court hearing for 17-year-old Twitter hacker Graham Ivan Clark, accused of infiltrating accounts of Barack Obama, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos; US congressional hearing on domestic terrorism in America, 25/2 – First in a series of US congressional hearings on modernising antitrust legislation for online markets begins; Nasa carries out final rocket launcher test for Artemis I moon mission, 26/2 – Meeting of G20 finance ministers; FDA to discuss emergency approval of Johnson & Johnson vaccine; Formula E races in Saudi Arabia, 27/2 – Third round of Six Nations rugby tournament, 28/2 – El Salvador holds parliamentary elections; Marty Baron retires as executive editor of Washington Post.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Getty Images