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Sensemaker: Liberté, Égalité, Vacciné?

Wednesday 24 February 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Tiger Woods was “lucky to be alive”, doctors said, after crashing in California in an SUV.
  • Vincent Muscat was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to involvement in the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana-Galizia.
  • Taylor Swift’s re-recorded “Love Story” hit number one on the US Hot Country Songs chart.

Liberté, Égalité, Vacciné?

Not yet. The UK is moving inexorably towards a system of vaccine certification even though ministers still can’t bring themselves to admit they will effectively be introducing vaccine passports. 

France is another matter. 

The UK plan. Michael Gove, the minister in search of more to do, will lead a review of the ethical obstacles to using an existing NHS app to show proof of Covid vaccination – with a view to overcoming them. The idea is that citizens will be able to use the app to gain entrance to pubs, concerts, sports events, places of employment, and to hop on flights, probably by June.

The obstacles. Any vaccine certification involves trade-offs between privacy and mutual protection, and discrimination against those who can’t or won’t take the vaccine. With Covid the former includes people with certain allergies and immune disorders. The latter includes those who don’t trust or believe in vaccines. 

The TUC says getting vaccinated can’t become a condition of employment or an excuse for employers to ease up on workplace safety, but that hasn’t stopped some businesses, including one of the country’s biggest care home groups, making vaccines compulsory for staff.

The French position. Nearly a third of French adults say they won’t take a Covid vaccine for one reason or another, and their health minister says it’s too early to discuss passports. Roselyne Bachelot, the culture minister, says she can’t imagine them. They’d be “a step backwards… an attack on our freedoms.”

However… Denmark, Sweden, Estonia and Israel are introducing them. Spain is compiling a register of vaccine refusers. Greece wants the EU to create a standardised certification system across the union. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, is in favour, and next month IATA, the global travel body, will launch its own app allowing travellers to store and display all their vaccinations and Covid test information in one place.

Back in Britain there’s a big overlap between libertarian Tory backbenchers who hate lockdown and libertarian Tory backbenchers who hate the idea of vaccine passports. The Covid Recovery Group could almost be the Certification Resistance Group. Whatever it’s called, Boris Johnson worries about it.

But this is also a country that has prioritised the health of the herd ever since the founding of the NHS – and a world in which, for decades, vaccine certification has been a condition of travel to and education in many countries still fighting diseases like typhoid and measles. It’s coming for Covid too.  

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Women on board
The number of women on boards of the UK’s FTSE 350 companies has risen by half since 2015, from 682 to 1026. The numbers are from the independent Hampton-Alexander review of female leadership in Britain’s biggest companies. The FTSE 100 and 200 companies – bigger on average than the 350 – reached the threshold of 33 per cent women in February and December last year respectively. The 350 also passed that mark in December but it’s the big jump in the past five years that the government wants to shout about now. Also notable: the number of boards on the 350 with only one woman has fallen from 116 to 16 since 2015. Not so impressive: only five FTSE 100 CEOs are women.

New things technology, science, engineering

Too much counting 
Google isn’t having much luck with its Sidewalk Labs spin-off. First it pitched the idea of a 12-acre smart mini-city in Toronto with automated rubbish bins, driverless cars, heated cycle lanes and constantly monitored air quality. That fizzled last year. Now a similar proposal has been ditched by Portland, Oregon, apparently because it involved a lot of monitoring of how people move around, and the city wasn’t “willing to compromise on our privacy principles”. Big Brother is going to need a better disguise, better PR or a whole new agenda. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Climate insecurity
John Kerry has told the UN Security Council that if governments fail to act together on climate change they’ll be entering into “a mutual suicide pact”. David Attenborough, beamed into a security council meeting on climate security chaired by the UK, said the world on its current course faces “the collapse of everything that gives us our security”, including food production, access to fresh water and liveable temperatures. There will be a steady drum-beat of this sort of thing between now and COP26. Are people going to pay attention, or tune it out?

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

Paradoxical lucidity
Could sudden, brief periods of clear thinking and full recall among late-stage dementia patients offer a new way of understanding the condition? Possibly. The Guardian has a great feature on what used to be called terminal lucidity, now renamed paradoxical lucidity so as not to sound too morbid, especially to patients who might be invited to join clinical trials. The piece is by Alex Godfrey, who witnessed his own grandmother recover all her mental faculties two days before dying of dementia in 2004. Similar episodes have been recorded since the 18th century. Now six studies are under way to look for pointers to new treatments in these moments of clarity. So far the main finding is that they do actually exist. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Long swim
A North Korean defector has been found asleep south of the demilitarised zone after a six-hour swim to freedom. “Freedom” may be an overstatement because the man, in his twenties, was at first detained by embarrassed South Korean troops who should have spotted him on their video screens at least five times as he swam round underwater border installations in the East Sea (or Sea of Japan) and crawled into a drainage duct on making landfall. But the man then asked to defect, and if past practice is any guide he will be allowed to after being vetted to make sure he isn’t a spy. He had managed to walk about two miles south of the DMZ, the world’s most heavily guarded border, before being picked up. Three months ago another defector who was a former gymnast vaulted the border fences without triggering any sensors. 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Picture Plane/Heatherwick Studio/Sidewalk Labs, Getty Images