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Sensemaker: Variant, schmariant

Monday 17 May 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Four out of five Japanese people said in a poll they don’t want to host this year’s Olympics. 
  • Israeli jets resumed attacks on what officials said were terror targets in Gaza after separate strikes on Sunday killed 42 Palestinians (more below).
  • Barcelona beat Chelsea 4-0 in the women’s Champions’ League final.

Variant, schmariant.

Today in the UK you can hug people from other households for the first time since January, but the advice is to go outside and keep it quick. You can travel abroad but are strongly advised to avoid all Britain’s biggest neighbours. You can eat inside a restaurant again, if you dare. 

What was meant to be a decisive, irreversible penultimate reopening (before the final one next month) turns out to be hesitant and fraught because of localised Covid infection spikes blamed on the Indian variant. The variant has caused turmoil in government – see Matt d’Ancona’s column today. It also sets up…

Interesting test no. 1: who heeds whom in a country that tells itself it’s weary of experts, government and lockdown? Contenders in the battle for authority include:

  • Bolton health officials, defying Whitehall guidelines by fast-tracking vaccinations for people as young as 17 in hopes of heading off a local lockdown because of the area’s high incidence of the Indian variant; 
  • the British Medical Association, urging young people especially “to take a cautious approach to social and physical contact”, i.e. to keep it in the beer garden;
  • Matt Hancock, health secretary, and Professor John Bell, Oxford professor of medicine, strongly urging Britons not to holiday in amber-listed countries like France and Spain even though the ban has been lifted and airlines are flying there again.

Manchester Airport expects to handle 91 flights today, two thirds up on last week. Thirty flights are scheduled from UK airports to green-listed Portugal and 23 to Spain.

Interesting test no. 2 concerns vaccines: are they effective enough against the Indian variant to prevent surges in hospitalisations and deaths even if there are continued surges (albeit from a low base) in infection numbers?

So far the signs are good. The seven-day rolling average of daily Covid-related deaths has been in single digits since 3 May. But that may not reflect a lag between infection and severe sickness, and today’s reopening will inevitably increase infection rates in communities where the variant has taken hold.

Annoying reminder for libertarians: no one’s safe till everyone’s safe, especially in a country that considers itself global. The poorest two dozen countries have so far received 0.3 per cent of vaccine doses distributed worldwide. Severe infection and death spikes are forecast over the next three months for South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Shortages of everything
Remember when we marvelled at supply chains and just-in-time delivery? That time is past. It may return, but not for a while. Covid, droughts, blackouts, the recent US pipeline hack and a container ship stuck in the Suez Canal have created a perfect storm for logistics managers, Bloomberg reports ($). Copper, steel, soybeans, mattresses, timber, semiconductors, plastic, cardboard and aluminium foil are all subject to bottlenecks and sudden price inflation. The list of vulnerable products is long. “You name it, we have a shortage on it,” says Cummins Inc, the Indiana engine maker. So is the list of causes, to which, at least off the northwest coast of Europe, we should probably add Brexit.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Netanyahu lives
Israeli jets and Hamas fighters exchanged rocket fire again today as the conflict entered its second week with no ceasefire in sight. Health officials in Gaza said 197 Palestinians including at least 58 children and 34 women have been killed so far. The Israeli death toll stands at eight even though more than 3,000 rockets have been fired at Israeli targets. The Israeli attacks are supposedly aimed at degrading Hamas’s ability to threaten Israel from tunnels near the border fence, but they’ve hit a refugee camp and a Gaza city building that houses international media offices including that of the AP. One political beneficiary: Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister whose failing coalition was about to be replaced ten days ago by a new one that cannot now be formed because any cooperation between Arab and Israeli parties is on hold. “Netanyahu had no cards left to play, and suddenly he was saved by the bell,” a former aide to the PM tells the FT (£). “He’s so lucky, every time.” 


New things technology, science, engineering

Megabatteries
A couple of years ago Tortoise hosted a ThinkIn at which we heard there was no way batteries could rival clean hydrogen as an energy store to even out supply from wind and solar plants. Times change ($). A former gas power generator is turning one of its power stations in California into what will be the world’s largest energy storage plant, a giant array of container-sized lithium-ion batteries capable of delivering 400 MW for four hours, or enough for 225,000 American homes. Four hours may not seem long, but coupled with wind and solar plants that between them produce power for most of an average 24-hour cycle, it’s plenty – and at this sort of scale the unit cost of power from the batteries is falling below that of gas. The company behind them is Vistra Corp. “I’m hellbent on not becoming the next Blockbuster Video,” its CEO tells the WSJ


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

Airborne Covid
Covid is airborne. We knew this. Scientists have been saying it for at least a year. It’s the reason we wear masks. But the WHO and US bodies like the Centers for Disease Control now formally concur, which Bloomberg says ($) will have big implications for building codes (clean air will become as mandatory as clean running water) and the cost of treating respiratory disease ($50 billion a year in the States excluding the cost of treating Covid). The hero of this story is Professor Lidia Morawska of the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, an aerosols expert who has spent the pandemic fighting the idea that washing hands and wiping surfaces is an adequate first line of defence. “No one takes responsibility for the air,” she says. Assuming that changes, this could be a good time to invest in industrial air filters.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Oh, trust the tech
John Kerry, the US climate envoy, reached rashly for the polluter’s favourite climate mitigation solution yesterday. “You don’t have to give up quality of life to achieve some of the things we want to achieve,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr while on a swing through Europe. “I’m told by scientists that 50 per cent of the [emissions] reductions we have to make by 2050 or 2045 are going to come from technologies we don’t yet have.” This was pure Bush-the-younger, c. 2005. Trust the tech even if it doesn’t exist yet, and meantime keep on upgrading to an even bigger SUV. From someone who’s kept abreast of the science, it was surprising. A Sunday morning slip, or something else? Is Team Biden playing to Republicans back home even when on tour?

And finally… for a glimpse of a place almost no one gets to see, enjoy this drone footage of Australia’s Bunda Cliffs, taken by a road-train driver who crosses the Nullarbor plain every week.

Thanks for reading – and please share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Photographs by Getty Images


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