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Sensemaker: Dangerous to know

Wednesday 30 June 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • England beat Germany 2-0 in the Euros but the only English fans allowed to watch the team play Ukraine in Italy on Saturday will be those already living there.
  • More than 130 deaths in the Vancouver area since Friday were linked to a heatwave that has produced a record temperature for British Columbia of 49.5 degrees C.
  • Israel opened its first embassy in the Gulf, in Abu Dhabi.

Dangerous to know

One in 20 school children in England have been sent home because someone in their bubble has Covid. That’s an increase of 130,000 in one week and a quadrupling in two. Part of the problem is the bubbles: sending scores of kids home because of one case is the bluntest of blunt instruments. But another part is: case numbers in schools are going up.

So are case numbers across the country, and it’s not going unnoticed elsewhere. The UK government has a vision of life going back to normal that the rest of the world doesn’t share. On Monday Sajid Javid, the new health secretary, said it was clearer to him every day that Britain could return to something like “life as it was before Covid” on July 19. But this is not at all clear to other countries that see the UK as a potentially lethal incubator of the delta variant. They include:

  • Portugal, which was on Britain’s green list until 1 June but now requires UK visitors to quarantine for 14 days unless double-vaccinated at least two weeks before arrival;
  • Malta, which remains on Britain’s green list but will only admit UK visitors who have been double-vaccinated;
  • Hong Kong, which is banning direct flights from the UK from tomorrow after putting Britain on its “extremely high risk” list along with India, Nepal and the Philippines;
  • Germany, where Angela Merkel wants the EU to designate the UK a “country of concern”, which could ban Britons from the whole bloc; and
  • the US, which is slow-rolling talks on a UK-US travel corridor that Boris Johnson’s government hoped would ease travel between the two countries by August. Now the chances of a trans-Atlantic deal by August “seem to be zilch,” a British official briefed on those talks told the FT on Monday. 

What’s going on? The answer is Britain is giving the world a lesson in the knock-on effects of a headlong rush to vaccinate within your own borders while most of the rest of the world lags behind.

The UK government says vaccinations have more or less broken the link between infection and death, and this is true – for the UK. Infections are rising exponentially again, from a seven-day rolling average of under 3,000 a month ago to 16,367 now (rising to 20,479 yesterday), but thanks to a 66 per cent first dose vaccination rate, deaths are not. The seven-day average is up from six to 17 in a month. 

This is good for the NHS and people who would otherwise be grieving, but no consolation for other governments with lower vaccination rates assessing the risk the UK poses. They see the infection curve, the delta variant’s high transmissibility and a government desperate to reboot an economy heavily dependent on international travel and commerce, and they hear only alarm bells. 

This is not the first time Britain’s self-image differs markedly from others’ image of Britain. As ever it’s worth taking the view from outside seriously. The Institute for Health Management and Evaluation at the University of Washington projects UK Covid deaths rising to nearly 300 a day by the end of September unless the government keeps masks mandatory in public spaces. 

The moral: if it takes a 60-odd per cent vaccination rate in the UK to break the link between infection and hospitalisation, that’s what every country needs. Then we can talk about normal.

New things technology, science, engineering

Twitter “treason”
Twitter may face criminal charges in India after posting a map on its Tweep Life site that showed the state of Jammu and Kashmir as a separate country. It isn’t; it’s disputed territory (parts are claimed by Pakistan and one small part by China) but it’s been administered directly from Delhi since India suspended its semi-autonomous status two years ago. Twitter took down the offending map, but not before charges were filed to police in Uttar Pradesh accusing it of treason. To the company it may have been an oversight. In Narendra Modi’s India it’s seen – at least within the ruling Hindu nationalist elite – as part of a pattern of provocation; Twitter’s Indian boss has also been summoned to explain himself for hosting content supporting rebellious farmers and publicising an alleged attack on a Muslim man. Note to Twitter: to stay on the right side of free speech arguments, be meticulous about maps.

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

Moderna rocks
Test results show Moderna’s Covid vaccine prompts production of neutralising antibodies specific to the highly transmissible delta variant as well as to the original virus. It doesn’t produce as many of the former as the latter, but enough to prevent disease, according to a study posted on the pre-print server bioRvix. None of this is peer-reviewed. Equally, the risks to vaccine makers of having to revise initial claims are high, as AstraZeneca has found – and the markets liked the study. Moderna’s stock climbed nearly 6 per cent. Not incidentally, it says its vaccine also generates antibodies against the alpha (formerly British), beta (formerly South African), gamma (formerly Brazilian) and eta (first identified in Nigeria) variants. Why not just produce this one under license all over the world?

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Western heat part II
It’s hard to look away from the heat dome over the Pacific Northwest, which is currently killing more vulnerable people than Covid. So, looking nearby, the NYT has reported in depth on California’s drought, which is causing farmers to sell their water rather than using it to grow water-intensive melons, rice and almonds, and to consider covering their land with solar panels rather than crops. So they have alternative sources of income in the short term. But there’s a feeding America problem. California’s San Joaquin valley supplies two thirds of the USA’s fruit and nuts and a third of its vegetables but its fertile portion is set to shrink by more than a tenth by 2040 at current rates of drying out – and those rates are likely to speed up unless aquifers are allowed to refill. It can be done, but only with great restraint in a place not known for it.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Brexit and subsidies
There’s something odd about a Conservative government committed to free markets talking up a plan for subsidies as one of its most important legislative initiatives. But it’s happening (£). The UK’s post-Brexit equivalent of EU state aid rules – rules designed to create the level playing field that became such a bone of contention in the withdrawal talks – are published today. We’re told they will cut red tape and allow the government to step in quickly to support businesses deemed in the national interest, but we’re assured this is not a return to a seventies-style industrial strategy. It will in any case have to comply with WTO competition rules and level playing field provisions in the withdrawal agreement. Details to come, but – whisper it – the overall aim seems to be to avoid clashes with the EU rather than provoke them.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Home and away
Class acts at Wembley yesterday: Raheem Sterling during the game. Raheem Sterling after the game. Jack Grealish. Harry Kane. Gareth Southgate. Jürgen Klinsmann (“this is England’s moment”). Class act on Twitter: Andreas Michaelis, German ambassador to the UK: “Congratulations England. Much deserved victory. Wishing you all the best in this tournament”. Less classy: those who chose to boo the German national anthem.

Thanks for reading, and please share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs Getty Images

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