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Sensemaker: “Get Covid, live longer.”

Tuesday 20 July 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Haiti formed a new government under Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon who is now the new prime minister.
  • A crane operator from Florida became the first person to be jailed for attacking the US Capitol in January, sentenced to eight months. 
  • More than two million people viewed an Irish gymnast jumping up and down on a cardboard bed in the Tokyo Olympic village (more below).

“Get Covid, live longer.”

Non-UK readers, please forgive this continued focus on Boris Johnson’s handling of Covid, which is mesmerising but could also have a wide ripple effect. His grand reopening yesterday was not all disastrous. For instance, there was no discernible uptick in foot traffic on the Tube in London, suggesting his plea for responsible behaviour was being heeded by shoppers and office workers if not clubbers.

Politically, he had a rougher ride. Exhibit one was the teaser for Dominic Cummings’ first sit-down interview with a journalist since leaving Number Ten last year. Even allowing for his egotism and the BBC’s desire to big up its scoop, this was remarkable. The former chief advisor’s main claims are that Johnson…

  • resisted a second lockdown last year because most of those dying from Covid were “essentially over 80”;
  • didn’t believe the NHS was truly at risk of being overwhelmed, even after the evidence of the first wave;
  • had to be told he might end up being responsible for the Queen’s death if he insisted on going to see her for his usual weekly audience in the middle of the pandemic.

Downing Street did not engage with the detail and said it had followed the available science to protect lives and livelihoods. Johnson will hope to ride this out as he has past broadsides from Cummings and others, and he may succeed. The accusations all relate to the past. Vaccines have since ridden to the rescue, and Cummings has an axe to grind. So why does any of this matter? Two reasons:

  • We don’t have to take Cummings’ word for it. Most of his claims are supported by WhatsApp messages shown to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, including one from Johnson saying: “I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff.”
  • The inquiry. Assuming at some point Johnson is questioned under oath about these messages there is no way they cannot hurt him. In another message, sent in mid-October, he said of Covid deaths: “The median age is 82 – 81 for men, 85 for women. That is above life expectancy. So get Covid and live longer.”

128,727 people have so far died in the UK within 28 days of a Covid diagnosis.

Worth noting: Cummings’ claim in the interview that Johnson prioritised his own political fortunes ahead of people’s lives, though plausible, will be swatted aside. When pushed he will say he was trying to think of the bigger picture; the economy and the mental health of the millions who depend on it. 

Even so, Freedom Day was on balance a car crash for the PM. He and his chancellor had to celebrate it in self-isolation because his health minister has Covid and his staff (and social media) pointed out that the optics of trying to wriggle out of complying with the self-isolation rule weren’t good.

He had to U-turn on nightclubs within a few hours of their reopening, warning that clubbers may need vaccination passports from September if they don’t somehow shape up. His chief scientific advisor had to correct himself about a startling claim in a Downing Street press conference, making clear that 60 per cent of Covid hospitalisations are of unvaccinated rather than double vaccinated people. And his former employer, the Daily Telegraph, which Cummings said he often referred to as his “real boss”, mocked him all over its comment pages. 

“This is desperate nonsense. Downing Street doesn’t know what to say next so it says two contradictory things at once.” Janet Daley on being “pinged” while double vaccinated. Daily Telegraph, 19 July.

“This should have been Boris Johnson’s moment of triumph. Instead it was bewildering farce.” Headline above Michael Deacon’s sketch. Daily Telegraph, 19 July.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Sex and the Olympics
Olympic athletes famously have a lot of sex, or at least the Times’ Matthew Syed once said they did, on the basis of his participation in the Barcelona games in 1994. True or not, the idea gained a life of its own, so that when it turned out the Tokyo games’ organisers had installed innovative cardboard beds in the Olympic village people assumed the point was that they would collapse if overburdened, discouraging coupling up and thereby limiting the spread of Covid. Fake news, says Ireland’s Rhys McClenaghan, jumping up and down on his bed, torse nu, for YouTube. They do look pretty sturdy, but nothing about these games is doing much to boost the hosts’ enthusiasm. In one poll last month 80 per cent of Japanese said they wanted them postponed (again) or cancelled. Opening ceremony is on Friday.


New things technology, science, engineering

Snooped
Rahul Gandhi is a leading member of India’s opposition. Cecilio Pineda Birto was a well-known Mexican journalist, murdered in 2017. Hatice Cengiz was engaged to marry Jamal Khashoggi before his murder by a Saudi hit squad. They and about 50,000 others are on a leaked list of notables said to be of interest to clients of NSO, the Israeli software firm whose Pegasus bug can make your smartphone spy on you. That Pegasus can activate your phone’s microphone and camera to record you without you knowing is not new. But the scale of alleged misuse of the software by countries with appalling human rights records is. Those countries include Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Rwanda, Morocco and the UAE. NSO denies any wrongdoing. Behind the scenes it must be wondering, as others are, what happened to the business model that thrives on not having to be accountable for what customers do with your products. 


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

LA masks
Los Angeles County has become the biggest jurisdiction in the US to reimpose a facemask requirement for all public settings including privately-run commercial ones like cinemas. The goal is to slow the spread of the Delta variant, which has caused Covid case numbers to rise ten-fold in a month. “I’m not pleased,” said Hilda Solis, chairwoman of the LA County Board of Supervisors. “But nonetheless it’s going to save lives.” California had dropped mask orders on 15 June. More California counties are expected to follow LA’s lead. And London?


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Jungle money
Gabon’s rainforest emits about 20 million tonnes of CO2 a year but sequesters seven times as much. Now the government wants to be paid for preserving it. To critics of the idea that you should be paid for a natural process, the permanent secretary of Gabon’s national climate council tells the FT ($): “We say… it’s more than 30 years of policy that have preserved our forests. This is not a natural process. It’s a vision.” Deforestation in Gabon is running at 0.1 per cent a year – low by international standards – and President Ali Bongo banned the export of unprocessed logs in 2010. Per capita income, at $8,600, is among the highest in Africa. 13 national parks cover 11 per cent of the country and 85 per cent is forested. Conservation already pays, and deserves to pay more. 


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Muslim student finance 
Religion or a higher-education? That’s a choice thousands of Muslim students have to make every year thanks in no small part to student finance. You won’t find many students keen on current UK student loan arrangements but Muslims, who make up at least 10 per cent of the student population, pay an even higher price. “Riba” – interest – is haram, meaning it’s forbidden under sharia law, as it was in Christianity until the middle ages. Eight years ago the government pledged to introduce alternative student finance. It has yet to materialise, so young Muslims are forced to choose between postponing higher education until they can afford to pay for it up front, paying for it as they go along with part-time work, or taking out loans that offend against their religion. Last week Stephen Timms MP asked the government how much longer Muslim students had to wait for finance they can access with a clear conscience. How long indeed? 

Thanks for reading, and please share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Imy Harper
@imy_harper

Photographs BBC/PA Wire/ Getty Images


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