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Sensemaker: French amber plus

Friday 30 July 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • An independent inquiry into the murder of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana-Galizia found that the Maltese state failed to protect her because of a “culture of impunity” leading to “a collapse in the rule of law”.
  • Sunisa Lee won gold in the all-round individual women’s gymnastics in Tokyo, becoming the first Hmong American Olympian.
  • Snow fell across large areas of southern Brazil.

French amber plus

On the face of it the UK government’s decision to continue to make visitors from France self-isolate for ten days looks a little crazy. There may be science-based reasons for it though – just not ones that officials like to talk about.

Why it looks a little crazy:

  • This is about the Beta variant, aka South African. Over the past four weeks only 1.9 per cent of French submissions to an international database that maps the spread of different Covid variants have been Beta. Compare that with 14.2 per cent of submissions from Spain. And yet France is on Britain’s amber plus list and Spain isn’t. 
  • Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said the real reason for the UK’s caution was a spike in Beta cases in the French territory of Réunion, 6,000 miles away. But Beta prevalence in Réunion is actually lower than in metro France, and anyway, a senior UK government source tells the Times Raab misspoke. The source said the decision was based on data from mainland France only.
  • France’s vaccination programme is powering ahead after its slow start and on current trends will have double-vaccinated more people than the UK within two weeks. 400,000 people a day are currently getting their second dose in France compared with 170,000 a day in Britain.

Why it might not be crazy after all:

  • To repeat, this is about Beta, and a study published last autumn in the New England Journal of Medicine found the AstraZeneca vaccine, Britain’s first line of defence against Covid, to be ineffective in preventing mild-to-moderate disease from the variant. 
  • The signs are that the AZ vaccine does provide significant protection against severe disease from Beta (and other variants), but officials may be worrying about the possibility of a Beta-Delta hybrid combining the vaccine resistance of the former with the transmissibility of the latter. 

It’s true that Beta case numbers in absolute terms are marginally higher in France than elsewhere in Europe, but they are still low compared with, say, Delta numbers in the UK, which rose again for the second day in a row yesterday after a week of declining numbers. 

Expect France to be taken off the amber plus step next week, and Raab to waffle if asked again about Réunion. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Grindr and the Games
TikTok and Twitter creators have been falsely setting their location as Tokyo on the Grindr dating website, potentially “outing” athletes who don’t want to be outed. Insider reported that one TikTok video – titled “I used Grindr’s explore feature to find myself an Olympian boyfriend”, had over 140,000 views and was being pushed to users’ “For You” pages. More than 160 openly LGBT+ athletes are taking part in Tokyo 2020, which is something to celebrate. But not everyone has the freedom to share their sexuality. Being gay is punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which all have Olympic delegations. Sharing Grindr profiles publicly could endanger athletes when they return home. Twitter and TikTok have now removed the content for breaching community guidelines, and Grindr has “demanded that these individuals remove their social media posts”. But what if they don’t?

New things technology, science, engineering

Tidal power
There is something rather moving about the sight of Andrew Scott in oilskins and lifejacket standing on the tidal power generator he’s spent 15 years developing, talking about the moon. The moon, of course, gives us the tides, and the way they whip past Scott’s Orbital 02 generator, anchored in 35 metres of water off the isle of Eday, 30 miles north of John O’Groats, is spectacular. The machine looks like a submarine moving fast along the surface, but it’s the water that’s moving. Twin turbines spin on the end of long arms that tilt down for action and up for maintenance. The Orbital O2 is the world’s most powerful tidal generator, feeding 2 megawatts of power into the grid as of this month, every time the tide runs. As Sandy Kerr of Heriot-Watt University tells the BBC, you know what you’re going to get, and when you’re going to get it. There’s been an awful lot of pessimism over the years about salt water and corrosion in relation to tidal power. We’ll see how that pans out, but in the meantime here’s to Scott of Eday.

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

$100 vax
Joe Biden is urging state and local governments in the US to offer vaccine-hesitant Americans $100 each to get it done. His plea is based in part on Californian research showing that a third of those who’ve not yet had the jab would do so for a cash incentive. One way or another the US needs to pick up the pace of its vaccination programme(s), which have stalled while Europe’s accelerate. The NYT has a great scrollable analysis of how the EU has overhauled the States in terms of doses per hundred people. It has done so largely with compulsion rather than carrots – health passes in France as a requirement for those who want to eat in restaurants, and similar moves in Italy, Germany and Greece. The 27 countries of the EU seem more aligned on this than the 50 states of the US.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Chinese coal
Chinese coal consumption increased 10.7 per cent year on year in the first half of this year, according to the state-run People’s Daily, cited by Carbon Brief. China is already the world’s biggest coal consumer by a huge margin, and a steep increase in usage like this is exactly the opposite of what the world needs. The great question for policymakers hoping for progress at COP26 is whether the big emerging economies are at the stage yet of being willing to slow down their own development, or even just change direction, for the sake of the planet. All the signs are that the answer is no, and senior people are already saying the COP process is bust. The rich North is going to have to make a big and detailed offer of cash and tech to those who assert the right to develop as it did in the 19th and 20th centuries, if catastrophic increases in emissions are to be averted.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Black Widow sues  
Scarlet Johannson, the world’s best-paid actress in 2018 and 2019, is suing Disney for depriving her of potential income by releasing her “Black Widow” film simultaneously on its Disney+ streaming service and in cinemas. Her remuneration is linked to cinema takings and her people reckon she could forego tens of millions as a result of the synchronised release – and of people generally preferring nowadays to chill at home. This may look like an immensely rich artiste wanting to be even richer, and, OK, it probably is that. But it’s also one of Hollywood’s most powerful women saying she’ll be damned if the Disney juggernaut or any other juggernaut tries to play fast and loose with her contract. Would anyone be surprised if this was Nick Cage or Tom Cruise filing suit?

Emily Benn’s Olympic fact of the day

Team Great Britain has suffered their worst performance at an Olympics rowing regatta in decades – failing to win a gold medal for the first time since Moscow in 1980, and coming fourth an agonising and astonishing six times. Back in Moscow, the best performance for GB rowing was a silver in the men’s eight, which featured a cox named Colin Moynihan – now better known as Lord Moynihan, who was Chair of the British Olympic Association from 2004 to 2012. He was succeeded in that position by a certain Sebastian Coe – who was also competing at Moscow 1980, racing the 800m and 1500m against a certain Steve Ovett. That rivalry – one of the greatest in middle distance history – was to famously repeat itself at the LA  games in 1984.

Thanks for reading, and please share this with your friends.

Giles Whittell

Photographs Disney+, Orbital Marine, Getty Images

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