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Sensemaker: Back to school

Sensemaker: Back to school

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A man inspired by the Islamic State stabbed and wounded at least six people in a supermarket in Auckland, New Zealand, before he was shot dead by the police.
  • The Taliban is set to announce that its co-founder Mullah Baradar, a 53-year-old born in a village in southern Afghanistan, will lead the new Afghan government.
  • Abba, the iconic Swedish pop group that split up in 1982, announced their first studio album in 40 years: Abba Voyage.

Back to school

As parents rush to pick up last minute supplies for children heading back to their classrooms, scientists and government ministers are still back and forthing over whether under 16s should be vaccinated against Covid. At the same time, plans to give booster jabs to the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are set to go ahead. Of course, the most vulnerable are still the people most in danger from Covid. But children are vectors of the virus and that puts everyone at risk.

Scientists say. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has delayed plans to vaccinate 12 to 15 year olds unless they have significant underlying health conditions or live with someone who is immunosuppressed. The decision is based on 1) the extremely rare chance of inflammation of the heart muscle, 2) the disruption to education from the vaccination programme, and 3) the worry that it would delay other vaccinations urgently needed for that age group. The JCVI also advised this week that booster jabs should be given to the roughly 500,000 people who are severely immunosuppressed. 

The government says. Gavin Williamson said yesterday that the NHS is “ready and eager” to vaccinate 12 to 15 year olds and that he “hoped” the decision would be made to do so “very, very soon”. (The education secretary has separately come under fire for refusing to say how many of the planned 300,000 CO2 monitors – a way to measure ventilation in classrooms – have actually been sent to schools.) In general, government advice for schools is to maintain some social distancing and encourage good hygiene, but masks aren’t required. Additional measures may be implemented if a school sees an outbreak, but the advice is clear: those measures should only be considered “as a last resort”.

Behind the curve. England isn’t the only country to be thinking about the impact of schools opening on infection rates. The difference is that for countries like Germany, Italy and the United States they have already started vaccinating their teenage population. France has stormed ahead in their vaccination programme, with Emmanuel Macron posting videos on his Instagram to encourage uptake. In England, just 1.2 per cent of under 18s have been fully vaccinated. 

Do schools spread the virus? Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said yesterday that schools are not “drivers” or “hubs” of infections – but the data might suggest otherwise. Research published by the Royal Society suggests that increased transmission in schools can lead to wider community infections, with mass testing and Covid control measures dampening the impact. In Scotland, where children have already returned to the classroom, we may already be seeing that increased transmission. Yesterday, Scotland saw the highest daily increase in deaths from Covid since March. In the US, where teenagers are already back in school, there are similar fears. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that in the week leading up to 26 August nearly 204,000 new coronavirus cases have been reported among children, a five-fold increase over the past month. And that’s with 36 per cent of 12 to 15 year olds in the US being fully vaccinated.

Long Covid. Children are very unlikely to be hospitalised from Covid and even more unlikely to die from the disease. But new research led by University College London and Public Health England has found that one in seven 11 to 17 year olds may have Covid symptoms 15 weeks after catching the disease. Authors of the study said it was unlikely to impact decisions on vaccinating teenagers as there isn’t enough data on whether vaccinations prevent long Covid. However, on the same day separate research suggested that if you are unlucky enough to catch the virus after being fully vaccinated, the risk of going on to suffer from long Covid was reduced by almost half.

Summer is over. The next few months look set to be a balancing act of risk and harm when it comes to the potential spread of Covid. And with few restrictions left, vaccinations have become the key part of managing the virus. But as ministers and scientists debate over booster jabs and whether to vaccinate children, most of the world is struggling to cope with no vaccinations in sight. 

Today Tortoise unveils its Vaccine Tracker, still in Beta mode, but already disclosing alarming realities about the scandalously sluggish pace of dosage sharing with poorer nations. The headline finding so far is that the richest countries in the world, which account for less than half of its population, have procured two-thirds of its vaccine supply.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Syed Ali Shah Geelani
Indian-administered Kashmir, a Himalayan region also claimed by Pakistan, lost the icon of its separatist movement. Syed Ali Shah Geelani died on Wednesday aged 92. He had a quiet funeral organised by the authorities, his son Naseem Geelani told Al Jazeera. Naseem Geelani wanted his father to be buried at the martyrs’ graveyard in the region’s main city, but the police, he claims, “snatched his body and forcibly buried him”. Indian authorities have cracked down on public movement and imposed a near-total communications blackout to prevent separatist protests. Security forces are on patrol near Geelani’s former residence.

New things technology, science, engineering

Age Appropriate Design Code
The Age Appropriate Design Code came into effect in the UK. The regulations apply to online services, including apps, games, and connected toys and devices, search engines, and govern the handling of children’s data. The code prohibits the use of “nudge” techniques to push children into giving up their privacy – and minimises the data companies collect on children. Unless companies can prove their service is not used by children, they must make their service compatible with the code or face fines of up to 4 per cent of their annual global turnover. For companies like Google or Facebook, the potential fines are enormous.

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

Party problems
The UK, which has one of the highest rates of ecstasy use in Europe, is experiencing shortages of the party drug MDMA. In London, it has been described as a “drought”. Experts think there are two reasons for it. The first is that Covid pandemic restrictions on clubbing hit demand for the drug. Producers in the Netherlands, where most of the drug is made, slowed down so as not to sit on “an excess mountain of an illegal substance”, Tony Saggers, formerly of the National Crime Agency, told Vice. The second reason, which affected the wider drugs trade, is Brexit – and namely the recent reduction in heavy goods vehicles that normally carry goods in from Europe and conceal drugs among their legal cargo. But pandemic restrictions have now eased and, as Niamh Eastwood from the drugs charity Release, told Metro: “If a global border shutdown did not prevent the supply of drugs into the UK, it is likely that suppliers will find a way around [Brexit] too.”

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

End of lead
It was easy to miss, but this week the United Nations Environment Programme announced the end of the leaded-petrol era. Algeria was the last country to allow its sale for on-road vehicles, but it stopped production last year and has already used up its stockpile. The movement to eliminate leaded petrol began in rich countries in the 1980s when its health effects – heart attacks, strokes, cancer, child developmental issues – became impossible to ignore. The UN thinks 1.2 million premature deaths a year are saved without its use. More will be saved when the aeroplanes that use leaded fuel also make the switch to unleaded fuel and, perhaps, when we stop using cars to get around so much.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

The largest tax settlement in American history 
It came after a long-running dispute over the behaviour of some executives at Renaissance Technologies, a big hedge fund company in New York, who converted short-term capital gains from trades made by one of the company’s funds into long-term profits, which are taxed at a much lower rate. In all, the executives and their spouses have agreed to pay about $7 billion in back taxes and penalties to federal authorities. The FT (£) reports that Jim Simons, the former Cold War codebreaker who founded the company, will pay an additional $670 million. Hedge fund companies too often use “dubious structured financial products”, as a US Senate subcommittee put it, that cost the Treasury “billions”.

Emily Benn’s Paralympic fact of the day

We are into the final three days of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, ahead of the closing ceremony on Sunday. The goalball finals are taking place today. The sport is designed specifically for athletes with a visual impairment – and is played indoors on courts often used for volleyball. Like boccia, this game has no Olympic equivalent, and has been played at the Paralympics since Toronto 1976 (where only a men’s tournament was played – women only got a chance to play in 1984). Turkey have already taken gold in the women’s competition today, beating the USA. The men’s final takes place later, and will see Brazil take on China.

Thank you for reading these Paralympic titbits. It has been a superb competition, with incredible stories and amazing competition (and astonishing Team GB performances that have brought home over 100 medals – and counting). See you at Paris 2024. 

Thanks for reading and do share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia

Phoebe Davis

Produced by Phoebe Davis and edited by Xavier Greenwood.

Photographs Getty Images

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