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Sensemaker: Vax v variant

Sensemaker: Vax v variant

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Nuclear talks between Iran and the P5 +1 resumed in Vienna with little hope of progress because Iran is demanding an end to all sanctions. 
  • American cinemas prepared for the theatrical release of The Chosen, based on a TV series of the same title about the life of Jesus and crowdfunded by believers to the tune of $40 million. 
  • A German study suggested buskers can earn 50 per cent more per hour by playing classical music than rock or jazz, at least on Sundays. 

Vax v variant

Here’s a list of countries with confirmed cases of the Omicron variant, in addition to those in southern Africa placed on the UK’s red list last week: the Netherlands (13 confirmed as of 7am), UK (3), Germany (3), France (unclear), Denmark, Czech Republic, Italy, Belgium, Israel, Canada, Australia, China (Hong Kong).

Omicron is known to be highly transmissible and the Times reports this morning that actual UK numbers could be in the hundreds. So it’s fair to assume it’s everywhere and spreading fast. But it’s essential to stress, very little else is known about it yet for sure. With that gigantic caveat let’s accentuate the positive:

  • Symptoms so far seem to be mild. Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African GP who raised the alarm about Omicron, says those confirmed to have it in Gauteng province present with aches, raised pulse rates and fatigue but no loss of taste or smell. 
  • The world was paying attention in days, not months. That may not have prevented outbreaks seeding weeks before the first confirmed cases (officials are looking into reports that one arrived in the UK on 16 November), but it’s a much quicker response than to Delta. 
  • Therapeutics should work. There’s no reason why drugs like Merck’s molnupiravir pill for people who already have Covid should be less effective against Omicron than other variants, because it doesn’t target the spike protein that carries most of the mutations. It’s a protease inhibitor that targets other parts of the virus’s genetic code. 

For what it’s worth, epidemiologists are confident vaccines will also be reasonably effective, especially for those who’ve had boosters. Hence today’s expansion of UK booster availability to all over 40s. And the markets think they’ve felt the bottom of the Omicron dip: Asian indices fell in the Far East this morning, but US stocks that lost ground on Friday stabilised this morning when trading opened in Hong Kong. 

One truly sobering lesson: this is the kind of thing that happens when poor countries don’t get enough vaccine. Read more in Matthew d’Ancona’s column.

And if the solution for most of us is multiple vaccinations, what about people for whom a single injection is a serious trauma?

This week in our Slow Newscast we tell the story of Elliott Goldsworthy, a teenager at greater risk of dying from Covid but who is still waiting to be vaccinated, Saba Salman reports.

We tell Elliott’s story because it reflects a bigger problem: as Covid becomes endemic, what happens to disabled people who cannot have life-saving injections like everyone else? 

Elliott is among over 32,000 people who are autistic or have a learning disability and remain unvaccinated, according to estimates by Professor Chris Hatton at Manchester Metropolitan University. 

People like Elliott are up to six times more likely to die from Covid, figures from Public Health England show.

The reasons they find injections difficult include needle phobia and anxiety about healthcare. Some areas offer accessible vaccine clinics with less queuing and longer appointments, but these adjustments are not always enough.

The charity Ambitious about Autism estimates that just 65 of the 235 children and young people across its services who are eligible for the jab are vaccinated. Read more.

You can listen to A place for Elliott in our app or wherever you get your podcasts from Thursday – just look for Tortoise Media and the Slow Newscast. 

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Snowed in
About 60 Oasis fans just spent their third night snowed in at Britain’s highest pub. They gathered at the Tan Hill Inn in the Yorkshire dales on Friday night to listen to an Oasis tribute band, and most were still there this morning thanks to drifts up to nine feet deep deposited by Storm Arwen, and to a surprising dearth of SUVs. The local mountain rescue team said those with 4x4s could leave but those without should stay put, and most did. The pub’s manager, Nicola Townsend, has been dividing her time between feeding her guests and fielding calls from national and international media curious to know how they were all coping. They were all in good spirits, she told Sky last night. The Tan Hill Inn is at 528 metres above sea level, about the same as Bern.

New things technology, science, engineering

Sub-sea kites
Last year we noted the deployment of a tidal power generator shaped like a submarine off Orkney. The field is expanding. Today the BBC reports on experimental kite-like generators moving in underwater figure-8s in a fjord in the Faroes. They are tethered to the sea floor and move under their own steam, as it were, thanks to wings with aerofoil cross-sections that actually make them look more like drones than kites. Each one can power four or five homes. We are still some way from harnessing tidal power at scale, but only for want of money. The Swansea Tidal Lagoon scheme, on the drawing board for decades, would power 155,000 homes. Its prospects looked up with the announcement last week of £20 million earmarked for contracts for difference for tidal power, but the scheme still needs £1.3 billion to be built. 

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

Youth unemployment
Youth unemployment in England is more than twice as high as in the general population at over 12 per cent, and a new report from the House of Lords has 70 recommendations on how to fix the problem. Chief among them: fund further education properly by making the money follow students as it does in universities. There are also pointed paragraphs on apprenticeships, whose numbers fell steeply with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy four years ago. The report urges government to require employers to reserve two thirds of their apprenticeship funding for young people, because many are using it to retrain older workers instead. Nothing wrong with that, but the pie is finite, half a million 16-24 year-olds are looking for work and 600,000 are Neetes (not in education, employment or training). And low morale can set in long before that, says Lord Shipley, chair of the committee behind the report: “Unless you get to a child by seven with career aspirations, stereotypes form.”

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Brazil says no
At about the time more than 100 national leaders were pledging at Cop to end deforestation by 2030, the EU was finalising proposals to ban imports of wood, beef, soy and other products from land illegally logged since 2020. On current trends that will include large areas of Amazonia, and Brazil is crying foul even though it was a signatory to the Cop pact. Its foreign minister accuses the EU in the FT of using the environment “as a form of trade protectionism(£)”, as if the EU were itself a big producer of tropical hardwood, soy, coffee, cacao and palm oil and was trying to protect its own producers. It is not. Carlos Alberto Franco França, the minister, accused the EU of myopia. Brazil deserves much more generous compensation than so far offered for leaving its forests alone, but still, on myopia, where do we start?

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Bad bet
Not so long ago Macau was the scene of wild gambling weekends attended not just by the rich but by the powerful. It was where senior Chinese Communist Party cadres in chauffeur-driven Mercedes let off steam, reasonably confident no one would tell on them because everyone was at it. This morning Alvin Chau, head of Macau’s biggest purveyor of gambling “junkets” (all-in packages from the mainland, sometimes including loans to bet with) was arrested ($) along with ten others charged with illegal gambling and money-laundering. Trading in shares of Chau’s Suncity Group was suspended after their price slid more than 7 per cent. Those of most Macau subsidiaries of US gambling and hotel groups fell too. Macau’s courts are technically independent of mainland China’s – but only technically. Xi Jinping is determined to stamp out all possible rival power bases, even if it means stamping out fun too. Are parallels with Cromwell under-used? 

The week ahead


29/11 – Nicola Sturgeon to speak at Scottish National Party’s annual conference; Met Police memorial service for Sgt Matt Ratana; British curry awards, 30/11 – St Andrew’s day; stricter face mask rules and travel restrictions come into force; Justice Secretary Dominic Raab gives evidence to justice committee, 1/12 – First day of winter; new taper rate of 55p for universal credit payments comes into effect;University staff strike over pay and pensions starts, 2/12 – By-election for Old Bexley and Sidcup following death of James Brokenshire; Turner Prize winner announced; Northern Economic Summit, 3/12 – ONS releases figures on British companies’ profitability; court hearing for Met Police officer David Carrick, charged with rape


29/11 – Cyber Monday; talks between Iran and P5+1 to revive 2015 nuclear deal resume; trial of Ghislaine Maxwell begins in New York, 30/11 – Barbados becomes a republic; easyJet full year results, 1/12 – OECD economic outlook released; UN World Aids Day; IEA annual report on renewable energy published, 2/12 – European Justice Commissioner meets Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP for Global Affairs and Communications; European Central Bank’s General Council meets in Frankfurt,  3/12 – Congress’ self imposed deadline for continuing to fund government or face partial shutdown, 4/12 – Annual Stollenfest in Dresden begins; presidential election in Gambia 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Phoebe Davis

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Minesto, thetanhillinn_/Instagram, Getty Images