Long stories short
- Britain said it was supplying Ukraine with short-range anti-tank missiles to help it defend itself in the event of a Russian invasion.
- US airlines warned that the impending switch-on of 5G mobile phone services will disrupt planes’ navigation systems.
- New Zealand’s efforts to send aid to tsunami-struck Tonga were hampered by volcanic ash on the kingdom’s main runway.
Is it over?
The World Health Organization’s Covid chief, David Nabarro, said there appears to be “light at the end of the tunnel” for the UK in its battle with the virus. The signs are positive, even if elsewhere the picture remains bleak:
- UK infections are down 42 per cent week-on-week, from 82,894 to 48,530 daily cases.
- Hospital admissions have stabilised at around 2,250 patients a day.
- Almost two-thirds of the eligible population have now had a third vaccine dose.
Nabarro’s view will delight a beleaguered Boris Johnson, who wants to signal to the country that it has to live with the virus. In this view Covid moves from pandemic to endemic, like the flu. It will be constantly present in the population, but while some people will be at risk if they catch it the average person will be fine.
For England, the plan is to lift all pandemic restrictions in March, including ending mandatory self-isolation for positive cases and replacing it with “guidance”.
If a new variant comes along, experts say the chances are that most of us will get very mild symptoms only, like the effect of new flu strains, which can cause death among vulnerable people but mostly cause headaches and sniffles.
- The NHS. The government cautioned that the health service remains under significant pressure – there are over 19,000 Covid patients in hospital – and it has indicated that masks will remain mandatory on public transport and in indoor spaces.
- Endemic doesn’t necessarily mean mild. Omicron does cause milder illness than Covid’s original strain and far fewer Covid cases are resulting in death. But many endemic diseases – malaria, HIV – are deadly.
- New variants. There remains a risk that a new variant that can outcompete Omicron and cause more severe disease.
The risk is heightened by a very uneven global picture. Despite the situation in the UK, Nabarro said, “elsewhere in the world, things are nothing like as promising”. Many poorer countries have barely vaccinated their populations. Nigeria – home to 200 million people – has vaccinated just 2.5 per cent of its population. India – home to 1.38 billion people – has covered 48 per cent of its population and reports falling case numbers but remains vulnerable. Some countries have chosen a policy of keeping the virus out. China is still implementing severe lockdowns. It claims very few daily infections and zero deaths. Even if the figures are to be believed, the result is that its population of 1.4 billion will have low immunity. In these places, the virus will continue to spread and mutate, and those mutations will find their way into countries that have declared the pandemic over.
Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity
Nadine Dorries, the UK’s culture secretary, told parliament the BBC licence fee will be frozen at £159 for two years, after which it will continue rising with inflation – currently running at 5.1 per cent. The freeze is the equivalent of a £2 billion funding cut for the world’s biggest, best-known public service broadcaster, over the duration of its next settlement period. Dorries framed the decision as the government not being able to “justify extra pressure on the wallets of hardworking households”. In reality the timing of her statement was pure politics; red meat for MPs who may be wavering in their support for Johnson but share her view that the BBC is institutionally biased against her party and world view. She has previously questioned whether it will still exist in a decade – and there’s certainly no alternative funding mechanism that has wide support.
belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries
A French court found far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour guilty of racist hate speech. Zemmour, a media pundit, had described child migrants as thieves, killers and rapists. “That’s all they are,” he said. “We should send them back”. The court fined him €10,000, which he has to pay in daily installments of €100. If he doesn’t, he could be jailed. His lawyer said Zemmour plans to appeal. In any case, the verdict won’t stop his presidential bid. Zemmour has two previous convictions for hate speech – one for claiming that “most drug dealers are black and Arab” and another for comments about a Muslim “invasion” of France. He is, however, unlikely to muster the endorsement he needs from at least 500 elected officials to have his name on the ballot for the two rounds of voting in April, which suggests that his incendiary rhetoric may be losing its appeal.
New things technology, science, engineering
Activision Blizzard, the California-based video game giant, fired or pushed out 37 employees and disciplined 44 others since July as it addressed allegations of sexual harassment and other misconduct. The company planned to release a summary of these developments before Christmas, but chief executive Bobby Kotick held it back, saying it could make the problem seem bigger than was already known. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news, reported that the company had collected 700 reports of employee concern over misconduct since July. The reports included allegations of rape brought against managers across the company; and complaints about Kotick himself, including one from an assistant saying he’d threatened in a voicemail to have her killed.
The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY
Doctors burnt out
A survey found that a quarter of NHS doctors are so tired that their ability to treat patients has been impaired. The survey was conducted over the past month by the Medical Defence Union, which provides legal support to healthcare workers, and is based on responses from 500 doctors across the UK. It indicates that growing workloads, longer hours and widespread staff shortages have led to exhaustion and poor levels of care. In at least seven cases, patients sustained harm. One doctor, suffering from “chronic fatigue”, described how their patient collapsed after being prescribed penicillin despite having told the doctor they were allergic to it. Join us at tonight’s ThinkIn on whether the NHS is overrated.
covid by numbers
36 – WHO member states, out of 194, have vaccinated less than 10% of their population
Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics
Coal production in China, the world’s biggest coal producer and consumer, reached record levels last year. Chinese mines produced 4.1 billion tonnes of the dirtiest fossil fuel in 2021, up 4.7 per cent from the year before. The government called for miners to work at full capacity to help fuel the country’s economic growth and ensure it has enough energy to compensate for a winter gas crisis. The record consumption numbers are published barely two months after China joined India to force the Cop26 summit to water down its main ambition of “phasing out” coal to “phasing down” instead. Officials at Cop said a detailed ten-year plan would ensure China passed peak coal consumption by the end of the decade – but that was less ambitious than a pledge from Xi Jinping earlier in the year to hit that target by 2025.
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Paul Caruana Galizia
Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis
Photographs Getty Images
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