The Coronavirus Outbreak: An Update
What’s the latest?
At the daily coronavirus briefing on Thursday, health secretary Matt Hancock revealed that a government study has suggested 17% of people in London have tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies. In the rest of the country this figure stands at 5%. Hancock said antibody testing – which identifies whether someone has previously had the virus – will be crucial in understanding the pandemic. It follows the news that the number of people with coronavirus in England has remained stable since the end of April, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). ONS data has indicated around 140,000 people were infected with Covid-19 from 4th-17th May – a similar figure to the fortnight prior, when an estimated 148,000 people were infected.
Meanwhile in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has announced a four-phase plan for the easing of lockdown measures from next week. Under the second phase of the plan, starting on 28th May, Scots will be allowed to meet friends outdoors and play outdoor sports. Outdoor cafes, recycling centres and garden centres will also reopen and schools will partially open from 11th August. Announcing the measures to Scottish MPs, Sturgeon said: “The steps we will take are by necessity gradual and incremental – and they must also be matched with rigorous, ongoing monitoring of the virus.”
Has progress been made on a vaccine?
As clinical trials continue to test the effectiveness of potential vaccines, the drugs firm AstraZeneca has confirmed it has the capacity to produce 1bn doses of the jab currently being developed at Oxford University. If proven successful in trials, AstraZeneca said it can begin supplying the vaccine from September. The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker has already signed agreements to supply at least 400m doses of the jab worldwide, including 30m in the UK, as announced by the health secretary on Monday. The firm said it intended to negotiate further deals on capacity to ensure the delivery of “a globally accessible vaccine”.
Oxford University is also leading the international trial of two antimalarial drugs to investigate whether they can prevent Covid-19. On Thursday, 40,000 frontline healthcare workers – including those working in the NHS, as well as in Africa, Asia and South America – began trialling the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. The latter has been hailed by US president Donald Trump, who said he was taking it as a preventative measure despite medical warnings about its use. So far, laboratory evidence has suggested the antimalarials may be effective in preventing or treating the virus, although there has been no conclusive proof.
And what are the international developments?
On Thursday, data from John Hopkins University showed the number of confirmed cases worldwide has now passed 5.1m. It follows a rise of 106,000 new infections around the world on Wednesday – the most in a single day so far. Among the worst affected countries is Brazil, where 20,000 new cases were recorded on Wednesday. Russia is also facing a surge in cases, with a total of 317,554 reported as of Thursday morning – the second-highest tally worldwide. In Afghanistan, a smaller but severe outbreak is also testing the country’s fragile health infrastructure. On Thursday, Afghanistan’s health ministry warned that hospital beds for virus patients had now reached capacity in many areas.
In Japan, officials lifted the state of emergency imposed in Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo on Thursday. The decision was taken after the number of new infections dropped below 0.5 cases per 100,000 people. The state of emergency has now been lifted across most of Japan, although it remains in place in Tokyo. Meanwhile in Europe, the director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has warned that leaders must be prepared for a second wave of infections. As many nations continued relaxing lockdown restrictions this week, Dr Andrea Ammon said it was vital Europe braced for a resurgence in cases, saying: “The question is when and how big.”
A respondent to a survey of local disaster planners warns that a no-deal Brexit risks overwhelming the capacity of emergency response teams in the UK. According to a leaked Whitehall report, many local emergency responders could struggle to meet the challenge posed by a possible no-deal Brexit at the end of this year. The report, which comes from a committee set up to review the response to coronavirus, said failing to seek an extension to Brexit trade negotiations risked compounding Covid-19 “with a second UK societal-wide, economic and social, chronic threat”.
The prime minister has made clear that the UK will not extend the Brexit transition period despite the disruption to negotiations caused by the coronavirus crisis. With the transition period currently due to end on 31st December, the leaked report has revealed that many emergency planners remain concerned about the dual impact of both coronavirus and a no-deal Brexit. “If we are to do recovery properly we do not have the space to start scaling-up a Brexit response too… This isn’t pro/anti-Brexit – it is about being sensible for the recovery process,” one respondent said.
In other news
GOVERNMENT U-TURNS ON NHS SURCHARGE
Boris Johnson has U-turned on his position on the NHS surcharge for migrant health workers after facing significant pressure from opposition parties and Conservative backbenchers. The surcharge applies to non-EU migrants and sees those working within the NHS pay £400 a year to use the health service. Under the prime minister’s immigration bill, this charge was set to rise to £624 in October. However, a backlash from MPs prompted Johnson to reverse his position on Thursday. A No 10 spokesperson said NHS and care workers would be removed from the surcharge scheme as soon as possible. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has welcomed the decision, saying: "This is a victory for common decency and the right thing to do. We cannot clap our carers one day and then charge them to use our NHS the next."
EASYJET TO RESUME FLIGHTS NEXT MONTH
EasyJet has announced plans to resume some flights from 15th June. The airline said it intended to restart a “small number” of routes, with the initial schedule including domestic locations such as Liverpool, Edinburgh and Belfast. The only international service set to fly from the UK will be to Nice in France. Chief executive John Lundgren said the plans were part of “small and carefully planned steps” which will see further routes announced as customer demand increases and lockdown measures across Europe are relaxed. Aircraft will be subject to “enhanced disinfection” and facemasks will be mandatory. The resumption of flights comes after EasyJet grounded its entire fleet in March as international travel came to a near-halt.
PM CLEARED OF JENNIFER ARCURI INQUIRY
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has said the prime minister will not face a police investigation into his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri. Last year, it was revealed that the US model-turned-technology entrepreneur received more than £125,000 worth of public funding during Boris Johnson’s time as London mayor. Arcuri’s close relationship with Johnson led to accusations he had used his position as mayor to benefit her business. Publishing the findings of its investigation on Thursday, the IOPC said there may have been an “intimate relationship” between Arcuri and Johnson but no evidence had been found to indicate Johnson had influenced the payment of grants to her company. It concluded that no criminal inquiry was required.
CYCLONE HITS INDIA AND BANGLADESH
Cyclone Amphan has left a trail of destruction after making landfall in coastal areas of eastern India and Bangladesh on Wednesday. The most powerful cyclone to hit the Bay of Bengal in a decade, Amphan brought winds up 115mph and flooded low-lying areas with a storm surge of around 5 metres. As rescue teams began searching for survivors on Thursday, officials warned the full extent of the damage would only become clear once communications were restored. At least 72 people are known to have been killed in the storm in India and a further ten casualties have been recorded in Bangladesh. Mass evacuations of communities that lay in the cyclone’s path have been credited with saving countless lives.
BRISTOL REVEALS CAR-FREE PLANS
Bristol has unveiled new plans aimed at turning part of its historic centre into a pedestrian-only zone. Published by the city council, the scheme looks to change how people get around Bristol during and after the Covid-19 crisis. Officials hope to pedestrianise part of the Old City area – home to cafes, independent shops and Bristol crown court – by the end of this summer, as well as improving cycle routes and widening pavements. Marvin Rees, the directly elected mayor of Bristol, said: “Normal patterns of transport have been disrupted… It’s really important that as people begin moving again en masse they don’t go back to patterns that are 15 to 20 years out of date.”
The number of Tinder swipes made worldwide on 29th March – the most the app has ever recorded in a single day. According to Tinder chief executive Elie Seidman, the coronavirus outbreak and resulting lockdowns have had a “dramatic” effect on online dating. On one hand, Seidman said, the app’s user engagement is up – with daily conversations rising 12% in the UK between mid-February and the end of March. However, the economic impact of the pandemic has left many people with less disposable income – a development likely to negatively impact Tinder, which relies on premium subscriptions to the app for its revenue.