The Coronavirus Outbreak: An Update
What’s the latest?
The health secretary has outlined a five-pillar strategy aimed at increasing coronavirus testing in the UK. Speaking at the official coronavirus briefing on Thursday, Matt Hancock said the government was aiming to carry out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. The first pillar of the strategy is establishing testing in Public Health England labs and within NHS hospitals to identify who has the virus. The second pillar is the creation of extra testing capacity through commercial partners, such as research institutions and companies like Boots, which will set up a network of test sites across the UK. The third pillar is the introduction of new antibody blood tests, which identify whether a person has already had the virus. The fourth pillar is surveillance to determine the infection rate and how the virus is spreading nationwide.
Hancock said the fifth and final pillar would be the creation of an “at-scale” diagnostics industry enabling England to reach 100,000 tests per day by the end of this month. The health secretary’s announcement comes after the government faced fierce criticism over its failure to roll out widespread testing. On Wednesday, it was revealed just 0.4% of frontline NHS staff had been tested so far despite government claims that more than 10,000 tests were being performed a day. Hancock said the delay in mass testing was due to global demand for medical equipment and shortages of vital test materials such as swabs. On Thursday, it was confirmed a further 569 people have died after contracting the virus – the UK’s largest daily increase so far.
How is it affecting the economy?
On Wednesday, British Airways (BA) confirmed it would be grounding much of its fleet due to the pandemic. After negotiations with the Unite union, the airline said around 36,000 staff were to be suspended but would receive 80% of their salaries through the government’s furlough scheme. Those furloughed include up to 80% of BA’s cabin and ground crew, engineers and head office staff. No one is expected to be made redundant. It follows news that 950,000 people have signed on to receive universal credit in the last two weeks – a significant jump from the usual level of 100,000 applications. People applying for the benefit will need to wait at least five weeks before receiving their first payment, although applicants can request a repayable advance.
Meanwhile, the financial regulator has announced plans to freeze loan and credit card payments during the outbreak. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said the measures could come into force as soon as 9th April and would freeze payments for up to three months. The action is aimed at providing financial relief to consumers and renters who have not benefited from existing measures aimed at home and business owners. The FCA also proposed that people facing financial difficulty as a result of the pandemic should not be charged interest on the first £500 of existing overdrafts for 90 days. The regulator has asked banks to respond to the proposed measures by Monday.
And what are the international developments?
There are now more than one million confirmed cases of the virus worldwide. World Health Organisation chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said “near exponential” growth in the number of infections had seen the virus spread to almost every country and territory across the world. In Asia, health authorities have warned of the potential impact of a second wave of cases as compliance with social distancing measures slips. In Singapore – considered an example of best practice in its response to the outbreak – officials have cautioned against growing “complacency”. The country has confirmed more than 60% of its virus cases in the past three weeks.
In the US – where more than 20% of the world’s cases have been reported – Donald Trump warned the country was going to have a “horrific” couple of weeks. More than 5,100 people have died so far. The president has insisted the US must provide help to two virus-stricken cruise ships after officials warned more passengers on board could die if the vessels were left stranded at sea. The Zaandam and Rotterdam cruise liners were granted permission to dock in Florida after being refused by several Latin American countries. Four people have died, including a British man, and dozens of others on the ships are ill. “We have to help the people. They are in big trouble no matter where they are from,” Trump said.
Epidemiologist Dr Elaine Shuo Feng criticises government advice maintaining that face masks serve little purpose for the public and should largely be reserved for the use of healthcare professionals. Consensus on the effectiveness of face masks has declined in recent days amid increasing evidence that those without symptoms can spread the coronavirus. Some scientists have urged for the widespread adoption of masks in the UK after several countries in Europe began mandating their use.
Dr Shuo Feng said the UK government “absolutely needs to think about how to ramp up the manufacturing” of masks, which can act as a barrier preventing infected people from spreading exhaled droplets containing the virus. However, some have warned that the use of masks could give the public a false sense of protection despite not being a foolproof method of preventing infection. The chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, insisted: “Wearing a mask if you don’t have an infection reduces the risk almost not at all.”
In other news
STARMER FAVOURITE TO REPLACE CORBYN
Sir Keir Starmer remains the favourite to replace Jeremy Corbyn as the next leader of the Labour party after voting in the contest drew to a close on Thursday. Pollsters YouGov put the former Brexit secretary ahead of his rivals Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy in its latest survey – suggesting Starmer may win the contest on first preference votes. Campaigning events were brought to an abrupt end last month as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the planned members’ conference to announce the party’s new leader was cancelled. Instead, the voting results will be revealed online on Saturday morning, with all three candidates asked to pre-record a victory speech ahead of the announcement.
PAKISTAN COURT QUASHES DEATH SENTENCE
A Pakistani court has commuted the death sentence of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British born man convicted of killing a journalist. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered while investigating al-Qaida in Karachi in 2002. A video of his killing was posted online. Sheikh, who is now 46, was convicted of the murder alongside three others. His role in the killing has always been disputed. Defence lawyer Khawaja Naveed told reporters: “The court has commuted Omar’s death sentence… the murder charges were not proven, so he was given seven years for the kidnapping.” Sheikh has spent 18 years in prison awaiting the outcome of an appeal. He is now expected to be released within days. His co-accused have also been acquitted.
WHALE RECOVERY BOOSTS OCEAN HOPES
The recovery of humpback whale numbers has rebuffed concerns that damage to our oceans is irreversible, according to a new study published in the journal Nature. Scientists have collaborated on a recovery plan showing how the health of the oceans can be restored by 2050. It is based upon analysis of successful measures introduced to recover ocean populations and habitats – such as the ban on commercial whaling which has allowed humpback numbers to grow from a few hundred in 1968 to more than 40,000 today. “The success of many marine conservation projects in recent years illustrates how we can make a real difference to life in our oceans,” study co-author Professor Callum Roberts said.
10,000 MODERN SLAVERY VICTIMS IN UK
New figures from the Home Office show the number of suspected modern slavery victims in the UK has surged to a record high of more than 10,000. The data shows 10,627 potential victims were referred to the UK’s National Referral Mechanism for identifying modern slavery abuses in 2019 – a 52% rise on the previous year. At least 80% of those referred in 2019 are still awaiting a decision on whether they can be confirmed as a victim of modern slavery, prompting fears that the mechanism is facing a significant backlog of cases. Campaigners have warned that the growing waiting period can hinder the recovery of victims and may leave them at risk of falling back into exploitation.
BOOKER PRIZE SHORTLIST REVEALED
The shortlist for this year’s International Booker prize has been revealed by the competition’s chair of judges. Ted Hodgkinson said the six selected novels – translated from Spanish, German, Dutch, Farsi and Japanese – transcended “this unprecedented moment, immersing us in expansively imagined lives”. The shortlist includes The Discomfort of Evening, a novel written by 28-year-old Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchison. It also features Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, a Farsi novel translated by a writer who is remaining anonymous for security reasons. The winner is set to be announced on 19th May and will receive a £50,000 cash prize.
Britain can expect a baby boom early in 2021 as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, according to relationship experts. Dr Sheri Jacobson, clinical director at a London psychotherapy clinic, said there was a “strong possibility” births would surge next year. “For one, there will be more contact and opportunity… remote working often has the benefit of accommodating other activities,” Dr Jacobson said. “Couples could also be bonding over the unfolding trauma,” she added.