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Morning briefing: Could the UK be close to world’s first vaccine?

Good morning.

Nearly half the UK public could have a vaccine available to them by September, the government said over the weekend. Business Secretary Alok Sharma said that a new partnership between Oxford University researchers and the pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca meant that 30 million doses could be produced by September, if – and it’s a big if – trials prove successful. Vaccines would be available to the UK public first before being sold to developing nations “at the lowest possible cost”. The news came as the government announced an extra £84m for researchers at both Oxford University, who are furthest along with their vaccine trials, and Imperial College London.

It’s less good news on the government’s contract tracing system: Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s pledge to have the “whole thing up and running by the middle of this month” is slowly disintegrating. The Guardian reports today that people who applied to become contact tracers were told recruitment was on hold “while the government considers an alternative” to the NHS contact tracing app. The government had said it would recruit 18,000 contact tracers by today, 18 May, and over the weekend, Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove said just over 17,000 had been signed up. The programme would be operational by the end of the month, he said.

Lastly, Britain’s train operators have begun ramping up their services in anticipation of more people returning to work. Network Rail is adding around 3,000 more trains per day, but social distancing will keep capacity below 13 per cent of normal level. One-way systems are in place in stations, some seats on trains will be taped off, and extra security staff will help with crowd control. Some operators are only allowing people to board if they have a reservation, and Avanti West Coast said it will not allow carriages to become more than a third full. The government last week encouraged people to return to work if they couldn’t work from home, but warned against the use of public transport unless absolutely necessary.

Global updates:

US: Unemployment could reach 25 per cent in the US and GDP could drop by more than 30 per cent in the second quarter of the year, the chair of the Federal Reserve has warned.

Japan: Japan has entered recession for the first time since 2015. GDP fell an annualised 3.4 per cent in the first three months of the year. GDP is expected to shrink by an annualised 20 per cent or more during the second quarter of the year.

Italy: Most businesses in Italy, including bars, will reopen today for the first time in two months. Over the weekend, the country recorded its lowest number of new daily cases since March, with 145 infections.

Spain: Spain recorded 87 new cases of coronavirus yesterday, the lowest number in two months. People living outside of Madrid and Barcelona are now free to meet in groups of up to ten.

India: India recorded its highest daily rise in infections, with 5,242 new cases. It comes as the country has extended its lockdown but began to ease some restrictions across the country, allowing some non-essential shops and businesses to reopen. The total number of cases is now above 96,000, with around 56,000 active infections.

China: Pollution in China is now higher than at this point last year, after it dropped considerably during the coronavirus lockdown, the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air has found. It said the rebound was likely due to a restart of industrial activity.

Cambodia: Cambodia’s last remaining Covid-19 patient has now been treated and released from hospital, leaving the country officially virus-free.

Brazil: The mayor of São Paulo has warned the city’s health system is on the verge of collapse. Hospitals are at around 90 per cent capacity and could run out of space in two weeks, he said.

Taiwan: Members of the World Health Organisation assembly will vote today on whether to include Taiwan, which has been barred from the group since 2017 because of opposition from China.

Read more on the New Statesman:

Covid-19 might prove a “Goldilocks crisis” forcing the world to confront its problems

Should I return to work at school?

“F**k the nation’s morale”: Premier League return plans expose its detachment from reality

“It’s a grief process for us all”: How to care for a mourning nation

What Hannah Arendt can teach us about work in the time of Covid-19
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