Morning briefing: 100,000 test target within UK government’s grasp

Good morning.

The government appears confident it will fulfil its pledge to test 100,000 people daily before the end of April – a target that previously appeared to be slipping away. Last night, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it was “likely” the government would hit the target, while Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “I think we will have either met it or be very close.” In some respects, the actual figure is arbitrary – NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, called it a “red herring” this week – but the ramping up of testing numbers will be seen as a success story for the government. At last count, the UK had tested nearly 82,000 people, up from 52,000 the previous day. We await figures from yesterday, the last day of April.

Meanwhile, hospital bosses are in two minds about guidance from NHS England to treat black, Asian and minority ethnic staff as “potentially greater risk” and consider moving them out of frontline positions. Several analyses have shown people from ethnic minority backgrounds are at an increased risk of dying from Covid-19. Hospital officials, however, are worried that they do not have enough staff to reassign ethnic minority workers. “Hospital bosses are very worried about this very high death rate among BAME staff. But it’s not obvious exactly what we can do. If you have a high proportion of BAME workers, how do you provide normal care if a substantial number of them move away from their usual roles? It’s difficult,” one official told the Guardian.

Lastly, care homes could be the “epicentres of transmission back into society”, a senior NHS England director has warned. According to the Independent, Professor Keith Willett, NHS England’s senior incident director for coronavirus, told a private online briefing for NHS bosses that there had been a “shift in the recognition” of the extent to which coronavirus is spreading between patients and staff, and that care homes would be “feeding the endemic problem that we will have going forward.”

Global updates:

US: President Donald Trump claimed he was “confident” the coronavirus had originated in a lab in Wuhan based on evidence he’d seen, contradicting US security services, who yesterday claimed the virus was “not manmade or genetically modified”.

South Africa: South Africa has eased one of the world's strictest lockdowns, which banned jogging, dog-walking, and alcohol sales. From today, some industries will begin to reopen, but masks and social distancing will remain mandatory. The country will implement an overnight curfew.

Malaysia: Businesses in Malaysia will be allowed to reopen on 4 May, except for those that usually involve large gatherings of employees.

Australia: Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated social distancing measures could be eased on 8 May, earlier than planned. The government was due to make a decision about lifting measures on 11 May, but Morrison said Australians had “earned an early mark”. Individual states and territories have already begun lifting some lockdown rules.

Indonesia: Cases passed 10,000, making Indonesia the second-worst hit country in south-east Asia.

Singapore: Singapore has housed some of its migrant workers who have recovered from Covid-19 onboard two cruise ships. Migrant workers have been the group worst hit by the coronavirus within the nation.

Russia: Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has tested positive for Covid-19, and will now self-isolate. The country yesterday reported 7,933 new cases of the coronavirus, a record daily rise.

Philippines: Provinces that have a lower number of coronavirus cases have begun easing lockdown measures today, amid fears that a lack of testing has masked the true scale of the crisis in the country.

Read more on the New Statesman:

Why the UK’s cultural divide is forcing Labour to be cautious over the Tories and coronavirus

“I’ve never been afraid for my own life before”: inside New York medics’ struggle against Covid-19

Death and mourning in the age of coronavirus

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.