Morning briefing: Accurate Covid antibody test on horizon

Good morning.

Public Health England has approved the UK’s first coronavirus antibody test kit. Antibody tests will be crucial in determining who has previously had the virus, and up until now, the government had not found a reliable kit. Now, ministers are negotiating with the Swiss company Roche to buy millions of units and potentially roll them out nationwide, the Telegraph reports.

The test is lab-based, not the pregnancy test-style home test kit that Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously said would be a “gamechanger” – but it is highly accurate, and could be a step on the road towards accurate home testing. However, we still do not know for certain that antibodies provide immunity to Covid-19. The approval of the test kits makes that tranche of research all the more urgent.

Meanwhile, health experts have warned that restarting NHS services could take months, and could potentially be a bigger challenge than tackling the first wave of the virus. Later today, health think tanks the Health Foundation, Nuffield Trust and King’s Fund will give evidence to a committee of MPs, and ahead of the meeting they warned about the impact of exhausted staff, the lack of personal protective equipment and difficulties managing the risk of infections, which will “severely limit capacity for many months”. They will be joined by Chris Hopson of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, who warned overnight that “expectations are already way ahead of reality”, and that the first wave of the virus was “just the first few laps of what we know will be a marathon”.

Lastly, the Guardian reports that social care directors in England warned ministers about the dangers of a pandemic to the care home sector in 2018. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Service, a representative body, warned that “demand for personal protective equipment could rapidly outstrip supply” and called for better infection control protocols. “We are not aware of whether government departments picked up on any of the recommendations set out,” it told the paper.

Global updates:

Europe: The European Parliament will today meet to discuss Hungary’s new coronavirus laws, including one that gives Prime Minister Viktor Orbán power to rule indefinitely by decree. Orbán will not attend the EU meeting.

Russia: Moscow officials said that the deaths of most coronavirus patients are due to other causes. The city attributes less than 40 per cent of coronavirus patient deaths to Covid-19, they said. Russia has the world’s second-highest number of confirmed cases but has recorded just 2,212 coronavirus-related deaths.

Japan: Japan is today expected to lift a state of emergency in 39 of its 47 prefectures.

New Zealand: Finance minister Grant Robertson has announced a NZ$50bn (£26.7bn) fund to reduce unemployment to pre-coronavirus levels within two years. The fund equates to around 17 per cent of national GDP. He called it “the most significant financial commitment in modern history”.

US: President Donald Trump has criticised Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease experts, for warning reopening state economies too early could cause a second spike of infections. Fauci’s comments were “not acceptable”, Trump said, adding that Fauci wanted “to play all sides of the equation”.

Australia: Australians lost nearly 600,000 jobs in April, but official unemployment figures only rose by one percentage point, to 6.2 per cent, because many people left the work force entirely.

China: The city of Wuhan has begun its campaign to test every resident in the city, following a small flare up of infections.

World: The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that coronavirus “may never go away”. “It is important to put this on the table: this virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities,” said Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief.

Read more on the New Statesman:

As we pass the pandemic’s peak, the NHS needs to adjust to life in the shadow of Covid-19

As lockdown is loosened, those with the least are being asked to bear the greatest risk

Dreaming of Covid-19

The problem with our response to Covid-19 wasn’t that we didn’t have a plan – it was the opposite

Why everyone should watch the BBC’s Covid-19 special Hospital

Pandemics and the politics of time

How plagues change the world

For one in ten of people, returning to work could be particularly dangerous

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.