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

 
 
 
 

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.