Morning briefing: England and other UK nations begin to diverge

Good morning.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has encouraged people who cannot work from home, including those in construction, to commute to their jobs once more, avoiding public transport wherever possible. In a speech yesterday he announced that, from Wednesday, people will be allowed to exercise outdoors an unlimited number of times, sit in parks, and play sports such as golf with household members. (This morning, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has clarified that the advice on working only applies from Wednesday, too.) 

Primary schools and some non-essential shops could reopen as early as 1 June, and both cafés and restaurants with outdoor space could reopen in July. Downing Street will publish a 50-page document with more detail at 2pm today before Johnson faces MPs in the House of Commons at 3:30pm. The government is expected to announce that people can meet up with one person from another household, providing social distancing measures are followed.

The plan has faced criticism both from trade unions and from other parts of the UK. Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland will loosen rules on going outdoors this week, but they are beginning to diverge from England. Johnson’s decision to drop the “Stay at Home” slogan for the less specific “Stay Alert” has not been copied in the devolved administrations, with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon calling the new message “vague and imprecise”. No sunbathing, picnics or barbecues will be allowed in Scotland, she said, in contrast to England.

The Trades Union Congress said Johnson’s plea for a return to work was a “recipe for chaos”. “The government still hasn’t published guidance on how workers will be kept safe. So how can the prime minister – with 12 hours’ notice – tell people they should be going back to sites and factories?” asked general secretary Frances O’Grady.

Meanwhile, scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have found evidence that some strains of the virus are mutating, calling it an “early warning” for those hoping to create vaccines. The analysis found that, while most coronavirus genomes around the world are stable, some are not. “Even if these mutations are not important for vaccines, other mutations might be and we need to maintain our surveillance so we are not caught out by deploying a vaccine that only works against some strains,” said Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious diseases.

Global updates:

NZ: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has further eased coronavirus restrictions. Parties, weddings, stag dos and funerals will be allowed, but will be capped at ten people. The country reported three new cases.

France: Clothes shops, bookshops, hair salons and florists will reopen today, and primary schools will restart classes with limited pupil numbers.

South Korea: South Korea reported 35 new cases, with 29 linked to one man visiting clubs and bars in Seoul. More than 1,500 people who possibly encountered the man have been alerted. It marks the biggest daily rise in cases for a month.

China: Authorities tightened measures in the city of Shulan, in Jilin province near the Russian border, after a small outbreak of new cases; 17 new cases were reported nationwide, the highest in nearly two weeks.

Spain: Regions comprising half of the country’s population – and excluding Barcelona and Madrid – will be able to meet with family or friends in groups of up to ten people from today. Outdoor spaces in bars and restaurants can reopen with limited capacity.

US: Some of the country’s top health officials, including Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are now in quarantine after coming into contact with a White House staffer with coronavirus.

India: India will reopen its train network from tomorrow, even as new infections rise. Yesterday, the country reported more than 67,000 new cases and 2,200 deaths.

Australia: States are lifting lockdown restrictions this week following the publication of a new government plan for the next few months. Victoria is now allowing five people to travel between homes, and for groups of up to ten people to meet outdoors. New South Wales will adopt the same measures on Friday.

Netherlands: Primary schools will partially reopen today. Libraries, physiotherapists, driving schools and hairdressers will also reopen.

Switzerland: Primary and middle schools will reopen with limited class sizes today, while restaurants, bookshops and museums will also reopen with some restrictions.

Bangladesh: The country reported its highest number of daily infections (884) and deaths (14), as its number of cases passed 14,000.

Sri Lanka: Lockdown will be eased today, with government and private businesses reopening with limited staff numbers. The country has reported 863 cases.


Read more on the New Statesman:

British politics and Covid-19 is about to become a big argument about social class

Labour’s policy on renters and Covid-19 is one pledge too long

Exclusive: Video shows key UK official in 2016 anticipating “a pandemic that killed a lot of people”

The clamour to “reopen” the US could cause more damage than it prevents

How public figures are spending the Covid-19 lockdown

 
 
 
 

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.