Morning briefing: UK must “wean off” government grants

Good morning.

Ministers’ plans to wind down the grant scheme for furloughed workers are taking shape: the Treasury is considering lowering the 80 per cent wage subsidy to 60 per cent, reducing the maximum payment one person can receive from £2,500 a month, or allowing furloughed staff to work part-time with a smaller subsidy. “We’ve got to wean off it,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last night. The scheme will run in its current form until 30 June. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to provide more detail on the plans on Sunday, giving larger businesses enough time to, if necessary, hold a statutory 45-day consultation before making redundancies at the beginning of July. The Times also reports that ministers might bar self-employed workers with profits of more than £30,000 from claiming government grants – currently, the bar is £50,000.

Scientists from Edinburgh University have proposed that Britain could leave lockdown by easing restrictions on more than half the population while strengthening protection for vulnerable groups. The “segmenting and shielding” plan, which suggests the elderly and vulnerable only see carers and family members, is under consideration by ministers.

Meanwhile, the Resolution Foundation think tank has warned that UK youth unemployment could top 1 million within a year unless ministers offer job guarantees or incentives for graduates and school leavers to continue their education. A lack of jobs for the “corona class of 2020” could see the number of unemployed people under 25 balloon by 600,000, it said.

Finally, as we reported on this blog last night, the scientist whose modelling led to the UK’s lockdown, Professor Neil Ferguson, has resigned from his position within the government’s scientific advisory group (Sage), after a Daily Telegraph investigation found he had at least twice been visited at his home by a woman with whom he was in a romantic relationship, and who lived elsewhere.

Global updates:

South Korea: The country has moved out of lockdown into an “everyday quarantine”, where people are asked to follow a detailed set of non-binding guidelines for every aspect of their lives, including eating in restaurants and taking public transport.

US: The White House has confirmed it will wind down its coronavirus task force, despite the fact more than 1,000 people are dying from the virus every day across the country. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump said the economy must reopen soon, even if some people were “affected badly”.

Brazil: Brazil recorded 600 deaths in a 24-hour period, far higher than its previous recorded (474), as São Luís became the first major city in the country to enter lockdown.

Germany: The heads of German states can decide when to reopen universities, restaurants, bars, hotels and other businesses, and how to limit contact between people, according to a draft government agreement. Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet with leaders from 16 states today to finalise the plans, which will see lockdown measures reintroduced if the number of new infections reaches more than 50 per 100,000 inhabitants over a seven-day period.

Italy: Italy’s latest daily tally of new infections stood at 1,075, the lowest in two months.

Spain: More than 70 per cent of new infections in Spain are among medical staff, the health ministry has said.

China: Schools in Wuhan reopened for the first time since the start of the pandemic, and Disneyland announced its Shanghai park will reopen on 11 May under “enhanced health and safety measures”.


Read more on the New Statesman:

How the UK overtook Italy to become the country with the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe

Why the UK’s lockdown rules are too vague and risky

What does Neil Ferguson’s resignation mean?

The economy needs real reform to recover from 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.