Morning briefing: UK’s furlough could soon cost as much as NHS

Good morning.

The government could soon be spending as much on the wages of furloughed employees as it does on the NHS, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said last night, warning: “Clearly that is not a sustainable situation”. HMRC figures released yesterday showed 6.3 million workers, almost a quarter of all PAYE employees, have been put on a government scheme that pays furloughed staff 80 per cent of their wages up to £2,500 a month. The cost to the Treasury is £8bn and rising. Sunak promised there would be “no cliff-edge” for the funding, and that he was “figuring out the most effective way to wind down the scheme and to ease people back into work in a measured way”. He faces pressure from both sides: on one, businesses warning that they cannot cope without government support; on the other, senior Conservatives worried by the growing toll of the lockdown on the nation’s finances.

Speaking of: Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, has said the government’s upcoming review of lockdown measures should focus on “removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”. He said that “in some instances, it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home”, adding that employers are “struggling to fulfil orders because it is difficult to get employees back from furlough”. Charles Walker, vice-chair of the committee, said businesses faced a “bleak” future. “We need to have a frank, open and honest debate about the ethics of trading lives tomorrow to save lives today,” he said.

Meanwhile, it emerged that fewer than 300 of the 18.1 million people who entered the UK between 1 January and the start of lockdown were quarantined. Passengers on three flights from Wuhan, China, and one from Tokyo, Japan, which was carrying passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, were the only people taken to government isolation facilities. Labour MP and member of the home affairs select committee Stephen Doughty, who obtained the figures, said the data “beggars belief”.

Global updates:

Ireland: People can now exercise within five kilometres from their home and people over 70 are allowed to venture outside, so long as they follow social distancing rules. Other lockdown measures remain in place until 18 May, when some shops will reopen.

US: The government has said it wants to borrow $3tn (£2.4tn) in the second quarter of the year, more than five times the current quarterly borrowing record, set at the height of the 2008 financial crisis.

India: India reported 3,900 new cases in 24 hours, the biggest daily rise since the pandemic began. The rise could be due to increased testing. The release of the figures coincided with an easing of lockdown restrictions, which has allowed some shops to reopen.

Australia and New Zealand: The two countries officially confirmed plans for a shared “safe travel zone”. Such a zone “would be mutually beneficial, assisting our trade and economic recovery, helping kick-start the tourism and transport sectors, enhancing sporting contacts, and reuniting families and friends”, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a joint statement.

Nigeria: Restrictions were lifted yesterday in the capital Abuja and Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. Markets, stores, shopping malls and construction sites were allowed to reopen.

Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says citizens can now “leave the house, wherever you want”, after people were previously restricted to travelling 100 metres from their front door. Israelis are now allowed to gather outdoors in groups of up to 20.

Read more on the New Statesman:

Why Boris Johnson should now admit his government’s failures over coronavirus

Top economists warn the UK not to repeat austerity after the Covid-19 crisis

This is the longest I have gone without being touched. My body is starting to feel like a stranger

 
 
 
 

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.