Morning briefing: Ministers under pressure over track and trace

Good morning.

The government is coming under mounting pressure to roll out a track and trace system that, clearly, isn’t yet fit for purpose. The Guardian reports that the system, which will involve more than 20,000 contact tracers as well as an NHS app, will not be ready until June; Health Secretary Matt Hancock initially said it would go live in mid-May. Multiple government scientific advisers warned last night that schools should not open until an effective system is in place and working well.

With the first primary schools set to open on 1 June, ministers are up against it. Even disregarding the timing, the usefulness of the system itself is in question. One government scientific adviser told Sky News that the system might not be fast enough, while the BBC reported GCHQ was looking into security measures with the app. One contact tracer summed up the state of the system while telling the Guardian about the training they’d received. "We had a chat [box] where we could ask him questions, but the first hour and a half of the training was just people writing, ‘I can’t hear anything’."

Even leaving track and trace aside, more and more councils are saying they intend to keep schools closed for the start of next month. The BBC says at least 11 councils have expressed opposition to the date – the Guardian reckons it’s 18, representing 1,500 primary schools. However, opposition from the British Medical Association appears to be softening. The organisation said schools can reopen on 1 June if it is "safe to do so", and that there is "growing evidence that the risk to individual children from Covid-19 is extremely small". Meanwhile, Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), admitted her union’s opposition to the 1 June opening was a “negotiating position”.

Lastly, a BBC Radio 4 documentary has told of the pressure care home managers came under to accept patients from hospitals who were potentially carrying Covid-19. A 2 April government directive called for a national effort to clear hospital beds, while two local councils wrote to care homes suggesting that extra funding was conditional on them taking patients from wards. Susan Mckinney, who runs 14 care homes in the north-east, recalled: "We had an incident on 10 April where twice we rang the hospital saying ‘we can’t accept this person back, we need them tested, we need a negative test so we know what we’re dealing with,’" she said. "They turned up at the door in an ambulance and refused to go away. There was a sort of stand-off at the door of the home… We were threatened with the police if we did not let this person in."

Global updates:

World: The pandemic could undo three years of alleviating inequality and push 60 million people below the poverty line, the head of the World Bank has warned.

US: President Donald Trump said that having the highest number of coronavirus cases worldwide was a "badge of honour" because it showed the US had the best testing system. He also called a US study showing that hydroxychloroquine had limited effectiveness against coronavirus a "Trump enemy statement" after he revealed he was taking the drug as a precaution.

Brazil: Brazil recorded its highest daily rise in both deaths and cases. It reported 17,408 new cases and 1,179 deaths in a 24-hour period, taking the official death toll to 17,971.

India: India recorded its biggest one-day spike in infections, with 5,200 new cases. It has begun to ease what was one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.

Singapore: A man has been sentenced to death via a Zoom call for his role in a drug deal – the first case where capital punishment has been delivered via a remote, virtual hearing. The country also set out a phased approach to ending its partial lockdown from 1 June.

New Zealand: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has urged employers to consider a four-day working week to allow people to travel the country and achieve a better work-life balance.

Fiji: Fiji has asked to be included in the travel "bubble" between New Zealand and Australia, which is allowing free movement between the two countries.

South Korea: High schools in South Korea reopened today. It marks the beginning of a phased reopening of the country’s school system.

Netherlands: Bars and restaurants will reopen on 1 June provided customer numbers are limited and people follow social distancing measures, the government said.

Canada: Canada and the US have extended their border closure for non-essential travel until 21 June.

Read more on the New Statesman:

Reopening schools is a question of logistics, not of risks

Why the Covid-19 crisis will force the UK to rewrite the economic rulebook

Coronavirus is introducing the pitfalls of Universal Credit to many new claimants

Senior but still citizens: we should not disregard the contribution of elderly in this pandemic

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer stood up to Trump. Can she stand up to her own people?


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.