Morning briefing: UK government ponders immunity certificates

Good morning.

The Times splashes on the news that ministers are, once again, considering handing immunity certificates to people that have antibodies to coronavirus to exempt them from social distancing rules. Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed “systems of certification” were being worked on for those that have recovered from the virus.

The news comes after he revealed mass antibody testing would begin next week, beginning with key workers. The science remains a sticking point – we do not yet know for sure that those with antibodies are immune to a second infection. The paper also reports that anyone that has come into close contact with a coronavirus-positive person will be asked to isolate for two weeks, regardless of whether they have symptoms, as part of the government’s contact tracing scheme that’s due before 1 June.

Another group who will be told to self-isolate for 14 days are those arriving in the UK, under plans that will be revealed by Home Secretary Priti Patel later today. Any passengers coming in by plane, ferry or train will have to provide an address where they will quarantine – otherwise, the government will arrange a place for them to stay. Police will carry out spot checks at residences, and anyone flouting the rules faces a minimum £1,000 fine. People from the common travel area, which includes Ireland, are exempt, as are certain professions such as freight drivers and some doctors. Ministers were previously considering an exemption for France, but the idea has been abandoned.

The rules are expected to come into effect next month. Professor John Edmunds, a member of the group of scientists advising government, this morning suggested the measures were over the top: he said that because the UK’s incidence of coronavirus remains relatively high, travellers are “unlikely to cause much of a problem”.

Lastly, two intriguing testing stories broke overnight. First, the Guardian reported that a coronavirus “spit test”, which involves spitting into a tube rather than a throat swab, will be trialled on 5,000 police and army staff because of concerns over the accuracy of swabbing. Experts have long-pushed the government to consider the tests because they are far easier to administer.

Second, the Telegraph reports that the government has double-counted tens of thousands of coronavirus tests – a story confirmed by the Department of Health. Testing numbers have been consistently higher than the number of people testing, and one of the reasons is tests that involve both a saliva sample and a nasal swab are being counted twice.

Global updates:

China: China will not set a GDP goal at this year’s annual Two Sessions law-making event – the first time it has failed to do so since it began publishing such targets in 1990.

Australia: Australia has called for an exemption from the UK’s upcoming two-week quarantine for incoming visitors. Under government plans, only people from the common travel area, which includes Ireland, are exempt.

Brazil: The coronavirus crisis shows no signs of abating in Brazil, which yesterday reported a record one-day death toll of 1,188, taking the total number of deaths above 20,000.

Indonesia: Indonesia recorded 973 new infections yesterday, its biggest one-day rise.

US: Around 2.4 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week, taking the total since the pandemic took hold to just under 39 million.

Read more on the New Statesman:

Despite 50,000 excess deaths, Britain’s most vulnerable areas remain at risk from Covid-19

Secret data and the future of public health: why the NHS has turned to Palantir

The case for Commonwealth: what happens when natural disaster follows disease?

Why has Kerala been so successful in tackling the coronavirus?



What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.