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Surge in Covid-19 cases exposes limits of test and trace programmes

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England’s test and trace programme is buckling under the weight of a surge in coronavirus cases, raising fresh questions about whether the once-vaunted scheme can play its intended role in limiting the spread of Covid-19.

Official data published on Thursday revealed that fewer than one in four tests — 22.6 per cent — taken in person at a testing site in the UK were received within 24 hours.

That was an improvement on the previous week but a vast deterioration since the end of June, the date from which prime minister Boris Johnson had promised all would be returned within that timescale.

Meanwhile only about 60 per cent of contacts of infected people were reached, far below the 80 per cent considered necessary to control transmission, according to NHS Test and Trace figures.

The problems in England echo those of other countries such as Spain, which also struggled to put track and trace systems in place over the summer and may now be paying the price for abandoning or easing measures to limit social contacts before contact tracing was robust enough to withstand the resulting rise in infections.

Some senior UK officials acknowledge that the scale of infections, and the proportion of those cases that are asymptomatic, would represent a huge challenge even to a perfectly implemented programme.

Patrick Vallance, UK government chief scientific adviser, said last week it was “much more difficult to have an impact once numbers are high.”

Positive cases of coronavirus have been rising steeply since the end of August and rose by 23 per cent compared with the previous week, according to the latest data.

Ian Boyd, a professor of biology at the University of St Andrews and a member of Sage, the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies told the Financial Times: “Test and trace works best when there is relatively low incidence.”

Given the current rise in infections, the programme was “likely to be overwhelmed” and “more draconian interventions to reduce the rate of contact there is between individuals across the whole population”, such as a temporary national lockdown, were needed, he said.

Such difficulties indicate how hard, if not impossible, it is for test and trace programmes to keep pace when infections are increasing so fast.

But public health experts and scientists say the programme remains a crucial part of England’s armoury to fight the disease in the longer term.

Some point to countries such as South Korea, Germany, Finland and Taiwan, arguing they demonstrated the intrinsic value of contact tracing when properly resourced and consistently executed.

England largely suspended community contact tracing in March, as case numbers began to build, and did not launch the current national programme until the end of May.

In Spain, where the health systems are run by the 17 autonomous regions, many epidemiologists say that the principal error was to relax restrictions too fast in June — before many regions had adequate track and trace systems in place.

For instance, Madrid, until recently one of the parts of Europe worst hit by the pandemic, promised in May to hire 400 track and trace workers, but in July the figure was still only 182 — one for every 36,000 inhabitants. 

There are now around 1,100 track and trace staff in Madrid but the rate of infection is now far higher than in the summer, making locating the contacts for every infected person a much harder task.

The infection rate for Spain as a whole — in terms of cases per 100,000 people over 14 days — has increased more than fifty times since the formal end of Spain’s lockdown in June, with some of the biggest proportional increases coming over the summer, and over the last 10 days.

“It is clear that Spain was too optimistic when the lockdown was ended in June, when parts of the country did not have the public health and primary care infrastructure necessary to achieve local control of the virus,” said Rafael Bengoa, an ex-minister of health for the Basque region and former director at the World Health Organisation.

As the pandemic has gained pace again, Spain has resorted to broad-brush restrictions on whole communities rather than focusing on targeted measures such as test and track.

On Thursday Spain’s parliament voted to extend emergency powers for up to six months to the country’s regions, allowing them to enforce curfews and impose perimeter restrictions which have been put in place across the country in recent days. France and Germany have imposed even tougher restrictions to deal with a similar rise in infections.

In England, public health leaders still have faith in the role testing and tracing can play, even as they argue for changes to make the system work better by strengthening links between the centrally-run programme, and local authority teams and the NHS.

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“For me testing people, isolating them and tracing their contacts remains one of the gold standard actions to take during a pandemic . . . We have to continue working on that, not abandon it,” said Jim McManus, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, a UK trade association.

But one public health director, who did not wish to be named, said the UK government had “missed a trick . . . we should have spent the spring of lockdown building up the test and trace system, working jointly between local and national government. That was a clear missed opportunity.”



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Post-Brexit rules threaten N Ireland aerospace, minister warns

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Northern Ireland’s economy minister is pushing the UK government to ease the strains of post-Brexit rules that threaten the competitiveness of the region’s aerospace industry by forcing companies to pay tariffs on raw materials imported from Great Britain.

Diane Dodds outlined aerospace companies’ mounting concerns in a recent letter to Lord David Frost, the Cabinet minister in charge of post-Brexit trade arrangements, and urged him to “ensure that the competitive position of Northern Ireland businesses within the UK internal market was not damaged” by the imposition of tariffs.

Under the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the terms for the region’s post-Brexit trade, raw materials moved by aerospace companies from Britain to Northern Ireland are defined as being “at risk” of being moved into the EU.

That means the importing company has to pay tariffs on the raw materials as soon as they enter Northern Ireland or Ireland, a cost that could run to £14m a year according to ADS, Britain’s trade body which represents most of the 90 aerospace companies that employ more than 10,000 people in Northern Ireland.

The actual tariffs are ultimately refundable, but ADS said administration costs could run to as much as £65m annually and argued that the raw materials should be tariff-exempt because they are highly specific and only ever likely to be used for aerospace, an industry whose products are generally exempt from tariffs under World Trade Organization rules.

Dodd’s intervention came as prime minister Boris Johnson told the BBC that he was still trying to remove what he termed the “ludicrous barriers” and “unnecessary protuberances” thrown up by the protocol.

Johnson’s repeated denials of the practical realities arising from the protocol since its October signing have caused significant frustration among EU member states and the European Commission, which has launched legal action to force the UK to fully implement the deal.

Neale Richmond, European affairs spokesman for Ireland’s Fine Gael party — a member of the ruling coalition — accused Johnson of deploying “needless verbiage” instead of focusing on making the protocol operational. “Worth remembering that what Boris Johnson calls ludicrous is what he himself negotiated & ratified, the post Brexit protocol isn’t a foreign construct,” he added on Twitter.

The commission declined to comment on Johnson’s latest remarks, but said it was continuing “technical level” talks with the UK over the protocol’s implementation. Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth, repeated on Tuesday that the EU wanted the UK to commit to a “binding timeline for the full implementation of the protocol”.

Northern Ireland’s aerospace industry wants the UK government to use the UK-EU Joint Committee, which oversees the implementation of the UK’s withdrawal agreement, to agree a tariff exemption that “recognises the tariff-free nature of international trade in aircraft components and enables them to compete on a level playing field”, said Kevin Craven, interim chief executive of ADS.

The current regime “risk(s) putting companies at a disadvantage against international competitors”, Craven said.

Northern Ireland has a long-established aerospace cluster spanning design to manufacturing, including aircraft seats for many of the world’s airlines. America’s Spirit AeroSystems, which took over Bombardier’s Northern Ireland operations last year, is one of the largest employers and makes the wings for the Airbus A220.

Several manufacturers told the Financial Times the issue was already affecting supply chains. One executive reported recently cancelling a contract with a longstanding raw material supplier based in Britain in favour of an EU alternative.

“Northern Ireland needs to get support from [the Republic] and London and I don’t see much effort in London to help the situation,” Conor McCarthy, founder of Dublin Aerospace, one of the Republic of Ireland’s largest aerospace companies, said.

“The deep engineering and manufacturing heritage in NI should be the attraction and the payback for the British government is to alleviate their economic burden there with two out of every three jobs being a government job of some description.”

The Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland said the minister had asked the UK government to consider how tariffs could damage the industry.

“The difficulties this sector has experienced around the world due to Covid-19 are well known. This is also a sector where components tend to move between manufacturing sites during the manufacturing process,” it added. 





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German ruling party backs Laschet as candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor

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Armin Laschet has won the backing of Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Union in his bid to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, after a campaign that exposed deep rifts in the party five months before national elections.

Thirty-one of 46 members of the CDU’s executive committee backed Laschet in a secret vote, with his rival, Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, receiving just nine, according to the party. There were six abstentions.

The result means Laschet is all but certain to be the centre-right’s candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election, when Merkel will bow out after 16 years as Germany’s leader.

Söder, who is leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, had said he would accept a clear vote in favour of Laschet.

But the ballot revealed deep misgivings among senior Christian Democrats about Laschet’s suitability to run. The party executive had given its unanimous backing to his candidacy last week, but he garnered just 77.5 per cent of the vote, with 22.5 per cent going to Söder.

Laschet, 60, was elected CDU leader in January. But he has struggled in the polls, and many in the CDU/CSU bloc thought they had a better chance of winning the election with Söder as their candidate.

The chaos within the ruling party has also reflected its performance in the polls. The CDU surged to almost 40 per cent last year as voters rewarded it for Germany’s deft handling of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

But its approval rating has slumped in 2021 as public anger mounted over the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations and the revelation that some MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks.

The CDU also faces a strong challenge from the opposition Greens, which some pollsters believed could take the chancellery in the election. The party chose Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old MP, as its candidate for chancellor, in a smooth process that marked a sharp contrast with the open power struggle in the CDU/CSU.

The son of a miner, Laschet studied law and edited a Catholic newspaper before being elected to the Bundestag in 1994. He served as a minister in the government of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, in the 1990s and became prime minister there in 2017.

Laschet is an ideological ally of Merkel and has said that if elected chancellor, he would continue her middle-of-the-road policies. He was long considered her natural successor.

But his popularity has suffered over the course of the pandemic, when he has come across as hesitant and erratic. By contrast, Söder, who earned a reputation as a decisive crisis manager, has seen his polling soar.

The poll ratings of Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, had soared, but he said he would respect the CDU executive committee’s decision ahead of the vote © Reuters

Laschet was endorsed on Monday by some of the CDU’s most influential grandees, such as Wolfgang Schäuble, the former finance minister and Bundestag president, Volker Bouffier, prime minister of the western state of Hesse, and Ralph Brinkhaus, leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group.

But other members of the executive, such as Peter Altmaier, economy minister and a close Merkel ally, favoured Söder, a move that will badly dent Laschet’s authority.

The prime ministers of Saxony-Anhalt and Saarland also broke ranks with Laschet in recent days and threw their weight behind Söder, saying he enjoyed far more support among the party’s rank-and-file members. The powerful youth wing of the CDU, the Junge Union, also backed the Bavarian.

Söder garnered support among many CDU MPs who fear they will lose their seats in September if Laschet leads the campaign.

Some attendees of Monday’s meeting said the CDU/CSU parliamentary group and regional party bosses should be involved in any decision on who should run for chancellor.

But Laschet insisted that only the executive could decide and demanded a vote to resolve the issue. “We should decide today, as we planned to at the beginning,” he said, according to participants.

Söder made clear he would respect the CDU executive’s decision, telling reporters this week he had made the party a proposal “but only the CDU can decide if it wants to accept this offer”.



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After Afghanistan, China and Russia will test Biden

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“America is back” proclaimed Joe Biden, a few weeks ago. But in Afghanistan, America is out. The US president has just announced the withdrawal of all remaining American troops from the country. A 20-year war will end on the symbolic date of 9/11, 2021.

The watching world will wonder if a gap is emerging between White House rhetoric about re-engagement with the world, and a reality of continuing retreat. Biden insists that this is not the case. He argues that America has achieved its counter-terrorism aims in Afghanistan and now intends to “fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20”.

But perception matters. The danger is that the pullout from Afghanistan will be seen outside America as a Vietnam-like failure that could eventually lead to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, a replay of the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam in 1975.

Rival powers, in particular Russia and China, could now be emboldened to test the Biden administration’s resolve a little further. The obvious flashpoints are Ukraine and Taiwan. In recent weeks, the Kremlin has assembled more troops on its border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014 when Russia grabbed Crimea. Last week, China sent a record number of military jets into Taiwanese airspace. Both countries are combining military muscle-flexing with warlike rhetoric.

Biden himself has used confrontational language with Russia and China. He has called Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, a killer and his administration has branded China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide. The US also recently imposed sanctions on Russian and Chinese officials and has eased restrictions on American officials meeting their Taiwanese counterparts.

The strategic situation in Asia and Europe is similar in one key respect. The US has expressed strong support for both Taiwan and Ukraine, but neither country enjoys an explicit American security guarantee. The US relies on a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan. The idea is that China should understand there is a strong chance that the US would fight to defend Taiwan, without a firm promise being made. In a similar way, the US has never spelt out what it would do if Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Although Taiwan and Ukraine are separated by thousands of miles and involve different antagonists, the two stand-offs feel connected. Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to Nato, believes that: “Moscow and Beijing will look closely at how we react in one situation to set the stage for the other.” Daalder argues that “we need greater strategic clarity on what we would do if Russia moved militarily against Ukraine, or China on Taiwan”.

There are voices in the US calling for America to now make an explicit security guarantee to Taiwan, and for Nato to accelerate the process that would allow Ukraine to join its alliance. The hope is that these moves would deter Moscow and Beijing, and so reduce the risk of war starting by miscalculation. The argument against these policy changes is that China and Russia may interpret them as a threatening shift in the status quo — and feel compelled to respond. American allies in Asia and Europe may also feel that explicit security guarantees for Taiwan and Ukraine are too provocative. The joint statement issued by Biden and Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese prime minister, after a meeting last week, stressed the importance of peace in the Taiwan Strait, but remained vague about how Washington and Tokyo might respond if conflict broke out.

It would obviously be particularly difficult for the Biden administration to respond to simultaneous crises over Taiwan and Ukraine. Some western strategists are concerned that Moscow and Beijing may be co-ordinating their actions, to maximise the pressure on the Biden administration. They point to an increase in the frequency of high-level meetings between the Russian and Chinese governments. Beijing and Moscow also made statements, after a recent meeting between their foreign ministers, which signalled a deepening of their strategic relationship and a more open rejection of a western-led world order.

The internal situations in Russia and China may also be raising the dangers of conflict. Putin recently imprisoned Alexei Navalny, the most popular and dangerous opposition leader he has ever faced. Navalny is currently on hunger strike and may soon die, sparking further protests. The Kremlin knows that conflict over Ukraine boosted Putin’s popularity back in 2014. Another small war may look like a tempting option.

As the Chinese Communist party prepares to celebrate the centenary of its foundation later this year, President Xi Jinping may be looking for a triumph over Taiwan. American officials believe that Xi and his advisers have convinced themselves that the US is in deep and terminal decline. They fear that the Chinese leadership may believe the US would ultimately back down rather than fight over Taiwan.

But even the most confident and nationalistic officials in Beijing and Moscow will still be conscious of the risks of head-on confrontation over Taiwan and Ukraine. The likelihood is that Russia and China will continue to use “grey zone” tactics that stop just short of all-out conflict. As America discovered in Afghanistan, it is much easier to start a war than to control its outcome.

gideon.rachman@ft.com



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