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21st September 2020

Science Coronavirus doctor’s diary: Will universities be able to avoid spreading the virus?

Science Coronavirus doctor’s diary: Will universities be able to avoid spreading the virus?


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Students may not be spending a lot of time in lecture halls this year

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A great migration is under way. Children have returned to school and students are beginning to leave for university. Will the UK be able to avoid the outbreaks experienced at some US universities, asks Dr John Wright of Bradford Royal Infirmary.

In the hospital we continue to see small numbers of patients with Covid-19. We walk a tightrope of preparing for the autumn surge while trying to get all our normal clinical care waiting lists back to pre-pandemic levels. The lull in acute cases provides a tense truce. In the empty visitors’ car parks discarded facemasks are the new tumbleweed.

Meanwhile in the city the fever is rising. Every day the coronavirus needle flickers upwards; it’s tempting to tap the dial in the hope that is just a malfunction. By Friday the incidence rate has crept up towards 80 per 100,000 and the case positivity rate towards 8%, from less than 50 per 100,000 and 5% just two weeks ago.

And this is happening in the middle of the largest population movement seen since the start of the pandemic in March. Last week eight million children and young people returned cautiously to school – it will be a couple of weeks before we have an accurate picture of how many outbreaks are occurring in the classroom.

Universities will be next over the trenches. Next week about two million students will start back at university – young people with some of the highest rates of Covid-19, and they will come from all over the country to congregate in large numbers in university cities and campuses. They will both give and take SARS-CoV-2.

In the US, where students went back after their summer vacation last month, this has caused serious problems. The New York Times has counted tens of thousands of new cases at colleges and universities in the last few weeks.

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There are expected to be fewer international students discovering Bronte country this year

So how has the University of Bradford been preparing for the start of term?

Vice Chancellor Prof Shirley Congdon tells me about 60% or 70% of the curriculum will be taught online, the rest will be face-to-face. Where students need to assemble, for laboratory work for example, an attempt will be made to keep them in small bubbles – though as the vice chancellor points out, different students choose different modules, so bubbles will inevitably overlap.

Freshers’ week is going to look very different this year, and not just because of the masks, thermometers and guidance pamphlets that each new student will receive in a welcome pack.

“The Students’ Union is working with us to do activities where we can have groups where 20 or 30 students maximum experience a campus activity. And then that will be repeated again at a different time of the day or week,” Shirley Congdon says.

But when it comes to socialising, she accepts that students are going to do their own thing.

“We don’t want to enforce a police state, nor could we,” she says. “So what we’re trying to do with students and our staff is really create a big community that understands the importance of following social distancing, making sure that we all understand the risks.”

The university is ready for test and trace, following guidance from Public Health England. It would be great if the university could carry out tests itself, Shirley Congdon says, “but that’s not been offered to us yet”.

Science Front line diary

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Ian Beesley

Prof John Wright, a doctor and epidemiologist, is head of the Bradford Institute for Health Research, and a veteran of cholera, HIV and Ebola epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. He is writing this diary for BBC News and recording from the hospital wards for BBC Radio.

As many of the positive cases now being detected are among young people with mild or no symptoms, the eyes of the nation are glaring down at them as they revel in the joy and freedom of youth.

It seems unfair to blame them, though, when we are giving out such mixed messages. Go to the pub, eat out to help out, go to university. But keep your distance, don’t mingle, stay home when you can.

Mark Mon-Williams, a professor of psychology at the University of Leeds and the Bradford Institute of Health Research, makes the point that it’s unrealistic to expect young people not to socialise, and that this is a time when it’s important for their personal development to meet new people.

“So I think we really should think seriously about how we can support young people to have those social interactions, while maintaining the overall safety of the population,” he says.

In his view, viral transmission on campus, under the new teaching regimes that have been introduced at British universities, is likely to be less of a problem than in student accommodation. In the US, according to an editorial in the British Medical Journal, asymptomatic students infected one another “at lightning speed” in halls of residence and off-campus housing. A fellow psychologist at Indiana University in the US tells Prof Mon-Williams that all teaching has now gone online, the campus is deserted and that some fraternities and sororities (male and female societies with their own residential buildings) have infection rates of 80%.

Like most other northern universities, the University of Bradford stands proudly at the heart of the city, surrounded by inner city wards. It is in these wards that we are seeing by far the highest levels of positive SARS-CoV-2 test results, and in these wards where most of the student accommodation lies waiting – bare walls waiting to be decorated with student posters, silent corridors waiting to be filled with laughter and late-night conversations that will put the world to rights.

Ethan Chapman, 19, who is returning to Bradford from his home in Lancaster for the second year of a course in Paramedic Science, says it’s difficult to predict how the pandemic will affect his course and his social life.

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Ethan Chapman

“In relation to parties, the school leavers will miss an opportunity,” he thinks. “It’s hard to know if people will still party, especially with Bradford being such a hotspot.”

He expects students will be urged to stay within the bubbles that they find themselves in, through sharing kitchens and bathrooms in halls, or shared houses. But some people won’t enjoy having their social life curtailed in this way, he predicts, and will want to socialise with a wider group.

Though he was pulled off a placement working with qualified paramedics at the start of the pandemic, he is expecting to be equipped with a fitted mask and other PPE, and for placements this year to go ahead.

An added challenge in Bradford is that many students – about half of the total – live at home, with the consequent risk that they will carry the virus to older and more vulnerable family members.

Science Studying away

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In Britain, in the academic year 2017-18, just over 80% of full-time students left home to study – roughly half living in purpose-built halls and the rest in private rented accommodation

In 2015/6 the University of Bradford was one of 10 British universities where more than 50% of students lived at home

On average in Europe, 36% of students live in their parental home

There are also students such as Marium Zumeer, whom I wrote about in May after her recovery from Covid-19, who has a place at Leeds Beckett university, and will continue living at home in Bradford if she decides to accept it. Her sister, Hana. is already at the same university.

Marium knows only too well how serious this illness can be, having been very ill herself, and having lost her grandfather, Mohammed, in the pandemic.

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Marium Zumeer

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Hana and Marium

She wears a mask, she carries hand sanitiser, and whenever she returns home she changes her clothes.

“University is about meeting new people, socialising and making friends and joining groups, though when meeting new people you don’t know if they’ve got the virus. It will worry me a bit,” she says.

“I chose a university that’s close to home because I prefer staying at home, that’s just a personal choice, but for those who are living at home they have to be more mature about staying safe.”

Follow @docjohnwright and radio producer @SueM1tchell on Twitter

20th September 2020

Science Coronavirus: Students return to socially-distanced university campuses

Science Coronavirus: Students return to socially-distanced university campuses


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The traditional Raisin weekend at St Andrews University has been postponed until spring, due to the pandemic

For many students, their years at university are as much about lectures and libraries as house parties, sports teams and the student union bar.

But for the thousands returning to colleges and universities over the next few weeks, their educational and social experience is likely to be very different.

Measures to minimise the spread of coronavirus mean many will be be swapping lecture theatres for online classes and virtual events on socially-distanced campuses.

BBC Scotland has spoken to students and university leaders preparing for the new term.

Science ‘Not a normal start’

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Gordon Edwards

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Gordon is due to start a social work degree at Glasgow Caledonian University

Gordon Edwards is volunteering with a support team helping newly-arrived students at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Freshers week will be online and when terms starts properly there will be few face-to-face classes.

“There are a few people thinking: ‘This isn’t what I expected when I went to university’,” said the 21-year-old who is starting a degree in social work this term.

Originally from the north of England, Gordon will be moving into student accommodation next week.

Government guidance for accommodation and campus makes the reality clear: “This will not feel like a normal start to a student’s university or college life.”

“We’re not even allowed to have anyone to help move stuff in,” said Gordon. “Our families can’t go into our rooms.”

He added: “I think people are very disappointed with how the halls experience is going to be this year – we can go out to pubs but there won’t be any house parties.”

And they are worried that online lessons will affect their studies and their ability to make new friends, he said.

Science ‘A very limited student experience’

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Jordan Hunter

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Jordan Hunter says a lot of students will be coming back to university to find their classes are entirely online

In many institutions, face-to-face teaching will be prioritised for subjects that need it most, like medicine and veterinary science.

Students who live together can form households but it is likely that most interactions with classmates will be by video call.

“As it stands, there’s a very limited student experience,” said Jordan Hunter, a politics and central eastern studies student at Glasgow University.

As editor of the student-run Glasgow Guardian newspaper, he has heard how anxious many of his colleagues are.

“The student nightclub Hive is shut. Societies can’t meet up in person,” he said.

“So what really is the student experience other than going to a restaurant or bar or staying in flats?”

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Universities have had to adapt to social distancing

The opportunity to meet colleagues and socialise is likely to be most difficult for students who live at home with their families.

President of the National Union of Students in Scotland, Matt Crilly, said some students were “at risk of experiencing increased isolation.”

He added: “As the new term starts, it is critical that students staying at home have digital access to support, along with the financial and emotional support which reflects the unique challenges that lie ahead this year.”

Science ‘Slightly odd’

Some international students will also find they have to quarantine for two weeks when they arrive in Scotland.

Among them is Sanjana Ramaswamy, a third year student at St Andrews, who is isolating after returning to Scotland from New York for the first time since March.

“At first it was a bit daunting, having to stay in for two weeks, not being able to leave,” she said. “I do think it’s going to be a slightly odd year but I’m very excited.”

However some students have decided not to travel to their universities as they know they will not be in classes.

It means there will be fewer people spending money in campus cafés or in the local community.

Senior vice-principal of St Andrews University, Brad McKay, explained: “We have had quite a number of students, about 1,000 if you include both new entrants and also returning students, who have opted for a period of time – some for a whole semester, some just for a period of weeks – to begin their studies remotely.”

Science Changing spaces

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Dan Marshal

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Dan Marshal has been organising online activities for students in quarantine

Classrooms, cafés and student accommodation have also had to be changed to allow social distancing and other measures to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Dan Marshal, president of St Andrews University Student Association, said: “The building isn’t going to be as teeming with life as it usually is.”

“A lot of our spaces are normally filled with society events but most of those will be happening online this year.”

Andy McGoff, director of finance and operations at Edinburgh Napier University, said they were trying to give students the best possible experience in the safest way.

“Our campus capacity has been reduced considerably – we’re down to 30% of normal capacity. It has been an expensive exercise,” he said.

20th September 2020

Science Brian Cox and Adele’s producer Paul Epworth discuss music and the cosmos

Science Brian Cox and Adele’s producer Paul Epworth discuss music and the cosmos


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Media captionPaul Epworth and Brian Cox discuss zero-gravity and space exploration

Paul Epworth is behind some of the biggest pop records of the last 20 years, from Adele’s Rolling in the Deep to Florence and the Machine’s Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up).

Along the way he’s worked with Rihanna, Stormzy, Sir Paul McCartney, Coldplay and U2 – and he won an Oscar for co-writing the Bond theme Skyfall.

But now, after years behind the scenes, the producer is releasing his first solo album. Voyager, a journey into deep space, fuses influences from classic sci-fi movies with his love of musical explorers like David Bowie, George Clinton, Wendy Carlos and Jean-Michel Jarre.

“It’s a sort of ’70s space concept album, which is a bit of a cliché as a producer – to make something that ostentatious and overblown,” he told BBC News.

“But I’ve tried to frame it in a modern way, so I’ve got some great singers and rappers on it.”

The record sees guest vocals from the likes of Jay Electronica, Ty Dolla $ign, Vince Staples, Lianne La Havas and Kool Keith. But, more importantly, it allowed Epworth to indulge his passion for space travel and astrophysics – as well as a habit for collecting ancient, analogue synths at his studio in London’s Crouch End.

He traces his interest in science back to his father’s work in developing optical fibres. Yet he remains endlessly curious about life, the universe and everything.

To celebrate the record’s release, Epworth hooked up with Professor Brian Cox – the prominent physicist and former keyboard player for ’90s dance act D:Ream – to ask some of the questions that occurred to him while making the album.

Paul Epworth: When I began working on a record about space, little did I think I would be sitting here with you. Obviously you started in music as well, so what prompted you to make that shift into this love of the cosmos and astrophysics?

Brian Cox: To be honest, my first interest was astronomy. As far back as I can remember. I just liked looking at the stars.

I’ve thought about it a lot – what was it that made a seven-year-old become interested in stars? And I suppose it goes all the way back to looking forward to Christmas when you’re six years old… and I think I began to associate it with the constellations. My dad once said to me ‘There’s Orion, it’s the easiest constellation to see.’ And I noticed that it was in the autumn and the winter when I’d start seeing Orion over our back garden.

But I also remember really vividly Star Wars and Star Trek in general. So I also liked science fiction for some reason and I conflated it all together. Space became this idea, which was part escapism, part Star Wars [and] part astronomy. Music was almost a distraction!

What is the connection for you between music and the cosmos? Is there a piece of music that brings the two together?

Vangelis’s theme for Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. To this day, when that music starts, it’s a shiver. It takes me right back to being 11 years old and looking at the sky. It is really powerful.

I’ve actually been involved in the last few years with some attempts to match classical music to the ideas that are raised in astronomy and cosmology. We live in a potentially infinite universe which, to me, raises questions about our mortality about our fragility.

What does it mean to live these small, finite and in some sense insignificant lives in this potentially eternal and potentially infinite universe? Those are emotional questions, they’re deeply human questions, and they’re questions that have motivated a great deal of art and music.

I was reading a book recently by a guy called Itzhak Bentov called Stalking the Wild Pendulum, which is about the mechanics of consciousness. He talks about all matter vibrating – and of course vibration is the way every musical instrument generates noise. It got me thinking about how all these things fit together…

There’s an interesting point there, which is that music is a product of consciousness and intelligence. And if you think about what we are – how it can be that some atoms that have been around since the Big Bang… essentially be able to start thinking and create music?

That’s a remarkable thing. I think it was Richard Feynman who said “Human beings are atoms, that can contemplate atom.” And part of those atoms’ response to this remarkable phenomenon is to make music as part of the exploration of what that means. I find that remarkable.

There’s a theory that the universe is actually shaped like a doughnut. What are your thoughts on that?

The point is we don’t know. All we can observe about the universe is the bit we can see, which is undoubtedly a small patch of what exists. At the moment it’s just over 90 billion light years across, so it’s a big bit, [and] that bit is flat, as far as we can tell.

But that’s probably like saying “I’ve explored the region around my house and it’s flat.” And it’s flat, even if you live on a big hill, because the curvature of the world is much bigger than the region around your house. That’s probably what the universe is like.

It’s almost incomprehensible, the scale of some of this stuff.

The distances… I mean, even the closest big galaxy to us is Andromeda which we can see with the naked eye, if there’s no moon and it’s very dark. And the light that enters your eye took two million years to journey to Earth. It’s a remarkable feeling when you know that. Just to think, when those photons set off on their journey, there were no humans on the earth. We hadn’t evolved.

This is why music and art is helpful because I can say these sentences and trot out these words, but how a person reacts to that is… It’s a complex, personal thing. How do you feel about the idea that we were in a sea of [stars] and we can see two trillion galaxies? How does that make you feel? I don’t know how that makes me feel actually.

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Epworth and Adele won Oscars in 2013 for composing the theme to Skyfall

That’s why it’s so inspiring because there’s infinite angles to it. As you’ve understood more about the cosmos, how has your relationship with music changed?

It’s broadened, I think. When I first started getting into music I got Enola Gay by OMD and Hazel O’Connor’s Eighth Day and I got into Kraftwerk. But over the last 10 to 15 years I’ve really got introduced to some of the great classical music from the turn of the 20th Century, and you find that increased harmonic complexity and richness.

I did a concert actually with the BBC, about Holst’s The Planets, which everybody listens to at school. It’s almost become a pop classic now, but actually at the time it was shocking harmonically and in the way that it’s orchestrated. And if you strip away that familiarity, you realise that it’s a tremendous achievement. So I like searching out that complexity.

It’s interesting you say that, because it’s something I [discovered] while making this record. Maybe it’s humans trying to recreate the complexity of the night sky somehow within a musical form.

It’s a good analogy actually, because Western music has got quite a limited scale. There’s just the [notes on a] piano keyboard and that’s it. But from those very simple rules, the complexity is almost limitless. And that’s an analogy for, I think, the way that we see the the Universe.

So if you look at it now, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, it’s tremendously complex – but the laws of nature that that underpin that appear, as we look deeper and deeper, to be simple.

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Media captionIs the universe a hologram?

I read this amazing Neil deGrasse Tyson quote about how the particles in our bodies move at the speed of light, and obviously as you get closer to the speed of light time slows down. So are the particles in our bodies occupying the same place and time as they were in the Big Bang?

Yeah, that’s true. If you take the path of a photon that was released shortly after the Big Bang, and has travelled across the universe at the speed of light for 13.8 billion years or so, from our perspective – and say you’d carried a clock with you – how much time would you have experienced as a photon? Then you’re right, the answer is zero.

That’s one of the radical things about physics and cosmology – it forces us into these seemingly extremely counterintuitive positions.

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Paul Epworth

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Epworth has been named producer of the year three times at the Brit Awards

Do you think new developments like quantum computing are going to make it easier for us to crack some of these puzzles?

Yes! Quantum computing has been a thing for a long time – that just in principle we could build these computers that are far more powerful than anything that we can build out of silicon. And harnessing that power is something that we’re just about able to do now. We are building the first quantum computers and they’re really primitive – they’re like an abacus almost. But it didn’t take as long to go from the first computers in the ’40s to an iPhone or a Samsung.

And there’s a suggestion that these machines will be able to simulate nature, much more precisely than we can at the moment, because all nature behaves in a quantum mechanical way. So we’ll be able to explore places we can’t go and [find out things like] what happens beyond the event horizon of a black hole?

Do you identify with space as a spiritual construct?

I never know what that word means – but it’s certainly true [space] generates profound emotions. You’ve got to be in awe about the existence of the universe as a whole, and our existence within it. You’re really missing the point if you’re not astonished by that.

So, to come back to the music side of it: Life on Mars [by David Bowie] or Moon Safari [by Air]?

I have to say Life on Mars, because Hunky Dory is my favourite album. I love Rick Wakeman’s piano playing on Life on Mars. If you’re a musician and you try to play Life on Mars you realise that, while some of it’s quite a standard chord sequence – I think it’s actually the same as My Way – some of it is incredibly unusual and just shows you what instinctive genius Bowie was. What a writer. I love the whole album – although I love Air too.

Which do think you’ll do first, go to Mars or have a safari on the moon?

I think the average person will get the chance to have a safari on the moon before they get to go to Mars. But I think someone might go to Mars before we can all have a moon safari.

Would you go?

I get asked that a lot. I think you have to have the right stuff – and I’m not sure I have the right stuff.

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20th September 2020

Science Coronavirus doctor’s diary: The ‘moonshine weddings’ breaking Bradford’s lockdown

Science Coronavirus doctor’s diary: The ‘moonshine weddings’ breaking Bradford’s lockdown


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People are gathering in Bradford in ways that violate the local lockdown, for example by holding weddings in gardens and restaurants. Last month some even appear to have been held courtesy of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. And the task of enforcing the lockdown just got tougher, argues Dr John Wright of Bradford Royal Infirmary.

The lifting of restrictions on social gatherings in some areas of Bradford but not others has led to relief for some residents and resentment from others.

The restrictions forbid people from different households from meeting in homes or gardens, or socialising together in pubs or restaurants, but it doesn’t take much shoe-leather detective work on a sunny weekend to realise how little notice people are paying. Gardens blossom with boisterous gatherings, pubs and restaurants ooze chatter and cheer. Everywhere young people mingle with careless abandon.

The hospital has transformed from the busiest place in the city during the peak of the pandemic to become the quietest.

It was always going to be difficult to enforce these local restrictions, but the lifting of restrictions in nine of the 30 wards in Bradford on Wednesday makes the job much harder. How can you maintain adherence when on one side of the street you can have wild parties (no more than 30 people, of course) while on the opposite side of the street residents are told to live in isolated lockdown?

We have created a disparity that will sow confusion and scepticism and undermine our efforts to build a united front against Covid-19.

Science Bradford’s lockdown

23 March The city goes into lockdown with the rest of the UK

1 June Non-essential shops reopen and some children return to school

4 July Cinemas, pubs and hairdressers reopen, and groups of up to 30 people are legally allowed to meet, as in rest of England

31 July New restrictions introduced – people from different households may not visit each other’s homes or socialise in pubs or restaurants

2 September The new restrictions are lifted in nine of Bradford’s 30 wards

Weddings are just one of many forms of gathering that have been taking place. They’ve been planned for months if not years, everything’s been paid for, and the young couple may be impatient. But any event that brings two or more households together – as weddings inevitably do – is a violation of the rules in the areas where the local lockdown remains in force.

When Nadeem’s son married on 7 August, the bride’s family arranged for a marquee to be erected in their garden. The original plan had been for a huge wedding in a costly venue – the deposit alone had cost £1,000 – but the guest list had to be scaled down to 30 or 40 family members. It had already been delayed once, then the second lockdown came, and a further delay was a bitter pill to swallow. “It’s hard for the youngsters, they just want to get on with their lives,” Nadeem says.

My colleague, consultant anaesthetist Fozia Hayat, has witnessed gatherings like this one first hand.

“We had a huge wedding taking place in the houses behind us, with a marquee in the garden and fireworks, music and many, many guests,” she says.

“I’m also getting calls from people who have been to secret weddings, so I know it’s happening. It’s a really difficult area, as weddings and funerals are a really important part of our culture. I understand them wanting to go ahead. These celebrations are a big part of life. But it goes against the regulations, because you have people mixing, and it’s also putting older members of the community at risk.”

Science Front line diary

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Ian Beesley

Prof John Wright, a doctor and epidemiologist, is head of the Bradford Institute for Health Research, and a veteran of cholera, HIV and Ebola epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. He is writing this diary for BBC News and recording from the hospital wards for BBC Radio.

Bradford West MP Naz Shah says she has spoken with the city council and the police about ways to prevent these illegal wedding gatherings.

“It’s not just in the gardens, there are restaurants that are being used for weddings. So people are bypassing the regulations and going into the restaurant, but their family are all there – all of them dining in,” she says.

“If anyone came they’d say, ‘We were all here by coincidence, it’s not a planned reception.’ But everyone knows what’s going on. I’ve been to restaurants and seen the upstairs area being used for receptions.”

She fears that there were cases last month when the taxpayer was even subsidising these events.

“We have the government Eat Out To Help Out promotion going on. I’ve heard that some of these wedding receptions are being held in restaurants covered by the scheme, which certainly will be helping out the families but it’s not meant to be happening at all.”

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Ameer Hamza: The restriction on gatherings has led to “moonshine weddings”

Before the pandemic, hundreds of guests would often be invited to Asian weddings, and the fate of the venues that host these huge occasions also worries Naz Shah, who has written to the Chancellor seeking support to help them survive until the end of the lockdown.

Summer would normally have been peak season for weddings, explains Ameer Hamza of the HQ Banqueting Suite, which typically hosts weddings for 500 to 1,000 guests but hasn’t had one since 8 March.

He’s written to the city council explaining that it would be easy to hold a socially distanced wedding for a large group of people in his banqueting hall, if it was filled only to 30% or 40% of capacity. The closure of such venues, he argues, inevitably results in weddings without social distancing.

“What they’ve done here is – like in America in the 1920s during Prohibition, when no alcohol was allowed – they’ve started a moonshine culture. They’ve started moonshine weddings, because what you’re getting is people who have no other option.”

He points out that in Asian culture, and particularly Muslim culture, cohabitation before marriage is frowned upon; couples cannot start their lives together without weddings, so they will inevitably go ahead, one way or another.

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Test and trace is slowly improving

West Yorkshire police say officers have been called out to a number of weddings, as well as to other gatherings that breach the Covid regulations across the social spectrum, including illegal raves, student house parties and football-related gatherings. “People need to avoid unlicensed events and large gatherings to stop the spread of the virus,” a spokesman said.

The number of people with positive tests in Bradford remains stubbornly high, though they are mostly young people with mild or asymptomatic infection. The national NHS Test and Trace is slowly improving and new local systems are providing much needed community insight and coverage. The clear and consistent messages on social distancing, masks and hand washing seem to be working well for the most part, so we will have to keep our faith in the science of these core public health measures and their effectiveness in containing the virus – while striving to limit social gatherings such as weddings and parties, which have the potential to be super-spreading events.

One thing we cannot help is the change of season. Outdoor spaces seem reassuringly safe in preventing transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but as the autumn weather creeps up on us and our social gatherings move indoors, the risk of spread will rise.

Follow @docjohnwright and radio producer @SueM1tchell on Twitter

18th September 2020

Science Chief scientist ‘told off’ for early lockdown plea

Science Chief scientist ‘told off’ for early lockdown plea


science Sir Patrick Vallance

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Sir Patrick Vallance says he “argued stronger than anyone for action for lockdown”

The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has said he was rebuked for arguing strongly in favour of imposing Covid lockdown restrictions earlier this year, it has emerged.

In an email uncovered by a BBC Freedom of Information request, Sir Patrick reveals he was given a “telling off” from other senior officials.

Some scientists argue lives could have been saved had a lockdown been introduced earlier. The government insists there was “no delay”.

In a statement, the Department of Health and Social Care said government policy had been “guided by the advice of world-renowned scientists”.

The UK has one of the highest number of coronavirus deaths per capita in the world, though officials insist it’s too early to draw accurate comparisons with other countries. The Department for Health and Social Care insists there was no delay in locking down.

The email obtained by the BBC appears to be a discussion of a Sunday Times article in May criticising the delays in announcing a lockdown in March.

It’s not known when the “telling off” occurred, but speaking to Parliament’s science and technology committee in July, Sir Patrick referred to advice given by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on 16 March for “additional social-distancing measures” to be implemented “as soon as possible”.

A full lockdown was not introduced until 23 March. It’s now thought the number of cases rose dramatically in the period just before that.

In the email, Sir Patrick writes that he “argued stronger than anyone for action for lockdown” but received a “telling off” from chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and the then Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.

Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty regularly appeared at news conferences together updating the public on measures taken to combat coronavirus, without noticeably disagreeing.

On 16 March, the government issued advice “against all unnecessary social contact with others and unnecessary travel” including warnings to avoid pubs, bars and restaurants. However, premises were not ordered to close until 20 March, whilst on 23 March a full lockdown was introduced whereby people could only leave the home for exercise or grocery shopping.

18th September 2020

Science Earth’s ‘lost species’ only the tip of the iceberg

Science Earth’s ‘lost species’ only the tip of the iceberg


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Getty Images

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An endangered white-handed gibbon: The right conservation strategies can save the day

Scientists have calculated how many mammals might be lost this century, based on fossil evidence of past extinctions.

Their predictions suggest at least 550 species will follow in the footsteps of the mammoth and sabre-toothed cat.

With every “lost species” we lose part of the Earth’s natural history, they say.

Yet, despite these “grim” projections, we can save hundreds of species by stepping up conservation efforts.

The new research, published in the journal Science Advances, suggests that humans are almost entirely responsible for extinctions of mammals in past decades.

And rates will escalate in the future if we don’t take action now.

Despite this “alarming” scenario, we could save hundreds if not thousands of species with more targeted and efficient conservation strategies, said Tobias Andermann of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre and the University of Gothenburg.

In order to achieve this, we must increase our collective awareness about the “looming escalation of the biodiversity crisis, and take action in combatting this global emergency”.

“Time is pressing,” he said. “With every lost species, we irreversibly lose a unique portion of Earth’s natural history.”

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Getty Images

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A mammoth skull at auction in New York City: Many more could follow this extinct species’ path

The scientists compiled a large dataset of fossils, which provided evidence for the timing and scale of recent extinctions.

Their computer-based simulations predict large increases in extinction rates by the year 2100, based on the current threat status of species.

According to these models, the extinctions that have occurred in past centuries only represent the tip of the iceberg, compared with the looming extinctions of the next decades.

“Reconstructing our past impacts on biodiversity is essential to understand why some species and ecosystems have been particularly vulnerable to human activities – which can hopefully allow us to develop more effective conservation actions to combat extinction,” said Prof Samuel Turvey of ZSL (Zoological Society of London).

Last year an intergovernmental panel of scientists said one million animal and plant species were now threatened with extinction.

Scientists have warned that we are entering the sixth mass extinction, with whatever we do now likely to define the future of humanity.

Follow Helen on Twitter.

18th September 2020

Science The zookeeper having a giraffe with her tattoos

Science The zookeeper having a giraffe with her tattoos



image captionPhoebe Dowens says animals make as big an impact on her as humans do

It’s not uncommon to have tattoos of loved ones, favourite footballers or even pets.

But a Scottish zookeeper has gone one step further by immortalising her beloved animals in ink.

Phoebe Dowens looked after animals at Edinburgh Zoo for seven years before moving to the Highland Wildlife Park in Kincraig.

Everywhere she goes, she takes her three – soon to be four – favourite animals with her.

Phoebe has worked with dozens of beautiful and exotic animals during her career and believes that by caring for them and spending more time with them than humans, they become part of her extended family.

image captionPhoebe gets very close to the animals she cares for every day

She says animals can make as big an impact on her life as people.

Phoebe, originally from Edinburgh but now living in Kingussie, said: “My first animal tattoo was of Bertus the rhino on my arm. He is special to me because he was the first rhino I worked with. I was super into learning everything about rhinos at the time too.”

Bertus was at Edinburgh Zoo when Phoebe worked there but moved to Batu Secret Zoo in Indonesia three years ago.

image captionBertus the rhino was Phoebe’s first tattoo. He was moved to a zoo in Indonesia three years ago

Her next project was Belle the red river hog which she had tattooed on her leg.

Phoebe said: “She was at Edinburgh Zoo and when she died I wanted to commemorate her because I had really got to know her quite well when I worked in the hoofstock section. She struck a chord with me and she was very sweet and a great mum.”

The inspiration for animal tattoo number three came from a placement Phoebe went on in April 2019.

image captionBelle the red river hog looks up from Phoebe’s leg

“I went to San Diego safari park for a month and that’s when I worked with Shafira and Acica the giraffes,” said Phoebe. ” I got them tattooed on my leg to remember the whole trip as it was very special.”

When Phoebe started working at Edinburgh Zoo in 2013 she was following in the hoofsteps of her great great uncle. He had worked there as a hoofstock keeper in the 1940s, so she was delighted to work in some of the same cages as he worked in.

Her family is nothing but proud.

“My mum and dad are happy I found a career that they know brings me enjoyment so they are fine with my tattoos,” said Phoebe. “I’m not going to continue to cover myself in them though. I’m just going to occasionally get the very special animals tattooed on me.”

image captionGiraffes Shafira and Acica, are Phoebe’s permanent reminder of the wonderful time she spent at a San Diego safari park

And she already knows what her next one will be.

She said: “It’s going to be of Rotana – a male sun bear who was rescued from a small cage in Cambodia and brought to Edinburgh Zoo.

He was rescued by Free The Bears so his history is important and reminds me why I do this job.”

image captionRotana the male Mayan sun bear is the subject of Phoebe’s next tattoo

Phoebe is one of the zookeepers featured in a new programme on the BBC Scotland channel called Inside The Zoo.

The show follows staff at both Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park as they care for some of Scotland’s most-loved animals.

Gail Porter narrates the eight-part series which looks at how state-of-the-art science and conservation affect life at the zoo.

Inside The Zoo is on BBC Scotland channel at 20:00 on Monday 7 September.

18th September 2020

Science Game of Thrones makers to adapt Chinese sci-fi classic for Netflix

Science Game of Thrones makers to adapt Chinese sci-fi classic for Netflix


science Game of Thrones screenshotImage copyright

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Can the Games of Thrones team pull off a Chinese sci-fi saga?

Netflix has announced it’s recruited two of the masterminds behind Games of Thrones to adapt bestselling Chinese sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem.

Writers David Benioff and DB Weiss will work on the series with True Blood writer Alexander Woo.

The news has drawn mixed reactions with some fans doubting a US adaptation of the Chinese story will work.

The book is the first instalment of the trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past by writer Liu Cixin.

First published in 2008, the books were soon translated into English and have received both critical acclaim and a global readership, counting former US President Barack Obama and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg among their fans.

The plot of the saga spans from China’s Cultural Revolution to events several thousand years in the future.

“Liu Cixin’s trilogy is the most ambitious science-fiction series we’ve read, taking readers on a journey from the 1960s until the end of time, from life on our pale blue dot to the distant fringes of the universe,” Netflix cites writers and executive producers Benioff and Weiss as saying.

“We look forward to spending the next years of our lives bringing this to life for audiences around the world.”

The pair signed an exclusive deal with Netflix in 2019.

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Getty Images

Image caption

Benioff and Weiss brought the Game of Thrones books to the small screen

The streaming company has not released any information on the release date nor other details about the series.

Science Fears over ‘Western stereotypes’ of China

By Zhijie Shao, BBC News Chinese

Before Liu Cixin and his “Three-Body” series, Chinese science-fiction was not prominent, even among Chinese audience. The country has a history of suppressing its development, which used to be seen by the government as “a western view of the future of mankind”.

Liu’s work captured the imagination of Chinese fans in both scientific and philosophical terms without avoiding some controversial parts of Chinese history and society, bringing an innovative sense of modern China to the world stage. And he did it without being a dissident.

A whole new generation of Chinese sci-fi authors and fans have emerged after Liu’s success.

On the Chinese internet, Three-Body fandom continues to go strong. A group of fans even made an experimental adaptation in Minecraft style,

But when it comes to a proper film adaption, many fans doubt that China’s sci-fi film industry is sophisticated enough to handle the grand ideas presented in Liu’s books.

A case in point: the first attempt of a film adaptation of “Three-Body” was announced in 2015 and reportedly finished filming in only a few months. It was never released.

Now with Netflix and a team of western writers involved, fans are instead worried that the Chinese characters and historical events in the story might fall into “western stereotypes”.

Either way, they’re worried they could never enjoy it as much as they have the books.

Liu Cixin, the Chinese author of the novels, will be involved in the project as a consulting producer.

“I have the greatest respect for and faith in the creative team adapting The Three-Body Problem for television audiences,” he said in a Netflix statement.

“It is a great honor as an author to see this unique sci-fi concept travel and gain fandom across the globe and I am excited for new and existing fans all over the world to discover the story on Netflix.”

The movie adaption of The Wandering Earth, another Cixin novel, in 2019 became one of China’s highest-grossing films of all time.

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Image caption

Liu Cixin’s trilogy has become an international bestseller

The Netflix announcement was welcomed by some fans hoping the producers will create a series as successful as Game of Thrones while others were doubting it was the right team.

Many Chinese netizens were pointing out that they did not think that US producers could do justice to the novels.

Others though said Netflix will be free of any censorship constraints while a Chinese adaptation would be limited in how it could portray events around the Cultural Revolution for instance.

Chinese streaming platform Tencent earlier this year announced its own adaptation of the novel after having already launched a comic book adaptation last year.

18th September 2020

Science Coronavirus: How teachers are feeling as schools return

Science Coronavirus: How teachers are feeling as schools return


Many teachers are preparing to welcome pupils back to school this week for the first time in months.

Schools in Scotland, Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK are already open. But for many pupils in England, it will be the first time they have been in a classroom since March.

We spoke to teachers about what’s changed, and how they are feeling about schools reopening.

Science ‘I’m trying to be as safe as I can’

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Kemi Oloyede

Teacher Kemi Oloyede has thought a lot about how safe she feels returning to work. She works in a pupil referral unit, with secondary students who have been excluded from school. When she welcomes her mixed ability class of eight pupils back this week, the 28-year-old says she will be working mainly from her desk.

“I won’t lie to you, I probably will be wearing a mask in the building and wearing gloves as well. I’m trying to be as safe as safe as I can be.”

The Londoner lives with her parents who are classed as being at risk, and this has impacted how she feels about her return to work.

“I am ready to go back to work because the students have missed out on a lot due to schools closing down back in March. But mentally, because of the anxiety, maybe not so much,” she says.

For Ms Oloyede, knowing that there is an increased risk that black Britons could die from coronavirus is a worry.

“I am black, my parents are black and I don’t want to put them at risk if they are already at risk. I don’t want to bring anything home. My mum is working from home so she doesn’t have to be in contact with people on a daily basis. But as a teacher, we have to be in contact with our students so that has added to my level of anxiety. I’m just hoping and praying everything will be fine.

She says she feels supported by her school, which is supplying protective equipment.

“I have to work and the students have to learn.”

Science ‘Remote learning was a huge success’

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Tom Clark

Geography teacher Tom Clark say it’s normal for teachers to feel butterflies before the start of a new term. But this one feels different.

“I don’t know how the kids are going to be,” he says. “I haven’t seen them for six months. I’ve seen them on screen but I don’t know how they are as people.”

The 48-year-old works at Birkdale School in Sheffield, a private school for boys. It has set up bubbles – closed groups of pupils – and a one-way system. It is asking pupils to wear face coverings when in corridors and communal areas, and on school buses.

Soon after lockdown started in March, he and his colleagues were given “intensive training” in remote classroom software and online teaching.

“It was a huge success,” he explains. “So much so that when the government announced in mid-June that certain year groups could go back to school, we decided that not to do that, because it was going to be more disruptive than the online learning that was happening from home.

Mr Clark says the experience will help his school react to any new lockdown this winter.

“If we have to suddenly close down bubbles within the school, we can just revert back to Google Classroom. The idea of doing online learning would have filled me with terror eight months ago but it has become part and parcel of my daily life.”

Science ‘Everything I had been building to got thrown out of the window’

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Laura Kline

Laura Kline believes classroom learning creates a more level playing field for students than online lessons.

“I had one student who could only be on the laptop on certain days because they’ve got three other siblings in the house.

“One is a university student, another is an A-level student, and so they’re bottom of the list because they’re in Year 9, and it’s really difficult to expect them to complete the work online with a potentially poor internet connection,” she explains.

Ms Kline, 27, qualified as a science teacher last year, and describes the past year as a “huge shock to the system”.

“When I started in September it was already overwhelming because you have a full timetable just like any other teacher; I taught Year 11 for the first time, I had a form for the first time.

“I worked hard and got used to it, and then March came – and everything I had been building to got thrown out of the window because there was a whole new way of learning.”

During lockdown, she sent work out to year groups once or twice a week, and there were also weekly live lessons online which she found a challenge.

“When the children are not directly in front of you, it’s just not the same. You can’t see who understands what you’re saying and who needs a bit of assistance.

“There are some students I know will be far behind compared to where they should be and I can’t see, with the pressures that teachers will now be under, how anyone can make up that lost time; especially for the GCSE students. They will be falling into those lower ability groups where they wouldn’t necessarily need to be.

“Children have really sensitive morale so once you’ve moved them down it is really difficult to get them re-engaged to push them back up to where they really deserve to be.”

Science ‘The budget is stretched’

Image copyright
Lee Batstone

Lee Batstone, head teacher of Madley Primary School in Herefordshire, says he’s spent £10,000 on adapting to government guidelines on cleaning and social distancing.

Since March the school has only been closed for two weeks – it ran a holiday club over the holidays – and Mr Batstone says his budget is increasingly stretched.

“The longer this goes on without any additional funding, the harder it is going to be” says the 49-year-old.

As well as standard measures such as regular cleaning and hand sanitising, the school is allowing staff and pupils to wear whatever PPE they want in order to feel safe.

“We’re a school that’s based on a pupils taking responsibility for themselves in their own actions, but now everything except going to the toilet is supervised and closely monitored,” he says.

That said, toilets have been an issue, according to Mr Batstone. The school’s existing ones are small and the school is operating a one-in, one-out policy so new, temporary portable toilets have been brought in so that every year group has their own.

“Year 6 at the end of last term had the poshest toilets going – they had wedding toilets that piped music on to the playground,” he says.

Now that the practical measures are in place, Mr Batstone says the school’s main focus will be about helping the children learn to look after themselves without becoming frightened of each other.

“I think one of the mental impacts [of the pandemic will be] making sure children are not scared of other human beings because that could be a long-term effect the longer this goes on.”

16th September 2020

Science PMQs: Boris Johnson accused of ‘governing in hindsight’

Science PMQs: Boris Johnson accused of ‘governing in hindsight’


Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionKeir Starmer says Boris Johnson must extend the job retention scheme as it was “desperately needed”.

Boris Johnson was accused of “governing in hindsight” over a series of U-turns, as he appeared before MPs at PMQs for the first time since July.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer claimed the prime minister was “making it up as he goes along”.

And he said even Mr Johnson’s own MPs had “run out of patience” after what he claimed was 12 U-turns over the summer.

The PM hit back by calling Sir Keir “captain hindsight” over the exam results debacle.

He accused the Labour leader of “leaping on a bandwagon, opposing a policy that he supported two weeks ago”.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford claimed Mr Johnson had made eight U-turns this year – and he called for a ninth to extend the government’s job retention scheme, which ends next month, echoing a call made by Sir Keir.

The PM insisted “indefinite furlough” was not the answer to help the economy through the pandemic.

With grumblings on the Tory benches about the government’s recent performance Boris Johnson needed a good PMQs to mark the return to parliament.

His political opponents – perhaps unsurprisingly – criticised the number of policy U-turns in recent months.

While ministers have repeatedly said they’re responding to changing science as the pandemic progresses, the speed and frequency of policy shifts is the crux of concern among some Conservative backbenchers.

Keir Starmer returned to what some supporters have called a “forensic” style of questioning in pushing the prime minister for detail on the exam results crisis.

Boris Johnson responded with a wide-ranging attack on the Labour leader which led to a tetchy exchange.

But with another shift in policy – this time on local lockdowns in Trafford and Bolton – taking place as the prime minister was at the dispatch box, it seems unlikely his performance was enough to silence critics – including those within his own party.

In heated exchanges, Sir Keir told the PM: “This has been a wasted summer. The government should have spent it preparing for the autumn and winter.

“Instead, they have lurched from crisis to crisis, U-turn to U-turn.”

He accused the government of “serial incompetence”, and asked: “Will the prime minister take responsibility and finally get a grip?”

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionIan Blackford calls on the government to “change tack for a ninth time” and extend the job retention scheme.

Mr Johnson hit back by citing a series of alleged U-turns made by Sir Keir in the past and – in a reference to his predecessor as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – accusing him of supporting “an IRA-condoning politician who wanted to get out of Nato”.

Speaker Sir Lindsey Hoyle intervened to warn the prime minster “to answer the questions that have been put” to him.

A clearly angry Sir Keir said: “As Director of Public Prosecutions, I prosecuted serious terrorists for five years, working with the intelligence and security forces and with the police in Northern Ireland.

“I ask the prime minister to have the decency to withdraw that comment.”

Speaking afterwards, Labour sources said they would not be taking the matter further, but added that the PM had supported a peerage for former Brexit Party MEP, Claire Fox, who had once been a member of a far left party which defended an IRA attack,

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