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13th September 2020

Technology Tony Blair: It is common sense to move toward digital IDs

Technology Tony Blair: It is common sense to move toward digital IDs


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Media captionTony Blair: “People give a lot more information probably to their supermarkets than they will to the government.”

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has said it is “common sense to move in the direction of digital IDs” as part of efforts to fight coronavirus.

Mr Blair said there should be a record kept by the government of those vaccinated against the virus.

The government recently set out plans to change laws to enable the use of digital identity across the UK.

As prime minister, Mr Blair launched a compulsory ID card scheme, but it was scrapped by the coalition government.

Speaking to the BBC’s Newscast podcast, he said that once a coronavirus vaccine is in use “you’re going to want a record of the fact you’ve been vaccinated”.

“You’ll want a record kept by the government of who’s been vaccinated – this will be essential, again, to restoring confidence,” he added.

The former PM argued that improvements in technology meant privacy issues “can be dealt with”.

“You don’t need a large amount of information,” he said adding: “People give a lot more information to their supermarkets than they do to the government.”

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Getty Images

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Tony Blair faced protests against ID cards

Responding to Mr Blair’s comments, Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch – a civil liberties campaign group – said: “The idea of digital ID and vaccination checks could easily lead to a health apartheid that few would expect of a democratic country.

“Digital IDs would lead to sensitive records spanning medical, work, travel, and biometric data about each and every one of us being held at the fingertips of authorities and state bureaucrats.

“This dangerous plan would normalise identity checks, increase state control over law abiding citizens and create a honey pot for cybercriminals.”

Mr Blair’s comments come after the government announced plans to update existing laws on identity checking to allow digital identity “to be used as widely as possible”.

It is does not propose resurrecting the ID card scheme, but is “exploring how secure checks could be made against government data,” according to the government announcement.

Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman said: “Digital technology is helping us through the pandemic and continues to improve the way we live, work and access vital services.

“We want to make it easier for people to prove their identity securely online so transactions can become even quicker – it has the potential to add billions to our economy.”

Mr Blair was a keen advocate of ID cards for all UK citizens, as a way of combating terrorism after 9/11, but it was later billed as an “entitlement card” to combat benefit fraud and illegal workers.

The former PM has argued since leaving office that ID cards are the only way to combat illegal immigration.

The ID card scheme began its rollout in November 2009, under Gordon Brown’s premiership, but was scrapped in 2010 by the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government which saw it as an infringement of civil liberties.

Technology ‘Killing international travel’

During his interview with Newscast, Mr Blair also argued that coronavirus quarantine policies were “killing” international travel.

He said he didn’t think the 14 day quarantine period for those returning from certain countries abroad was “necessary”.

“The question is not how you eliminate the risk, it is how you contain it,” he added.

Mr Blair also said it was a “mystery” to him why there hadn’t been a more coordinated international effort to tackle the virus. “I honestly don’t understand the reason for that not happening,” he said.

Speaking of poorer countries in Africa, he said: “They can’t do lockdown, it’s just not possible, but as a result of the global crisis they’re facing real food security problems, real supply problems.”

On vaccines, he said he hoped we “do not end up in a situation where wealthy countries get the vaccines and poor countries are scrabbling for them. This wouldn’t just be morally wrong, it would be totally against our own interests”.

13th September 2020

Technology ‘Festival of Brexit’ can play ‘powerful role’ in healing UK, organiser says

Technology ‘Festival of Brexit’ can play ‘powerful role’ in healing UK, organiser says


Technology Hull 2017 UK City of CultureImage copyright
PA Media

Image caption

The man behind Hull 2017 UK City of Culture is now overseeing Festival UK 2022

The organisers of a £120m national festival to be staged in 2022 have put out a call for creative minds to come up with “daring, new and popular” ideas to bring the UK together after Brexit.

The event, dubbed the Festival of Brexit when it was announced by then-prime minister Theresa May in 2018, now has the working title Festival UK 2022.

Chief creative officer Martin Green is looking for “big ideas” that can help heal the divisions surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU, and showcase British creativity to the world.

He will pick 10 – physical or virtual, happening anywhere and anyhow – to form the festival. They could be staged by people in the worlds of science, technology, engineering, the arts, maths, or a combination.

“This project was conceived to happen after our exit from the EU and acknowledges that we have been going through, and are going through, a divisive time,” Mr Green tells BBC News.

“Creativity has always proven itself brilliant at finding more of what we have in common than what we don’t. So the idea that projects can bring people together is a really timely one.”

Asked whether such an event can realistically heal divisions that have come to the fore in recent years as a result of political processes, Mr Green replies: “I would say that I imagine it has a powerful role to play.”

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Martin Green: “Creativity is the best asset we have in finding ways forward and understanding the world we live in.”

Mr Green was the head of ceremonies at the London 2012 Olympic Games and director of Hull’s year as UK City of Culture in 2017. Both went down as resounding successes and were, he says, examples of the unifying power of creativity, be that for a country or a city.

He also cites the acclaimed World War One centenary events masterminded by artists like Jeremy Deller and Danny Boyle. None of those projects were overtly political. “And neither is this,” Mr Green says. “Creativity, creative acts and big projects can sit to the side, above and below ‘Politics with a big P.'”

He adds: “Remember, coming together and bringing people together isn’t about asking people all to think and believe the same thing. It’s about understanding each other and appreciating each other’s differences and commonalities.”

When she announced the festival two years ago, Mrs May said she wanted it to “celebrate our nation’s diversity and talent, and mark this moment of national renewal with a once-in-a-generation celebration”. Opponents questioned whether it was a moment that merited celebration.

Nevertheless, Mr Green believes creativity is “the best asset we have in finding ways forward and understanding the world we live in”.

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The festival will comprise 10 different projects taking place around the UK and online

He is reluctant to narrow down what the Festival UK 2022 might look like. Although it was inspired by the Great Exhibition in 1851 and the Festival of Britain in 1951, it will not be a single event at a single venue.

“A project might last a day or a year,” Mr Green explains. “It may be one big act or 10 million tiny acts.

“Obviously we’ve got significant funding in place so we can be big and bold. The three key words are – we want the projects to be open, original and optimistic. And they can be live, they can be digital, but we expect them probably to be both.”

Beyond that, potential participants have a blank slate. “We’ve said that we want the project to be a showcase of our creativity, we want projects to be big and popular, and engage millions of people, and work right across the UK.”

Technology Greater representation

The pitching process is deliberately not restricted to established names. “By doing it as an open call, we make sure that it’s not just the usual suspects,” Mr Green says. “We’re insisting that new talent is platformed, that there’s greater representation in the teams.

“So while we fully expect to be working with some of our greatest institutions and creatives, we’re also making sure that it’s an opportunity to surface new talent.”

They don’t have very long to come up with their big ideas, though. The deadline for submissions is just over five weeks away, on 16 October. After that, 30 teams will each be given £100,000 to develop their plans before the final 10 are chosen.

The call for submissions comes as the UK and EU enter the crunch period to agree a trade deal before the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.

In recent months, there have been calls for the festival’s £120m budget to be diverted to support arts organisations that are on their knees because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Green points out that the government has already pledged £1.57bn in emergency funding, and that the festival will help some such organisations.

“While there is sustainability money needed, there is bailout money needed, there’s also a dignity of work issue here,” he says. “All creatives want to do is make work. That’s why we’ve made sure we get going very quickly. Within a suite of strategies to support creative industries, this is one part.”

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13th September 2020

Technology Project breathes new life into Early Irish and Old Norse

Technology Project breathes new life into Early Irish and Old Norse


Technology Scira Festival

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Magnus Sheildbreaker, the Viking name used by Richard Mehmed from Lowestoft, said events like Scira Festival are about “linking with our ancestors”

Swords, horned helmets and long boats – we share a picture of the Vikings dating back to primary school projects.

But history is missing the soundtrack to their world. Their words, songs and music are lost to us.

Now, a pioneering project aims to breathe new life into Early Irish and Old Norse.

Musicians, historians and literary scholars are coming together to trace the sonic footprints left by the Vikings and Celts.

Augmented Vocality: Recomposing the Sounds of Early Irish and Old Norse is a project led by experts at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University,

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PA Media

Image caption

We share a picture of the Vikings but are missing a sound track to their lives

They are working with the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge and three European contemporary music ensembles.

Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble based at Queen’s University in Northern Ireland is joined by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) in England and BIT20 Ensemble in Norway.

The teams aim to apply powerful new vocal processing and live electronic music technology to develop new insights into the languages by reanimating surviving texts.

Then they shall weave sounds into new compositions for performance.

“For many people, phrases such as ‘the early medieval period’ and ‘the Viking age’ conjure a mental landscape of swords, helmets, longboats and thatched huts,” said Professor Lamberto Coccioli, associate principal of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and the project lead.

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The BBC series The Last Kingdom tells the story of the Norse invasions

“It is a shared visual imagination that encompasses primary school projects, the historically-inspired fantasy world of Tolkien and popular series such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom.

“But what do we really know about the sounds accompanying all this imagery?”

Prof Coccioli’s team will be looking at the sounds and poetic texts from early Nordic language and exploring what happens when voices from a distant past collide with contemporary music performance.

“Can we bring back to life for modern audiences the original expressive power and immediacy of those ancient voices?” he asked.

“Composer Edmund Hunt and I are really excited by this challenge and look forward to delivering our findings with colleagues at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, University of Cambridge and three leading new music ensembles.”

Last year, academics in Northern Ireland and England unveiled a new online dictionary of medieval Irish.

It was the culmination of five years of painstaking work by experts from Cambridge University and Queen’s University.

They pored over manuscripts and texts for words which have been overlooked or mistakenly defined.

Their findings can now be freely accessed in the revised version of the online dictionary of medieval Irish.

Among the words brought back to life in this project are “ogach”, which means “eggy” – but in a good way: If you were choosing where to live in medieval Ireland you would want somewhere ogach – “abounding in eggs”.

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Getty Images

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The old Irish word for curlew is “crottach”

On the other hand it is probably bad news if you hear the word “brachaid”, meaning: “It oozes pus.”

The scholars discovered quirky words such as “séis” – an old Irish word for a six-day week.

The dictionary of medieval Irish is 23 volumes long. It spans a period from 700 to 1700.

For Prof Greg Toner from Queen’s University Belfast, finding and documenting the words has been a labour of love spanning nearly 20 years.

“People think it is an old language and there are no new words, but our interpretation changes,” he said.

“We found about 500 words that have not been recorded. Among them is the word “séis”, which means a period of six days.

“This is great, if you can’t be bothered working a full week.”

Other words include the Irish for curlew – “crottach” or “the humped one” – and might be an allusion to the bird’s distinctive beak.

On the other hand, leprechauns may be considered quintessentially Irish, but research suggests this perception is blarney.

The word “leprechaun” is not a native Irish one, scholars have said.

13th September 2020

Technology Gene-edited babies: Current techniques not safe, say experts

Technology Gene-edited babies: Current techniques not safe, say experts


Technology File picture of new-born feetImage copyright
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Current scientific techniques are not yet safe or effective enough to be used to create gene-edited babies, an international committee says.

The technology could one day prevent parents from passing on heritable diseases to children, but the committee says much more research is needed.

The world’s first gene-edited babies were born in China in November 2018. The scientist responsible was jailed, amid a fierce global backlash.

The committee was set up in response.

Most countries have regulations in place preventing babies being born after gene-editing, but the incident led to calls for strong international consensus.

Technology Why is gene-editing babies controversial?

Gene-editing could potentially help avoid a range of heritable diseases by deleting or changing troublesome coding in embryos.

But experts worry that modifying the genome of an embryo could cause unintended harm, not only to the individual but also future generations that inherit these same changes.

One example of current technology is CRISPR, a biological system for altering DNA discovered in 2012.

CRISPR scans the genome looking for the right location, and then uses “molecular scissors” to snip through the faulty DNA.

While effective in the lab, the process is less than perfect and can cut out too much DNA.

These unwanted edits could alter other important genes – inadvertently triggering cancer, for example.

But arguably, the most controversial aspect of gene-editing concerns the potential to introduce changes to the germline – DNA alterations that would pass down the generations.

Technology What does the report say?

The commission involves experts from 10 different countries, including members of the UK’s Royal Society and the US National Academy of Medicine.

It made several recommendations, including:

  • Extensive conversations in society before a country decides whether to permit this type of gene-editing
  • If proven to be safe and effective, initial uses should be limited to serious, life-shortening diseases which result from the mutation of one or both copies of a single gene, such as cystic fibrosis
  • Rigorous checks at every stage of the process to make sure there are no unintended consequences, including biopsies and regular screening of embryos
  • Pregnancies and any resulting children to be followed up closely
  • An international scientific advisory panel should be established to constantly assess evidence on safety and effectiveness, allowing people to report concerns about any research that deviates from guidelines

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Getty Images

Technology Does everyone agree?

Sarah Norcross, at Progress Educational Trust, said while important lessons needed to be learnt from the world’s first genome-edited babies, the report went too far in the other direction.

She said: “The criteria the report sets out, for the first acceptable clinical use of germline genome editing in humans, are far too narrow.

“Furthermore, the report strays beyond its scientific remit. Much of the report – including a third of its recommendations – concerns governance, which is the focus of a separate genome editing project by the World Health Organization.”

Meanwhile, Prof Dame Anne Johnson at the Academy of Medical Sciences welcomed the report’s “cautious” approach.

She said: “This area of science could help a group of patients with no other options, but it is not one to be fast-tracked behind closed doors.

“It must be based on strong clinical data showing safety and efficacy, alongside thoughtful public debate that is clearly informed by the best possible scientific evidence.”

13th September 2020

Technology Dumfries study shows heart patient numbers more than halved under lockdown

Technology Dumfries study shows heart patient numbers more than halved under lockdown



image copyrightGetty Images

image captionCardiology services saw a reduction in every area of provision under lockdown

The number of patients going to cardiology services at a Scots hospital for serious heart problems more than halved during lockdown.

Research at Dumfries Infirmary also showed the number of heart attacks diagnosed fell by 40%.

The study in online BMJ journal Open Heart said there were likely to be “various reasons” for the change.

Researchers warned cardiology services could face a “significant increase in workload” as restrictions eased.

While the findings were based on only one site they were said to be consistent with other studies of the health consequences of lockdown measures.

image copyrightPaul McMullin

image captionThe study was based on findings at Dumfries Infirmary

“Therefore, it is likely that similar changes will be seen in other medical and surgical specialties,” researchers concluded.

They looked at key performance indicators in cardiology services in Dumfries and support services at the Golden Jubilee Hospital in Glasgow before and after lockdown.

Overall, they found “significant reductions” in every area of service provision.

During the first month of lockdown, the numbers of people seen for chest pain or breathlessness fell sharply, with cardiology ward and coronary care unit (CCU) admissions falling to 39 from 83 before lockdown – a drop of 53%.

Similarly, the number of patients diagnosed with a heart attack fell by 40% from 30 to 18.

Researchers said that while levels rose during the second month of lockdown they were still below pre-lockdown levels suggesting an ongoing fall in the overall number of patients presenting to cardiology services.

Technology ‘Long-lasting legacy’

There were various reasons for these changes, such as the restructuring and prioritisation of NHS services, reduced access to primary care, and patients’ reluctance to seek medical help due to fear of catching the virus, the study suggested.

It found one positive consequence of the changes brought in to deal with the virus had been the central role of technology in the delivery of care.

During lockdown, clinicians at the Dumfries hospital adopted phone and video consultations to minimise infection risks to patients and staff while new and return clinic appointments were triaged into virtual or face-to-face clinics

The use of virtual clinics will be a “long-lasting legacy,” researchers added.

However, they warned that heart disease continued to be the leading cause of death nationally and cardiology services needed to prepare for a “significant increase in workload” in the recovery phase.

13th September 2020

Technology BBC urged to reinstate live TV coverage of Scotland coronavirus briefings

Technology BBC urged to reinstate live TV coverage of Scotland coronavirus briefings


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Media captionCoronavirus: First Minister says it is for ‘BBC to decide’ on Covid TV briefings

The first minister has said her ability to communicate directly with the public is “more important than ever” following the BBC’s decision to reduce its live TV broadcasts of the Scottish government’s coronavirus briefing.

However, Nicola Sturgeon said it was for the corporation rather than politicians to decide what was televised.

It comes after the BBC said it would continue to stream the briefings online but would only show them live on TV based on their “news value”.

Ms Sturgeon made the comments during Friday’s briefing at St Andrews House.

She said the briefings were a vital public service as Covid cases accelerated, especially for vulnerable groups.

Ms Sturgeon said that included older people – particularly those who were shielding – and people with hearing difficulties.

She said: “What has struck me over the period that these briefings have been televised is that they have been particularly important to certain sections of the population that maybe don’t routinely go onto the internet.

“We are in unique circumstances right now and the ability for me and my colleagues to communicate directly with the public has never been more important.

“So, it’s for the BBC (to decide). All I would ask is that they take that into account in the decisions that they make.”

Technology Online streaming

The briefings from Ms Sturgeon and other ministers or health officials have previously been broadcast on BBC One Scotland and the BBC Scotland channel, as well as being streamed on the BBC News website and featuring on BBC Radio Scotland.

Average viewing figures have been 280,000 on BBC One Scotland and 40,000 on BBC Scotland, but the corporation has been reviewing its coverage now the Scottish Parliament has more or less returned to normal business and other sectors are reopening.

Ian Small, head of Public Policy & Corporate Affairs at BBC Scotland, said a decision on which briefings would be broadcast live would be led by “what information is being imparted by the Scottish government”.

He said: “Where it is appropriate to cover the briefings in their entirety, on TV, we will do so. That is not, nor has it ever been, in question.”

The BBC has confirmed there will be full live TV coverage on Monday 14 September, to cover the introduction of new lockdown restrictions in Scotland.

Mr Small said: “We emphasise that we will keep these arrangements under review and will, as said, cover the live briefings on television when it is right and in the public interest to do so.”

The Scottish Conservatives have claimed Nicola Sturgeon has at times used the daily briefings as a political platform to criticise the UK government.

At the weekend, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross suggested that now the Scottish Parliament was up and running again, this was a more appropriate forum for making announcements, as it would allow MSPs to challenge the first minister when appropriate.

Nicola Sturgeon said she had “always taken great care to try and not stray into political territory”.

However, she added: “I’m not saying I have never slipped up – I am fallible – but I have always recognised my responsibility to keep these briefings very much on topic.

“That’s because I want people, regardless of their politics, to be able to listen to and hear the messages that are so important.”

13th September 2020

Technology Coronavirus: New six people rule for ‘no longer than we have to’ – Hancock

Technology Coronavirus: New six people rule for ‘no longer than we have to’ – Hancock


Technology Groups of over six people socialise in Saint James' Park in Westminster on September 09, 2020 in London, EnglandImage copyright
Getty Images

The new coronavirus rules in England banning social gatherings of more than six people will not be kept in place “any longer than we have to”, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said.

“This sacrifice is vital to control the virus for the long term,” he told MPs.

The law comes into force on Monday and will be enforced through a £100 fine.

Mr Hancock was also heckled by some MPs as he spoke about the government’s plans for mass coronavirus testing, after concerns it was unrealistic.

Scientists and health professionals have said the technology for the government’s plan for more rapid tests “does not, as yet, exist”, and there are already issues with laboratory capacity.

Technology Groups of six

On Thursday, the UK recorded another 2,919 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the fifth consecutive day that the figure has been more than 2,000. Another 14 deaths were reported within 28 days of a positive test.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out the new “rule of six” on Wednesday as part of measures intended to halt the rise in cases.

It applies both indoors and outdoors and to all ages – although there are some exemptions, such as gatherings for work.

On Thursday, Scotland changed its rules on socialising to a maximum of six people inside and outside – but unlike England they must be from two households, and children under 12 are exempt.

“As the chief medical officer said yesterday, we must learn from the recent experience of countries like Belgium who successfully put in place these measures to combat a similar rise in infections,” said Mr Hancock in Parliament on Thursday.

“These are not measures that we take lightly. I understand that for many they’ll mean changing long-awaited plans or missing out on precious moments with loved ones, but this sacrifice is vital to control the virus for the long term and save lives.

“And I vow that we will not keep these rules in place for any longer than we have to.”

Earlier, Mr Hancock’s colleague, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, said if everybody followed the rules “we may well be by Christmas in a position to look at it again”.

Former government adviser Prof Neil Ferguson said it will take about “two to three weeks” to see what effect the social distancing measures have.

“So we need to wait at this point and see how much we flatten the curve and then if that’s not sufficient to bring the reproduction number below one, so the epidemic starts shrinking again, then yes, we may need to clamp down on other areas,” he added.

Prof Ferguson – whose advice to the prime minister led to the UK lockdown – said it was unavoidable that the virus would resurge in all age groups.

And asked about the government’s push to get people to return to work, Prof Ferguson added: “Certainly I think we should hesitate and maybe pause at the headlong rush to get everybody back into offices.

“But some people have to work and I completely understand the concerns in many quarters that everybody working at home has an economic impact, particularly on city centres.”

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionThe prime minister said the new measures were “not another national lockdown”

Technology At-a-glance: What are the new rules?

  • Social gatherings of more than six people in England will not be allowed in law from Monday 14 September
  • The new rule applies to people in private homes, indoors and outdoors, and places such as pubs, restaurants, cafes and public outdoor spaces
  • It applies to all ages
  • The rule does not apply to schools and workplaces, to people living together or in the same support bubble, or to weddings, funerals and organised team sports
  • The full list of exemptions also includes protests and political activities subject to “strict risk assessments”, jury service and providing emergency assistance
  • People who ignore the police could be fined £100 – doubling with each offence to a maximum of £3,200

Mr Hancock was also asked about the government’s testing plan.

The next immediate goal for the government is to increase testing capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. Currently, testing capacity is being reported as 350,000 a day – which includes swab tests (which check if you have the virus currently) and antibody tests (which check if someone has already had the virus).

But the government is also planning “Operation Moonshot” – which aims to see millions of tests processed every day.

This would involve using a new type of test, which is not yet rolled out, involving swabs or saliva and can give results in 90 or even 20 minutes.

In many ways the focus is on how long the new rules may last and the “Operation Moonshot” plans for mass rapid testing are a distraction from the difficult decisions the country faces.

Despite the recent rises, infection rates remain low. But they will continue to go up.

Respiratory viruses tend to do better in the autumn and winter because of the colder weather and fact people are indoors more.

That will soon translate into more hospitalisations and, sadly, more deaths.

This happens every year with flu. The worst winter of recent years, 2017-18, saw close to an extra 50,000 deaths.

When the first signs of that happens, ministers will then have to decide what to do next.

They could choose more restrictions to try to curb the spread of the virus in the knowledge these will damage people’s health in other ways as well as harming education and the economy.

Or they let the virus spread, while focusing efforts on protecting the vulnerable – more than 90% of deaths have been among the over 65s with half among the over 85s.

Clearly that will mean putting more protections in place around care homes, perhaps by banning visitors, as well as considering reintroducing shielding.

Lockdown bought us time, but simply deferred the problem.

Progress has been made in the past six months – there are better treatments, more testing and a network of contact tracers – but maybe not as much as hoped.

The UK, like all nations, faces a tricky act of balancing harms.

Mr Hancock was heckled by some opposition MPs as he outlined “Moonshot”, responding: “I’m absolutely determined that we will get there.

“And if everything comes together, and if the technology comes off, it’ll be possible even for challenging sectors like theatres to get closer to normal before Christmas.”

He said the approach was being piloted and steps are being taken to verify the new technology ahead of a desired nationwide roll-out.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionJonathan Ashworth asked Matt Hancock for more clarity over mass testing

Earlier, the chairman of the British Medical Association Dr Chaand Nagpaul said it was unclear how Operation Moonshot would work – given the “huge problems” currently seen with lab capacity.

And other scientists warned of the dangers of false negatives and false positives.

On Thursday, Scotland launched its new contact tracing app, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon urging as many people as possible to download it.

The contact tracing app being developed in England ran into technical problems and is currently being tested following a revamp.

Meanwhile, the latest figures for England’s Test and Trace programme showed mixed performance.

There has been a slight improvement in turnaround times for testing – results for people who go to testing centres and mobile units are being done in 23 and 20 hours respectively on average – two weeks ago both had crept over 24 hours.

But for the second week in a row contact tracers were only able to reach under 70% of the close contacts of people who are infected – well below the 80% target.

Dr Layla McCay of the NHS Confederation said the figures were a “cause for serious alarm”.

In other developments:

  • The number of people who have died with the virus globally reaches 900,000
  • A new law will also require businesses such as pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and cinemas to record customers’ contact details and keep them for 21 days
  • The government has published its coronavirus guidance for universities ahead of students returning later this month, with full online learning only as a last resort
  • The disruption to hospitals in England during the pandemic has meant the number of patients facing long waits for routine operations has soared, new figures show
  • Conservative minister Jacob Rees-Mogg is self-isolating at home after one of his children showed symptoms of coronavirus

11th September 2020

Technology Coronavirus: Tony Blair on ID cards and digital records


Tony Blair’s plans to bring in ID cards were dropped, but he thinks people will need digital ID in the fight against the virus.

The former prime minister said technology had come on by “leaps and bounds” and people will want to have any virus vaccine officially recorded.

He told Newscast’s Adam Fleming: “People give a lot more information probably to their supermarkets than they will to the government.”

11th September 2020

Technology Channel crossings: Why can’t the UK stop migrants in small boats?


Technology A boat in the ChannelImage copyright
PA Media

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The numbers crossing the Channel “remain low and manageable,” the UN Refugee Agency says

The government has said it is committed to stopping migrants making the perilous journey to the UK in small boats. Why is it so difficult?

Towards the end of August 2019, ministers in the UK and France jointly pledged to make crossings by migrants in small boats an “infrequent phenomenon” by spring 2020.

When Priti Patel met her counterpart in Paris last summer, about 1,400 people had already made it to the UK by small boat within the previous 12 months – and at least two lives had been lost.

Since then, a further 5,500 people have navigated one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world to join them.

The UK has spent £5.5m to try to end the crossings. Why hasn’t it worked?

Technology Stopping boats at sea

The home secretary has said she wants to make the route “unviable” and end demand by returning boats to France.

But, French authorities believe they are unable to intervene in many instances, because of differing interpretations of international maritime law, she added.

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PA Media

Image caption

Hundreds of boats have been intercepted by Border Force in British waters

Calais MP Pierre-Henri Dumont said the most important thing was to ensure no more lives were lost.

“We are talking about human beings, we are not talking about cattle,” he said.

The UN Refugee Agency said it was “troubled” by the plans to intercept and return boats, adding that the numbers making the crossing “remain low and manageable”.

“The foreseen deployment of large naval vessels to deter such crossings and block small, flimsy dinghies may result in harmful and fatal incidents,” it said.

Technology Channel crossings by migrants in small boats

Number of people reaching the UK each month since July 2019

Both international treaties and national laws determine what states can do at sea, said Dr Felicity Attard, a lecturer in international maritime law at the University of Malta.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country has the right to act in its waters when faced with an “inbound vessels carrying migrants which are intending to commit a contravention of the coastal state’s immigration laws,” she said.

But any action must also “take into account humanitarian considerations, for example, the need to protect the rights of asylum-seekers,” which are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, she added.

Image copyright
PreMar Manche

Image caption

Migrants are returned to France after being rescued from a stricken dinghy

Any force used to return migrant boats to France “may only be used as a last resort, if necessary, proportionate and justified to achieve a legitimate aim,” she said.

Ultimately though, Dr Attard believes that “given the safety issues both to the migrants on board and to international shipping, should it wish, France would be entitled to intervene”.

However, the duty to “render assistance and protect life at sea remains paramount throughout,” she added.

Technology Sending people back

Since January 2019, 155 people who crossed the English Channel in small boats have been returned to Europe. A further 166 are due to be returned, the home secretary said last month. That is about 6% of the 5,500 people who made it to the UK since the start of 2019.

EU regulations known as “Dublin III”, which determine where an asylum-seeker’s claim is heard, were being used to “frustrate the returns of those who have no right to be here,” the Home Office said.

Image copyright
PA Media

Image caption

The RAF has sent a transport plane to help spot migrant boats off the coast of England

Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested the government would review laws that make it “very difficult to then send [migrants] away again even though blatantly they’ve come here illegally”.

But, any new system will require support from the EU countries that asylum-seekers are being returned to, immigration barrister Colin Yeo said.

“If you want to send somebody to France, then you have got to do it with French agreement, you can’t just launch them on a rocket into French territory,” he said.

Without a new agreement at the end of the Brexit transition period in January, the UK would “go from a situation where it’s not easy necessarily to remove people to EU countries, to a situation where it’s impossible because there is just no way of securing their agreement to accept people back,” he said.

Technology Preventing boats departing

Since October 2019, the UK has paid for 45 French police officers to patrol the coastline. Additional officers from French border police are also patrolling.

More than 47% of attempted crossings have been prevented either at sea or before departing in 2020, according to the regional government in Calais.

Last month, police stopped 10 times more crossings than in July 2019, it said.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionMigrants setting out to sea 20 miles east of Calais were filmed by a BBC team

But, the sheer scale of the 200-mile stretch of coastline, which is populated by quiet beaches lined with sand dunes, makes it impossible to stop boats setting sail altogether, French officials say.

“We are doing a lot but there are limits to what humans and technology can do stop people realising their dream,” said Mr Dumont.

Technology Stopping the gangs

The Home Office said it was pursuing the “heinous criminals and organised crime networks” behind the crossings.

This year 23 people smugglers have been jailed and two more were charged earlier this month.

Image caption

Two men were jailed after Mitra Mehrad drowned

Two men were jailed in France in December 2019 for helping organise a crossing in which Mitra Mehrad, a psychology PhD student from Iran, drowned off the coast of Kent.

In January, 23 people were arrested in France and the Netherlands on suspicion of smuggling 10,000 Kurdish migrants into the UK in lorries and small boats.

And yet, the number of people arriving on UK shores in small boats continues to rise.

Authorities believe that a reduction in freight on cross-Channel ferries and trains due to coronavirus has driven more people into the hands of people smugglers organising small boat crossings.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionAuthorities believe not all crossings are organised by people smugglers

Steve Reynolds, of the NCA, told the BBC in January there was no evidence of a single gang behind the crossings.

Officers had focused on cutting off the supply of boats and engines, but smugglers, who are believed to charge migrants several thousand pounds per place, took to sourcing boats further afield including the Netherlands and Germany, he said.

Meanwhile, some migrants “self-facilitate”, by acquiring a boat themselves and making their own way, Mr Reynolds said.

On 6 August, the French rescued seven people from three kayaks, with a further five inflatable kayaks believed to have made it to the UK. Some of the models used can be bought from sports retailers in France for as little as €300 (£270).

Technology Staying in France

The Home Office has said that, instead of crossing the English Channel, people should seek sanctuary in France, which is a “safe country with a well-functioning asylum system”.

But the UK only receives a small proportion of all asylum seekers, with many settling in other European countries, said Clare Moseley, of Care for Calais.

“It’s a real misconception that all refugees want to come to the UK,” she added.

France, which has a similar population and economy to the UK, receives more than three times as many asylum applications, according to EU data.

Across the EU in 2019, the rate of asylum applications averaged 14 per 100,000 residents. In the UK, it was 5 per 100,000.

Image copyright
PA Media

Image caption

Parts of the “Jungle” camp burned as it was demolished in 2016

The government has used some of the £5.5m spent to deter crossings – much of which went on technology like CCTV and night-vision goggles – to finance a “strategic communications campaigns” to deter people from making the crossing.

This has included “delivering direct messaging to migrants,” the Home Office said.

“Occasionally it works, but in general Calais is the last destination,” Ms Moseley said. “Most of the people who come here have decided for one reason or another that they want to get to the UK, it’s kind of a bit late then.”

Many have lost family members in conflicts and want to join surviving relatives already living in the UK, she said.

Image copyright

Image caption

Several makeshift camps in Calais were cleared by police in July

The tactics of French police have made it harder to dissuade those gathered in Calais from heading to the UK, she said.

Since the infamous “Jungle” was cleared in 2016, smaller camps are regularly evicted and the last police operation, in mid-July, was “pretty horrific” and involved “a lot of violence and tear gas,” she said.

“People who have got scars on their bodies from French police are not going to want to stay in France,” she added.

The French interior minister has been contacted for comment.

In 2017, following a report by Human Rights Watch alleging abuses by police, the then-minister said officers were working in a challenging environment, stopping thousands of attempts to illegally enter the Port of Calais and Channel Tunnel.

Technology Other solutions

Refugee charities and French politicians have long said the solution must be to allow would-be asylum seekers to apply for sanctuary before they arrive in Britain.

Mr Dumont has called for migrants to be allowed to claim asylum at British embassies across Europe.

“What we would really like to see is safe and legal routes,” Ms Moseley said.

She would like people to be able to make applications at the British border controls in Calais, rather than needing to land in the UK.

“Focusing on security and deterrents does nothing more than brutalise people,” she said.

11th September 2020

Technology With UAE deal, Israel opens tentative new chapter with Gulf Arabs


By Frank Gardner

BBC security correspondent


image copyrightGetty Images

image captionIsraeli and UAE flags lined this road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya

“Historic”; “A breakthrough”; “A game-changer”; “A betrayal”: there is no shortage of epithets for this month’s sudden announcement – by President Trump – that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is to fully normalise its relations with Israel.

After Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan’s in 1994, this makes the UAE only the third Arab country to normalise relations. It is the first of the six Arab Gulf states to do so. Oman. Bahrain and possibly Morocco are widely expected to follow.

Discreet contacts between the UAE and Israel had been under way for years but still, the details and timing of this normalisation deal were kept secret right up to the last minute.

There were no consultations between the UAE foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi and its Arab neighbours. Almost everyone was taken by surprise, most of all the Palestinians, who called it “a stab in the back” since they have yet to come close to getting a state of their own or ending Israeli occupation.

“For the Palestinians, there is zero upside here,” comments Emile Hokayem from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

For the UAE’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed (known as MBZ), this deal is something of a gamble but one with the odds heavily in his favour.

The risk is it could make the UAE leadership highly unpopular in the wider Arab world where some social media postings have been calling it “a sell-out”. Were the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to renege on his promise to temporarily shelve annexation of parts of the West Bank then that would be extremely embarrassing for the Emiratis and possibly see the whole deal unravel.

media captionIsrael annexation: What is the West Bank?

But such a move would also draw disapproval from the White House and besides, popular street protests are not usually tolerated in the Gulf.

“In the short term, the pitfalls for the UAE are very limited,” says Mr Hokayem. “This deal is not going to affect the UAE regime’s stability. It reflects the changing geopolitics of the region and it buys the UAE a lot of goodwill in the US, where its image has been tarnished by its involvement in the Yemen war.”

So what is behind this deal and what’s in it for this relatively young Gulf nation and former British protectorate that only became a sovereign nation in 1971?

In short, it is two things – strategic advantage and technology.

The UAE, along with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, has a deep mistrust, even a fear, of its giant, heavily-armed neighbour across the water: Iran.

image copyrightEPA

image captionPalestinians condemned the UAE’s decision to normalise relations with Israel

Gulf Arab leaders look at the map of the region and they note how, despite crippling sanctions, Iran’s strategic presence has advanced rapidly across the Middle East ever since the bulwark of Saddam Hussein’s regime was removed in Iraq.

Where once Iran was largely confined to its national borders, today it has proxy militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Israel shares this concern, especially when it comes to Iran’s secretive nuclear programme.

Then there is what is known as “Islamism” or “political Islam”, a transnational concept often embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood and one which certain Gulf Arab rulers view as an existential threat to their dynastic monarchies. No-one dislikes the Muslim Brotherhood more fervently than the UAE crown prince and this has led to the UAE backing anti-Muslim Brotherhood factions as far away as Libya while seeing its interests clash increasingly with those of Turkey’s Islamist government.

In practice, this has led to the formation of an unofficial partnership of conservative Middle Eastern governments, a de facto club to which Israel, with its formidable intelligence capabilities, is now being admitted as an associate member.

And there is technology, including biotech, healthcare, defence and cyber surveillance. Here, the UAE already has form, having purchased Israeli-manufactured spyware some years ago to keep an eye on its own citizens. The UAE has deep pockets – it has vast oil reserves and a per capita GDP of nearly $40,000 (£30,000). It also has ambitions globally, and beyond, having just become the first Arab country to send a mission to Mars.

media captionJared Kushner: “This is a dramatic breakthrough that will make the Middle East safer”

Israel is by far the most technologically advanced country in the Middle East, with cutting-edge inventions. If this alliance works out it could propel the UAE to a new level of prosperity and international prestige, while safeguarding future jobs for its citizens.

Israel’s overtures to the Gulf go back some way. In 1995, shortly before Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist, he sent his Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on an official visit to Oman and Qatar. Low-key Israeli trade offices then opened up in both countries’ capitals. I remember calling up their office in Muscat for a comment – the Israeli representative inadvertently answered the phone with the Hebrew greeting “Shalom” before quickly changing it to the Arabic “Salaamu aleikum”.

The trade initiative withered away after Mr Netanyahu became prime minister, Israel intervened in Lebanon and the second Palestinian intifada erupted. But more recently quiet diplomacy between Israel and the Gulf states has accelerated as a fear of Iranian expansionism has become the prime preoccupation.

Bahrain, Oman and Qatar may well follow the UAE if this month’s announcement passes without major incident.

image copyrightAnadolu Agency

image captionOman does not have official relations with Israel, but senior officials are in contact with each other

Saudi Arabia may take longer. But back in 2002 it was the Saudis who launched the Crown Prince Abdullah Peace Plan at the Beirut Arab summit, offering Israel full recognition in exchange for a return to its pre-1967 borders.

The deal briefly put Israeli PM Ariel Sharon on the spot but days later Hamas carried out bombings and all talks were off. Today the Middle East is a very different place and what was then unthinkable is now a reality.

“Guess what were the most searched-for words online in the UAE immediately after the deal was announced?” said an Emirati official. “It was ‘hotels in Israel’. A lot of people can’t wait to visit!”

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