UK approves Covid-19 vaccine for use ahead of US and EU

The UK has become the first country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine following large-scale clinical trials, after its regulator authorised the shot developed by Germany’s BioNTech and US pharma giant Pfizer for emergency use.
Pfizer and BioNTech said doses of the vaccine, which uses novel mRNA technology, would be delivered to the UK in the “coming days” after the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency gave the go-ahead on Tuesday evening.
The vaccine is 95 per cent effective in preventing the disease, according to data released last month from the companies’ phase-3 trial, which involved more than 43,000 people.

A UK government spokesperson said: “The vaccine will be made available across the UK from next week. The NHS has decades of experience in delivering large scale vaccination programmes and will begin putting their extensive preparations into action to provide care and support to all those eligible for vaccination.”
The inoculation is still under review by US and EU regulators. A decision from the US Food and Drug Administration is expected in mid-December, but the Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency has said it is unlikely to approve the jab until the end of the month.
China and Russia have approved Covid-19 vaccines for early or limited use but both countries authorised the shots without waiting for the results of phase-3 trials, provoking criticism from some experts who cautioned that the rushed process was risky.
Britain was the first country to reach an agreement with BioNTech/Pfizer for the supply of vaccines, ordering 30m doses in July. It has since signed a deal for a further 10m doses. Roughly 10 per cent of the UK’s total order is expected to be delivered before the end of the year.
“We believe that the rollout of the vaccination programme in the UK will reduce the number of people in the high-risk population being hospitalised,” said Ugur Sahin, co-founder and chief executive of BioNTech.
Much of the UK’s supply will be produced at Pfizer’s facilities in Puurs, Belgium. There will also be some production at BioNTech’s sites in Germany.

Under provisional plans released by the UK government last month, the vaccine — which requires two shots, roughly a month apart — will first be made available to care home residents and staff, before being administered to those aged over 80 and to frontline health workers.
The UK is due to leave the EU’s regulatory framework when the Brexit transition period ends on December 31. It was able to approve the vaccine earlier than the rest of Europe by using a longstanding regulatory provision that allows it to diverge from the EMA in the case of urgent public need.
The MHRA is also examining data on vaccines developed by the US biotech Moderna and the partnership between Oxford university and AstraZeneca. In total, the British government has secured 357m doses of seven separate vaccines.

Studying solo: how to prepare for online exams at home

After about 17 years in formal education, some university students are being asked to take their final exams online – in a different format than they’ve ever experienced. This comes on top of a pandemic that has already taken a toll on their mental health.But there are upsides, too. Remote exams are more flexible, more mindful of individual needs, and acknowledge the pressures students are under. Here are some ways students can tailor their revision to make the most of online assessment.Create a revision routineFirst, decide what topics to cover, and what kinds of knowledge or learning the exam is testing. Tutors can help with this, as well as past papers and sample answers. Once you’ve got your exam timetable, divide the remaining time by the number of topics to create a study schedule. Building routine into your revision is especially important right now, according to Delroy Hall, senior counsellor and wellbeing practitioner at Sheffield Hallam University. “Covid-19 and the pandemic has now disrupted all that [routine], so we have to be intentional in how we manage our lives.”Hall recommends the Pomodoro technique, too: 25 minutes of study followed by a five-minute break, then repeat. This is helpful if you feel overwhelmed by revision or struggle to stay focused.Learn concepts – not just wordsStart reviewing course notes, marked essays, lecture videos and important source material. But, Hall says, “learn concepts and ideas, don’t memorise lots of text”. Open book exams let you show you know how to apply learning, not what you can remember. But while this takes some pressure off, hunting for sources during a test can be distracting.One solution is to make summary sheets with key ideas, quotes and analysis. This active revision helps you understand and remember information, and also makes it easier to find what you need during the exam.Ideally you’ll start revision early, with existing notes to review rather than learning new material. “We’ve got more stress than normal, so you want to do what you can to release that,” Hall says.Don’t panic if you’ve left it late, though. Make a plan, but prioritise topics by the time available. Hall’s “worry sheet” technique can also help. Fold a sheet of paper in half, and fill one side with things you can control (such as meal times and bed times) and the other with things you can’t (when the vaccine will be ready). Then focus on doing the things you can control, and let the rest take care of itself.Tackle exam anxietiesSitting exams online, alone and during a pandemic is a huge thing – it’s OK to feel anxious or angry about it. There are also ways to manage the worries. Try to minimise stress by creating an exam space that is separate from your revision zone: sit at a desk or the kitchen table, for example, rather than in bed.Check if your university has exam walkthroughs online. These show what the process will be like, from logging in to uploading answers. Try to download, log in and practise using any recommended software in advance. And if you’re worried about not having a computer or internet connection during the exam, ask your university to loan you a laptop, dongle, or other essential kit.If 24- and 48-hour exams are new to you, go through a dry run of these, too. It’s not about staying at your desk for days. You’ll feel and perform better with a schedule that balances cranking out answers with eating, sleeping and relaxing.

Good riddance to Britain's franchised railway system | Jonn Elledge

There’s a scene in The Permanent Way, David Hare’s verbatim play about the railways, in which two old hands talk about John Major government’s privatisation of British Rail. Ministers, we are told, were so keen to bring the rigours of private competition to the network that they’d devised a plan to have two trains serve the same route almost simultaneously. “First one to the next station picks up the passengers,” says an engineer. “Just the overtaking they hadn’t worked out.”The Conservative party never did work out how to solve that conundrum – but such was its ideological commitment to the idea that “private good, public bad” that privatisation went through all the same. Rail was one of the last of the Thatcher/Major governments’ sell-offs of bits of the state, and it remains one of the most controversial: polls have consistently found public support for renationalisation, but the party’s commitment to private enterprise has remained undimmed.There’s some irony, then, in the fact that it’s a Conservative government that’s now going a long way towards reversing the work of a predecessor. When individual train operators, such as Northern or KeolisAmey in Wales, have failed, national or devolved governments have stepped in to run trains as “operator of last resort”. And in March, the system of franchises that has held sway for nearly a quarter of a century was suspended, before finally being put out of its misery in September. This is, for passengers, taxpayers, or, indeed, anyone a very good thing.It’s natural to assume that it was the collapse in passenger numbers brought about by Covid that rendered the existing franchise system untenable. Actually, it was already on its last legs, and seemed almost certain to be unwound over the next few years when the rail review, chaired by Keith Williams and launched in September 2018 after a summer of rail chaos, finally gets round to reporting. The pandemic simply finished it off.To understand what has gone wrong, it helps to know some history. First: private enterprise is not new to Britain’s rail network. It was built in a flurry of activity in the mid-19th century, as dozens of companies competed for the profits arising from the exciting new technology. As with internet companies a century and a half later, some of those who invested made their fortunes; many more lost their shirts. The Railways Act 1921 grouped the survivors into the “Big Four” mega-companies, which ran the track and trains covering specific regions, but these weren’t nationalised until 1948. The British rail network was only really state-run for about a third of its history.Its origins mean the network has always been a ramshackle affair. Other countries, which built their networks later, learned from Britain’s mistakes and properly planned their strategic rail networks. Britain, by contrast, ended up with all sorts of oddities, such as a vast network of lines covering rural north Norfolk, or towns with multiple stations. (The three big termini lining a half-mile stretch of London’s Euston Road, each serving points north, is one of the most obvious examples.) This gave the network plenty of redundancy – the Luftwaffe couldn’t knock it out – but it also meant that many of those routes never had a hope in the age of the car. The 1963 Beeching report has gone down in history as an act of vandalism, but it was, in some areas, simply a recognition of reality.In 1994, the Major government broke British Rail into assorted units and began selling them off, and instead of magically overtaking trains, we got the franchise system. Except on a few particularly busy routes, private train operating companies didn’t compete for passengers; but they did compete for the right to run the trains in the first place. The theory was that the need to bid for a franchise would maximise the revenue (or at least, minimise the cost) to the taxpayer; while the fact that profits were dependent on fares, and thus passenger numbers, would compel better services.This worked better than one might imagine: correlation is not causation, but passenger numbers, which had declined for much of the 20th century, have risen steadily since privatisation, and reached an all-time peak in the early 2010s. On the other hand, the reality of the modern British rail network has often been crowded trains, cancelled services, ludicrously high ticket prices and, as if that weren’t enough of an insult, toilets that talk to you in the voice of a comedian who you can never quite place.What’s more, the system had three big weaknesses. One is that train operating companies with short-term contracts were simply never going to have the incentive to invest for the long term. Another is that strategic planning was difficult, because the people running the trains were not the same as the people in charge of the infrastructure (first the privately owned Railtrack; later the state-owned National Rail).The other problem is more recent: there simply isn’t that much commercial interest in the train game any more. In the early days of privatisation, there was room to grow passenger numbers and cost savings to be found. But now the network is full, all the easy efficiencies have been found, and – despite how it may sometimes feel – the government limits ticket price increases. The profit margins available on any given franchise are fairly clear and, perhaps surprisingly, not that high: about 3%, way below, say, supermarkets. So franchisees have stopped bidding. If you’re not a lawyer or consultant responsible for sifting the large piles of paperwork the franchising system generates, it’s hard to see the point of it.The Williams review, launched after months of chaos on the Thameslink and Northern rail networks, is expected to advise the government to replace franchising with a system in which companies bid to run both infrastructure and trains across entire chunks of the network: a model often compared to Japan, but one that’s not a million miles away from the Big Four. That would mean infrastructure and services are planned together once again, and give operators a reason to invest in improvements themselves – or hammer the government until it does the job for them. Either way, it should eventually lead to increases in capacity and even, since prices are used to manage demand, reductions in costs.For now, the government has already abandoned the franchising system in favour of “management contracts”, which pay operators a set profit margin of the cost of operation. That means the risk of any collapse in fare income, such as the one we’ve seen this year, would be on the state, not the operator. (Since the operators could always walk away from their contracts, while the government could not in practice allow the trains to stop running, that was arguably always true.) The management contract system has also been successfully used already on London Overground or Merseyrail – so successfully, indeed, that many passengers probably don’t realise they’re privately run.But who runs the trains won’t magically fix the problems on the network. There’s a trade-off between fares and overcrowding: cut one, and you increase the other. Getting past that means investing in better infrastructure, so you can run more trains: it was government failure to deliver on promises to do that which lay behind the Northern Rail mess back in 2018.So who runs the trains matters a lot less than the tracks they run on. But even if nationalisation isn’t on cards, the franchise system has already followed British Rail down the line into history.• Jonn Elledge is former assistant editor of the New Statesman

The Undoing was the perfect pandemic TV | Arwa Mahdawi

If you want to murder people for entertainment there are certain rules that really ought to be followed. Namely, you’ve got to give an attentive audience a chance to work out whodunit. The members of the Detection Club, a 1930s secret society of British mystery writers including Agatha Christie and GK Chesterton, were obsessed with this idea of “fair play”. Members of the club pledged not to conceal vital clues from the reader and make no use of “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God.”What, one wonders, would the Detection Club have made of The Undoing? The star-studded HBO drama on Sky Atlantic didn’t include any divine revelations but it had a hell of a lot of bizarre plot holes and red herrings. I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it, but it left audiences feeling duped rather than out-smarted. The show gave you all the clues to figure out whodunit – it shoved them right in your face at the beginning and left them there – but somehow it didn’t really play fair. There were too many loose ends and unbelievable plot points. You also spent half the time wondering why everyone’s accent kept changing; Nicole Kidman, in particular, seemed to forget she was playing an American.Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying The Undoing was a bad show. Quite the opposite: despite its underwhelming ending it was perfect pandemic TV. Many us have been spending lockdown looking at property porn, imagining all the glamorous places we could be quarantined if only our budgets allowed, and The Undoing was full of fabulously wealthy New Yorkers in extremely fancy homes. You got to marvel at the 1%’s mansions while simultaneously feeling glad you weren’t one of them because they were all so sad or sociopathic. I also enjoyed watching Kidman strut around Manhattan in her collection of fancy coats. It’s weird to feel homesick for the city that you live in, but seeing New York in all its pre-pandemic glory did exactly that. Perhaps the best part of the Undoing, however, was its length. The six-part limited miniseries was long enough for you to get invested in it; short enough not to get tedious. 2020 feels like it is dragging on and on – giving me a new appreciation for TV shows that know how to swiftly wrap things up.