Covid-19 news: England scraps exam grading algorithm after protests

By | August 18, 2020
Protestor holds placard reading 'Yo Gavin, I just wanna talk'

A-level students hold a sit in protest at the Department for Education over the results fiasco

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Latest coronavirus news as of 5 pm on 17 August

A-level and GCSE grades in England to be based on teachers’ predictions instead of controversial algorithm

Pupils in England will be given A-level and GCSE grades estimated by their teachers rather than by an algorithm that sparked protests after it was used to moderate the grades of A-level pupils last week. The algorithm, which was introduced because the pandemic disrupted the usual exam process, resulted in about 280,000 A-level pupils in England seeing their scores drop by at least one grade or more compared to their predicted results.Those from disadvantaged backgrounds were worst-affected. UK education minister Gavin Williamson today announced that England’s exams regulator, Ofqual is scrapping the algorithm, bringing policy in line with the UK’s other nations. Williamson and Ofqual chair, Roger Taylor apologised for the “distress” caused. 

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England’s health agency, Public Health England, could be replaced by a new body specifically focused on dealing with pandemics. The new agency would be modelled on Germany’s Robert Koch Institute and is expected to be announced this week by the UK’s health minister, Matt Hancock, according to a report in the Sunday Telegraph. The article also indicates that Hancock plans to merge the NHS Test and Trace scheme with the pandemic response work of Public Health England. “The reports in the media of a proposed ‘axing’ of Public Health England is of huge concern,” said Amitava Banerjee, clinical data scientist and cardiologist at University College London. A major restructuring of public health function, as the global covid-19 emergency continues, will divert limited resources away from public health measures such as testing and tracing, said Banerjee. 

Voters in the US are concerned about whether it is still safe to post their ballots, after the country’s president Donald Trump last week said he would block additional funding required for the postal service to handle the expected surge in postal ballots this year. Many US states have been trying to make postal voting easier so that people are able to vote safely during the pandemic.

South Korea tightened social distancing rules on Sunday after 197 new coronavirus cases linked to a new outbreak were confirmed on Saturday. “We’re facing a crisis where if the current spread isn’t controlled, it would bring an exponential rise in cases, which could in turn lead to the collapse of our medical system and enormous economic damage,” director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jeong Eun-kyeong said during a briefing.

New Zealand’s general election will be postponed by a month due to an on-going coronavirus outbreak in Auckland, the country’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced today. Nine new cases in the new cluster were confirmed today, bringing the total to 58 cases so far.

A new test for coronavirus-specific T-cells immune cells that help the body fight infections could help researchers developing vaccine candidates. The test is being developed by UK company Indoor Biotechnologies, which says early trials found that some people who had the coronavirus but tested negative for antibodies went on to test positive for T-cells. It still isn’t clear whether antibodies or T-cells provide long-lasting immunity against the virus and how long such immunity might last.

Coronavirus deaths

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Matthew Rowett

The worldwide death toll has passed 776,000. The number of confirmed cases is more than 21.7 million, according to the map and dashboard from Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Coronavirus and pets: Reports of pets being infected with the coronavirus have been growing, but how worried should owners be? And could pets be spreading the virus between people?

Essential information about coronavirus

What is covid-19?

What are the worst symptoms and how deadly is covid-19?

You could be spreading the coronavirus without realising you’ve got it

Which covid-19 treatments work and how close are we to getting more?

What are the main coronavirus vaccine candidates?

What to read, watch and listen to about coronavirus

Race Against the Virus: Hunt for a Vaccine is a Channel 4 documentary which tells the story of the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of the scientists on the frontline.

The New York Times is assessing the progress of different vaccine candidates and potential drug treatments for covid-19, and ranking them for effectiveness and safety.

Humans of COVID-19 is a project highlighting the experiences of key workers on the frontline in the fight against coronavirus in the UK, through social media.

Coronavirus, Explained on Netflix is a short documentary series examining the on-going coronavirus pandemic, the efforts to fight it and ways to manage its mental health toll.

New Scientist Weekly features updates and analysis on the latest developments in the covid-19 pandemic. Our podcast sees expert journalists from the magazine discuss the biggest science stories to hit the headlines each week – from technology and space, to health and the environment.

The Rules of Contagion is about the new science of contagion and the surprising ways it shapes our lives and behaviour. The author, Adam Kucharski, is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and in the book he examines how diseases spread and why they stop.

Previous updates

People sitting and waiting in a train station

Passengers wait next to the Eurostar Terminal at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris.

Michel Euler/AP/Shutterstock

14 August

UK visitors to France could face restrictions after UK imposed quarantine on arrivals 

Travellers arriving in France from the UK could be required to quarantine for two weeks after arrival into the country, Clément Beaune, France’s junior minister for European Affairs, told journalists on Thursday. His statement came after the UK added France and the Netherlands to its list of countries from which arriving travellers will be required to quarantine for 14 days. France currently has a coronavirus case rate of 34.0 people per 100,000, according to cumulative figures for the last 14 days from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, with 41.6 cases per 100,000 people in the Netherlands. The case rate in the UK is currently 17.3 per 100,000 people. The UK’s new rules are effective from 4:00 BST on Saturday 15 August and will also apply for people arriving in the UK from Monaco, Malta, Turks and Caicos and Aruba. Transport minister Grant Shapps said that there are currently about 160,000 people from the UK on holidays in France. 

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Other coronavirus news

Restrictions affecting parts of northern England and Leicester will stay in place due to on-going local outbreaks, the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care announced today. People living in the affected areas in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, East Lancashire and Leicester aren’t allowed to meet with people from other households indoors or in private gardens. Oldham in Greater Manchester has experienced the largest week-on-week rise in cases in England, recording a rate of 107.5 cases per 100,000 people between 2 and 8 August, up from 57.8 during the previous week. The government says the restrictions will be reviewed again next week. 

Elsewhere in England, easing of restrictions allowing small wedding receptions, live indoor performances and beauty treatments will go ahead from Saturday after being delayed from the original date of 1 August, UK prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed today. Bowling alleys, casinos and play centres will also be allowed to reopen.

Despite some local outbreaks, coronavirus cases across England as a whole appear to be levelling off, according to the latest results from a random swab testing survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ONS estimates that 28,300 people in England one in 1900 people had the virus in the week ending 9 August, the same as the previous week.

New Zealand has extended a lockdown in Auckland by at least 12 days, the country’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced today. New Zealand had been free of locally transmitted coronavirus infections for 102 days until four people from the same household in Auckland tested positive for the virus earlier this week. The number of cases in the new outbreak there has since risen to 29. 

North Korea has lifted a three-week lockdown in the border city of Kaesong after a suspected coronavirus case there, state media reported today. The World Health Organization last week said that tests on the suspected case a man who returned to North Korea after defecting had been inconclusive. North Korea has not reported any other cases.

Coronavirus deaths

New Scientist Default Image

Matthew Rowett

The worldwide death toll has passed 760,000. The number of confirmed cases is more than 20.9 million, according to the map and dashboard from Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Men move casket for a funeral

Staff of Guardian Funerals transport the casket of Covid-19 victim

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

13 August

UK government has changed the way deaths from covid-19 are recorded in England

England’s covid-19 death toll has been revised down by more than 5000, after the UK government announced a new UK-wide standard for recording deaths caused by the coronavirus. The changes mean the removal of 5377 deaths from Public Health England’s official record, decreasing the UK’s total numbers of deaths from the virus from 46,706 to 41,329 as of 12 August. 

People who recovered from covid-19 before dying from other causes more than a month later may have been included in the previous death toll due to the way Public Health England was collecting its data. “It had become essentially useless for epidemiological monitoring,” said epidemiologist Keith Neal at the University of Nottingham, UK. From now on England’s official death toll will only include people who died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus, bringing it in line with the other nations in the UK. 

Other coronavirus news

The number of patients admitted to hospitals in England for routine treatment was down by 67 per cent in June compared to the same time last year, according to data from NHS England. The number of people visiting accident and emergency units was also down, by 30 per cent compared to last year, as was the number going to their family doctor with symptoms of cancer and being urgently referred to a specialist , at 20 per cent lower than last year. The NHS England data also suggests more people waited longer than usual for planned procedures, such as knee and hip operations. The Health Foundation charity told the BBC that this indicates the NHS is still “nowhere close to business as usual following the first outbreak of covid-19,” and warned that long waiting times could lead to deterioration in people’s health.

The coronavirus may have been circulating in New Zealand for weeks prior to the country’s new outbreak, according to New Zealand’s director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield. The first person in the new cluster of cases started showing symptoms as early as 31 July, Bloomfield said during a media briefing in Wellington, adding that genome sequencing was underway on the original four cases to try and trace the train of transmission. Officials are also investigating the theory that the cases were imported via refrigerated freight. New Zealand had been free of locally transmitted coronavirus infections for 102 days before four people from the same household tested positive earlier this week. 

Authorities in two cities in China said they found traces of the coronavirus on imported frozen food and on food packaging. Samples of chicken wings imported to the city of Shenzhen from Brazil and packaging of frozen shrimp imported from Ecuador to a city in China’s Anhui province tested positive for the virus. It isn’t yet clear when the products became contaminated but China is increasing screening at its ports. The coronavirus can survive for up to two years frozen at -20°C but is destroyed by heating to 70°C. The World Health Organization says that there isn’t currently any evidence that people can catch the virus from food or food packaging. 

Coronavirus deaths

New Scientist Default Image

Matthew Rowett

The worldwide death toll has passed 750,000. The number of confirmed cases is more than 20.6 million, according to the map and dashboard from Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Sweden’s coronavirus strategy: Sweden was one of the few European countries not to impose a compulsory lockdown. Its unusual strategy for tackling the coronavirus outbreak has both been hailed as a success, and condemned as a failure. So which is it?

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Two women wearing face masks leaving a coronavirus testing tent

Two woman in Ripollet, Catalonia wearing face masks outside a coronavirus testing area.

PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

12 August

Germany and Spain among a growing list of western European countries where coronavirus cases are surging

Coronavirus cases are rising in Germany, Spain and other countries in western Europe, with Spain recording 1418 new infections on Tuesday, and Germany detecting 1200 cases in the last 24 hours, the country’s biggest daily increase for three months. In the Netherlands, daily new infections are back to about half the level they were at during the initial peak. Spain now has the highest rate of coronavirus infections in the region, with 94 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 38 in the Netherlands, 30 in France, 18 in the UK and 14 in Germany, according to cumulative figures for the last 14 days from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, says people returning from holiday may be the reason for the increasing number of cases in Germany, as the UK and Germany continue to warn people against non-essential travel to parts of Spain. Any holidaymakers returning to the UK from Spain are required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. The list of countries from which all arrivals to the UK must quarantine may be updated this week to include 14 more countries, including France.

Other coronavirus news

The World Health Organization (WHO) is in talks with Russian authorities about reviewing the coronavirus vaccine candidate whose approval for use in Russia yesterday sparked criticism from researchers. Russia’s vaccine, Sputnik-V, is not on the WHO’s list of six vaccines that have reached phase III trials involving clinical testing on large groups of people. Russia’s health minister Mikhail Murashko today dismissed safety concerns expressed by foreign researchers about the rapid approval of the vaccine as “groundless.”

Lebanon announced its highest number of daily new coronavirus cases yesterday since the start of the pandemic, with more than 300 new cases and seven deaths from covid-19. Hospitals in the country are overwhelmed following the aftermath of the explosion in Beirut last week. WHO spokesperson Tarik Jarasevic told a UN briefing yesterday that the displacement of people due to the explosion risks accelerating the spread of the coronavirus there.

At least 800 people are estimated to have died around the world as a result of misinformation about the coronavirus during the first three months of this year, a study has found. A further 5800 people are estimated to have been admitted to hospital for the same reason during this period. The majority of the deaths and hospitalisations were due to people consuming methanol and alcohol-based cleaning products, incorrectly believing that they were cures for covid-19, according to the study, which was published in The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Coronavirus deaths

The worldwide death toll has passed 744,000. The number of confirmed cases is more than 20.4 million, according to the map and dashboard from Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

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New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced new lockdown measures in Auckland after four new coronavirus cases were detected in the community

New Zealand government

11 August

New Zealand reimposes Auckland lockdown after first locally transmitted cases for 102 days

New Zealand has reported its first new coronavirus cases thought to be acquired through local transmission, after going 102 days without a single reported case outside of managed isolation or quarantine. Four people within one family in south Auckland tested positive for the virus, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said today at a press briefing. New Zealand has been widely praised for its aggressive response to the coronavirus, closing its borders to non-nationals and implementing one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, all at a time when the country had only 205 cases and no deaths from covid-19. Testing is now being ramped up in Auckland and lockdown restrictions will be reimposed there from tomorrow. Everyone except essential workers will be asked to work from home and schools will be closed for most children. Other public facilities, including bars and restaurants, will be required to close and gatherings will be limited to 10 people. 

Other coronavirus news

Researchers have expressed concerns about the approval of a coronavirus vaccine candidate in Russia today. The virus has been approved for widespread use, despite only being tested in dozens of people. “There is no data on the Russian-led vaccine for the global health community to scrutinise,” said Michael Head, public health research fellow at the University of Southampton, UK. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin said one of his daughters has already been inoculated, and claimed it was safe. 

The number of contact tracers working for NHS Test and Trace will be reduced by 6000 in England by the end of this month, the UK government has announced. The remaining 12,000 contact tracers will work more closely with local public health authorities to help with contact tracing within communities. Between 16 and 22 July, NHS Test and Trace only managed to reach 75 per cent of the contacts of people who tested positive for the coronavirus in England. Dido Harding, head of NHS Test and Trace said that having a more localised approach will ensure more contacts of coronavirus cases within communities can be reached.

Australia’s remote Northern Territory will keep its borders shut to coronavirus-affected states until at least 2022, according to local officials. People arriving from affected states will be required to quarantine at a hotel for 14 days at their own expense.

Read More:  Hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 likely overcounted, Stanford researchers report

Coronavirus deaths

New Scientist Default Image

Matthew Rowett

The worldwide death toll has passed 737,000. The number of confirmed cases is more than 20.1 million, according to the map and dashboard from Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

Latest on coronavirus from New Scientist

Question about the UK’s new rapid tests: Two 90-minute tests for the coronavirus will be rolled out by the UK government in the coming weeks – and while both are promising, neither has publicly available data to support its use.

Common cold virus vaccine: A vaccine that protects against one of the main common cold viruses – respiratory syncytial virus – has been shown to be safe and effective in a clinical trial and could be available by 2024.

Man wearing mask and hat in snow

A man seen in a street during a snowfall in the early stages of the pandemic.

Sergei Fadeichev/TASS via Getty Images

10 August

No indication there is seasonality with the coronavirus, says WHO 

There is no indication that the coronavirus is seasonal and it could bounce back any time, World Health Organization (WHO) leaders said at a press briefing today. Evidence suggests the coronavirus is unlike flu, which tends to spike in autumn and winter. “If you take pressure off the virus, the virus will bounce back. That’s what we will say to countries in Europe – keep the pressure on,” said Mike Ryan, WHO executive director of the emergencies program. Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of WHO’s covid-19 response, said that the majority of the world’s population remains susceptible to the virus, and WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasised the importance of countries taking targeted action to tackle local outbreaks through methods like localised lockdowns employed in Leicester, UK. 

Other coronavirus news

The WHO says it has only received a fraction of the funding it needs for an initiative aimed at developing and distributing drugs, vaccines and other tools to help tackle the pandemic. “While we’re grateful for those that have made contributions, we’re only 10 per cent of the way to funding the billions required to realise the promise of the ACT [Access to Covid-19 Tools] accelerator,” Tedros said during a press briefing today.

“Greece has formally entered a second wave of the epidemic,” Gkikas Magiorkinis, an epidemiologist at Athens University and one of the scientists advising the Greek government, told journalists today. This comes after Greece recorded its highest number of daily new coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, with 203 confirmed on Sunday.

In France, it is now compulsory to wear a face mask outdoors in certain crowded areas within Paris. Health officials said the rate of positive coronavirus tests was 2.4 per cent in the Paris area compared to the average of 1.6 per cent for people tested in the country as a whole. Other cities, including Nice and Lille, have also introduced new rules making face masks mandatory in specific outdoor areas.

It has been more than 100 days since New Zealand last detected a locally acquired coronavirus case. As of today, the country has only 21 active infections, all of which are being managed in isolation facilities. Authorities are still testing thousands of people each day. “We need to be prepared to quickly stamp out any future cases,” said New Zealand’s director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield on Sunday. 

Coronavirus deaths

New Scientist Default Image

Matthew Rowett

The worldwide death toll has passed 731,000. The number of confirmed cases is more than 19.9 million, according to the map and dashboard from Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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NHS advice board promoting Test and Trace in Birmingham city centre in the UK

Mike Kemp/In PIctures via Getty Images

7 August

The number of people estimated to have the virus in England may be levelling off

The number of people estimated to have covid-19 in England appears to be levelling off, after rising slightly in July, according to a random swab testing survey of almost 120,000 people by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ONS estimates that 28,300 people outside of hospitals and care homes in England had the virus in the week ending 2 August about one in every 1900 people. This is down slightly from the previous week’s estimate of 35,700. But it isn’t clear how infection rates may differ across different regions. In Wales, which was included in the survey for the first time, an estimated 1400 people had covid-19 in the week ending 2 August, equivalent to one in every 2200 people.

The proportion of people in the UK who say they have been wearing face coverings has gone up for the second week in a row, according to a separate ONS survey. In the week ending 2 August, 96 per cent of people said they had worn a face covering outside their home, up from 84 per cent in the previous week and 71 per cent the week before. The survey also found that 72 per cent of people said they had socialised with others in person, just over half of whom said they had always maintained social distancing. 

Other coronavirus news

Coronavirus vaccine trials could be undermined by the lack of diversity among participants, according to researchers. In the recent trial of a coronavirus vaccine candidate being developed by the University of Oxford in partnership with AstraZeneca, fewer than 1 per cent of the approximately 1000 participants were black and only about 5 per cent were Asian, compared to 91 per cent of participants who were white. In a smaller trial of a vaccine candidate being developed by US company Moderna, 40 out of 45 participants were white. “Diversity is important to ensure pockets of people don’t have adverse side-effects,” Oluwadamilola Fayanju, a surgeon and researcher at Duke University told the Guardian.

The city of Preston in England is being placed under stricter local lockdown measures following a rise in coronavirus cases. From midnight on 7 August residents from different households aren’t allowed to meet indoors or in private gardens. These new measures are in line with those currently in place in east Lancashire, Greater Manchester and parts of West Yorkshire.

More than one million people in countries across Africa have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, although health officials say this is certainly an underestimate. “We haven’t seen the peak in Africa yet,” Mary Stephen, technical officer at the World Health Organization’s regional office for Africa told Al Jazeera. Although the majority of cases confirmed so far are in South Africa, it is also performing significantly more tests than other African countries.

India has recorded its highest number of daily new coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, with 62,538 cases confirmed on Friday. There have been more than 2 million cases recorded in the country since the pandemic began.

Coronavirus deaths

New Scientist Default Image

The worldwide death toll has passed 715,000. The number of confirmed cases is more than 19.1 million, according to the map and dashboard from Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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