Wednesday briefing: Lockdown schooling chaos ‘unforgivable’

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<span>Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Top story: No backup plan for 2021 exams

Good morning – Warren Murray meeting you in the middle of the week.

The government’s refusal to draw up schooling contingency plans before a second lockdown – insisting schools in England would remain open this year and exams would go ahead – was an “unforgivable” error that left teachers and parents in England to deal with chaos, the Institute for Government has said. Its report claims senior figures from the prime minister down opposed creating backup plans for assessing A-levels, GCSEs and other qualifications. A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Contrary to the claims in this report, contingency plans for restrictions on schools opening in the 2021-22 academic year were first published in August 2020, and contingency plans for qualifications in 2021 were first discussed with Ofqual in October 2020.”

Children aged 16 and 17 across the UK could be given access to Covid vaccinations in the coming days, according to Nicola Sturgeon, after it emerged that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation was reconsidering its advice for young people. Scotland is to scrap social distancing from 9 August as part of a plan to lift most Covid rules, the first minister also said. A study has found fewer than one in 20 Covid-positive children who experience symptoms continue to have them beyond four weeks. On average, symptoms lasted for five days in children aged five to 11 and seven days in children aged 12 to 17. About 4.4% experienced symptoms for four weeks or more, while one in 50 (1.8%) had symptoms lasting more than two months. Meanwhile, the government is hoping the country is past the worst of the third wave, with daily new cases of Covid across the UK falling to 21,691 on Tuesday and hospital admissions dropping to 731. There were 138 deaths. Covid updates all day at our live blog.

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Immunity idol – Prof Sarah Gilbert, the co-creator of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, has had a Barbie doll made in her honour. Gilbert said she initially found the gesture “very strange” but hoped it would inspire young girls to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem). “My wish is that my doll will show children careers they may not be aware of, like a vaccinologist.”

Prof Sarah Gilbert with the miniature Prof Sarah Gilbert
Prof Sarah Gilbert with the miniature Prof Sarah Gilbert. Photograph: Andy Paradise/Rex/Shutterstock

The toy company Mattel has created models in honour of five other women working in Stem around the world: the US healthcare workers Amy O’Sullivan and Dr Audrey Cruz, the Canadian doctor and campaigner Dr Chika Stacy Oriuwa, Brazilian biomedical researcher Dr Jaqueline Goes de Jesus, and Dr Kirby White, an Australian medic who co-created a reusable gown for frontline staff.

Midweek catch-up

> Iranian-backed forces are suspected of seizing a tanker ship off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. It follows an attack last week on a tanker which killed two crew and was blamed on Iran by the US, Israel and Britain. Both are denied by Iran.

> Joe Biden has led calls from both parties for the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, to resign after an investigation found he had sexually harassed 11 women. Cuomo said he “never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances” and made clear he had no intention of stepping down.

> Workers feel under pressure to disguise their mental health struggles from colleagues despite feeling less able to cope than they did before the pandemic, according to research released as the government advocates returning to the office.

> North Korea wants international sanctions eased – including on imports of high-class liquor and suits for Pyongyang’s elite – before it will restart denuclearisation talks with the US, South Korean lawmakers have said.

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Make do and mend – Reusing and repairing the UK’s household goods, from washing machines to phones, and recycling things like plastic bottles could create 450,000 green jobs over the next 15 years, many of them in areas of manufacturing decline, the Green Alliance thinktank has found. It says the UK creates thousands of tonnes of unnecessary waste each year because of a failure to value it as a resource. For instance, a refurbished iPhone can be sold for about half of its original price, but when recycled is worth just 0.24%. The Green Alliance is calling for a halving of UK resource use by 2050; zero rating of VAT on repairs and refurbishment; and worker training programmes. The UK now requires white goods to have spare parts available within two years of introduction, and for seven to 10 years after discontinuation, but computers and smartphones are so far excluded.

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Test for Turing – The government’s replacement for the Europe-wide Erasmus student exchange scheme has made a strong start, although experts warn final numbers taking part are likely to be well below initial expectations. The Department for Education said more than 40,000 young people “will be able to work and study abroad” later this year through the new Turing scheme. Prof Paul James Cardwell of City Law School, University of London, who has compared the schemes, said: “All opportunities to study abroad are welcome, but we need to be clear about how many students will actually go abroad, which will probably be much lower than the numbers that have been bid for.” Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said 48% of applicants were expected to be from disadvantaged backgrounds. Disadvantaged students will be eligible for funding to cover extra expenses such as visas and passports.

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Time for games is over – China’s regulators have pushed the technology company Tencent into stricter limits on the time the country’s children spend playing its computer games. Minors playing Honor of Kings will now be allowed to play for only a single hour each day, and two hours on holidays; it will also block children under 12 from spending money in-game. Tencent has also rolled out the “midnight-patrol” across its games, using facial recognition to stop young players logging in between 10pm and 8am. The measures will be eyed with mild jealousy by many western parents – and kids, be warned: Tencent owns 40% of Fortnite maker Epic Games, 81.4% of Clash of Clans company Supercell, and 5% of Activision Blizzard, behind both World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. The “midnight patrol” system comes as British age verification providers are themselves gearing up to offer facial analysis-based online age checks.

Today in Focus podcast: How Simone Biles changed gymnastics

US gymnastics superstar Simone Biles changed what fans of the sport thought was physically possible. Now she is at the forefront of a new conversation about athletes and mental health.

Lunchtime read: ‘Do you blame us for house prices?’

What is really going on with virtual sex and identity politics – and when did people stop caring about snooker? Four people born in 2000 offer their advice to people in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

Sport

Sky Brown, Britain’s youngest ever summer Olympian, has won a bronze medal in the women’s park skateboarding. The 13-year-old prevented a Japanese clean sweep in the new event in a thrilling final in Tokyo overnight. The reign of Britain’s women as Olympic hockey champions has ended in brutal fashion with a 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands in the semi-final. They can still play for bronze in the third-place match. Other medal hopes for Team GB this morning lie with boxer Ben Whittaker (07:35 BST) in the light-heavyweight gold-medal bout this morning, Jason Kenny in men’s track cycling sprint (from 07:30 BST) and Hannah Miles and Eilidh McIntyre in sailing’s 470-class gold race. Injury-hit Katrina Johnson-Thompson has made a decent start to the heptathlon, while America’s Sydney McLaughlin broke the world record to win the 400m hurdles. Follow all the action at our live blog.

The first test between England and India starts at Trent Bridge today with the vulnerability of the home side giving the visitors plenty of grounds for hope that they can win. A late Steven Davis goal gives Rangers a lifeline after their 2-1 defeat to Malmo in the Champions League qualifying first leg last night. Arsenal want to buy James Maddison from Leicester and the midfielder is reportedly keen on a move to the Emirates which could be worth £60m. Our Premier League preview continues with a look at how Burnley might fare this season. Lions coach Warren Gatland will take one last spin of the roulette wheel before the weekend’s Test decider against South Africa.

Business

Asian stocks have mostly been higher, though the Nikkei dipped, as traders mirrored overnight gains on Wall Street during another busy earnings week. The FTSE should open in the black too. A pound is coming in at $1.392 and €1.172 just now.

The papers

The Guardian’s lead story in print today is “Starmer: PM ‘missing in action’ over climate crisis”. Vital UN climate talks are at risk of failure, says the Labour leader, because Boris Johnson’s ambition to tackle the scale of the crisis is irresponsibly small. Glasgow will host the international Cop26 climate summit this November. “Yet at this vital moment, Boris Johnson is missing in action, while his climate spokesperson is busy advising people to freeze their leftover bread,” Starmer writes for the Guardian.

The top story in the Financial Times is “Tory chair accused of mixing business and political interests” – here’s our own story about Ben Elliot. The FT also covers the alarming story of a Belarusian exile found dead in a park in Kyiv, Ukraine. Vitaly Shishov helped compatriots shelter from persecution by the Lukashenko regime. Police are investigating whether it was “murder disguised as suicide”.

The Times splashes with “All children over 16 will be offered Covid jabs” while the i says teenage jabs are “on the way” and the Daily Mail declares it another “U-turn”. The Telegraph has that news on page one as well but leads on “Iran ‘hijacks’ tanker in Gulf of Oman”. The Metro says “Third wave in retreat” but sounds a note of caution with a pointer to one of its stories inside: “Superfit … killed by Covid”. The Express says there is “Proof jabs building a wall of defence”. The Mirror celebrates “King Kenny” – Jason Kenny became the most successful British Olympian while his wife, Laura Kenny, added her fifth Olympic gong with their respective silver medals in cycling.

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