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28 January 2020

Evening Call: Stranded on the motorway, stranded in Wuhan

 As many as 300 UK citizens are thought to still be in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, which has been on lockdown since the end of last week. 

By Jonn Elledge

If there was a theme to today’s news – there isn’t, but I’ve got a newsletter to write, so sue me – it’d be “Britons stranded and frankly pretty angry about it”.

The less apocalyptic of the two stories on this theme: in parts of the UK, it’s a snow day! If this hasn’t broken through to your consciousness today, it’s because there are also large parts of Britain where it isn’t a snow day and since they include London, for much of the media, it doesn’t really count. 

Anyway: in large parts of Scotland and the north west, as much as 15cm of snow has fallen, leading to blizzards on the M6 and the Met Office to issue the dread words “an icy start for many”. 

Worst affected by any reasonable standards are the drivers on the M74, about halfway between Glasgow and Carlisle, who found themselves stuck there for several hours overnight. One driver told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme, “I left Dumfries just back of 21:00 and I didn’t get to Glasgow” – just under 80 miles away – “until 03.30 this morning”. If you think that quote’s a bit bathetic after all this build-up, then I suggest you imagine being stuck on a motorway in a snowdrift for six hours with no idea when you’re going to get home and see how much you fancy it.

Meanwhile, another set of people are stuck somewhere far more frightening and are far angrier with the government about it. As many as 300 UK citizens are thought to still be in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, which has been on lockdown since the end of last week. Other countries, including the US and Japan, are sending planes to evacuate their citizens. Britain, so far, has not.

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The most striking quote in the BBC’s write up comes from Sophie Hunt, an English teacher who’s been stuck in her apartment with her partner for the last five days. “We have contacted the embassy, we’ve emailed them and tried to ring them, and we got a really useless automated email response back from the embassy, saying not to go to Hubei. We’re like: we’re already here.” Helpful.

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How’s the virus getting on, I hear you ask? Well, confirmed infections now stand at 4,500 in at least 16 countries, and over 100 people have died in China. Several countries have now confirmed cases of the virus in people who hadn’t visited China. And Hong Kong is moving to limit travel between the city and the mainland.

As to what the UK government is actually doing, spokespeople claim that plans to evacuate British citizens from Hubei province “are being finalised” and that, when things happen, they could happen fast. Or, as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, puts it: “We are working on it.” Reassuring.

Good day for…

The other side of the negotiating table. I noted last night that Irish PM Leo Varadkar had told some unpalatable truths about quite how tough the upcoming trade negotiations were going to be for Britain. Now Patrick has written a longer piece on the same theme, laying out exactly why all this poses a problem for Boris Johnson.

“It is still unclear,” the New Statesman politics team’s very own cherubic wunderkind writes, “just what the Prime Minister is willing to compromise on in order to fulfil his pledge to have a trade deal signed, sealed and delivered by December.” Worth a read.

Bad day for…

Your hopes of any privacy in the future. The Metropolitan Police’s trials of facial recognition cameras have “shown the technology to be remarkably inaccurate”, writes Sanjana Varghese, “and ethnic minorities are at greatest risk”. The result could be to turn privacy into “an elite commodity”.

Quote of the day

“Large boulder the size of a small boulder is completely blocking east-bound lane Highway 145 mm78 at Silverpick Rd.”

More snow/road interface news: this from the office of the San Miguel sheriff, Colorado, who used Twitter to advise drivers to “use caution” when passing the indeterminately sized boulder. Always a privilege to witness the birth of a new meme.

Everybody’s talking about…

Boris Johnson’s decision to greenlight Huawei to build a chunk of the UK’s 5G mobile infrastructure, even though it’s been designated a “high-risk vendor”. The government has promised that the Chinese tech firm will be restricted to “non-core” elements of the network. The Commons has been debating the matter today – Patrick’s write up is here.

Everybody should be talking about…

Trains. Trains are great. Love a train.

Anyway – the government has repeated its promise to create a £500m fund to re-open historic railway lines closed in the 1960s as part of the so-called Beeching axe.

Alas, £500m is one of those numbers that sounds big but actually, in this context, isn’t, and may be enough to open just 25 miles of track. Henry Dyer explained why on CityMetric last month.


Questions? Comments? Drop me an email.

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