Zero Covid must be the aim of Ireland's health authorities - The Irish Times

Zero Covid must be the aim of Ireland's health authorities - The Irish Times

Zero Covid must be the aim of Ireland's health authorities - The Irish Times

Posted: 03 Sep 2020 02:43 AM PDT

In the absence of vaccines and drugs two, broad strategies are being used internationally to combat the coronavirus pandemic: lockdown and test and trace. We know that lockdown does reduce the number of cases, but it causes enormous social, cultural and economic damage, and on its own it will not eliminate the virus.

Every relaxation of lockdown, however welcome in the short term, is guaranteed to lead to a resurgence in cases – we were down to 10 cases per day in June and July. Then we began to relax the restrictions, and we are now at 100-150 cases per day. We are opening schools and entering the winter and it is plain as plain can be that cases will continue to rise. It is hard to imagine that we will not be forced into another total lockdown.

I wonder how many people now realise that the Government is being advised to accept that we are going to have to live with the virus for the foreseeable future

Government policy has now become explicit, made clear by the head of the Health Service Executive, Paul Reid. The HSE takes the view that eliminating the virus is not realistic and the plans are no longer around a second surge, but more about managing peaks and troughs, he told the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response.

I wonder how many people now realise that the Government is being advised to accept that we are going to have to live with the virus for the foreseeable future.

It is particularly disappointing that we have not been given any detailed evidence for Reid's assertion that "eliminating Covid-19 is not realistic".

Why is it that we cannot devise a policy to eliminate the virus? Is it because the best is getting in the way of the good? Of course it is not realistic to eliminate the virus, but a policy of elimination is an entirely different matter and one that is so realistic that it has been adopted in other countries.

Testing and tracing is seen worldwide as complementary to lockdown, and as increasingly important as lockdown fails. The best example is New Zealand – various commentators say we should not compare ourselves to New Zealand but I suspect that very few people have bothered to do so.

It is easy and salutary to find out about how New Zealand has dealt with the disease. The New Zealand coronavirus website is a revelation. First and foremost, it states that New Zealand aims to eliminate the virus by testing and tracing. Second, it provides a massive amount of detailed information.

The website records the details of every single case by date, sex, age group, location [by district health board], and whether the person had arrived from overseas. There is great focus on vulnerable groups, especially the Maori and the Pacific Islanders. The number of tests per day features prominently.

A high number of tests across the country helps identify cases of the virus early, manage clusters of cases when we find them and track how well our efforts are working.

The website shows there were no community based cases for June and July, with about two cases per day detected in travellers from abroad, who were detected at the ports and quarantined in secure "hotels". In this period they carried out 1,000-5,000 tests per day on incoming travellers and on people with suspicious symptoms.

On August 11th, a community outbreak was identified in Auckland and new cases quickly rose to about 10 per day – testing and tracing combined with genome sequencing showed that all of these formed a single cluster; each was anonymously recorded on the national website by district health board so everyone could see where the outbreak was located. Within two days, testing moved to about 20,000 tests per day, contacts were traced with great precision and 141 positives had been identified to August 31st. It is by far the largest cluster seen in New Zealand – the speed of the spread of the virus has been awesome.

I am concerned that we are paralysed by a kind of group think, stuck with one policy, lockdown, perhaps put off by the challenge of setting up a new test and trace system on the scale necessary.

The hunt for the virus in the Auckland August cluster is still ongoing with tighter and tighter testing, using pop-up testing stations for example. You can get a sense of the reach of the system by looking at the website, which shows places of interest where infected people were known to have been. Eight places of interest included a church, a junior rugby club, a primary school, a shopping mall and a guinea pig show, and people who were at these locations on certain dates at specified times are asked to be on the alert. If they feel ill they should self-isolate and contact a health line. Everyone in New Zealand can observe this hunt for the virus, which has huge community support.

Note the intensity of testing for the Auckland cluster – 20,000 tests per day for one cluster. And there are concerns that this might not be enough if this cluster continues to expand or if new ones emerge. We have many more clusters and we are carrying out 10 - 15,000 tests per day.

The National Public Health Emergency Team, HSE and Department of Health must change their policy from partial suppression to targeted elimination, that is to aim for zero Covid, through a combination of lockdown and deep testing and tracing. I am concerned that we are paralysed by a kind of group think, stuck with one policy, lockdown, perhaps put off by the challenge of setting up a new test and trace system on the scale necessary.

Most of us have responded heroically to the pandemic – a serious problem lies with the Government authorities. The chance in June [with 10 cases per day] to hunt the virus to virtual elimination was missed. Now it has been confirmed that our policy of variations on lockdown entails the prospect of recurrent irruptions of the virus into the winter, into 2021 and beyond. The Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has warned that a new wholescale lockdown may be necessary.

Indeed I agree. I fear it will be very hard to avoid another national lockdown, which it will be hoped will bring cases to 10 per day. If we can achieve this again we must be ready to use test and trace to bring it even lower, and we cannot do better than look very carefully at what is being done in New Zealand.

David McConnell is fellow emeritus in genetics at Trinity College Dublin

Her Salisbury Story launches new website - Salisbury Journal

Posted: 02 Sep 2020 09:00 PM PDT

A PROJECT celebrating the lives of Salisbury's women past and present has launched a new website.

Her Salisbury Story website at launches today (Thursday, September 3).

The National Lottery Heritage funded project run by Soroptimist International of Salisbury aims to bring Salisbury's heritage alive through the exploration of previously hidden women's narratives.

2020 marks the 800th anniversary of Salisbury's foundation. The aim of the project is to 'write in' women's experiences of Salisbury, ensuring women's contributions are seen and valued as intrinsic to the city and its development.

The story of the initial project launch on International Women's Day in March of this year and previous activities can be found on website.

An exploration of Her Stories will reveal short pen portraits of just a few of the women from both past and present day so far discovered in the team's research.

Coming soon will be Her Footprint which will be a downloadable map of Salisbury, marking the homes and locations associated with the Her Salisbury Story women featured in the project.

A spokesperson for Soroptimist International of Salisbury said: "The project team hopes the stories of the women so far published will whet lots of appetites to find out more about the project and maybe to get involved.

"The team hopes that if people know of a significant woman locally who should be featured, they will use the nomination form on the site to nominate her.

"So far, the website only carries articles about a few of the contemporary women the team plans to include. These women and many others will be interviewed when volunteers have been recruited and trained."

There is a chance for the public to get involved.

The website has details on how to volunteer and how to nominate a woman to be featured in the project.

Everyone should have access to digital skills. New grants aim to help | Microsoft On The Issues - Microsoft

Posted: 02 Sep 2020 08:21 AM PDT

In the spring of 2000, a young man walked into the Inner-City Computer Stars office in Chicago, determined to join this nonprofit's digital skills training program and build a future for himself in technology. But first he had to prove that he was ready for that journey.

"He was 17 or 18 years old when he applied," recalls Sandee Kastrul, the CEO and a founder of i.c.stars. Kastrul says she asked him to "go and build a website and come back." So he did. "And this was back in the day, 20 years ago, so he had all these floppy disks with his code on it to show us what he had built. It was pretty incredible, and we said, 'All right, we've got to have this kid joining the cohort.'"

Today, that young man, Kevin Gates, is a principal cloud solution architect at Microsoft. Gates remembers his first conversation with i.c.stars. He says he heard "HTML" mentioned for the first time. It sparked his curiosity, and learning to build a website was the beginning of a new chapter for Gates:  "i.c.stars helped me stumble on what was a passion of mine, and that passion has led to a career. There is no doubt I would not be where I am without the program. I never would have imagined having the life I have without i.c.stars," he says.

I.c.stars is a rigorous, tech-focused program that provides young adults from low-income communities with the tools to develop the technical and leadership skills needed for a career in technology, a field that continues to lack diversity and be in high demand.

Programs like this are vital to accelerating the distribution of digital skills. On Wednesday, Microsoft launched a new community skills grant program, part of the company's commitment to racial equity and digital skills. It will include a $15 million investment over three years for Black- and African American-led nonprofits that are working to increase skill development and economic opportunities. The program includes grants, leadership development and technology enablement.

[Read more about the grant HERE]

Research shows that companies with diverse leadership are more likely to be profitable. Despite this knowledge, the workplace does not reflect this.

There are several issues with hiring that further lock in inequality, says Byron Auguste, the CEO and co-founder of Opportunity@Work, an organization focused on economic inclusion. Auguste is a member of the advisory board for Microsoft's community skills program that supports nonprofits in Black and African American communities.

One of the issues is the idea that you need a certain background to do a job. Auguste, however, thinks qualifications are what should matter. "If you can do the job, you should be able to get the job," he says.

A part of the solution is building access to larger talent pools like i.c.stars does. Auguste says that often employers hire someone great and think that they just got lucky.

"Actually, they're one of millions, not one in a million," he says. The only way to get to the millions of talented people who are shut out, he continues, is by enabling not just one individual at a time, but via training programs and talent sources like these.

[READ MORE: Microsoft launches initiative to help 25 million people worldwide acquire the digital skills needed in a COVID-19 economy]

The future of work

Microsoft's skills initiative, of which this program is a part, hopes to help 25 million people around the world secure digital skills. In June, Microsoft made a public commitment to be more inclusive as an employer and to extend Microsoft's support and outreach programs in Black and African American communities. As part of this, Microsoft's community skills program will provide financial grants and tech enablement to community-based nonprofits reaching 5 million unemployed workers who need it most.

Naria Santa Lucia, general manager at Microsoft and lead on the larger skills initiative, explains the thinking behind this program: "It was designed with internal and external voices focused on community at the table. In addition to cash investments, we're acting as a convener to bring together these organizations to share best practices."

[READ MORE: Addressing racial injustice]

A part of this community-based skills program includes what Santa Lucia calls "a community of practice." It offers a space for community leaders to come together and discuss concerns and issues they are having while Microsoft helps navigate solutions including tech enablement. The program aims to build up leadership in these programs but also individual nonprofit's capabilities to help them further serve their communities.

"There are a lot of programs supporting skills, but this is explicitly supporting a level of capacity building, too," observes Auguste. "The seeds of success are there, but there's much more to be done to scale these programs up."

YouTube Video

Paying it forward

I.c.stars interviews hundreds of potential candidates for each training cycle. Participants complete a two-year program that involves more than 1,000 hours of practical experience and advancing their public speaking skills – because Kastrul believes that technical skills aren't enough on their own.

"I want people to be great technologists," she says. "I want them to be able to solve complex problems, build awesome solutions, using systems thinking, but I also want people to be able to connect to what's important, connect to the larger picture and to figure out, 'How do I make opportunities for others?'"

That sense of paying it forward within a community runs deep through i.c.stars and organizations like it. It's why recent alumni such as Ernest Roberts say they devote so much of their spare time to supporting new interns as well as their peers.

"We all help each other," says Roberts. "It does create this community of those who successfully complete the program and continue on – we're all together. It's been two years, and if it wasn't for quarantine, I'd still be going back almost every day." He now serves as president of the alumni association.

Roberts believes that i.c.stars changed his life. Before the program, he worked at a distribution center in Mississippi – a state where he said he found limited opportunities to work in technology.

"That was a huge thing for me in Mississippi, because there's no real technology hub, no technology jobs," he says. "So now, I started thinking, as I've been going through i.c.stars, about how can I bring this into Mississippi, where kids don't know that they don't have to be a truck driver? You don't have to be a farmer. You don't have to be a warehouse worker. You can actually go and do other things and get paid for your mind instead of your physical body."

Now working as a developer for a global financial services firm, Roberts says his outlook has been transformed: "I was living check to check," he says. "Now, I can save up. Now, I can go ahead and start that bank account for my son that I thought about. I can start building for the future, where I was only living in the present."

Realizing your potential

For another recent alum, i.c.stars has provided confidence. LaTonya Judkins had also worked in shipping and receiving, and since completing the i.c.stars program in 2019, has found a role at a sports data analytics firm – an ideal match for this basketball player who says she has always been tech savvy.

"I thought other people do software engineering, but I didn't think that I would do it," she says, "because I don't have the education, the background, I'm not already into it. I figured that people that do software engineering, you have to have started doing it since you were a kid, and have to know a lot of stuff in order to do it. So, going through i.c.stars, they teach you that you can teach yourself how to do these things that everybody else does, and you can be successful doing it."

Judkins says she knows she has chosen an industry where both women and people of color are underrepresented – but says the program has helped her to feel accepted.

"In technology, in corporate America – I'm not saying you have to fit in, but you kind of have to find your space, and also be comfortable and see ahead," she points out. "With i.c.stars, and the program, it explains and it embraces diversity and inclusion – being Black, being a woman."

diversity in tech graph

[Apply for the grant HERE]

The open grant application is how Microsoft Philanthropies says it is exercising its commitment to making access to technology more equitable. The focus is on groups that are based in local communities. Santa Lucia says, "We are looking for those nonprofits with local impact and community-based solutions. We are also looking at nonprofits led by Black and African American members as well as serving the Black and African American communities."

There are areas across the country that have significant racial disparities in access to education, employment, health care and home ownership. But geography does not mean lack of skill, or lack of ambition, and it is the talent embedded in these neighborhoods that technology companies such as Microsoft hope to find and help flourish.

Gates says, "Microsoft has always been conscious about the impact the employees have in the communities where they live. I believe being able to make an impact in smaller communities is critical."

For more on the community skills program, click here. And follow @MSFTIssues on Twitter. 

(Main picture: Alums of the i.c.stars program, from left to right, Ernest Roberts, LaTonya Judkins and Kevin Gates)

‘Put Working Conservationists at the heart of conservation policy’ - Farming Life

Posted: 03 Sep 2020 04:23 AM PDT

Kate Faulkner with a harvest mouse nest

The website profiles what the GWCT calls 'Working Conservationists': farmers and land managers across the UK who have made a long-term commitment to manage their land for the benefit of wildlife.

The website also invites supporters to sign a pledge supporting the GWCT's demand for a more positive approach to conservation which empowers those working on the land and embraces the views of local communities.

Since its beginning in 1932 the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has championed the idea of 'Working Conservation'. The Trust's scientific research was inspired by wanting to find practical solutions to reversing the decline of farmland biodiversity. It recognised early on that success depended on developing measures that fitted into farming regimes.

Geoff Eyre

"It's common to think of nature reserves when thinking of wildlife but, in fact, the majority of our wildlife lives on farmland, moorland, in woodland and in rivers outside nature reserves," said Dr Roger Draycott, who advises farmers and land managers on behalf of the GWCT.

"While the growing demand for food production has impacted on wildlife, there are lots of examples across the UK of local wildlife recovery where nature is thriving thanks to the efforts of the farmers and land managers who work in the countryside - but these successes often go unrecognised. The aim of the Working for Wildlife website is to highlight and build upon the efforts of these Working Conservationists."

The website features more than twenty profiles of Working Conservationists, from Geoff Eyre who has single-handedly restored more than 40 square miles of Derbyshire's wild moorland in his 'spare time', to Kate Faulkner, who has been planting and maintaining hedgerows to provide habitats for harvest mice at Norton Farm near Selborne, Hampshire. The passion and positive action of individuals like these are key to conservation success at a local level. They are also, said the GWCT's chief executive Teresa Dent, essential to the national approach to reversing the decline in British wildlife.

"At a time when the UK's wildlife and land management legislation is being reviewed, post-Brexit, it is vital that those Working Conservationists are engaged, supported and motivated, we must build on their intimate knowledge of their land, their practical expertise and their wealth of experience, to ensure policies are workable, tenable and beneficial at ground level. Without the inspiration and drive of individual land managers and their communities, history has shown that conservation efforts will not succeed."

National conservation goals are important, says the Working for Wildlife website, but decisions need to be made field by field and hedge by hedge. Policy makers must avoid imposing rules that restrict landowners' ability to tailor decisions to local conditions.

As well as celebrating the Working Conservationists of today, the Working for Wildlife website aims to encourage other land managers to follow the lead of these pioneers, and to nurture a new network of Working Conservationists, who subscribe to the website's commitment to 'a more positive approach to conservation'.

Visit for more information.


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