Vaccines, volunteers and procreating pandas: The 2020 good news round up

It’s been a year most of us will wish to forget. If we could harness the power of the forgetfulness charm from Harry Potter, or utilise the Men in Black memory eraser, we would. Our lives became confined to our homes; our greatest adventures found only in board games. But amid the grizzly moments there has been joy. An Italian couple spotted one another on their balconies, fell in love, and are now engaged to be married. A group of furloughed Londoners raised £30,000 and cooked more than 25,000 homemade meals for healthcare workers. Neighbours organised socially-distanced bingo nights and communities filled bus stops with drawings. Here’s how the world came together – plus some cheeky pandas at the end. An army of volunteers signed up to serve We volunteered in our thousands: we held our arms out to be injected, we delivered food parcels to once-unknown neighbours, we picked up a needle and thread to sew face masks. The NHS volunteer responder programme asked the British public to help collect prescriptions, food parcels and transport patients to and from hospital. They called out for 250,000 volunteers; within four days three quarters of a million people had signed up.   The Red Cross saw a similar target-smashing influx. In the week before the coronacoaster took hold, 10,000 extra people volunteered. The community reserves have and continue to provide doorstep support such as dropping off supplies and food parcels.  The itch to help was felt across the world. In Malaysia, movement control orders meant refugees were forbidden from leaving certain areas as the first wave struck, rendering them unable to earn money for food. Heidy Quah, 26, stepped in, ralling locals to deliver parcels to more than 83,800 people across 1,425 locations. Heidy Quah and fellow volunteers delivering food to refugee community  Credit: Annice Lyn, Malaysia When misinformation took hold in Cameroon – leading to panic and exploitation by profiteers – the price of hand sanitizer tripled. A group of friends turned their office into a laboratory to make their own by following World Health Organisation guidance. In a quarter of a year, 350 youth volunteers produced more than 15,000 bottles and distributed them to 12,000 households in 70 communities. A network of 100 students across the world worked together to translate coronavirus health guidance into more than 50 languages – which was read by more than 1.5 million people. The group, which was led by a first-year medical student in London, Ian Soh, also set up a free helpline for those feeling isolated. Scientists produced working vaccines in record-breaking time Would you have thought back in March or April that we would be closing the year with a working vaccine – and have others on the way? Over the past 11 months, scientists have worked tirelessly to put an end to this pandemic. Almost 200 vaccines have been put into development, with at least 15 in human trials. On average, vaccines usually take a decade to develop and roll-out. The Pfizer vaccine, which is currently being administered across the UK, has been found to be 95 per cent effective in preventing coronavirus. Moderna’s efficacy is reportedly 94 per cent, and 100 per cent against severe Covid. The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine "has a good safety record and efficacy," meaning that it, too, could help control the pandemic from next year.  On December 8, the first people in the UK to receive an approved Pfizer dose were injected – led by 91-year-old Magaret Keegan, and would-you-believe-it William Shakespeare. It marked the beginning of the largest vaccination programme ever seen in the UK. As I write, the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico have also cleared the vaccine for use and will begin administering the golden tickets (or jabs) soon. Margaret Keenan said: "I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against Covid-19, it's the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year." Credit: Jacob King/PA Albert Bourla, the boss of pharmaceutical firm Pfizer, said the vaccine’s development was down to “the power of science,” but also “courage”. He explained: “If you asked me to describe it in words I would say ‘courage’. People needed to think very big… they needed to think outside the box. If we do things the way we have always done them we would never be able to develop a safe and effective solution.” He paid tribute to the trial participants too, saying: “The fact that so many volunteers raised their hands is amazing. This demonstrates that sometimes a crisis brings the best out of people.” Captain Sir Tom Moore marched into our lives Captain Sir Tom Moore, our new guru and all-round good egg, raised a whopping £33 million for the NHS in six weeks. He pledged to walk 100 laps of his garden with an aim of £1,000 before his 100th birthday. He smashed his target and became a global sensation.  The mon

Vaccines, volunteers and procreating pandas: The 2020 good news round up

It’s been a year most of us will wish to forget. If we could harness the power of the forgetfulness charm from Harry Potter, or utilise the Men in Black memory eraser, we would. Our lives became confined to our homes; our greatest adventures found only in board games.

But amid the grizzly moments there has been joy.

An Italian couple spotted one another on their balconies, fell in love, and are now engaged to be married. A group of furloughed Londoners raised £30,000 and cooked more than 25,000 homemade meals for healthcare workers. Neighbours organised socially-distanced bingo nights and communities filled bus stops with drawings.

Here’s how the world came together – plus some cheeky pandas at the end.

An army of volunteers signed up to serve

We volunteered in our thousands: we held our arms out to be injected, we delivered food parcels to once-unknown neighbours, we picked up a needle and thread to sew face masks.

The NHS volunteer responder programme asked the British public to help collect prescriptions, food parcels and transport patients to and from hospital. They called out for 250,000 volunteers; within four days three quarters of a million people had signed up.  

The Red Cross saw a similar target-smashing influx. In the week before the coronacoaster took hold, 10,000 extra people volunteered. The community reserves have and continue to provide doorstep support such as dropping off supplies and food parcels. 

The itch to help was felt across the world. In Malaysia, movement control orders meant refugees were forbidden from leaving certain areas as the first wave struck, rendering them unable to earn money for food. Heidy Quah, 26, stepped in, ralling locals to deliver parcels to more than 83,800 people across 1,425 locations.

Heidy Quah and fellow volunteers delivering food to refugee community  Credit: Annice Lyn, Malaysia

When misinformation took hold in Cameroon – leading to panic and exploitation by profiteers – the price of hand sanitizer tripled. A group of friends turned their office into a laboratory to make their own by following World Health Organisation guidance. In a quarter of a year, 350 youth volunteers produced more than 15,000 bottles and distributed them to 12,000 households in 70 communities.

A network of 100 students across the world worked together to translate coronavirus health guidance into more than 50 languages – which was read by more than 1.5 million people. The group, which was led by a first-year medical student in London, Ian Soh, also set up a free helpline for those feeling isolated.

Scientists produced working vaccines in record-breaking time

Would you have thought back in March or April that we would be closing the year with a working vaccine – and have others on the way?

Over the past 11 months, scientists have worked tirelessly to put an end to this pandemic. Almost 200 vaccines have been put into development, with at least 15 in human trials. On average, vaccines usually take a decade to develop and roll-out.

The Pfizer vaccine, which is currently being administered across the UK, has been found to be 95 per cent effective in preventing coronavirus. Moderna’s efficacy is reportedly 94 per cent, and 100 per cent against severe Covid. The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine "has a good safety record and efficacy," meaning that it, too, could help control the pandemic from next year. 

On December 8, the first people in the UK to receive an approved Pfizer dose were injected – led by 91-year-old Magaret Keegan, and would-you-believe-it William Shakespeare. It marked the beginning of the largest vaccination programme ever seen in the UK. As I write, the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico have also cleared the vaccine for use and will begin administering the golden tickets (or jabs) soon.

Margaret Keenan said: "I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against Covid-19, it's the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year." Credit: Jacob King/PA

Albert Bourla, the boss of pharmaceutical firm Pfizer, said the vaccine’s development was down to “the power of science,” but also “courage”. He explained: “If you asked me to describe it in words I would say ‘courage’. People needed to think very big… they needed to think outside the box. If we do things the way we have always done them we would never be able to develop a safe and effective solution.”

He paid tribute to the trial participants too, saying: “The fact that so many volunteers raised their hands is amazing. This demonstrates that sometimes a crisis brings the best out of people.”

Captain Sir Tom Moore marched into our lives

Captain Sir Tom Moore, our new guru and all-round good egg, raised a whopping £33 million for the NHS in six weeks. He pledged to walk 100 laps of his garden with an aim of £1,000 before his 100th birthday. He smashed his target and became a global sensation. 

The money has created therapeutic facilities for healthcare staff to decompress after their shifts, trained nurses, provided wellbeing packages for essential workers, and funded tablets to allow hospital patients in isolation to contact loved ones.

Captain Tom Moore poses with his walking frame doing a lap of his garden in the village of Marston Moretaine, 50 miles north of London, on April 16, 2020 Credit: JUSTIN TALLIS /AFP

With a spring in his step, the veteran then wrote a book. The proceeds are financing a Captain Tom foundation which supports efforts to treat loneliness and bereavement. 

Us mere mortals responded by bombarding him with 225,000 birthday cards, and one six-year-old dressed up as Tom for World History Day. The decorated British Army officer, who was brought up in a Yorkshire village by a family of builders, was dubbed a “one-man fundraising machine” by the Duke of Cambridge. 

Captain Tom countered that by sprinkling us with even more positivity, telling us: “I’ve always believed things will get better. The sun will shine again”. 

Tasmanian devils returned to the wild after 3,000 years

A number of species have made a comeback this year. Over in Venice’s clearer canals, free from tourists selfie-ing in gondolas, silver fish skimmed just below the water’s surface. Three white-tailed eagles settled on the Isle of Wight after a Forestry England and Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation project. And 55 blue whales, the world’s largest animals, were spotted in the waters around Antarctica, compared to just one in 2018.

The comeback queen, though, has to be the scrappy predator that is the Tasmanian devil. No longer just consigned to a cartoon, the feisty marsupials once more can be found in Australia’s forests, thanks to the reintroduction efforts of Aussie Ark and conservation groups.

In the 1990s the animals – which are the size of a small dog – were hit with a contagious and deadly mouth cancer, causing the population to drop from 150,000 to 25,000. On Australia's mainland, they are believed to have been wiped out by packs of dingoes 3,000 years ago. 

A conservation worker feeding a Tasmanian devil joey in mainland Australia in October 2020 Credit: AFP

Enter March 2020 and the conservation team reintroduced 15 devils into the Tazmanian wild, using radio-collars to check in on them. In September, 11 more were added to the pack like late contestants joining Big Brother. None were evicted, and all are reportedly thriving.

The Tasmanian devil is one of seven cornerstone species critical to Australia's ecosystem. The team plans to reintroduce quolls, bandicoots and rock wallabies to the wild sanctuary in the coming years too.

Kamala Harris broke racial and gender barriers 

Despite one hundred years passing since American women won the right to vote, no woman has yet served as president or vice-president – until now. Kamala Harris became the first woman, and the first woman of colour, to be elected US vice-president in November

As Ms Harris stood alongside president-elect Joe Biden, she brought goosebumps to the arms of girls and women across the world. She vowed: “While I may be the first woman in this office. I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

Ms Harris, 56, is the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father. She will now become the highest-ranking woman in the history of American government. It isn’t the only time she has broken barriers – she was the first black female attorney general of California, and in 2016, became only the second black woman to serve in the Senate chamber.

She used her speech to pay tribute to the women before her who helped make it possible. “I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision, to see what can be, unburdened by what has been,” she said. “I stand on their shoulders.”

Marcus Rashford vowed to end child poverty and led the fight to extend free school meals

Marcus Rashford has been hailed a hero – twice, or rather, all year – for forcing the Government to make two U-turns over feeding the most deprived children in England. 

The 23-year-old Manchester United star launched a campaign for free school meals over the school holidays for the country’s poorest children. It led to 1.3 million children being fed. 

In the autumn, fears rose about how families would feed their children as unemployment increased and incomes dropped during tighter restrictions. Conservative MPs voted down a bid to extend the support for struggling parents over the October half term, leading to cafes, restaurants and councils to step up in their place. 

Rashford then pushed another campaign which was initially met with a no from Boris Johnson. The PM backtracked, and the plans introduced more than £400 million to support vulnerable families through a winter grant scheme, and extended the holiday activities and food programmes until Christmas 2021. The grant scheme will help with food and bills, and food banks will also see a £16 million boost.

Rashford said he was “overwhelmed by the outpouring of empathy and understanding,” and promised to “fight for the rest of my life” to end child hunger in the UK.

Countries pledged to end diseases and cancers, and improve healthcare

There have been some brilliant health developments in the world this year too. Africa was declared free of wild polio – which can cause irreversible paralysis and death – after decades of work. It’s now been four years since the last recorded cases in northern Nigeria. It came after a vaccination campaign of children in Borno State.

In a world first, nearly 200 countries committed to wiping out cervical cancer. The pledge would see five million lives saved by 2050. Australia is on track to eliminate cervical cancer in the next 20 years, making it the first country in the world to wipe out the disease. 

It became easier to access mental health support services in many parts of the world. Canada invested £134 million in developing virtual care and mental health tools to help people to cope with the pandemic. 

More than 300,000 Britons quit smoking during the crisis as evidence mounted that the habit leaves people more vulnerable to Covid-19. Tobacco smoking is responsible for nearly half a million hospital admissions per year in the UK. A further 2.4 million cut down, according to a study by YouGov and anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health.

And, of course, vaccine technology has advanced too. In December, the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said a vaccine for the next pandemic could be ready within “100 days or less” of a new pathogen emerging given the right planning and investment.

We sparked a little joy in each other’s lives

We took it upon ourselves to make each other smile in the – dare I say it – new normal.

In the Netherlands, 175 Dutch churches rang their bells between 7pm and 7.15pm one night as a "sign of hope" against coronavirus. 

In the UK, we united as a nation to clap, bang pans and cheer for our healthcare and essential workers every Thursday for nine weeks. We weren’t the only ones who became fans of clapping. Citizens of France, Spain, Belgium, Istanbul, Atlanta, Buenos Aires and Tamil Nadu, India, walloped their palms together in celebration too.

NHS staff participate in a national Clap for Carers to show thanks for the work of Britain's essential workers Credit: PAUL ELLIS /AFP

In Madrid, Spain, the government brought in huge screens for people to watch movies from their balconies during lockdown.

A pirate radio station in Florida – which is run strictly by retirees to help older adults cope with loneliness – extended its operation due to high demand and to support those living alone.

In Ecuador a firefighter climbed 20 metres to the top of his fire engine’s crane to play folk tunes on his trumpet. He was met by great applause.

A trio of superheroes, donning Superman and Spiderman costumes, volunteered to spray disinfectant on the island of Java in Indonesia. The group delivered masks and hand sanitiser while demonstrating how to correctly wash hands and stay safe during their stint.

A personal trainer in Fulham, Flo Dowler, led workout classes for her neighbours for over a month. Her classes – which she taught by standing on top of a steel container – lasted 30 minutes and took place to energetic Eighties music.

Street art blossomed across the United States when 1,000 street artists in 100 cities painted murals with messages of hope. They read: “Cancel plans not humanity,” “You can’t quarantine love” and “Together we can”.

And a study found that 54 per cent of over-65s in the UK felt closer with family, and that their relationships had strengthened, since the first lockdown was announced.

We breathed in cleaner air – at least for a few months

Daily carbon emissions dropped by a record amount earlier this year, falling by more than a sixth globally at the height of lockdown.

Air pollution decreased by up to 60 per cent in some cities in the UK in the first month of lockdown 1.0, and levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), caused by road traffic, dropped by more than 70 per cent nationwide. India’s annual carbon emissions also fell for the first time in four decades, with the country’s CO2 emissions down by 30 per cent in April.

The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) reported in April that there would be 11,000 fewer deaths from air pollution in European countries due to the drop in fossil fuel pollution during lockdowns. It recorded a 40 per cent reduction in average levels of NO2, and a 10 per cent reduction in particulate matter pollution.

The study said it would also lead to 1.3 million fewer days of work absence, 6,000 fewer new cases of asthma in children, and 1,900 avoided emergency room visits caused by asthma.

As lockdowns have lifted, air pollution has rebounded and returned to capitals around the world. But some leaders have already pledged to tackle it, and expand public transport, cycling and walking. Since the start of the pandemic, some areas in the UK have seen a 70 per cent uptake in bike use and a new £2 billion investment package hopes to usher in a “golden age” of active travel. Plans are under way to widen footpaths and cycle lanes too.

Another unintended consequence of less vehicles on the roads? Thanks to the empty streets during lockdown in Tunisia, hundreds of women learnt to ride bikes for the first time – something that was previously viewed in the country as a boys-only activity. On Sunday mornings in lockdown dozens of novice cyclists – who missed the chance to learn to ride a bike as children – took part in a cycling academy. 

One woman, Samla, 40, said: "We didn't learn as girls, it wasn't the done thing in our culture. This patriarchal view of society meant that only boys were given bikes. Thankfully things are changing now.”

Perks of privacy – pandas in Hong Kong mate after a decade

And finally, with no tourists there to kill the mood, a pair of pandas in Hong Kong decided to give mating a go after a decade of looking the other way. 

Ying Ying and Le Le, two giant pandas, have been at Ocean Park since 2007 but – despite the encouragement of zookeepers – had shown little inclination to have sex with visitors oggling them. Pandas are notoriously bad at reproducing, especially in captivity. 

The Ocean Park conservation official Michael Boos told the world: "Since Ying Ying and Le Le's arrival in Hong Kong in 2007, and attempts at natural mating since 2010, they unfortunately have yet to succeed until this year upon years of trial and learning." 

Giant pandas Ying Ying and Le Le before mating at Ocean Park in Hong Kong on April 6, 2020 Credit: Ocean Park Hong Kong 

As the pandemic forced the park to close, and the pandas were left alone for two months, the pair began their dance. Ying Ying played in the water more. Le le left his scent around the enclosure. And so in April, uncharacteristically free from prying eyes, they sealed the deal.

Boos said: “The successful natural mating process today is extremely exciting for all of us, as the chance of pregnancy via natural mating is higher than by artificial insemination.”

Telegraph Readers' positive news stories – comment yours below

Claire Holt said: “We have had a truly shocking year – but this year we rediscovered the importance of spending time together as a family of five and what wonderful holiday options the UK has to offer. Our children have been happiest with our time rather than expensive experiences! We are very lucky.”

Kayleigh Catlin wrote in to say: “We started the year off strong, getting the keys to our first home back in January and welcoming our son in February. Arthur is now 10 months old.”

Colin Bennett told us: “2020 meant a new job for me in Singapore as lead mechanical engineer on a major oil and gas project. I arrived into Singapore in March and have lived through their Covid circuit breaker and further developments in the country during their fight with the virus. Also took up cycling in this beautiful country, got myself fit and lost some weight.”

Nine Jenkins said: “My partner and I met at the end of 2019 on a dating app, then in real life in London. He was visiting, I lived there. We fell in love pretty quickly! Luke was flying back to the US, where he lived, two weeks later. Fast forward a year and we are living together in London and super excited for our first Christmas together. What better way to get to know each other than to live through your first year together in a pandemic!”