Money, masks, and rumors: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The number of coronavirus cases in England went up 17% in the past week. Some of those are concentrated in hotspots, but there’s been an increase outside those areas as well. And the test and trace system is managing not to contact almost half of the new cases.

But the spread of the virus among people outside of hospitals and other institutions may be leveling off. I think that’s in Britain, not England, but when I went back to check (I found that in an ongoing pandemic news update and it’s easy to lose an old item as new ones are added) I found a newer item saying the R rate–the rate at which the disease spreads–may be rising. In England, as opposed to Britain as a whole. 

What do all those contradictory statistics mean? Part of the difference has to do one set of numbers covering everyone and the other covering only people outside of institutions. Beyond that, I’m not really sure. 

Irrelevant photo:California poppies, which grow well in Cornwall. You’d hardly notice their accent.

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In April, England bought 50 million face masks for the National Health Service, which can’t use them. They’re not a tight enough fit. To be any use at all, they have to pass a face-fit test, which checks that they seal tightly to the wearer’s face. These don’t. 

The masks were the most expensive part of a £252 million contract given to Ayanda Capital, which says it specializes in “currency trading, offshore property, private equity and trade financing.” As the BBC explains it, “It has emerged that the person who originally approached the government about the deal was a government trade adviser [that’s Andrew Mills, and no, I never heard of him either] who also advises the board of Ayanda.

“But he told the BBC his position played no part in the awarding of the contract.”

Mills’ company “had secured the rights to the full production capacity of a large factory in China to produce masks and was able to offer a large quantity almost immediately.

“But the legal document seen by the BBC notes that Mr Mills requested the government instead sign the contract for the masks with Ayanda Capital, whose board he advises, because it could arrange overseas payment more quickly.” 

Far be it from me to imply that there’s any skullduggery going on here.  Or incompetence. But, the director of the Good Law Project, one of two organizations pushing for a judicial review, mentioned three Covid-related contacts, each worth over £100 million, going to a pest control company, a confectioner, and a family hedge fund.

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This might be a good time to tell you about a study of what’s being called the Cummings effect. Dominic Cummings is Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisor and external brain, and when he came down with Covid he broke the lockdown rules he helped write. The most interesting of the ways he broke them was to take a 60-mile round trip, with his kid in the car, to test his eyesight. 

Then he got caught. Then he refused to resign. Then Johnson refused to dump him. Because without him, he has no thoughts. None. Not even “I wonder what’s for supper.” It all just goes silent in there.

As you might expect, it’s been harder, since that happened, to convince people to follow the guidelines, but now we don’t have to guess: It’s been established by 220,755 surveys of 40,597 people in England, Scotland, and Wales. 

The more often Lord Google showed people doing searches on Cummings’ name, the more confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic declined. And it hasn’t come back. 

Confidence in the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales didn’t drop. Northern Ireland had stepped outside for a smoke at a crucial time and was left out of the survey.

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Unlike Cummings, when the mayor of Luton, Tahir Malik (along with two fellow members of the Luton Council), got caught–on video–attending a party that broke the lockdown guidelines, he had the decency to resign. The limit was supposed to be six people or two  households. There were twelve, and there’d just been a warning that the town had a spike in virus cases.

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In the early stages of the pandemic, the BBC was busy debunking pandemic rumors that circulated on WhatsApp. 

What rumors? 

One: Tanks were rolling into Middle Britain, ready to put down civil unrest. That came with photos. When you looked closely, though, the tanks were on the wrong side of the road and the license plates were wrong.

Who knew that tanks had license plates? Or even kept to their own side of the road. Call me naive, but I kind of thought that any vehicle that can get past a trench can drive on whatever side of the road it wants to.

Two: Dead bodies were being stored in ice rinks. 

Three: Helicopters were spraying disinfectant at night. 

Four: Sipping warm water every twenty minutes would wash any virii out of your throat and into your stomach, where they’d be slaughtered by the gastric juices that work there twenty-four hours a day.

Someone sent me that one on Facebook, although by the time I got it, it was considerably more complicated and the water was no longer warm.

A Londoner got into the spirit of the thing and sent out a message that went viral: Wembley Stadium was going to be turned into a giant oven so the government could make a massive lasagna. He heard about it from his sister’s boyfriend’s brother, who worked for the Ministry of Defense. 

Other people got into the act. The Channel Tunnel was being used to bake a giant garlic bread and the Rome Coliseum was being used as a bowl for a giant salad. 

I wish I’d thought of at least one of those.

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For a while there, governments–or at least some governments–were considering issuing immunity passports, which would exempt people who’d had Covid from whatever the restrictions the rest of the country was expected to follow. Because they’d be immune.

The problem with doing this is that no one knows whether immunity’s available for it. Virus stores have lots of immunity on hand, but not necessarily in your size or in the color you need. Covid immunity is on back order and will be shipped as soon as it’s available. Please try us again at your earliest convenience.

The World Health Organization says there’s no scientific evidence to show that immunity passports make any sense. Other than that, they’re a great idea. 

They’re also called immunity certificates, and there’s no scientific evidence for them under that name either. But if you ask Lord Google, he’ll be happy to refer you to an outfit that’ll sell you one for $89.95. All you do is get tested, come up negative, connect your doctor to the company, and open your wallet.

“ImmuniPass is your Immunity Passport!” it says. 

Indeed it is. It’s absolutely useless, but it is your Immunity Passport and yours alone, and it comes with a tasteful sprinkling of capital letters and a hand-crafted exclamation mark.

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The Covid antibody test that Britain’s using may be giving more false positives than anyone thought. A recent study from Oxford University tested 9,000 healthcare workers and found 11% less sensitivity than they expected. To translate that, go back to the first sentence: More false negatives. More people told they don’t have the virus when they do. It has to do with the level of antibodies you need to convince the test that you’re toxic. 

The study found people who’d lost their senses of taste and smell, suggesting they had the disease, but still tested negative. It’s not definitive, but it rings alarm bells. 

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That’s not the best intro to this next bit of information, but my partner and I both tested negative on Wednesday. And of course, in our case negative really is a negative. And we know that because–

Okay, we don’t know it, but Cornwall (so far) has a relatively low rate of infection. How long that’ll last with all the summer people running around is anyone’s guess, but for the moment we’re okay. May you be as well.

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Australia, having worked its way onto the all-too-short list of countries that were handling the pandemic well, saw the beginnings of a second wave. Unlike New Zealand, which is somewhere near the top of the list, it didn’t try to eliminate the disease, just suppress it. (New Zealand is warning itself not to get complacent, but that’s a different tale.)

Australia has responded to the second wave with hard regional lockdowns, including fines for not wearing masks and the possibility of manslaughter charges for people who cause a death by spreading the disease. 

A group of people who refuse to wear masks claim that being sovereign citizens means they’re exempt from an assortment of laws they don’t like–not just the ones about masks but having to pay parking fines and local taxes. Basically, the argument goes, the government has no power over them. It’s an idea that gained traction in the U.S. in the 1990s and it seems to be popping up across the world now. Legally it’s complete bullshit, but in these post-truth days, that doesn’t weigh heavily with everyone.

The police have found themselves baited at checkpoints and dealing with people who refuse to give their names and addresses. One woman who refused to wear a mask smashed a cop’s head into the cement repeatedly.  The police link the incidents to the sovereign citizen movement. 

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This has nothing to do with the pandemic, but let’s end with the anti-immigrant campaigner Tommy Robinson (whose real name isn’t Tommy Robinson, but never mind all that) having moved himself and his family to Spain, claiming that it’s not safe from them to stay in Britain after an arson attack on their home. 

In one article, that’s an alleged arson attack. I’m not clear on how alleged or established it is, but I am clear on the irony of an anti-immigration activist becoming an immigrant because, hey, his home country just isn’t safe anymore and what else can a responsible parent do but try to make sure his kids are safe? It’s a Dominic Cummings moment: one set of rules for me and another set for you lot.

 

The Early Quakers

The Quakers came into existence during the uproar when England fought a civil war, deleted a king, founded a start-up republic, and then rebooted the king (a new one, not the one they’d deleted). And whenever people found some down time, they argued about religion. 

And you thought we were living through interesting times.

Let’s start the tale with George Fox. He was the son of a weaver and came from Fenny Drayton. I mention the first fact because it places him in a relentlessly hierarchical society (he wasn’t anybody grand) and the second because I can’t help myself. It’s as absurdly English a place name as you’ll find anywhere. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An old-fashioned kind of hydrangea. If I have my British snobberies right (which is far from a sure thing), they’re the classier kind, and the fuller ones for the people like me who don’t know any better.

He left home at  nineteen to seek the truth.

About what? When people talk about seeking the truth, they’re pretty much always talking about religion. And religion, remember, was what everyone talked about anyway. Politics was religion. Everything was religion. Where’d you lose your mittens? I didn’t lose them. They went where god willed them to go. What’s for supper? Even that would circle back to religion. 

Fox listened to preachers–the country was well stocked with preachers–and inevitably he began to preach himself. I never thought of the Quakers as a preaching-type group, but it was a Quaker website using the verb, so we’ll let them set the tone: He preached, and he did it to increasingly large crowds. 

What he told them was that god’s light was in everyone. Or since he’d surely have used a capital letter, so let’s use his presumed style: God’s light. Follow that thought to its logical end–and he did–and you’ll end up attacking the social structure of the day, which held that God had made some people a whole lot better than other people, and that this was natural and good and necessary. 

Not only did everyone have that inner light, he preached that they had to follow it, even when it diverged from the Bible. 

In 1650, he was jailed for blasphemy. The early Quakers spent a lot of time in jail. I won’t list many of their arrests, but keep in mind that this was a risky set of beliefs to live by.

In 1652, Margaret Fell (later Margaret Fox) heard him preach and was convinced, and she quickly became central to the movement, coordinating the communications of its far-flung preachers and offering the safety of her house and the protection that her husband, who was a judge, could sometimes provide. She was one of the few founders who was from the gentry and she was the first to put the movement on record as being against violence. 

It was also in 1652 that Fox gained another key follower, James Naylor (or Nayler–it wasn’t possible to spell a word wrong back then). He was a more difficult personality than Fell and we can have more fun with him, so he’s going to get more space. Sorry. 

Naylor had served in the Parliamentary army. This was before the Quakers dedicated themself to nonviolence, and some branches of the army had Quakers hanging from every bough.  He was charismatic and a good debater, and he attracted a personal following that made other Quakers uneasy. 

He and Fox clashed. Meetings were disrupted. In an attempt to make peace, Fox offered Naylor his hand to kiss. Naylor told Fox to kiss his feet instead.

Yes, they believed all men were equal–and by men, of course, they meant both men and women. Yes, they meant what they said. No, it’s not easy to step outside the biases and assumptions of your time and place, or even to see them.

In 1656, Naylor and some followers re-enacted Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in Bristol. The scene included a couple of women walking beside Naylor’s horse and singing, “Holy, holy, holy.” 

Whatever they intended to get across, the authorities decided that Naylor’d presented himself as Christ, and it couldn’t have been too hard a case to make. At some point–earlier, later, during; I have no idea–he called himself the Sun of Righteousness, the Prince of Peace, the only Begotten, the fairest of ten thousand.

Not to mention the soul of modesty. 

His followers said he was the anointed king of Israel. No one thought to phone Israel to either check on that or tell them the news.

He was brought to London to be tried. We’re still in the middle of the Protectorate here–that period between the deletion of one king and the reboot of the next–and the Protectorate was all for freedom of religion, but only up to a point. You had to be Christian to take advantage of it. And you couldn’t be a Catholic kind of Christian. Or a licentious kind. 

Naylor was whipped, branded, imprisoned, and had his tongue pierced with a hot iron. 

After he was released, he and Fox made a reluctant sort of peace, with Naylor kneeling to Fox and asking his forgiveness.

Like I said, it’s not easy to step outside your time and place.

But enough about Naylor. Let’s go back to the Quakers as a movement.

By 1660, some estimates put their numbers in England at 50,000. By way of comparison there were about 35,000 Catholics. Eleven of their sixty key people–called the Valiant Sixty–were women. Women preached. Women spoke at meetings. Quakers promoted education for both girls and boys. If everyone had a spark of god in them, then everyone was spiritually equal.

And in case that wasn’t radical enough, they refused to use the titles that were so important to a hierarchical society, so no sirs, no madams, no lordships. They–and this would’ve applied only to the men–wouldn’t take their hats off to their social superiors. They addressed everyone by the informal thou, and people back then knew their thou from their you, so they knew when to consider themselves insulted. These days, if you address someone as thou and all you’ll get is a blank look. 

After the kingly reboot, the Church of England was back in power and in a position to demand tithes. Quakers refused to pay them. 

They wouldn’t take oaths. Not oaths as in curse words but as in I swear to tell the truth and all that stuff. They told the truth all the time, they said. But the culture took oaths seriously, and if you refused the swear one in court it was easy to convict you of pretty much anything. If you wouldn’t swear to tell the truth, who could believe you?

In short, they were principled, upright, and a pain in the ass to a society that took the symbolic stuff as seriously as the practical. They stuck quietly, consistently, and relentlessly to their beliefs.

In 1662, the Quaker Act made it illegal to refuse to take an oath of loyalty. It also outlawed meetings of five or more Quakers. In 1663, a hundred Quakers were arrested in a single day. 

It was 1689 before the Toleration Act allowed them to meet legally. And at that point we’ll leave them. Their later history is better known, from their implacable opposition to slavery to their long opposition to war. 

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I’ve drawn on a number of books for this post, as well as the websites I’ve linked to, but the longest and most interesting section I found is in Paul Lay’s Providence Lost: The Rise & Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate, which gives James Naylor a good chunk of text.

Small changes in the world of pandemic Britain

How is our world changing with the onset of the pandemic? Well, the International Football Association, which sets the rules for international competition, has added a new offense: deliberately coughing at another player. The referee gets to decide what’s deliberate and what’s close enough to be offense-worthy, and the player who’s on the wrong side of the decision can be sent off the field.

If you’re American, you should understand that football is soccer but that coughing is still coughing.

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A company in Taiwan has developed a robot that can swab noses to test for the coronavirus. It sounds silly, but it’s one of those jobs that puts health care workers at risk. And you might as well admit it: You’ve always wished automation would swab your nose for you. 

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Vaguely relevant photo: Fast Eddie, who can’t be bothered opening doors. He has people who do that for him.

When Britain was still in lockdown, adults went from watching an average of 34 minutes a day of streaming services in April 2019 to an average of 71 minutes a day in April 2020. Those are the Netflix-type shows that you pay for. But that’s nothing. They also went from watching 4 hours and 53 minutes of TV and online video a day to 6 hours and 25 minutes. 

If I understand this correctly, that’s 6 hours and 25 minutes of TV shows, online pornography, and videos clips of cats opening doors and performing brain surgery. Per day. 

Who says lockdown is destroying our cultural life?

Okay, I only know about the cats because I sneak a peek now and then. You can also find videos of bears sitting in blow-up wading pools or canoodling with cats.

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How are we, as a nation, doing for money? About a third of Britain’s biggest companies have cut their top execs’ salaries in the face of the pandemic. 

Impressed? Don’t be. Top execs make as much or more from bonuses and share schemes as they do from their salaries.

What kind of money are we talking about? The head of Ocado–a grocery delivery outfit–made £58.7 million in 2018-2019–1,935 times the median salary of a full-time UK worker. To put that another way, it would take the average worker eight years to earn what he earns in a day. If that doesn’t add up, don’t blame me. I stole the statistic. See the link above if you want to argue. Or argue with me, but don’t expect a decent opponent. I’m a word person.

I don’t know if Ocado cut his pay–probably not, since food delivery businesses have been making out like (excuse the language) bandits–but I can’t see where he’d have a whole lot of trouble getting by if they did.

Back in the real world, there’s a ban at the moment on landlords evicting tenants who’ve fallen behind on their rent, but when the ban ends (as it’s scheduled to) they’ll owe a huge whackin’ amount of rent and no one who makes the decisions is talking, at least in public, about how they’ll to pay it off.

And a quarter of all adults are struggling with what’s being called food insecurity. That’s not exactly hunger. It’s hunger and being susceptible to hunger and to malnutrition. Almost a quarter have eaten less so they can feed their kids. 

In case anyone’s in danger of forgetting.

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Like the rest of the world, we live in the shadow of the disease–some of us more immediately and some of us less so.

My partner and I got tested for Covid-19 yesterday. Not because we have symptoms but because a friend whose husband died of the virus really, really wanted us to. And because every country should be testing asymptomatic people on a mass scale. It’s the only way to identify clueless carriers, and until we do that they’ll keep spreading the virus. 

I was reluctant. To work, testing has to be on a mass scale and we’re only two people. We could test negative and be exposed tomorrow, so what does a test tell us, really? And the British government isn’t doing mass asymptomatic testing. It’s pushing testing for people with symptoms. But, as our friend reminded me, I didn’t have any overwhelming amount of respect for the way the government’s handling the pandemic, so why did I suddenly want to respect their decision on this? 

We signed up.

So here’s the report on testing: The website where you book the test got stuck in a loop when Ida signed up, repeatedly asking for her date of birth, so that she wasn’t just born again but again and again and again. But it did eventually let us schedule the tests.

Okay, Ida booked both tests while I sat on the couch and kibbitzed.

The system only wanted my date of birth once. 

The testing was well organized. We found a variety of ways to screw up, but the people who worked there were patient and got us through it. Then we came home to go online and register the tests, because if you don’t, you don’t get your results and the whole thing’s pointless. 

Ida couldn’t get past the screen that asked for her post code. It didn’t believe her. Or it didn’t like her neighborhood.  

Whatever. She gave up and called the phone number that the form gave as a backup option.

I got past the post code with no problem. We live in the same house but my half is in a better neighborhood than hers. I was getting all ready to feel  smug when I realized that the page the form had sent us to exists to book a test, not to register a test you just took. 

When do you want to book your test? it asks. 

Two hours ago, please. 

I picked up the phone and called.

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I can’t leave you without a word or six about the government’s world-beating test and trace system. Because contact tracing is–or at least needs to be–a part of our lives these days.

Some of the people who’ve been hired as contact tracers still report–as they have from the beginning–having nothing to do. They’re supposed to call people who’ve tested positive, ask who they’ve been around, and then call them. And talk to them all about quarantining themselves. 

Some contact tracers report only making a handful of calls a month, including the ones to nonexistent numbers. Team leaders are keeping them busy with quizzes and offering prizes for the most calls made. 

One company subcontracting from the outsourcing giant Serco had 471 agents and made 135 calls in two days. That includes calls to wrong numbers, calls to voicemail, and multiple calls to a single person. The tales go on, but you get the drift. 

In early July, the system was reported to cost £10 billion.

That’s in addition to the contract tracing app that failed. That cost £11.8 billion

Yet another game changer: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The British government’s buying two new Covid tests that take only 90 minutes to cough out a result. As usual, they’re going to be game changing. I can’t remember how many times we’ve been told that, and here we are, still whacking the same old volleyball over the same old weary net. Or in my case, into the same old weary net. 

The reason I’m expressing just the slightest touch of cynicism about the tests–other than experience and generalized characterological weaknesses–is that next to nothing is known about the tests. How many false negatives do they produce? How many false positives? Dunno and dunno. No data’s been published.

That’s not a good sign. And the government has a track record of leaping in to buy pandemic goodies that then turned out to be somewhere between useless and not much better than.

Every last one of them was going to be either game changing or world beating. And no, we’re not competitive about this. We just don’t see the point of breathing if we’re not better than you lot.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, it’s a dandelion, doing its bit to help its species take over the world. Let’s be grateful it’s not a virus.

Okay, when I say “every last one of them” I’m exaggerating. The swabs they bought and then had to toss in the dumpster didn’t get much fanfare, but the useless personal protective gear that they sent planes to Turkey for? The fraction of it that reached Britain was practically greeted with confetti and marching bands.

The new tests are called DnaNudge and LamPORE. And they detect flu and other viruses and well as Covid-19.

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Watching how the press responded to the announcement of the new tests was interesting. On Monday–that was yesterday as I write this–they made front-page, huge-type, game-changing headlines in the sleazier papers and I wondered why the more responsible ones were either silent or downplaying the news. On Tuesday–today–they ran longer articles with a bit of analysis and skepticism. 

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Meanwhile, a group of not quite 70 virologists publicly criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic, especially the test and trace system, saying virologists are being bypassed.

One of the group, Deenan Pillay, said, “There’s always new tests being developed. And it’s almost as if they’re being pushed as a sort of magic bullet.” But what really needs to be done, he said, is “the more boring but really hard work of doing proper contact tracing.” 

Part of the problem is that the testing that is being done–much of it by private contractors –isn’t feeding data to the National Health Service or local public health officials, who would be able to follow up on it. 

The link for that is the same one as the one in the volleyball paragraph.

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The British government has told drug suppliers that they should have six weeks’ worth of drugs stockpiled before the Brexit cut-off date of December 31. In case the supply chain gets disrupted, what with this little pandemic we’re experiencing and all. Because there isn’t going to be an extension, no matter what. 

During  the Brexit referendum, Remainers warned that this sort of thing would happen. Brexiteers–a.k.a. the people who are now in government–called it Project Fear.

I wouldn’t say I’m afraid exactly, although maybe I should be. But I’d be a damn fool not to take notice. Excuse me while I go check our stash of omeprazole. It doesn’t get you high, but it does control acid reflux.

If that doesn’t tell you my age, nothing will.

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Russia says it will start production on a Covid vaccine in September and begin mass immunizations by October. Non-Russian experts are waving a few caution flags, though. The trials have been rushed, they say. 

Not much is known about the development process, but there’ve been rumors that Russia’s elite got a prototype vaccine in July. Emphasis on rumors. The Russian media reports that doctors and teachers will be among the first people to be immunized.

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A family went to a drive-in Covid testing center in a London parking lot, got tested without leaving the car, and were sent a notice that they owed a £90 fine for not paying for parking. 

The company that issued the ticket is canceling it. I’m not sure if the driver managed to get that done before the press got involved–they don’t make that easy–or if it was the publicity that magicked it away.

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A few more possible Covid risk factors and symptoms are being reported–still somewhat tentatively. 

Possible symptoms are hair loss, rashes, and hearing loss.  

Possible new risk factors might include being tall and being bald. Emphasis on might, but as a short, hairy woman I’m doing my best not to gloat.

The study on tall people has been criticized for not being well designed. It’s working theory, however, is that being tall exposes people to more of the aerosols that carry the virus. In other words, it’s nothing personal.

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According to a study by the Office of National Statistics, less than half of British adults are keeping to the distancing guidelines when they see family and friends, and 8% never keep to the guidelines.

The survey was based on people’s own estimates of their behavior, which is notoriously faulty. In an earlier survey, 79% of the people surveyed thought they were doing better than average on keeping to the guidelines. So we can probably figure the true figure is less than less-than-half. 

Speaking of notoriously faulty, I’m pulling that 79% figure from a notoriously unreliable memory–mine–so it may be off by a percentage point or two. But the original was well over the 50% you might reasonably expect.

Lockdowns and communication problems: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Cynics claim the British government has a communication problem. To demonstrate that this is a lie and a slander, I offer you the following statement from Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care. He’s explaining why a local semi-lockdown was imposed in Manchester. 

“We know that from the contact tracing information so whenever anybody tests positive the vast majority of them, unmm, we manage to speak to and we ask which contacts they’ve had who they– we been in contact with and that’s shown that the vast majority of contacts of people who have the virus are pe– are from other than people in their own household of course, unmm, who have to self isolate– anyway– is is is from households visiting and them visiting friends and relatives uhh err and and those two are bigger than the impact– the number of contacts that people have say at work or visiting ehm visiting shops and and and that means that we’re– because we have that information from the NHS test and trace system it means that we’re able to take this action which is more targeted at uhm erm controlling the spread of the virus.”

I hope that clarifies the situation. If the punctuation’s a bit unorthodox, I know you’ll understand. 

My thanks to the inimitable Bear Humphries, from Scribblans, who managed to extract the text from the internet and who is not responsible for anyplace it deviates from the spoken original. He tried to convince me to double check but it’s hard, when you’re looking at this level of iron-bound logic to imagine that anything could possibly have gone wrong. 

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Irrelevant photo: Pears on our tree last year. This year’s aren’t quite this far along yet.

Since we’re talking about communications, the Manchester lockdown was announced just after 9 pm on Thursday and went into effect at midnight. Guidance on what was and wasn’t permitted was published well ahead of time, at 11 pm. Eid al Adha, an important Muslim holiday when families gather together, began on Thursday night, making the issue of what can and can’t be done under the guidelines particularly fraught.

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You’re dying to know how I do my research, right? If you (or at least if I) toss Lord Google the phrase “new lockdown manchester,” the first link Lord G. suggests reads, “Seven simple tricks to fix a noisy washing machine in lockdown.” The second one said, “Doet het aantal stappen tijdens de lockdown er echt toe? – myprotein.com” 

I do, in fact, have lockdown toe. I don’t know how Lord G. knew that, since I hadn’t googled it yet, but I won’t be fixing my washing machine, no matter how noisy it gets. I once turned a 29-cent leak in the toilet into a $250 repair job, plus I took out the kitchen ceiling. When anything involves more water than fits in the dog bowl, it’s cheaper to call a professional.

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And now it’s time to sit at your desks and settle down, people, because we’re going to talk about serious stuff.

Yes, you too, Bear.

The number of Covid-19 infections in England has risen slightly. Or seems to have risen slightly. That’s based on a weekly random sample, so it won’t have been skewed by either more or less testing of the population. The estimate is that 36,000 people are now infected, with 4,200 new infections per day, up from 28,000 with 2,800 new infections per day last week. 

Restrictions were supposed to be eased on August 1, with essential services like, um, casinos and bowling alleys reopening. That’s now on hold, and you’ll have to wear a mask if you go to a movie, a museum, or an assortment of other indoor places.

On the other hand, 2.2 million extremely vulnerable who’ve been advised to stay home up to now can go back to work if they can’t work from home and if the place they work is Covid-secure. 

What’s Covid-secure? You got me.

Is this a good idea? We’ll get back to you about that when someone dies.

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I am endlessly indebted to Boris Johnson’s government for keeping me supplied with blog fodder. A new scheme to make Britain slim, Covid-resistant, and bike-addicted opened as farce this week. 

Picking up on a link between obesity and dying from Covid-19, Johnson launched a program to make Britain lose weight, saying it wouldn’t be “excessively bossy or nannying.”

These people who grew up with nannies. They’ve got a thing about them.

The program hits out at a few of the predictable targets: no more junk food ads on the TV before 9 pm. Information about calories visible on menus (or somewhere–I haven’t read the fine print; possibly in the back office). No junk food displays by the checkout. 

But the bit that’s getting the most press is the offer of a £50 bike repair voucher to anyone (up to some limit–it doesn’t matter just now what it is) stubborn and clever enough to survive its website. That eliminates anyone who doesn’t have a computer, an internet connection, or a bike–in other words, anyone who’s poor. Because the problem with poor people is that they don’t have enough money. And a shortage of money leads to a shortage of bikes, internet connections, and computers. Not to mention other stuff, like good food. So we can discount them.

We can also discount old people (that’s defined as older than me, and I’m upwards of 300), who also may not have computers, internet connections, or bikes, and who therefore aren’t really part of our culture and don’t matter.

But plenty of people wanted–and quite possibly needed–those vouchers enough that they hurled themselves at the website as soon as it went live.

Which crashed the thing. Twitter was alight with comments. The one that interested me most said, “Since when did the govmt use a one man band in Doncaster who has a £30k company with £455 of assets to develop WordPress websites for their national schemes??”

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that claim and I’m too clueless to follow it up myself, but I thought I’d toss it into the conversation and see if anyone knows more about it than I do. The government has a habit of handing out contracts like that. They once, famously, gave a ferry contract to a company with no ships. 

Another tweet reported an improvement in the site: It had gone from not letting him in to crashing once he’d entered his information. 

Will any of it make the nation thinner? Governments have been trying to slenderize Britain for twenty years without any noticeable success. But it does give everyone the satisfying impression that Steps Are Being Taken. 

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And now let’s drop in on the U.S of infectious A. Congressman Louie Gohmert has tested positive for Coronavirus and said in an interview, “I can’t help but wonder if by keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, I might have put some germs–some virus–on to the mask and breathed it in.” 

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But that’s amateur hour. Donald Trump promoted a tweet by Dr. Stella Immanuel which sung the praises of hydroxycloroquine. She has an impressive medical track record that includes warning people that alien DNA shows up in various medicines and that having sex with demons and witches in your dreams has a terrible impact on your health.

She also mentioned a vaccine that will prevent people catching religion. It doesn’t seem to be working, but maybe we don’t have herd immunity yet.

The caption on one of her videos asks, “How long are we going to allow the gay agenda, secular humanism, Illuminati and the demonic New World Order to destroy our homes, families and the social fibre of America.”

The quote didn’t come with a question mark at the end, and as far as I can figure out it didn’t have one in the original. I shouldn’t get snotty about punctuation, but “Get snotty about punctuation” is on the gay agenda for today at 2:50 pm, and I’m helpless in its grip.

I’d like to be better than that. Really I would.

I’d end by telling you to stay sane, because it’s crazy out there, but I worry that you’ll stop reading Notes. Stay only mildly crazy. Don’t get sick.

Everything we don’t know about Aphra Behn

The first English woman to make her living entirely as a writer was Aphra Behn. She’s known to have been born, to have been a spy, to have been a writer, and to have died. After that, information about her ranges from the sketchy to the questionable. 

What could be more fun than writing about someone nobody knows much about?

She was born in 1640. Her father might have been a barber and her mother might have been a wet nurse. They might also not have been. 

Her last name might have been Johnson. She might have been adopted. 

Since we can’t sketch in her family, let’s sketch in the times she lived in: The English Civil Wars ran from 1642 to 1651. In 1660, the Stuart kings settled their hind ends back on the throne they’d been lusting after. So she grew up in turbulent times and was twenty at the start of the Restoration, which is a fancy name for the aforesaid Stuart hind end settling back on that throne.

Irrelevant photo: This is one of about a dozen big, flat wildflowers that don’t look alike but are similar enough that I doubt I’ll ever learn their names.

She may or may not have spent some time in Surinam.

Suri-what? A small country in South America. It was an English colony until 1667, when it became Dutch. Under the English, it evolved into a place of sugar plantations and slave labor, which gets an early mention because it feeds into one of Behn’s books. 

(It’s irrelevant but interesting to note that the Parliamentarians–the folks who threw out the Stuart kings–were no more opposed to slavery than the Royalists were. That won’t be on the test. In fact, there won’t be a test. This is a blog. You can stop reading right here if the mood takes you.) 

If Behn had been a man, an aristocrat, or a religious nonconformist, she’d have left more information behind, or so say Abigail Williams and Kate O’Connor in an essay. The surprise in that, for me, is the nonconformists. They were prone, both the men and the women, to keeping spiritual journals. 

In 1664, Behn married a merchant named Johan Behn, although the marriage might not have lasted long. He might have died the next year. He might not have. Either way, that’s the last we’ll hear of him. 

She was a royalist spy in Antwerp during the Anglo-Dutch War. If she was in Surinam, she might have been there as a spy. 

Of course, she also might not have been in Surinam as a spy. 

She might not have been in Surinam at all. 

Don’t you love history?

Spying wasn’t a good way to get rich. According to one source, she wasn’t paid at all and had to borrow money to get home from Antwerp.

That leads to our next questionable statement: She ended up in debtors prison, according to one source (a different one this time) for “debts she incurred in service to the crown.” None of the other sources I’ve found mention the reason for her debts. In fact, the British Library entry on her says there’s no documentation that she was ever in debtors prison.

If she was, though, either somebody ponied up the money needed to break her loose or she started writing as a way to get herself out. Either way, write she did, and back then it was a better way to make money than it is today. Writing was still the hot new medium. You know how parents yell at their kids to get off their phones and turn off their computers? “Go read a book and learn something,” they say. Well, back then parents yelled at their kids to put down their books, get out in the fresh air, and be ignorant.

Yes, every last parent. Every last kid. That’s how you can tell what the hot new medium is: Parents are appalled by it.

Now we’ll take a quick step back. Bear with me. Before the Restoration, the theaters were closed. They were frivolous and led to perdition and fun. Then the king sashayed back to London, the party began, and theater companies were licensed. It wasn’t exactly a new medium, but it was hot all the same.

Behn started working for two of the theater companies that had started up, first as a scribe, then as a playwright. Fittingly, the timelines I’ve seen are contradictory, but her first plays either were or weren’t commercial successes, but either a later or the first one was. But forget which play it was, one of them ran for six nights, and that counted as a smash hit. The income from the third day (and the sixth if there was one, and the ninth if miracles should occur) of a run went to the author, so she got the income from two nights. 

She went on to write and publish an assortment of other plays, some successful, some not, and one–now lost–a complete disaster, involving an arrest for an abusive prologue (or epilogue–take your pick) attacking the Duke of Monmouth. She was (probably) let off with a warning. 

Nope, I have no idea what it said. It’s lost. Sorry. 

Some of her plays were definitely her plays. Others might have been her plays but might have been someone else’s. During her lifetime, a lot of her work was published anonymously, which helps explain the murkiness over what was her work and what wasn’t.

She also published novels and poetry. 

She had a couple of lovers. One of them, John Hoyle, is believed to have written the epitaph (not to be confused with that troublesome epilogue) that’s on her tombstone: “Here lies a proof that wit can never be Defence enough against mortality.”

She died in 1689, at forty-nine. 

So what did she have to say? Well, in her novel Oroonoko, the narrator swears the story’s true, that she either saw everything in it  or was told it by its hero, thus muddying the autobiographical waters by pouring fiction into alleged fact. The book’s unusual in English literature in its choice of hero, an African prince sold into slavery in Surinam. Behn wasn’t not free from the prejudices of her time and place–who is?–but she allowed him his humanity, something it took European writers and their descendants centuries to find their way back to.

She also wrote about sex–about women enjoying sex and about men sometimes failing to enjoy it, much as they would have liked to. “The Disappointment” is full of seventeenth century roundaboutness, but it’s also frank: The man couldn’t get it up. 

 

      . . . In vain th’ enraged Youth assaid

      To call his fleeting Vigour back. . . .

      In vain he Toils, in vain Commands,

      Th’ Insensible fell weeping in his Hands.

 

After Behn died, Memoirs on the Life of Mrs Behn. By a Gentlewoman of her Acquaintance was published, further blurring the line between fact and fiction. The gentlewoman was probably a man named Charles Gildon, who drew heavily on her fiction, along with her letters, to piece together a life, leaning heavily on sex to sell the story.

Behn went out of fashion in more prudish centuries and–well, Restoration literature doesn’t draw a mass audience anymore, but feminists since Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf have been rediscovering her, reinterpreting her, re-appreciating her, and in Sackville-West’s case reimagining her from the ground up. 

Which given the gaps in her story is easy to do. You have no facts to lean on but you also have none to contradict you. 

Quarantine, sunburn, and interplanetary theology: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Since Britain can’t get on the sun’s schedule more than once a measly month, going abroad in the summer is a Big Deal here. Preferably to places with sun, pools, and German tourists to be outraged by. So opening the doors and letting the British public go abroad looks like a measure of success to a government overwhelmed by the bad pandemic choices it’s made,

So the government made a list of countries Britons could visit safely, then it opened the doors and it said, “Have fun, kiddies. Don’t get sunburned.”

Of course they got sunburned. They’re British. 

Irrelevant photo: A rose.

So far, so good, but Spain went and had a spike of Covid cases and Britain’s announced that anyone coming home from Spain will have to isolate themselves for fourteen days. That did three things: It made the government look like it was protecting us; it made the tourists already in Spain, along with the travel and aviation industries, furious; and it encouraged people who’d planned to go to Spain to cancel their plans.

Spain was and is (predictably, given how much of its economy depends on tourism) mad enough to spit tacks. The spikes, it said–

Okay, it didn’t say. Countries don’t really talk. The spikes, its spokefolks said, are regional. Travelers who’ve been visiting spikeless parts of Spain shouldn’t be quarantined. Heroically resisting any urge to be catty, Spain’s prime minister pointed out that most of the country has a lower infection rate than the U.K. 

“It would be safer to be in [parts of Spain] than in the United Kingdom,” he said.

If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, Spain’s also implying that the spike is at least in part a result of increased testing, which catches asymptomatic cases–something the UK would do well to look for. 

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Except that, stop the press, Britain’s been giving this quarantine business some thought and you know what? We might just cut it from fourteen days to ten. Because we’ve got, you know, testing. And we could use that, couldn’t we, to see if people are carrying the virus?

Why, yes we could. 

Could we have thought of this earlier? Possibly, but we didn’t take the time.

We’ll get back to you about this ASAP. As soon as we know what our plans really are.

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Figuring out what it means that a country has a certain number of cases is, genuinely, a problem. If you test more–and that’s still the best way to control the virus–you find more cases. If you find more cases, you look like the thing’s gone out of control, although what it may mean is that you’re getting it under control. If, being a headline-based government, you resist the urge to test more, the thing really is likely to get–or stay–out of control, and that doesn’t look good either.

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One thing Britain hasn’t bungled is its work on medical responses to the coronavirus. The UK Recovery Trial is conducting randomized tests on a variety of medicines you can’t pronounce– and neither can I in case I made you feel bad for a moment there. 

They started work when Wuhan’s lockdown meant that Chinese researchers had so few enough cases to work with that drug trials came to a halt, and with the virus clearly headed for Britain they worked at high speed, taking nine days to do work that would normally take nine months, from drafting protocols to enrolling patients. 

Large trials need more patients than any single hospital can supply, and the existence of the National Health Service made it easy for them to enroll patients from multiple hospitals. Even better, the UK’s high death rates meant that at the beginning they had plenty of available cases. 

Every cloud has a silver lining, not to mention a cough and a fever. And sometimes a headache.

To date, they’ve shown that neither hydroxychloroquine or a combination of two drugs used for HIV help with the virus but that the steroid dexamethasone does.  They’re currently testing an antibiotic called azithromycin; an antibody called tocilizumab, and convalescent plasma–blood plasma from people who’ve recovered from the disease. 

I can pronounce convalescent plasma. Forget the rest of them.

The bad news is that because fewer people are being hospitalized in Britain (yes, every silver lining has a cloud as well), they have a smaller group of patients to recruit from, so research is moving more slowly.

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The New York Times has been tracking Covid-related medical trials. One that’s been in the news lately is work on monoclonal antibodies, which is satisfyingly easy to type. 

These are, more or less, a designer form of convalescent plasma. Instead of taking the whole range of a recovering patient’s antibodies, some of which will be as irrelevant to Covid as my photos are to my posts, they isolate the ones that look most potent, then replicate them synthetically and inject them into a patient.

Safety trials–the earliest stage of testing–have only just started.  

The Times also has a vaccine tracker if you want to take a look. Their Covid coverage isn’t behind a paywall.

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Can we abandon both the virus and the UK for a minute? A Texas state legislator, Jonathan Stickland, read a report about the Pentagon having an Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force and felt the need to tweet, “IF aliens are real, salvation through Jesus Christ is the only way they enter Heaven.”

And you’re telling us this why, Jon? In case they read Twitter? In case their sat-navs (in American, those are their GPSs) aren’t working?

It does raise the question of whether, if Christian beliefs (pick any strand you like) are correct, other planets couldn’t expect to get their own saviours or would have to ride on ours. And whether they’d be prone to different evils, which for the sake of simplicity I’ll agree to call sins. 

Interplanetary theology is going to be complicated.

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Want your feelgood story of the day? A family made up of parents, kids, and a huge honkin’ St. Bernard dog named (well, of course) Daisy climbed Scafell Pike–England’s highest mountain–and Daisy collapsed and couldn’t walk down. 

Daisy weighs 8 stone 9 pounds, or to put that in European, 55 kilos. Or in American, 121.25 pounds. You might be happy to carry that much weight down a mountain if it was neatly bundled into a backpack, but you’d struggle to even pick it up if it was distributed into the shape of a large, floppy dog.

The family called the Mountain Rescue Team, and two hours later a team of sixteen appeared, carrying a stretcher but not the cask of–was it supposed to be rum that St. Bernards carried around their necks when they were the ones doing mountain rescue? Or was that brandy?  

It took the team five hours to carry her down.

A long-time rescue team member said, “The team rescues canine casualties around a dozen times every year but this was the first time a St Bernard breed has been rescued by the team.

“Some might ask: ‘why rescue a dog?’ but our mission is to save life and alleviate distress. You can’t leave a dog on a mountain.”

C’mon, admit it, you tough old thing: You feel better, don’t you?

Non-pandemic news from Britain: wallabies, archeology, and poetry

Let’s take a break from the pandemic. An island in Loch Lomond is for sale, and it comes complete with woods, rocks, and a mob of wallabies.

Yes, the collective noun for wallabies does seem to be mob. Or possibly a troupe. Or a court. They were brought there by Lady Someoneorother–Arran: Lady Arran; I have a British passport now and I’m supposed to take this stuff seriously–in the 1920s (or ‘40s, depending on who you want to believe) from the family’s estate in southern England. Where, you may have guessed, they also weren’t a native species. 

The place is a steal at £500,000. Such a deal that you might want to buy two. The catch? The only building is a 1920s ruin and anyone living there is limited to sixty days a year. 

Buyer must like wallabies.

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Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower.

Bristol’s science and culture center asked city residents what questions they really, really wanted answered. The plan is to pick seven questions and address them in an exhibition. They got more than 10,000 questions, including a predictable amount about “poo and wee,” but others that ranged from the nature of time and the universe to whether god lives “in heaven because he’s scared of what he’d created.”

The science and cultural center doesn’t wander through the world without capital letters. Its real name is We The Curious, although I’d have gone for a lower case T.

Just sayin’, guys, in case you want to reconsider. Or explore that in an exhibition.

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A four-year-old has gotten a book contract for his poems. I mention this in case you’d managed not to feel bad about your own writing career (assuming, of course, that you’re a writer). The particularly annoying thing about it is that they’re definitely a kid’s poems, but they aren’t easy to dismiss.

One that was quoted runs:

   Take our gloves off.

   Take our shoes off.

   Put them where they’re supposed to go.

   You take off your brave feelings

   Because there’s nothing

   To be scared of in the house.

His name is Nadim Shamma-Sourgen and he dictates his poetry to his mother. He’s still learning to read. 

How has he responded to the fuss being made over his poetry? 

“When my poems are in a book,” he said, “can I please have a copy?”

And what has he learned?

“Don’t put your finger up your nose on live telly.”

Would that all writers were so wise.

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Okay, we can’t ignore the pandemic completely. Lockdown drove a lot of Britons to work in their gardens, and Britain having a long history of lost stuff, they’ve been finding things: A medieval silver coin. A medieval belt hook shaped like a snake. A rock with writing on it, probably from the fourth century. Roman pottery. 

It reinforces my belief that anywhere you put a shovel into British soil (except outside our house) you can find something of historical significance. 

All we find at our house is slate. And a couple of plastic toys left by the last owner’s kids.

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An archeological find in a cave in Mexico may end up changing the theory of when humans first reached the Americas. The going theory is that they arrived 13,500 years ago. The new finds argue that they may have arrived 30,000 years ago. That would have been before the last ice age ended, when the area would’ve had a climate a bit like Oregon or British Columbia.

Now get out of the way, because the archeologists are going to argue about it. Probably for a long time. 

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And one more pandemic story: Just after masks became compulsory in England, a man strolled down London’s Oxford Street wearing one. This is news because that’s all he was wearing, although it wasn’t covering his face.

If he was making a political point, no one cared what it was.

Tea, biscuits, and sewage: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

How did the  Great British Public cope with lockdown? By spending an extra £24m on tea and coffee in the last three months, and they splurged an extra £19m on biscuits–or to put that in American, on cookies. 

Alcohol? Sales were up by 41% this month. And people are reading more, although based on the alcohol sales they can’t remember a word of it come morning.

A number of readers have written that they look for something upbeat in these posts. I hope that qualifies. I’m vain enough that I want people to remember what I write, but let’s face it, I’ve written–yea, and published–some stuff that if they couldn’t remember it by morning they’d be doing me a favor.

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Screamingly irrelevant flowers. Whatsit flowers. In bloom. In our yard. They’re wonderful–the slugs don’t eat them.

By the end of October, the Great British Government will have some Great British Walk-In Testing Centers open in the hope that they’ll persuade more people to get tested. According to Great Government Estimates, the current testing program is picking up only a third of the estimated 1,700 Great New Infections per day.

Why? For starters, they’re testing either primarily or only people with symptoms. That leaves the symptomless carriers walking around shedding their germs. The rumor mill insists that if you go deeply enough into the small print of the government website you’ll find that symptomless people can be tested, but the font must be too small for my aging eyes. I haven’t found it. 

Of course, you can also just lie about having symptoms, and if I thought I’d been exposed I’d do it with no hesitation, but most people aren’t as [fill in your choice of adjective(s) here] as I am, and counting on people lying when it’s necessary isn’t the best way to set up a program.

Meanwhile, the centralized Test and Trace system is missing 45% of infected people’s close contacts. Or according to a different source, 20%. (Those may cover different areas. They may not. Go figure.)Local teams miss 2%, but we can’t rely on them because it’s important to privatize the service so someone can make a profit.

Does my writing look bitter in this?

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With twelve hours to go before face masks became compulsory in some places in England but not in others, the government released details on who-what-when-where-how. 

Okay, less than twelve hours, but I like round numbers.

We won’t do all the details. If you need them, go someplace sensible. But to give you a sense of how well thought out the guidelines are, if you’re a shop worker, you don’t have to wear a mask but if you’re a shop customer you do. However, they’re strongly recommended for shop workers. Where appropriate. 

What’s appropriate? The shop has to figure that out.

You do have to wear a mask in a bank. You don’t have to wear one in a movie theater. The virus is highly distractible. Give it a good shoot-em-up and it forgets its goal, which is to spread. Money, on the other hand, bores it shitless, so in a bank it continues to methodically infect your cells and spew forth its colleagues to infect new people.

Assuming, of course, that you’re a carrier. Which I don’t wish on any of us, but we can’t cover all the possible variations here. We’ll sink under the weight of verbiage. It’s bad enough as it is.

You do have to wear a mask when you go into a sandwich shop or cafe, but when you sit down to eat you can take it off. There’s no need to liquidize your sandwich and infuse through the layers or shove the mask into your mouth as you bite into your sandwich. If there’s table service, though, the virus getss lazy, so again, no mask.

Cabinet Minister Brandon Lewis explained that this is all “clear, good common sense.” 

I hope he and I have cleared things up.

Some chains have announced that they won’t be enforcing the rules. The police have said they can’t be bothered. 

Thanks, everyone. Speaking only for myself and a few hundred of my closest friends, we appreciate everything you’re doing to keep us safe. We’ll have to rely on the Great British Institutions of quiet social pressure and tutting. According to Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, they work. My partner stopped at the store today and everyone was wearing a mask except for one man. He looked around uneasily and tied a sweatshirt around his face. So that’s 100% out of a sample of one.

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Early studies in several countries make it look like sewage sampling will give an early warning of local coronavirus flare ups, even before people notice any symptoms. That bit of news comes from the most romantic of cities, Paris. From Eau de Paris, in fact, which sounds like something ladies dabbed behind their ears and on their wrists when I was a kid but is, in fact, the water and sewage company.

Who said the virus hasn’t brought us anything to enjoy?

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As long as we’re in France, a hospital in Lyon is running trials on a breathalyzer-like Covid detector that gives a result in seconds. They hope to have it up and running by the end of the year so they can test patients as they come in. If it gets through the early tests, the next hurdle will be making it affordable. At the moment, it’s too expensive to distribute widely.

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An international team has identified what seem to be the most powerful anti-Covid antibodies. Some of them, they think, hold promise as treatments. You may be able to get more out of the article than I could, so I’ll give  you a link. I didn’t even understand enough to make jokes. What little I’m telling you comes from a dumbed-down summary. What I do understand–or think I understand–is that the antibodies could be reproduced on a large scale and work as a treatment. 

Potentially.

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And finally, 84 of the world’s richest people have called for governments to tax the world’s wealthiest people–including them–more heavily to fund the world’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic’s economic impact, they say, could last for decades and “push half a billion more people into poverty” while they–the world’s wealthiest–have money and it’s desperately needed. 

The City of London: Where medieval silliness meets modern finance 

English place names strew confusion with all the restraint of a four-year-old trapped in a confetti barrel, so let’s start by sorting out what we’re talking about: The City of London isn’t the same as the city of London. Give city a small first letter and you’re talking about the place the world (sillly thing that it is) knows as London. Give it a capital letter and it’s not London but a square mile of high finance, non-resident voting, and that all-around oddity that the English do so gloriously. 

That capital-letter City calls itself the City, as if it was the only city the world ever knew. It’s also called the Square Mile because it’s not a square mile, it’s 1.2 square miles.

Follow me through the looking glass, kiddies. Let’s find out about the City of London. I’ll tell you everything I know. And much more. The sign that I’m telling you more than I know is that I quote big chunks of text from people who do know. Trust them. Ignore me.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what we’re looking at here, but I do know it’s a wildflower.

History

We pick up our tale in Anglo-Saxon England, at a time when London was England’s biggest city. It wasn’t the capital, but it was a center of trade and commerce. Which are the same thing but doesn’t it sound more important when I use both words? 

The city was important enough that Edward the Confessor–the almost-last of the Anglo-Saxon kings–thought it would be a good place to build a castle, not to mention a church that became known as Westminster so it wouldn’t get itself confused with the east minster, a.k.a. St. Paul’s. 

Then the Normans invaded, and even though William upended the box that was England and gave it a good hard shake, rattling everything and breaking some of it, he was careful not to break London. He granted it a charter and promised its citizens that they’d live under the same laws they’d had under Ed the almost-last Anglo-Saxon king. 

That’s important, because its special status continued under his successors and London grew to be wealthy, self-governing, self-taxing, self-judging, and surprisingly independent of the crown. It had its own militias, called the trained bands, which played a pivotal role at assorted turning points in the country’s history.

Fascinating as that is, though, it’s a tale for another post. I tried to work it into this one but it’s a rabbit hole. It was when I found a bottle labeled “Drink Me” that I realized how much trouble I was in. 

In 1100, London had a population of 18,000. By 1300, that had grown to 80,000. (That’s from the Britannica. WikiWhatsia says it was 100,000. Fair enough. Nobody was counting noses.)

Nearby Westminster had also grown, but not as much. Westminster was for the bean counters and administrators. You wouldn’t have wanted to move there. London was where the action was.

Within London, guilds formed and gained charters from the king. Their role was to defend the interests of their members, set prices and standards in their industries, settle disputes, control apprenticeships, and limit their membership (which just happened to limit competition). By 1400, the City had 100 guilds, and at least some of them were powerful beasts indeed. When a monarch needed money–and rich as they were, monarchs always needed money–the guilds could bow a few times, then finance a war or two and buy themselves and their city increased freedom from royal meddling.

Some of the guilds took to wearing livery–basically uniforms for their trades–and called themselves livery companies. Make a note of that. It’ll be on the test.

With all that history, though, there’s no piece of paper we can turn to that marks the City’s beginning. According to an article by Nicholas Shaxson in the New Statesman, “No charter constitutes [the City] as a corporate body. It grew up beside parliament and the crown, not directly subordinate to either but intertwined with both.”

 

More History

Around London, a patchwork of settlements grew up. In 1550, three-quarters of Londoners lived in the City. Among other things, this means the definition of a Londoner is getting hazy already. By 1700, only a quarter of them did. By 1800, that was down to a tenth. 

Even so, the City was crowded–enough so that at one point the Court of Common Council (that’s a fancy phrase for the City government) tried to stop houses from being subdivided into smaller, even more crowded units in a process called pestering. That doesn’t have much to do with our tale, but I had to sneak it in. It’s a very shallow rabbit hole. We’ll climb back out now.

In the seventeenth century, the crown asked the Corporation–that’s also the City government, and please don’t ask me to explain why it needs two names–to extend its jurisdiction to the new settlements. If it had said yes, London would be one city, but it refused. That’s called the great refusal of 1637 and it set up the odd, two-city structure London still has. Inside the large city that we naive fools think of as London sits the City of London, like the pit inside a peach. It left the sprawling settlements outside to solve their own problems so it could continue as it always had.

This decision eventually turned around and bit it on the ass. The guilds that had controlled competition by limiting their membership? They had no sway outside the City, and competitors were free to offer cheaper goods and services. 

Time passed, and we’ll let the Financial Times article provide a bridge to the present day: 

“Even as Parliament displaced the Crown as the fundamental unit of sovereignty and democracy displaced the Divine Right of Kings as the principle of legitimacy, the state still refused to subordinate the Corporation of London to national laws and practices. Its assets and its ancient privileges remained untouched. . . . The Corporation’s assets, its property inventory and financial portfolio remain unpublished.”

 

Government and Independence

So here we are in the modern City of London. How’s the place governed? 

The guilds have been central from the start, and they still are. The lord mayor, who heads the City of London Corporation, has to belong to one of the livery companies. And he or she has to have been a City sheriff. Both positions are elected by the senior members of the livery companies, who also elect bridge masters, auditors, and ale conners. 

Ale conners? They’re essential. They taste the ale. Also the beer. It was a fairly standard medieval position that most towns and cities have been happy to let sink into quiet obscurity. Not the City.

The livery companies also approve the candidates for alderman. 

After the livery companies have made sure the alder-candidates are acceptable, what happens? Why, the people get to vote, of course. It’s a democracy, isn’t it?

Who are the people? That’s where it gets interesting. Some 8,000 people live in the City, but almost 19,000 people vote there. And it’s all legal

How? If a business has up to nine staff members, it gets one vote. Up to fifty, it can appoint one voter for every five staff members. Above that, it gets ten voters plus one for every additional fifty. 

Anyone want to place bets on how independent those voters are?

The City has twenty-five wards, but the residents are concentrated in four of them, which limits resident impact even more.

As a City spokesperson explained,“The City is a democratic institution. All of its councillors are elected.” 

They pay people a lot of money to say things like that with a straight face.

The spokesperson also said, “As the local authority we provide public services to both 7,400 residents and 450,000 City workers. Therefore to reflect the needs of the workers who come to the City each day, businesses located in the City can appoint people to vote in our local elections.”

Okay, we now have an elected government. What’s its purpose? According to several non-radical sources, its purpose these days is to represent international finance.

An article in the New Statesman says, “By the 1980s, the City was at the centre of a great, secretive financial web cast across the globe, each of whose sections–the individual havens–trapped passing money and business from nearby jurisdictions and fed them up to the City: just as a spider catches insects. So, a complex cross-border merger involving a US multinational might, say, route a lot of the transaction through Caribbean havens, whose British firms will then send much of the heavy lifting work, and profits, up to the City. . . .

“Thus, the role of the City of London Corporation as a municipal authority is its least important attribute. This is a hugely resourced international offshore lobbying group pushing for international financial deregulation, tax-cutting and tax havenry around the world.” 

To make sense of how a city can be a tax haven when it’s inside a country that isn’t a tax haven, we have to go back to the City’s independence. Parliament (and I keep checking this because I can’t entirely believe I have it right) doesn’t have authority over the City. The City functions, basically, as an autonomous state within the U.K. International banks can do things within the City that the governments of their home countries don’t allow. Even if their home country is Britain.

According to a paper called “The City of London Corporation: The quasi-independent tax haven in the heart of London,” “Parliament has powers to make legislation affecting the City of London; however, any suggestion brought forth to the Corporation of London falls within its discretion, without liability of enactment. [No, I didn’t get that the first or third time around either. It has to do with parliament not having authority over the City.] To keep a watchful eye on all legislation passing through Parliament, and to safeguard its exclusive rights and privileges, the City of London has a permanent representative, called the City Remembrancer, who sits in Parliament beneath the Speaker’s chair to observe House of Commons proceedings. The Remembrancer is the City of London’s envoy. Should Parliament contemplate any legislation against the City’s interests, the Remembrancer is duty-bound to communicate such matters to his peers, whereupon it shall lie within the Guildhall’s purview to engage a City Sheriff to petition Parliament against any unsavoury bill.”

To explain how this happened, the New Statesman article says, “Over centuries, sovereigns and governments have sought City loans, and in exchange the City has extracted privileges and freedoms from rules and laws to which the rest of Britain must submit. The City does have a noble tradition of standing up for citizens’ freedoms against despotic sovereigns, but this has morphed into freedom for money.”

Britain being Britain, the City’s independence plays out in outdated costumes and obscure ceremonies that everyone performs as if they made sense. Again, the New Statesman:

Whenever the Queen makes a state entry to the City, she meets a red cord raised by City police [the City has its own police force; London’s police have no authority there unless they’re invited] at Temple Bar, and then engages in a col­ourful ceremony involving the lord mayor, his sword, assorted aldermen and sheriffs, and a character called the Remembrancer.” 

The surviving livery companies include the Worshipful Company of Mercers (its coat of arms looks like it was drawn by a twelve-year-old obsessed with blond-haired princesses; I looked for a unicorn but didn’t find one), the Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers, and the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

No, I didn’t make any of that up. 

More than one government has tried to democratize the City. So far, they’ve all failed.