The pandemic update from Britain: golf balls, antibodies, and shreds of hope

As the English coronavirus policy wanders off in a different direction than the one Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are following, things are getting predictably strange around here. But first, some background. 

Anyone who isn’t from the U.K. could be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s all one country, with one government, one flag, and one national anthem, and one national policy. And it is. But it also isn’t.

Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England are all nations within that one country, with their own flags, and (except for England) their own national anthems, and (except for England) their own governments. So the British government governs Britain, but it also governs England. 

We won’t get into national anthems right now. The British–or maybe that’s the English; I’m American originally, so I get dizzy when we talk about this stuff–only sing when they’re drunk anyway.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Are you making any sense of this at all? 

No, I didn’t think so. The problem is, it could easily take up the whole post, but we need to move on to the important stuff, which is golf, so let’s condense it and say that the British government devolved some powers to the national (which you could call regional if it makes you happier) governments, and because of that when the prime minister announced to a baffled public that instead of staying home to beat the virus everyone now had to stay alert to beat the virus, the regional governments said, effectively, “You’re out of your mind.” They’re keeping both the lockdown and the stay-home slogan.

As a result (and we’ve finally gotten to the point), a golf course that straddles the border between England and Wales can’t figure out whether it’s open or closed. The Llanymynech golf club has fifteen holes that are in Wales, two that are in England, and one that starts in Wales and ends in England. Its official policy at the moment is, “We don’t know what we can do.”

I suggest opening the English holes but warning players that if a ball crosses into Wales, pffft, it will disappear in midair. 

*

In case my explanation of British politics doesn’t leave you confused enough, allow me to add that Britain isn’t really a country. We just call it that to confuse outsiders. The country’s full name is the United Kingdom of a Bunch of Random Places.

*

J.K. Rowling loved England’s new “stay alert” slogan enough to tweet, “Is Coronavirus sneaking around in a fake moustache and glasses? If we drop our guard, will it slip us a Micky Finn? What the hell is ‘stay alert’ supposed to mean?”

Dave Ward, of the Communication Workers Union, loved it too. He said, “Stay alert? It’s a deadly virus not a zebra crossing.”

A zebra crossing? That’s not a place where zebras cross. Zebras aren’t native to the country allegedly known as Britain. It’s a place where pedestrians cross a street, and it’s marked with white stripes that make it look nothing like a zebra.

It’s pronounced ZEBBra, not ZEEbra.

And the British spell mustache with an O, moustache, as if a small rodent had crawled in.

*

A healthcare company, Randox, was awarded a £133 million contract to produce Covid-19 testing kits for the Department of Health and Social care, without any competitive bidding. And the company just happens to pay Owen Paterson, who’s a Conservative MP, a former cabinet minister, and a big-league Brexiteer, £500 an hour to consult about the consulty-type things that consultants consult about. That adds up, in his case, to about £100,000 a year, and if a person was careful about the small things she or he could probably live on that. Although mercifully he doesn’t have to, since he also has his MP’s salary and expenses, plus I have no idea what else.

It’s not illegal for MPs to consult with or lobby for companies that do business with the government as long as their lobbying doesn’t (and I’m going to quote from an article in the Guardian here, because, A, I trust them to get their facts straight, and, B, I don’t understand a word of it, so I can’t paraphrase) “help to give an exclusive financial benefit to the client and the client [didn’t initiate] the lobbying.” 

So who can initiate the lobbying? The planet Saturn when it’s in the house of cocaine, because that’s always conducive to profit. 

I kind of thought, silly me, that the whole point of lobbying was to gain an exclusive financial benefit. But it’s all okay, beause the Department of Health and Social Care says it’s increased its testing capacity at phenomenal speed. 

Clap your hands and say with me: “I do believe in fairies. I do believe in fairies.”

*

The coronavirus tests that the National Health Service currently uses look for the presence of the virus itself in a person’s system. But there’s a different kind of test, which can pick up the presence of antibodies, spotting people who have the virus now but also people who used to have it and are better. Using it would let you test a sample population and figure out how far the beast has spread, which would let policymakers figure out what they’re actually dealing with. And (forgive me, I know this is a huge leap) let them make  sensible decisions about how to handle it. 

It could also provide useful information to people working on vaccines, including whether immunity exists at all and if it does whether it will be lifelong or short lived. A study from Shanghai hints that people who had a lighter case of the bug may come away with a lighter immune response. Widespread testing should give a better picture of that as well.

Antibody tests are evaluated on the basis of two things: their specificity and their sensitivity. 

Specificity means the proportion of healthy people the test recognizes as healthy, and for the test to be useful this has to be close to 100%. I’m going to explain this without understanding it myself, so if you have a seat belt, this would be a good time to fasten it. You could also stick your fingers in your ears and hum. It just might help.

If a test is 90% accurate, instead of mislabeling 10% of the population, it would (if 5% of the population had been infected) mislabel 70%. I’ve gone over that several times and it almost makes sense to me, but then it slips away. 

I’ll tell you what, don’t worry about it. It won’t make you happy. Numbers so seldom do. Let’s talk about sensitivity instead. 

Sensitivity is how many people who’ve had the virus the test is able to spot and (if I understood this correctly, which I can’t guarantee) how strong an antibody response to the virus a person has to have to register on the test. 

Two U.S. companies now have Food and Drug Administration approval for antibody tests that have 99.8% specificity and 100% sensitivity. The problem with them both is that they can’t be done at home. Someone medical has to take a blood sample and a lab has to process it.

Britain (remember than imaginary country, Britain, the one that’s really called the United Kingdom of Several Other Places?)–

Let’s start over: Britain has been chasing after a test that can be done at home and sold by the million, cheaply. In April, the government of our imaginary country spent £16 million buying 4 million tests, which turned out to fail on both sensitivity and specificity but other than that were great. 

Something in the neighborhood of 17.5 million more tests have been ordered provisionally from other suppliers. If they work, and if they’re used in a competent, coordinated way, we might find a way out of this mess. 

I was feeling good until I typed competent and coordinated

Still, the possibility of widespread testing, especially if it can be combined with tracing and sanity, does bring us a quick glimpse of hope.

*

Poland had a presidential election on Sunday with a record turnout of 0%. Even someone as mathematically impaired as I am can take that in. 

The vote wasn’t canceled, but on the other hand the polling stations stayed closed. 

What’s that got to do with the coronavirus? Opposition politicians had been pushing to postpone the election because of the pandemic, asking the government to declare either a state of emergency or a national disaster. The government refused, saying the situation wasn’t serious enough.   

The electoral commission now says it has two weeks to set a new date. 

*

A Republican state representative from Ohio, Nino Vitale, is refusing to wear a face mask because it would hide the image of god.

If you want to decide for yourself whether he looks like god, you can find photos of him here. Including one where he’s pointing a handgun. As gods do.

The White House is now requiring staff to wear masks. The president? He doesn’t have to.

Meanwhile, Kam Buckner, a Democratic state representative from Illinois was stopped by police as he came out of a store wearing a mask and gloves. Do I need to tell you that Buckner’s black and Vitale’s white?

He asked why he was being stopped and the cop (allegedly) said, “People are using the coronavirus to do bad things. I couldn’t see your face, man. You looked like you were up to something.”

*

And finally, some those shreds of good news that I promised you.

In Germany, the R number–basically, the rate at which the virus spreads–has fallen below 1. I want to keep this brief, so just take my word that this is good.

Iceland plans to let people coming into the country avoid quarantine by taking a Covid-19 test.

In Athens, the pandemic has led to pedestrians and cyclists taking over the public spaces abandoned by cars, and it’s such a hit that the city plans to ban cars from the city center permanently.

The World Health Organization says four or five treatments offer a shred of a hint of a possibility of hope for the fight against the virus. They don’t stop the virus, but they do seem–in very early trials–to limit the disease’s severity or shorten the time a person stays ill. That’s progress, people, or at least a faint whiff of it.

I hope the link at the top of the paragraph works–it’s from the Guardian‘s news update, which will inevitably move on.

87 thoughts on “The pandemic update from Britain: golf balls, antibodies, and shreds of hope

  1. There is a theory that Trump will never wear a facemask for fear of getting orange “stuff” on it (tan? makeup? what is that). To be fair that, Nino Vitale is stupidly good-looking (with the emphasis on stupid, I guess).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This made me laugh and smile.
    Britain and british covers England, Ireland (half – I know! If you’re born on the border are you Irish and British or only Irish? That golf course is good…), Scotland and Wales

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah yes. The Guardian, that pathogen to good intent and unpicker of silver linings. Slayer of small dragons , friend of the hare and master of hounds.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Its coverage of the pandemic has been excellent. No dragons have been hurt in the process (we can discuss whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing or a bit of both), but a lot of good reporting.

      Like

  4. I can’t begin to imagine the distress occurring in Old Blighty at present, which is of course contributing to some of the despairing highlights of the madness that is befalling you. Here in Oz, we closed the borders early, locked down early, quarantined lots of people, and made people stay at home, all done in a democratic country. As a result we have had less than 100 deaths to date, in a country whose population is a bit over one third of Britain. (My home State of South Australia currently has 1 active case.) Vietnam has done even better and has not had a single Covid death. Please be assured that this is nothing to do with colonial yah-sucks-boo but amazement that the British people haven’t risen up as one and demanded better.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I suspect the furious are not in the minority, albeit for different reasons. But after all, what is a political party but a collective of individuals who have decided to be furious together to get some of what they want done? Ironically, some of the furious are hell bent on life returning to ‘normal’ asap and let the Devil take the hindmost (i.e. Boomers.)

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for your explanation of the United Kingdom which has always been sort of a mystery to me since I memorized England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in my world geography class in high school. It’s hard to let that go once you have it in your head.
    News from the USA this morning as I took my medications: Paul Manafort (a former consultant a/k/a campaign chairman to Agent Orange) who was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison for conviction on charges of bank and tax fraud, foreign lobbying related crimes, who has served 1/3 of his time has now been released to serve the remainder of his time confined to his home due to guess what? Fears of the coronavirus in his jail, which by the way, doesn’t have one case so far.
    This on the heels of the recent news that Mike Flynn, who pled guilty not once but twice, to lying to the FBI and Mike Pence under oath (Mike Pence wouldn’t know the truth if it slapped him on his plaster face) is now being considered for a reversal of his plea with Attorney General Barr-Burr advocating for his release which will allow Flynn to return to Mike Pence and the administration in some TBD capacity.
    I really don’t have enough pills this morning.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I tend to call moustaches mouse-taches so I can remember ow to spell it… it doesn’t actually help because I tend to end up with a rogue e…

    Also, I reckon (based on no actual knowledge or research) that they were called moustaches because they looked like mice were lying around on there! In the extremely likely event that this isn’t true, we should change history so it becomes true!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Liked the video about Britain,
    … or the British Isles ….or U K. Maybe I should just say I liked the video and stop there. That clears everything up somewhat, assuming anyone else agreed with the man who made it, which is a big assumption.

    Since one if our states and most territories are not in America we should change our name to U S of many places. Or just US.

    I gave up trying to understand the statistics also. Did not make sense, and my head starting hurting. That often happens when I read something with stats. They never add up to be sensible.

    I liked seeing the good news. I was anout to give up on it before I finally saw it, tucked away at the end, smell shred that it was. But we take sny shred we can get these days. Despair is now becoming a threat.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, the video is good. Clear and accurate while still being absurd. One problem with the statistics is that most countries are doing a shit job of tracking the virus, so we don’t know much about the real stats. The other is that a lot depends on who interprets them. Britain’s initial response to the virus was purely stats driven, but they didn’t consult epidemiologists, who have a whole ‘nother way of understanding what they mean.

      Hang onto those shreds of hope.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Thank you as always for your pithy and witty synopsis of what in the heck the UK (or GB – or its component nations) and the world are getting up to right now. Trying to provide a precis of BoJo’s gibberish “Stay Alert” plan must have been mentally taxing since it is apparent that even he does not know what it means.

    We were discussing yesterday (?) the probability that Johnson is modeling himself after Trump *judder* and I suspect that the choice of “Stay Alert”, with all of its wartime poster propaganda connotations, is a move very like Trump’s to make out like he is a “Wartime Leader” in a war against the “invisible enemy” because they know wartime leaders are among the most popular and tend to do well in adjacent elections.

    I am still living in an area with very strict and rigid Shelter in Place rules so have not yet had to navigate that grey area of the next phase of easing out of lockdown. Conversations with friends in England, however, make it apparent that they have not got a clue what is and what is not permitted or what is even possible in this “stay alert” phase. One friend has a husband who is being forced to return to his office job and was looking for guidance on how to best decontaminate him before he enters the home (don’t ask me why she thought I would know because I don’t remotely claim to be an expert in such things) and another friend cannot work out how she can possibly return to her workplace when her child won’t be in school. It’s an arses and elbows policy that is only going to cause confusion and chaos and – inevitably – another peak in cases of infection and death.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Inevitably, yes, it will. I’m reading about people being pressured into going back to work in spite of health issues. With no clear protection, it will happen, inevitably. As for what can and can’t be done, locally there’s a big flap over the beach–is it open, isn’t it open, what about dogs, what about camels, who has the authority to decide anything and does it matter since no one’s around to enforce it anyway?

      Okay, I’m the only one who asks that last question, and in response I get those oh-you-Americans look that mixes tolerance, amusement, and disapproval, all in one.

      The teachers’ unions are saying the plans to reopen the schools are nuts and are advising teachers not to cooperate. (I’m paraphrasing that last bit, probably inaccurately.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Seems like Charlie Darwin’s cuz, Frankie Galton, started the ball rolling (got a lot to answer for, that mob). https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20140708-when-crowd-wisdom-goes-wrong This article from your Beeb contains the research evidence on the matter and concludes with “If you want accuracy, then, add those who might disagree strongly with your group. What do you reckon of the chances that managers and politicians will select such contrarian candidates to join them? All the same, armed with this information I intend to apply for a position in the Cabinet of the British government. They’d be wise not to refuse.”
        You to a T, Ellen ;-)

        Liked by 1 person

        • You’d be a great addition, although I can’t say I’d wish it on you. Can I suggest that you take on Larry the Cat as your advisor? He’s the only one within miles of 10 Downing Street who’s not swayed by political considerations.

          I’ll check out the article in a moment of relative sanity. In the meantime, thanks.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. What is Eire doing about the coronavirus ? Since geographically it seems to be stuck in the middle there.

    There is some talk today of training dogs to sniff out the virus – say at large airports. Since dogs have been known to be able to detect cancers alert their owners to impending seizures, etc, this is nowhere near as weird as a lot of things being proposed. Injecting bleach, e.g.

    Oh dear – as an Ohioan I was unaware of Nino Vitale. Does he have God tattooed on his nose,or what ? We were aware that GOP rep Jim Jordan doesn’t wear a mask because there isn;t one big enough to cover his mouth.

    I’m with JK Rowling on “staying alert” – like all those protestors carrying automatic weapons for what ? To shoot the virus ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re ahead of me on the dogs, and you’re right: They’re looking into it: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-52057543

      I haven’t followed what’s happening in Ireland. I’m barely keeping up with what’s happening here plus the few other places that pop up in the news. My impression is that they’re doing better than the UK is and being undermined (to I’m not sure what extent) by Northern Ireland right on their border.

      Like

  10. I have ancestors from the Isle of Man and am interested to know it’s a Crown Dependency. I wish dogs could sniff this out. Although I sat in the Vienna airport waiting for a flight and had my shoes slobbered on twice by dogs looking for drugs, so it might not be what we thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great post and great spin on the chaos of the uk government mess. Upto two or three weeks ago I was hopeful. But when we reached 20k and 5 days later 30k deaths, then I just stopped watching the daily press briefing. I don’t know what to feel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know. And that’s only the deaths they’re counting, because there are all those “excess deaths” out there that aren’t officially attributed to the corona virus but that wouldn’t normally be happening, so we can rashly assume they’ve got something to do with it. I know of one in our village that won’t go on the record as related but was, very clearly. Why we’re not tearing No. 10 apart, brick by brick, I have no idea.

      Sorry–it’s 7:30 in the morning and my sense of humor isn’t awake yet. If you have any choice about what to feel, can I recommend feeling strong? We will, somehow, get through this.

      Stay well.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. You say the English only sing when they’re drunk. So they’re pretty much always singing – is that what you’re telling me?

    Also, if Trump “pulls a Poland” (which under normal circumstances he would never lower himself to do… unless it suited him in which case the Poles are the BEST) and tries to postpone the election, I will FREAK OUT!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A lot of people will. And a lot of people are speculating on the chances of it happening. It’s hard to believe–it would amount to a coup–but a lot of what’s happening these days is hard to believe.

      Are the English always singing? Well, no, I don’t think so. But then, they’re sober a fair portion of the time. I don’t spend enough time in pubs to do a real survey of how often they sing compared to how often they drink. I do know, from a small and unscientific survey of streets at closing time, that they sing more often than drunken Americans. I also know, from a good attendance record at a local singers night, that a lot of people, if they’re pushed to sing, will say that they haven’t had enough to drink yet. And that some people who are obviously non-singers will let loose if they’re shitfaced.

      Hope that helps, in its unscientific way.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. If they can figure out how to say “Llanymynech” they should be able to figure out anything.

    “…the government of our imaginary country spent £16 million buying 4 million tests, which turned out to fail on both sensitivity and specificity but other than that were great.” As long as they were great, I’m sure our administration in Washington will take them off your hands. If they were beautiful, we’d probably pay twice what you paid for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And boil them in bleach so that they not only test but cure.

      The Welsh double L is a lovely beast for an English speaker. You kind of put an explosive H in front of the L sound and tell your friends not to stand too close on your first few tries or you’ll infect them with the virus. Or–well, I’m an English speaker. That’s as close as I’ve managed to come.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. When Snoops and Kommando Kitty are “On guard and alert” it means they are watching for mice. Maybe your government has classified the virus as vermin, not realizing it is too small to see.

    Liked by 1 person

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