Education, chaos, and lawsuits: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Way back when pandemics were nothing more than handy plot devices for weary writers or the nightmares of sensible scientists, I remember reading about a different nightmare scenario, the investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause that was being negotiated into an assortment of international trade and investment agreements. It allows foreign companies to sue governments in what are always described as highly secretive tribunals (and I’m paraphrasing some slippery language, so I may not be hitting this next bit directly on the head) for money they lost, or might have lost, due to government actions. 

I read a lot of nightmare scenarios, and I try not to let them keep me awake at night. This one came from sensible sources, so I didn’t disbelieve it, but nothing happened (at least where I could see it), the world as I knew it didn’t end, so I went back to sleep. 

Sunday’s paper, though, brought the news that it’s time to wake up. Big-money law firms are shooting emails to their clients on the subject. One, Ropes & Gray, wrote that actions brought under investment treaties could be “a powerful tool to recover or prevent loss resulting from Covid-19-related government actions.” 

The fear of lawsuits may mean that governments will back away from decisive responses to the pandemic, or to its economic impact, for fear of getting sued. investor 

Just when you thought we’d hit bottom, right?


New research suggests something we already know: that we still don’t know much about how actively kids spread Covid-19. Researchers in South Korea first suggested that kids from ten to nineteen are better virus spreaders than adults, but once people dug deeper into their it became less clear just who infected who. 

So the current best educated guess is that kids in that age group are at least no more likely to spread the infection than adults are. Unless, of course, they go out and act stupid, in which case they will, but not because they’re biologically better conduits.

But–and there’s always a but–kids do tend to have contact with more people than adults do, which would mean they could be great conduits, but for social rather than biological reasons.

I hope I’ve confused the picture sufficiently.


Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper getting ready for autumn.

A company in Cardiff has developed a quick test that spots Covid-19 T cells. T cells last longer than antibodies and have their own ways of fighting infection. They’re the things your body turns to when the first line of defense crumbles. 

The test may be useful in developing a vaccine.

It’s been possible to test for T cells before this, but it’s a slower process. The developer, Dr. HIndley, said, the new test  “stripped back everything to the bare bones” and a lab can get a result in 24 hours.


England has been in chaos over A-level grades

A bit of background: A-levels are a standardized test that students hoping to go to university (if you’re American, substitute college) first take and then submit. But the tests were canceled this year because of the virus. 

What to do? Well, every year teachers submit predicted grades–an estimate of how well students will do–and students either prove them right or don’t.

Could the students use their predicted instead? No, that would be too simple. The government stepped in to prevent the horror of grade inflation by applying an algorithm to the grades and creating grade deflation, penalizing students from poor and minority backgrounds, from schools that don’t usually do well, and from larger classes in more popular subjects. It didn’t penalize students from affluent, non-minority backgrounds, good schools, and private schools. Or students who were in very small classes.

Some 40% of the estimated grades were downgraded.  

An assortment of students lost the university places they’d been offered because their grades had been downgraded.

Then when everyone started shouting, the government said, fine, your school can appeal your grades. 

Then the secretary of state for education, on behalf of the government, said the process was robust and fair.

Then the government said, okay, we won’t charge your school if it appeals your grades and loses, something it would normally do.

Then the exam regulator published advice which contradicted something the government had said about the appeals process.

Then the regulator withdrew its advice. 

Then several students filed a lawsuit against the regulator.

Then members of parliament from all parties got inundated with letters from their constituents and felt the need to make very-unhappy noises to the government.

Then Boris Johnson, our alleged prime minister, went on vacation.

Then everybody remembered that the grades for a different standardized test for somewhat younger students are due to be released on Thursday and all hell was going to break loose all over again. Or not all over again, because this particular hell hadn’t stopped breaking yet.

Then I finally understood why universities didn’t declare the whole system invalid and accept the students they wanted in the first place: The government had limited the number of students they can accept. Why did they do that? I don’t understand the logic here, so I’ll quote an explanation from March of this year:

Strict limits on the number of students that each university in England can recruit were imposed by the government in an effort to avoid a free-for-all on admissions, with institutions plunged into financial turmoil as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Guardian has learned.

“A government source said each university would face limits on the number of UK and EU undergraduates it could admit for the academic year starting in September, in a move backed by higher education leaders. It will be the first such limit since the university admission cap was lifted in 2015.”

Exactly why extra students would be a problem when they’re losing international students I can’t explain, but it’s good to know that the government wants to avoid turmoil.

Then the secretary of state for education said he was really sorry and he hadn’t meant any of it. Everyone could use their predicted grades. And the cap on the number of students? They hadn’t meant that either. 

Then the universities were left to pick up the pieces, which you’ll find scattered on the floor of admissions offices all over the country, along with the admissions officers themselves, who are currently unable to haul themselves into their chairs.

And the kids–or former kids–who hadn’t been able to take the test get to pick up the pieces as well, because reversing the decision didn’t make everything snap back to the way it had been before their grades were lowered. Some kids missed out on scholarships. Programs with a limited number of places have already offered those places to other candidates. 

Scotland got itself into the same problem but made a quick u-turn, reverting to the grades the teachers had predicted. Why did England hold out for so long? Why, to wring the maximum amount of chaos out of the situation. Why look like a jerk by reversing yourself quickly when you can look like a world-class jerk and make scads of enemies by reversing yourself slowly? I’m a devotee of the mess as an art form–it’s underestimated, in my opinion–but really, guys, schools start again in September and I’ll have plenty to work with. You can stop anytime you like. 

Which reminds me to say that the government’s abolishing National Health England, folding it into the test-and-trace system. Since test and trace has been a disaster, they’re handing the two services to the person who’s been in charge of it, Dido Harding. We’ll catch up with that eventually.


This final item has nothing to do with Covid, but let’s toss it in anyway: The Home Office refused a British lawyer a visa he hadn’t applied for. 

He got married abroad and applied for a visa so his wife to join him in the country, submitting hundreds of pages of documents and a fee that topped £3,000. The Home Office refused him a £95 visa for a visit. And he couldn’t appeal the decision because he hadn’t applied for that visa.

Do we summon up the spirit of Joseph Heller (that’s Catch-22‘s author) or Franz Kafka?

When a newspaper called the Home Office, presumably for a quote, they decided to consider the application the man had actually filed.

His brother, who also married abroad, was refused a visa for his wife on the grounds that his description of the family restaurant’s menu differed from his father’s description. The father said it served pizza. The son said it also served garlic bread, chicken wings, and ice cream.

It’s a good thing capital punishment’s been abolished in the U.K. or they might’ve been hung for that.

A judge overturned the Home Office decision and ordered them to pay the couple £140. They still haven’t gotten it.

55 thoughts on “Education, chaos, and lawsuits: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

  1. I think we need a new regulator: OffGov. They would be responsible for rating the Government’s performance. But as this would start at zero, how would they be able to downgrade them? Then again, in the view of anyone with half a brain, they’re already in negative territory.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.
    ‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’
    Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’
    ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
    ― Lewis Carroll

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Someone in whatever quango is in charge of this regrading shambles is responsible for the decision to use an evidently unfairly weighted system.
    Who is it? I would like to have the name made public.
    As I would like to know who it was who selected Imperial College’s model as the route for government to follow.
    Names….we never get them.
    I see the woman in charge of Track Test and Trace was appointed on a misunderstanding….as an amateur jockey the only track she knows about is the race track….

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the quangos are a thing of the past. David Cameron, if I’m remembering this correctly, slaughtered them all. And as you can see, everything’s going so-o-o much better now. The system was supposed to make everything just the way it was last year, so if your school didn’t do well, clearly you couldn’t either. I’d say the buck has to stop with Gavin Williamson, the sec. of state for education. Hearing him dodge the question of whether he’d resign was a master class in evasion.

      No idea about the Imperial College model.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agencies’ are the new quangos. Williamson does not decide off his own bat…he has advice. I want to know who gave it…otherwise a minister resigns and the same dumb cluck advises the next minister.
        That goes for every aspect of government and I would like the guilty hauled into the light.

        Liked by 1 person

        • He has zero background in education and when interviewed sounds completely clueless. He was assured that the algorithm would be fair, so it must be someone else’s fault. Ofqual’s available: blame them. My solution would be for Boris Johnson to resign, just as soon as he comes back from vacation. A government that values competence and knowledge would be a nice start.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thus he relies on advice and I would like to know who is giving it – and how they were appointed, and what their own experience might be.
            You can sack the whole pack and boiling of any government, but they all depend on advice and we should know who is giving it.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. One thing holding up the current Covid aid bill is the GOP’s insistence that it contain a clause that protects a company from lawsuits if it insists workers must come back to work or lose their job, and then they get sick from the work environment,

    Former First Lady Michelle Obama gave the keynote speech in last night’s virtual Democratic convention. Her final point was (and I’m paraphrasing, but not too loosely) “If you think things cannot possily get any worse, I am here to tell you – yes they can !”

    Liked by 2 people

  5. In the US, It’s a mad patchwork. Schools open…schools close. They’re all doing their own thing! To make matters worse, it’s difficult to get information about the pandemic on a regular basis anymore. I just stay home as much as I can, wear a mask, and bide my time. Cheryl

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Some very interesting info about testing here on Jim Webster’s excellent blog. Scroll down to the bit about Covid (unless you’re especially interested in TB testing in cows). The gist of it is that if we keep testing everybody then we’ll never know if the virus is eliminated because you’ll always get a percentage of false positives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll read it when life settles down a bit–it’s particularly crazy right now. With the current test, though, I haven’t read about false positives, only a substantial number of false negatives. Either way, I wouldn’t think that giving up on the idea of testing everyone is a sensible response.


  7. Pingback: Scapegoats, efficiency, and contracts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain | Notes from the U.K.

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