Freedom, survival, and flag waving: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A reporter asked Boris Johnson (although not in these words) whether the mess we call our Covid test and trace system might explain why Italy and Germany have lower infection rates. 

Britain’s a “freedom-loving country,” Johnson explained, “and if you look at the history of this country in the last 300 years, virtually every advance, from freedom of speech to democracy, has come from this.”

In other words, “I may not approve of the coronavirus, but I will defend to the death our right to respond with complete incompetence, as well as my right to give fat contracts to my friends and respond to pointed questions with irrelevant answers.”

Wave that flag, folks. Strike up the band. There’s money to be made.

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Irrelevant photo: Orange berries. What would you do without me to explain these thing to you?

England’s Covid tracing app, let’s call it App 2 point 0h-Yes-We-Will, is up and running. The older one, App 1 point 0h-No-You-Won’t crashed into the brick wall of reality when it was tested on the Isle of Wight, leaving barely enough shards to make fun of. But take heart: 2 point 0h-Yes-We-Will is off to a roaring start.

  • Android users were able to download the trial version, so of course some of them did. They hated it. 
  • iPhone users who left a hyphen out of the app’s name got the New Zealand version. None of them came within two meters–or several thousand miles–of anyone on the system. This may be the fastest way to stop the spread.
  • NHS workers who downloaded the app and brought their phones to work were told they’d been exposed, even though they were wearing protective gear. 
  • People with older phones were sent into the outer darkness–that place where apps are unavailable and contact with the rest of the human race has to be made in person. “Older” is defined as prior to 2018.
  • People who had symptoms but tested negative can’t enter that into the app. It only accepted positive. But since they’ve been tested, the isolate-yourself countdown began. And couldn’t be turned off.
  • People who took tests outside of the privatized testing system–through NHS England, for example–couldn’t enter them into the app. That was tens of thousands of results that were missed. Daily. 
  • Users could only mark themselves down as infectious if they’ve been tested. The idea–probably a reasonable one, given what the world’s like–was to keep a bunch of wiseasses from saying they were infectious for the sheer joy of sending people home to isolate needlessly and, basically, shutting the country down because it sounded like a fun thing to do on a Saturday night. But since the testing system’s broken and tests are hard to get, people who genuinely were infectious couldn’t prove it to the app. 

Other than that, though, it’s going well. Except for Downing Street at first saying the app couldn’t trace contacts and then having to explain that, well, yes, actually it can. And will. And sing “There’ll Always Be an England” while it does it. 

You have to love these people. I’m not sure what they thought the point of the app was if it couldn’t trace contacts, and whoever they threw out in front of the press apparently didn’t stop to wonder. By now, I expect everyone at the press conference was too punchy to think of the question until it was too late to ask it.

I’ve scrupulously listed the app’s problems in the past tense, although I’d bet a batch of very good brownies that most–possibly all–of them could be hurled into the present tense without damaging my credibility even a small amount.

My credibility’s limited, I know, but I still have more than the people running the country.

Britain, by the way, has more test capacity than Germany, Ireland, South Africa, Spain, or South Korea. And in spite of that, people can’t get tested. 

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A study said the privatized network of Covid testing labs “bypassed accreditation and raises quality concerns.” It also criticized the system of having people do their own swabs, saying it can lead to useless samples. 

When you do the test, you’re told to swab either your tonsils or their last known address. My tonsils still live with me, as they have for 73 years now, so I know they’re somewhere in Cornwall. But we don’t have the kind of relationship where we do a lot of hand-holding, so when I took a test I couldn’t tell if I was mopping my own tonsils or someone else’s. 

I’m relieved to hear that’s a flaw in the system, not a personal failing.

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Chancellor Rishi Sunak told us that there’s no “risk-free solution” to Covid and we all have to “learn to live with” it. Human contact is important. Spending money is also important, although I don’t think he exactly said that, but all the same the economy needs us. “Lives can no longer be put on hold,” he said. Britons should learn to live “without fear.”

Personally, I’m more interested in still being alive by the time this ends–assuming it does end–than in being fearless. Preferably with my lungs, heart, kidneys, brain and other body parts still working at full capacity, and with my energy in the functional zone. Also with my sense of taste and smell intact. Fear can be crippling, but its gift is that it can also keep us from crippling or killing ourselves–from walking off cliffs, say. It’s like pain. No one likes it, but it offers us important information. 

I can live with a reasonable amount of fear, especially if it means continuing to live.

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I can’t speak to Sunak’s genuine competence, but he’s the one member of this government who at least projects the image of it, leading to rumors that he may turn out to be Boris Johnson’s replacement–assuming, of course, that the Tories break with recent tradition and select for competence when they choose their next leader. He may be signaling here that he leans toward the libertarian wing of the party–the let ’em wander free, the virus will take care of itself wing. 

Never say it can’t get any worse.

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Enough with the politicians. Let’s visit the scientists: 

A Centers for Disease Control study found a correlation between eating out and catching Covid. That’s not proof, it’s just correlation, as in the two seem to be lining up more than is statistically likely. But it’s worth noticing.

Eating out included eating indoors, on patios, and outdoors. 

What’s the difference between a patio and outdoors? Damned if I know. I thought they were both outdoors.

Which should warn you about how little I know.

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A new Covid test can be done at home and it takes only fifteen minutes. What’s more, it’s cheap, although the article I saw didn’t say how cheap. The problem? It only detects the virus in people with a high viral load. The team that developed it talks about it as complementing existing tests, not replacing them, and says the people with the largest viral load are the people most likely to transmit the virus.

For some time now, I’ve been reading about fifteen-minute tests, half-hour tests, and instant tests that can be done only by large, bearded men with divining rods, but they’re always in development, or about to be set loose in the world but not quite yet. Or that they’re available on the internet but their accuracy ranges from who knows to don’t ask me. 

Then they drop out of sight. The only one that’s resurfaced is the sniffer dogs. Fido’s working in a pilot project in an airport in Finland. Do not go through a Finnish airport with dog biscuits in your pocket.

*

Speaking of viral load, a study in Detroit found the viral load decreasing in hospitalized patients between April and June, and that lined up neatly with a lower number of deaths. They’re not sure why the viral load was lower, but it might be a result of social distancing, lockdown, and face masks–especially when they’re worn over the parts of the face that we breathe through.

Does anyone know why we keep talking about face masks? Is there some other part of the anatomy a mask could cover? The eyes are a possibility, but they’re generally located on the face.

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The city of Manaus, in Brazil, may have reached herd immunity: 66% of the population may have Covid antibodies. (Yes, but do notice that the word may squeezed itself in there not once but twice.) Getting to that point involved mass graves, overwhelmed hospitals, and corpses piled in refrigerated trucks. People there are still dying of Covid, but the numbers are going down. 

As soon as that went public, experts jumped in to warn against thinking that herd immunity is a viable strategy. 

Florian Krammer, professor of microbiology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, tweeted, “Community immunity via natural infection is not a strategy, it’s a sign that a government failed to control an outbreak and is paying for that in lives lost.” 

And after all those deaths, immunity to Covid may be short-term. No one knows yet.

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I said earlier that I wanted to get out of this mess with my sense of smell intact. Why do I care? Not only because I like food and if you lose your sense of smell your sense of taste goes with it, but because its loss may indicate some serious long-term losses.

Yeah, sorry, yet another study. Those scientists. They will keep worrying about this thing. How are we supposed to live without fear when they keep scaring the shit out of us?

This study takes off from Covid’s demonstrated ability to get into the brain and insult the cells. That’s is childish, I know, but brain cells aren’t used to it and they’re sensitive. Insult them enough and they die. 

True, Covid knows how to do insults. One of its insults involves starving the cells of oxygen, and that would probably upset anyone, so maybe we can cut the brain cells a little slack here.

Covid does less drastic things as well. The loss of smell is one, and the study treats that as a neurological symptom and an indicator that Covid’s up to something in the brain and nervous system. The loss of smell, it says, is caused by an inflammation that could cause long-term neurological problems.

Inflammation, it turns out, causes a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s, and 90% of people who get Parkinson’s report a loss of the sense of smell in the early stages. After the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, survivors had two or three times the risk of developing Parkinson’s.

So yes, even those of us who don’t speak science are starting to see a pattern.

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From the Department of What’s It Going to Take, People? comes the story of a gospel choir in Spain that scheduled an outdoor concert in September and then rehearsed for it indoors.

Members did the recommended stuff–kept a distance, washed their hands, and wore masks for most of the rehearsal. They even did a temperature check as people arrived. What they didn’t do was open the windows–there were moths out there, and mosquitoes. So they turned on the air conditioning, because hey, it was hot.

When the article was written, thirty of the choir’s forty-one members had tested positive.

Exactly what a gospel choir in Spain sings I don’t know. I’m probably defining gospel in American. 

*

And from the Department of Good News at the End of a Post comes this: A study estimates that England’s decision to house the homeless in unused hotel rooms during lockdown may have saved 266 lives and avoided 21,000 infections, 1,164 hospitalizations, and 338 intensive care admissions among the homeless alone. That doesn’t count the people they’d have gone on to infect.

I’ve been trying to find out if the program’s still going on. I think so, but I can’t swear to it.

39 thoughts on “Freedom, survival, and flag waving: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

  1. There is a world of difference between learning to live with this disease and just accepting that we should all die in droves for the sake of the economy. Learning to live with it to my mind means adjusting our lives to accommodate all of the mitigation efforts required to reduce transmission rates. It means getting used to wearing masks for long periods of time, working remotely becoming the norm, kids learning virtually, and basically not acting like selfish arses who want to live their lives as if we are not in the midst of a terrible pandemic and for whom tragic consequences of such selfishness seem to be acceptable collateral.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. I hope we’re all sitting comfortably. It appears that this nasty little bug-ger will be with us for some time yet, even if and when a successful vaccine is developed. That’s because the vaccine is only likely to be about as successful as flu vaccine (around 40-60%) and because anti-vaxxers will keep it circulating. Mostly sane and sensible analysis in the article I gleaned this from (link below) except for this “It’s going to be hard to convince people to go back to large gatherings that are simply for entertainment or recreational purposes”. Sorry, Doc, I think you need to get out more. https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/life-after-covid-19-vaccine_l_5f2ad9c6c5b64d7a55ed7b2c

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’ll be hard to convince some to go back, just as it’s hard to convince some now to stay away. If a vaccine cuts infection by 40% – 60%, that would be a huge change. Not complete, but still big. Enough to cut R to well below 1. Right now, that looks pretty good.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Unfortunately, it ISN’T the government that “is paying for it in lives lost” – it’s the governed. Although, as Dear Leader expressed it last week “nobody dies” thus consigning 200,00 Americans to the dust bin of history. Some of them probably even helped elect him.

    Somewhere (possibly here) I read a suggestion that the COVID testing companies branch out into pregnancy tests. The results will be available in 10 months.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That was here. Unfortunately, it was stolen from somebody’s tweet. I wish I’d thought of it. As –I think it was EdyJournal pointed out in another comment, it’s not just about how many die. It’s also about the long-term effects of this thing, which no one is sure of yet but may be hugely debilitating.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Learning to live with it ought to mean we update the workings of our economy and society after thoughtful analysis. It seems that too many people want to push on with the system they knew, refusing to adapt and evolve. Beside that, we don’t know in full the sequela of this virus. I say to all the risk-friendly folks, esp. public officials, don’t complain when you and others have heart damage after contracting Covid. Don’t complain when the collective as a whole is frailer, more needy, and less active.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Indeed. I read about people who months on still can’t walk to the end of the block. No one knows yet what the lasting damage will be. And (I just read) young people are as prone to aftereffects as older people, which should make everyone step back a bit and think about how we’re approaching this.

      And absolutely I agree about needing to rethink the economy. At a minimum, we need to support people we’re telling to stay home. Let’s start there. Then maybe we need to think about the sheer pointlessness of so many things we’re prioritizing because they keep the economy rolling.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. At our granddaughter’s one year birthday party today Pretty and I took our masks (I counted 8 masks of the 23 people who attended) but didn’t wear them. Foolish. Reckless. As soon as I walked in, our granddaughter Ella took one look at my mask and yanked it off. Why I didn’t put it back on is beyond me. We were outdoors but not socially distancing over the hot dog bar and in the group pictures.
    I will keep you posted…hopefully. Sigh.
    The spirit is willing, but the flesh is apparently weak.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was listening to an interview with someone who lives in Wuhan, where life is pretty normal these days, and they just could not understand why people in the West didn’t just wear face masks to stop the spread of the virus. I don’t either.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The government says it’s providing additional funding to local authorities to support various groups of people in housing need, including rough sleepers, even though the “Everyone In” scheme that you mention, for simply buying hotel rooms for rough sleepers, has come to an end (it always was the case that people made homeless might well be placed in some sorts of hotel and B&B, even though that was less than ideal for families).

    Of course, there’s always the question of whether that’s enough money, whether any given local authority is up to the job of identifying the people at risk and developing the right sort of housing and other support services. Anecdotally, there are clearly some people sleeping out in central London again.

    https://www.gov.uk/government/news/274-councils-set-to-receive-housing-support-for-vulnerable-people

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Autolycus. I appreciate the update. It was–like the food delivered to people who were shielding–a far from perfect program, and not necessarily well thought out. (And what did I expect exactly?) But it was far better than doing nothing.

      Liked by 1 person

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