Traffic cones, pubs, and coronavirus testing: It’s the news from Britain

According to a small and deeply meaningful study, fans of apocalyptic movies may be handling the pandemic better than the rest of us. 

I wasn’t part of the study, but I’ve watched one or possibly two movie apocalumps (that’s the not-quite-official plural of apocalypse), and I don’t know about other people, but I come out thinking, Live? Die? Does it really matter? I can see where take some of the angst out of the pandemic.

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There’s a bit more news about remdesivir, the drug that shortens people’s Covid-19 recovery time: The studies showing that shortening turn out to be small, preliminary, and ambiguous. In one small study that was cut short, it didn’t outperform a placebo. In another, patients on remdesivir recovered an average of four days ahead of the control group, but there was no difference in their death rates. 

But, according to the Medical Express, “That study was also stopped early, which can lead to exaggerated estimates of treatment benefits. A British Medical Journal editorial highlighted the study’s financial links to Gilead [the drug’s manufacturer] as another source of bias.”

The U.S. has bought out almost three months’ worth of Gilead’s production of remdesivir, for a sizable sum of money.

Now we have to wait and see how useful it’ll be.

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This isn’t, as you’ll probably have noticed, the Duke of Wellington on his horse. (Wellington appears just below, with his horse). It’s a wild horse on the Cornish cliffs, but it’s as close as I could come. No traffic cones were injured in the making of this photo.

Let’s take a break from the coronavirus. We owe ourselves that.

In Glasgow, a statue of the Duke of Wellington generally wears a traffic cone on his head, and he looks quite fetching in it. Go on, click both links here. This is important.

The city authorities generally take it down.

And someone generally puts it back on. 

This has been going on since the 1980s. That’s a lot of traffic cones. I like to think the city puts them back into its working stash of traffic cones instead of throwing them away, and if today weren’t Saturday I’d play intrepid reporter and make a phone call or two, but as things stand I just don’t know. And, you know, we have to go to press. We have deadlines to meet. The world is counting on us.

And by us, of course, I mean me.

The city estimates that it spends £10,000 a year taking traffic cones off the duke’s head. That’s £100 per cone. 

The city may or may not be padding its expenses. That’s another thing I don’t know. Let’s pretend we believe them. It’ll keep the story flowing.

In 2011, the Lonely Planet included the Coneheid (as Duke W. is known locally) on a list of the world’s ten most bizarre monuments, and if you don’t think that’s a big deal, just try getting something on the list by your own self.

In 2013, the council decided to stop all this fooling around once and for all by doubling the height of the statue’s base–called a plinth in case you ever need to know that–to the tune of £65,000. By the next day, 72,000 people had signed onto a Facebook page supporting the cone. Before much more time had passed, a petition had 100,000 signatures. A demonstration was held.

How many people showed up? Somewhere between 3 and several million.

The cone was local culture, they said, and the council had better keep its hands off it.

It all settled down for a while, with the cone staying in place, but a July 3 tweet showed that in retaliation for the cone being taken down again someone had put a whole stack of cones on the duke’s head. And one on the horse’s. 

And the pubs in Scotland hadn’t even re-opened yet. 

My thanks to Pete Cooper, who was entirely sober when he sent me these links. As–I would never imply anything else–he generally is. 

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A new coronavirus testing program worth £5 billion looks like it will go to private companies, although the president of the Institute of Biomedical Science said, “We are campaigning for NHS labs to be allowed to bid for these contracts. This should not be exclusive to commercial partners.”

Translation? Britain’s own National Health Service is blocked from the bidding. Why? Because.

NHS sources say the money will go to expand the Lighthouse laboratory program, which has successfully kept communities from getting early notice of local spikes, making it impossible for them to respond to them. For two months, IT and data protection problems meant they didn’t let local governments, hospitals, or doctors know about growing clusters of cases in their areas. They’ve also (anecdotally: I wasn’t there and I can’t prove it) lost samples, left them sitting until they were too old to be tested, and generally made themselves beloved of the medical community.

Some of those problems have been sorted out, but if a patient’s test was processed by a Lighthouse lab, hospitals still can’t find out the result. 

The number of Covid cases and deaths have both gone down in Britain–and in England, where I think this program is running. The more I read about it, though, the more I wonder how.

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Locally, a friend who drives people to medical and hospital appointments was exposed to the virus by a symptomatic passenger and spent ”a silly part of the day trying to find out how this works, with no joy at all.” 

She called 111, the number for medical advice. They told her to phone 119, “even though 119 is supposed to be to book a test only.” 

She called anyway and the “operator only knew how to book a test but couldn’t as I didn’t have any symptoms.” 

Government advice is that you shouldn’t get tested unless you have symptoms. The test, they say, is most accurate in a relatively short window of time after the symptoms appear.

That left my friend with no idea of what to do next. She went into isolation, which she’d have to do anyway, since the test comes up with a fair percentage of false negatives. But she would like to know if she has a life-threatening disease. You know how these whims can be.

She tried to find out how long it would be before the woman who’d exposed her would get a test and how long would it be before she herself would be contacted if the woman tested positive.

No answers.

She gave up and phoned the doctor’s office–called, in British, a surgery. They were in the dark, they said. The test and trace program doesn’t talk to them. Or write. Or email. You could say it was a bad breakup, but they’d never been married.

She phoned the woman who’d exposed her. She hadn’t been contacted about having a test.

If I weren’t a better person, I’d remind you that all that only costs us £5 billion. But I won’t because that wouldn’t be accurate. The £5 billion’s to expand this wondrous program, not fund its current work of saving our sorry asses.

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So how can a country find asymptomatic cases if the tests are most accurate after symptoms appear? 

By massive testing. With the same type of test the government’s using–a PCR test. As far as I can follow this, the tests may be more accurate once symptoms appear, but they’re very much worth doing beforehand.

According to Healthline“ ‘People exposed to the virus who have had close contact with a confirmed case should get tested whether or not they have symptoms,’ Amira Roess, PhD, a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, told Healthline.

“ ‘By identifying individuals who are positive early in disease progression before they develop symptoms and implementing public health interventions, we can prevent a large percentage of infections. This is key, because we have learned that asymptomatic infection is a key driver of this epidemic,’ she said. ‘Finding asymptomatic individuals will allow us to prevent them from spreading the virus.’ ”

As far as I can sort this mess out, it seems to be true that early testing comes up with some false negatives (the test has a fair number of those anyway), but Antibiotics Research UK talks about the importance of mass testing to identify asymptomatic carriers, meaning both people with symptoms and people without, and notes that the World Health Organization has called for it.

“Doing so has seen South Korea handle the outbreak with exceptional efficacy. A similar project in Iceland has shown that around half of the people who tested positive are showing no symptoms, too. Mass testing is the example we should be following here in the UK. This should be followed by tracking and quarantining the people who have been in contact with those found to have the virus. We need to be able to identify asymptomatic coronavirus carriers to further limit the spread.”

And we’re not doing that.

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On the other hand, the virus must be under control, because England’s pubs are opening today. The prime minister’s urging us all not to be silly about it, and of course we won’t be. But I would recommend putting the traffic cones someplace safe for a few days.

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Finally, Florida State University sent out an email saying that starting on August 7 it would “no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely.”

Predictably enough, the shit started flying in all directions. So they sent out new announcement, saying, “We want to be clear—our policy does allow employees to work from home while caring for children.”

And that upset the people who’d already cleared out space in their freezers to stash their kids in. All that ice cream gone to waste.

Moles, pizza, and remdesivir: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A local spike in coronavirus cases in Leicester has been handled with all the grace and efficiency we expect of our government. It announced a local lockdown. The health secretary said the police would enforce it as needed. The message was, we’re tough. We’re efficient. We’re gonna win this thing.

The local police and crime commissioner still didn’t know where he was supposed to enforce the lockdown, though, because he hadn’t been sent a map. Then he got a map but still didn’t know the details of what they were supposed to enforce. 

But it’s okay, because we have a prime minister who can do at least one pushup while keeping two yards away from a photographer.

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Irrelevant photo: St. Nectan’s Kieve

Chaand Nagpaul, from the British Medical Association, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy of dealing with local outbreaks will be no use if the local people who are expected to contain them aren’t given the data they need. 

I could have said that, but it sounds better coming from someone with a medical degree. Leicester could’ve responded earlier if they’d been told they had a problem, and where and how and why.

When Johnson introduced his strategy of containing local outbreaks, he described it as whack-a-mole–a game where you whack a plastic mole with a plastic hammer and even if you’re fast enough to hit it, it pops up out of another hole. 

It was a rare moment of honesty in political discourse.

While we wait to see where the mole’s going to pop up next, Johnson tells us that local authorities have been sent the data they need. 

And the check is in the mail.

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You’ve probably heard by now that the U.S. bought up almost the entire stock of remdesivir–500,000 doses: 100% of the manufacturer’s July production, 90% of August’s and 90% of September’s.

Remdesivir cuts Covid-19 recovery times, although it’s not clear whether it improves survival rates. Other counties have pointed out that buying up almost the entire stock might, um, undercut international cooperation in the face of the pandemic. 

“International what?” Donald Trump replied. 

Okay, he didn’t actually say that. I can’t remember ever seeing a quote in which he asks a question. 

The sale makes it sound like other countries are thoroughly screwed, but in fact they should be able to get the drug via compulsory license, which allows countries to override patents and buy generic versions from countries where the patent isn’t registered. This one is widely registered, but there will, it seems, be gaps.

The drug is made by Gilead, which sounds like it escaped from The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d love to tell you that it didn’t, but I don’t really know that. Lots of things have escaped from fiction lately, and nothing is more bizarre than reality. 

The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care tells us it’ll be fine and it has enough remdesivir “to treat every patient who needs the drug.” 

For how long?

They didn’t say.

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The New Scientist says, “There is no longer any serious doubt that our bodies can form an immune memory to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.” 

The bad news is that we still don’t know how effective that memory will be. In other words, we don’t know if an immune memory’s the same thing as immunity.

Don’t you just love to hear from me? Don’t I just lift your spirits?

And from the Department of Confusing Information comes this snippet: For every person testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies, two more turn out to have specific T-cells that identify and destroy Covid-infected cells. That’s true even in people who had asymptomatic cases or mild ones.

What does that mean in everyday English? It means that for every person who registers positive on an antibody test, two more have some sort of immune response that doesn’t register. 

Those T-cells the two people have might give them some immunity to the disease. They might keep them from passing the disease on to other people.

They also might not.

The reason T-cells don’t register on an antibody test is antibodies are a whole ‘nother part of the immune system. Expecting to notice T-cells on an antibody test is like making yourself a pizza and wondering why it doesn’t come out of the oven with a side salad.

Basically, antibodies–that’s the pizza–attack the virus before it enters the body’s cells. T-cells–they’re  the salad, and it’s important to remember which is which–go into action once cells have been infected, attacking  them so they won’t infect  new ones. A balanced immune system meal needs both pizza and that salad.

You’re welcome. I’m here to clarify every baffling bit of our world, just for you.

What does all that mean for herd immunity? Not much, because for all anyone knows at this point, those T-cells could protect the bearer without keeping him or her from passing the virus on. 

If you worked this many twists into a pandemic movie, I’d throw my popcorn at the screen and stomp out, muttering, “Enough already.” 

Then I’d go out for pizza and a salad.

I’m just about old enough to remember a world where it was safe to go to movies and pizza joints. 

Fairy dust and pushups: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Let’s say you’re a prime minister who got this pesky pandemic thing wrong, hesitating to lock the country down, shaking hands with hospital patients, refraining from kissing babies only because parents clutched their kids and turned away when they saw you coming. A prime minister who told the country that washing hands and singing Happy Birthday would keep everyone safe, and who then, embarrassingly, got sick yourself, either because you didn’t wash your hands or went off key on one of those tricky passages in “Happy Birthday.” A prime minister who locked the country down late but made an exception for your special advisor so he could run around the country scattering virii because he’d mistaken them for fairy dust.

So you’re that prime minister, and after you’d been sick you came back to work to hear lots of speculation whether you were really up to running the country.

Irrelevant photo: a thistle

What would you do?

Pushups, that’s what you’d do. Publicly.

Or maybe you wouldn’t, but that’s what Boris Johnson did, except the British seem to call them press-ups. Never mind. Same thing. Floor, hands, arms, body weight. Straight back if you’re doing them right.

There were two problems with the strategy: Your ability to do pushups has no bearing on your ability to run a country, and Johnson isn’t what you’d call a natural athlete. The photos show a kind of lumpy, overage guy in a dress shirt and slacks looking baffled by a floor. Has this thing always been here? he seems to be asking himself. Can I outsource it?

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He can’t, but let’s go back to that special advisor, the one with the fairy dust. A law graduate is trying to crowdfund £300,000 for to pay for a private prosecution of Dominic Cummings’ two breaches of lockdown.

“I am trying to encourage the re-establishment of the concept of the rule of law – one law for all,” Mahsa Taliefar said. “What Cummings did demonstrated that at the moment in the UK if you are rich and have powerful friends the law doesn’t apply to you.”

I just checked the website and she’s raised £31,000 so far.

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You know the theory that we all have to choose between the economy and our health? The theory that says lockdown destroys the economy and we have to open back up to get things going? Well Sweden–the one Scandinavian country that never did lock down, relying on some vague instructions, hand washing, and good sense–not only has a five times Denmark’s death rate but roughly the same economic performance.

Whether there’s a lockdown or not, it turns out that in a pandemic most people avoid public transportation, stay out of shops, and keep their kids home from school. In other words, they exercise the good sense they were advised to. The problem is that a minority will do none of that. Ten percent of the people create ninety percent of the infections.

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A while back I posted the news that Britain’s free school lunch program for the most economically vulnerable kids will be continued into the summer. It’s good news, but it’s looking a little tarnished lately. It turns out that the £234 million program was outsourced to a private company whose helpline charges £21 an hour.

It used to charge £60 an hour, but–you know what people are like–they had complaints and switched over to the cheaper one in April.

Hey, people, you’re saving–um, hang on–£39 an hour. Focus on that.

Parents and schools also complain about the vouchers being hard to use. Not all stores will take them, and at stores that do, they often don’t scan correctly so they’re unusable.

Oh, and the website leaves people waiting long stretches of time to get their coupons.

And that, my friends, is how to fuck up a free lunch.

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Scotland has had no coronavirus deaths for four days and has only ten cases in intensive care. The first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is talking about the possibility of eliminating the disease, and at a press conference she dropped hints that they might have to test or quarantine visitors from England. She has no plans at the moment, she said, but she’s not ruling it out.

On the other hand, she didn’t do a single pushup, so what’s she worth?

Meanwhile, a spike in virus cases in Leicester has sent the city going back into lockdown, with non-essential shops shutting their doors, schools closing to most students, and people advised to stay home except for essential trips.

It’s the first of local lockdown since Britain opened back up.

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A jazz club in Paris has opened up for private concerts. They let people in either singly or in pairs if they live together. Three musicians take turns giving five-minute concerts to each individual or couple.

The concerts are free but guests are welcome to pay what they can or want.

The club’s director said the concerts “generate a kind of magic. People become very emotional. Some come out in tears.”

 

 

Social not-much-distancing: it’s the pandemic update from (mostly) Britain

Since this is the news from Britain, we’ll start in Florida: The commissioners of Palm Beach County voted that people (with a few reasonable exceptions, such as babies) have to wear masks in public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible. But before they could vote on that, they had to listen to people telling them that they’d be throwing out god’s wonderful breathing system, that they were obeying the devil, and that they were imposing a communist dictatorship and dishonoring the American flag.

I tell you, it makes me proud to be an American.

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Here in Britain, we’re also at our best. We had a heatwave, and–

I have to interrupt myself here. In Britain, you know it’s hot weather when you wear short sleeves. If you do that for two days in a row, you’re looking at a heatwave.

So we’ve had a heatwave and it hit just after lockdown eased up. 

“Our hibernation is beginning to end,” the prime minister told us jubilantly.  

Whoopy doo.

Irrelevant photo: Fields in Cornwall.

What did he mean, though? It wasn’t all that clear, but that’s okay because ever since his external brain, Dominic Cummings, broke his own rules on lockdown by driving 30 miles to make sure he could still see well enough to drive (no, I didn’t make that up; he did), people have been a little skeptical about the rules anyway. And the more lockdown has eased, the hazier we’ve gotten on what the limits are and how seriously we take them.

So what happened? In the first couple of days, people flocked to parks, beaches, and rivers, jamming in together because what the hell they’d be outside and the virus was on the wane and the lockdown was over, sort of, and we’d all be fine. 

Or maybe they flocked to all of the above because they figured no one else would and they could enjoy the beauty of the British countryside in safety, but once they found a few thousand other people had done the same thing they didn’t want to turn around and go home. Or maybe it was because they’d been cooped up since forever and were understandably losing their minds. 

Or all of the above. It’s easy for people who have elbow room to criticize. But there were problems. One was that public toilets aren’t open yet–or at least a lot of them aren’t–so some people acted like a litter of eight-week-old puppies. Minus the paper on the floor. 

Last Wednesday and Thursday, beaches were packed. Forget keeping two meters from each other, and forget one meter. People were everywhere. Drinking was involved. Fights were involved. Broken glass was involved. A few stabbings were involved. If singing was involved, no one’s mentioned it, but it’s hard to separate singing and drinking in Britain.

When people went home, their trash–which, being responsible citizens, they’d instructed to follow–stayed behind, because who wants to leave the cooling sea breeze? So the beach was a mess when they left. And even at a beach where the toilets were open, people still had that litter of puppies problem. I’m not sure why. It might have had something to do with the drinking, but there’s me, speculating again.

Cleaning crews complained that they were being abused and intimidated for trying to empty overflowing trash cans. 

As I type this, the weather’s turned, so the problem at the beaches might just be a two-day glitch. If it had stayed hot, though? I wouldn’t bet on it.

In Brixton–a mostly black area of London–a street party ended in violence when police moved in to break it up. On the evening news, a resident noted that the police hadn’t moved in that aggressively on overcrowded beaches with mostly white crowds. 

As far as I can tell, he was right.  

Yeah, it all makes me proud to be British as well.

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Enough about people. They’re a difficult species. Let’s talk about science.

A small and still tentative survey of Covid-19 antibody tests in use around the world shows that their accuracy seems to depend on when they’re done. In the first week after people develop symptoms, they spot only 30% of infected people. Between eight and fourteen weeks, they spot 70%. After that, they catch 90%. 

I’m not sure why I think you need to know that, but you just might.

Long term, the tests will give some indication of whether having had the disease means a person is immune.

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Last month, the British government bought 10 million antibody tests. They were going to play an “increasingly important role,” someone or other said. I’ve lost track of what they were going to play an important role in has been lost, but that’s okay because most of us don’t take the bloviating seriously.

Oh, wait. They’d play an important role in understanding the spread of the disease. 

I’m not questioning that whatever data they gather will help scientists understand the beast we’re facing. What I doubt is that science had any impact on the government’s actions. Forgive me, but pretty much everything’s politics, perception, and possibly a cousin in the business.

So the government sent the tests out and asked–or told; I’m not sure how much weight their words carry–medical organizations and care centers to have staff use them. But in a letter to the BMJ (which I think used to be the British Medical Journal but is now just the BMJ–it could stand for Beautiful Mango Jam for all I know)–

Sorry. Should we start that over? Fourteen senior academics published a letter in the Beautiful Mango Jam to say that the tests are burdening the National Health Service while proving fuck-all.

They didn’t say “fuck-all.” These are senior academics. They only talk that way in private, when they think their mics are off.

They did say that since we don’t know whether having antibodies isn’t the same as having immunity, you can’t change your behavior based on the test results. So the test offers no benefits to either the staff or the organizations they work for. It does, however, give the government a chance to brag about how many tests they’ve sent out. 

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Sweden’s handled the virus differently than most European countries. It didn’t go into lockdown. It took a few steps–discouraging gatherings of more than 50 people, for example–but basically it advised people to keep some distance from each other and trusted them to have good sense.

I don’t know about you, but I’m losing whatever faith I once had in humanity’s good sense.

Any chance that had of working was undercut by the government’s early advice, which implied that people who didn’t show any symptoms weren’t contagious. If someone in the family’s sick, they said, a kid showing no symptoms can still go to school. No problem.

The country also had the usual lack of protective equipment, and government  guidelines for what to use and how to use it kept changing, depending on what protective equipment was available.

The rate of testing has been low and contact tracing has been pretty nearly abandoned. 

According to Anders Bjorkman, a professor of infectious diseases at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, “They did not want to put it bluntly, but seeking herd immunity was always inherent in the Swedish strategy.” In other words, let the disease spread, let some people die, and wait for herd immunity to build in the population that’s left. 

By most estimates, it takes 50% to 60% of the population becoming immune for the herd to be protected. It also takes a disease that people become immune to, and it hasn’t been solidly established that Covid-19 is cooperative enough to fall into that category.

Sweden now has the highest number of Covid cases in Scandinavia (the other Scandinavian countries went into lockdown), and the highest number of deaths. For one week at the end of May and the beginning of June, its mortality rate was 5.29 deaths per million inhabitants per day–the highest in Europe. The UK limped in a sorry second with 4.48. 

Our prime minister just hates it when someone comes in ahead of us. He likes world-beating systems. 

So how’s Sweden doing with herd immunity? In Stockholm, 7.3% of the residents had developed covid-19 antibodies by late April. In the rest of the country, the numbers were lower.

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A day or two after the street party in Brixton was broken up, Liverpool won the Premier League game. I think that’s football, but my sports allergy kept me from watching the actual game. Or knowing anything about it. What matters is that it made people in Liverpool happy. 

So happy that they gathered in a huge honkin’ crowd to celebrate, to throw bottles at the police, and to throw fireworks at the Liver Building, setting a balcony on fire. 

They know how to have a party in Liverpool. 

[Late addition: The next paragraphs were based on the assumptions that (a) because the Liver Building is in Liverpool, it would be pronounced like the city and (b) because the Liver Building is spelled like liver it would be pronounced like liver. Silly me. It’s pronounced Lye-ver.

[Well of course it is. It’s a place name. This is England. Take nothing for granted. My thanks to April Munday for catching that. I’ve left it all in because why should I pretend I know what I’m doing here?]

Why does Liverpool have a building named after the organ that cleans the blood? I can only answer that by asking why Liverpool’s named Liverpool.

According to WikiWhatsia (I can’t be bothered going any deeper), Liverpool’s “name comes from the Old English liver, meaning thick or muddy, and pol, meaning a pool or creek, and is first recorded around 1190 as Liuerpul.”

I don’t want to piss off anyone from Liverpool. I’m sure your city’s got a lot going for it. All I’m saying is that if you’d run the name past a focus group before making any impulsive decisions, you might’ve come up with something entirely forgettable.

But we were talking about the building, which isn’t called the just Liver Building, thanks, it’s the Royal Liver Building, so it was named after a monarch’s liver, not yours or mine. I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse about it. I don’t like to think much about my liver, but then I don’t like to think much about anyone else’s either. 

It was built between 1907 and 1911 as offices for the Royal Liver Group and still houses the head office of the Royal Liver Assurance. 

And it gets worse. Each tower is topped by mythical Liver Birds.

I might just jog up north and throw some fireworks myself.

Britain’s back in business and to hell with the virus

Britain’s coming out of lockdown. Not because we’ve got Covid-19 under control but because it’s time. Because the hospitality industry is campaigning for it. Because too much money is turning to dust. 

Not literal dust. Pixel dust. Fairy dust. Money dust. 

Money, it turns out, isn’t a physical object. It’s not that stuff you keep in your wallet that you call money. Or it is, but that’s the smallest part of it. The biggest part–the serious part –is made up of pixels and numbers on a screen and stuff that disappears when conditions aren’t right. When the weather turns, when the wind blows the wrong way, when half the country has to stop working and stop spending. Poof: It’s fairy pixel money dust. 

Irrelevant photo:California poppies. Because we all need something to cheer us up.

And that’s why the country’s reopening. People who still have jobs will go back to work. People who have money will start spending (presumably). And to make all that happen, the two-meter distance we were told to keep from each other is now one meter. Because it turns out that the further we stay from each other, the more money leaks out into the open space and goes poof.

See, that’s what the economists don’t tell you. Don’t trust them. Listen only to me. I may not actually know anything, but I’m a lot more fun.

Anyway, we’ll all be fine. The virus has signed an agreement not to jump more than one meter from host to host. At least it has in England, In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, it hasn’t. They’re still negotiating and have to stay further away from each other. Poor them.

Besides, even in England we’ll all stay two meters apart except when it’s inconvenient and money’s likely to disappear. 

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And since we’re in a celebratory mood, people who are especially vulnerable and who for the last three months have been told to stay home are being told that they can safely come out on July 6. They can go grocery shopping. They can see up to five friends as long as they’re outside. 

Why July 6? Because the virus can only count to 5. Why five friends? It’s complicated. But hey, these guys are running a government. They have access to the best expert advice. They must know something, right?

The free food deliveries that extremely vulnerable people were getting will stop now that they can emerge blinking from their homes. And if they were working before the lockdown, their sick pay will stop. In the most compassionate possible way.

Britain’s back in business. Get with it, people.

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Cornwall, where I live, has had relatively few cases of Covid-19 (with the emphasis on relatively; we’ve had cases and we’ve had deaths). But the visitors are on their way, wagging their big-city germs behind them. 

I don’t want to be a snot about this. I’m a city girl myself. I have nothing against cities or the people who live in them. And I understand why people who make a living off tourism are desperate to do business. But holy shit, how many people are going to die for it? And how many who recover will have their lives irrevocably changed?

Follow-up scans of people who’ve been hospitalized for the virus show that 20% to 30% have lung scarring six weeks later.

The scarring isn’t reversible. 

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Speaking of experts the government’s daily coronavirus briefings are over. In the last couple of weeks, scientific advisors had been pushed off stage and political figures quietly filled the gaps. Because the problem with sciency-type people is that they’re likely to say embarrassing things. So we’ve canceled the science. 

And then we canceled the briefings. They were only focusing people on the disease and from here on we’re going to be happy.

Happy, happy, happy. 

*

As of June 23, 42,927 people in Britain had died of the virus. Worldwide, it took three months for the first million cases to show up. It took just eight days to clock up the most recent million, and by the 23rd that had taken us almost up to 9 of them. 

It’s hard to take in. And I can’t help noticing the contrast between our response to the recent stabbing of three people in Reading (pronounced Redding; don’t ask) and those forty thousand dead. Not that the three in Reading don’t matter, but we can take that in and there’s a tendency to shrug off the forty thousand as inevitable, along with however many will follow them.  

*

Speaking on inevitability, an open letter in the British Medical Journal says a second wave of infections is inevitable and urgent action is needed.

Just before that was published, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that he didn’t believe there was “a risk of a second peak of infections that might overwhelm the NHS.”

Notice the wording. Forget avoiding a second peak. What we need to avoid is overwhelming the NHS. He didn’t mention urgent action. 

The news from Britain, with neolithic sites and new coronavirus tests

News about the government’s failed Coronavirus tracing app keeps trickling out. This weekend, we learned that several groups responded when the prime minister called for a national effort to create a smartphone app. Dunkirk spirit! Save the nation! 

What happened next? NHSX, the outfit that made the failed app the government committed to, treated them as rivals. 

NHSX, ever so incidentally, was set up by the health secretary before he became the health secretary, so he was able to be totally neutral about it.

Don't worry about it. The photo's just to break up the text. It's completely irrelevant.

Irrelevant photo: pansies

“We naively thought they would incorporate them into one,” Tim Spector, one of the rival developers said. “The whole point was to help the NHS, to find the hotspots so they could get the resources to the right hospitals.”

Silly him. NHSX, he said, treated his team like the enemy and people within the NHS were told not to work with them. 

“They were very worried about our app taking attention away from theirs and confusing the public,” he said, but if the NHSX app had worked they’d have happily handed over what they’d done. 

Of the rival apps, Covid Symptom Study has 3.5 million users and helped spot symptoms like loss of taste and smell, and Evergreen Life has 800,000 and spotted a local outbreak around Manchester before testing was available. 

The Covid Symptom Study reports that although the number of people reporting symptoms are decreasing around the country, they’re staying steady in London. As far as I can tell, it’s getting zilch in terms of backing from the government, which is now betting its chips on an adaptation of the Apple-Google app, which won’t be ready till fall. 

The delay is because the government says the distance calculator on the app isn’t accurate enough. That means it’ll send people who haven’t been exposed notices that they have been, and they’ll have to self-isolate when they shouldn’t have to. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the government’s working closely with  Apple-Google and will come up with a hybrid version. Which will be better, bigger, more accurate, and have polkadots.

“Oh yeah?” said  Apple-Google. “We never heard of you and where exactly is Britain anyway?”

Okay, what they–the they in question here being Apple–actually said was, “It is difficult to understand what these claims are as they haven’t spoken to us.”

They said they’re not aware of a distance problem and have no idea what the hybrid model’s about.

The NHS, however, said, “NHSX has been working with Google and Apple extensively since their API [application programming interface ] was made available.”

Google said, diplomatically, that it welcomed the government’s announcement.

Yeah, we’re doing fine over here, and thanks for asking. Hope you are as well.

*

While we’re doing tech news: K-pop fans have co-opted the #BlueLivesMatter hashtag by tweeting images of Smurfs and other blue characters. They also flooded #WhiteLivesMatter with K-pop videos to the point where it became known as a K-pop hashtag.

*

Let’s check in on what’s happened with all those possible tests that we heard about and that were going to save our viralized asses from an enemy that’s not only too small to see but too small for most of us to imagine. 

A four-week trial of a saliva test is about the start. All people have to do is spit in a plastic jar instead of letting someone stick a swab down their throats and up the  noses (or worse yet, having to do it themselves, which involves finding either your tonsils or the address where they once lived).

People can do the test at home. They can even do it out in public if they don’t mind being disgusting. Cross your fingers. 

The current test has multiple problems. In addition to having to figure out where your tonsils used to live, it gives a lot of false negatives–20%. It also makes people cough and sputter, putting people administering the test at risk. And the virus doesn’t last long on the swabs, so too much delay and the test’s invalidated. 

Another new test gives results in 50 minutes and should be tested on NHS staff starting this week. Unlike the saliva test, which reports back in 48 hours, though, it relies on a throat swab. 

*

When the government instituted a program to deliver food parcels to people who are in deep hiding from the virus because they or a family member are particularly vulnerable, I had a moment of thinking the government might get its act together and I before long I wouldn’t have anything to make fun of. 

That’ll show me what I know.

Where the program works, it’s great. But. It’s delivering pork products to Muslim families. It’s delivering free food to families whose pride is hurt by the assumption that they need help and who would happily take themselves off the list if someone had asked.

I’d be willing to bet they’re sending beef to HIndus, but I haven’t seen that reported. 

The program’s being run by a private firm and the government says anyone with special dietary needs should contact their local government and leave the national government the hell alone. Want to place any bets on how long it takes to get through three levels of local government to the company that’s actually running things?

*

In the department of slight over-reactions, North Korea lost its temper over a defector’s plan to send propaganda across the border from South Korea and blew up an office that was set up to improve north-south communications. 

Am I making assumptions when I say they lost their temper? Probably not. The official news agency said the move reflected “the mindset of the enraged people to surely force human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes.”

So yeah. Lost temper. Plus a few commas gone a-wandering.

*

Near Stonehenge, archeologists have found a 4,500-year-old circle of shafts that’s 1.25 miles across. Or 2 kilometers, if you take your distances metric. That may be a rough approximation. I’d be surprised if they match that neatly but I’m too lazy to check. Whatever it translates to, it’s the biggest prehistoric structure found to date in Europe. A paper on it has been published in Internet Archaeology and is available to any idiot–and I offer myself as an example of the species–who clicks on it.

The British news update, complete with a make-your-own Stonehenge

Missed the solstice? No problem. You can still take part in a virtual festival, making your own Stonehenge out of the cardboard cores of toilet paper rolls or cookies or some things that look a lot like sugar cubes but could be a lot stranger. I’m not trying to sound like I know something you don’t but would if you were one of the elect, I just can’t tell what I’m looking at a photo of.

If you’re in your teens, you can click on the one-finger salute to find the Quaran-teen section of the site. If you’re not, or want to see what the grownups get up to when they think you’re not around (answer: nothing all that interesting), then head over to the Twitter hashtag and see if it’s worth your time. 

I decided it wasn’t, but then I’m not much on festivals, even when they’re real. 

*

A rare relevant (if out of season) photo. Primroses. The next story features plants. Don’t count on this happening often.

Barcelona’s opera house, the Liceu, will open for the first time since lockdown by live-streaming a string quartet playing Puccini’s “Chrysanthemums” to 2,292 potted plants. The plants must already be in place, because photos of them filling the seats accompany the articles I’ve seen. 

None of them are wearing masks.

You can catch the concert on June 22, at 5 pm local time. 

*

The world’s largest liquid air battery is being built near Manchester, so unlike a lot of what I sneak in here this really is British news. 

What’s liquid air? I’ve lived in Britain long enough that I thought it was just, you know, air in Britain. It’s a wet country. After Brexit, wet air may be all we’re able to export. But no, liquid air is what you get when you compress air down so much that it turns into–yes! You got it! A liquid.

Doesn’t Britain already have enough liquid? Most of the time, yes, although some people claim, during a fair part of the day, to be perishing for a cup of tea. But in general, yes, lots of liquid. The point of this liquid, though, is to store energy. When wind and solar power are producing excess energy, it uses it to squish that air down, and when the sun goes down and the wind stops blowing and everyone comes home from work (in that mythical world where everyone’s going to work and then coming home) and puts the kettle on for a nice cup of tea, it lets up on the air, turning it back to a gas and in the process powering a turbine that powers something else that powers that kettle.

And that, my children, is how we store green energy. Or how we will as soon as they get this beast built, which should be sometimes in 2022.

It’s being built by Highview Power, whose chief executive is a high-tech guy who says things like, “Air is everywhere.”

He really did say that. 

I hate it when tech people can’t explain things simply. 

*

Britain’s lost a lot of money during the coronavirus lockdown, and it’s spent a lot of money trying to get the country through these unprecedented times–some of it well and the rest of it on subsidizing satirists. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself if we ever get a sensible government. 

But to our point: Air really is everywhere, and so is incompetence, along with its good friend ProfitingFromACrisis, which (or possibly who) spells its name solid like that because you can never tell what will leak to the press if you leave space between the words. Not that leaks can’t be faced down if you have the right friends, but still, who wants the bother?

Never mind all that, though. It’s what we’ve learned to expect. I want to talk about money well spent.

How do I know it was well spent? I know because the prime minister said so–or at least his news flacks did. It’s “value for money,” they told us, and it’ll promote the U.K. around the world, and besides all the work’s being done in the U.K., so it’s twice the value for–

Half the money? Or is that twice the money? 

We’ll skip the math. For £900,000, which will cover the work of repainting the prime ministerial plane so that it looks like the British flag. 

Before he became prime minister he complained that it was dull looking–and also that he didn’t get to use it often enough. And you don’t want the prime minister getting bored, do you? 

You can never keep everybody happy, though. The plane has to do double duty as an air force plane, and a defense analyst and former military pilot, Andy Netherwood, complained that it will make it useless outside of the safest of safe airspace.

“No one wants to go to war in a jet painted like a brightly colored lollipop.”

Except, being British, he said “coloured.”

*

At England’s first Premier League football games (which if you’re American are soccer games), the players on four teams, along with staff and match officials, took a knee before starting. The players’ names on their shirts had been replaced with “Black Lives Matter.”

I hope I got the details of that–the number of teams, the plural in games–right. I have a sports allergy, so I’m a little vague on the sports part of this. I’d been going on the assumption that a football game involves two teams, not four, so I’m guessing this was two separate games. Or else it was one, played in some parallel universe where four teams play one game and it takes three parents to make a child.

*

Did I mention how moving it is to see our government’s competence in action? First it was going to develop its own app to notify people who’ve been to Covid-19 that they need to get tested. This was going to fit seamlessly with a testing and tracing system and all together it was going to be the envy of the world, because what’s the point of having something like that if the world doesn’t envy you? 

Then the app’s grand unveiling was postponed because it had a small problem, which was that it didn’t work. Which is pretty much what experts had been saying would happen. 

But what do experts know? The unveiling was postponed again while some tinkering was done.

I won’t drag this out. They abandoned it the other day. Britain’s now going to use a Google-Apple app. But it won’t be ready until the autumn because it doesn’t measure distance accurately enough and so it sends out you’ve-been-exposed notices to people who were a safe distance from an infected person.

What they’re going to do is stick the two apps in the oven and bake on a low heat until they meld, at which point Britain’s will transfer its innate sense of distance to the Google-Apple app. 

Of course, they may just end up with melted gigabytes, in which case all the combined app will do is let people who think they’re coming down sick report their symptoms. It won’t notify anyone of anything.

Why bother to have it, then? Well, it’ll make everyone feel better, although we could probably buy everyone in the country a nice stuffed bear instead. A good cuddle makes everyone feel better.

The app was initially sold to us as an essential part of the test-and-trace system which was going to get us safely out of lockdown. We’re now coming out of lockdown with no app and a questionable system of testing and tracing. But we’ll be fine. Don’t worry about a thing.

*

What went wrong with the world-beating British app? Well, it only recognized 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Androids. No one’s saying how much money was spent on it, but some clever devil of a reporter got into a database: The company that developed it had three contracts worth £4.8 million. 

They repainting four or five planes for that amount of money. 

*

In the meantime, scammers are busy telling people they’re tracing the virus. If you don’t want to get sick, they tell you, you should give them your bank details, call a premium rate number, and spend money on a free test kit. For extra safety, there’s some software you can download. Because this is a very sneaky virus and can infect your computer as well as your lungs.

*

Oriel College–the Oxford University college with the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes outside it–has voted to remove the statue. That doesn’t mean it comes down tomorrow. It’s set up an independent inquiry into the issue involved in taking it down. One of them is that some donors will stop supporting the college–something they’re aware of because some have been in touch to say they’d do just that. Now a tech entrepreneur, Husayn Kassai, has pledged to “make up for every penny any racist does pull.”

*

The internet is full of claims that wearing masks can kill you–they trap all your nasty exhaled carbon dioxide inside the mask, leaving you to re-breathe it. 

Predictably enough, this is total bullshit. The carbon dioxide molecule is smaller than the droplets that masks keep it. They pass quite happily through the kind of masks people wear. And surgeons wear much heavier masks for longer periods and don’t have a track record of dropping down dead during surgery.

Another claim is that wearing a mask “literally activates your own virus.” The video that said that has been taken down.

Someone named Aubrey Huff tweeted that “it’s not healthy to breathe in your own CO2 all the time.”

I’m going to break the quote here so I can start it again: “I would rather die from coronavirus than to live the rest of my life in fear and wearing a damn mask,” Huff huffed.

Cheesy joke, but I had to do it.  

The problem, of course, is that the mask isn’t to protect him. It’s to protect other people. So they’re the ones who he’s rolling the dice for.

The Ministry of Impulsive Decisions reports the news from Britain

You’ve probably heard this by now, but good news is hard to come by so let’s not waste it: A cheap, easily available steroid, dexamethasone, can cut the risk of death in seriously ill Covid-19 patients. The bad news? It doesn’t help in milder cases. Still, this is a bit of genuine good news. Gift horse; mouth.

*

Faced with the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping through Britain, our rumpled and (lately) not entirely present prime minister Boris Johnson announced a commission to study inequality.

That’ll slow down those pesky protesters, right? By the time it reports back, everyone will have forgotten how to even spell inequality.

So what was his first move? He appointed Munira Mirza to set it up. And she’s on record as having said that institutional racism is “a perception more than a reality,” not to mention as having complained that earlier inquiries (there’ve been six in four years) fostered a culture of grievance.

If all goes according to plan, the commission’s report will be referred to the Department of Cynicism and Bitter Irony. They do a lot of filing there.

*

Irrelevant photo: Hydrangea–our neighbors’. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Astronomers report that our galaxy may be home to as many as thirty advanced civilizations.

Sorry, but the link won’t lead you to any information about them. All it does is confirm that I don’t make this shit up.

How can we tell that they’re advanced?

Well, they’ve been smart enough to stay away from us.

Okay, that isn’t necessarily by choice. They’d be, on an average, 17,000 light years away. Too far for them to drop by casually for a cup of tea. Too far, most likely, to even know about tea. Quite possibly too far for us to pick up any signs of their existence. And vice versa, although if they get close enough to pick up a hint of what’s going on here, they’ll decide no cup of tea is worth it. 

*

And since we’re talking about the whole galaxy, let’s forget Britain for another minute and talk about Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ.

The autonomous zone was set up after clashes in which the police used pepper spray, teargas, and flash bangs while Black Lives Matter protesters threw rocks, bottles, and fireworks.

Then someone drove a car into a crowd of protesters and shot one of them. I’m not sure what impact this had on events, but I’d bet a bowl of popcorn that it didn’t lower the tension level.

Eventually, the police withdrew from the neighborhood, boarding up the police station and leaving protesters to set up the CHAZ, which covers a few blocks. CNN describes it as more like a festival than a protest. It’s stocked with all the essentials: granola bars, water, toilet paper, and toothpaste.

The mayor, Jenny Durkan said, ”It’s not an armed takeover. It’s not a military junta. We will make sure that we will restore this but we have block parties and the like in this part of Seattle all the time. . . . There is no threat right now to the public.”

Reporting on the situation, Fox News mistook a joke on Reddit for a split in the organization running the CHAZ.

Okay, I have no idea if any organization really is running things or if it’s all evolving on the fly–or if an organization thinks it’s running it and things are also (or instead) evolving on the fly. I also don’t know if I’m supposed to call it just CHAZ or the CHAZ , but never mind the many things I don’t know. (Why do you listen to me anyway?) What matters is that Fox News thought a group was in charge and reported on the split, reading the Reddit post on the air: “I thought we had an autonomous collective, an anarcho-syndicalist commune at the least, we should take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.”

What the post’s doing there isn’t commenting on a split but playing off Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur introduces himself to a peasant, saying he’s the king, and the peasant announces that they already have their own government.

“We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of purely external affairs.”

I’d have missed the Python reference myself. Unlike a few people I’ve known and worked with, I don’t have the dialogue memorized. But I like to think that a line Fox News left out would have made me think that something other than a mail-order organizational squabble might be going on: that the king couldn’t “simply expect to wield supreme executive power just because someone threw a sword at him,”

I’ve been in more than one strange political conflict, but none of them have involved swords. Everyone has their limits, and I’m pretty firm about that one, although I did, for a long time, have a friend’s (American) Civil War-era sword hanging on my wall. It was blunt and wouldn’t have been any use in political disputes, but no, I would not have been tempted.

I did once sit in a meeting and consider whether a crochet hook would be any use as a murder weapon, but that’s a different story.

*

Back to Britain: There’s lots of flap here about when, how, and where the kids are going back to school.

In the first plan, two age groups were going back, then the rest of at least the primary school kids would follow before the school year ended. The British school year runs later into the summer than the American one does, but even so it wasn’t clear that they’d be in school long enough to do more than exchange germs.

This was all handled by the Ministry of Impulsive Decisions, which didn’t do any serious consulting with the schools or the teachers’ unions, so a lot of the schools said they couldn’t open safely even for the first group, and some parents, in the interest of safety, kept their kids home from the schools that did open.

But some kids from two age groups went back, and the rest of the plan was sent to the Ministry of Lost Ideals.

Cue calls–including some from within the Conservative Party, which is all that matters since it has a huge majority and doesn’t really have to listen to anyone else–for emergency measures: a summer tutoring program, possibly, or what are being called Nightingale schools, mirroring the Nightingale hospitals, which were basically field hospitals set up at the beginning of the pandemic and barely used, partly because they turned out not to be needed and partly because no one had figured out how to magic up the staff a hospital relies on.

Who knew that hospitals aren’t just buildings–that if you don’t have staff you don’t have a hospital?

Yes, planning is this government’s strength.

So long ago that I’ve lost track of the date, the Department of Good Intentions promised both internet access and computers to any kids in year 10 who didn’t have them.

Why year 10? Why not year 10? It’s random enough to sound like it has some research behind it.

Many headteachers report not having seen so much as a computer cable.

And none of that solves the problem of what the kids in other age groups are supposed to do.

A recent study reports that a third of students have done no lessons at all while the schools are closed and that less than half have sent work to their teachers. Students in what they call the most disadvantaged schools are the least likely to be doing any schoolwork.

The Department of Relentless Optimism is surprised by this.

Let’s move on before I get started on the mind that classifies schools as disadvantaged, as if somehow their problems came from a combination of bad luck and birth trauma.

*

After having said that the free school meals for the most vulnerable kids would stop at the end of the school year, the Department of We Never Said That and if We Did We Didn’t Mean It That Way has announced that free school meals will continue.

How come? A footballer, Marcus Rashford, campaigned for them.

*

Dozens of hospitals are still reporting a shortage of scrubs. This much, you’d think, the Department of We’ve Been Here Before could get right by now. They’re not high-tech equipment. Volunteers have been supplying some. Any place with a sewing machine could turn them out.

Some doctors report that they’re taking their home to wash, which is what they’ve been advised to do even though it risks spreading infection.

The NHS says there’s no shortage of scrubs and asks everyone to go have a cup of tea and think about all those intelligent civilizations somewhere in the galaxy, who see us on Instagram and wish they had such a nice cup of tea.

*

Speaking of Instagram, it’s time for everyone who’s feeling bad because they’re not in a relationship to stop fretting. In Britain, married people and people in civil partnerships reported the highest rise in anxiety levels during lockdown.

That’s not the same as saying they have the highest level of anxiety, only the highest increase. But still.

*

In the Caribbean and South and Central America, the pandemic is kicking off an epidemic of hunger, the U.N. warns.

And in France, a demonstration by healthcare workers demanding more funding for the health system ended with some people in black setting fire to a car (actually, a vehicle–it could be a tank for all the word gives away) and throwing things at the police, at which point the police fired tear gas at the demonstrators, although as far as I can tell from a short mention they didn’t start the violence.

*

Britain’s health secretary was on Sky News talking about how quarantine would protect us from countries where the coronavirus rate of infection is higher than ours.

Which ones, the interviewer asked.

Brazil, he said.

Could he name any others? the interviewer asked.

Um, well [insert vague blither here, along with the word science].

Yes, she asked, but what others?

[….science….]

[….science…]

It’s all about the science, folks. That’s why we’ve imposed a quarantine at a time when we’re the folks other countries want to quarantine.

*

A professor of cardio-vascular science, Mauro Giacca, says, “What you find in the lungs of people who have [died of Covid-19 after 30 to 40 days in intensive care] . . . is something completely different from normal pneumonia, influenza or the Sars virus. You see . . . a complete disruption of the lung architecture.”

Their lungs, he says, can be completely unrecognizable.

And a professor of medicine, John Bell, says that a second wave of the virus, which he considers likely now that Britain’s lockdown is being released, should at least allow scientists to measure whether people who survived one bout of the virus become immune to it.

The Department of Silver Linings has taken note.

*

I can’t let you go until you’ve read this: In Vienna, a man has been fined 500 euros for farting loudly at the police–or, to be formal about this, for offending public decency. He got up from a park bench, looked at the cops, and “let go a massive intestinal wind apparently with full intent.”

He also behaved “provocatively and uncooperatively” beforehand, but that doesn’t seem to be why they arrested him.

Surfers, Black Lives Matter, and the Star Count: It’s the news roundup from Britain

Let’s start with the star count: Back in the winter sometime, I posted information about an effort to study light pollution by asking people to count the stars they could see inside the constellation Orion. If you’d like to see the map that compiled from that study, here’s the link.

*

I know I said the news was from Britain, but what the hell, I’m sitting in Britain and I’m typing this, so this comes from Britain, even if the news is from the U.S. It’s too good to miss: Someone from Nebraska is suing every gay person on the planet. In federal court.

She’s not claiming gay people have broken any laws. In fact, her hand-written, seven-page statement doesn’t talk about law. She quotes the Bible and she quotes a dictionary.

Now, I’ll admit to having misspelled a word or two in my time–possibly more than two. And ignorance of the law is no defense, so I might be worth suing, although first we should establish that a lawsuit is the appropriate remedy.

But the Bible–. Folks, it’s time we all sat down and had a serious discussion about whether people have to follow the rules of religions they don’t belong to. And if the answer turns out to be yes, we need to talk about which religion’s rules to follow. Because the world’s full of religions, and they have different rules. We’ll find a few areas of overlap, but that’s not going to be enough.

I predict a messy, uncomfortable discussion.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the woman bringing the lawsuit is representing herself in court.

*

Relevant photo (it happens sometimes): A Black Lives Matter demonstration in Camelford, Cornwall.

Enough of that. Let’s go back to Britain:

After a slave trader’s statue was toppled into the Bristol harbor, British conversations about black lives matter have focused heavily on the symbolic. In other words, on statues. So a group of white, far-right activists felt called upon to gather in London so they could protect its historic statues.

To avoid violence, Black Lives Matter called off the protest it had scheduled for that day, although other groups didn’t.

The far-right activists drank; threw bottles, smoke grenades, and flares at the cops,; gave the Nazi salute: took off their shirts; and pissed on statues, possibly on the theory that they need liquid to grow.

To be fair, not all of them did all those things. That’s a collective portrait.

A hundred people were arrested.

They made a point of claiming Winston Churchill as one of their own, possibly because someone had painted, “Was a racist” below his statue. I’ll let a tweet from @dannywallace sum the situation up:

“-  Police are protecting a statue from people who want to protect it from people who don’t seem to be there.

“- Meanwhile the man who stopped us all from having to salute like a Nazi is celebrated by men doing Nazi salutes.”

A group called the Football Lads Alliance took part. It’s a British thing, going to a football game in order to get in a fight. Not everyone who likes the game does that, but for some people it’s the whole point. And it does seem to be linked to racism.

I’m not even going to try to explain it. I don’t think it’s anything an outsider is likely to understand..

*

At a point where a group of far right demonstrators (let’s call them FRs) clashed with a group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators (let’s call them BLMs), one FR was left by his friends and was curled on the ground, surrounded by the group of BLMs they’d been fighting with. Patrick Hutchinson, a personal trainer who’d come with some friends in order to de-escalate clashes, waded in, heaved the FR over his shoulder, and with his friends in formation around him, carried him out.

The photo–a black guy carrying a white FR demonstrator to safety–went viral.

“If the other three police officers who were standing around when George Floyd was murdered had thought about intervening like what we did, George Floyd would be alive today,” he said.

*

Near where I live, in mostly white, very rural Cornwall, thirty people held a one-hour Black Lives Matter demonstration in the small market town of Camelford. We were masked and distanced and it took some of us most of the hour to work out that we already knew half of the people we were standing with.

I’d posted the event on our village Facebook page (having a village Facebook page is a tradition that dates back to the middle ages), and the response was a long argument about statues and whether responding to black lives matter by saying “all lives matter” is like saying responding to someone saying, “Save the Amazon,” by saying “all trees matter.”

The argument went on for over 200 comments.

*

Further down west (as people say around here), in Porthleven, surfers paddled into the harbor in support of black lives matter.

*

On a totally different note, in Italy, a group of drug dealers knew they were being watched by the police and wanted someplace safe to stash their stash until the cops got bored, so they did what any sensible, adult drug dealer would do: They hid $22,000 worth of cocaine in the forest. Where a pack of wild boars found it, tore open the packaging, and spread it all over the forest floor.

It’s not at all clear whether the boars inhaled.

The article I got this from called the boars a horde, which made me realize that I don’t know what you call a group of wild boars. I’ve (arbitrarily–it’s the privilege of the chair to be arbitrary) called them a pack, ruling horde out of order, along with mob, herd, and flock. I haven’t ruled out committee.

A committee of cocaine-fueled wild boars . . .

If you’re a fan of short story prompts, you’re welcome to use that as an opening line. In the story I won’t bother to write, they end up running the country.

It may or may not be fiction.

The pandemic update, in which Britain tries to beat the world

Let’s start in France instead of Britain:

Because of the coronavirus and the lockdown, wine sales have been down. Bar and restaurant closures hit the industry hard, and if that wasn’t enough, Donald Trump got mad at the whole damn country and slapped a 25% tariff on French wine. 

What’s a wine-producing country to do?

Make hand sanitizer. Some 200 million liters of unsold wine will be–or possibly already has been; it’s hard to know how to read this–made into hand sanitizing gel. That will free up space in the wine caves for this year’s vintage. 

The gel will not sport its vintage on the label, although up-market wines were hit particularly hard, so you could be rubbing your hands with some really great wines. Or at least some really expensive ones. 

You can’t turn it back into wine, though, no matter how hard you try. 

Sorry.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

*

In Britain, shutting down the pubs–and also opening them back up, which will happen eventually–is all about beer, and beer (I’ve just learned) doesn’t last forever

So how do you get rid of it? You can’t just dump it down the drain. You have to talk to the water board. You have to record everything and verify everything, because you’re going to want to get your beer duty back from the brewers. 

Beer duty? You don’t want to know. It’s a tax. And you have to  submit a Beer Duty (in caps) form by the fifteenth day of the month after your accounting period. 

After you do all that, presumably, you can dump it down the drain.

*

New Zealand is now free of Covid-19. You probably already heard that, but good news is hard to come by and I can’t let it go to waste: New Zealand. Covid free.

If you’re not New Zealandish, though, you can’t go there. They’re keeping tight control of the borders, and even incoming New Zealanders will be quarantined–by which I don’t mean the mythical quarantine Britain’s imposed (ride public transportation, go shopping, lick a few door handles, then stay kind of vaguely inside, mostly, unless you need something), but the real kind, where you don’t breathe on people or touch them or lick their door handles.

*

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the world-beating track and trace system that Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised us. 

Why do we want to beat the world on this? Because we’re coming second in our official count of coronavirus deaths (the US is ahead, the wretches, and Brazil’s rushing up the charts just behind us). Well, by gum, that’s not good enough. We need to beat someone at something. 

How are we doing at beating the world with our track and trace system, then? 

Um. 

Our custom-built track and trace app should be ready next month, the government says. It was supposed to be ready last month, but never mind. One month is a lot like another when you’re in lockdown. And the calling system that’s supposed to back it up, or possibly substitute for it until it’s working, is a privatized shambles. 

An independent science advisory group, formed by the government’s former chief non-independent science advisor, Sir David King, says the system isn’t–in that very British phrase–fit for purpose. To prevent the infection rate rising, he says, it needs to detect 80% of an infected person’s contacts, and it won’t. He’s called for it to be scrapped.

“This is the critical moment for the government to act now or risk further spikes. We believe that a new approach is required, one that moves away from a centralised system that utilises a local-first approach. We are calling on the government to urgently rethink their course to ensure that we have a system in place that will help and not hinder the country’s recovery.”

Why’s the government stuck on the idea of a centralized system? My best guess is because there’s money to be made that way, and contracts to be handed out, and the god of privatization to be placated with large offerings.

One contactor in the tracing program is Serco, which has an impressive record of disaster. A few months back, it was fined £1 million for failures on a contract.

And £3 million for messing up another contract

And £122.9 million (plus repaying £68.5 million) for another. That’s for the contract that saw them billing the government for all the work involved in monitoring the movements of the dead.

No, that’s not a joke. They really did that.

Anyway, they’re working on the contact tracing program. We’re in good hands here.

The junior health minister, Edward Argar, is a former Serco lobbyist. Which has nothing to do with anything. Don’t give it a minute’s thought. I only mentioned it because I’m biased.

*

A small pest-control company–small as in 16 staff members and £18,000 in assets–was awarded a £108 million Department of Health contract, making it the government’s largest supplier of protective equipment. 

A coffee, tea, and spice wholesaler got a £2.15 million contract to supply medical and surgical face masks. 

All told, £340 million in contracts were signed in April, most of them without a competitive process. Some of the companies may be doing exactly what they’re being paid to do. Others–. Well, you do get the sense that a lot of money was spent without adult supervision.

I was going to give you a link to Pest Magazine for this story, because how many times in a life does a person get a chance to link to Pest Magazine. Unfortunately, it’s not much of an article. I only added the paragraph to justify the link.

*

But we don’t need to go to a pest control company to buy a mask. A full-page newspaper ad tells me that we can all order our own, and since they’re not the kind the NHS uses, we’re not taking anything they need. The masks come in packs of three, they’re reusable, and the ad doesn’t say how much they cost.

But no mask is complete without face mask sanitizing spray, which is designed to “eliminate and reduce the spread of harmful germs and viruses.” So first we eliminate the little bastards and then, in case that isn’t enough, we reduce them. And it all comes with a 100% money back guarantee. The fine print is too small for human eyes, but I think it says that if you die from the virus, you get your money back.

*

But we were talking about Britain beating the world, and it still could. Or at least it could lead the world’s major economies in being hardest hit by the pandemic, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Go, us!

The current guess is that we’ll be looking at an 11.5% fall. 

And even better, the Covid Crash should hide whatever disasters a no-deal or last-minute-deal Brexit brings us.