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.

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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.

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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..

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The pandemic update from Britain, with half-dressed politicians and questionable databases

The European Parliament–unlike the British one–is meeting virtually, and an Irish member, Luke Flanagan (called Ming, after a character out of Flash Gordon) discussed agricultural policy, live and beamed to an unwilling world, while wearing a dark shirt and possibly underwear but nothing more than that. 

We know this because he set his iPad to portrait instead of landscape. And I understand that tastes differ, but I’m reasonably sure this isn’t the portrait you want hanging over your mantle. 

The EU’s translators could be heard fighting not to laugh as they (heroically) went on translating what he said into all the EU’s many languages. 

He now calls himself Ming the Trouserless. 

Irrelevant photo to give you some relief from the pandemic: a field with corn marigolds.

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Possibly for fear of an online dress-code rebellion, Boris Johnson backed down and will now allow Britain’s members of parliament to vote remotely if they have medical conditions that would make attending in person dangerous or if they have family members who etc. and so on and so on. 

As far as I can tell, that doesn’t include MPs who in spite of the virus have to travel from way to hell and gone to get to Westminster, and it’s anyone guess whether it includes black, Asian, or minority ethnic MPS, who are at higher risk from the virus than whites, for reasons that haven’t been figured out yet. 

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Since the MPs have come home to roost, chickenlike, in Westminster, the union that represent parliament’s staff is threatening to strike over conditions they consider unsafe. They haven’t been able to keep a safe distance from the MPs, they say. But (they didn’t say) they’re all dressed very nicely–not to mention from top to (and this is very important) bottom.

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Starting in mid-June, all hospital visitors and outpatients will have to wear masks, and all staff will have to wear surgical masks, the government announced. To which the National Health Service said, “Gee, it would’ve been nice if you’d talked to us about this beforehand, because it’s going to take a little planning.”

“Planning?” the Department of Impulsive Thinking said. “What’s that?”

The government also announced that a limited number of visitors will be allowed into hospitals, and I haven’t a clue if the hospitals were told about that in advance. Possibly, since they haven’t been heard to scream, “You want what?” in public. 

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A leaked email from the Department of Grinding Slowly has announced that Britain’s world-beating system of testing people for the coronavirus and tracing their contacts won’t be fully operational until September. Or possibly October.

It hasn’t ruled out the possibility of postponing September and October for up to 90 days so that it can make its target. 

But don’t worry, we’ll all be fine. Car showrooms are reopening. In no time at all, we’ll be able to get haircuts. (I’ve cut my partner’s hair twice now and we’re still together. She wanted to cut mine, but after what she did to the dog I thought maybe I’d let it grow.) You can meet people who are over 5’6” on Thursdays as long as you’re out of doors and the wind’s from the west. If they stand on your left. Children with birthmarks have returned to school. Children without birthmarks will have to wait until next month. 

That report is from the Department of You’ll Never Keep Track of It Anyway. 

Those of us who were born with a sunny disposition, along with any number of scientists, are waiting for a second spike in coronavirus cases. In fact, a group of scientists and medics have called for a public inquiry to prepare for it. 

Anyone want to place bets on whether they’ll be listened to?

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You might want to sit down before you read this next piece. Not because it’s shocking but because it made me dizzy, and I do have a habit of mixing me up with you, so I just assume you’ll have the same problem.

First we (and by we, of course, I mean I) learned from the Guardian that a small US company, Surgisphere, provided the data behind a couple of articles published in reputable medical journals that claimed Covid-19 patients taking hydroxychloroquine (I hate typing that word) were dying at higher rates than people who weren’t taking it. 

That led to tests of the drug ending early. It was too dangerous.  

But Surgisphere’s extensive database, from which the data was drawn, looked–

Is shaky a polite enough word? Questionable. Let’s settle for questionable. And possibly imaginary.

And Surgisphere, which had listed six employees before the story broke, suddenly listed only three. Some of them have no visible medical, scientific, or data background. The science editor seems to be a science fiction writer and fantasy artist. The marketing executive is an adult model and events hostess. 

An adult model? I’m not sure. It probably just means she’s over eighteen, although maybe she makes a living as a role model for adults. Or appears by video link in front of the European Parliament in her not-quite-altogether. 

Next we learned that the respectable medical publications withdrew the articles because the authors were no longer sure of their data. There were plans to resume the canceled trials of that drug whose name I hate to type. 

But wait: Before anyone had time to check my spelling, we learned that a randomized trial reported that the stuff is useless against Covid-19 and we can all forget about it.

May I never have to type its name again.

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If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve earned the right to whatever good news I can scrape together, and I did find some. Astra-Zeneca is going into high gear producing a vaccine before its effectiveness has been proven. It’s a gamble. If it works, they’ll have 300 million doses ready to go before the end of the year. If it doesn’t, they’ll have set fire to a significant amount of money. 

This involves partnerships with a range of groups that I won’t list, and it also involves a commitment to make 1 billion doses available to low- and middle-income countries.

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And finally, a Dutch study raises the hope that vitamin K might protect people against the worst forms of Covid-19. So eat your spinach, kids, along with eggs, blue cheese, and hard cheeses. You can put them together into a very nice omelette, and if you’ve been here for a while you know better than to ask me for a recipe.

A quick pandemic update from Britain: from the Department of We Told You So

The Department of We Told You So has sent the government a bill for services rendered: 

Tuesday. The House of Commons begins meeting in person again. Its leader, Jacob Rees Mogg, wants it to set an example. 

Cue warnings about Covid-19 contagion and the impossibility of keeping a decent distance in that rabbit warren of a building. But Britons are made of sterner stuff and a majority votes to continue meeting in person.

Wednesday. Business Secretary Alok Sharma becomes visibly ill during a debate. He’s tested for Covid-19 and goes home. Possibly to isolate himself but possibly to take a 260-mile drive so he can test his vision and have a cup of coffee with Dominic Cummings in some scenic town. 

Thursday. Your guess is as good as mine. I’m posting this at 8:30 a.m. and have no idea what’ll happen next. 

If you put this in a novel, I’d tell you not to be so predictable. 

The pandemic update from Britain: Downing Street plays musical chairs

Boris Johnson has instituted a shakeup in Number 10 Downing Street. According to a senior Conservative source, it’s to “bring some order” to the decision making process. Here’s how it’s going to work:

Johnson will chair a strategy committee, called CS, because committees work best when their initials run in one direction and their names run in the other. Michael Gove will chair on operations committee, called CO, because ditto. Then someone will put on a piece of music and four ministerial groups that were set up to deal with Covid-19, along with the regular Covid-19 morning meeting will all run down the hall screaming. When the music stops–which will happen at some unpredictable time, well before the song reaches its natural conclusion–whoever’s left without an office will be returned to parliament, postage due. 

This may, it’s rumored, curb Dominic Cummings’ influence, although I’d be inclined to try exorcism myself. 

Except for the business about the hallway, the music, and the exorcism, this is real. 

Oh. And the postage due.

Irrelevant photo: A gerbera daisy.

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In a stunning display of pointless determination, the House of Commons took 46 minutes to vote on a single measure on Tuesday. Or possibly 1 hour and 23 minutes. It depends on your source. And possibly on which measure they were timing.

However long it took, the time didn’t include the debate. It was just for Members of Parliament to cast their votes–something that would normally take 15 minutes.

They were kept the proper distance apart while they waited by an airport-style system that channeled them into a kilometer-long, snaking line. Cleverer writers than me (and also than I) have said that it looked like the world’s most boring theme park. In the photos I’ve seen, somewhere between none of the MPs and very few of them were wearing masks. Because, what the hell, they’ve given up all hope of escaping the virus. 

Since the middle of April, parliament’s been operating on a hybrid system that allowed some MPs to show up in person and others to vote and debate remotely. But the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, scrapped the hybrid system, forcing MPs to show up in person if they wanted to vote.

Why does R-M want them all back? To set an example. 

Of what? I don’t think he’s said. Certainly not of following government advice to minimize contact with people outside your household, work from home if at all possible, and only meet people out of doors in groups of no more than I don’t remember how many. 

I’ll admit, though, that they’re setting an example of the British stiff upper lip. As one MP said, “If I haven’t already had Covid, I’m now resigned to the fact that I definitely will.” 

R-M also said everyone had to come back because it will make democracy “once again flourish.” 

I don’t think he’s explained that either.

MPs who, for medical reasons, can’t come back will be able to take part in some debates remotely but they won’t be able to vote. Because, hey, if they’d had any foresight they wouldn’t have gotten themselves into this situation. To compensate for that, there may be pairing arrangements. That means that if an MP from one party can’t vote a paired MP from the opposing party is taken out and shot so they can’t vote either.

Okay, that’s not the exact wording of the proposal. Maybe they just put a bag over the sacrificial MPs head and lead him or her into a nice dark closet until the voting’s over. Which may take a while. 

Given that there are more than two parties, which  party do they pull the sacrificial paired MP from? Do they ask the non-attending MP, “Who do you hate most? We’ll keep them from voting”? Or do they take one MP from each party? 

But that’s only for MPs with medical reasons not to attend. What happens to MPs who live hours’ away from London at a time when travel’s limited? That’s up from grabs. They too should probably have thought their lives through before they got into that position.

Predictably, opposition MPs voted against the recall, but they were joined by a number of Conservatives–especially the ones who need to keep themselves out of the virii’s path because of age or disability or because someone in their family is particularly vulnerable. 

I don’t even begin to understand British law, but even so I seem to catch the scent of a lawsuit in the wind–from disenfranchised constituents or from older and disabled MPs or from both.

I’m not directly affected by this. I’m not an MP and I’d be happy enough to see my MP blocked of voting for almost any reason, but if I got a chance I’d join the lawsuit anyway.

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The head of the UK Statistics Authority, David Norgrove (Sir David Norgrove to his friends), criticized Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s use of statistics on coronavirus testing, saying they’re “still far from complete and comprehensible.”

“Statistics on testing perhaps serve two main purposes.

“The first is to help us understand the epidemic . . . showing us how many people are infected, or not, and their relevant characteristics.

“The second purpose is to help manage the test programme, to ensure there are enough tests, that they are carried out or sent where they are needed and that they are being used as effectively as possible.”

However, the aim of the statistics Hancock throws around in his briefings, he said, “seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding.”

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A couple of unpublished pages of Isaac Newton’s notes are up for auction, and one of them has a remedy for the plague. It involves making toad vomit and making both the vomit and the unhappy toad itself into lozenges. 

Believe me, you don’t want to know how they got the toad to vomit. And it was a different plague, so I wouldn’t bother trying it for this one.

The pandemic update from Britain: numbers, alcohol, and ice cream

Somebody enjoyed Britain’s lockdown: Looking at all those empty roads, a handful of drivers said, “Wheee,” or whatever the British equivalent is if that’s an Americanism. I can’t remember hearing anyone British say it, but at 107 years old I don’t find myself in as many whee-like situations as I used to. 

No, I can’t explain it either.

Around the country, a few drivers dedicated themselves to finding out if the high numbers on their speedometers were only there for decoration or if their cars would really go that fast. On mine, anything over 70 is decorative unless we’re going downhill, but that’s okay because they do look very nice. 

The record was set by someone driving 163 miles an hour on a London motorway, which in American is a highway. That’s a meer 93 miles an hour over the speed limit. But the winner (and I can’t be entirely objective in how I award the prizes here) was someone driving 134 miles an hour in a 40 mile an hour zone. 

 

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Screamingly irrelevant photo: a geranium.

As lockdown eases, we’re all being profoundly sensible. In Accrington (wherever that may be), a birthday party turned into a fight and three people were arrested after an enthusiastic exchange of germs. I’m not sure how many people were at the party, but that’s okay because by now I’ve forgotten how many people are allowed to meet up. I do remember that they’re supposed to be out of doors, which (in a startling break with protocol) makes sense, but the number is arbitrary, so why remember it? However many it’s supposed to be, let’s assume they had more.

The evening news showed photos of mobbed beaches here in the southwest, with people packed especially tightly on a path leading to a beach. And to celebrate the chance to enjoy nature at its best, people left their litter when they went home, knowing that it would go on celebrating without them.

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And from the department of non-snarky reporting, a bakery in Liverpool was offering a free coffee or ice cream to anyone people who’d helped clean up the local parks. All they had to do was dump their bag of litter in the bin outside the shop.

Liverpool’s too far from Cornwall for a free ice cream to be worth the trip, but I did give it some thought.

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We’re getting details of Britain’s proposed quarantine for international visitors and it’s a masterstroke of pointlessness. It puts travelers in quarantine for two weeks, but it’s an imaginary quarantine. They’ll be asked to self-isolate, and about a fifth of them will be spot checked. But they can go out to shop for food and medicine. They can move from one residence to another. And they can take public transportation to get to wherever the hell they’re staying. And they can breathe both in and out while they do all of the above.

Oh, and they’ll be advised to download the contact tracing app when it’s available. If it ever is available. 

Predictably, no one’s happy with the plan. People who want travelers and business, not to mention the money they bring, want no quarantine.  And people who do want a quarantine want the kind of quarantine that quarantines people. 

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A report published in the Lancet reports that–

Well, what it reports depends on what newspaper you read. According to the Guardian, the Independent, and the Irish Times, if instead of keeping 2 meters from other people we keep 1 meter away, we’ll double the risk of Covid-19 infection. 

According to the Mail, however, keeping 1 meter apart “slashes” the risk of infection by  80 percent. “Researchers found there was roughly a 1.3 per cent chance of contracting the virus when two metres from an infected patient. But halving this gap raised the risk to only 2.6 per cent.” 

According to the Sun, “Keeping 1 metre apart IS enough to cut risk of virus.” But only if you put your VERBS in ALL CAPS. 

All three are technically accurate, they just use the numbers differently and make the report’s information sound very different. 

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In the meantime, almost half of all drinkers in Britain are starting to drink earlier in the day during the pandemic. We’ll use a Guardian link for that, because if we go to the Mail, we learn that  “Nearly HALF of Britons” end up in all caps. 

And with that we end our comparative survey of the British press.

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British hospitals will run five drug trials to see if they work against Covid-19. They range from heparin (already in use as a blood thinner but will be tried in nebulized form to see if it works as an anti-inflammatory and protects cells against the virus) to Bemcentinib (used to treat blood disorders but carrying an antiviral effect). 

Okay, I kind of lied about ending our survey of the British press, because it seems worth noticing that the Guardian, the Mail, and the Sun all pretty much agree on that. So to keep myself kind of honest, I’ll  give you a link from the Post Courier, from Papua New Guinea.

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A study from McMaster University shows that cloth masks do keep the droplets and aerosols that we breathe out from spraying into the world around us. And that may reduced the odds of spreading the virus.

For droplets and aerosols,  if you want, you can substitute the words spit and micro-spit.

“The point is not that some particles can penetrate the mask, but that some particles are stopped, particularly outwardly, from the wearer,” said Catherine Clase, the paper’s first author.

First author? That’s the big name on the paper. The one who’d get ALL CAPS if she were a Sun or Mail headline.

The mask’s effectiveness, predictably enough, depends on what it’s made of. A commercial mask made with four layers of cotton muslin reduces particles by 99%. A scarf, sweatshirt, or T-shirt could reduce them by 10% to 40%. 

I’ve seen a pattern for a crocheted mask that would reduce transmission by 0%, because the nature of crocheting is that it’s full of holes. It was on someone’s blog. I was too floored to leave a comment. Someone’s probably out there somewhere, wearing one. 

The pandemic update from Britain: lockdown, lunacy, and a mention of Minneapolis

A pilot flew a private plane from Surrey to an airfield belonging to the Royal Air Force. That set off an emergency response involving the Ministry of Defence and fire crews, who (I’m reading between the lines here) wanted to know what the hell he thought he was doing.

He wanted to go to the beach, he said. 

Since the airfield is in Wales, that was a breach of the lockdown rules, which are different in Wales than in England. Or it’s believed to be a breach, since the rules don’t specifically mention landing your private plane on an airforce base so you can go to the beach. 

I think I can safely say that he’ll be in trouble with multiple agencies. I’m reasonably sure that lockdown will be the least of his troubles.

To put the situation into bureaucro-speak, the police are ‘considering’ whether there were ‘potential breaches’ of coronavirus legislation. And the Civil Aviation Authority has been alerted. It will be demanding a note from his parents.

So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that Dominic Cummings was on board. And if you haven’t followed who Dominic Cummings is, just follow the handy link, which will take you to a post by that noted expert, me, which will explain all. Or enough, anyway.

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England’s contact tracing campaign continues to be a mess, with many tracers not able to log on. Some recruits have set up support groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, pooling their knowledge about what the hell they’re supposed to do, and how. One contact tracer reported (anonymously) that the app wouldn’t work with his or her microphone. Another had been working for three weeks and been asked to do nothing more than join an online training session. A third says he or she has learned to juggle with three balls. 

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Some of England and Scotland’s coronavirus testing centers aren’t matching test results to either people’s National Health Service numbers or their addresses, which means their doctors aren’t told about coronavirus patients on their caseloads and local authorities can’t track outbreaks in their areas.

Back in March, the devolved governments–that translates to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland–told Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, that the system he was setting up had problems, and Northern Irland and Wales insisted on changes. Scotland and England went ahead. 

Wales and Northern Ireland get to play a satisfying round of I-told-you-so. 

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An NHS trial is giving Covid-19 patients blood plasma transfusions from patients who’ve recovered, and the trial’s set to expand. The hope is that the antibodies will help them fight off the disease. 

To date, it’s only been tried on patients in intensive care, but it may be more effective if it’s used earlier. Stay tuned.

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Back in April, the British government’s science advisory group noted that only half the people who came down with Covid-19 symptoms followed the government’s advice to self-isolate for fourteen days. It recommended doing some quick research to figure out what it would take to get people to follow the guidelines. 

As the lockdown eases and the government’s betting its rapidly diminishing stack of chips on testing people, tracing the contacts of anyone who tests positive, and isolating the cases they find, people actually isolating themselves becomes crucial.

Not going into isolation when you should is apparently now known as doing a Cummings. 

Some members of the science advisory group are now warning that easing the lockdown now will lead to a second wave of cases. In England, 8,000 people a day are still becoming infected, and that doesn’t count people in care homes or hospitals. That data’s collected separately and the two data sets aren’t speaking. You know how it is in some families. 

It also doesn’t count cases in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.

One advisor, John Edmunds, said, “If you look at it internationally, it’s a very high level of incidence.”

The current R rate–the rate at which the virus spreads–is between 0.7 and 0.9. At anything above 1, the pandemic grows. At 1, it stays the same, which at a rough guess means 80 deaths a day.

John Edmunds’ colleague Jeremy Farrar tweeted, “Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. Agree with John & clear science advice. TTI [test, trace and isolate] has to be in place, fully working, capable [of dealing with] any surge immediately.”

 

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England’s chief medical officer said, in a carefully worded statement, that the country’s at a very dangerous moment. It wasn’t a clear criticism of the government, but a listener could be forgiven for thinking it was.

He also said, mentioning no names, that England’s lockdown rules applied to all.

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MPs’ inboxes have been swamped by messages about Dominic Cummings, most of them critical. So what does an overwhelmed MP do? Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall gave his responses the personal touch by hitting Send before he remembered to delete the part that said, “insert if there has been a bereavement.” 

He is, he said, incredibly sorry. He remembered to delete the part of the script that said, “Don’t get caught again.”

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I don’t write much about American politics. Even though I’m American, I live in Britain. It’s not the best seat to watch the show from. But I have to go off topic and say something about what’s happening there, even though it’s happening in the wrong country and it’s not pandemic related.

I lived in Minneapolis for years, and a lot of you will know what’s happening: A few days ago, a white police officer killed an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck for seven minutes. On camera. While Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.”

What had Floyd done? Tried to buy something at a local food store. The clerk thought he’d paid with a counterfeit bill and called the police, because that was store policy. No one claims that Floyd knew it was counterfeit. At this point I don’t know if anyone cares whether it actually was.

First there were protests. Then there were riots. A CNN reporter was arrested while covering them, even after he showed  his i.d. He’s black. Yes, that’s relevant. 

Rumors are flying every which way. I can’t confirm them, so I’ll stick to what’s in the papers.

My old neighborhood’s been on fire. The post office, the library, and a whole lot stores have burned down, along with the police station where the officers involved in the killing were based.  

At a gym in another part of the city, a white man threatened to call the police on some black men because the gym was restricted to the tenants of the building and they couldn’t possibly have a right to use the same gym as he did. That was after demanding that they prove they had a right to be there. 

In Kentucky, police targeted a news crew covering a protest about a black woman who was killed by police in her own home. “Targeted” means they shot the reporter with pepper bullets. 

In Detroit, someone shot into a group of protestors from a car, killing a 19-year-old. 

In several cities, cars have driven into crowds of protestors.

I’m not using the word protestor to mean rioter.

Sorry–I’m supposed to be funny here, or to at least try. That’s the agreement we sort of made.  So to those of you who are in the U.S.: Guys, I know racism runs deep in our national DNA. If there’s such a thing as national original sin, that’s ours. But I also know that racism’s not the whole story, that there’s more to us than that. So I’m looking for you to sort this out, okay?

Don’t make me come over there. 

The pandemic update from Britain: swans, spike, and Scunthorpe

The BBC has commissioned TV shows (or maybe that’s one show–we’ll find out eventually) that will, they say, be “a powerful snapshot” of lockdown Britain. One of them is a version of Swan Lake performed in the dancers’ bathtubs and showers.

The director? He directed it from his toilet seat. Sitting there, he said, kept him conscious of the limits the dancers were working with. 

“It’s been like hanging a picture blindfolded,” he said, “a mile away.”

Stay tuned, kids. It should be a one-of-a-kind moment in British culture.

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Irrelevant photo: a stone age monument.

With all the flap around Dominic Cummings, why hadn’t he trended on Twitter? Because his name causes anti-porn filters to wake from their slumber and block–well, something. Possibly the tweets themselves, more likely the mass of them trending. How would I know? I’m 107 years old and even typing this much woke my anti-tech filters from their slumbers so they could block me from understanding the story. 

I do understand this much: The spam filters have driven people to all sorts of creative mis-spellings of his last name.

The problem of accidental, automated censorship is called the Scunthorpe problem. Scunthorpe is a real place, and that’s its real name. If you’re not a spam filter or a ten-year-old, it’s an inoffensive one, pronounced SCUNNthorp. 

The challenge of figuring out what to block and what not to block is also real. It’s right up there with trying to find pictures of seventeen animals hidden in the picture of a tree. Find the naughty words; don’t find the not-naughty words.

Oops. You got it wrong. Return to Scunthorpe and start over. 

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In the period that starts on the week that ended on March 20 (that’s a convoluted way to tell time, but I didn’t invent it), the U.K. has the highest excess death rate of any country with reliable statistics: 891 per million.

The highest what? 

Excess deaths: the ones that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. They matter because not all coronavirus deaths are counted as coronavirus deaths. In many countries–possibly in all; how would I know?–how they’re counted depends on what goes on the person’s death certificate, which is decided by a scattering of doctors who may make very different decisions for all sorts of reasons. 

And in the absence of testing, who’s to say who died of the virus and who didn’t?

Excess deaths also matter because people die in a pandemic of things that wouldn’t have killed them if life had been what we so airily think of as normal. So the person who has a heart attack and decides they’d be better off at home than in an overloaded hospital with a high infection rate? Or who calls an ambulance that doesn’t get there for hours? The person whose cancer surgery was postponed because the surgeons didn’t have surgical gowns and couldn’t operate safely?

They all end up as excess deaths, indirectly attributable to the virus.

The data comes from nineteen countries.

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A study in France finds that even mild Covid-19 cases leave 98% of people with protective antibodies. That’s the good news. The bad news is that 2% of the population is left out and that no one knows how long it will last. At this point, they’ve seen it lasting a month.

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South Korea’s second pandemic spike is inching upward, and Jeong Eu-kyeong, the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they may have to re-impose social distancing. 

“We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures,” she said, “but there’s a limit to such efforts.” 

A lockdown has been reimposed in Seoul.

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England’s test and trace system launched on Thursday, to the blatt of off-key trumpets and the curses of employees who couldn’t log on. It was supposed to be fully operational by this coming Monday, but Monday has been postponed till late June. Don’t fret. Every month has a solid handful of Mondays.

One contact tracer said they’d been told on Wednesday that the system would start on June 1, not Thursday, and added that there was no vetting or quality control over who was being hired. The tracers are a mix of medical professionals, people who’ve worked in call centers, students working a summer job, and I have no idea who else. They work from a script.

A doctor working as a team leader isn’t optimistic. 

“It’s difficult when you see people breaking rules,” he said. “Everyone is confused what the message is.”

The app that’s supposed to make all this work seamlessly is, um, being tweaked. I don’t think that’s classic British understatement. It’s classic governmental mumblespeak. They did a limited trial on it, discovered problems, and took it into the back of the workshop, where they’re pounding on it with sledgehammers.

Local governments, apparently, feel just as well prepared as the contact tracers, with an unnamed someone accusing the NHS and Department of Health of “control freakery.”

A lot of people are speaking out on this as unnamed someones or by first name only. 

Public health experts say they were sidelined during March and April, as the tracing campaign was being put together, and only involved in May after a behind-the-scenes campaign. 

England–not Britain this time; the overlap and divisions can make a person dizzy–has a network of contact tracers who work with TB and sexually transmitted diseases and could have shifted to the pandemic months ago. Contact tracing interviews, they say, take tact and experience, and they sound skeptical about the effectiveness of people who were hired by the truckload, trained briefly and online, and turned loose to work with a system that–. Well, one person who was supposed to use it said, “I have not been given any details of who to call if I have problems, only an email address…which largely goes unanswered.”

But this will make it safe for us all to emerge from lockdown and we’ll all be just fine, folks. And we don’t have to wait until the tracing system works. We can just go ahead on the promise.

The plan is that when testing identifies local hotspots, local governments, health people, and all the area’s chickens will work together and do something.

What will they do? It’s hard to say, because local authorities don’t have power to close down schools or workplaces, and chickens don’t even have the power to decide when to brood their eggs and when to let the humans do whatever it is they do with them.

Is anyone else feeling a bit chickenish?

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On Friday morning I promise you something unrelated to the virus.

Volunteers, the virus, and the Wayback Machine: it’s the pandemic update from Britain

Our prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings, held a press conference on Monday to explain that he hadn’t broken any of the lockdown rules he helped write and why he had no plans to resign, and I was going to shut up about him for a while, but the absurdities keep piling up, and I’m a sucker for absurdity.

Among other things, he said, “For years, I have been warning about the dangers of pandemics. Last year, I wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning.”

He did indeed write about the threat of coronaviruses in a 2019 blog post, but he wrote the coronavirus part of it in April of 2020–that was last month, in case you’ve gone adrift–and edited the reference in as if it had been there the whole time. 

Hands up anyone who knew about the internet archiving service called the Wayback Machine. I didn’t. It doesn’t look like Cummings did either.

The government has confirmed that the blog post was indeed edited.

Irrelevant photo: Sunset from the cliffs near St. Materiana.

Cummings also said in the press conference that after he left his job in Downing Street and went home because his wife had Covid-19 symptoms, he returned to Downing Street–another breach of the rules he helped write, which  no one seems to have known about it until he brought it up in his own defense. 

He also explained that he drove thirty miles from his parents’ home, with his wife and kid in the car, to make sure his eyesight was good enough to drive back to London.

And in case you care, he was half an hour late to his own press conference. 

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How’d it go down? Not that well. In a YouGov poll, 59% of the people surveyed thought Cummings should resign (7% more than thought that three days before) and 71% thought he had broken the lockdown rules.

Since Cummings has said he won’t resign, will Johnson dump him? I doubt it. I don’t think he has an alternative source of ideas. 

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A study from Japan, combined with anecdotal evidence and a study from Hong Kong (which hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, meaning we can take it seriously but shouldn’t turn it into a bronze plaque) indicates that Covid-19 doesn’t spread easily out of doors but that it just loves enclosed spaces.

Okay, the wording there is mine. Don’t put that on a bronze plaque either. The information, though, comes from an article in the Atlantic, which also says, “Our understanding of this disease is dynamic. Today’s conventional wisdom could be tomorrow’s busted myth. Think of these studies not as gospels, but as clues in a gradually unraveling mystery.”

The risk of infection is (or seems to be) nineteen times higher indoors than out. The virus doesn’t seem (emphasis on seem, remember) to spread easily on objects–elevator buttons, door knobs, bottles of bleach on the supermarket shelves. It seems to travel most happily directly from one person to the next on the tiny droplets that we breathe out (and of course, in), and it just loves it when we get into enclosed areas and talk, shout, sing, and breathe. 

A while back, I linked to a study that said the droplets singers breathe out don’t travel any further than half a meter. I don’t know which of these contradictory reports is yesterday’s busted myth, but I thought I’d better follow up the first study with this yeah-but.

If the studies are right about the virus not spreading well out of doors, we can expect a dip this summer (in the northern hemisphere, at least, where summer currently resides, or soon will). People will spend more time outside. Then we can expect to see a spike in the fall. 

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Need a morale boost after that? In Britain, ten million people have been volunteering during the pandemic–helping out with grocery shopping and picking up prescriptions, phoning people who are alone, working at food banks. They were counted by an insurance company, called (confusingly enough) Legal and General, along with the Centre for Economic and Business Research. That (and I’m going to have to take their word on this; if it doesn’t add up, blame someone else) is almost one in five adults, putting in an average of three hours. Presumably per week, but possibly per lifetime. Sorry. 

And since if something isn’t worth  money, it didn’t really happen, their work is worth more than £350 million per week. It’s measured by a magical system that I can’t explain. Let’s call it a money-o-meter. 

“Many” people, the study said, are continuing to pay gardeners, cleaners, and other people who provide services, and to support local businesses, although they didn’t offer numbers on that. 

And since we’re playing with numbers, 65% of the British public (and 68% of Conservatives) support raising income tax to pay care workers more. 

The average annual pay for a care worker is £16,400 per year.

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What’s happening around the world

New Zealand’s gone 5 days with no new Covid-19 cases.

South Korea reported 40 new cases in one day–its biggest spike in 50 days–just as kids are going back to school. Most of them are concentrated around Seoul and linked to nightclubs, a warehouse, and karaoke–um, whatever you call the places where people karaok.

Spain has declared ten days of mourning. 

And the Japanese football league (if you’re American, that means soccer) has introduced a remote cheering app for games played in empty stadiums. Loudspeakers will play fans’ voices in real time. It’ll be exactly like the real thing.

The pandemic update from Britain, political edition: Boris’s brain breaks Boris’s rules

Back in March, Boris Johnson’s brain–that’s his advisor, who has a name of his very own, Dominic Cummings–was infected with Covid-19. Keep him in mind, because he’s the heart of the story, but as usual we need some background.

Britain had gone into lockdown by then, and had widely publicized guidelines on what that meant. Leaving home (defined as “the place you live,” because a lot of us weren’t clear about that) “to stay at another home is not allowed.”

The guidelines didn’t define that other home, the one you don’t live in and weren’t to go to. Presumably it was a place someone else lived, although it could also have been a second home–a place no one lived. 

That’s enough possibilities. If I go on, it’ll only get worse.

Unnecessary travel was banned. Unnecessary wasn’t defined, but let’s take a shot at it ourselves: If you were being chased by a bear, it probably would be okay to run down the street or take other evasive action. No bear? You stay in the home where you live.

Completely irrelevant photo: an azalea.

People who had the virus were told to self-isolate. That collision of words, self impaled on isolate, was created by a computer that hadn’t been fully briefed on the spoken language, but most of us accepted it. We were thinking about a deadly virus. 

And it wasn’t just people who had the virus who were supposed to self-isolate: So was anyone they had contact with. Because we had to stop the virus. And the whole thing was serious enough that the police could fine people who broke the rules.

The rules, admittedly, were still hazy. In the most extreme case I know of, the police scolded people for buying (or was it a store for selling?) chocolate Easter eggs, which unlike Red Bull aren’t strictly necessary. 

After a wobble or two, though, the line between necessary and unnecessary became clearer. What really mattered was the We Were Taking This Seriously. So seriously that Boris Johnson made a public appeal to our better natures, asking us not to go see Mom on Mother’s Day. 

And most people listened. They didn’t visit their mothers. They didn’t visit their elderly relatives in nursing homes. They didn’t say their goodbye to dying family members. Because this was the way to beat the virus and we were all in it together.

Except for Boris’s brain, who by that time knew he was ill and drove 260 miles, leaving a trail of virii behind him. And with him went his wife (who was also sick) and their kid. 

Why’d they do that? To get to his parents’s home (sorry: estate), because, hell, they needed help with childcare. What else were they to do?

Well, gee, what would anybody else do? Manage, probably. Not expose their parents, possibly, not to mention whoever they had contact with between the home where they lived and the where home they didn’t live. Turn to somebody local if they could–a relative, an organization that could help. See if a relative wouldn’t come to them, which wouldn’t be within the guidelines but would have been a hell of a lot safer.

I don’t minimize how hard the disease can hit people–a friend of ours died of it–but these are two people who were well enough to drive 260 miles but weren’t well enough to deal with their kid.

I admit, I don’t know their particular kid. 

We’ll skip the which-day-did-what-happen details. Someone local called the cops, who talked with someone at the home where they did not live.

“Oh, no, they didn’t,” 10 Downing Street says.

“Oh, yes, we did,” the police say. 

Cummings was seen 30 miles away from his parent’s estate, out in public, not self-isolating.

Cummings went back to London and returned to work at 10 Downing Street. 

A few days later, he was seen 30 miles from his parents’ estate again. 

“Oh, no, he wasn’t,” Downing Street says.

“Oh, yes, he was,” the witness says, “and I have the browser history to prove that I checked his license plate number at the time to make sure it was  him.” Except you don’t call it a license plate in Britain, but let’s not stop for that, we’re busy doing something else here.

The witness has filed a complaint with the police.

What does Boris’s brain have to say? That he did the right thing by driving to his parents’ estate.

What did Boris’s body have to say? “I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly, and legally and with integrity and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of this virus and saving lives.”

Other politicians and one scientific advisor who’ve been caught messing around with the lockdown rules have stepped down. 

Will Cummings? Like hell he will.

The steps under his feet aren’t looking overly solid, though. After Johnson’s press conference, Stephen Reicher, a scientific advisor to the government, tweeted, “In a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19.,” and “It is very hard to provide scientific advice to a government which doesn’t want to listen to science.”

Not to mention, “Be open and honest, we said. Trashed.

“Respect the public, we said. Trashed

“Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same, we said. Trashed.

“Be consistent we said. Trashed.

“Make clear ‘we are all in it together’. Trashed.”

Someone got onto the Civil Service twitter account and called Johnson “an arrogant truth-twister.” Nine minutes later, the tweet was taken down but it had been shared 25,000 times. No one knows who done it at the moment, but J.K. Rowling offered to pay them a year’s salary if their name became public.

A group called Led by Donkeys parked a van outside Cummings’ house with a huge screen on the back. It plays a clip of Boris Johnson telling people to stay home and  interviews with people who’ve struggled to care for their kids while they were sick. Over and over again.

The Financial Times writes that “The prime minister’s efforts to save his aide appeared to have failed. Support for Mr Cummings appeared to be spread thinly across the government and Conservative party. Following a barrage of supportive messages from cabinet ministers on Saturday, a notable silence on Sunday suggested that backing for the adviser was evaporating. One member of the government said the prime minister’s press conference had made the situation worse.”

One more quote, then I’ll stop: Former Brexit minister Steve Baker said the government was spending “enormous political capital…saving someone who has boasted of making decisions beyond his competence and clearly broke at the very least the guidance which kept mums and dads at home.”

Life’s going to be interesting around here for the next week or two. Watch this space. Or any other.