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. 

Good news, goat news, and some dry stuff: it’s the pandemic update from Britain

The goats

With more and more people using Zoom to stay in touch or to hold work meetings, a goat farm, Cronkshaw Fold Farm in Lancashire, has figured out a way to make some money during the lockdown. They’re offering a book-a-goat service for Zoom meetings. 

Dot McCarthy, who runs the farm, said, “People are just in hysterics because they’ve sneaked a goat into a business meeting and the boss hasn’t noticed.”

You can even choose your goat. Let’s meet three.

What to expect from Mary: ambivalence, limited attention span, totally fine peeing in front of you.

“What to expect from Lisa: passive aggressive bleating, ferocious hunger, lack of any form of patience or tolerance of anything.”

To be fair, Lisa was pregnant when they wrote that. She has since had two kids and mellowed out a bit.

Sorry, I should have a picture of a goat here. Will a cat do? This is Fast Eddie, in his most typical pose.

“What to expect from Bret: all the energy, all the opinions, none of the substance.”

That’s not pure sex-role stereotyping, even if it sounds like it is. Some of the males are described as lovely, with velvety ears, although the ears may not be a big draw on Zoom.

The cost’s £5.99 for a ten-minute cameo. 

Other farms offer Zoom alpaca visits. 

You’re welcome.

Containment and testing in poor countries

You’ll forgive me for a couple of hopeful stories about the pandemic, right? Even if they’re not funny? 

Senegal’s working on a testing kit that will cost $1 per patient, doesn’t need a lab, and gives a result in less than ten minutes. Using saliva it will detect current infections and using blood, antibodies from past ones. If the trials go well, it should be in use next month. 

The country started planning its response to the pandemic in January, closing its borders and doing intensive contact tracing. Because people tend not to live alone, it organized a bed for every Covid-19 patient, either in a hospital or a community clinic. It’s had 30 deaths out of a population of 16 million. That’s in a country whose gross domestic product was $1,546 per capita in 2018. By way of contrast, the UK’s was $46,827 in 2019. The US’s was $62,794.59 in 2018.

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Ghana has used community health workers and volunteers to do contact tracing and tests by combining multiple blood samples and only doing individual tests if the pool tests positive. It’s had 31 deaths in a population of 30 million. It’s gross domestic product is $1,807 per capita.

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In various parts of Africa, traditional herbal remedies are being investigated, and one, sweet wormwood, has drawn some attention. The Max Planck Institute in Germany is interested in a different variety of the plant and is doing trials on it.

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The Indian state of Kerala has 690 cases and 4 deaths. It has a gross domestic product of £2,200 per capita in–oh, hell, some recent year. Their rapid response team met in January. By the time the first case came in on a plane from Wuhan, they met the plane, sending anyone without a fever home to quarantine themselves, hospitalizing the one who was feverish. 

A bit later, the virus did spread (somebody had been in Italy and dodged the checks), and they traced hundreds of contacts and before they contained it. 

Repeat the story as workers returned home from the Gulf states and as the country went into lockdown and jobless migrant workers began walking home. They found housing and food for 150,000 migrant workers, and when the lockdown lifted they chartered trains to send them home. They’ve supervised the quarantine of 170,000 people and improvised isolation units for people whose homes don’t have inside toilets. 

Shreds of hope

People in the U.K. is also working on a ten-minute test, along with a two-minute test, both using saliva to check for current infections. The test that’s in use right now not only has to be processed in a lab but (if you send for one to use at home) asks you to swab your nostrils and, according to someone who used one, tonsils. Or the place where your tonsils used to be. 

I do have tonsils but have no idea where they are. I haven’t heard from them in years. They could be living in Argentina for all I know. 

Because so many people are as out of touch with their tonsils as I am (sorry–it’s a sad tale but it has to be told), the test may come back with false negatives as much as 30% of the time. And that’s not just the tests people use at home. Some of the official testing centers are handing people a nine-page booklet and telling them to do the swab themselves. So a test that relies on saliva would be a big step forward. Even I know where my saliva is. 

A twenty-minute antibody test is also being worked on. 

If you get the sense that everything’s being tried simultaneously, you’re probably right. There has to be a way out of this mess. 

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A new treatment for the most seriously ill patients is also being tested. It’s based on the observation that the people who get sickest are seriously low on an immune system component called T-cells. The idea is to use interleukin 7 to boost T-cell production. 

The observation could also lead to a test predicting who will go on to have the most serious reactions to the virus.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been good about staying in touch with my T-cells. I’m doing what I can to patch up our relationship, though, starting with a card and a heartfelt apology. The tonsil thing, that can happen to anyone and they were at fault as much as I was. But the T-cells, that was me. All I can do is hope they accept the apology.

My card end with, “Multiply like hell, you little bastards.”

Who could resist?

Other news, good and bad and goatless

During the potato famine, the Choctaw Nation heard that people were starving in Ireland and sent $170 to the Society of Friends in Dublin, which was distributing food. That would be about $5,000 in today’s money. Sixteen years before, the Choctaw had been forced off their land and relocated to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears and they’d barely begun to rebuild their lives. But they knew starvation and disease and they sent what they could.

Now Ireland is returning their generosity, even if it’s to a different tribe. Some 24,000 Irish donors have given $820,000 to an online fundraiser to buy food and supplies for the Navajo and Hopi reservations, which have been hit hard by the virus. It will go to people who are raising grandkids, have underlying health conditions, or are positive for the virus.

Thanks to Electrica in the Desert for tweeting this one.

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A study of 15,000 patients given hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, or one of those drugs combined with an antibiotic found that with any of those four treatments patients were more likely to die in the hospital (1 in 11 compared to 1 in 6 1 in 5, and 1 in 4). 

No comment. 

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In the face of a rebellion not just from the opposition (which is to be expected) but from its own MPs, the British government has backed away from charging foreign NHS and care workers a yearly fee to use the National Health Service–£400 per family member per year. 

The government spent a day or two arguing that of course it was right to charge them, the money goes into the NHS and the NHS needs it, but at a certain point it was just too embarrassing a position to defend. Government officials must be seen to clap for NHS and care every Thursday at 8 pm. Any politician who skips the 8 pm roll call or  shows up but looking less than appreciative is liable to be chopped up and added to Larry the 10 Downing Street Cat’s food bowl.

And if that isn’t enough, NHS and care workers already pay taxes, which are what fund the NHS. Many of them are low paid. They’re risking their lives in the pandemic and are holding the NHS and the care system together. 

Enough. That’s ended. 

Not the roll call and not their role; the surcharge. 

Cheese, spiders, and, um, let’s not put that in the headline: it’s the pandemic update from Britain

With the number of daily Covid-19 deaths falling, English schools are set to open on June 1, but not for all age groups, just for a couple. And not Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish schools, which make their own decisions. And not necessarily all English schools, because local governments–some of them–are digging their heels in and saying, forget it, we’re not opening. And not all kids, because parents have a get-out-of-school-free card and can look grim and keep their kids home if they want to.

But the government still says the schools will open, and if this is starting to sound like a round of The Cheese Stand Alone, that’s because it sounds like a round of The Cheese Stands Alone. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s a kids’ game that peels people away one by one until the cheese is left in the center of (if I remember right–it’s been a long time) the circle, feeling very lonely indeed. 

I thought I might have made that up but I checked with Lord Google, who assured me that I haven’t hallucinated my entire childhood. It’s a children’s game and song. One of the related questions that’s asked so commonly that it comes up all on its own is, “What does the cheese stands alone mean?”

Irrelevant photo stolen (twice now) from an old post: California poppies. Californians or not, they grow well in Cornwall and once you get a few going they’ll self-seed. Generally in places where you didn’t want them but they don’t object to being moved.

What indeed.

The question’s too deep for us here at Notes. We’re going to pretend we already know and skim right over the top.

At the beginning of the week, it looked like schools that didn’t open would have a fight on their hands. Now it looks like they won’t. The government isn’t in a position to fight this one.

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What’s happening with the contact tracing app that’s going to make it safe to ease Britain’s lockdown, even if it limps in some weeks after the lockdown’s already been eased?

The tale gotten more interesting in the day or two. 

The government hired a couple of companies to hire a bunch of people to trace a whole bunch of contacts to control the virus. We’re not playing The Cheese Stands Alone now, we’re singing, “She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.” The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said that the spiders (those are the contact tracers) are going to have rigorous training,. With detailed procedures. Designed by experts.

Better yet, they’ve “stepped up to serve their country.”

They also–and I say this with no disrespect to the people involved–stepped up to get a badly needed paycheck.

One man who was hired broke cover to talk (anonymously) about the rigorous training. His day of online training started with an hour and a half of people typing, rigorously, to the trainer, “I can’t hear anything.” 

The trainer assured them that the problems were normal.  

Eventually either everyone could hear or enough people could hear that they began asking questions. The trainer told them he couldn’t answer them all–there were too many trainees. 

“After the full day of training,” the now-trained trainee said, “people were still asking the most basic things.”

Someone asked what to do if they talked to someone whose relative had died. They were told to look on YouTube for videos about sympathy and empathy. 

After that, the trainee was a fully qualified contact tracer, scheduled to work the next day. He logged in and got a message telling him he’d get instructions on what to do.

He waited all day. Nothing happened. 

He got an email telling him not to worry, he’d be paid anyway. And he’d get more training soon.

Another trainee said she hadn’t been able to log in for three days. 

At last call, they’d recruited 1,500 out of the 18,000 they set as a target.

Oops, sorry. We’ll have 25,000 in place by June 1 and they’ll be able to deal with 10,000 new cases a day. We already have 24,000. And we’ll have a “fully functioning perfect system.” And it’ll be beautiful.

It’s all under control, folks.

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In South Korea, they’re playing professional football again, but to avoid spreading the virus there aren’t any fans in the stadium, so before a recent game a company offered to place thirty mannequins to the stands. It would make them look lived in. It would be great. 

Offer accepted. What could possibly go wrong?

The game was shown and people noticed that some of the mannequins were holding up signs for X-rated websites. And a few noticed that they all looked like sex dolls.

What does a sex doll look like? Sorry, we’re well outside my sphere of expertise here. But not outside of everyone’s. If you gather enough people, someone will be in possession of whatever obscure piece of information you really don’t want people to know. So it went public: Those were sex dolls in the stadium. 

The company that supplied the mannequins turns out to make sex toys. 

FC Seoul–the team whose stadium it was–has apologized and promised never to think about sex again. 

Pandemic reports from the Departments of Health, Bad Planning, and Unlikely Allies

The Guardian interviewed past British health ministers about their experiences. The best bit of advice came from Kenneth Clarke: “Get the prime minister to take as little interest in the subject as possible.” The best demonstration of cluelessness came from Jeremy Hunt: “I was gobsmacked to find that 150 patients a week die in the NHS because of treatment errors. Then I discovered that this was actually true all over the world, it’s what happens in medicine.”

Ah, Jeremy, it does me good to see that you came into the job with a real grounding in the subject.

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Medical staff from the St. Peter Hospital turned out to meet Belgium’s prime minister, Sophie Wilmès. As her car rolled majestically between the two evenly spaced lines of people wearing scrubs, they turned their backs. It was to criticize staff shortages, low pay, budget cuts to health care, and the use of less qualified staff to do part of nurses’ jobs. I don’t know if it’ll change government policy, but it’ll sure as hell change the way the government organizes Wilmès’s public appearances.

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Irrelevant photo: These are called, um, something. I always forget. They’re wonderful to touch, though.

Britain’s wrestling with the question of whether to reopen schools in June. So what does science have to tell us? 

Not much.

Only a few useful studies have been done, and they point in opposite directions. An Italian one from the town of Vo, which had a major outbreak, didn’t find a single kid under ten who’d been infected, even though plenty of them lived with people who were sick. Studies from Iceland, Norway, and Korea have similar findings.

But.

There’s always a but, isn’t there?

A British Office of National Statistic study looked at 10,000 people and found that the same proportion of people tested positive for the virus across all age groups. Or at least it found “no evidence” of differences, which may or may not be the same thing. (There’s always an or as well as a but. Or there is around here.) If you’re willing to trust a non-professional’s translation of that–and I admit, it’s a risk–kids get infected at the same rate as adults.

A German study seems to back that up. 

So is it safe to reopen the schools? I have no idea. If serious testing and contact tracing were in place, they could make a better argument for it.

Has the government studied the situation? It’s not impossible, but studying the situation has a way of bringing out all kinds of inconvenient information, so I wouldn’t put a lot of money on it.

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So what’s happening with contact tracing? You would have to ask, wouldn’t you? A company that has a contract to recruit contact tracers emailed applicants to say that the jobs they were applying for had been put on hold because the government’s considering an alternative to the app that it had bet its chips on.

At which point the Department of Health said the email was wrong. The chips are still on the existing app. And the company that sent the email said it was all a miscommunication. 

So how’s the app performing on the Isle of Wight, where it’s being tested? Slightly under half of the population has downloaded it, although that may include people who downloaded it twice (that would’ve been me, but I don’t live there and don’t use a smartphone) or who are from the mainland and so don’t count. Still, it’s a better take up than in Singapore (20%) or Australia (25%). 

On the other hand, it’s an early, dumbed-down version of the app. It only asks about two symptoms. If a person’s answers send up red flag, their contacts get a warning. But there’s no way for the person to enter a test result (assuming that the government gets its testing centers working well enough for the person to get their results back in a reasonable time). So contacts get warned but then they’re left to wander around wondering what they should do. Isolate? Go to work? Write their wills?

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And now a report from the Department of Bad Planning: Not only didn’t the government talk to teachers’ unions before announcing that the schools would reopen, it didn’t talk to city governments before announcing that the lockdown would be loosened. 

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The Department of Unlikely Allies reports that a hundred people (or several hundred, depending on your source) demonstrated in London on Saturday, protesting (variously) the lockdown, 5G, the fake virus, contact tracing, and the vaccine that doesn’t exist yet, although to be fair they didn’t say that it did, they were just getting their licks in in advance. 

The protest was called by the UK Freedom Movement, which circulated a flyer on Facebook, saying, “We say no to the coronavirus bill, no to mandatory vaccines, no to the new normal and no to the unlawful lockdown.”

It called sixty mass gatherings around the country, but it’s not clear how many of them gathered. A dozen people micro-massed in Southampton. 

The group Hope Not Hate, which “uses research, education, and public engagement to challenge mistrust and racism,” said, “It is notable how diverse the people leading the groups appear to be, with some groups moderated entirely by vegan activists, others by committed Brexiteers and still others by full-blown conspiracy theorists.”

If I can translate that, these are people who wouldn’t normally talk to each other. Lockdown’s driving people to discover all sorts of new possibilities. Isn’t it wonderful?

Overall, a recent poll shows that the British public not only supports the lockdown but is uneasy about easing it.

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After the leak of a report indicating that the government was thinking about freezing public sector wages, Boris Johnson has said no one has had that thought, even in passing. I only mention that because I caught a few drops of the leak and squeezed them out here, so I thought I should mop them up. I should also get out of the metaphor before I drown in it.

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A new study makes singing look–well, nothing’s safe these days but as safe as anything else is. Anecdotal evidence had been pointing to it as a great way to spread little virii.

The anecdotes? A number of choirs popped up as virus hotspots, leading to the logical assumption that singing caused the spread. It’s common sense. Singers breathe deeply and exhale powerfully, so why wouldn’t they both spread and take in better than your average amateur breather? 

Well, because it doesn’t work that way–or it doesn’t seem to. I won’t rule out a contradictory report coming in next week. In the meantime, though, a specialist in fluid mechanics experimented to see how far singers and instrumentalists could shoot air, with all its virus-carrying droplets and aerosols.

Singers propel air about half a meter–maybe a foot and a half. His best guess is that the choir outbreaks came from socializing before or after singing, although the director of one choir swore they’d all been careful about both distance and sanitizing their hands.

The study also showed that flutes, oboes, and clarinets propelled air further than larger wind instruments. 

Stay away from people carrying flutes, please. They’re dangerous.

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The U.S. Navy reports that thirteen sailors who’d apparently recovered from Covid-19, testing negative, tested positive for a second time. The same thing has been reported in South Korea. It’s possible, but far from certain, that the disease becomes dormant in a person’s system and then reactivates. 

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The Department of Greed and Despair wishes to inform you that some of the protective gear that’s being sold comes with phony documentation. So as people return to work, they can’t know if they’re being handed workable protective gear or not. 

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And finally, from the Ray of Hope Department, two vaccine updates:

A vaccine being worked on in the U.S. shows that the vaccine did create antibodies in eight people in the test, although this stage of the test is about safety, not effectiveness. 

Another vaccine being tested in Oxford protected monkeys against pneumonia and the most severe symptoms of the virus, but it hasn’t been tested in humans yet.