Money, masks, and rumors: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The number of coronavirus cases in England went up 17% in the past week. Some of those are concentrated in hotspots, but there’s been an increase outside those areas as well. And the test and trace system is managing not to contact almost half of the new cases.

But the spread of the virus among people outside of hospitals and other institutions may be leveling off. I think that’s in Britain, not England, but when I went back to check (I found that in an ongoing pandemic news update and it’s easy to lose an old item as new ones are added) I found a newer item saying the R rate–the rate at which the disease spreads–may be rising. In England, as opposed to Britain as a whole. 

What do all those contradictory statistics mean? Part of the difference has to do one set of numbers covering everyone and the other covering only people outside of institutions. Beyond that, I’m not really sure. 

Irrelevant photo:California poppies, which grow well in Cornwall. You’d hardly notice their accent.

*

In April, England bought 50 million face masks for the National Health Service, which can’t use them. They’re not a tight enough fit. To be any use at all, they have to pass a face-fit test, which checks that they seal tightly to the wearer’s face. These don’t. 

The masks were the most expensive part of a £252 million contract given to Ayanda Capital, which says it specializes in “currency trading, offshore property, private equity and trade financing.” As the BBC explains it, “It has emerged that the person who originally approached the government about the deal was a government trade adviser [that’s Andrew Mills, and no, I never heard of him either] who also advises the board of Ayanda.

“But he told the BBC his position played no part in the awarding of the contract.”

Mills’ company “had secured the rights to the full production capacity of a large factory in China to produce masks and was able to offer a large quantity almost immediately.

“But the legal document seen by the BBC notes that Mr Mills requested the government instead sign the contract for the masks with Ayanda Capital, whose board he advises, because it could arrange overseas payment more quickly.” 

Far be it from me to imply that there’s any skullduggery going on here.  Or incompetence. But, the director of the Good Law Project, one of two organizations pushing for a judicial review, mentioned three Covid-related contacts, each worth over £100 million, going to a pest control company, a confectioner, and a family hedge fund.

*

This might be a good time to tell you about a study of what’s being called the Cummings effect. Dominic Cummings is Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisor and external brain, and when he came down with Covid he broke the lockdown rules he helped write. The most interesting of the ways he broke them was to take a 60-mile round trip, with his kid in the car, to test his eyesight. 

Then he got caught. Then he refused to resign. Then Johnson refused to dump him. Because without him, he has no thoughts. None. Not even “I wonder what’s for supper.” It all just goes silent in there.

As you might expect, it’s been harder, since that happened, to convince people to follow the guidelines, but now we don’t have to guess: It’s been established by 220,755 surveys of 40,597 people in England, Scotland, and Wales. 

The more often Lord Google showed people doing searches on Cummings’ name, the more confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic declined. And it hasn’t come back. 

Confidence in the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales didn’t drop. Northern Ireland had stepped outside for a smoke at a crucial time and was left out of the survey.

*

Unlike Cummings, when the mayor of Luton, Tahir Malik (along with two fellow members of the Luton Council), got caught–on video–attending a party that broke the lockdown guidelines, he had the decency to resign. The limit was supposed to be six people or two  households. There were twelve, and there’d just been a warning that the town had a spike in virus cases.

*

In the early stages of the pandemic, the BBC was busy debunking pandemic rumors that circulated on WhatsApp. 

What rumors? 

One: Tanks were rolling into Middle Britain, ready to put down civil unrest. That came with photos. When you looked closely, though, the tanks were on the wrong side of the road and the license plates were wrong.

Who knew that tanks had license plates? Or even kept to their own side of the road. Call me naive, but I kind of thought that any vehicle that can get past a trench can drive on whatever side of the road it wants to.

Two: Dead bodies were being stored in ice rinks. 

Three: Helicopters were spraying disinfectant at night. 

Four: Sipping warm water every twenty minutes would wash any virii out of your throat and into your stomach, where they’d be slaughtered by the gastric juices that work there twenty-four hours a day.

Someone sent me that one on Facebook, although by the time I got it, it was considerably more complicated and the water was no longer warm.

A Londoner got into the spirit of the thing and sent out a message that went viral: Wembley Stadium was going to be turned into a giant oven so the government could make a massive lasagna. He heard about it from his sister’s boyfriend’s brother, who worked for the Ministry of Defense. 

Other people got into the act. The Channel Tunnel was being used to bake a giant garlic bread and the Rome Coliseum was being used as a bowl for a giant salad. 

I wish I’d thought of at least one of those.

*

For a while there, governments–or at least some governments–were considering issuing immunity passports, which would exempt people who’d had Covid from whatever the restrictions the rest of the country was expected to follow. Because they’d be immune.

The problem with doing this is that no one knows whether immunity’s available for it. Virus stores have lots of immunity on hand, but not necessarily in your size or in the color you need. Covid immunity is on back order and will be shipped as soon as it’s available. Please try us again at your earliest convenience.

The World Health Organization says there’s no scientific evidence to show that immunity passports make any sense. Other than that, they’re a great idea. 

They’re also called immunity certificates, and there’s no scientific evidence for them under that name either. But if you ask Lord Google, he’ll be happy to refer you to an outfit that’ll sell you one for $89.95. All you do is get tested, come up negative, connect your doctor to the company, and open your wallet.

“ImmuniPass is your Immunity Passport!” it says. 

Indeed it is. It’s absolutely useless, but it is your Immunity Passport and yours alone, and it comes with a tasteful sprinkling of capital letters and a hand-crafted exclamation mark.

*

The Covid antibody test that Britain’s using may be giving more false positives than anyone thought. A recent study from Oxford University tested 9,000 healthcare workers and found 11% less sensitivity than they expected. To translate that, go back to the first sentence: More false negatives. More people told they don’t have the virus when they do. It has to do with the level of antibodies you need to convince the test that you’re toxic. 

The study found people who’d lost their senses of taste and smell, suggesting they had the disease, but still tested negative. It’s not definitive, but it rings alarm bells. 

*

That’s not the best intro to this next bit of information, but my partner and I both tested negative on Wednesday. And of course, in our case negative really is a negative. And we know that because–

Okay, we don’t know it, but Cornwall (so far) has a relatively low rate of infection. How long that’ll last with all the summer people running around is anyone’s guess, but for the moment we’re okay. May you be as well.

*

Australia, having worked its way onto the all-too-short list of countries that were handling the pandemic well, saw the beginnings of a second wave. Unlike New Zealand, which is somewhere near the top of the list, it didn’t try to eliminate the disease, just suppress it. (New Zealand is warning itself not to get complacent, but that’s a different tale.)

Australia has responded to the second wave with hard regional lockdowns, including fines for not wearing masks and the possibility of manslaughter charges for people who cause a death by spreading the disease. 

A group of people who refuse to wear masks claim that being sovereign citizens means they’re exempt from an assortment of laws they don’t like–not just the ones about masks but having to pay parking fines and local taxes. Basically, the argument goes, the government has no power over them. It’s an idea that gained traction in the U.S. in the 1990s and it seems to be popping up across the world now. Legally it’s complete bullshit, but in these post-truth days, that doesn’t weigh heavily with everyone.

The police have found themselves baited at checkpoints and dealing with people who refuse to give their names and addresses. One woman who refused to wear a mask smashed a cop’s head into the cement repeatedly.  The police link the incidents to the sovereign citizen movement. 

*

This has nothing to do with the pandemic, but let’s end with the anti-immigrant campaigner Tommy Robinson (whose real name isn’t Tommy Robinson, but never mind all that) having moved himself and his family to Spain, claiming that it’s not safe from them to stay in Britain after an arson attack on their home. 

In one article, that’s an alleged arson attack. I’m not clear on how alleged or established it is, but I am clear on the irony of an anti-immigration activist becoming an immigrant because, hey, his home country just isn’t safe anymore and what else can a responsible parent do but try to make sure his kids are safe? It’s a Dominic Cummings moment: one set of rules for me and another set for you lot.

 

Small changes in the world of pandemic Britain

How is our world changing with the onset of the pandemic? Well, the International Football Association, which sets the rules for international competition, has added a new offense: deliberately coughing at another player. The referee gets to decide what’s deliberate and what’s close enough to be offense-worthy, and the player who’s on the wrong side of the decision can be sent off the field.

If you’re American, you should understand that football is soccer but that coughing is still coughing.

*

A company in Taiwan has developed a robot that can swab noses to test for the coronavirus. It sounds silly, but it’s one of those jobs that puts health care workers at risk. And you might as well admit it: You’ve always wished automation would swab your nose for you. 

*

Vaguely relevant photo: Fast Eddie, who can’t be bothered opening doors. He has people who do that for him.

When Britain was still in lockdown, adults went from watching an average of 34 minutes a day of streaming services in April 2019 to an average of 71 minutes a day in April 2020. Those are the Netflix-type shows that you pay for. But that’s nothing. They also went from watching 4 hours and 53 minutes of TV and online video a day to 6 hours and 25 minutes. 

If I understand this correctly, that’s 6 hours and 25 minutes of TV shows, online pornography, and videos clips of cats opening doors and performing brain surgery. Per day. 

Who says lockdown is destroying our cultural life?

Okay, I only know about the cats because I sneak a peek now and then. You can also find videos of bears sitting in blow-up wading pools or canoodling with cats.

*

How are we, as a nation, doing for money? About a third of Britain’s biggest companies have cut their top execs’ salaries in the face of the pandemic. 

Impressed? Don’t be. Top execs make as much or more from bonuses and share schemes as they do from their salaries.

What kind of money are we talking about? The head of Ocado–a grocery delivery outfit–made £58.7 million in 2018-2019–1,935 times the median salary of a full-time UK worker. To put that another way, it would take the average worker eight years to earn what he earns in a day. If that doesn’t add up, don’t blame me. I stole the statistic. See the link above if you want to argue. Or argue with me, but don’t expect a decent opponent. I’m a word person.

I don’t know if Ocado cut his pay–probably not, since food delivery businesses have been making out like (excuse the language) bandits–but I can’t see where he’d have a whole lot of trouble getting by if they did.

Back in the real world, there’s a ban at the moment on landlords evicting tenants who’ve fallen behind on their rent, but when the ban ends (as it’s scheduled to) they’ll owe a huge whackin’ amount of rent and no one who makes the decisions is talking, at least in public, about how they’ll to pay it off.

And a quarter of all adults are struggling with what’s being called food insecurity. That’s not exactly hunger. It’s hunger and being susceptible to hunger and to malnutrition. Almost a quarter have eaten less so they can feed their kids. 

In case anyone’s in danger of forgetting.

*

Like the rest of the world, we live in the shadow of the disease–some of us more immediately and some of us less so.

My partner and I got tested for Covid-19 yesterday. Not because we have symptoms but because a friend whose husband died of the virus really, really wanted us to. And because every country should be testing asymptomatic people on a mass scale. It’s the only way to identify clueless carriers, and until we do that they’ll keep spreading the virus. 

I was reluctant. To work, testing has to be on a mass scale and we’re only two people. We could test negative and be exposed tomorrow, so what does a test tell us, really? And the British government isn’t doing mass asymptomatic testing. It’s pushing testing for people with symptoms. But, as our friend reminded me, I didn’t have any overwhelming amount of respect for the way the government’s handling the pandemic, so why did I suddenly want to respect their decision on this? 

We signed up.

So here’s the report on testing: The website where you book the test got stuck in a loop when Ida signed up, repeatedly asking for her date of birth, so that she wasn’t just born again but again and again and again. But it did eventually let us schedule the tests.

Okay, Ida booked both tests while I sat on the couch and kibbitzed.

The system only wanted my date of birth once. 

The testing was well organized. We found a variety of ways to screw up, but the people who worked there were patient and got us through it. Then we came home to go online and register the tests, because if you don’t, you don’t get your results and the whole thing’s pointless. 

Ida couldn’t get past the screen that asked for her post code. It didn’t believe her. Or it didn’t like her neighborhood.  

Whatever. She gave up and called the phone number that the form gave as a backup option.

I got past the post code with no problem. We live in the same house but my half is in a better neighborhood than hers. I was getting all ready to feel  smug when I realized that the page the form had sent us to exists to book a test, not to register a test you just took. 

When do you want to book your test? it asks. 

Two hours ago, please. 

I picked up the phone and called.

*

I can’t leave you without a word or six about the government’s world-beating test and trace system. Because contact tracing is–or at least needs to be–a part of our lives these days.

Some of the people who’ve been hired as contact tracers still report–as they have from the beginning–having nothing to do. They’re supposed to call people who’ve tested positive, ask who they’ve been around, and then call them. And talk to them all about quarantining themselves. 

Some contact tracers report only making a handful of calls a month, including the ones to nonexistent numbers. Team leaders are keeping them busy with quizzes and offering prizes for the most calls made. 

One company subcontracting from the outsourcing giant Serco had 471 agents and made 135 calls in two days. That includes calls to wrong numbers, calls to voicemail, and multiple calls to a single person. The tales go on, but you get the drift. 

In early July, the system was reported to cost £10 billion.

That’s in addition to the contract tracing app that failed. That cost £11.8 billion

Yet another game changer: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The British government’s buying two new Covid tests that take only 90 minutes to cough out a result. As usual, they’re going to be game changing. I can’t remember how many times we’ve been told that, and here we are, still whacking the same old volleyball over the same old weary net. Or in my case, into the same old weary net. 

The reason I’m expressing just the slightest touch of cynicism about the tests–other than experience and generalized characterological weaknesses–is that next to nothing is known about the tests. How many false negatives do they produce? How many false positives? Dunno and dunno. No data’s been published.

That’s not a good sign. And the government has a track record of leaping in to buy pandemic goodies that then turned out to be somewhere between useless and not much better than.

Every last one of them was going to be either game changing or world beating. And no, we’re not competitive about this. We just don’t see the point of breathing if we’re not better than you lot.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, it’s a dandelion, doing its bit to help its species take over the world. Let’s be grateful it’s not a virus.

Okay, when I say “every last one of them” I’m exaggerating. The swabs they bought and then had to toss in the dumpster didn’t get much fanfare, but the useless personal protective gear that they sent planes to Turkey for? The fraction of it that reached Britain was practically greeted with confetti and marching bands.

The new tests are called DnaNudge and LamPORE. And they detect flu and other viruses and well as Covid-19.

*

Watching how the press responded to the announcement of the new tests was interesting. On Monday–that was yesterday as I write this–they made front-page, huge-type, game-changing headlines in the sleazier papers and I wondered why the more responsible ones were either silent or downplaying the news. On Tuesday–today–they ran longer articles with a bit of analysis and skepticism. 

*

Meanwhile, a group of not quite 70 virologists publicly criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic, especially the test and trace system, saying virologists are being bypassed.

One of the group, Deenan Pillay, said, “There’s always new tests being developed. And it’s almost as if they’re being pushed as a sort of magic bullet.” But what really needs to be done, he said, is “the more boring but really hard work of doing proper contact tracing.” 

Part of the problem is that the testing that is being done–much of it by private contractors –isn’t feeding data to the National Health Service or local public health officials, who would be able to follow up on it. 

The link for that is the same one as the one in the volleyball paragraph.

*

The British government has told drug suppliers that they should have six weeks’ worth of drugs stockpiled before the Brexit cut-off date of December 31. In case the supply chain gets disrupted, what with this little pandemic we’re experiencing and all. Because there isn’t going to be an extension, no matter what. 

During  the Brexit referendum, Remainers warned that this sort of thing would happen. Brexiteers–a.k.a. the people who are now in government–called it Project Fear.

I wouldn’t say I’m afraid exactly, although maybe I should be. But I’d be a damn fool not to take notice. Excuse me while I go check our stash of omeprazole. It doesn’t get you high, but it does control acid reflux.

If that doesn’t tell you my age, nothing will.

*

Russia says it will start production on a Covid vaccine in September and begin mass immunizations by October. Non-Russian experts are waving a few caution flags, though. The trials have been rushed, they say. 

Not much is known about the development process, but there’ve been rumors that Russia’s elite got a prototype vaccine in July. Emphasis on rumors. The Russian media reports that doctors and teachers will be among the first people to be immunized.

*

A family went to a drive-in Covid testing center in a London parking lot, got tested without leaving the car, and were sent a notice that they owed a £90 fine for not paying for parking. 

The company that issued the ticket is canceling it. I’m not sure if the driver managed to get that done before the press got involved–they don’t make that easy–or if it was the publicity that magicked it away.

*

A few more possible Covid risk factors and symptoms are being reported–still somewhat tentatively. 

Possible symptoms are hair loss, rashes, and hearing loss.  

Possible new risk factors might include being tall and being bald. Emphasis on might, but as a short, hairy woman I’m doing my best not to gloat.

The study on tall people has been criticized for not being well designed. It’s working theory, however, is that being tall exposes people to more of the aerosols that carry the virus. In other words, it’s nothing personal.

*

According to a study by the Office of National Statistics, less than half of British adults are keeping to the distancing guidelines when they see family and friends, and 8% never keep to the guidelines.

The survey was based on people’s own estimates of their behavior, which is notoriously faulty. In an earlier survey, 79% of the people surveyed thought they were doing better than average on keeping to the guidelines. So we can probably figure the true figure is less than less-than-half. 

Speaking of notoriously faulty, I’m pulling that 79% figure from a notoriously unreliable memory–mine–so it may be off by a percentage point or two. But the original was well over the 50% you might reasonably expect.

Lockdowns and communication problems: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Cynics claim the British government has a communication problem. To demonstrate that this is a lie and a slander, I offer you the following statement from Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care. He’s explaining why a local semi-lockdown was imposed in Manchester. 

“We know that from the contact tracing information so whenever anybody tests positive the vast majority of them, unmm, we manage to speak to and we ask which contacts they’ve had who they– we been in contact with and that’s shown that the vast majority of contacts of people who have the virus are pe– are from other than people in their own household of course, unmm, who have to self isolate– anyway– is is is from households visiting and them visiting friends and relatives uhh err and and those two are bigger than the impact– the number of contacts that people have say at work or visiting ehm visiting shops and and and that means that we’re– because we have that information from the NHS test and trace system it means that we’re able to take this action which is more targeted at uhm erm controlling the spread of the virus.”

I hope that clarifies the situation. If the punctuation’s a bit unorthodox, I know you’ll understand. 

My thanks to the inimitable Bear Humphries, from Scribblans, who managed to extract the text from the internet and who is not responsible for anyplace it deviates from the spoken original. He tried to convince me to double check but it’s hard, when you’re looking at this level of iron-bound logic to imagine that anything could possibly have gone wrong. 

*

Irrelevant photo: Pears on our tree last year. This year’s aren’t quite this far along yet.

Since we’re talking about communications, the Manchester lockdown was announced just after 9 pm on Thursday and went into effect at midnight. Guidance on what was and wasn’t permitted was published well ahead of time, at 11 pm. Eid al Adha, an important Muslim holiday when families gather together, began on Thursday night, making the issue of what can and can’t be done under the guidelines particularly fraught.

*

You’re dying to know how I do my research, right? If you (or at least if I) toss Lord Google the phrase “new lockdown manchester,” the first link Lord G. suggests reads, “Seven simple tricks to fix a noisy washing machine in lockdown.” The second one said, “Doet het aantal stappen tijdens de lockdown er echt toe? – myprotein.com” 

I do, in fact, have lockdown toe. I don’t know how Lord G. knew that, since I hadn’t googled it yet, but I won’t be fixing my washing machine, no matter how noisy it gets. I once turned a 29-cent leak in the toilet into a $250 repair job, plus I took out the kitchen ceiling. When anything involves more water than fits in the dog bowl, it’s cheaper to call a professional.

*

And now it’s time to sit at your desks and settle down, people, because we’re going to talk about serious stuff.

Yes, you too, Bear.

The number of Covid-19 infections in England has risen slightly. Or seems to have risen slightly. That’s based on a weekly random sample, so it won’t have been skewed by either more or less testing of the population. The estimate is that 36,000 people are now infected, with 4,200 new infections per day, up from 28,000 with 2,800 new infections per day last week. 

Restrictions were supposed to be eased on August 1, with essential services like, um, casinos and bowling alleys reopening. That’s now on hold, and you’ll have to wear a mask if you go to a movie, a museum, or an assortment of other indoor places.

On the other hand, 2.2 million extremely vulnerable who’ve been advised to stay home up to now can go back to work if they can’t work from home and if the place they work is Covid-secure. 

What’s Covid-secure? You got me.

Is this a good idea? We’ll get back to you about that when someone dies.

*

I am endlessly indebted to Boris Johnson’s government for keeping me supplied with blog fodder. A new scheme to make Britain slim, Covid-resistant, and bike-addicted opened as farce this week. 

Picking up on a link between obesity and dying from Covid-19, Johnson launched a program to make Britain lose weight, saying it wouldn’t be “excessively bossy or nannying.”

These people who grew up with nannies. They’ve got a thing about them.

The program hits out at a few of the predictable targets: no more junk food ads on the TV before 9 pm. Information about calories visible on menus (or somewhere–I haven’t read the fine print; possibly in the back office). No junk food displays by the checkout. 

But the bit that’s getting the most press is the offer of a £50 bike repair voucher to anyone (up to some limit–it doesn’t matter just now what it is) stubborn and clever enough to survive its website. That eliminates anyone who doesn’t have a computer, an internet connection, or a bike–in other words, anyone who’s poor. Because the problem with poor people is that they don’t have enough money. And a shortage of money leads to a shortage of bikes, internet connections, and computers. Not to mention other stuff, like good food. So we can discount them.

We can also discount old people (that’s defined as older than me, and I’m upwards of 300), who also may not have computers, internet connections, or bikes, and who therefore aren’t really part of our culture and don’t matter.

But plenty of people wanted–and quite possibly needed–those vouchers enough that they hurled themselves at the website as soon as it went live.

Which crashed the thing. Twitter was alight with comments. The one that interested me most said, “Since when did the govmt use a one man band in Doncaster who has a £30k company with £455 of assets to develop WordPress websites for their national schemes??”

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that claim and I’m too clueless to follow it up myself, but I thought I’d toss it into the conversation and see if anyone knows more about it than I do. The government has a habit of handing out contracts like that. They once, famously, gave a ferry contract to a company with no ships. 

Another tweet reported an improvement in the site: It had gone from not letting him in to crashing once he’d entered his information. 

Will any of it make the nation thinner? Governments have been trying to slenderize Britain for twenty years without any noticeable success. But it does give everyone the satisfying impression that Steps Are Being Taken. 

*

And now let’s drop in on the U.S of infectious A. Congressman Louie Gohmert has tested positive for Coronavirus and said in an interview, “I can’t help but wonder if by keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, I might have put some germs–some virus–on to the mask and breathed it in.” 

*

But that’s amateur hour. Donald Trump promoted a tweet by Dr. Stella Immanuel which sung the praises of hydroxycloroquine. She has an impressive medical track record that includes warning people that alien DNA shows up in various medicines and that having sex with demons and witches in your dreams has a terrible impact on your health.

She also mentioned a vaccine that will prevent people catching religion. It doesn’t seem to be working, but maybe we don’t have herd immunity yet.

The caption on one of her videos asks, “How long are we going to allow the gay agenda, secular humanism, Illuminati and the demonic New World Order to destroy our homes, families and the social fibre of America.”

The quote didn’t come with a question mark at the end, and as far as I can figure out it didn’t have one in the original. I shouldn’t get snotty about punctuation, but “Get snotty about punctuation” is on the gay agenda for today at 2:50 pm, and I’m helpless in its grip.

I’d like to be better than that. Really I would.

I’d end by telling you to stay sane, because it’s crazy out there, but I worry that you’ll stop reading Notes. Stay only mildly crazy. Don’t get sick.

Quarantine, sunburn, and interplanetary theology: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Since Britain can’t get on the sun’s schedule more than once a measly month, going abroad in the summer is a Big Deal here. Preferably to places with sun, pools, and German tourists to be outraged by. So opening the doors and letting the British public go abroad looks like a measure of success to a government overwhelmed by the bad pandemic choices it’s made,

So the government made a list of countries Britons could visit safely, then it opened the doors and it said, “Have fun, kiddies. Don’t get sunburned.”

Of course they got sunburned. They’re British. 

Irrelevant photo: A rose.

So far, so good, but Spain went and had a spike of Covid cases and Britain’s announced that anyone coming home from Spain will have to isolate themselves for fourteen days. That did three things: It made the government look like it was protecting us; it made the tourists already in Spain, along with the travel and aviation industries, furious; and it encouraged people who’d planned to go to Spain to cancel their plans.

Spain was and is (predictably, given how much of its economy depends on tourism) mad enough to spit tacks. The spikes, it said–

Okay, it didn’t say. Countries don’t really talk. The spikes, its spokefolks said, are regional. Travelers who’ve been visiting spikeless parts of Spain shouldn’t be quarantined. Heroically resisting any urge to be catty, Spain’s prime minister pointed out that most of the country has a lower infection rate than the U.K. 

“It would be safer to be in [parts of Spain] than in the United Kingdom,” he said.

If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, Spain’s also implying that the spike is at least in part a result of increased testing, which catches asymptomatic cases–something the UK would do well to look for. 

*

Except that, stop the press, Britain’s been giving this quarantine business some thought and you know what? We might just cut it from fourteen days to ten. Because we’ve got, you know, testing. And we could use that, couldn’t we, to see if people are carrying the virus?

Why, yes we could. 

Could we have thought of this earlier? Possibly, but we didn’t take the time.

We’ll get back to you about this ASAP. As soon as we know what our plans really are.

*

Figuring out what it means that a country has a certain number of cases is, genuinely, a problem. If you test more–and that’s still the best way to control the virus–you find more cases. If you find more cases, you look like the thing’s gone out of control, although what it may mean is that you’re getting it under control. If, being a headline-based government, you resist the urge to test more, the thing really is likely to get–or stay–out of control, and that doesn’t look good either.

*

One thing Britain hasn’t bungled is its work on medical responses to the coronavirus. The UK Recovery Trial is conducting randomized tests on a variety of medicines you can’t pronounce– and neither can I in case I made you feel bad for a moment there. 

They started work when Wuhan’s lockdown meant that Chinese researchers had so few enough cases to work with that drug trials came to a halt, and with the virus clearly headed for Britain they worked at high speed, taking nine days to do work that would normally take nine months, from drafting protocols to enrolling patients. 

Large trials need more patients than any single hospital can supply, and the existence of the National Health Service made it easy for them to enroll patients from multiple hospitals. Even better, the UK’s high death rates meant that at the beginning they had plenty of available cases. 

Every cloud has a silver lining, not to mention a cough and a fever. And sometimes a headache.

To date, they’ve shown that neither hydroxychloroquine or a combination of two drugs used for HIV help with the virus but that the steroid dexamethasone does.  They’re currently testing an antibiotic called azithromycin; an antibody called tocilizumab, and convalescent plasma–blood plasma from people who’ve recovered from the disease. 

I can pronounce convalescent plasma. Forget the rest of them.

The bad news is that because fewer people are being hospitalized in Britain (yes, every silver lining has a cloud as well), they have a smaller group of patients to recruit from, so research is moving more slowly.

*

The New York Times has been tracking Covid-related medical trials. One that’s been in the news lately is work on monoclonal antibodies, which is satisfyingly easy to type. 

These are, more or less, a designer form of convalescent plasma. Instead of taking the whole range of a recovering patient’s antibodies, some of which will be as irrelevant to Covid as my photos are to my posts, they isolate the ones that look most potent, then replicate them synthetically and inject them into a patient.

Safety trials–the earliest stage of testing–have only just started.  

The Times also has a vaccine tracker if you want to take a look. Their Covid coverage isn’t behind a paywall.

*

Can we abandon both the virus and the UK for a minute? A Texas state legislator, Jonathan Stickland, read a report about the Pentagon having an Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force and felt the need to tweet, “IF aliens are real, salvation through Jesus Christ is the only way they enter Heaven.”

And you’re telling us this why, Jon? In case they read Twitter? In case their sat-navs (in American, those are their GPSs) aren’t working?

It does raise the question of whether, if Christian beliefs (pick any strand you like) are correct, other planets couldn’t expect to get their own saviours or would have to ride on ours. And whether they’d be prone to different evils, which for the sake of simplicity I’ll agree to call sins. 

Interplanetary theology is going to be complicated.

*

Want your feelgood story of the day? A family made up of parents, kids, and a huge honkin’ St. Bernard dog named (well, of course) Daisy climbed Scafell Pike–England’s highest mountain–and Daisy collapsed and couldn’t walk down. 

Daisy weighs 8 stone 9 pounds, or to put that in European, 55 kilos. Or in American, 121.25 pounds. You might be happy to carry that much weight down a mountain if it was neatly bundled into a backpack, but you’d struggle to even pick it up if it was distributed into the shape of a large, floppy dog.

The family called the Mountain Rescue Team, and two hours later a team of sixteen appeared, carrying a stretcher but not the cask of–was it supposed to be rum that St. Bernards carried around their necks when they were the ones doing mountain rescue? Or was that brandy?  

It took the team five hours to carry her down.

A long-time rescue team member said, “The team rescues canine casualties around a dozen times every year but this was the first time a St Bernard breed has been rescued by the team.

“Some might ask: ‘why rescue a dog?’ but our mission is to save life and alleviate distress. You can’t leave a dog on a mountain.”

C’mon, admit it, you tough old thing: You feel better, don’t you?

Tea, biscuits, and sewage: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

How did the  Great British Public cope with lockdown? By spending an extra £24m on tea and coffee in the last three months, and they splurged an extra £19m on biscuits–or to put that in American, on cookies. 

Alcohol? Sales were up by 41% this month. And people are reading more, although based on the alcohol sales they can’t remember a word of it come morning.

A number of readers have written that they look for something upbeat in these posts. I hope that qualifies. I’m vain enough that I want people to remember what I write, but let’s face it, I’ve written–yea, and published–some stuff that if they couldn’t remember it by morning they’d be doing me a favor.

*

Screamingly irrelevant flowers. Whatsit flowers. In bloom. In our yard. They’re wonderful–the slugs don’t eat them.

By the end of October, the Great British Government will have some Great British Walk-In Testing Centers open in the hope that they’ll persuade more people to get tested. According to Great Government Estimates, the current testing program is picking up only a third of the estimated 1,700 Great New Infections per day.

Why? For starters, they’re testing either primarily or only people with symptoms. That leaves the symptomless carriers walking around shedding their germs. The rumor mill insists that if you go deeply enough into the small print of the government website you’ll find that symptomless people can be tested, but the font must be too small for my aging eyes. I haven’t found it. 

Of course, you can also just lie about having symptoms, and if I thought I’d been exposed I’d do it with no hesitation, but most people aren’t as [fill in your choice of adjective(s) here] as I am, and counting on people lying when it’s necessary isn’t the best way to set up a program.

Meanwhile, the centralized Test and Trace system is missing 45% of infected people’s close contacts. Or according to a different source, 20%. (Those may cover different areas. They may not. Go figure.)Local teams miss 2%, but we can’t rely on them because it’s important to privatize the service so someone can make a profit.

Does my writing look bitter in this?

*

With twelve hours to go before face masks became compulsory in some places in England but not in others, the government released details on who-what-when-where-how. 

Okay, less than twelve hours, but I like round numbers.

We won’t do all the details. If you need them, go someplace sensible. But to give you a sense of how well thought out the guidelines are, if you’re a shop worker, you don’t have to wear a mask but if you’re a shop customer you do. However, they’re strongly recommended for shop workers. Where appropriate. 

What’s appropriate? The shop has to figure that out.

You do have to wear a mask in a bank. You don’t have to wear one in a movie theater. The virus is highly distractible. Give it a good shoot-em-up and it forgets its goal, which is to spread. Money, on the other hand, bores it shitless, so in a bank it continues to methodically infect your cells and spew forth its colleagues to infect new people.

Assuming, of course, that you’re a carrier. Which I don’t wish on any of us, but we can’t cover all the possible variations here. We’ll sink under the weight of verbiage. It’s bad enough as it is.

You do have to wear a mask when you go into a sandwich shop or cafe, but when you sit down to eat you can take it off. There’s no need to liquidize your sandwich and infuse through the layers or shove the mask into your mouth as you bite into your sandwich. If there’s table service, though, the virus getss lazy, so again, no mask.

Cabinet Minister Brandon Lewis explained that this is all “clear, good common sense.” 

I hope he and I have cleared things up.

Some chains have announced that they won’t be enforcing the rules. The police have said they can’t be bothered. 

Thanks, everyone. Speaking only for myself and a few hundred of my closest friends, we appreciate everything you’re doing to keep us safe. We’ll have to rely on the Great British Institutions of quiet social pressure and tutting. According to Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, they work. My partner stopped at the store today and everyone was wearing a mask except for one man. He looked around uneasily and tied a sweatshirt around his face. So that’s 100% out of a sample of one.

*

Early studies in several countries make it look like sewage sampling will give an early warning of local coronavirus flare ups, even before people notice any symptoms. That bit of news comes from the most romantic of cities, Paris. From Eau de Paris, in fact, which sounds like something ladies dabbed behind their ears and on their wrists when I was a kid but is, in fact, the water and sewage company.

Who said the virus hasn’t brought us anything to enjoy?

*

As long as we’re in France, a hospital in Lyon is running trials on a breathalyzer-like Covid detector that gives a result in seconds. They hope to have it up and running by the end of the year so they can test patients as they come in. If it gets through the early tests, the next hurdle will be making it affordable. At the moment, it’s too expensive to distribute widely.

*

An international team has identified what seem to be the most powerful anti-Covid antibodies. Some of them, they think, hold promise as treatments. You may be able to get more out of the article than I could, so I’ll give  you a link. I didn’t even understand enough to make jokes. What little I’m telling you comes from a dumbed-down summary. What I do understand–or think I understand–is that the antibodies could be reproduced on a large scale and work as a treatment. 

Potentially.

*

And finally, 84 of the world’s richest people have called for governments to tax the world’s wealthiest people–including them–more heavily to fund the world’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic’s economic impact, they say, could last for decades and “push half a billion more people into poverty” while they–the world’s wealthiest–have money and it’s desperately needed. 

Masks, anti-masks, treatments, and vaccines: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

I shouldn’t keep telling you about small, promising trials of one thing or another that’ll prevent or cure  Covid-19, should I? Or the ones that will–it they work–roll time backward so humanity wiped the virus out before it sank its teeth into our immune systems. Because most of them, inevitably, won’t come to anything.

But you know what? I will anyway. Because I can’t help myself. Because one just might work. And because we need some hope, no matter how badly shredded it is these days. As long as it’s not total bullshit.

A company in Britain has run a small trial on a protein called interferon beta, which patients inhale through a nebuliser–one of those things that people with serious asthma use when it gets particularly bad. That puts the protein deep into the lung, where–apologies for using heavy-duty scientific language–it gives the immune system a swift kick in the pants and tells it to get back to work. 

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

Interferon beta was tried on hospitalized patients and they were 79% less likely to develop severe disease. Their hospital stays were shorter, and (better yet) they were two or three times more likely to recover well enough to handle everyday activities.

One of the particularly frightening things about Covid-19 is that not everyone who survives can go back to handling everyday activities. 

Interferon beta may be even more effective on patients who aren’t as sick. It’s on its way to a larger trial. 

And an early trial of an Oxford University vaccine shows that it makes both antibodies and white blood cells that fight the coronavirus. It appears to be safe. The question, though, is how well it will work in the real world. 

The answer is a resounding we dunno. Now they need to set volunteers loose to toddle through the real world, some with the real vaccine in their systems and some with a placebo, and then wait to see how many get infected. 

Let’s hope it does, because Britain’s ordered 100 million doses. Plus 90 million doses split between two other vaccines that are still in development. 

Do they pay for those in advance? Or do they pony up some small amount of money to prove they know where their wallets are and promise the rest if the things works out? They pay in advance.

All told, 163 vaccines are in various stages of testing. They may be as promising as the Oxford one, or more so, but Oxford’s the one getting a lot of ink in Britain just now.

C’mon, admit it: You’re glad to know some of that, aren’t you?

*

A hundred or so people gathered in London for an anti-mask rally. They hugged each other. They posed for photos. They carried signs saying things like “Flu world order” and “Spread love, not fear.” 

They spread fear all the way down here to me in Cornwall. In the most loving possible way.

One of the organizers said they were “campaigning for the return of our rights and liberties.” 

Ah, yes, those traditional rights and liberties set out in the  Magna Carta. You know, the part where it says, “No Briton shall be compelled to wear a mask, or even shamed into it, yea, even during a plague year. Even if it would save another person’s life.”

Except that since the Magna C. was written when spelling was still a liquid, nothing except  the word a was spelled the way you’d expect. Which is why no one’s ever drawn attention to that clause before.

You won’t find news like that in the press. What are they covering up? Have you ever asked yourself that?

*

In spite of the many ways Britain has mishandled the pandemic, the number of infections is, generally, falling. Speaking for myself and several thousand of my closest friends, we’d feel more confident about those numbers if the test and trace program was testing everyone it could convince to stick a swab up their nose instead of concentrating on people with symptoms. But even if we don’t know how many cases we really have, fewer people are dying. That can only be a good thing. 

*

However. 

An assortment of doctors are basically (and I’m doing just the tiniest bit of paraphrasing here) giving up on government leadership and hoping the public stays (or in some cases, becomes) sane, understanding “that [the virus] has certainly not disappeared and could come back and cause even more suffering.”

That’s Carrie MacEwen that I’m quoting, the chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. Try typing that three times quickly. She expects a second surge in the winter, which could be larger than the first.

“The public has begun to think we are free of this,” she said, “but we are not.”

Why are they giving up on the government?

On the one hand, it’s finally telling people they have to wear masks in shops and on public transportation when on the other hand they’re saying people don’t have to wear one at work because “when you’re in close proximity with somebody that you have to work closely to, if you’re there for a long time with them, then a mask doesn’t offer that protection.”

That incisive bit of explanation comes from our health secretary, Matt Hancock, and if you followed his logic you might be eligible for a cabinet post yourself, because not many people could. 

In case you can’t, it works like this: Masks keep people from spreading the virus, but if you share a workplace with someone for eight hours a day, they stop offering any protection because familiarity breeds contempt. Even in the virus world. Once you and I get to know each other, my germs lose interest in you. And yours–it’s dismaying but it’s true–see right through me and look for someone more exciting to infect.

I might be eligible for a cabinet post myself, and may all the gods I don’t believe in protect us.

The noises coming from government ministers haven’t consistently supported even the government’s half-hearted policy on wearing masks in shops. Michael Gove, the cabinet minister, said it was best to “trust people’s common sense” on mask wearing instead of mandating it. 

Indeed. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, common sensically posed for one of those press photos where he pretended to serve food to restaurant customers, with his naked face smiling over two plates of food. I like to think the customers got up and fled, but they may not have been real, in which case they didn’t.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, wore a mask out of doors when she met her French counterpart and then took it off for their indoor meeting.

Well, of course she did. It’s a workplace. Germs got bored during meetings. 

Conservative MP Desmond Swayne called masks a “monstrous imposition.”

All of which helps explain why Chaand Nagpaul of the British Medical Association said, “There needs to be clear, concise public messaging. To introduce measures for shops but not other situations where physical distancing is not possible–including some workplaces –is illogical and adds to confusion and the risk of the virus spreading.”

A poll shows that 71% of the public support making masks mandatory in shops. Another 13% oppose it. The remaining 16%? (It is 16%, isn’t it?) They’re still trying to work out which part of the face a mask is supposed to cover and haven’t formed an opinion yet. 

*

I keep reading King-Kong-meets-Godzilla warnings about what will happen when the current pandemic meets the upcoming flu season, and I finally found an explanation of what that’s about. The worry goes like this:

There’s this thing called viral interference. It happens when you (or an entire population) get one virus and it keeps you (or that same population) from getting a second one at the same time. 

Yes, that really happens. Think of it as professional courtesy. But it doesn’t happen with all viruses. Some of them don’t play nice. They push other viruses off the monkey bars. They steal their lunch money.

What no one knows for sure is what kind of virus Covid is. In one early case from China, it infected a man who also had the flu. Beyond that, not much is known. In Australia, lockdown short-circuited the winter flu season, so we didn’t get any information from it. 

It’s not impossible that when kids go back to school in the fall (assuming they do) and start trading all their usual seasonal colds, they’ll short-circuit the coronavirus. It’s also possible that they won’t. 

It’s not clear what the effect of having the flu and Covid-19 at the same time would be, but the assumption is that it wouldn’t be good. The worst scenario would be if this winter’s flu turns out to be a pandemic in its own right and, to pick up our opening metaphor, if Godzilla and King Kong join forces. Who made the rule that they have to fight each other? They don’t. 

And that, at long last, brings us to another bit of good news: For years, researchers–unrealistic souls that they are–have been working on a universal flu vaccine. The idea behind it is to target the viral bits shared by all versions of the flu. It’s good science but, in the current system, bad economics. The researchers haven’t been able to run the expensive trials that are needed to show that it’s safe and effective so it can be marketed. Because where’s the profit in selling people a vaccine they’ll only need once or twice in their lives when you can sell them one every damn year?

All of a sudden, though, a universal flu vaccine looks profitable, and one is being tested. Expect results by the end of the year.

Hope, despair, and statistical glitches: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A couple of scientists discovered that Public Health England may be overcounting coronavirus deaths–or as they put it, overexaggerating them. They’re numbers people, not word people. I’d underexaggerate an equation if you were silly enough to let me near one.

Having heard about this, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, is calling for an urgent review of England’s coronavirus deaths.

Why’s this urgent? Because Britain has the highest Covid death rate in Europe, and England has the highest rate in Britain. And that doesn’t look good. So that sense of urgency that was missing when front-line workers were catching the virus (and, some of them, dying) because they couldn’t get protective gear? The one that was missing when an early lockdown could have prevented ten thousand or so deaths? It’s come out of quarantine feeling reinvigorated, partially exaggerated, and raring to go. Dissect those numbers, kids, because we need a better result.

*

Irrelevant photo: a rose

The statistical glitch that may be overexaggerating the numbers is this: Anyone who tested positive for the virus and later died is counted as a virus death, although they could, for all we know, have been killed by a meteor or a health secretary falling from the sky. Fair enough. But it’s also true that many people, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, never got tested at all. I’m not sure how many of them were counted as Covid deaths. The person I know who died of it of wasn’t counted as a virus death. That’s one out of one, so 100% of my sample went uncounted.

There’s no accepted standard for untangling coronavirus deaths from other deaths, and given the complexity of the situation we’re in, that’s not surprising. Different countries are using different standards. The best measure is probably a count of excess deaths, which compares the deaths of, say, June 2020 with those in June 2019. 

*

I read recently that Australian researchers have developed a new coronavirus test which can spot both current and past infections using a blood sample. It takes only 20 minutes to get a result. They’ve filed for a patent and are trying to gather both government and commercial support (that means money in case you were about to offer them a nice letter) so they can ramp up production.

It sounds hopeful, and it reminds me that I’ve posted news about a variety of other tests that also sound promising. I’d see and article about them, drop the news into a post, and then never hear of them again. Britain’s still using the same-old, same-old–the test with a false negative rate of 30%. 

So I asked Lord Google about other Covid tests, hoping to find updates on at least one or two of the ones I’d mentioned. Instead, I found one being developed in Canada that promises a 15-minute turnaround and the possibility that it could be done at home. It’s not one of the tests I’ve written about before, but what the hell, it’s a nice shred of hope.

And we do need shreds of hope. This one’s being developed by Sona Nanotech and doesn’t have approval yet. It sounds like it still relies on sticking something long and unpleasant up your nose or down your throat. 

You may be able to untangle the explanations better than I could. I found the article hard going. 

A saliva test had a trial run in Britain–and this is one I wrote about–but it turns out to miss more cases than testing mucus does. So we’re back to sticking something long and uncomfortable up your nose and down your throat. It’s better than no test at all and could be useful for people who can’t or won’t put up with the other, but it doesn’t seem like the solution to our problems. What is clear is that testing’s crucial in controlling the spread of the disease. 

*

The government set itself a target of June 33 to get all covid tests back to people in 24 hours, but at the beginning of July and 50% of the tests still weren’t being returned in time. During the first week of July, they actually managed to get fewer results back to people on time than during the week before.

It’s okay, though, because we went right into July without passing June 33. 

And our world-beating test and trace system is managing not to trace the contacts of 21% of the people who test positive. Russian hackers may be interested in the vaccines being developed here, but they are, very wisely, passing on the opportunity to steal and replicate our test and trace system.

*

In the meantime, Britain’s chief scientific advisor, Patrick Vallance, announced on July 16 that he didn’t see any reason to change the advice that people who can work from home should. 

The next day, Boris Johnson–he is, somehow or other, our prime minister–said that starting on August 1 employers would be given “more discretion” on calling employees back.

*

Johnson told us recently the pandemic will all be over “in time for Christmas.” He did, at least, add “hopefully,” but to anyone who knows the history of World War I it has an ominous sound. When the first volunteers marched off to the sound of brass bands and cheering, that was the prediction: It would all be over by Christmas.

The war went on for four years and, arguably, destroyed a generation of young men.

Face masks, tutting, and electric fences: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

England’s pubs have opened, and the rule is that you can sit at the tables but not hang around at the bar. A pub in St. Just, Cornwall, is taking that seriously. They installed an electric fence at the bar. According to one version of the tale, it’s mostly off but if you get in the bartender’s face and it goes on, and–zap– you will respect social distancing. 

According to the other version, it’s never on but just having it there makes the point.

Take your pick. 

*

After a false start, or two, England finally has a policy on face masks

The false starts? While the prime minister hinted that we would probably, maybe, almost certainly, and quite possibly need to wear masks in shops, a government minister was saying categorically that we wouldn’t. Then they went into the back room to arm wrestle, came out friends, and agreed that we do need to. 

But not right away. Starting on the 24th. 

Why not right away? 1) We need to allow time for people to locate their mouths. 2) The government needs time to craft a message explaining that masks, properly worn, cover the entire human breathing apparatus, which includes both the mouth and the nose. C) We need to allow time for people to absorb that message and then locate their noses. 4) What’s your hurry anyway?

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

What will happen if someone doesn’t wear a mask in a shop?

Good question. Theoretically, they’re risking a £100 fine, only the police have said they’re not in the business of policing shops and should be called only as a last resort. Many shops and shop workers are, understandably, hesitant about enforcing it. 

The country may have to rely on the power of tutting to enforce the rule. 

Tutting? I’m going to refer to that more unreliable of experts, me, for an explanation. It’s point number 2.

*

With its usual laserlike precision, the government is trying to boost the economy by offering people half off when they eat out in August. From Mondays to Wednesdays. Excluding alcohol. Up to a value of £10. If the place you eat is eligible. But you yourself? You’re eligible time after time after time until the end of August. 

The slogan is, “Eat out to help out.” 

Not that I’m trying to draw a parallel or anything, but the number of kids showing up in hospitals with malnutrition has doubled this year, to 2,500, although the number’s probably higher, since not all hospitals responded to the request for information. Food bank use has surged, and government figures show that as many as 7.7 million adults cut their portion sizes or missed meals because they couldn’t afford food.

So half off for people who can afford the other half? Yup, we’ve got our priorities right.

*

Speaking of laserlike targeting of economic stimulus, let’s indulge in a semi-good news story. Primark–a clothing chain–announced that it wouldn’t take up a government offer of £1,000 for every employee that they brought back from furlough. The company doesn’t need it. 

That’s £30 million it’s passing up.

*

Most Augusts, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival turns everything larger than a trash can into a theater, packs as many people in as is physically possible, and fire regulations be damned. Edinburgh fills up with as many people as it can hold plus many thousand more. The shows range from the professional, unexpected, and inspired to the amateur and embarrassing.

This year, with the pandemic still on the prowl, it’s not going to happen, so the festival’s gone virtual. You can sit on your couch and watch a selected number of shows. You can fund the artists. I’m not sure what else you can do, if anything, because I’m too busy telling you about it to actually learn anything. But it looks like it’s worth some exploration. 

Enjoy.

The National Health Service & lockdown rules: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Run for the hills, everyone: If the political tea-leaf readers are right, Britain’s National Health Service is going to be restructured. Again. Because in the face of a pandemic, it’s important to throw everything up in the air and see where it lands.

That information has a bit of history clanking along behind it. Remember the ghosts from A Christmas Carol? Didn’t one of them clank chains as it walked? Or did I make that up? Let’s pretend I didn’t. The clanking you hear is from The Ghost of the Christmas We Set the Tree on Fire and Burned the House Down Because We Wanted to Privatize the Candles.

Except it wasn’t the tree or the house that we burned. It was the NHS and–since we need two things to make this image work–the NHS.

Irrelevant photos: Hydrangeas.

Back in 2012, when the Conservatives shared power with the Liberal Democrats–this was in prehistoric times, before anyone dreamed the country would be facing a pandemic –the two parties passed a bill that restructured the NHS, putting elements of the NHS into competition with other elements and setting up bidding for contracts in ways that advantaged the largest, privatest contractors and disadvantaged the NHS itself. 

In the name of simplifying a complicated organizational structure, the bill created new levels of management. Then some poor soul was given the job of producing graphics illustrating how simple it all was. They were, by accident, by necessity, maybe even by some sly bit of honesty, very funny. They involved arrows running in all directions to illustrate how simple it was.

And in the interest of saving money, the restructuring was very expensive. 

One of the changes it made was to put some distance between the government and the NHS. At the time, I’d have told you that was a bad idea, and I had a lot of company in thinking that. The government had just denied its responsibility for the NHS and the nation’s health.

This re-reorganization–the current one–will give the government back control of it. The health minister will be able to say, “Fix this,” and see it fixed.

What do they want fixed? Staff shortages, long waiting times, budget overruns.Especially budget overruns.

Will the government having the power to say “fix this” help? Well, it’s been underfunding the NHS for over ten years now. And it’s made staff shortages worse by cutting the support that was available to nursing students and by the country’s hostility to immigrants, who keep the NHS working. Unless it’s planning to change that, then no. 

But it’s good to have a few weeks when you can point at the old structure, say it’s to blame, and wait to see if it works.

What will happen when the government has power over the NHS and none of the problems get solved? We may have to invade some small country to distract everyone. Or set the house on fire. 

*

Since I mentioned contracts, let’s talk about contracts. One for £840,000 was given, without competition, to Public First, an outfit owned by two long-term associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings.

Cummings is the prime minister’s brain and advisor. Gove? He’s a member of parliament and the minister for the cabinet office. I had to look that one up. It means he’s the minister responsible for cabinet office policies. If you feel like you’re going in circles there, it’s okay. I am too. 

Since the pandemic, a lot of contracts have been handed out without competitive bidding. Hey, we’re in a crisis. Who’s got time to find the lowest bidder or, god forbid, the most competent one?

Only part of this contract is about Brexit, not the pandemic. 

*

Let’s not slog through an entire post without some good news: During the pandemic–and possibly before; what do I know?–the University of London is offering free online courses. I have no idea what they’re like, but if you’re interested, they’re there. I wish I’d known during lockdown. Sorry.

*

A survey of what we have to assume is a representative sampling of British society reports that 72% of Britons followed lockdown rules more closely than the average person. 

Statistically, that means that, um–

Okay, I’m not good with numbers, but I’m reasonably sure it means that 72% of people are above average. I knew I loved this country. Now I understand why.