Bunnies, scotch eggs, and religions: England greets the pandemic

No set of guidelines is so perfect that someone, somewhere won’t see a loophole and someone else won’t see a joke. A bar in Nottingham sees both. 

As usual, we need some background before we go on. Remember how Julius Caesar divided all of Gaul into three parts? No? Well, I was kind of young back then, but I swear no one talked about anything else for months. And here we are a couple of thousand years later with all Britain divided three tiers.

It’s so exciting. We’re following the example of the Roman Empire. We haven’t elected a horse to Parliament yet, so we may not follow every detail, but we haven’t ruled it out yet.

But back to the bar: Britain’s just come out of a lockdown and the tiers are about how many Covid cases each area has. If you have more cases, you have more restrictions, and if you have more restrictions, you have a higher tier number.

Nottingham is in tier three. That means that bars, pubs, cafes, restaurants, and social clubs are closed “except for takeaway, delivery and click and collect services.”

Bowling alleys, casinos, and movies (not being able to do click and collect) are also closed, along with everything else you can think of that’s fun (or that someone you know thinks is fun even if  you don’t) and indoors and a handy place to trade viruses. So are some things that are outdoors, and I have no idea what the logic there is.

Irrelevant photo: A something plant. We got it last year and whatever is it, it survived the last winter. I’m hoping it’ll make it through another.

Places of worship are open, along with hairdressers, massage parlors, tattoo parlors, gyms, and a few other things that don’t like to be seen rubbing shoulders in a single category.

So what’s an enterprising bar to do? A tequila and mezcal bar called 400 Rabbits has applied to be recognized as the Church of the 400 Rabbits. Its website says:

“Join us as we begin our journey to answer absolutely none of life’s big questions. Such questions as why are we here, what’s the meaning of life, why didn’t they just fly the eagles to mordor and why did dominos stop making the double decadence pizza base?!

“Our aim is simple, to offer a place of worship to our deity the mezcal bunny. A place where you can drink mezcal without having to order a carvery dinner alongside it, a place where you aren’t kicked out into the cold heartless night at 10pm, a place where you can get away from the busy gyms, supermarkets, shops, beauty salons, massage parlours, cinemas, theatres, sports venues, xmas markets, schools, universities, betting shops and literally everywhere else that will be allowed to remain open while pubs and bars will remain shut.”

[I think their list’s of what’s allowed to stay open is off a bit, but let’s not quibble.]

“Our application to be recognised as an official place of worship and open our doors has been submitted to the registrar general. You can support our application by joining our congregation. Choose to be a ‘Bunny Believer’ or become ordained as a ‘Reverend of the Righteous Rabbits’ by signing up below.”

Membership costs £10 and gets you a T-shirt and an invitation to attend worship “if our application is granted (it definitely won’t be).”

The money will go to the Emmanuel House Support Centre, which works with the homeless.

How do you become recognized as a religion in Britain? It’s not easy, because England doesn’t have a central register of religions or any way to formally recognize one. (I think that’s true of the rest of the country but I’m not sure–sorry.)

What it does have, though, is a handy Form for Certifying a Place of Meeting for Religious Worship under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855, and that’s what the bar owner is working with. The form asks about the building you’ll be using, the faith and denomination of the congregation, and whether it meets regularly for worship (“daily until late,” the 400 Rabbits wrote). That seems to be about it.

Given that the government hasn’t put itself in the business of deciding on any religion’s legitimacy, I don’t know if they’ll have any grounds to turn down the Church of the 400 Rabbits. 

The church is also on Facebook, and its page says, “We’ve had an absoloutely [nobody ever claimed rabbits could spell] overwhelming response to the church with hundreds of sign ups to the congregation from all over the world, from Kazakhstan to New Zealand, Russia and the USA and of course right here at home. And that’s before we’ve even officially launched the site!

“. . . Thanks to everyone for showing your support and helping us highlight the plight of hospitality businesses under the government’s batshit new tier restrictions!

“Now i’m off to have a hearty scotch egg for dinner!

“Praise be the bunnies.

I’m pretty sure I’d disagree with the owner–James Aspell–about opening bars in the middle of a pandemic, but he’s damn funny. Even if he and his rabbits can’t spell. 

 

What’s this about scotch eggs?

I wrote about this before, but hey, this is important, so let’s come back to it. The government’s tying itself in knots over scotch eggs (which, it turns out, don’t take a capital S) and the definition of a substantial meal. The definition matters because a pub can sell alcohol to anyone buying a substantial meal. But all a government has to do is tell that to the press (or the pubs) and they’ll start asking what a substantial meal is. Is it a scotch egg? A ham sandwich? A sausage roll?

The environment secretary said a scotch egg would qualify if the pub had table service. 

Then the prime minister’s spokesperson said the government wasn’t going to get into the definition of every possible meal.

Then the minister for the cabinet office, Michael Gove, said scotch eggs would make a starter but not a meal, and after that he backtracked and said they were a substantial meal. He also said the government was relying on people’s common sense.

That’s safe enough. They’re not using much, so there’s plenty left for the rest of the country.

This came up before, in October, when the housing secretary said a pasty was a substantial meal if it came with side dishes, and also when the Manchester police stopped a pizzeria called Common from selling single slices, although Common argued that the slices were “f*****ng massive.”

Full disclosure: That may have been the Manchester Evening News, not the restaurant, being coy about spelling out fucking. Or it could have been the rabbits, although I wouldn’t expect them to be coy about that.

The police, someone from Common said, told them the slices “don’t fit the substantial food brief,” but ”couldn’t tell [them] what substantial food was.”

All this matters because businesses face a £10,000 fine if they sell someone alcohol without a substantial meal. That’s enough money to focus your attention on exactly what a substantial meal is. Common is now serving only whole pizzas. To the best of my knowledge, they haven’t started a religion, although I just might join one that prayed for pizza.

 

How England defines a substantial meal during a pandemic

Before we get to the meal, can we start with a small scandal? 

Oh, let’s, even though I’m probably the only person scandalized anymore. It’s like living in a patch of crushed garlic. At a certain point you stop treating it as if it was strange. And you stop talking about it. How many ways can you find to say that everything smells like garlic?

Forgive me, though, if I point out the latest political eau de garlique

The Scandal

The former owner of a pub that the current health secretary, Matt Hancock, used to frequent now has a contract to supply the National Health Service. He got in touch with Hancock via WhatsApp, saying, “Hello, it’s Alex Bourne from Thurlow.”

Well, hello, Alex. Smelled any garlic lately?

Alex’s post-pub company had no experience making medical supplies–it made food cartons. You know, the kind of thing you’d use to carry home a nice jacket potato with baked beans. 

Irrelevant photo: This is a flower. It’s blue. What’s worse, I’ve used it before.

But I have interrupt myself so I can explain that to the non-British among us. A jacket potato is a potato that’s been baked. So far, so noncontroversial. The British use jacket potatoes as the base for all sorts of interesting fillings, including, unfortunately, baked beans. You have to be British to understand the combination, but in case you’re not–

How am I going to explain this? 

Let’s try this: The British will put baked beans on anything except ice cream. And be happy about it. 

I’m not British and I’ll never really understand the baked beans thing, But if I were and I did, and if I couldn’t make myself a jacket potato with baked beans at home, I could buy one somewhere and carry it home in exactly the kind of box that Alex’s company used to make.

You knew I’d get back to that eventually, didn’t you?

Now Alex’s company’s making millions of the vials for Covid tests. I’m not sure how much it’s getting paid for that, but Bourne says his contact with Hancock had nothing to do with getting the contract.

The National Audit Office, on the other hand, says that people (in general; it’s not talking about him in particular) with political connections who offered to supply protective medical gear were poured into a high priority channel and were ten times more likely to get government contracts than the poor schmucks without contacts.

That could, however, be a complete coincidence. 

Alex’s lawyers said, “To suggest that our client has had political, indeed ministerial, help is to betray a deeply regrettable lack of understanding of how the supply chain works.” 

I never did understand how the supply chain works. You probably don’t either. And I do feel regret about that. Deep regret.

Alex, it turns out, offered his services from  “sense of duty and willingness to serve.”

Thank you for your service, Alex.

*

Just so we’re clear about this: I like garlic. It’s just that from time to time I’d like to smell something else.

 

The Tier System and the Substantial Meal

Britain will be coming out of its national lockdown on December 2 and England, as least, is going into a set of tiered restrictions. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will handle this according to their own sets of rules.

Tier one has the fewest restrictions and applies in the places with the fewest Covid cases per 100,000 people. It also applies in the fewest places–basically, Cornwall and a handful of small islands. 

Tier two covers the largest area, and tier three, now that you mention it, also covers a pretty hefty chunk of geography.

We’ll skip the details–anyone who genuinely needs to know this should go someplace sensible–and focus on the built-in absurdities, some of which are inevitable in any system and some of which are hand-crafted by a skilled absurdity designer.

The system has to break the nation into chunks one way or another, and some lunacy will inevitably creep into that. 

Tier one

As a county, Cornwall has very few cases, but it does have some hotspots. Devon–the county next door–has more cases over all but has some coldspots. So someone in a Devon town with almost no cases is in tier two while Bude, on the Cornish side of the border, has a cluster of cases but is in tier one. And the two aren’t necessarily far apart. They could easily shop at the same stores and work at the same places.

This is, predictably, pissing off the people on the Devon side of the border. And making me, on the Bude side, nervous about whether our local hotspot will cook down with the milder restrictions.

Tier two

In tier two, pubs can stay open but only if they’re selling “substantial meals.”

What’s a substantial meal? Everyone important is ducking that question. Environment Secretary George Eustice, demonstrating how unimportant he is, told radio listeners that a Scotch egg would be a substantial meal. But there’s a catch: It would be a substantial meal “if there were table service.” 

Would you like a beer with that? 

If you get it from the bar, though, sorry, mate, it’s a snack. 

No beer.

What’s a Scotch egg? A boiled egg wrapped in sausage, rolled in flour and breadcrumbs, then fried and at least theoretically edible. 

Sorry, it’s like asking me about the baked beans thing. I’m not the best person to explain it, especially since I’ve never eaten one and had to look up the ingredients. But I can report back that the egg can be either hard boiled or soft. And George Eustice didn’t say whether it had to be a large egg or whether a medium is acceptable.

A spokesperson for the prime minister said,  “I’m obviously not going to get into the detail of every possible meal.

“But we’ve been clear: bar snacks do not count as a substantial meal but it’s well established practice in the hospitality industry what does.”

It is indeed. Which is why a friend was able to post a pub photo on Facebook. The pub had replaced a beer’s brand sign–the kind that, in Cornwall, might say Doom Bar or Rattler–with one that read, “Substantial Meal. Made up Brewery.” 

So you can order a Substantial Meal and be perfectly legal. 

Back before the current lockdown, the communities secretary, Rober Jenrick, also demonstrated his unimportance by wading into the substantial meal debate (yes, it came up in the last tier system too) and saying that a pasty alone wouldn’t be a substantial meal but if it came with a salad or a side of fries–sorry, chips–it would be.

So basically, if you wave a lettuce leaf over it, it’s a meal. Ditto if you add potatoes to a meal that’s already heavy on the potatoes (you’ll find them inside the pasty’s pastry wrapping), that also makes it a meal.

What if you add potato chips, which the British call crisps? For that we’d have to consult King Solomon, because no one’s unimportant enough to have gone on the record about that. 

Under the old tier system, “a table meal is a meal eaten by a person seated at a table, or at a counter or other structure which serves the purposes of a table.”

What other kind of structure serves the purposes of a table?

Stop splitting hairs. Somebody worked hard to put that together.

The Local Government Association, though, said it was “open to interpretation” and had a “a degree of flexibility.” Neither of which–just to be clear–was a good thing.

“It would be difficult to argue that a single sausage roll or a snack pork pie constitutes a main meal, whereas if it was served plated with accompaniments such as vegetables, salad, potatoes it could be considered substantial.”

But that was the old rules. Under the new ones, a Scotch egg, might be substantial if it’s served at a table-like structure. At least until someone comes along and contradicts that.

Tens, possibly hundreds, of hours were invested in defining all those variables: a table, a meal, an egg, how many people could share a plated meal before it turned from substantial to insubstantial. But, of course, that was under the old guidelines. With the new ones, we’ll have to start all over. 

We’re not done yet, though. Can a customer keep drinking after they’ve had their substantial meal? For a few minutes it looked like they could, but nope, once they’re done eating, out they go.

Any day now, we’ll have guidance to help pubs figure out when customers are actively eating and when they’re playing with their food so they can order another pint of Substantial Meal. 

It’s being worked on by the parents of toddlers. 

All this reminds me of the opening Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Shosha

“I was brought up on three dead languages–Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish. . . . I studied not arithmetic, geography, physics, chemistry, or history, but the laws governing an egg laid on a holiday and sacrifices made in a temple destroyed two thousand years ago.”

Tier three

In tier three, pubs can only sell takeaways. In boxes that Alex’s company may or may not still make. It does simplify things.

The Oxford vaccine: a quick update

Thanksgiving brings less than great news on the Oxford vaccine: Its tests used control groups that weren’t comparable, and its initial report kind of glossed over that by averaging the two together. One group got two equal doses of the vaccine. The other got an initial half dose, then a second full dose, and it responded better than the first.

But that second group also had a top age of 55 and the other group included older people. So what was responsible for the difference, age or dosage? 

The control groups in the two different tests–those are the people who didn’t get the real vaccine–also got different placebos, which may or may not make a difference.

That initial half dose wasn’t a deliberate decision but a manufacturing mistake that seems to have paid off. Regulators were told about it at the time.

I’m not sure how much of a problem any of this is. An article in Wired makes it sound damn near skulldugerous. One in the Financial Times is more ho-hum about it. At this point, it’s worth knowing while we wait and see what the experts have to say.

 

What stolen science tells us about the pandemic

Remember when we used to hear that kids don’t spread Covid? Remember when we used to hear that the earth was flat? 

Yeah, I really am that old.

New research tells us that opening the schools has helped drive second waves of the virus, because yes, kids do spread the virus. Even those cute little younger ones who are unlikely to get sick themselves–they can spread the virus too. They’re high-minded little creatures, and they like to share.

It’s our own fault. We taught them sharing was good.

A study in Germany found that in the majority of cases, kids’ infections hadn’t been spotted because they’d been asymptomatic. Or to put that another way, you find a lot more cases if you test for them. 

A different study, this one in Australia, showed that the majority of kids don’t transmit the disease to anyone. But that doesn’t let kids off the hook. The same thing’s true of adults: Just 10% of infected people are responsible for 80% of infections.

At a minimum, the article I stole my statistics from recommends that staff and students (including primary school students) should wear masks, school buildings should be well ventilated, and class sizes should be reduced.

*

Again contrary to the standard wisdom from the early days of the pandemic, a study of masks shows that they protect both the wearer and people near the wearer. 

The reason they were thought not to protect the wearer is that the virus is tiny–about 0.1 microns. (Why 0.1 gets a plural is beyond me–it’s less than singular–but try it with a singular and your ear will scream explain how wrong it is. The English language doesn’t come armed for less-than-singular.) 

Small the virus may be, but according to airborne disease transmission expert Linsey Marr, the virusdoesn’t come out of us naked.” It clothes itself in the beautiful respiratory droplets known as aerosols, which contain salts, proteins, and organic compounds. With all that wrapped around its shoulders, the virus ends up looking like that portrait of Henry VIII and can be up to 100,000 times larger than the virus is without clothes. 

Irrelevant photo: An azalea starting to blossom indoors. It should really be a picture of Henry VIII, but he died before cameras were invented.

If you want a breakdown of fabrics and what percentage of aerosols they filter out, you’ll have to click the link. You can’t trust me with that level of detail. In the meantime, though, walk outside feeling confident that your mask isn’t just protecting others, it’s also protecting your own good self.

*

The bad news about masks is that they deteriorate over time. The elastic stretches, the loops fall out of love with your ears, and the fibers get thin. The Centers for Disease Control recommends replacing them periodically. 

Phooey.

*

A study from the University of Colorado and Harvard says that frequent fast testing–even with less-than-ideally-accurate tests–could stomp the virus into the ground. People who tested positive could get personalized stay-at-home orders and, at least in theory, bars, restaurants, stores, and schools could stay open.

The important thing, according to the calculations, is to test a population often–as much as twice a week–and get the results back quickly. 

The quick tests can cost as little as $1 each. One of the researchers said, “Less than .1% of the current cost of this virus would enable frequent testing for the whole of the U.S. population for a year.”

*

Boris Johnson is promising England (or possibly Britain–it gets hazy, or I do) a mass testing program. I’m not sure what the details are, but until proven otherwise I’ll expect the usual competence we see from his government–in other words, a shambles. 

I’d love to be wrong on that, but the thing is, a testing program only works if you do something sensible with the information. 

In the meantime, the plans for Christmas are to declare a five-day truce so that families–up to three households–can get together, trade presents, overeat, and let long-buried family tensions surface festively. 

Cynic? Me?

Christmas truce negotiations with the virus are ongoing and look as hopeful as the Brexit negotiations. 

*

I’m still wiping down my groceries and feeling like a bit of a maniac, since there’s been no evidence that in the real world Covid is spread by touching contaminated surfaces. Now there’s–well, something vaguely related to evidence:

An outbreak in Shanghai has been traced back to a couple of cargo handlers and who were sent to clean a contaminated container from North America. The container was damp and closed while they cleaned it, and neither was wearing a mask. The virus likes sealed, damp environments. 

Neither of them was taking groceries out of a shopping bag and they may well have caught it from airborne particles, so it’s not at all the same thing, but what can wiping down the groceries hurt? It gives me the illusion that I have some control over how this mess affects me.

*

France’s current lockdown rules demands that people who are out carry a note, an attestation, with their name and address, the time they left home, and the reason for their trip. 

It’s been interesting.

When the police stopped one man who was hiding behind a car and looking suspicious, he was carrying a meticulously filled-our attestation: name, address, time.

Why had he left home? 

“To smash a guy’s face in.”

“We told him his reason for going out was not valid,” the local police chief said.

In either this lockdown or the last one, a man told the police he was going to see his grandmother. 

What was her name?

He couldn’t remember.

 

How to turn a Covid cluster into an outbreak

Until recently, the part of Britain I live in had very few Covid cases. Now we have a cluster of them. Isn’t progress wonderful? It’s not a huge cluster, but then no outbreak starts out huge. It scares the antibodies out of me.

So how’s it being handled?

The nearby secondary school sent one whole year group home when I’m not sure how many kids tested positive. Following government guidelines, they treat each year group as a bubble, having them enter through different doors and eat at different times and keeping them as physically separate as possible. The theory is that if the outbreak’s in one year group, the others should be safe.

You can believe that if you like.

And after school, as my neighbor reminds me, they go home. Her kids are in different bubbles in school–a primary school, but the reality’s the same. The minute they get home, they jump on each other, wrestle their way across the living room floor, and hold a germ exchange.

Only she didn’t call it the living room. That’s American. She also didn’t say anything about a germ exchange.

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, getting ready to bloom, but not at this time of year. 

The point, though, is that the bubbles leak–probably at school and definitely at home. And bubbles that leak aren’t bubbles. They’re something else. Cups, maybe. Things with sides and a bottom but no top because that’s how you pour the tea into yourself. 

Or not the tea, the germs.

When the school didn’t have enough teachers to keep going, it sent everybody home to keep up with their lessons online. At least, those who have internet access. 

Don’t get me started. You know what I’ll say.

Some of the kids were told to self-isolate–probably the ones who’d shared a leaky bubble with someone who was known to have the virus. Their families, though, were told they didn’t have to to self-isolate unless their kid became symptomatic. 

How are kids who share a bedroom supposed to self-isolate? Well, you take masking tape and make a line down the middle of the room, and you tell the germs, in the tone of voice you use when the kids have gotten into  your secret stash of chocolate, to stay on their own side.

One of the many problems with all this is that people are infectious before they become symptomatic. Some people never become symptomatic and they’re infectious anyway. And people are even more infectious if they live in a country led by an incompetent, corrupt government. I can’t explain that medically, but it does happen.

Back to the school, though: No one wants to tell all the students’ families, or even just the families with kids in that first infected age group, to go into quarantine. Because that’s be a lot of people. 

Which is why I worry we’ll be looking at a bigger local flareup soon. 

Meanwhile, the county government reminds us to wash our hands and maintain social distancing. Which is better than climbing into each other’s pockets and poking our heads out once a day to ask if the pandemic’s over but doesn’t take into account what it’s like to share a house or apartment or a life with actual human beings. We breathe the same air. It goes into our lungs and it goes out. If someone has the virus, the odds are good that everyone will trade it. It’s always looking for new lungs to explore and conquer, no matter how clean our hands are.

On the other hand, clean hands are very nice things to have.

No one knows for sure where our cluster of cases started, but someone told me today that it traces back to a kid who came home from university. His parents wandered all over town with no idea that they’d been infected and his mother’s sure she infected half of Bude and feels terrible about it. 

Whether she’s right or not doesn’t matter, really. It does remind us–or it should–that we don’t know if we’re infectious so we all need to act as if we are. Because we can feel great and still make people around us sick. 

And it’s yet another reminder that this lockdown has as many holes in it as the school bubbles. 

*

A third vaccine, the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine, has reported its accuracy level: It’s 62% but could go up to 90% if the first shot uses a lower dose. (No, I can’t explain it either.) It’s also cheaper than the first two and can be stored in an average refrigerator, and Astra-Zeneca has said it will forgo any profit on it.

Even before that was announced, though, the health secretary told us that if approval comes in time the National Health Service would start vaccinating people before Christmas. Initially, family doctors will immunize the most vulnerable, and NHS staff will be vaccinated at work. Mass vaccination centers will be set up. 

That sounds startlingly as if someone somewhere had an actual plan, but the grapevine tells me that the local doctors’ office hasn’t been contacted about this. They have only the vaguest idea how it will work and what they’re supposed to do or how.  

*

Preliminary studies indicate that mouthwashes containing cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC to its friends) can, under laboratory conditions, kill the coronavirus in thirty seconds. But as Donald Trump so famously informed us, so can bleach. So can nuclear weapons, although that hasn’t been verified in a lab. You know what scientists are like about setting off nuclear weapons in their labs. The few who’ve done it have had problems reconstructing their notes. 

A darning needle could also, at least potentially, kill the virus, but viruses are small and stabbing them isn’t easy, as the human immune system has found to its cost.

Don’t think about that too hard. I do understand that the human immune system doesn’t come equipped with darning needles. Let’s call it a metaphor and move on quickly.

With all of this, the problem is what you do with the information. How do you get your chosen virus-o-cide and the virus to meet in the right situation? Take mouthwash: Do you pinch the virus between two fingers and dunk it in the mouthwash? Do you spend your day with a mouthful of the mouthwash and hope that anything you breathe in decides to go for a swim? This isn’t going to be simple.

As you may have figured out, I am–and the world is in my debt for this–not a scientist. Someone may yet find a use for mouthwash in humanity’s fightback against this invisible predator. It’s safe, it’s available, and as medical interventions go it’s cheap.

*

Finally, a piece non-Covid news: Donald Trump’s lawyers filed a lawsuit in a Michigan court claiming that Democratic-leaning parts of Michigan had suspiciously high voter turnouts. This was all supposed to link back to voting machines and computer programs and Hugo Chavez. 

And to prove they’d done their research carefully, they listed a number of localities in Minnesota instead of Michigan.

Chavez probably moved them before the election for this very purpose. If he wasn’t already dead by then. 

The problems with mass Covid testing

Britain started a £100 billion Covid testing program, Operation Moonshot, which is supposed to catch asymptomatic cases so people can quarantine themselves instead of transmitting the disease and life can return to normal. The plan is to screen millions of asymptomatic people every week, and it’s being tried out in Liverpool as I type. 

Which sounds great, but Dr. Angela Raffle, a consultant to the UK national screening programmes, said, “It worries me that ministers . . . can wake up one morning saying let’s spend £100 billioin on this and not have it scrutinised–it would be like building a Channel tunnel without asking civil engineers to look at the plans. . . . This seemed to me to be the most unethical proposal for use of public funds or for screening that I’d ever seen.”

Other than that, though, it’s a good plan.

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms–a photo I stole from last spring. 

The program relies on the Innova lateral flow test, which when it’s used by research nurses catches 76.8% of positive cases. When it’s used in the real world by what the article I read called “self-trained staff,” though, it picks up only 57% of positive cases. And Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics, said people aren’t being told that they still might be carrying the disease, so if they test negative they feel safe to do–well, whatever they haven’t felt safe to do. Visit granny in the nursing home or tear off their masks and run through twelve supermarkets breathing heavily on staff and fellow shoppers. 

Nursing homes in three counties, including mine, are trying out rapid tests to allow visitors in. The publicity I’ve seen doesn’t mention the possibility of false negatives. It’s all how great it is that granny got a visitor. And up to a point it is great. I’m sure granny was pleased. I also hope it doesn’t end up killing her.

The good news is that the test doesn’t generate a lot of false positives. 

Italy was the first country to use mass testing–they used antigen tests–to control the virus, and it seemed to be working, which encouraged other countries to try it, including Britain. Italy’s now in its second wave of Covid. It went from  500 cases a day in August to more than 35,000.

So what went wrong?

Andrea Crisanti of the University of Padua says the tests were used the wrong way and that using them to protect vulnerable people in care homes was “absolutely criminal,” because of the infected people they miss–the false negatives.

The tests they used are 80% to 90% accurate and give both false negatives and false positives, but they’re quick and they’re cheap. If they’re used, say, before people catch a train, they could reduce travelers’ exposure. But they wouldn’t eliminate it because, again, they don’t catch every case.

Crisanti said, “If your objective is to screen a community to know if transmission is there, fine.” But the quick tests, he said, need to be backed up with the more accurate but slower PCR tests, along with stay-at-home orders.

There doesn’t seem to have been–or to be–any strategy for what to do with the information beyond simply boosting the number of tests.

In an article about how antigen tests were used in the US, the website ProPublica writes that “When health care workers in Nevada and Vermont reported false positives [from the tests], HHS [that’s Health and Human Services, a federal agency] defended the tests and threatened Nevada with unspecified sanctions until state officials agreed to continue using them in nursing homes. It took several more weeks for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue an alert . . . that confirmed what Nevada had experienced: Antigen tests were prone to giving false positives.”

In nursing homes, false positives are as dangerous as false negatives. A person who tests positive will be moved in with other people who test positive. If the test gives out some false positives, healthy people will be exposed to Covid, making the test a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The tests HHS recommended are meant for people with Covid symptoms, and when they’re used that way they produce virtually no false positives and catch 84% to 97%  of positive samples in a lab test. But a study–like many Covid studies, it hasn’t been peer reviewed yet–found them catching only 32% of positives in people without symptoms.

Still, HHS is recommending them for use on nursing home residents without symptoms and suggesting repeated tests to reduce false negatives. An October survey found that a third of nursing homes hadn’t touched the antigen tests they’d been given. They didn’t trust them, they didn’t have the staff time, and the paperwork and reporting requirements were more than they wanted to deal with.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Smith, an epidemiology at the University of Illinois, said, “It’s how you use the tests, not just how many tests you have.” If you have a million tests, is it better to test a million people once, or test half a million people who are at high risk twice, or test essential workers five or 10 times? 

If anyone has an answer to that question, I haven’t seen it in print yet.

*

Earlier this week I introduced the game Where’d the Money Go? and missed some of the more outrageous examples of where the money’s gone. I plead extenuating circumstances, because a National Audit Office report hadn’t hit the news yet. So let’s make up for my lapse. 

Sorry. I do try to sneak some good news into these posts. Some weeks, it’s like fighting gravity.

Early in the pandemic, in an effort to get protective gear for the health and social care systems, the government set up a high priority contracting channel for businesses that were recommended by ministers’ offices, lords, politicians, or officials. Oddly enough, those lords and politicians seem to all have ties to the ruling party, the Conservatives.

The rule of the playground is that we don’t share.

Their bids that went through that channel were ten times more likely to be successful than the bids that went through ordinary channels. One source said their pitches were automatically treated as credible. The documentation is–

Quick, someone, what’s a shoddier word than shoddy? Paperwork documenting why a particular supplier was chosen is sometimes missing. Contracts were sometimes drawn up after the work had been started. 

The person who recommended the company to the priority channel is documented less than half the time. No rules for how the priority channel should operate seem to have been written.

This was in the first six months of the pandemic, when £18 billion was spent on Covid-related contracts.

Liz David-Barrett, a professor of governance and integrity (that’s what she studies–I’m not commenting on her personal qualities), said that firms recommended in this way are usually treated as higher risk rather than lower.  

In a related story, although I can’t say what channel this contract went through, Gabriel Gonzales Andersson made £21 million for wandering through a deal between the UK government and an American jewellery designer, Michael Saiger, to procure protective gloves and gowns from China. 

According to the BBC, Gonzales Andersson was paid to find a manufacturer for deals that had already been arranged.

If you can figure out what happened between the two, you’re doing better than I am, but they’re both in court in Florida–suing each other, I think, although I can’t swear to that. Saiger had several follow-up contracts, and the gear he was supposed to supply was delayed, possibly because the relationship between the two men fell apart.

One more example before I stop: Lord Feldman, a former chair of the Conservative Party, and a managing director of the lobbying firm Tulchan Communications, acted as an unpaid advisor on Covid. 

Tulchan is also called a public relations firm; flip a coin if you care.

After the firm Oxford Nanopore signed a £28 million contract with the Department of Health, and also after Feldman stepped down as an unpaid advisor, Nanopore hired Tulchan. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, happens to have met with both Feldman and Oxford Nanopore before the contract was signed. I have no idea what they talked about. Movies, probably. Pornography. Gummi bears. Surely not whose money would end up in whose pockets. I wasn’t there. That’s how the gummi bears came into it. 

Tulchan says Oxford Nanopore was already in discussions with the Department of Health before the meetings, so everything’s fine.

Nanopore later picked up another £100 million in contracts.

*

The British Medical Association has gone public with advice on how to lift the current lockdown. The approach last time was, “Wheeee, that’s over. Go out, have fun, spend money. Don’t work from home. The economy needs you.”

That was followed by a faint, “And, oh, do be careful, okay? Wash your hands or something.” 

Which is one of several reasons that we’re now in a second lockdown. 

What the BMA advises includes giving local public health teams more of the test and trace budget, along with more oversight of the program; limiting socializing to two households instead of six people; keeping the local tiered lockdown system that imposes varying restrictions depending on an area’s level of infection but banning travel between areas in different tiers; encouraging people to work from home if they can; and replacing guidance about how to keep workplaces and public areas safe with rules about how to keep workplaces etc. safe. The theory goes that rules are enforceable and might be taken more seriously.

Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA’s chair of council, said, “The big question in practical terms is can we reopen hospitality venues–pubs and restaurants–in the run-up to Christmas and still avoid infection levels increasing?

“I suspect we can’t, but the decision may be made to do so anyhow on the basis that any increase will be slow and may be able to be counteracted later.”

Because what the hell, it’s Christmas. What do a few extra deaths matter?

*

If I haven’t managed to be funny this time–and I’m pretty sure I haven’t–I’ll try to do better next time. It’s not that this stuff isn’t funny, in a demented sort of way. But it takes time to find the humor and I want to get this posted before the next wave on insanity breaks over us. 

Stay well. It’s dangerous out there.

 

Where’d the Money Go? Play the thrilling new boardless game

Okay, kids, it’s time to play Where’d the Money Go? I’ve just pulled the special Pandemic Edition out of the box, so make yourself at home and let’s start.

Never played it before? One player–that’d be me–offers footnoted examples of ludicrous spending and wasted money. If I don’t document my claims, I’m out. 

The other players (that’d be you)–

Actually, the other players don’t have a lot to do. You shake their heads, moan, and generally make horrified noises. Or you don’t. Up to you. You leave comments. Then when the time comes, if you live in the relevant country, you vote. High points to the players who vote the rascals out and (more immediately) to the ones who leave funny comments on the blog, although wise, insightful comments are also worth points. 

In fact, any comment’s worth points.

If the current rascals do get voted out, will the replacement set be less rascally? I can’t promise, but this lot has set a high standard, so the odds are good.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Okay, I start, so I’ll offer up a few recent examples. The older ones have been buried under a blizzard of recent ones and I don’t want to dig them out.

Since the start of the pandemic, the government’s spent £1.5 billion on contracts with companies strongly linked to the Conservative Party, which just happens to be the party in power. I keep seeing the word chumocracy in articles about this.  

Many of these are urgent contracts. Under ordinary circumstances, the government has to advertise for bids instead of just awarding contracts to the closest person in the room. But there’s an exception for urgent contracts. Since the pandemic, lots of contracts have gone–urgently–to the closest person in the room.

How do you get into the room? See above for links with the Conservative Party, I’d guess. 

In exploring the law on this, the Local Government Lawyer website says, “The core question is really, then, is this contract really necessitated by this emergency or is the emergency being used as cover?”

Mmm, maybe not all of them are really necessitated by the emergency. Some have gone for political consulting. One was to research public opinion on the government’s Covid communications. To explain a few of the other contracts, I’d need more words than I have in the bank but, hey, I’m giving you a footnote–one of those things known as a link in this century. Sorry, I’m very much from the last century. If you want more examples, you can dig them out there.

Other contracts were for urgent supplies but are still questionable. 

Example: Anthony Page used to be the secretary of MGM Media, which manages the “brand” of Baroness Mone, a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He’s also a director of a finance firm, Knox Group, which was founded by Mone’s fiance, Doug Barrowman.

Page quit at MGM media and set up a company called PPE Medpro. The Good Law Project calls it a £100 company–I assume that’s how much capital it had. Miraculously, forty-four days later, PPE Medpro was awarded a £122 million contract to supply the government with gowns for health care workers. The contract wasn’t opened up for public bidding. Because, hey, we’re in a crisis here. There’s no time for niceties.

Nobody involved has anything relevant to say, although they’re quoted, except that it’s all fine and an article in the Herald Scotland ends by saying that “there is no suggestion of wrongdoing and the Department of Health said: ‘Due diligence is carried out for all government contracts.’ ”

That translates to, “Don’t sue us.”

On the other hand, the director of the Good Law Project, which dug up the information and is suing the health secretary for breaching UK laws requiring transparency, tweeted, “I am told time and again of profit margins of 10-20% on these contracts. Fortunes large enough to sustain generations are being made by those lucky enough or well connected enough to win them.”

Good Law Project’s website mentions another contract, this one with Ayanda Capital, “a politically connected firm” that got  a £252 million contract to supply face masks for the National Health Service. Most of them turned out to be unusable. 

“Ayanda was guided through the process by the Cabinet Office and enjoyed staggering margins compared to the prices paid to others.” 

Then there’s the Randox company, which got a £347 million six-month extension on a contract. Randox are the good folks whose Covid test kits were recalled last summer when some of the swabs–those things you’re supposed to stick up your pristine nose–were found to be contaminated. 

A Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, earns £100,000 a year as a consultant to Randox, and he was part of a call between the company and the health minister in charge of supplies for the testing program.

I’m sure nothing out of line was discussed. Don’t sue me either. It’s all footnoted. I hope.

Details on urgent, noncompetititive contracts are, by law, supposed to be published within thirty days but have been slow in coming, taking an average of seventy-eight days. As of November 16, information on £4.6 billion worth of contracts hasn’t been released.

In an editorial, the BMJ (which used to be the British Medical Journal but which following a logic they somehow never explained to me is now just the BMJ) said the pandemic “unleashed state corruption on a grand scale” that is “harmful to public health.” It called it “opportunistic embezzlement.” It also–more chillingly but less relevantly to our topic–said politicians are “suppressing science.” 

The BMJ doesn’t usually wade into politics, making it noticeable when it does.

No footnote there. The BMJ‘s behind a paywall. I’m relying on a quote from one of the links above.

You may have notice that I didn’t footnote every fact. The links repeat. I get bored. They all came from the sources I cited. You can throw me out of the game if you like. The person who opens doesn’t get points anyway. They either get thrown out or they don’t.

*

As a side issue, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has had to put himself into isolation after meeting with an MP who later tested positive for Covid. Pictures show the two men posing maskless and too close together, although I’ll admit that they’re not in each other’s pockets. 

The test and trace system did manage to locate the prime minister and tell him to stay home but it’s better known for the people it doesn’t reach than for the ones it does. Its head is another Conservative member of the House of Lords, Dido Harding. Last time I saw a number, the government had spent £12 billion on it. Consultants are being paid as much as £6,250 per day.

Johnson wants the world to know that he’s “bursting with antibodies” and feeling fine. 

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t any pictures in my mind of what he’s bursting with.

*

Irrelevantly, the London Economic says that a source close to Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, claims the real reason Boris Johnson fired his brain–that’s Dominic Cummings–is that he leaked an announcement of the current lockdown to the press before Johnson got the news to parliament. 

And in a further moment of irrelevance, and you  will probably have already heard about this, the Moderna vaccine has gone public with preliminary results: It may protect 95.4% of people against Covid and doesn’t need to be kept as cold as the Pfizer vaccine, which has a preliminary report of 90% effectiveness.

The Russian Sputnik V vaccine reported 92% effectiveness. Again, that’s preliminary. 

What might a vaccine mean? It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Now that we (may) have a vaccine, let’s talk about what it could mean. Because it’s not all Problem Solved. We’ve had a little time to feel good, so now we get to look for monsters under the bed. They may turn out not to be there, but let’s take a look while it’s daytime. Just to be safe.

Potential monster number one: We don’t know yet whether the Pfizer vaccine will keep people who’ve been exposed to the virus from spreading it. It may, but it’s also possible that it–or any other vaccine–will keep people from getting sick but not keep them from being silent spreaders. That would mean we can’t end social distancing and can’t burn our masks.

I can’t tell if those are beady little monster eyes I’m seeing or if it’s the buttons I lost a couple of years back.

I really should clean under there more often.

Potential monster number two: If the Pfizer vaccine is the one we all go with initially, logistical problems are a certainty. It has to be kept at an insanely cold temperature–minus 70 C. That’s minus 94 F. Not even forty years in Minnesota prepared me to understand how cold that is. The worst I saw was minus 40 F., and I think that counted the wind chill. It was cold enough to freeze any thought other than How do I get indoors but wasn’t cold enough to impress this vaccine.

That’s going to be more of a problem in countries without a well-developed infrastructure and without the money for a supply of–um, what do you use to keep a drug at that temperature? Something with more insulation than your average lunch bucket. 

Irrelevant photo: mallow

Potential monster number three: How much of the vaccine can be produced how quickly, and at what cost. And how much of what’s produced will be available to poorer countries? Because until the virus is under control everywhere, it won’t be fully under control anywhere. 

Potential monster number three and a half: Initial supplies will be limited, and the British government’s drawn up a tentative list of what sort of people will be priorities, but no country’s likely to have enough doses for all of its population. So what does that mean?

Say a vaccine protects 70% of the people who get it. (This is based on an article that came out before the preliminary Pfizer announcement of 90% protection, so the numbers will change but the structure of the problem won’t.) If 70% of the population is vaccinated, which is unlikely at first, 49% of the population will be immune.

Why 49%? Why not 49%. It’s a nice number–just off balance enough to be convincing. What it’s not, though, is enough to give us herd immunity. If the priorities for vaccination are the oldest people, the most vulnerable, and (please!) the front-line workers, that will still mean that younger healthy people need to maintain social distancing, wear masks, and generally continue to live the way we’ve been living. And people who’ve been vaccinated probably will as well if the vaccine doesn’t keep them from being contagious. Otherwise they’ll endanger both the 51% of vulnerable people who haven’t been protected. And (I know, I keep saying this) younger people are more vulnerable to this than we tend to think, so they’ll endanger them as well.

But it’s not all monsters and buttons and dust bunnies under the bed. We’ve got some potential monster-slayers too. 

Sorry, I don’t mean to get bloodthirsty about this. If you’re squeamish about killing a virus, take heart: A virus is not actually alive. Or else it is. This is something microbiologists argue about. It all depends on how you define life. Either way, though, it’s them or us. It’s enough to drive even the most dedicated pacifist to sit down and have a good long think.

So, potential monster-slayer one: On a very long-term basis, it’s possible that young kids who catch the virus but don’t get sick will build up a generational semi-immunity and Covid will eventually become just another cold. It’s possible that the four coronaviruses that cause colds started out like Covid. One of the four left cattle and discovered humans around 1890–the same year as what’s been thought of as a flu pandemic but might, in hindsight, have been a cousin of Covid. 

It’s possible. It’s also possible that all that is wrong. And of course most of us have to live long enough and emerge healthy enough for that to matter.

Potential monster-slayer two: More immediately, with the introduction of a vaccine, testing and tracing come into their own. They’re most effective when case numbers are relatively low–much lower than Britain has at the moment– because a country needs to track and quarantine every case. A vaccine could put us in a position to use testing and tracing well. 

Of course, even if you only have three cases, you still need a competent track and trace system. I’m not sure ours is up to the challenge of three cases yet.

Early in the pandemic, South Korea used track and trace well and Joshua Gans of the University of Toronto says, “We need to all become South Korea as quickly as possible.”

That will mean ensuring that quarantine actually works. Estimates of the percentage of people in England who fully self-isolate when they’re supposed to are low (11% according to one study), and the situation isn’t helped by the lack of genuine financial support. Some people can’t afford to stay home. Others, presumably, don’t take it seriously.

One problem with testing has been that the fast tests are less accurate than the slow ones. A test that is 90% sensitive will miss 10% of positives. But don’t despair. Baffling math may save us here. “Two tests five to seven days apart are 99% sensitive in finding you positive–if you actually are,” according to epidemiologist Tim Sly.

No, don’t ask me. They’re numbers. I can’t explain why they do what they do. The main thing is not to let them sense your fear.

The recommendation is to test people frequently–frontline workers, people who fly, people who breathe. Some of the rapid tests can spot people who are actually transmitting the virus, not just people who have symptoms. 

So we’re not ready to have a massive, maskless, indoor party the day after the vaccine arrives. Or maybe even the year after the vaccine arrives. Put away the confetti. Take a bite of the ice cream, then shove it back in the freezer.

But the picture is changing, and even though we have a government that’s elevated incompetence to an art form, I’m hopeful.

Reform UK, Covid, and the definition of freedom: It’s the news from Britain

Nigel Farage, who was pivotal in convincing Britain that Brexit would be as much fun as a pint in a pub on a Tuesday afternoon, has rebranded the Brexit Party now that Brexit’s about to happen and there’s no more fun to be had from it. 

It might be relevant that Farage was in the US for a while, pumping up Donald Trump’s balloon, and a lot of the fun’s gone out of that as well. He had a £10,000 bet riding on Trump winning. A rebranded party might be just the thing to cheer him up.

The party is now called Reform UK, and it advocates letting Covid circulate freely among young people while the old and the vulnerable dig holes in the ground and hide.

Okay, what they actually said was that in response to the pandemic, “The Government has dug itself into a hole and rather than admit its mistakes, it keeps on digging.” But hey, I’m certifiably old. I’ve been around long enough to know that if you identify a hole and the digger won’t jump in, someone else is likely to be pushed. For all the rhetoric about protecting the vulnerable, someone’s going to end up in there. 

The party’s argument is a simple one: Not that many people die from Covid and “the new national lockdown will result in more life-years lost than it hopes to save, as non-Covid patients with cancer, cardiac, lung and other illnesses have treatments delayed or cancelled again.”

Wait, though. Are those cancellations really a result of the lockdown or are they a result of Covid itself? 

Oh, stop fussing. If we move fast enough, no one will ask. Let’s move on:

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

“Focused protection is its key, targeting resources at those most at risk, whether it is the elderly, vulnerable or those with other medical conditions. The rest of the population should, with simple hygiene measures and a dose of common sense, get on with life—this way we build immunity in the population. We must learn to live with the virus not hide in fear of it.”

You know to saying that for every complicated question, there is an answer that is simple, appealing, and wrong? 

Farage’s argument against lockdowns–or his party’s; it’s hard to know where the line between them is, since his ventures are strongly personality driven–is based on the Great Barrington Declaration. So, sigh, let’s talk about the GBD. (Great Barrington, by the way, is a town in Massachusetts where the declaration, for some reason, started.)

The GBD was written by three public health experts and signed by 15,000 public health experts and medical practitioners, some of whose expertise is questionable, especially that of Johnny Bananas and Professor Cominic Dummings. Another signer’s name is the entire first verse of “La Macarena.” About a hundred were therapists whose fields of expertise included massage, hypnotherapy, and Mongolian khoomii singing. Nothing against Mongolian khoomii singing, but it doesn’t make you an expert in public health. So I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t a highly selective group. 

The last time I checked, 160,000 members of the public had also signed. And some uncounted number of scientists have jumped in to criticize the declaration, which argues that lockdowns cause all sorts of harm, both physical and mental. 

The statement was sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian, free-market think tank that’s part of a network of organizations funded by Charles Koch, a right-wing American billionaire who promotes climate change denial and opposes regulations on business. He’s one of two brothers who have something in the neighborhood of $40 billion to play with, who donate lots of money to the Republican Party, and who funded the Tea Party. To quote Rolling Stone, they’re using their money “to buy up our political system.”

Why one of them went out to play without the other I don’t know.

But let’s not throw out the declaration because of the company it keeps, however much we might not want to have Thanksgiving dinner with them. The question is, does it make sense?

Mmmm, no. First, let’s think about the difficulty of separating out the elders from the youngers. About the mulit-generational families who live together; the isolated elderly whose lives are held together by the visits of younger carers, either paid or unpaid; the institutionalized elders cared for by younger people; and any other intergenerational border that functions without a checkpoint and barbed wire.

Think about the vulnerable people who aren’t elderly. The ones with asthma, the ones with medical conditions of various sorts, the ones who are pregnant, the ones who are obese. Forget the smokers, the vapers. Also the people who are Black or from other minority ethnic groups, who are dying at higher rates than whites. Or (and there’s some overlap here) the people in low-paid jobs, who are in contact with wide swathes of the public and all the viruses they carry. 

Think about the medical professionals and non-professional medical staff who as an occupational hazard are in contact with the sick. 

 In a study of 106 Covid deaths among health-care workers, 8% were 30 or younger, 26% were between 31 and 50, and 38% were between 51 and 60. That doesn’t add up to a free pass for younger people. 

But even younger people with less exposure don’t get a Get out of Covid Free card. In an article in the Medical Express (I think it was a reprint), an imaging cardiologist, Partho Sengupta, reports “heart abnormalities in over one-third of student athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 and underwent cardiac screening at West Virginia University this fall.”

That’s not damage to the heart itself. It’s ”evidence of inflammation and excess fluid in the pericardium, the sac around the heart. Almost all of the 54 students tested had either mild COVID-19 or were asymptomatic.”

It could cause myocarditis, pericarditis, heart failure, or arrhythmia in athletes.

“There is still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19 and its lingering effects on the human body,” Sengupta writes. 

“We didn’t find convincing signs of ongoing myocarditis, but we did see a lot of evidence of pericarditis. Among the student athletes screened, 40% had pericardial enhancement, suggesting resolving inflammation in the sac that protects the heart, and 58% had pericardial effusion, meaning excess fluid had built up.

“Usually, this kind of inflammation heals within a few weeks with no residual effects. However, in some cases, there can be long-term effects, like pericardial inflammation recurring. It can lead to scarring of the pericardial sac, which in rare cases can be severe, and the pericardium can constrict around the heart. This can lead to symptoms similar to heart failure and cause congestion in the lungs and liver.

“It’s difficult to predict if a patient will develop any of these rare long-term complications, and it’s too soon to tell if it’s happening.

“. . . COVID-19 is no joke. The best way for athletes to stay healthy so they can keep playing sports is to avoid getting the coronavirus in the first place. Teams should test student athletes for the virus and make sure those who test positive see a doctor to determine if screening tests for heart damage are needed.”

I mention that particular study because it wandered into my inbox recently, not because it’s the only evidence of younger people being vulnerable to Covid. When I consulted Lord Google, he pointed me to a Johns Hopkins Medicine article with statistics from last March, when 38% of the people hospitalized with Covid in the US were between 20 and 54. Half of the people who ended up in intensive care were under 60,

The trend in Europe was the same. 

I could point out that Farage is getting on toward sixty and shrugging off a case of Covid might not be as easy as shrugging off last night’s pints, but it wouldn’t be wise to position myself between Mr. F. and the spotlight. 

An article in the Lancet says that “no population group is completely safe from COVID-19 at the present time, and there is no room for complacency.”

In Britain, patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 after Aug 1 tended to be younger than the ones at the start of the pandemic, although they were less likely to end up on ventilators. A lot of them were women. This probably has to do with what jobs they do: A lot of people working in service jobs and what’s dismally called the hospitality industry are women. A lot of their customers breathe. The higher the dose of the virus a person takes in, the more likely they are to get a severe case.

It’s not just about your age.

One study estimates that one in seven people who gets ill with Covid is sick for at least four weeks, one in twenty for at least eight weeks, and one in forty-five for at least 12 weeks.

How long does “at least” go on? No one knows. 

If anyone wants to risk exposing themselves in the name of freedom and living their lives to the full, that’s their call. But as someone or other said, My rights end where the other fellow’s nose begins. You can find the quote in a variety of formats and attributed to a variety of people (Abraham Lincoln, John Stuart Mill, Oliver Wendell Holmes; not Yogi Berra, although he said almost everything else worth quoting), but the sense still holds: You have the right to judge your own level of risk but at the point where you’re risking other people’s health, your rights end. 

*

Can we end with some good news, please? This should come with trumpets blaring at the top of the post, but odd are that you’ve heard it by now anyway: A preliminary analysis of the Pfizer and BioNTech Covid vaccine says it protects 90% of people from the virus.  It’s been tested on 43,500 people in six countries and so far no safety concerns have popped up. It involves two doses given three weeks apart and that magical 90% protection was calculated seven days after the second dose. 

The data hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, and the vaccine has to be kept in ultra-cold storage–below minus 80 C–so it won’t be easy to work with. Still, let’s enjoy a shred of hope when we can. If it works, it could take the fun out of the Reform UK party. What ever will Farage find to do with himself next?

The pandemic news from Britain: A few success stories and some screwups

Europe doesn’t have many Covid success stories, but Finland’s isn’t bad. Its infection rate is the lowest in the European Union (that’s based on a spot check of two weeks that started at the end of October and sloshed over into early November, leaving only a few hard-to-remove stains). It’s infection rate is also five times below the EU average. It was the only EU country whose rate went down in that period.

It responded to the pandemic with an early lockdown, an app, and testing and tracing–things many countries have done but I’m going out on a limb and assuming that they did all of the above competently. It’s odd, but that does make a difference. 

That’s not a comment on how countries like, say, Germany and Wherever Else handled it, because I haven’t been following them. It’s a comment on Britain.

Finland is the only country I know of where 23% of people in a survey said the lockdown had actually improved their lives. Maybe it’s the only country where anybody thought that was a reasonable question.

Nelli Hankonen, an associate professor of social psychology at Helsinki University, said, “In Finnish culture we are not that highly sociable.” So maybe the lockdown took some pressure off people. They could stop trying.

The economy also took less of a hit than most EU economies, with a 6.4% drop compared with 14%. To quote the good prof again, “The economy is structured so that it’s not necessary for a large proportion of the Finnish workforce to be in the workplace.”

*

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Strawberry leaves after a frost. We haven’t had a serious frost yet. This is from last year.

Japan also contained the virus effectively, and a study looked at phone data to see how much people in Tokyo moved around. “We found that 1 week into the state of emergency, human mobility reduced by 50%, which led to a 70% drop in social contacts.”

The government declared a state of emergency in April and asked businesses to close and people to work from home. It also restricted travel, but Japanese law doesn’t allow for a mandatory lockdown.

One of the study’s co-authors said, “With a noncompulsory and nonpharmaceutical intervention, Tokyo had to rely on citizens’ cooperation. Our study shows they cooperated by limiting their movement and contact, subsequently limiting infections,” 

*

What’s happening with the mass testing that England’s banking on? In a real-world trial in early October, the quick-turnaround test at the heart of the strategy, the Opti-Gene test, missed more than 50% of positive cases. That was, I think, compared to the test that’s been in use for some time now.

Local leaders in cities where the test’s scheduled to be used asked for clinical validity data and didn’t get it, but the Department of Health and Social Care said the test was validated in three other trials. 

Somehow, though, it didn’t make the data public.

The tests have cost £323 million.

*

Denmark has discovered that Covid jumped to farmed mink (the country raises a lot of mink for fur; who knew mink was still a thing?), and from them back to some 200 humans. 

That may or may not pose a danger. Viruses do mutate, but so far Covid’s mutations haven’t been significant. The fear is that in jumping to a different species, it may have been forced to pick up more significant mutations, which could, in turn, affect how well vaccines work. Or make it more–

Nah, let’s not even think about that.

So far, there’s no evidence that any of that has happened, and vaccines are fairly easy to tweak–once, of course, we have one or more. The flu vaccine’s tweaked every year in response to educated guesses about the strain of flu that will be circulating. 

People in one affected area of Denmark, northern Jutland, are being urged to stay home to control the spread of the virus variant. And if you think that’s tough, it’s been harder on the mink: 17 million of them are being killed.

*

A few comments I’ve gotten convince me that I should say this: I pour a lot of words onto the virtual page about the many things wrong in Britain’s handling of the virus, and even so I barely touch the surface. But for everything that’s been screwed up, at least Britain hasn’t thrown up its hands and let the virus run wild and there’ve been some efforts to support people who’ve lost their incomes. It’s not enough, it’s not being handled well, people are facing eviction, and food banks are swamped while massive amounts of money are poured into outsourcing companies that make a hash of whatever job they’re given, but in contrast to the way the U.S. has handled the pandemic–

Okay, that’s not a demanding point of comparison, but Britain is at least acknowledging the danger and doing something. I do want to acknowledge that.

*

A year or two  back, an artist created a spoof of some painfully cheery, squeakily white, fifties-era (I think) British kids’ books, the Ladybird series, and she’s just published one about lockdown. By way of a review, I’ll quote one page: 

“We are shopping for emergency supplies.

“‘There is no Lemongrass!’ says Mummy.

“‘Oh dear!’ says John.

“‘I’m starting to understand what life was like in World War II,’ says Mummy.”

*

After the business secretary, Alok Sharma, was exposed to Covid he soldiered on and held meetings with foreign dignitaries anyway, creating a (very minor) scandal. Now it turns out that when he got home he met with (gasp, wheeze) Prince Charles. 

As far as I can tell from the papers, everyone involved seems to have dodged the bullet, but exposing Prince Charles did create a bigger scandal in the press than exposing foreign dignitaries. Because the thing about foreign dignitaries is that they’re foreign. And none of them were (slight pause while I try to assemble some small pretense of respect) royal. 

The funny thing about viruses, though, is that they don’t give a rip who people’s ancestors were. If it’s true, as the proverb says, that a cat may look at a king, it’s also true that a virus will be as happy infecting a prince’s cells as yours or mine.

*

A woman with the main Covid systems was trying to get Covid tests sent for herself and her partner but was told they’d have to go to a test site because their identities couldn’t be verified. They have no car and were responsible enough not to take public transportation when they might be infectious, so they ended up going to a walk-in site 90 minutes away.

The reason she couldn’t get the tests sent, it turns out, is that she didn’t have much of a credit history, and the assumption is that people will order multiple home kits. And do what with them? No idea. You can’t process them without a lab, so I doubt they’re worth much on the street.

The woman was on the electoral roll and had a bank account and utility bills in her name, so she could prove her existence in the world, but not in the specified way.

Anna Miller, from Doctors of the World, questioned whether setting this limitation solved a problem that didn’t exist, and in the process locked out people with minimal credit history, “people whose financial situations tend to be organised by other people in a family”–young adults, the elderly, and women, not to mention people with low incomes.

*

The government has backed down in the face of Marcus Rashford, a twenty-something football player, over a million signatures on a petition, and many individuals and businesses: It has agreed to provide low-income kids in England–the ones who’d normally get free school lunches–with lunches over the Christmas holiday

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have already committed to do this. Only England was digging its heels in, and over the last holiday, called half term (don’t ask),it left them lunchless. At a time when so many people’s incomes have disappeared and people are turning to food shelves in large numbers, small businesses filled the gap in endless, often touching, ways, some out of their own pockets and some with the help of customer contributions. 

They’ve shamed the government into doing the right thing.