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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

 

Coffee mugs and vaccines: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Let’s not go into the details of the government’s plan to jump-start the British economy. Let’s talk instead about the serious stuff: The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, presented his budget sitting at a desk the size of Ohio with a computer in front of him and rows of identically bound books behind him, looking at a printout, pen in hand as if he’s about to take three zeros away from a whole bunch of programs and add one to a bunch of other, worthier ones.

Have I built up enough suspense yet?

So there he is, presenting himself to the nation as the guy we can trust to save our asses from looming economic disaster, and what does he have on the corner of his desk? A mug. 

No big deal, you say? I’d have said the same thing, but some wiseacre spotted that it’s a £180 mug. The kind that keeps your beverage at exactly the temperature you set it to. 

“Our smart mug,” the copy on the mug’s website drones, “allows you to set an exact drinking temperature and keeps it there for up to three hours, so your coffee is never too hot, or too cold.”

And the promotional copy comes with a spare comma at no extra charge. Bonus points if you can spot it.

It’s good to be reminded that the country’s being led by people who understand how ordinary folks live.

The identically bound books? Did he buy them wholesale because they make an impressive backdrop? 

Nah, that’s too cynical even for me. I would never plant that thought in your head.

Irrelevant photo: a stone age monument.

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Okay, I shouldn’t exaggerate. The mug doesn’t really cost £180. It costs £179.95, but by the time they add shipping and handling–hell, I figured we’d be somewhere in the neighborhood.

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Drive-in comedy clubs have opened in London parking lots, allowing you to go to a live (sort of) show without risking the spread of the virus. You park, you tune your radio to whatever they tell you to tune it to, and you watch someone perform standup on a big screen. If you’d like to laugh, you honk your horn to set that tone of communal experience that’s so important in live theater. 

You’re welcome to laugh as well, but you’re less likely to want to, because something about hearing other people laugh makes us laugh. If other people are laughing, our bodies decide, we must be hearing something funny. We’re herd animals. It’s the same mechanism that sets whole fields full of cows laughing at the same time.

FYI: In British, a parking lot is a car park. In American, a car park is a parking lot. In the rest of the world, I’m out of my depth so I’ll shut up. 

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The government missed another coronavirus testing target. Does anyone care anymore? Nah. We just tell each other, “Well, at least they’re still setting targets. That means they’re trying, right?”

The correct answer to that is, “Right.” It makes us feel so much better.

This target was about getting test results to people. By the end of June, 100% were supposed to get toe people in 24 hours. Or–why be misers?–possibly more than 100% Instead, they managed 54.9% by July 1. But hey, close enough. They both involve numbers. And months. So the will was there.

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The government has finally extended testing to asymptomatic workers whose  jobs put them in contact with lots of people–folks like cab drivers, pharmacists, and cleaners. 

What took the government so long? Good question. Without testing asymptomatic people, we’re not likely to get ahead of this beast.

But I don’t really give you a full picture here. I focus on the fuckups and the bad decisions. That’s partly because they infuriate me and partly because they’re easy to make fun of. And the government makes so many of them. Wouldn’t I be ungrateful not to enjoy that bounty?

In spite of the incompetence this government’s so good at, cases are going down by somewhere between 2% and 5% a day. Assuming, of course, that anyone knows what the numbers are given how limited testing’s been. 

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It looks like Britain will tell the European Union that it doesn’t want to be part of an EU corona virus vaccine-buying plan. According to a House of Commons committee, that’s because Britain refused to pay the EU some money this year. According to government ministers, though, it’s because Britain can get just as good a deal on its own. Besides, the EU plan would limit the number of doses it could get, would be slower than going it alone, and the grapes were sour anyway.

We’ll be fine.

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Enough about Britain. Let’s hear from New York.

A Manhattan branch of the upscale (I think–I haven’t been there) food market Trader Joe’s has had long lines outside since the start of the pandemic, and people on the line do what people do these days when they have to wait: They talk on their phones. Loudly. Driving the people who live in the building (or possibly buildings, but we only know about one–and by we, of course, I mean me) behind them nuts, because let’s face it, most of those conversations are dull as ditchwater and even the ones that aren’t, you know, sometimes you just want to sleep in, or have your own conversation, or think your own thoughts.

So being New Yorkers, the people in one building took action: They copied down parts of the conversations they overheard, put them on signs, and hung them out their windows. 

“Stacey,” one read. “Shut up. No one cares you are getting more frozen berries for your epic smoothies.”

They change some of the names, but there’s no guarantee.

“You know what Jaclyn!? I think he IS cheating on you.”

“Hey Christopher, we can hear that Match, Tinder, Bumble and maybe Grindr have not been doing you justice in these times.”

You can find more on Instagram: @traderjoeslineUWS.

Has it make people shut up? Given how many signs there are, I’d guess not, but it’s made everyone who lives in the building happier.

Boris Johnson’s minders, & other pandemic and Black Lives Matter news from Britain

Somebody in government let the prime minister out on his own and before anyone could shut him down he’d blamed care homes for the nearly 20,000 Covid-19 deaths on their premises.

“Too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way they could have,” Boris Johnson said. 

All the predictable hell broke loose, along with reminders that: Care homes hadn’t been able to get protective gear. What guidelines they were given were unclear. They couldn’t get either staff or patients tested for the virus. Agency staff–that’s British for temporary workers–spread infections between homes because (guess what) they couldn’t get tested. The government rejected a proposal to lock down care homes before the infection entered. 

And did I mention that 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested?

Sorry, I meant to mention it. It’s a detail. It slipped my mind.

As soon as Johnson was bundled back out of sight, a government spokesperson said, “The PM was pointing out that nobody knew what the correct procedures were because the extent of asymptomatic transmission was not known at that time.”

Which sounds almost exactly like what Johnson said if you took away his words and replaced them with other, more coherent words on a slightly different subject.

FYI: Asymptomatic transmission was known at that time, and at several other times, but let’s not pretend we’re talking about reality here.

Johnson’s minders are under strict instructions not to let him wander loose that way, but you know what it’s like. They can’t keep an eye on him every minute of every day. And he is the prime minister, so he gets to give the orders, at least when Dominic Cummings is out of the office.

They don’t have an easy job.

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Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker.Not an actual one, you understand. A flower by that name.

The health minister has said that in all but  “certain circumstances” the government will be scrapping free parking for National Health Service staff members once the pandemic eases. No one’s told us yet what he really meant to say, but the shit is flying thick and fast. By tomorrow, someone should step in to explain that he really meant there’s been some concern about people parking on the white lines that divide their spaces and would they please exercise a bit more care.

Clapping for NHS workers, which the top government ministers did dutifully on many a Thursday, doesn’t cost anything, but it did have an unfortunately way of focusing the nation’s attention on NHS staff. And the next thing you know, people are looking asking why it’s been so long since they got a pay raise. And why they were charged for parking in the first place? 

It’s not easy, placating an entire country.

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The committee of the Morris Federation–an organization of morris dancing groups–has written to its members calling for a halt to the use of blackface.

One strand of morris dancing has a tradition of appearing in blackface. No one’s sure when or how that started, and some dancers argue that it isn’t racist, it came out of the dancers’ need to disguise themselves. Other dancers have stopped arguing about origins and dropped it.

The committee writes:

Our traditions do not operate in a vacuum. . . . We must recognise that full-face black or other skin tone makeup is a practice that has the potential to cause deep hurt.

“Morris is a living tradition and it is right that it has always adapted and evolved to reflect society. . . .  We welcome the fact that many long-standing teams who used to wear full-face black makeup have chosen to use masks, alternative colours, or other forms of disguise.  We now believe we must take further steps to ensure the continued relevance and inclusivity of the tradition.”

They’ll be asking the group’s annual general meeting not to renew the membership of teams that continue to use blackface.

An annual general meeting? It’s a British thing. All you have to do is say AGM and everyone will know what you mean. It’s an–um, well, it’s complicated. It’s a general meeting. Held annually. And you have to have one or your right to call yourself an organization will be revoked. That’s enforced, with no mercy and no appeal, by the laws of physics, a handful of which apply only in Britain.

My thanks to @amuddleofmorris for keeping me up to date on this. 

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I keep promising myself that I won’t report on coronavirus studies, possibilities, and assorted carrots dangling in front of us as we look for a way out of the hall of Covid mirrors. Most of them will come to nothing. That too is enforced, with no appeal, by the laws of physics. 

They’re ruthless bastards, those laws of physics.

Then I see a mention of another promising study or three and I break my promise. Because promises aren’t governed by law. And because we all need shreds of hope as we stumble through, bumping our noses into exits that turn out to be more damn mirrors.

So, here’s what I’ve found. I don’t promise that any of them will ultimately work, but they might. They just might.

1. A proposal to try the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine against the coronavirus in the hope that it will reduce lung inflammation and sepsis, two of the body’s most dangerous responses to the disease.

2. A synthetic antibody that may be able to neutralize Covid-19, both preventing any initial infection and helping people who’ve become infected to recover. Basically, it works as a decoy, drawing virus particles away from cells that could become infected. It was developed in mouse models. 

Mouse models? They’re improbably good-looking mice. The scientists give them the drug and photographers take pictures.

The less than great news is that if it works it would have to be injected into the bloodstream every two to four weeks.

They’re working toward human trials.

3. A test of canakinumab, a drug no one can pronounce that’s used to treat juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It damps down the body’s immune response and could prevent the cytokine storm–the immune overreaction–that occurs in some severe cases.

I was going to say it works by being so hard to pronounce that the disease goes into a state of paralysis, but I was afraid someone would believe me.

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Madrid’s Teatro Real became the first European theater to stage a live production (as far as I know, which isn’t all that far; it’s a big continent) since the continent locked down. That doesn’t include the concert that was staged in Barcelona for an audience of live plants. That one’s in a category of its own. 

The Madrid production was Verdi’s La Traviata.

How’d they do it? They doubled the size of the orchestra pit so the musicians could keep a safe (we hope) distance from each other. The intermission lasted forty minutes so everything could be disinfected. The conductor was behind a plastic screen. The production was semi-staged, presumably to keep the singers at a distance from each other. And the audience wore masks and was half the usual size.

The production opened with a moment of silence for the victims of the virus and a statement from journalist Iñaki Gabilondo: “Nothing is simple now, including being here tonight. “ 

My thanks to Max Burrows for sending me a link to this article.

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If you’re still holding out for herd immunity to protect us from Covid-19, prepare to accept a lot of dead bodies and damaged survivors along the way, because we’re nowhere close. A large study in Spain, which was hit hard by the virus, found that only 5.2% of the population has antibodies. The standard estimate is that 60% would need antibodies before you could talk about herd immunity.

If–and it’s a big if–anyone develops immunity to the virus. That hasn’t been established. We may, we may not. 

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A group of 239 scientists from 32 countries urged the World Health Organization to give more emphasis to the use of masks and to acknowledge that the virus is spread not just by the big droplets we breathe out but by the aerosols we breathe out along with them–those tiny, near-weightless bits of breath that surf the air currents more gracefully (and more to the point, for longer) than their clunky droplet cousins.

WHO seems to be taking it on board. Its latest statement says there’s emerging evidence of aerosol transmission but it’s not definitive.

If the 239 scientists are right, it means that we may need to do more than keep two (or one, or however many) meters (or yards) apart. It means that especially in crowded, badly ventilated space, we need masks. 

Yeah, you too, cowboy. 

And there’s some evidence that wearing a mask does give the wearer a bit of protection. Which is a bit better than no protection.

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York Minster’s been the center of a debate over whether a statue of a Roman emperor, Constantine, should be removed because of his support of slavery. Two newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, have run articles. Comedians and politicians have tweeted in the statue’s defense. It’s Black Lives Matter gone insane, they say.

The only problem is that no one proposed getting rid of it.

“We have not received a single complaint about Emperor Constantine’s statue,” a minster spokesperson said. “Nothing is happening: there is no discussion, action, intention or even thoughts about it.”

It’s disappointing. Just when you get a good lungful of outrage going–

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That’s it for the moment. Stay well. I don’t have so many readers that any of you are expendable. 

Drinking while drunk, driving while black, advertising while fake: It’s the news from Britain

England’s pubs reopened, and either there was chaos or the predictions of mass disorder turned out to be exaggerated. It depends on what papers you read. But where’s the fun in people behaving sensibly? Let’s talk about what disorder there was.

The predictions were that drunks not only wouldn’t social distance but couldn’t if they wanted to, and to at least some extent that was true. A policeman from Southampton, said he’d dealt with “naked men,  happy drunks, angry drunks, fights, and more angry drunks.”   

In London, Soho was packed. “Barely anyone was wearing masks and nobody respected social distancing,” a store manager said. “To be honest, with that many people on one street it was physically impossible.”

A few days later, three pubs announced that someone who’d been there had come down with the virus and they  were closing temporarily. Three out of however many pubs there are in England isn’t bad, but it doesn’t make me want to go out. 

People had to leave contact information, so they’re able, at least, to get in touch with everyone who’d been in.

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Screamingly irrelevant photo: The white cliffs of–nope, not Dover. They’re in Dorset, near Swannage.

Here in Cornwall, we’re meeting the onslaught of visitors with mixed feelings. The economy depends on them. So jobs, businesses, all that stuff: We need them. Our health, though? It does better without them. Compared to many parts of the country, we haven’t had that many cases.

Our neighbor, who cuts lawns for second homes and holiday cottages, was calling the first day outsiders could legally stay overnight in the county (we won’t discuss the illegal ones) Spiky Saturday. Someone else tweeted a photo of three people holding up a sign on a Cornish highway bridge. It said, “Turn around and fuck off.”

The country government estimated the influx at 70,000 to 80,000 people. Who all ignored the sign. 

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In case you’re wondering what Britain’s Black Lives Matter is fussing about, two black former Olympic athletes were stopped by the police in their own neighborhood, and handcuffed, while their three-month-old son was in the car. The police claim they were stopped because the car had blacked-out windows and they were driving on the wrong side of the street. 

The couple, Bianca Williams and Ricardo dos Santos, say they were stopped because they’re black and were driving a Mercedes. Dos Santos said the police have stopped him  as many as 15 times since 2017, when they bought the car. They weren’t charged with driving on the wrong side of the road, which makes me (cynic that I am) think they probably weren’t, and tinted car windows aren’t illegal, although there’s a limit on how dark they can be. 

After a forty-five minute search, they were let go. 

The police Directorate of Professional Standards said they’ve reviewed footage of the incident and don’t see any problem with the officers’ conduct. So that solves that.

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From the Ministry of Embarrassing Decisions comes this story:

The government launched an ad campaign urging people to “enjoy summer safely,” which disappoints those of us who’d planned to spend it bungee jumping off London Bridge at the end of rubber bands and ending up in a plague-infested hospital–

Sorry, where was I? A government campaign urging us toward unobjectionable behavior used a photo of a baker from Haxby, near York. It ran in newspapers with the headline “Welcome back to freshly baked bread.”

Why freshly baked bread? Bread–stale, fresh, and every state in between–was available throughout Britain’s lockdown. Probably more of it than before the virus hit, since with cafes and restaurants closed bakeries had more bread than usual and the number of newly converted home bakers exceeded the number of men, women, children, and dogs living in Britain. On top of which, the government didn’t invent the fresh baked bread and not many people will be convinced that they did, so why are they acting as if they did? But never mind. That wasn’t the fault of the Ministry of Embarrassing Decisions. The ad’s text came from the Undersecretary of World-Beating Pandemic Screwups. All the Ministry of Embarrassing Decisions contributed was the photo, which was of a baker, Phil Clayton, who not only has no use for the way the government’s handled the pandemic, he’s a long-time Labour and Corbyn supporter, a Brexit opponent, and known for stenciling political slogans onto his bread. He’s demanding that they pull the ads and pay him a modeling fee.

I don’t know if they pulled the ad or not, but I know I couldn’t find it. On the other hand, I had no trouble finding multiple articles about it. 

The bread looks delicious. Especially the loaf that says “F*ck Boris.”

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The British government has announced a large support package for arts organizations, but film and theater director Sam Mendes, together with Netflix, has set up an emergency fund for theater freelancers who haven’t received any government support and are at the “breaking point.” The idea is to get £1,000 grants to them as quickly as possible. 

There’s been some government support for people whose jobs disappeared, but it hasn’t covered everybody and there doesn’t seem to be any governmental interest in identifying the gaps and filling them. 

The fund was set up after Mendes called on Netflix to use some of its pandemic windfall to support the performing arts. It donated £500,000. The money’s expected to run out quickly but the fund’s hoping for additional donations. 

Sorry, I haven’t found anything funny about that, but good news stories are hard to find, so I figured it was worth including.

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Which?, a group that offers consumer advice and advocacy and claims the question mark as part of its name, decided to test how hard they’d have to work to pay Lord Google and Facebook to run fake ads. The answer is, not hard at all. They set up a website claiming that a nonexistent brand of water could help you “lose weight, improve your mood and feel better.” 

Yes, it both improved your mood and made you feel better. The ordinary stuff–you inow, the stuff that comes out of your tap–might do one or the other, but never both.

A second site offered health and hydration “pseudo-advice.” I’d love to quote the pseudo-advice, but I can’t find any of it. Still, the internet’s awash with pseudo-advice. Ask Lord Google about weight loss and you’ll find more advice than one human being could follow in a lifetime. If you want to, you can lose so much weight that when you step on the scales you’ll register in the negative numbers. 

We didn’t need to provide any proof that our business actually existed,” Which? said. “In fact, it took barely an hour for our fake advert applications to be approved by Google, with no further input required from our fake company. . . .

“Our first Facebook ad targeted accounts that Facebook had deemed to be UK females aged 18-65 with interests including ‘health and wellbeing’ and ‘water’. That may seem fairly reasonable. However, we were also able to target those with the associated terms ‘extreme weight loss’ and ‘defeat depression’. Our second ad targeted US women, with interests including ‘insomnia’, ‘suicide prevention’ and ‘panic’. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see how having these sorts of ‘interests’ attached to individual accounts could lead to people whose search history shows them to be in a vulnerable position being hand-picked by scammers wishing to prey on those vulnerabilities.”

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A Colombian tree frog turned up in Wales, having ridden there in a bunch of bananas. A staff member took it home and got it to an animal center. 

It’s doing just fine, thanks. Amphibians can slow down their metabolism, and that let it survive the trip without food or water. The animal center has put in a special order for crickets.

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This is a followup to the story about the Starbucks barista, Lenin Gutierrez, who asked a customer to wear a mask only to be cursed at and blasted on social media for it. A stranger set up a GoFundMe page for the barista.

According to ComicSands, “It’s gotten over $100k for Lenin, who used to teach dance to children before the pandemic. Lenin has said he will use the money to further his education, continue dancing and give back to the community by launching a community dance program to teach children who could not afford lessons.”

The woman who started this mess is now demanding at least half of the money and threatening to sue him if she doesn’t get it. And while she’s at it, she wants to sue GoFundMe. But before any of that, someone set up a GoFundMe page for her–to redress the defamation and slander against her. I found a link to it , but the page seemed to have been taken down. 

Since ComicSands isn’t what you’d call a news site, so I thought I’d better look around for confirmation. Most newspapers have lost interest in the story by now, but I did find something in the Mail, a trashy newspaper that I also don’t trust, but it is at least a newspaper. Same story. It seems to be true.

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The president of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan, has said that wearing masks protects both other people and the wearer. He says everyone should be wearing them in crowded public spaces. 

According to Paul Edelstein of the University of Pennsylvania (which, just to be clear, is not in the U.K.) the evidence that they protect other people is clearer all the time but there’s also some evidence that they protect the wearer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The city authorities generally take it down.

And someone generally puts it back on. 

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

And by us, of course, I mean me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

No answers.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we’re not doing that.

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Irrelevant photo: St. Nectan’s Kieve

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

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

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

It was a rare moment of honesty in political discourse.

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

And the check is in the mail.

*

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

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

“International what?” Donald Trump replied. 

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

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

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

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

For how long?

They didn’t say.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

They also might not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: a thistle

What would you do?

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Whoopy doo.

Irrelevant photo: Fields in Cornwall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As far as I can tell, he was right.  

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

They know how to have a party in Liverpool. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

The scarring isn’t reversible. 

*

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

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

Happy, happy, happy. 

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

The Ministry of Impulsive Decisions reports the news from Britain

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

How can we tell that they’re advanced?

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, planning is this government’s strength.

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

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

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

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

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

The Department of Relentless Optimism is surprised by this.

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

Which ones, the interviewer asked.

Brazil, he said.

Could he name any others? the interviewer asked.

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

Yes, she asked, but what others?

[….science….]

[….science…]

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

*

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

Their lungs, he says, can be completely unrecognizable.

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

The Department of Silver Linings has taken note.

*

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

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