The new Covid variant and other pandemic news

Remember when Boris Johnson promised Britain a world-beating Covid test system? Or a world-beating something else. It doesn’t matter what it was going to be exactly. What matters is that we were going to beat the world, so take that, world.

Well, we seem to have developed a world-beating new strain of Covid. Yay us! It may spread more rapidly than the old ones. Tell me we’re not the envy of the world.

Mind you, it also may not transmit more rapidly. That’s still up for grabs. The scientists say they have moderate certainty that it does. But the mutations affect a part of the virus that’s likely to matter. In the lab, it looks like it might set that world-beating speed record. 

Notice the multiple wiggle-words there: may, moderate certainty, likely, might. Scientists don’t like to commit themselves in the absence of evidence, bless their white-coated hearts. It’s not time to panic until they finish working on this. What it is is time to be cautious.

Irrelevant photo: heather

What’s known is that the new strain is out-performing other versions of the virus in the southeast of the country. That’s where the world-beating business comes in. Go, Virus!

But viruses get lucky sometimes. They’re in the right place at the right time, and it makes them look like champions, but only because they’ve latched onto a set of humans who are particularly helpful. So we don’t know yet if what’s happening is due to the virus or to human behavior. 

In the meantime, the sensible thing to do is assume we’ve got a world-beater on our hands and go into deeper lockdown.

Which we’re doing, sort of. As of Sunday, the southeast of the country went into lockdown, with socializing limited to Christmas day. I’m simplifying. If you need the details, you either have them already or need to get your news from some sensible source. As I remind myself often when I see some bit of important news that I just can’t wedge in here, I am not a newspaper, I just play one on the internet.

So: deeper local lockdown except for Christmas day, and Christmas day, fortunately, is safe: The virus does its celebrating on Christmas eve and it’s too hung over to spread on Christmas day.

The lockdown was announced some hours before it took effect, which set off a scramble to get out of London, bequeathing us pictures and videos of socially undistanced trains headed over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, bearing tidings of comfort and infection. 

I do love a holiday.

There’s no evidence that the new strain is more deadly and no indication that the current vaccines won’t work against it, so it’s not time to panic completely. The dangers are that (a) it may spread more rapidly and (b) it may continue to mutate, requiring the vaccines to be tweaked regularly, the way flu vaccines are every year. 

But we’re not there yet. 

Again, don’t panic. There’s always time to do that later.

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In the meantime, although it has nothing to do with Covid (except to complicate a bad situation), Santa’s bringing us Brexit, with or without a deal on January 1. The negotiators are still meeting and they’ve got to be sick of hearing each other’s voices by now. A couple of days ago, trucks were backed up for five miles in Kent, trying to reach the Eurotunnel, with similar lines on the other side. And that was not just before Brexit but before France halted freight from Britain in response to the Covid variant. 

Covid news snippets  from the rest of the world

In a survey, 71% of the US public said they’d either definitely or probably get a Covid vaccine. That’s up from 63% in September.

And Covid is now the leading cause of death in the US–equal to fifteen daily plane crashes, with each one carrying 150 people. 

Those two statistics might actually be related. But the second one doesn’t include excess deaths–the people who don’t get counted because of reporting delays, miscodings, and non-Covid deaths that are caused by the pandemic’s disruptions. Add those in and the numbers could be as much as 20% higher.

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Latvia has introduced an automatic Covid testing booth. It eliminates the risk to medical workers who’d otherwise have to test people. A robot arm hands you your vial, you give it your sample, and it gets back to you within 24 hours.

I don’t think I ever used the word vial as much as I have this year.

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A small US study says schools aren’t necessarily a big factor in the spread of Covid, but the small print is says that this depends on everyone wearing masks and keeping six feet apart, and on testing anyone who’s been in contact with anyone who might be infected. That would allow a school to stay open unless there’s an outbreak.

So yes, do read the small print.

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A French study says that socializing, eating out, and going to bars and gyms seem to be more dangerous activities than using public transportation or shopping. 

That’s not absolute proof. All they can say is the statistically they’re associated with a greater risk. No one can spot the moment when the virus jumps from one person to the next. Still, it’s worth knowing.

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A story on Covid and holiday events in Fredericksburg, Texas, included the following quote: “Everyone knows Covid is a risk, but if I want to go lick the handrails at the hospital, that is my God-given right.”

If someone could send me the relevant passage from the Bible, I’d be grateful. Not because I run my life by what it says in there, but I really would love to know.

Covid, Christmas, and other pandemic news

After a bit of four-nation arm wrestling, the British government decided to stand by its decision to loosen Covid restrictions for Christmas. Santa Claus, they told us a while back, was bringing everybody the chance to travel around the country and join three households together for up to five days. 

Don’t read the fine print, they said. It’s Christmas. 

Well, Santa hasn’t changed the present he’s bringing but some spoilsport enlarged the small print and now the government’s asking everyone not to actually do what they said we could look forward to doing. That is, we can still do it, they won’t tell us not to, but they’d really appreciate it if we didn’t.

Really, really appreciate it.

The tone of the press conferences has changed from a Santa-ish look-what-I-brought-you to a Pandora-ish don’t-look-inside-the-box.

Government guidance now says, “Think very carefully about the risks of forming a bubble. . . . [A bubble? That’s a  theoretically impermeable group of people that you seal yourself into, sharing love, germs, risk, and a commitment not to so much as turn your thoughts to anyone outside the bubble.] Everybody in a Christmas bubble is responsible for taking clear steps to prevent catching and spreading the virus.” 

If you’ll allow me to translate that for you, it means, If this bubble wheeze doesn’t work, it’s your own silly fault. We thought the British people had better sense than to do what we said would be safe.

Irrelevant photo: A gerbera daisy. Feel uplifted? Good. Now let’s get depressed again.

But we should go back to that four-nation arm wrestling: It’s a particularly British sport involving Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England. And whatever you’ve heard, four-way arm wrestling is not simple, either physically or politically. See, the British government doesn’t speak for Britain on this issue. It speaks for England, which doesn’t have its own dedicated government, although the other three pieces of the United Kingdom do.

Yeah, I know. It’s complicated, but never mind that for now. 

Wales, speaking for Wales, bailed out of the hoped-for four-nation love fest and issued a narrower set of guidelines. Even so, it expects to need tighter restrictions after the holidays. 

Scotland’s recommending that people stay home, but if they do mix it suggests they mix for only one day, not five. But it’s just a suggestion, not a rule and not a law. 

Northern Ireland’s expecting to tighten the rules after Christmas to make up for whatever Christmas unleashes. 

Assorted experts are holding their aching heads in their hands. For the sake of efficiency, we’ll quote just one, a (very rare) joint BMJ/Health Service Journal editorial, which said, “When the government devised the current plans to allow household mixing over Christmas it had assumed the Covid-19 demand on the NHS would be decreasing. But it is not, it is rising. . . . The government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn. It should now reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing and instead extend the tiers over the five-day Christmas period in order to bring numbers down in the advance of a likely third wave.”

In case anyone wants to know, what I want for Christmas is for the people I love to be alive and well next Christmas. That’s not meant to exclude anyone. If I can be greedy, I’ll expand that to people I like and to people I don’t even know. 

I’d also like to include myself, if that’s okay. 

 

Vaccinations

In the first week of vaccinations, 137,000 people in Britain got the first shot of the vaccine.

It’s Americans who talk about getting a shot. The British call it a jab. Both of them are unpleasant words. I never heard the underlying aggression until I heard the act of sticking a needle in a person’s arm called by something that surprised me.

Anyway, only 8 million or so people are in line ahead of me–give or take a few hundred thousand.

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Vaccinating all of Britain will cost something in the neighborhood of £12 billion according to a National Audit Office report, which also says the Public Health England (PHE) complained early on that it, along with its extensive experience in vaccination programs, were being locked out of key decisions. 

It was finally allowed through the door in September. 

Meg Hillier, who chairs the Commons public accounts committee, said (diplomatically) that although the government was right to bet on several different vaccines, the accountability arrangements involved were “highly unusual.” 

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A study reports that a fifth of the world’s population is unlikely to get a chance at any Covid vaccine until 2022. And even that depends on how many of the vaccines in development turn out to work and on their manufacturers hitting maximum production

Back in November, assorted countries had reserved 7.48 billion vaccine doses from 13 manufacturers. Just over half of those doses will go to the 14% of the world’s population that lives in high income countries.

And the 85% of the population that lives in the rest of the world? 

Um, yeah.

True, those aren’t the only vaccines–48 are in clinical trials–but my best guess is that those are the ones that are furthest along in the process. 

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An unprecedented attempt at global cooperation in the face of the pandemic saw a number of countries sign up to the COVAX initiative, which involves richer countries buying vaccines through COVAX so that some of the money goes to getting vaccines to poorer countries. By participating, richer countries would both get access to a portfolio of vaccines and also negotiate as a bloc, bringing the price down

Unfortunately, someone (or possibly everyone) seems to have snagged their toenails in the threads, and that could mean billions of people getting no vaccine until (new source, new date; sorry) 2024–or so says a leaked document, although the World Health Organization, one of the COVAX initiative’s backers, is still making optimistic sounds about it.

The problems in the initiative are complicated enough that if I try to explain them we’ll all sink, but they involve some of the cheaper and easier-to-transport vaccines making slower-than-ideal progress, richer countries prioritizing their own needs (which pushes the prices up), and a lack of money for the initiative.

Go back to the yellow flower. It’ll cheer you back up.

 

Testing

The much-promoted launch of what the British government calls a test and release scheme has been suitably chaotic. 

What’s test and release? 

Well, back when I worked as a copy editor for a hunting and fishing magazine, the phrase catch and release popped up in every third article. It’s the noble act of hauling a fish out of a water by its lip, pulling the hook out of the hole you’ve made, and putting the fish back in the river, all for your own damn amusement, since the fish doesn’t find the process at all amusing. Yes, the fish survives as long as you didn’t hook it too deep and if you didn’t exhaust it and if you remembered to wet your hands before you touched it. But the fish isn’t what you’d call a willing participant.

I agree: Every vegetarian should work for a hunting and fishing magazine for at least five minutes. I lasted until the magazine sank under the weight of its own advertising department, which rumor insisted was run by the owner’s sons.

Anyway, that’s not what test and release is. No hooks, no lines, not even any anglers. I only threw it in because I hear its echoes every time I read about test and release. And, of course, for its sheer irrelevance.

The test and release plan involves travelers arriving in Britain having a Covid test that would shorten their quarantine. 

Hooray. Everyone wins.

Except, it turns out, the people who gambled on it working. A man traveling from the Netherlands to see his mother–who, irrelevantly, has dementia–took the Eurotunnel to London and found himself stuck in a hotel room not for the five days he’d counted on but for what will be either the full quarantine period or damn close to it. 

First he couldn’t find the list of approved test providers. Then he found it but couldn’t book a test with any of them. Not one. The scheme, he said, was “just hot air.”

I know. You’re shocked. So am I. Who’d have expected such a thing from this government?

Eleven providers got government approval. Airports, which already had testing centers up and running, weren’t among them. Instead, you have to get hold of one of the approved providers (assuming that you can, and assuming they have the capacity to deal with you) and ask for a test to be mailed to you. Then you mail it back. (Does that mean breaking your quarantine? Probably. Don’t worry about it. It’s Christmas. It’ll all be fine.)

You’ll get your results within 48 hours–I think of the company receiving it, not of you sending it. That would probably cut your quarantine from ten days to eight, although the program was promoted as cutting it to five. 

An airport source said (with only mild incoherence but impressive accuracy), “The rapid test is not yet approved but would cut self-isolation to five days–that’s what we hoped would be the situation. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t even managed to get a list of who could do it in eight days. Given the small number of passengers traveling now, you’ve got to question the procurement.”

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The U.S. has approved an over-the-counter Covid test. It costs around $30, uses a swab, and gives a result in twenty minutes. Initially, supplies will be limited. 

It’s most accurate in people who have symptoms but it’ll miss some cases in people who don’t. In other words, if it tells you that you don’t have Covid, you don’t get to run out and hug everyone, because, damn it, you could be either pre-symptomatic or an asymptomatic carrier. 

As I read recently, testing alone does nothing. It’s what you do with the information once you have it. I’m not sure quite what this test will contribute to the fight against Covid.

 

Triumphantly irrelevant news

In the spirit of irrelevance that animates us here at Notes, I offer you the following news item:

The mayor of Atlantic City, New Jersey, is auctioning off the chance to blow up a former Trump casino. The city hopes to raise upwards of $1 million and will donate it to the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City. 

The casino closed in 2014 and is already partially demolished. The auction’s winner will get to press the button that makes whatever’s left go ka-blooey.

The pandemic update from Britain: money, vaccines, and killing the virus

With Italy’s Covid death toll rising (it just beat Britain to Europe’s top spot), a bar in Rome banned any conversation about Covid, viruses, and lockdown. 

“We’ve been talking about the same thing for months,” manager Cristina Mattioli said. “It’s not at all about denial or not understanding the difficulty of what the world is going through, but just about giving yourself a break.”

They don’t throw people out if they break the rules, but they do show them a poster with a list of alternative topics they might want to consider.

“Customers found it funny,” Mattioli said, “with some saying they could finally have a coffee in peace. They started to have other conversations. What was also lovely is that it gave a cue to customers who don’t know each other to start chatting. Yes, we have to maintain a physical distance, but we can still chat to each other.”

I’m not ready to do that here at Notes, but I do know a reader or three who’s bailed out of the Covid posts. I understand the impulse. If I could bail out on the whole damn virus, I’d be happy to. I’m sure it’s a learning experience and all that, but ignorance wasn’t all that bad, really, was it?

Irrelevant photo: a day lily. Each flower blooms for a single day. We could spin all kinds of metaphors about the transience of all things, including beauty and including the pandemic (I hope), but we’ll skip that. It’s a flower. I needed a photo to fill the space.

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An Australian vaccine, the University of Queensland/CSL vaccine, has been abandoned because it set off false positives on HIV tests. It didn’t give anyone HIV–that’s the beast that causes AIDS–but somehow it made them look, on tests, as if it had. Which, given that HIV is still out there in the world and people do still get it, and more to the point if you have it you’ll damn well want to do something about it–

Yeah. You’d want a false positive only slightly less than a real one. So we have one less vaccine in the works, but many others still in development.

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The Peruvian trial of a Chinese vaccine was suspended after a volunteer developed neurological problems–trouble moving his arms (in two articles) and weakness in his legs (in one, which said that was among other symptoms, so these may not contradict each other). That “could correspond to a condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome,” the National Institute of Health said. They’re investigating to see if it’s related to the vaccine or has some other explanation.

The vaccine’s also being tested in Argentina, Russia, and Saudi Arabia–as far as I’ve read without this happening.

Peru has one of the world’s highest per capita Covid death rates.

China has four other vaccines in development, some of which are already being used on an emergency basis.

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British and Russian scientists will test a combination of the Oxford and Sputnik vaccines to see if that gives better protection than either one singly. The trials will start at the end of the year.

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Barcelona gave rapid Covid testing a serious challenge by throwing a free five-hour concert but only allowing people in if they tested negative–on the spot. People danced, bumped up against each other, hugged, and generally did things we wouldn’t have found remotely shocking last year at this time. 

They used hand sanitizer and they (mostly) wore masks, except in one area where they could have a single free drink.

A control group with the same number of people didn’t get in. The researchers will keep an eye on both groups to see if one has a higher incidence of the virus than the other. If I see any more news about how this works out, I’ll let you know. 

Why is this worth doing? Because rapid tests miss a fairly high percent of Covid cases. It’s possible that those people aren’t highly infectious. It’s also possible that they are. It all sounds like Russian roulette to me, but then I’m a zillion years old, on the cautious end of the spectrum, and never did take my music loud. 

Besides, I wasn’t invited. I’m sure it was an oversight. 

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The issue of who’s contagious for how long is a live one. Britain’s cutting the quarantine period for people who’ve tested positive or who’ve been in contact with someone who positive. It’ll go from fourteen days to ten. The theory is that in the last few days only 1% to 2% of infected people can still pass on the virus.

That’s 1% to 2% too many for me, but see above about the cautious end of the spectrum.

People, they say, are most infectious in the day or two before they develop symptoms. 

I suspect cutting the quarantine period is also about hoping more people will respect it if there’s less to respect, although at least part of the problem comes from people not being able to afford time off work. That won’t be fixed by shaving off four days off the recommended time.

There’s talk of eliminating the blanket quarantine altogether for people who’ve been exposed to someone who tests positive, replacing it with daily testing, and only asking people to quarantine only if they test positive themselves. 

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A system that uses LED lights to emit ultraviolet radiation may be a quick, cheap way to eliminate Covid (and pretty much anything else) from indoor air systems. The snag is that you can’t use it in the presence of actual human beings–or, presumably, non-human beings. I’m not sure what it does to them–or us, more accurately–but probably something not unlike what it does to the virus.

The only way to use it would be in an air conditioning or ventilation system. 

A related use of ultraviolet light involves using conjugated polymers and oligomers (whatever they may be), which when activated by UV light almost completely kill the coronavirus. They can be added to masks, clothes, paint, even sprays. They don’t wash away–at least not with plain water–and don’t leave a toxic residue when they break down. 

They could also be used–and this may be a potential use or an immediate one; I’m not sure which–to combat colds, flu, low grades, and cakes that don’t rise properly.

Yes, we’re playing spot-the-exaggeration today. I got myself into deep water with something I thought was so obviously a joke that no one would believe it. Next thing I knew, someone had referenced my claim that Druids worshiped the Great Brussels Sprout. 

I’m sadder but wiser now. So yes, part of that paragraph is a joke. And yes, it’s very sad when you have to tell people you’re making jokes.

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Matt Hancock, Britain’s health minister, announced that a new Covid variant may be associated with a faster spread of the disease.

Notice the wiggle words there: may be; associated with. If you dig into the speech he made to a massively bored-looking House of Commons, he even said, “We don’t know . . . ” But he also said the new Covid variant was growing faster than the version that we’ve come to know and love.

He didn’t say that growing faster may not mean that it spreads more easily or that it makes people sicker, but it would’ve been true if he had. Measuring the danger by comparing the spread of the variants would be like kicking over two cans of paint, looking at the pools on the floor, and deducing that blue spreads faster than red. 

Never mind. What he said wasn’t exactly inaccurate but it was misleading enough to sow bits of panic here and there: Covid’s mutating! Help, help, a horrible heffalump. 

The New Scientist reports that researchers are skeptical. Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute said, “This is going to require rigorous assessment before it can be confirmed. New variant sure, functionally significant unlikely. Suspect it will be refuted or seriously questioned.”

Missing words in quote to be found under couch. Have gone free range. From whence they send the news that coronaviruses generally need more than one mutation to hide from a well primed immune system. A lot more than one mutation.

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What else is happening in Britain? Well, the BMJ reports that it hasn’t been able to get information on the financial interests of the doctors, scientists, and academics who give the government pandemic advice. Do they have conflicts of interest? Do they stand to benefit from companies with government contracts?

Dunno. 

At first, the government wouldn’t even release their names. They’ve now done that but refused to let the BMJ see the financial interest forms they’d filled out, although in the interest of complete transparency the government did release a blank copy of the form.

At least someone has a sense of humor. Or else no sense of humor. I can’t tell which.

Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser and head of its Vaccine Taskforce, is reported to have had £600,000 worth of shares in GlaxoSmithKline, which signed a vaccine deal with the government worth we don’t know how much.

Another member of the taskforce, John Bell of Oxford University—who also headed the National COVID Testing Scientific Advisory Panel and chaired the government’s new test approvals group—was reported to have £773,000 worth of shares in Roche, which had sold the government £13.5 million of antibody tests.

The government assures us that neither of them had any involvement in those deals, so it’s okay. 

And I assure you that any resemblance to individual persons, either living or dead, is purely coincidental. 

Bell may or may not also be part of the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. A press release said he was. A spokesperson said he wasn’t.

How long Covid immunity lasts, and other pandemic news from Britain

Since the start of the pandemic, 63 million of our battered planet’s inhabitants have been infected with Covid. So are they immune and can they run around bareback?

No one knows, although the occasional data-free politician says (loudly and proudly) that they are. Only a couple of reinfections have been documented, and signs of an immune response can be spotted for months after an infection, but that doesn’t exactly answer the question. We still don’t know if they could catch it a second time once their immune responses die back. We don’t know how long the immune response lasts. And we don’t know whether in spite of being able to fight off the virus they could go on to be a-symptomatic carriers, infecting other people.

Covid’s a coronavirus. So’s the common cold, and immunity to a cold doesn’t last long. On the other hand, SARS is also a coronavirus, and seventeen years after a person caught it their immune system will be ready to fight it off all over again. Covid could be in either camp or somewhere in between. Or it may have set up its camp in a whole different country than either of its relatives. No one knows what to expect from this particular coronavirus, and people who’ve had the disease are being advised to get vaccinated.

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

And people who get vaccinated are advised to wear a mask and keep their distance, because even with a vaccine-induced immunity, they could be carriers. No one knows yet.

We’re not likely to see what we so quaintly call normal for a while yet.

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I saw a summary recently of what the Great British Public asked Lord Google during the lockdown. It’s–

Excuse me while I look under the furniture and inside the microwave for a neutral word.

–it’s informative.

People asked how to cut their own hair, how to bake bread, how to make face masks and hand sanitizer, and how to cook Swedish meatballs, katsu curry, KFC-style chicken, and eels. 

Now, I’ll be the first vegetarian to admit that eating eels is no creepier than eating meatballs, but that doesn’t keep it from sounding creepier. People got interested in them, apparently, because I’m a Celebrity contestants were fed eels, presumably to gross out the participants, the viewers, and the crew. That doesn’t explain why it set off a rush on the poor damn creatures, but it seems to have.

People watch too much TV. And take it too seriously.

People also wanted to find someone who’d deliver afternoon tea. Or wine. Or compost. Or possibly all three together. 

They wanted song lyrics. 

Somewhere in all that you’ll find an insight into the soul of lockdown Britain. It was drunk, it had a bad haircut, it was on a do-it-yourself kick, and it watched too much TV, but it didn’t forget the beauty of afternoon tea. If only someone could bring it to the door, because after all that wine the eels got mixed up with the meatballs and the hand sanitizer got into the flour and no, we’re in no shape to make our own. 

And that reminds me of a song. The first word was I. Want to bet Lord Google can find it for us? 

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From the Joseph Rowntree Foundation comes news that the pandemic’s likely to push two million families into destitution. The foundation defines destitution as not being able to afford two or more of the following over the past month: shelter, food, heat, light, clothing that matches the season, or basic toiletries.

I’d have thought that not having one of those would be plenty, thanks, but I guess they’re making a distinction between garden variety poverty and complete destitution. Either way, we’re looking at a problem. 

This isn’t entirely the pandemic’s doing. It follows years of cuts to government benefits, and I bet we all know the justification for that without googling it: People who rely on government handouts are shiftless and lazy and cheats and worse than that they’re somebody other than us and they should all be out there working. If we just make living on benefits uncomfortable enough, they’ll get off their backsides, put their kids or their dying parents in the deep freeze and their disabilities in their back pockets and accept whatever underpaid job comes along, assuming one is out there to be found–or two or three three of them if need be. Then they can make ends meet as best they can. Or wrestle the ends until they’re as close as possible, anyway. Just like our grandparents so mythically did.

Truth in advertising: On one side of the family, my grandparents did do something along those lines. It’s one of the reasons they were socialists, since you ask. It doesn’t make an argument for someone else having to live that way.

I don’t want to rant about this–or I do, but not here. I also don’t want to ignore it. I’ts part of what’s happening in the country, so let’s acknowledge it. Some of us get to google Swedish meatballs and eels–and neither of them are luxuries–while other people line up at the food bank and if that sort of solves one problem for the moment they still don’t know what they’ll do about the rent and the electricity. 

Meanwhile, some of the people who financed the Brexit campaign are making money because the pound fell in response to the threat of a no-deal Brexit.

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Depressed? Oh, good. Then this is the time to look at a study from the University of Montreal on how the pandemic’s affected ordinary life. 

Do I know how to throw a party or what?

The study found that if people thought governmental messages about how to respond to the crisis were clear and coherent, then they assumed other people were following them. And the more they assumed other people were following them, the more likely they were to follow them. 

That led the researchers to recommend that government messages be clear and coherent. That may seem obvious, but it’ll surprise the inhabitants of 10 Downing Street and all the people who work there. Except possibly Larry the Cat, who is clear, coherent, and almost universally popular. He also kills mice.

The researchers also recommended that governments target their communications at the majority of people–the ones who follow the recommendations, not at the ones who don’t.

They didn’t say that government ministers and advisors should follow their own recommendations–silly people, they probably take that as a given–but it’s not something you can take for granted, can you, Mr. Cummings?

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A Geneva study of 700 Covid patients who weren’t hospitalized found that a third of them went on to develop long Covid–which they defined as still having symptoms (fatigue, loss of smell or taste, shortness of breath, coughs . . .) six weeks after they were diagnosed.

The group’s mean age was 43. That’s mean as in one form of an average, not mean as in 43 being inherently any nastier than any other age.

The researchers plan a follow-up at 7 and 12 months to see how the study participants are doing. At this point, no one seems to know how long long Covid is. 

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A study that followed over 100,000 British people reported that healthcare workers were seven times as likely to get a severe COVID-19 infection as people in other types of work. People working in social care and transportation were twice as likely. 

Black and Asian workers in what are being called non-essential jobs were more than 3 times as likely to develop a severe COVID infection as white non-essential workers, and Black and Asian essential workers were more than eight times as likely.

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Could we find some good news, please? 

You only had to ask. Researchers from the Open Bioeconomy Lab at the University of Cambridge, the Lab de Tecnología Libre at iBio/PUC Chile, the FreeGenes Project at Stanford University, and the synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks collaborated on a free online toolkit that will let labs in developing countries create their own Covid diagnostic and research tools.

According to John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, “The collapse of global cooperation [has] shoved Africa out of the diagnostics market. . . . African countries have funds to pay for reagents but cannot buy them.”

Or, as the article I lifted this information from put it, the supply chain is broken.

The open-source toolkit will allow scientists to develop tests that are fast, cheap, adapted to needs of local health systems, and easy to manufacture.

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A 91-year-old who got one of the earliest vaccine doses was interviewed by CNN and, inevitably, the reporter asked how he felt about it. 

Reporters always ask members of the public how they feel about something or other. Your entire block was destroyed by flying saucers? Well, how do you feel about that? We the Public are, apparently, no more than ambulatory masses of feelings, so what else can they ask?

May all the gods I don’t believe in help any reporter who asks me that.

“I don’t think I feel much at all,” Martin Kenyon said, “except that I hope that I’m not going to have the bloody bug now.”

It went viral. 

And how does he feel about that?

“Have people not got better things to talk about?” he wants to know.

Long Covid, vaccine safety, and ferrets: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

A drug that’s still in the experimental stage promises to stop Covid transmission. So far, we know it works in ferrets. If you’re a ferret, you probably don’t care about this because ferrets are like young adults: They have fur and like to eat raw meat.

The similarity’s struck you before now, hasn’t it?

They also become infected with Covid and can pass the infection on, but they don’t get sick. 

Strictly and importantly speaking, that’s true of ferrets but not true of young adults (see below), because some young adults get mildly sick and then get long Covid, which is a particularly nasty kick in the head. And some are hospitalized. In fact, some die, although nowhere near as many as older adults, which is where the myth of young adult immunity comes from. 

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Or part of it. This bit was left on the mainland when the land bridge to the island collapsed. 

So let’s say that most young adults are like ferrets, and I’m told they make excellent pets and can be quite affectionate. They’re intelligent, energetic, and shouldn’t be left in cages.

If I’ve driven that joke into the ground, we’ll move on. 

How long will it be before the drug is available for humans? Well, they’ll probably want to test it in something furless before it gets to the market. I’ve read, and I’ve often written here, about all sorts of promising drugs. And that’s the last we hear about most of them. Or at least the last I hear of them. I don’t really know what you hear, do I?

I keep promising myself that I won’t write about any more early-stage drugs, but then I read about one that I can’t pass up and I break my promise. You should know better than to trust me with promises, so you have no one to blame but yourself. 

This one, I think, is worth breaking a promise for. It not only stops Covid transmission, it also stops the progression of the disease. And works against the flu.

Let us all become ferrets, friends, and put an end to this plague. 

*

The news about the Moderna vaccine is that it gives people (at least the 94% it works in) an immune response that lasts at least three months. That’s from a study run by NIAID, which is not a Greek goddess of springs, rivers, fountains, and lakes (you’ll need change the vowels a bit if you’re calling the goddess) but (more helpfully at this moment in history) the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. 

Immunity may last longer, but that’s as many pages as they’ve had time to read.

*

How has it been possible to develop the Covid vaccines so fast? Several factors came together.

Once the virus’s genome was decoded, it was shared immediately with the world’s scientific community. Chinese scientists published a draft of the genome of January 11. No one had to waste time repeating work that had already been done. 

After that, the world’s bad luck was put to good use: With the hounds of hell nipping at their heels, governments were willing to pour immense amounts of money into research. That translated to equipment and researchers. 

Next, it was easy for researchers to recruit participants for both the early and the later tests. That usually takes time, but people were motivated and anxious to sign up.

It usually takes a good long time before enough of the test subjects become infected to prove or disprove the vaccine’s effectiveness. But because Covid was so widespread, people got sick quickly. That comes to us compliments of the Department of Silver Linings.

On top of that, the pandemic hit just as scientists worked the kinks out of the mRNA vaccine process. I’m not going to try to explain that, but if you follow the link a few paragraphs back, someone who knows what they’re talking about will. 

Finally, a good bit of research that had already been done gave Covid research a running start: into creating  new flu vaccine; into SARS and MERS, both of which threatened to turn epidemic but didn’t; and into Zika.

Experts say no steps were missed in checking the safety and effectiveness of the Covid vaccines. I respect the well-honed skepticism that develops in a population that’s been lied to a lot, but I haven’t read any solid evidence that would lead me to wait when I’m offered a vaccine. I’m running around with one sleeve already rolled up.

*

The Serum Institute of India has asked for fast-track approval of the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine, which doesn’t need refrigeration and which–if it gets approval–it will sell in India for something in the neighborhood of $3 a dose.

India is the second hardest hit country in the world’s Covid disaster race. Or the third. I’ve seen it listed both ways. It probably depends on what you count and how.

*

A British trial will play around with mixing Covid vaccines to see if a mix creates a stronger immune response than two doses of a single vaccine. It’s due to start in January.

*

Less encouragingly (but entirely realistically), the World Health Organization warns that the introduction of vaccines doesn’t mean an end to the Covid crisis. The logistics and economics of getting the world’s population vaccinated are massive, especially since two of the early vaccines need super-cold storage. 

And that doesn’t touch on the issue of how many people will be willing to accept vaccination or whether the vaccine will continue to circulated in spite of vaccinations.

In the meantime:

  • Wear a mask
  • Be careful
  • Grow fur 

*

A small study (40 people, with a control group of 58) from the University of Dayton shows that 51% of young adults who are diagnosed with mild to moderate Covid had complications (chest pain, breathing difficulty, headaches, exhaustion, brain fog, diarrhea, loss of smell or taste, etc.) for more than 28 days afterward, and 30% had complications for more than 50 days.

The lead researcher, Julie Walsh-Messinger, said, “The common belief in the U.S. is that COVID-19 is benign or short-lived in young adults. Our study, which we believe is the first to report on post-COVID syndrome in college students, almost exclusively between 18 and 21 years of age, suggests otherwise. More research needs to be done to confirm these findings, but until then, we urge the medical and scientific community to consider young adults vulnerable to post-COVID syndrome.”

For a brief description of what long Covid is like, this is a good place to start, although from what I’ve read it can get far worse. 

*

Like ferrets, cars don’t contract Covid. Unlike ferrets, they’re inanimate. But they can spread it. They’re like schoolrooms, like bars, like supermarkets: They depend on breathing humans to help them with their work.

A study at Brown University shows that opening car windows reduces Covid transmission. This probably won’t surprise you, given what’s known about air, breath, wind, cars, and Covid. But scientists have this pesky habit of wanting to prove things instead of just asserting them. They’re the kind of people who want to know how cold it is and how long it’s been how cold before they drive the car out on the frozen lake. They’ll want to calculate the depth of the ice and find out if the lake has currents where the ice will be thinner. They can be absolute mood-killers, but if you’re driving across a frozen lake they’re the people you want to ride with. 

Speaking just for myself (as if I had a choice), I appreciate them.

Asimanshu Das, co-lead author of the car window research, said, “Driving around with the windows up and the air conditioning or heat on is definitely the worst scenario, according to our computer simulations. The best scenario we found was having all four windows open, but even having one or two open was far better than having them all closed.”

But even with all the windows open and the roof sawed off, everybody should wear masks.

The article’s full of drawings and arrows. I’m not sure what they demonstrate, but they impressed the hell out of me.

*

Semi-relevantly, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital are working on a vaccine for a wide range of influenza strains. Early-stage clinical trials indicate that it could give a long-lasting immunity, eliminating the need for yearly updates. 

But it’s in the early stages. In the meantime, we’re all supposed to keep downloading our yearly flu shots. Or, in British, jabs.

*

And, completely irrelevantly, an experimental drug can reverse age-related memory loss within days. So far, unfortunately, that only applies to mice, but it may work its way up to ferrets and eventually to us. 

It’s called ISRIB and it also works on traumatic injuries, noise-related hearing loss, and cognitive impairment in Down Syndrome. Yes, mice can have Down syndrome-like characteristics. I didn’t know either.

It also fights certain kinds of prostate cancer and enhances cognition in healthy animals.

And it makes coffee, but it’s pretty bad. I wouldn’t recommend drinking it.  

How the pandemic tempts us into insults and sports metaphors

Britain has approved the first Covid vaccine, thereby starting a robust exchange of insults with a random sampling of other countries, and in case that didn’t bring enough joy to the world, setting off another round of the sort of chaos that allows us to recognize Boris Johnson’s government even when we’re blindfolded in the woods on a moonless night. 

I look at each day’s news with a mixture of dread and glee.

The insult exchange

It started with Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, who you might think (being the education secretary and all) would know better but, hey, silly you.

Williamson went on the radio and said Britain was the first country to approve the vaccine because “we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator, much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all, because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”

Several winces later, Conservative peer Michael Forsyth (his friends and family call him Lord Forsyth; you can call him Mikey) tweeted, “Frankly, [that’s]  just unseemly.” 

European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer pointed vaguely in the direction of the high road and said, “This is not a football competition.”

 

Irrelevant photo: erigeron

Anthony Fauci, on the other hand,  ignored all of that, but he was critical of how quick Britain was to approve the vaccine, saying the UK hadn’t reviewed it “as carefully” as US health regulators.

The next day he backtracked, saying, “I have a great deal of confidence in what the UK does both scientifically and from a regulator standpoint” and on top of that, “I did not mean to imply any sloppiness.”

The difference in speed is because the US regulator often goes back to the raw test data while both UK and European Union regulators work from the reports the companies assemble. 

A few people have commented not that the slower approval process would be any safer but that people might have more confidence that it was safe. It could be a valid point, but where’s the fun in that?

 

The Brexit connection

Unable to see a flap going on and not jump into the middle of it, prominent Brexiteers in the government waded in and claimed that Brexit was the reason Britain had been able to approve the vaccine so quickly. 

“Prominent Brexiteers” describes pretty much the whole government, but this was only a couple of them, Matt Hancock and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Their quotes, sadly, are as boring as they’ve turned out to be inaccurate, so we’ll skip them, but you can follow the link if you want all the Ts dotted and the Is crossed.

The inaccuracy, though? EU law allows individual countries to distribute a vaccine in an emergency. They don’t have to wait for the European Medicines Agency to approve it. In fact, since Britain’s in a transition period until the end of the year, we’re still running on EU law and yes, that’s what we’ve done.

 

The chaos

Having approved the vaccine so quickly, we’re kind of like the kid who snatched the first potato out of the oven. Yes, he made sure he got the big one, and yes he gets to boast to everyone else about that, but he might’ve been smart to grab a potholder first. It would only have taken a few seconds.

In other words, as far as I can tell, from my vantage point on the couch, we’re having trouble figuring out what to do with the vaccine now that we have it. Because it all happened so fast and we haven’t exactly been (I know this’ll surprise you) planning for it. 

I seem to remember some loose talk, oh, maybe last week sometime, about frontline staff being a top priority for the vaccine, although I don’t remember hearing a definition of frontline staff. There was equally loose talk about NHS staff being at the top of the list. Whether those two were the same thing or not is anyone’s guess. 

During the first lockdown, we were all governmentally cranked up to respect the underpaid people who kept the buses and trains running, the stores stocked, the cash registers registering, the packages delivered, the food produced, and the cabs zipping around our towns. They put their lives on the line, we were reminded, and if they didn’t get the pay they deserve and need, they did at least get a bit of recognition.

Now that a vaccine’s imminent, are they still frontline staff? 

Well, um, it doesn’t look like it.

The government’s circulated (and the newspapers have duly published) a priority list with nine categories, starting with care home residents and the people who take care of them and working its way down to people over fifty. The list has some oddities, including putting frontline medical (and only medical) staff in the second category instead of the first and not bringing in the clinically vulnerable until the fourth category, where they keep company with the over-seventies. The Black and minority ethnic people (it’s a category in Britain, however vague it may seem to me as a foreigner) who are statistically at higher risk are mentioned nowhere. It also leaves out teachers and people who work in public transportation and food processing and retail the many other jobs that put people at risk. You know, all those people we appreciated so much the first time around and have now forgotten.

Then, after the list had been circulated, it somehow looked like care home residents and their carers might have to wait, because the vaccine has to be stored at the temperature of dry ice and you can’t just toss it in your back seat and drive it to the nearest care home. But hospital inpatients and outpatients who are over eighty might just skip to the top of the list because they’re easy to find. 

I have a picture of NHS staff running down hospital corridors vaccinating any random person who looks old enough. Whether they’ll find them again when it’s time for their booster shot is a whole different problem. But we have weeks  before we have to solve that one.

What we do know is that the first batch of the vaccine has arrived in the UK and that it will be distributed to hubs–places selected because they have the equipment to keep it cold enough. 

How many doses do we have? 

Um. Dunno. The business secretary, Alok Sharma, said that by next week, when vaccinations are supposed to start, the government’s “absolutely confident” that it will have 800,000 of them. 

I wasn’t worried until I saw that “absolutely confident.” 

Are they going to divide those 800,000 doses so they cover 400,000 people at two doses each? Or is the plan is to give one each to 800,000 people and trust that the second dose will be available when it’s needed? More doses are expected before the end of the year, but Sharma couldn’t say how many and NHS Providers said the UK would have to assume that more doses might not arrive “for some time.”

Sober-sounding voices on the radio advise us not to try to book a vaccination. The NHS will contact people to let them know their vaccination category is open and tell them how to register. But the NHS generally communicates with patients by letter. You know letters? Those paper things that appear in your mailbox or fall through a slot in your door? They take time to write, to print, to seal into envelopes, to move from wherever they started to wherever they’re going.

In theory, the vaccination program begins on Tuesday.

Independent of all this, I’ve read that it may be April before everyone in the nine at-risk categories is vaccinated. 

 

Mass testing

In the meantime, we have lots of twenty-minute Covid tests, which are also called lateral flow tests, in case it makes your life better to know that. They were supposed to be game changing, but the government’s announced so many game changers since the start of the pandemic that I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be running around with a tennis racket or a pool cue. 

The tests were rolled out on a mass scale in Liverpool, which has a high infection rate, and Dr. Angela Raffle, a consultant in public health and an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Bristol, said, “The infection rate in Liverpool has come down no quicker than in many other places that haven’t got mass testing and we haven’t yet seen a proper evaluation report from Liverpool.”

I read elsewhere else that mass testing alone isn’t a solution. You have to do something useful with the results if testing’s going to bring down the infection rate, and we seem to have missed that part of the plan. Possibly because it involves different sports equipment, which is stuck in the government’s Warehouse of Sports Metaphors. We filed forms that will let us get our hands on it long ago, but they’re still waiting for approval.

The NHS test and trace program, which is the key to doing something useful with the test results, usually hits the headlines because it misses some absurd percentage of people (4 out of 10 a month ago, which is–holy shit–almost half), but recently it improved its contact rate. 

How’d it do it? 

It changed the way it reports its data. I’d love to give you a link on that, but I heard that on the radio and I can’t find the right combination of words to coax the information out of Lord Google. But it was the BBC, and whatever complaints everyone from all sides has about, it isn’t known for making up its facts.

The rapid tests are also being used to allow relatives to visit people in care homes and do what I’m old enough to remember once seemed natural: hug them. But because the rapid tests miss some problematic percentage of infections, the BBC writes that “there has . . . been concern in some parts of the care home sector over the use of the tests, with homes in Greater Manchester reportedly urged not to use them to allow visits.” 

Some homes report not having received tests, in spite of a government announcement that everything was in place and reunions were possible. Others say they have the tests but not the training to use them

And there I have to leave you. A masked delivery driver is at the door and I hope he’s brought my sports metaphor delivery. 

He’s not on the list of priorities for a vaccination and he’s working on a zero-hours contract.

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.