British prime minister fires British prime minister’s brain

On Friday, Boris Johnson fired Dominic Cummings, who’s functioned as Johnson’s brain since Johnson took office. This leaves a major gap not just at 10 Downing Street but between the prime ministerial ears, since we’re doing body metaphors.

Everyone in government will be rushing to fill it. 

This all started with Cummings’ ally, Lee Cain, resigning. Johnson had been about to promote him but seems to have been shoved onto a different track by Allegra Stratton and Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, a woman with a considerable political background of her own. 

They had some help, and we’ll come back to that, but first: Stratton got into the picture when she was appointed to lead government press conferences and came into conflict with Cummings and Cain over whether they should be real press conferences or what they’re calling White House-style briefings, where no real questions are answered. She considered the White House-style briefing cosmetic and pointless.

Potentially relevant photo: Cummings and Cain will have plenty of time on their hands. They could take up a fine old English tradition and join a morris dancing side. You don’t actually get to hit anyone with the stick, which I suspect will disappoint them, but you do at least get to pretend.

Symonds’ influence raises an interesting issue. She’s not an elected member of government, which makes it easy to rear back and think, Hold on. Who the hell is she to have so much influence just because she’s in a relationship with the prime minister? And some of the cheesier papers are doing that. What the hell, she has no job title and she’s a woman. Women make a tempting target. 

One the other hand, Cummings and Cain weren’t elected either. Who the hell were they to have so much influence? We could argue that Symonds is saving the country a lot of money by not drawing a salary. Or we could skip making that argument. My point is that we can’t draw a clear line between Johnson’s special advisors and his fiancee. It’s murky–and interesting–territory, full of  moral ambiguities.

Johnson is said to  have been furious that Cummings and Cain were briefing against him and Symonds. “Briefing against” translates to undermining their reputation.

Assorted other personalities and factions within the government and in the Conservative Party also got into the push-and-shove over who was going to have the prime ministerial ear. Factions seem to be the latest thing in the Conservative Party–something I’d thought only Labour was good at. Backbenchers–

Hang on. Time for a definition. Backbenchers are Members of Parliament who haven’t gotten the top government jobs (or the shadow jobs that the opposition party hands out). They sit at the back of the room when parliament meets, playing with their phones and throwing spitballs. Every so often, they get to jeer the opposing party, which has the virtue of waking everybody up, but otherwise they’re supposed to vote as instructed and shut up (or say what’s expected) the rest of the time. 

They don’t actually throw spitballs. They do jeer and carry on as if their development stopped at spitball-throwing age.

With the explanation out of the way, we’ll go on: Backbench Conservatives have been forming pressure groups. It worked for Brexit, they figure, so why not start groups opposing Covid lockdowns or accusing the National Trust of having a Marxist agenda because it’s acknowledging that role of slavery in creating the properties it manages and opens to the public?

Cummings and Covid are taking the blame for Johnson not having kept good relations with his party’s MPs. As one backbencher said, new MPs never got a chance to know Johnson and “they have spiralled off into orbit, and if the party isn’t careful, they will become serial rebels, never to be seen again.” 

With Cummings going, some of them are hoping for a fresh start, but a former staff member said, “The contempt for MPs does not come from Dominic Cummings, he’s just a harder version of the smiling frontman. The basic contempt comes from Boris Johnson.” 

What happens next? Don’t I wish I knew. Cummings and Cain are old political pals of Johnson’s from the Brexit campaign, and they formed the hub of the hard Brexiteers in Number 10. With them gone and Brexit looming, it’s hard to say which way things will go. Britain’s still in talks with the European Union and there isn’t much time left to put together a deal before we leave the EU without one.

The same staff member I quoted a couple of paragraphs back said about Johnson, “This is a guy who gets blown around by whatever storm; he has no political compass.” And advisors–presumably Cain and Cummings–had complained about Johnson not being able to make big decisions. 

That makes it particularly important who’s getting to whisper in his ear.

Whee.

And did I mention anything a pandemic? Somewhere in here, some actual work needs to be done. 

Whoever’s left at Number 10 is expecting Cummings to take public revenge and is–or possibly are; surely there’s more than one–preparing responses. One official was quoted as saying, “It’s the last days of Rome in there.” 

I’m’ sure the most interesting dirt hasn’t been dished yet. Have patience, my friends. It will leak out eventually.

Cathedral cats, soy sauce, and highway signs: Its the news from Britain

Southwark Cathedral’s much-loved cat, Doorkins Magnificat, has died. 

Doorkins came to the cathedral as a stray and discovered that the vergers–the people who open the building in the morning and (I assume) close it at night–were good for a bowl of food and a pet or two if she was in the mood, so she stayed for twelve years, making herself at home on the warm pipe that runs under a stone seat, on a cushion, on a grating where warm air (I’m guessing here) does very little to take the chill off a cathedral’s huge open space but does a great deal to take the chill off a cat.

At Christmas, she liked to sleep in the manger display. Humans, I need you to move the kid over. The cat needs a nap.

That’s one way we can know Doorkins was a genuine cat. 

She wasn’t a fan of the bishop, she strolled through the most solemn of services, and she gave herself a good cleaning whenever the mood took her. When the queen visited–well, they say a cat can look at a queen, but a cat can also decide it’s not worth the trouble. Doorkins couldn’t be bothered. She opened one eye, didn’t see anything that impressed her, and shut it again. So we’ll amend the ancient wisdom: A cat can look at a queen, but only if she wants to.

What could be more relevant to a post that opens with a cat than a photo of birds? This is a murmuration of starlings. In the winter, they flock together to roost in the trees at the edge of the field–thousands upon thousands of them. They come in in separate flocks that merge, circle, form shifting patterns, and eventually condense onto the trees for the night.

She did lend her name and image to a range of tchotchkes that the cathedral sold to visitors–mouse pads, mugs, magnets, cards, eventually a kids’ book. She had her own Twitter account but left it to her humans to post stuff.

Tchotchkes? Sorry, that’s a bit of Yiddish. Or maybe it’s Yinglish.  Either way, it’s out of place in a conversation about a cathedral, which is probably why it wandered in, as disrespectful as a cat. Tchotchkes are little things that are basically useless but decorative and don’t we just love having them around?

After Doorkins died, the cathedral held a memorial service, although in keeping with Covid guidelines they limited it to thirty people. Her ashes are buried in the cathedral close.

A close? It’s, um, a closed space. In British, a dead-end street’s called a close. So is the enclosed area around a cathedral, even though the ones I’ve seen aren’t seriously enclosed, just marked with a low wall. I don’t usually let myself get publicly sentimental, but a cathedral close is a good spot for a cathedral cat with a following that won’t be ready to let her go. 

The dean of the cathedral said, “She did more to bring people to this place than I will ever do.”

*

A seventeen-year-old student working on a project to explore brand loyalty fooled mainstream online news outlets into thinking Woolworth’s was going to reopen in Britain. The store hasn’t been around for over ten years, but the MailOnline, the Star, the Metro, the Mirror, the Sun, and a fair number of others fell for a tweet saying the chain would be resurrected, even though Woolworth’s was spelled two different ways and the Twitter account linked to a nonexistent website. 

The student didn’t expect (or mean) the experiment to take off the way it did, but once news outlets picked it up it got away from them. Twitter took twelve hours to shut the account down.

*

With Brexit looming and the pandemic raging, the government needs whatever good news it can get, so it announced proudly that a new trade agreement with Japan will mean cheaper soy sauce for your average British soy sauce addict. Because you know how many pints of soy sauce a dedicated user can get through in an afternoon. 

The announcement from the Department of International Trade didn’t spell soy sauce more than one way, and the trade agreement with Japan is entirely real, but it turns out that the price of soy sauce won’t be going down. Under the EU trade agreement that we’re about to leave, the tariff on soy sauce is a whopping 0%. Unless someone pays us to take it, it’s hard to get cheaper than that. 

We would have gotten a bargain if as European Union members we’d been importing it on the basis of World Trade Organization rules, but we haven’t been. Those aren’t the rules the EU and Japan trade under. 

It also turns out that Britain doesn’t import much soy sauce from Japan. It comes from China.

Other than that, the announcement was entirely accurate. 

*

Two brothers are suing the London police for stopping, searching, and handcuffing them after they greeted each other with a fist bump. Both are–I’m sure this will surprise you–Black. At 29 and 30, they say that between them they’ve been stopped and searched more than 25 times, starting when they were as young as 12. The only explanation they were given for the search was that they fist-bumped each other and were in the Deptford high street.

It’s legal for the British police to stop and search someone if they have “reasonable grounds to suspect you’re carrying illegal drugs, a weapon, stolen property, or something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a crowbar.”

Or if you’re Black and bumping fists in Deptford. 

According to the government’s own figures, between April 2018 and March 2019, there were four stop and searches for every thousand White people, compared with thirty-eight for every thousand Black people.

*

Britain’s garbage dumps are under attack by zombie batteries, and if you live in some other country the odds are that your garbage dumps are in just as much danger. 

A zombie battery is one that’s tossed out with the household trash instead of being given the respectful end-of-life care it’s due. It then gets punctured or outright crushed and starts a fire.

Or–in the name of accuracy–it can start a fire, especially if it’s the lithium-ion type that run laptops, cell phones (aka mobile phones), e-cigarettes, and Bluetooth thingies. They can get worked up enough to explode. 

Zombie batteries are believed to have started 250 fires at waste processing sites in the year ending in March 2020, and Britain goes through 22,000 tons of batteries a year. Less than half of them are recycled properly. 

Beware. And my apologies for not posting that before Halloween. A zombie battery would make a great costume if you’re into obscure jokes.

*

In response to a directive from the Department for Transport, it looks like Highways England is rebranding itself as National Highways, although it still covers only England and the new name has managed to piss off the Welsh (or at least some of them). The Welsh political party Plaid Cymru called the new name “self-aggrandising and offensive.” Wales, like England, is a nation within the country that is the United Kingdom, and in Wales the roads are the responsibility of the Welsh government, not the English one.

It’ll also be expensive. It’ll cost something like £7 million to redesign and reprint brochures, signs explaining road works,  documents, departmental cars and trucks, and who knows what else. And if that isn’t absurd enough, the agency’s said to have just finished updating all of the above after a 2015 name change. 

However much they spend redesigning signs about road works, I predict that they’ll continue to be unreadable. Instead of saying something like, “Closed 8 pm to 8 am, 3 October to 5 October,” road closure signs say something along the lines of, “We’re terribly sorry for the inconvenience, but this road will be closed between 8 pm and 8 am from 3 October 2020 to 5 October 2020 while we conduct roadworks that will improve your driving experience. ”

And of course it’ll end with some sort of attribution to National Highways, or Highways England, or whoever they are. Not that most drivers read that far. We’re all panting to know who left us the sign, but by the time we’ve read as far as “driving experience” we’re in the ditch and not happy with how ours has gone. 

Either that or we zip past knowing only that the road will close at some point but sublimely ignorant of when.

Diversion signs, on the other hand, point us boldly through the first turn or two to take us around a road closure, then whoever set them out either ran out of signs or got bored. Either way, they abandon us on some back road. If we keep driving, though, and take a random number of rights and lefts, eventually we come out someplace else and can start over. 

*

In California, raccoons broke into a bank, prowled the halls, sat at a desk, and were shooed out before they could withdraw any cash, although they did get some almond cookies. 

They broke in sometime during the night and seem to have climbed a tree, crawled through the air ducts, and fallen through the ceiling tiles. In the morning, they were spotted through the windows by a guy heading to work on a construction site. He called the Humane Society.

No charges have been filed.

What not to do on Twitter, and other news from Britain

Never underestimate the power of Boris Johnson’s government to get things wrong. It sent a message of congratulations to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and after it was posted on Twitter some wiseacre adjusted the color (don’t ask me–I’m electronically challenged) and noticed that Trump’s name had been replaced with Biden’s but was still lingering. Talk about you metaphors. The words second term had also been ineffectively deleted. 

Downing Street is harumphing about of course having had two messages ready to go, but why they couldn’t be bothered to have two separate messages instead of sending the president-elect a stained hand-me-down is a mystery we may never solve. 

Downing Street’s believed to be reluctant in its congratulations. Biden’s win complicates Johnson’s Brexit calculations–although saying that Johnson calculates is probably naive. Or just plain silly. Either way, the day after the election was called for Biden, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was asked if he agreed with the statement that every vote should be counted in a democratic election and he managed not to commit himself.

Too controversial. 

*

Irrelevant photo: Crocuses, to remind those of us in the northern hemisphere that spring will come. These bloomed in February.

Some p.r. genius at the Royal Dutch Shell–the oil company–ran a Twitter poll asking, “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions? #EnergyDebate.” The choices were “offset emissions, stop flying, buy electric vehicle, renewable energy.” 

That last choice is missing a verb. Was it supposed to be “use renewable energy”? “Marginalize renewable energy”? “Crochet renewable energy”? 

Never mind. Back when I had a use in the real world, I was an editor. It left me unfit to wander the internet. Nobody, as far as I’ve found, picked up on that oddity in the question. They focused on the more important point: Here was an oil giant saying (in its follow-up tweet) that everybody had to do their part–as in, hey, don’t look at us. What are you doing to get us out of this mess?

Editor or not, I do mix the singular (everybody) with the plural (their). The alternative is to follow the logic of English grammar and assume 100% of the world population is male. But the mixture’s theirs in this case.

Never mind. Let’s talk about the response Shell got: 

Stanley with no last name wrote, “I commit to never buying Shell gasoline.” 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote, “I’m willing to hold you accountable for lying about climate change for 30 years when you secretly knew the entire time that fossil fuel emissions would destroy our planet.”

Scott Dooley wrote, “I’m willing to stop spilling 1,926 barrels of oil in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. Will you match me?”

Greta Thunberg wrote, “I don’t know about you, but I sure am willing to call-out-the-fossil-fuel-companies-for-knowingly-destroying-future-living-conditions-for-countless-generations-for profit-and-then-trying-to-distract-people-and-prevent-real-systemic-change-through-endless greenwash-campaigns.” 

Daniel Nima Moattar posted a headline about Shell fueling violence in Nigeria by paying rival militant gangs and wrote, “Driving slower, shopping less, maybe cutting back on paramilitaries.”

Alexandria Villasenor got in what should be the last word but probably wasn’t: “This won’t age well.”

*

In another Twitter success story, Eric Trump tweeted, “Minnesota get out and vote!!!”

Unfortunately, it was a week after the election.

*

Enough social media. Ever wonder why Britain’s standing stones ended up where they did instead of in fifteen other spots? 

I didn’t either, but archeologists do, and some of them have come up with an answer for one set, the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis, in the Hebrides. They found a star-shaped pattern left by a lightning strike. It’s some 20 meters across and now buried in a peat bog that formed 3,000 years ago. A hidden stone circle lies under the peat with it. One theory is that the stone circle was built in response to what must have been a massive event at the time. 

The buried circle’s older than the peat bog and older than Stonehenge. 

*

The Department for International Trade is frantically trying to get trade agreements into Parliament in time for them to be approved before the Brexit bell tolls midnight, Boris’s shoe falls off, and the better-than-ever Brexit trade deals we were going to negotiate turn into pumpkins, which at this time of year have been sitting outside too long and been nibbled by squirrels.  

Have you ever wondered why everything in Cinderella’s life turned back to what it had been before it was enchanted except that lone, uncomfortable shoe the prince picked up? 

I’m off the topic, aren’t I?

The idea is to approve a bunch of agreements that would let Britain continue trading with various non-European Union countries on the same terms as when it was part of the EU. If they don’t get approved, trade will default to the less advantageous World Trade Organization terms. The hitch is that international treaties have to sit around parliament for 21 days before they can be approved, but parliament’s going home for the holidays on December 17, which means that the bell doesn’t toll on January 1, when the Brexit transition period ends, it tolls on Thursday of this week. And it tolls for thee. 

Or for them. Or for all of us who live here.

Talks with fifteen countries are still incomplete. Representatives of other countries (sorry, I don’t know how many) say no talks have been conducted at all. The shadow international trade secretary said, ““Not a single additional continuity agreement was secured in the first eight months of 2020.” She mentioned the by now much overworked word shambles. And I’d love to tell you what that additional is in addition too, but I don’t know. 

A Department for International Trade spokesperson, however, said, “We are considering all possible options to maintain continuity of existing trade terms. It is misleading to say there’s a hard deadline on this.”

If you’ll allow me to translate that, it means, “Oh shit. How many days do you get in 21?”

*

A study of seagulls has established that they can tell time and that they know the days of the week.

Sort of. They know what time schoolkids will be out in the playground and dropping food. When it’s almost time, they perch on surrounding roofs. When the bell rings, they get to work. And they not only know what times the dumps, fish processing plants, and markets put out their best wares, they somehow know not to show up at the dump on weekends.

A cynical person might say they’re smarter than the Department for International Trade, and I did see one on the neighbor’s roof holding a man’s black dress shoe. It mumbled something about, “What does he think I want with this?” Then if dropped the shoe and flew off to the nearest school playground. 

*

Since we’re talking about birds, New Zealand is once again voting for its favorite native bird, and there’ve been accusations of vote rigging: 1,500 fraudulent votes for the kiwi pukupuku–the little spotted kiwi–were discovered and they all traced back to a single IP address. 

They’ve been deleted and calm and fair play have been restored, but the bird of the year election is a big thing in New Zealand and passions run high. An adult toy store is campaigning for the hihi on the grounds that it practices consensual polyamory and that the males have, proportionate to the bird’s size, the largest testicles of any bird in the world. 

Want to guess whether it’s a male or a female running that store?

The winner hasn’t been announced yet, but in 2018, the winner was the kereru, known for getting so drunk on fermented fruit that it falls out of trees. 

 

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

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

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

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

I really should clean under there more often.

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

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

Irrelevant photo: mallow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trend in Europe was the same. 

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

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

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

It’s not just about your age.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

The tests have cost £323 million.

*

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

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

Nah, let’s not even think about that.

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

“We are shopping for emergency supplies.

“‘There is no Lemongrass!’ says Mummy.

“‘Oh dear!’ says John.

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

The Skeleton Army and the Salvation Army

The Salvation Army was founded as a London mission in 1865, offering food and shelter to the down-and-out, the poor, and the very, very drunk. The Skeleton Army was founded by people who enjoyed a good drink and a fight, and in the 1880s and 1890s it harassed the other army.

The Salvation Army came first, so let’s start with them: According to one account, its goal was to wage war on poverty and religious indifference, which testifies to humanity’s long and history of waging war on things that can’t be shot, slashed, or speared. 

And there I was thinking all that war against abstractions and inanimate objects started with the U.S. declaring war on drugs.

Never mind. The Sally wasn’t the first organization to fall in love with a bit of overblown rhetoric, and it quickly took on a military structure, complete with uniforms, recruits, ranks, and marching bands.

Irrelevant photo: An October seed pod. A friend thinks they’re from an iris, in which case I’ll guess a yellow flag, which grows wild.

The Sally’s own website doesn’t talk about warfare but about saving souls and relieving “the Victorian working classes from poverty. In Booth’s eyes [Booth being the founder], this involved morality, discipline, sobriety and employment.”

In other words, unlike the unions and proto-unions of the period, they didn’t see the causes of poverty as low pay and killingly long hours, they were immorality and drinking.

Not to mention gambling and salacious entertainment. 

Within the Salvation Army, women’s ranks–and this was radical for the period–were equal to men’s, and women played a powerful role in the organization. Although having said that, it was started by two people, Catherine and William Booth. I’ve put her name first because I’m like that, but I’m a minority of one in that. He’s credited as the founder and Catherine sometimes gets a mention–and not always by name but just as “his wife.” She may have played a secondary role–I’m not sure–but even if she didn’t, he was the Methodist minister in the family, and if that wasn’t enough he carried a Y chromosome, along with the physical oddities that follow from it, so he walked around with neon arrows pointing him out as the important half of the couple. 

Still, I’m writing that from a contemporary point of view. For the time, the organization was startlingly equal.

The world they campaigned in was a brutal one. Industrialization meant cities and towns had grown massively, and people’s hours, pay, and working conditions were, literally, killing. 

And in spite of the way the language is changing, literally there doesn’t mean figuratively. It means the hours, pay, and working conditions killed people. And crippled them.

Housing was overcrowded, germs hadn’t been so happy since the Crimean War, and beer and gin were cheap, so people drank. Sometimes that was all that got a person through one day and into the next.

Into that setup marched the Salvation Army, not to quietly establish soup kitchens and wait for people to come eat and get preached at but to march down the street, thumping the drum, playing the tuba, waving banners, and preaching against the evils of et cetera.

Et cetera can be extremely evil if left unchecked. 

This won them both recruits and enemies. Plenty of people wanted a drink and a dance and a fight. 

Along England’s south coast, this response coalesced into a group that called itself the Skeleton Army. Chris Hare, a historian from Worthing, one of the Skeleton hotspots, traces their origin to groups of Bonfire Boys–working class young men who raised hell on Bonfire Night, as well as on Mayday and any other occasion that gave them the opportunity. They didn’t bother with ranks or uniforms, but they did sometimes wear yellow ribbons in their caps or sunflowers in their buttonholes.

No, I don’t know how either. Maybe sunflowers were smaller back then, or buttonholes were tougher. 

They also took the Salvation Army’s songs and wrote rowdy lyrics to them. Fair enough. The Sally had taken popular secular songs and reworked the lyrics to suit their purposes, so they were only stealing what had already been stolen.

Skeleton mobs attacked the Salvation Army, throwing paint-filled eggs, dead animals, burning coals–whatever came to hand. Except for the eggs. Those took planning, because getting paint into an egg and keeping it there long enough to throw? That takes work. In fact, how you do it is a deeper mystery than anything the established religions have yet cooked up. But never mind, the eggs appear in more than one telling and seem to have been real. 

Where were the town’s respectable people while all this was going on? Unhappy not about the Skeleton Army but about the Sally. Individually, they wrote letters to the newspapers, worrying that the Salvation Army would give their towns a bad reputation and drive visitors away. 

As for the religious establishment, it preferred its religion inside the church, not bothering people on the street corner. And landowners and industrialists had an interest in keeping their workers drunk and if not happy at least not demanding higher pay and forming unions.

The Salvation Army was anything but revolutionary, but it offered enough prospect of change to worry the powers-that-were. 

Collectively, they were glad to look the other way when the Skeleton Army broke up Salvation Army events. 

To the extent that the police got involved, they were likely to blame the Salvation Army for any uproar. In Worthing, when one “Salvationist applied to the bench for a summons against those who had assaulted him,” he was told,” ‘You know what you do provokes others to interfere with you, and then you come to us for protection.’ ”

In Eastbourne, the mayor and the brewers endorsed the Skeleton Army. In Torquay, the local government banned marching music on a Sunday. It attracted troublemakers, so they arrested the marchers. 

Attacks on the Salvationists–as the articles I’ve read call them–increased, and the women, especially the women in authority, were the primary targets. 

Are you surprised?

One woman, Sussanah Beaty, was killed.

There were riots in Exeter, Worthing, Guildford, and Hastings, and brawls in 67 towns and villages. From the 1880s to the early 1890s thousands of the Sally’s officers were injured. 

But by the early 1890s,  the police became more likely to arrest attackers. Opposition began to die down and the skeleton army faded away.

After that, the story isn’t half as interesting, so we’ll abandon it there.

 

Pesky science and contact tracing: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A former Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, accused Boris Johnson of “giving in” to the government’s scientific advisers when he declared a second lockdown. 

Those damn scientific advisors. You can’t turn your back on them for a minute. It’s all just science, science, science. 

So what have those pesky scientists done lately? 

Some have demonstrated that masks don’t deprive you of oxygen. Yes, they already knew that, but the rumor that they do has a life of its own, so a few of them went ahead and rigged up a clutch of people with portable pulse oximeters (the measure blood oxygen levels), and guess what: They found no signs that any participant was short of oxygen. 

In other words, they’re saying you should wear a mask. You’ll still be able to breathe.

Pesky damn know-it-alls.

They’re also developing an overwhelming number of possible vaccines–more than I can keep up with–and identifying existing drugs that hold out the hope of treating Covid well enough to at least prevent hospitalization. But stay strong, people. We mustn’t give in to them. We’re doing just fine by our own ignorant selves.

*

We haven’t heard much drum-beating lately about Britain’s world-beating Covid app–the one that was going to save us all–but every so often an article surfaces about what’s gone wrong with it. The latest is that it was set at the wrong sensitivity level, so it missed notifying thousands of people that they’d been in contact with and infected person, and it stayed at that setting for a month. A government source said a “shockingly low” number of people were sent warnings. 

*

Someone working in Britain’s business secretary’s private office tested positive for Covid and the rest of the office went into isolation. But the business secretary himself, Alok Sharma, went to South Korea and even after he heard of the positive diagnosis held meetings there . 

He hadn’t had close contact with the person who tested positive, he said. 

They had a meeting four or five days before, the papers say–and people are contagious before symptoms begin. 

Sharma hadn’t “been told to isolate by NHS test and trace,” a spokesperson said.

Well, no, I don’t expect he had been. The test and trace system is notoriously nonfunctional.

Sharma tested negative before he left for the trip and again when he arrived, someone the spokesperson said, not mentioning the test’s percentage of false negatives or its inability to pick up pre-symptomatic cases reliably.

*

Before England went into lockdown, the universities minister (hands up: who knew Britain had one?) urged university students to stay where they were for the duration of the lockdown. Some uncounted many headed home anyway. 

Most of them are taking classes online anyway. 

*

Michael Gove, the cabinet office minister, and Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, gave out assorted wrong information on what people could and couldn’t do under the new lockdown rules. There’s no point in repeating misinformation, so let’s just say that it hasn’t helped. They apologized very nicely, and in fairness the new lockdown was hauled out of the flatpack so quickly that the government only had time to put half the screws in place. We’ve been asked not to rest heavy objects on it until November 15.

Still, I don’t think they’ll be letting any ministers out on their own for a while.

*

The Department for Education has outsourced the work of advising schools on how to handle Covid. Until recently, this was done by clinicians from Public Health England, who advised, did spot checks, followed up, and advised further. Then in September they were replaced with a call center whose workers read from a script. One teacher was told to send thirty-two students home.

Why thirty-two? he asked.

The call handler didn’t know. 

*

At the end of October, Boris Johnson promised England that we’d have Covid tests we could read ourselves. Better yet, they’d give us a result in ten to fifteen minutes. They’d work on presymptomatic people, asymptomatic people, semisymptomatic dogs, cats in all states of symptomosity, and ham sandwiches–in short, everyone and everything. Including–this being England, a nice cup of tea.

People could be tested, know they were safe, and go on with normal life. And the would still be warm enough to drink.

The government bought 20 million of tests. 

Unfortunately, the maker’s website says the tests aren’t meant for people without symptoms and are meant to be read by a health professional. 

Step away from that tea, please.

*

Just in time to beat lockdown, a couple got married, joined their last names, and became Mr. and Mrs. White-Christmas.

Seriously. Tilly Christmas and Kieran White. I doubt they had any arguments over whose name would come first.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-dorset-54822289

 

 

Lockdown part two: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

England’s about to enter a month-long lockdown that includes pubs, restaurants (except takeaway), nonessential stores, and going in to work if you can work from home. The biggest exception involves schools and universities, and that loophole is big enough that we can move in the construction equipment and build a world-class germ exchange.

Five and a half weeks ago, the government’s own science advisory group suggested a two-week lockdown, but the government, in its wisdom, decided it would be too damaging to the economy. So now we have a longer lockdown in response to a higher number of infections and it will inevitably create a longer economic interruption. And of course it has that big honkin’ loophole I mentioned, so it may not work all that well, but we’re going to pretend that kids don’t spread the virus (which is possible but far from established) and that students, teachers, and staff don’t interact with anyone except each other. 

The emotional pitch for the new lockdown is that if we do this now, we can save Christmas. 

Someone’s been reading too much Dr. Seuss. 

Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower.

The press conference where Boris Johnson announced the new lockdown started three hours behind schedule, and I would love to have eavesdropped on whatever was going on behind the scenes. So far, no one’s talking but I’m hoping for leaks. 

The delay left fans of a dance competition show, Strictly Come Dancing, frantic, and the BBC cut away a little early so they could start the show only a few minutes late, thus saving not Christmas but Strictly, which is important enough that the nation’s on first-name terms with it.

Only slightly less important than Strictly is a newly announced extension of the job furlough scheme–the one that pays people whose jobs haven’t gone up in smoke but instead have been shelved and may yet be unshelved. The furlough scheme is full of holes, but it’s better than nothing. 

But. When areas in the north of England were in local lockdowns, people who were eligible for the scheme got a smaller percentage of their usual pay. Now that the whole of England’s going into lockdown, people who are eligible will get a larger percentage. Because, um, yeah, basically the areas up north are up north somewhere, and they have these accents that don’t sound right in the hallowed halls of Parliament and–

Oh, hell, they’re a long way away. Who cares, right? 

That can’t be going down well up north. 

As recently as last week, a local government in West Yorkshire, which was moving into a local lockdown, was told there were no plans to make the lockdown national. I hate to sound naive, but I actually believe this. That’s the way Johnson’s government works: There were no plans. At a certain point, they just jumped. 

*

England–or Britain, if you prefer, because elements of this will overlap–isn’t alone in facing a second spike, but it does have its own particular causes, and an economist from the University of Warwick has traced one of them back to the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which offered half-price meals (up to a certain limit) to people who ate out at participating restaurants. 

Thiemo Fetzer traced three sets of data: the number of restaurants participating in the scheme in a given area, the days of the week the scheme ran, and the amount of rain that fell during lunch and dinner on those days. (Not as many people eat out when it’s raining hard.) Then he compared those to the number of known new infections in an area and concluded that the scheme “may be responsible for around 8% to 17% of all new detected Covid-19 clusters emerging in August and into early September.”

To which the Treasury Department said, “Bullshit.”

Okay. They said, “We do not recognize those figures.”

In early October, though, Boris Johnson said in an interview, “It was very important to keep [those two million hospitality] jobs going. Now, if it, insofar as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus, then obviously we need to counteract that […] I hope you understand the balance we’re trying to strike.”

If you’ll allow me to translate that, since it’s mildly incoherent, it means we knew it would spread the virus, but we had to balance that against getting people to spend their money.

Another swathe of infections can be traced back to a government effort to save the travel industry by opening “travel corridors”–arrangements that would let people travel to other countries withour having to go into quarantine when they came home. A Covid variant that originated in Spain is now widespread in the U.K.–and a lot of Europe, while we’re at it.

Spain was on Britain’s list of safe places to visit. Just bring your sunscreen and a bathing suit. Come home with some chorizo and a nice tan. The government cares about you and wants to make sure you can have your holiday–or vacation, if you’re speaking American, which no one was. It’ll all be fine.

The Covid variant, by the way, isn’t a particularly significant variation from the original. For a virus, Covid is surprisingly stable, but like all viruses it evolves and that means sometimes the origin of a cluster can be traced. In this case to Spain, and to a government policy that tried to save the travel industry. 

So here we are again, entering our second lockdown. Forgive me if I haven’t managed to be funny this time out. I support the lockdown, late and flawed as it is. Covid’s a dangerous disease, not only because of the deaths it causes and the way it overwhelms our hospitals but also because of the people it leaves disabled for no one knows how long, maybe for months, maybe for a lifetime. If you’re dealt a card out of the Covid deck, you can’t know in advance which one it will be. Will you be asymptomatic, have a bad week or two, become disabled, or die? 

And you don’t know who you’ll pass it on to, because people are infectious not just when they’re sick but before they have symptoms, or if they have no symptoms. So we gamble not just with our own lives but with the lives of people we love and of people we don’t know at all but share breathing space with. 

Stay safe, my friends. Be cautious. 

Wear a damn mask. They do make a difference.

 

Are clothes essential in a pandemic? It’s the news from Britain

In a protest over the Welsh government’s ban on stores selling nonessential goods during the current lockdown, Chris Noden turned up at a supermarket in nothing but his undies and tried to shop while his wife followed along behind and recorded everything on her phone. A store employee kept him from going in, and as soon as Noden got him to admit that clothing was essential, he decided he’d made his point and left.

“I understand they have to control crowds in shops,” he said later, “but if someone really needs something or an item, what is it to stop them? They are actually blocking these aisles off with sweets, chocolate, bottles of vodka, whisky, lager, they are blocking it off with all nonessential items, essentially. I don’t know what is essential or not, it is a bit mad, like.”

What he’s talking about is that supermarkets blocked off areas selling nonessentials.

It’s true that he does seem to get stuck on a thought and repeat it, but he managed to make his point all the same. It’s also true that he didn’t just wear his undies. He also wore shoes, socks, a mask, and a tattoo. 

The essentials, essentially.

My thanks to Ocean Bream. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have missed this and what a tragedy that would’ve been.

*

Irrelevant photo: If I remember right, this is a thistle. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, on October 29, British papers reported that nearly 100,000 people a day were catching Covid in England. That’s based on a study by Imperial College London, which also estimated that the rate of infection was doubling every nine days. That takes us close to the peak of infections last spring, although the death rate for people who have severe Covid is down from last spring, probably because a lot’s been learned about how to treat it.

Every age group in every region shows growth in the number of cases. In London, the R rate–the number of people each infected person passes the disease on to–was 3. The Southeast, Southwest, and East have an R rate above 2. On a national average, it’s grown from 1.15 to 1.56.

Regional lockdowns in the north may have slowed the spread, although they don’t seem to have stopped it. The government is frantically trying to avoid a national lockdown.

*

But it’s all going to be okay, because the government has plans to do a Covid test on 10% of England’s population every week, using tests based on saliva, which are easier to manage than the current ones and give a result in thirty minutes. The plan is ambitious, headline-grabbing, and badly thought out. In other words, pretty much what anybody who watches this government would expect. 

The idea is that local directors of public health will “be eligible to receive” tests “equivalent to” 10% of their population. Which is a roundabout way of saying that’s how many tests they’ll get, but with a small escape clause in case someone needs to wriggle through the definitions of equivalency and eligibility. A properly motivated politician could emerge from that snarl rumpled and stained but still claiming victory.

In a moment of heroic bad planning, the project was launched without anyone talking to the local governments and health officials whose cooperation it depends on. 

What will the program expect of them? The head of the test and trace program, Dido Harding, said local authorities will “be responsible for site selection and deployment of [lateral flow] testing in line with their priorities.”

Lateral flow? Oh, come on, you know that. It’s what happens when things flow laterally, which is to say sideways.  

Did that help? 

I thought it would.

But it’s even better than that, since we’re translating. Things will flow not just sideways but also in a line with their priorities, which we can assume run sideways.

Whose priorities? I’m not entirely sure. Local governments’, probably, and they’ll get to choose their priorities by picking Option A or Option A. That way it’ll be their fault if Option 3 turns out to have been the obvious choice. Honestly, anyone would’ve been able to see it.

And no, I didn’t add that “[lateral flow]” business. That was some desperate reporter trying to condense a document full of waffle and bureaucro-speak.

So are local people wild about the program? Not demonstrably.

An anonymous director of public health said, “There is no point in testing large numbers of the population unless you do something with the results. We really, really want to improve testing and tracing, but once again this is the wrong way to go about it.”

Another public health official–a senior one, whatever that may mean, and also  anonymous–said, “We don’t know who does the contact tracing or how the workforce [to carry out the tests] is resourced. [That means paid for–and this is my addition.] We are trying to work out how this fits with the test-and-trace strategy with PCR testing and how any positive results are followed up and people are isolated.”

PCR testing is the kind that’s currently being done–the slower, more invasive kind of test.

And yet another anonymous senior public health official said, “They have come to us with a proposal that is poorly thought through. It is not clear what the cost is or the amount of work involved and there is nothing about contact tracing.”

As for the existing test and trace system, it might just meet its target of testing 500,000 people a day by the end of the month, but it’s done it by getting the results back to people more slowly than promised–sometimes at half speed–and bungling the tracing element. One in five people who test positive and are referred to the tracing side of the system are never heard of again. They’re abducted by flying saucers and held out of range of cell phones–or if you’re British inflected, mobile phones, whose name only promises that you can move them around, not that they’ll work where you so foolishly brought them. 

Are those lost people isolated while they’re there so they can’t pass on the virus? That’s the thing: We don’t know. But if you will get yourself abducted by flying saucers, you can’t blame Dido Harding for it, can you?

It’s also possible that the system’s missing more than one in five people. It depends when you wandered into the movie. Another article says less than 60% are reached, so that would be two out of five. 

I think. 

Oh, never mind the specifics. It’s all just a lovely, poetic way of saying the program’s a mess.

One article I found included an example of the kind of snafu that happens in the vicinity of the test and trace system: a small war over who’d pay for a portable toilet at a mobile testing station. The central government (I’m reasonably sure that would be the test and trace program itself) refused. Because they’re test and trace, after all, not test and toilet. That left two local entities playing hot-potato with it for days. In the meantime, the station couldn’t be set up, because no matter how little you pay people, and even if you put them on zero-hours contracts, they will want to pee eventually. 

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However hot that potato was, though, it’s a small one. Here’s a considerably larger one:

After advertising for people with a health or science degree (or an equivalent something or other) to work with experienced clinicians  in the English test and trace system, Serco–a private contractor–instead upgraded a bunch of people who were already working there, people with no relevant degrees or experience and who were working for minimum wage. That’s £6.45 an hour if you’re between 18 and 20 and £8.72 if you’re over 25.

You may have noticed that some years are missing there. That’s okay. Most of the callers are in the 18 to 20 group.

The job as originally advertised–the one the minimum-wage folks got moved into–was supposed to pay between £16.97 and £27.15 an hour. The people who got moved into the job are still working for minimum wage. 

That’s called upskilling. It’s not called up-paying. 

We can’t exactly say they weren’t trained. They got four hours of power-point training, an online conversation, a quiz, some e-learning modules (doesn’t that phrase send a thrill down your spine?), and some new call scripts. 

“It’s been an absolute shitshow,” one highly anonymous caller told a reporter. The callers are talking to people who’ve lost family members. People who cry. People who are in pieces. And the callers’ training manual says things like, “If somebody’s upset, be patient.” 

It leaves some of the callers themselves in pieces. They’re young. They have no training to help them deal with this. They’re in over their heads and they know it. 

I can’t imagine the system’s working any better for the people they call.

Somewhere in between advertising the higher pay level and giving the job to people at the lower one, the Department of Health and Social Care made a decision to split the job in two. The first set of callers would make the initial calls and then “qualified health professionals” would follow up. 

But Mr, Ms, of Mx Anonymous says, “There is no other call by a trained clinician.” The callers read out a list of symptoms, refer anyone who needs medical advice to 111, the Covid hotline, and only if they decide that there’s an immediate risk do they pass calls to a clinical lead. 

So this is, on average, a 20-year-old being asked to decide if there’s an immediate risk. No disrespect to 20-year-olds–I was one myself once–but you don’t have a lot of life experience to draw from at that age.  

Have I mentioned that the test and trace service is privatized? And that to date it’s cost £12 billion–more than the entire budget for general practice. More than the NHS capital budget for buildings and equipment.   

Which is one reason that a group of doctors have called for the money to be diverted to local primary care, local NHS labs, and local public health services. Local, local, and local. 

I’m not expecting anyone to listen to them.

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And so we don’t end on a completely sour note, Taiwan has marked 200 days without a domestically transmitted Covid case.

Its success is due mostly to reacting early and sanely: establishing coordination between government departments; emphasizing the use of masks; quarantining new arrivals. It didn’t hurt that both the strategy and communications with the public were led by experts.

It’s a radical concept, but it just might work.