How no-confidence votes work in Britain

Boris Johnson, Britain’s alleged prime minister, survived a vote of no confidence this week, and we could get all mopey about that if we wanted to, but instead let’s take the opportunity to have a good old crawl around the dusty corners of the British political system and see what we can find. Old coins? Abandoned rulebooks? Spiders? 

Nope, sorry. We find the no-confidence vote, in all its convoluted glory.

 

What is the no-confidence vote? 

The one Johnson just survived was an internal party affair, run by the Conservatives, the party with a majority in the House of Commons. That’s because what they’re voting on isn’t just the leader of the country but the leader of their party, and what takes precedence is the party, since–as should be clear to everyone–that’s more important. So it was only Conservative members of parliament who got to vote.

The same was true last time they held a no-confidence vote, back when Theresa May was prime minister. We could go back further, but I’m getting full of cobwebs so let’s head off in another direction. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: a peony

While Conservative MPs cast their votes, the rest of the country got to sit back and wonder how many would vote which way. It’s like catching the clowns crawl out of that tiny car at the circus and wondering how many more there’ll be. Except the clowns are running the country.   

If it strikes you as odd that a single party gets to choose the head of the country, we’re nowhere near the center of the issue yet. The party also gets to set the rules on when and whether there’ll be a vote and how it’ll be run.

Yes, this business of having an unwritten constitution’s a barrel of laughs. I recommend it to any country that feels like the fun’s gone out of politics. 

 

The rules

Under the party’s current rules, if 15% of the Conservative MPs send a letter of no confidence in the prime minister to something called the 1922 Committee, then the committee has to call a vote.

At least I think it has to. What I’ve read goes a little hazy there. Maybe they have to and maybe they don’t but always have. So far, they’ve always called a vote.

The 1922 Committee, by the way, is called that because it was set up in 1923.

We’ll move on before we get upset, okay?

The committee’s an arm of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons and seems to insert its nearly-hundred-year-old hand into every Conservative leadership battle. It meets weekly, gathering up the backbench Conservatives–and by backbench I mean the MPs who don’t hold government positions, the ones down the food chain who aren’t personally in power even when their party is.

So the committee gathers the backbench Tories (Tory means Conservative but takes less time to type) and gives them a forum, allowing them to “air their concerns” and be a pain in the keyhole of Number 10 Downing Street, where the people who really have the power both govern and (since we’re talking about the current bunch), drink, fight, party, and vomit. 

To repeat myself, since I’ve wandered: Once the committee collects the letters from 15% of the Conservative MPs, it calls for a vote. Given the current breakdown of the House, it took 54 letters to trigger a vote. Once that happens, a prime minister then has to win a majority of the Conservative MPs plus one–in the current situation, 180–to stay in office.

The letters can be anonymous or the writers can make them public. They can also withdraw them if a) they decide the timing’s wrong, b) they were threatened thoroughly enough, or c) they were offered a juicy government post. 

Government posts? Johnson had already handed out 173 government jobs, making his MPs everything from members of the Cabinet to junior ministers to dog wranglers to extras who don’t have any lines but do hang around the edges of the scene in costume and then hope they don’t get edited out of the final cut. 

If you happen to hold one of those jobs, you’d think two or three times before voting yourself out of it.

Johnson carried 60% of his MPs–211 votes–which was a smaller-than-expected number according to at least according to one newspaper.

The party’s rules say that, having survived the vote, a prime minister is safe from another challenge for a year.

So is he in the clear? Well, no. The last time the Conservatives held a no-confidence vote, Theresa May was the prime minister and she scraped together a larger proportion of her party than Johnson has, but within eight months she was out on her ass.

How’d that work? Well, the committee threatened to change the rules and allow another vote before the year was up unless she set a date for her resignation. 

Better to jump than be pushed, she figured. Johnson, however, will need to not only be pushed, he’ll need to be wrapped in canvas, tied, and thrown overboard.

But there’s talk that the MPs who voted against Johnson may not wait for that. If they refuse to vote with the government–not necessarily voting against it but abstaining–they’ll deny Johnson hte powerful majority he’s had in Parliament, paralyzing him. Since they represent all the available wings, feet, and claws of the party and refer to themselves as a coalition of chaos, it’s hard to know if they’ll do anything that coordinated.

 

What happens when a prime minister loses a no-confidence vote?

They limp on as prime minister until they’re replaced, because the country has to have a prime minister, however vague and ineffective. Meanwhile, the party that tossed them out selects a new one–according to its own rules.

But that’s if it has a majority. If it doesn’t–say if two parties governed as a coalition–or if the party’s so badly split that it can’t come up with a candidate, it gets messy.

You thought it was already messy? Ha. Shows what you know.

I’ll simplify this, but basically if someone–anyone–can gather enough support for a new candidate, there’s a confidence vote held in 14 days. If they survive that, they’re the prime minister. If not, there’s a general election and all the MPs have to run for their seats again–something they very much don’t want to do unless, of course, they think their party can come back with a big majority, but that’s always a gamble. It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, as Yogi Berra is said to have said.

If no candidate emerges, then somewhere along the way the prime minister has to advise the queen that there’ll be an election, because the queen needs to know stuff like that.

The queen says, “Oh.”

Then everyone involved tears off their clothes and runs around Westminster Palace playing either banjos or tubas and throwing confetti.

Okay, I made some of that up. If you want a full (and sane) explanation of how it works, go look at the BBC’s graphic.

 

How other parties run a no-confidence vote

So far, I’ve only talked about how the Conservative Party holds a no-confidence vote, but since each party sets its own rules, they have no bearing on what other parties do in a similar situation. So let’s take a wider look.

Labour: Okay, this is awkward. I haven’t found a clear explanation of how the Labour Party holds a no-confidence vote. Possibly because it doesn’t really hold them. When Jeremy Corbyn led the party (which was the opposition then, not the government), his fellow MPs held a no-confidence vote but he didn’t resign since the party doesn’t have any rules governing what that meant or what to do about it if it should happen. He argued that his support among the members outweighed his lack of support among MPs. And you know what? Why shouldn’t it? When your party doesn’t have any relevant rules, it doesn’t have any relevant rules.

Liberal Democrats: I couldn’t even find that much for the Lib Dems. 

Other Parties: I gave up, leaving a few parties floating free.

What does it all mean? I haven’t a clue. A party being able to dump its leader, as the Tories can, sounds democratic but in practice it seems to give a lot of power to small groups within the party, such as the extreme Brexiteers. If that’s true, you could argue that the forms of democracy are giving a great deal of power to a minority at the expense of the majority, but I’m raising that as a question rather than offering it as an analysis. 

 

Parliamentary votes of no confidence

It’s also possible for parliament as a whole, not just the majority party, to hold a no-confidence vote, and if the government loses, that would, once upon a time, have triggered a general election. But the rules changed when David Cameron was the prime minister. He introduced a new system called-fixed term parliaments. Since then, nobody has a clue what happens. 

As the House of Commons Library explains it, “The consequences of a government losing what would have been considered a question of confidence before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act have not been tested since the Act was passed.”

In other words, it hasn’t happened since the rules changed. Maybe everyone moves one seat down the table and cries, “No room, no room.” Maybe we go back to the scenario with the confetti and the musical instruments. We’ll all just have to wait and see. 

Remember what I said about how much fun an unwritten constitution is?

 

The important stuff

Can we get to the stuff that really matters now? Sooner or later, Boris Johnson will be carried out of Number 10 kicking and screaming and wrapped in canvas, and the question on everyone’s mind is, What will happen to the wallpaper? 

What wallpaper? The horrible and very expensive wallpaper that Johnson and his wife paid for, but only after they were caught trying to have a major party donor pay for it.

I’m not prone to imagining myself in public office, for oh so many reasons, but I can’t help putting myself into  his successor’s comfortable slippers–you know, the ones she or he puts on after work when he or she tries to turn back into her or his real self if (could we use the plural here, please?) if they still remember who that is.

Where were we? I was putting myself in that person’s slippers and  looking at the wallpaper that Johnson will leave behind (but only because you can’t take it with you). On the one hand, it was ruinously expensive–£840 a roll. You can’t just tear that down, can you? On the other hand, it’s awful. Who could live with it? And what sort of impression does it give other heads of state? You couldn’t have a serious conversation in front of it. I’m not sure you could eat a frozen pizza in front of it either.

I’m not sure what you can do in front of it other than run.

Is the next prime minister going to have to break with tradition and live somewhere else? I wouldn’t rule it out.

By now, of course, you want to see it. You’ll find a couple of photos here, along with a discussion of the money and who’s related to who in what way. It’s all deliciously scandalous and, except for the occasional wallpaper joke, has been pretty much forgotten by now.

Party news from Britain and–oh, you know, other places

The recent news from Britain demonstrates my theory that politicians aren’t brought down by corruption, by undermining democracy, or by heartlessness toward the vulnerable. It’s the human-size scandals that do them in. Not the kind that  wreck a country–we’ve developed a high tolerance for country-wrecking–but the ones that show the politicians as human-size jerks, people no larger than ourselves who we can afford to wipe off our plates.

Yes, it restores my faith in the basic lunacy of my species. (I’m assuming that’s your species as well.)

What’s happened, you ask? Or you ask if you’re not British, because over here we’ve been following this with either glee or despair or fury, depending on our pre-existing political convictions, our temperaments, and how warped our senses of humor are. Or in my case with a destabilizing mix of both glee and despair–a mix that leaves me wondering what kind of excuse for a human being I really am.

What I’m talking about is a drip feed of stories about Boris Johnson–Britain’s prime minister when he can spare the time and attention–along with the circle around him having broken every rule of the Covid lockdown that they imposed on everyone but themselves. At a time when people couldn’t be with family members as they died, Johnson and his cohort were holding parties. Or gatherings. Or work events. With wine and cheese. And, for one of them, a bring-your-own-booze invitation. 

Irrelevant photo: Cornwall’s trees may not tell you which way the wind’s blowing at any given moment, but they do let you know where the prevailing winds come from.

At a time when extended families couldn’t meet in parks, never mind at funerals, they were holding more work events involving alcohol. And in the spirit of screaming irony, dozens of people from the Cabinet Office’s Covid task force showed up at one of them. On the same day the government tweeted that workplaces couldn’t hold Christmas lunches or parties.

The prime minister has variously said that he wasn’t at one or another of them, that he was there but thought he was attending a work meeting, that no one told him they broke the rules, and that he was there but is really, really sorry, especially about the party the day before Prince Phillip’s funeral, which (this being Britain and all) may be the one that sinks him. 

On the other hand, the video of Johnson dancing around with a light saber isn’t from any of the lockdown gatherings. Fact checkers have established that it predates the pandemic.

You feel better now, right?

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Meanwhile, Michael Fabricant, a Member of Parliament from Johnson’s own Consevative Party, accused the BBC of attempting a coup.

How? By covering the Partygate story. 

“This is not news reporting an event,” he said. “This relentless news creation is a coup attempt against the prime minister.”

What the hell, a coup attempt made big news in the U.S. I expect he thought tossing the phrase into the conversation would trigger the same sort of attention here. 

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At more or less (mostly less) the same time and no doubt backing the BBC’s coup attempt, dozens of people in dark suits, Boris Johnson masks, and floppy blond wigs turned up in Trafalgar Square and outside Downing Street with beer, wine, music, and British flags to drink, dance, and chant, “My name is Boris,” and “This is a work event.”

I heard some pundit on the news saying that when the political response shifts from anger to mockery, a politician’s career is over. Stay tuned and we’ll see if it’s true.

 

And in party news from elsewhere

A December 30 charter flight from Montreal to Cancun, Mexico got so rowdy that the passengers were banned from their return flight

The trip had been organized by something that describes itself as an “exclusive private group,” the 111 (pronounced  Triple One) Private Club. 

If exclusivity depends on who you exclude, I’m happy to be among the people who get left out of this.

The passengers drank and danced in the aisles, maskless, and of course video’d themselves to provide evidence. Because nothing that happens happened if you don’t have a selfie to prove it. 

The airline they flew down on, Sunwing, canceled their return flight. It did negotiate with Triple One about taking them back, and it got as far as agreeing that the passengers would show up sober and not be served any alcohol on the flight, but negotiations broke down over food: Sunwing said it wouldn’t serve meals. Triple One said that on a five-hour flight they’d fade away without it. 

Okay, I haven’t a clue what Triple One actually said, but negotiations did break down at that point. Last I heard Triple One said it was working to get the passengers home and two other airlines also refused to have them on board. I

Who were these little charmers? Influencers. Reality TV stars. A small handful of the organizer’s business partners. They were facing  fines when they got home. And possibly jail time, which gives a whole ‘nother meaning to the word  reality

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And finally, an Australian four-year-old wanted to have a party of his own–he had a birthday coming up–and used his father’s phone to order $1,139 worth of cake and ice cream, including a personalized birthday cake, from Uber Eats. It was delivered to the fire station where the boy’s father works, and the firefighters accepted the order.

What sane person, after all, would ask questions before accepting a thousand dollars worth of cake and ice cream? 

Uber Eats agreed to refund the money and the parents are speaking to the kid again, although I don’t know if he got to eat any of the stuff he ordered. Which doesn’t make it much of a party for him. 

Boris Johnson will be drafted in to consult with him on his party planning as soon as he’s booted out as prime minister.

Why England’s ditching the face mask

England’s preparing to declare a half-assed victory over Covid (“We have to live with it”) and celebrate with a nationwide germfest. Starting on July 19–or yesterday, if you want to be the first kid on the block–masks will be voluntary. Social distancing will be a memory. Getting drunk and hugging strangers will be an Olympic sport.

No, sorry. England doesn’t get to decide on Olympic sports. I got carried away.

If you want to gather a few thousand of your closest friends in a closet for snacks and drinkies, you’re free to. Sporting events will be back. If you’ve been working from home, you can go back to the office. 

Cases, our alleged prime minister Boris Johnson predicted, will rise to 50,000 a day and “we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid.” But as long as we slip the word sadly in there, who gives a damn? I mean, these are people who’d die sooner or later, wouldn’t they? Of something.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coast

What they’re counting on is that vaccination has–in the phrase that’s being used so often that it’s started sticking to the walls–weakened the link between infection and hospitalization. Or sometimes the phrase is broken the link.

Broken it ain’t, and although the link’s weaker, the number of Covid hospitalizations has risen.

The main regulation that’s left is that you have to self-isolate if you’ve been exposed to the virus. Unless you’re fully vaccinated, in which case you get to collect £200 pounds in Monopoly money and start the game again.

A lot of this is about the economy, although how face masks damage the economy is beyond me and in the long run I expect all this will do more damage than good. The rhetoric on it is particularly brainless. You’re welcome to keep wearing masks, but it’s now a personal choice. Johnson said that we need to “move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus.”

The next logical step is to let people make their own informed decisions on drunk driving. They’re in charge of a heavy chunk of machinery that can kill or maim someone. Other people’s lives are in their inebriated hands. But hey, it’s not for the government to tell them what to do.

Long live the extreme edge of libertarian logic.

 

Do masks actually make a difference?

Well, a study compared counties in Kansas that had face mask mandates with those that didn’t. Mask mandates reduced Covid cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities by 60%.

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And since we’re talking about masks, a new Covid test has been developed that takes the form of a facemask. You wear it for 90 minutes and it either detects Covid or doesn’t, with the same accuracy as the PCR test–those slow, lab-based tests that are the gold standard for Covid testing. 

The team that invented it is looking for a manufacturing partner to mass produce it.

I see articles about new, fast, accurate Covid tests fairly regularly, and for a while I was mentioning them here. But after that, I’d hear nothing more about them and I kind of gave up on the topic. This one, however, has the potential to be tweaked so it detects all sorts of pathogens and toxins. I thought it might be worth a mention.

 

What about wind instruments and Covid?

It turns out that blowing through wind instrument generates fewer aerosols than either singing or talking. In fact, it’s no more than a person generates by breathing.

The amount of aerosols that singers and speakers generate rises with their volume. That holds true for both amateur and professional singers, regardless of their vocal training, their lack of vocal training, and how good or bad they sound. You run as much risk listening to a terrible singer as a good one, and get less back for it.

 

And what did you do with your time in lockdown?

A civil engineer set a new Guinness world record for the tallest stack of M&Ms. It took him hours, but it was raining, he was in lockdown, and he eventually managed to balance five on top of each other.

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On the other hand, a six-year-old, Apollo Premadasa, wrote a string quartet, “Pandemia,”  and at the height of the pandemic emailed a London hospital to tell them about it. 

“I wrote this piece to say thank you to all the doctors, nurses and scientists around in the UK and around the world for all their hard work during the pandemic,” he said. “It’s been a really hard time for them and they have all been heroes.”

He plays the trombone, cello, and timpani, and he composes music. And in case you’ve forgotten, he’s six years old. 

To celebrate the National Health Service’s 73rd birthday, it was performed at the hospital

The Wallpapergate scandal goes free range; welcome to Nannygate

I hope you don’t mind a quick dip into political sleaze, because I do enjoy a good scandal and here in Britain we have one that’s going free range. Just before an election. Yes, friends, Wallpapergate is turning into Nannygate which is turning into Personal Trainergate.

I’ll stop gloating for a paragraph or two and translate for myself: Boris Johnson is being investigated for asking Conservative Party donors to pay for his and his partner’s £200,000 refurbishment of the prime ministerial residence, but that’s a few-days-old scandal. Now it’s now come out that he also approached donors to pay for his and his partner’s nanny and his personal trainer

I did use the phrase “the couple’s nanny,” but no, the nanny doesn’t take care of the couple, although if she (and I’m making assumptions there, I know) did she might’ve saved them from their wallpaper. But no such luck. She’s there to take care of their kid, who’s a year old. 

I won’t get into the whole nanny thing. Really. I won’t. I’m putting on mittens to limit my typing. 

Irrelevant photo: speedwell–a wildflower

It all makes me wonder, though, if Johnson also tried raising funds to pay for a food taster and a herald to blow the trumpet when he’s coming into a room. If he has, it hasn’t hit the headlines yet, but I’m ruling nothing out. 

The latest of Wallpapergate is that Conservative Party staff members have been told to hand over all communications that relate to it. They’ve been threatened with criminal charges if they don’t, which has a certain irony since their boss isn’t being threatened with criminal charges, although the email they were sent did say, “You are put on notice that this is a criminal investigation.”

Johnson is said to have taken out a personal loan to pay back whatever money was borrowed to cover  the renovations of his flat, although he’s dodged questions about when he did that. The loan he received hasn’t been declared, and neither has whatever he borrowed or solicited and then repaid. That signals trouble, although I have no idea how deep.

Prime ministers are given £30,000 to wipe away all visible traces of their predecessors, so that leaves only £170,000 to repay. 

To put that in perspective: If you worked a 40 hour week at the London minimum wage, which is higher than the national one, you’d take home something in the neighborhood of £17,000 a year, so if you didn’t frivvel that away on groceries and rent or anything else, it would take ten years to save that up. 

At the London real Living Wage of £10.85, you’d take home something like £22,000. 

Johnson, on the other hand, makes £150,000 a year as prime minister. That means he’s licking the underside of the top 1% of British earners, but he’s apparently told friends that he needs to make twice that just to keep his head above water. Rumor says he’s broke, although you might want to wait until the music stops and the numbers have all tried to grab the chairs that are left before you decide what to believe on the subject.

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But I mentioned elections, so let’s talk about them: All across the country we’ve got local elections coming up on Thursday, and they’re being taken as a test of the impact all this is having on the electorate. Whether it’s a fair test is arguable. I’m not sure how much national politics translate to local elections. 

Some pundits speculate that the mythical man in the pub (and I’m reasonably sure they do mean the man) doesn’t care about Wallpapergate. What I’ve noticed, though, is that most of the Conservative newspapers seem to have turned against Johnson on this. I haven’t a clue how it’ll go or what it’ll mean. 

In Scotland, though, the elections will decide whether there’ll be another referendum on leaving the United Kingdom and joining the European Union. That referendum, if it’s held, will either be sanctioned by the British government or it won’t be. And if it isn’t, it’ll either be held anyway or it won’t be. I think that covers all the possibilities.

It’s going to be interesting here for a while.

The Wallpapergate scandal

First, a warning: Actual wallpaper is involved in Wallpapergate–massively ugly wallpaper, in my opinion highly biased opinion–but no actual gate is known to be part of the story. If there were a gate, though, it would be a very expensive gate, a high-end type of gate, because this is about Boris Johnson and his partner, Carrie Whatsit, spending something in the neighborhood of £200,000 to redecorate the apartment that prime ministers live in. 

Whose money were they spending? That’s where it gets interesting. Initially it seems to have been from major Conservative Party donors, but when the nosy neighbors–also known as the rest of the country and specifically a former aide who he’d first confided in and then pissed off–started honking and quacking about it, he paid it back.

Apparently. All he’s saying right now is that he paid for it personally. He’s not saying when he did that, although he has been asked.

Irrelevant photo: Wallflowers

Prime ministers are given a budget of £30,000 to redecorate the prime ministerial apartment when they move in, and you might think a person could manage with that in a pinch. The Johnson-Whatsit household could not. So, hands up, please: How many of us (al) have £200,000 worth of spare change rattling around in our pockets and (b) would use it to redecorate an apartment we don’t own and don’t have a lease on? An apartment we could be kicked out of the minute the political winds start blowing from some new direction? 

Yeah, preliminary polling predicted the count would go that way.

Maybe Johnson and Whatsit are counting on a long political and residential tenure–a kind of thousand-year Reich, only with wallpaper.

The story starts, as nearly as I can figure out, with Johnson and Whatsit moving into the prime minister’s apartment and declaring it a “John Lewis furniture nightmare.” 

I need to stop and translate that for readers who don’t live in Britain. John Lewis is a department store, and it’s either upmarket or downmarket, depending on what street you entered the market from. If you came in on the street not just used but owned by people who’d be mortified to have the same couch as anyone else, then John Lewis is downmarket. 

Johnson and Whatsit very much came in on that end. 

But I could be wrong to call the piece of furniture we’re talking about a couch. Maybe it’s a sofa. Or a davenport. Or–oh, hell, I’ll never understand the linguistic clues to class that make British English such a minefield. I do know that key objects have different names depending on your pedigree and your bank account. And that it’s all horribly important and completely insane. And may all the gods of snobbery help you if you get one of them wrong among the people who came into the market from Unique Sofa Street, because they take this (not to mention themselves) very seriously. 

Stop giggling. They do. So consider their embarrassment if they find out they’re sitting on a couch that any Tom, Dick, or Theresa May could buy. 

Theresa May was never really one of their crowd, but in fact she wasn’t responsible for buying the couches. Silly thing that she was, she left the furniture alone when she moved in and focused on trying to govern the country. I can’t say I was impressed by her idea of how that should work, but I will give her credit, belatedly, for not trying to make it involve wallpaper.

The Johnson-Whatsit wallpaper is said to cost in the neighborhood of £800 a roll. And of course you need a couch and curtains to match the wallpaper, and a rug to clash with the wallpaper, and all manner of other stuff in startling patterns. The funniest of the photos seems to have disappeared from the internet, but as I remember it, it involved overwhelmingly patterned wallpaper, a couch screaming to itself in the same pattern, and a person who was almost camouflaged by it all. Someone who wasn’t me described the style as Victorian bordello. I’ll take their word for it since I’ve never been to a Victorian bordello–I was born far too late–but they may be doing bordellos an injustice.

[Late addition: You can find a photo here.] 

I do understand that tastes differ, but if I moved into a place that looked like their post-renovation apartment does, I’d pay a lot of  money to make it stop. And I could do it for less than £200,000. All I’d need is a few cans of white paint and a wrecking ball.

So what happens next? I don’t mean furnishings-wise, because the couple seem happy enough in their house of horrors. I mean what happens politically

Well, the Electoral Commission will be investigating whether Johnson broke any of the laws about political financing. That should be fun, even though the commission’s investigations don’t usually end up with criminal charges. 

What all this proves–if anything–is that it’s not the big-league scandals that set the national alarm clock ringing–the ones where the people running the government hand huge contracts to their friends, who then bungle the work and are thanked for it and get more contracts. Those hit the headlines regularly and we roll over and go back to sleep. The ones that wake us up are the wallpaper, the snobbery about stores most of us can’t afford to shop in. It’s not that the others are hard to understand, but this is on such a human scale. We’re watching a panto, that over-the-top British theatrical form where there’s always someone to boo and hiss.

They’re not behind us (as the audience yells at a panto). They’re right in front of us. We can’t take our eyes away.

 

News from the Department of Unexpected Results

Belgium is facing a different kind of crisis: It needs people to eat more potatoes. The country normally exports them, but the Department of Unexpected Results reports that because of the pandemic a lot of potatoes went unexported.

What’s going on here? Do people eat fewer potatoes during pandemics? Does exposure to Covid reduce people’s carb cravings? Do people only eat potatoes when they’re away from home? Tempted as I am to toss you a few off-the-top-of-my-head answers, these questions are too important for that. What we need here is a serious study. While—we hope–someone’s doing that, let’s treat the issue gently and try not to break anything. In other words, let’s not speculate.

And while we’re waiting for the results of those studies, why not make yourself a nice portion of potatoes? You’ll help improve international relations and fight Covid, all in a single act, with no intermission. The Belgians like their potatoes deep fried, with mayonnaise, but you’re welcome to eat them any which way. 

My thanks to Be Kitschig for alerting me to this crisis. 

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Young kids in Ireland and the U.K. responded to the recent lockdowns and school closures by reading longer, more difficult books. That comes from a survey of a million kids, who are reading fewer books but more challenging ones. And they’re understanding them. They’ve had more time to read and the little stinkers are surprising everyone by actually doing it. 

Then they get into secondary school–in the U.K. that happens when they’re around eleven–and after the first year the improvement stopped dead. 

Okay, admittedly, there hasn’t been time to follow the same kids from primary to secondary school. This is a different batch of kids we’re talking about. But is something about being in secondary school killing off kids’ interest in reading, even when they’re not in the building? The answer is a resolute I don’t know, but the study’s author is calling for schools to make more time for kids to read and for secondary schools to encourage kids to read harder books.

Still, we take our good news where we can find it these days: Young kids are voluntarily reading harder books. It’s a safe guess that they’re doing that because they’re enjoying them. And that’s got to be a good thing.

The Covid update for Britain

Between lockdown and vaccination, Britain has fewer people dying of Covid on any given day than in–well, let’s say anytime in the last three months because I found some very pretty graphs that use that as a reference point. We also have fewer Covid cases (as opposed to deaths) than we did three months ago, but the downward slanting line has flattened out. Maybe because the schools have reopened, but that’s guesswork. You’ll find other possible reasons below.

By mid-March, half of Britain’s population had antibodies, some from vaccination, others from having had Covid. 

Okay, not half: 54.7%. Most of us who’ve been vaccinated have only had one dose and are waiting nervously for the second. At least my partner and I are nervous. We’re coming up toward twelve weeks and haven’t heard a memory of an echo of a whisper of a date. 

The main thing, though, is that case numbers and deaths are both down and we’re breathing a bit easier. The country’s coming out of lockdown in stages, peeping its head over the parapet to see if the virus is still shooting at us.  

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn

Should people be working from home?

So what would any sober, sensible prime minister do in that situation?

Damned if we know, because we don’t have one. We’ve got Boris Johnson, and he’s told us that people who’ve been working at home should go back to–

What do you call that place? The office. They should go back and start working from their offices. They’ve had enough days off, he told the Conservative Party spring conference.

The exact quote is, “The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.” Making it not exactly his idea, but one that originated elsewhere and meandered into his head because there isn’t much in there to stop it. 

That followed on the heels of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, saying that people are likely to quit their jobs if they’re not allowed to go back to the office and businesses had better open up if they want to keep them.

Are office workers really desperate to start working from work again? It seems to depend when you ask, and who, so we’ll skip the numbers and say that some want to keep working from home, at least until they can count on the workplace being Covid-free, and some would love to go back because they’ve been calling one square foot of kitchen table an office and they’ve had to share that with a cup of tea and the toast crumbs from breakfast. Not to mention until recently a small kid or three who they were supposed to be homeschooling. And the cat, whose spelling is terrible.

Recruitment agencies expect that a lot of people will want to work remotely after the pandemic ends. 

So working from home isn’t a simple yes/no question. It involves a lot of ifs and no answer will be unanimous. But offhand I’d say Johnson may have had his own work habits in mind when he assumed people were sitting around with their feet up, drinking wine and contemplating how to get someone who isn’t himself to pay for new wallpaper

Okay, it’s more than wallpaper. It’s also furniture. To the tune of £200,000. Which is, at least, more than the £2.6 million spent on a new briefing room.

But forget all that. How safe are workplaces?

A strike’s pending at the Swansea Department of Vehicle and Licensing Agency over workplace safety after 560 workers tested positive for Covid. That’s out of, as far as I can tell, something in the neighborhood of 2,000, so let’s say a quarter of the workforce. 

The union says the building’s too overcrowded for pandemic working. 

Britain’s had 4,500 workplace Covid outbreaks. 

What are businesses doing to make workplaces safe? Half of them have done Covid risk assessments. Others have done none or have outdated assessments. A quarter of them have been inspected during the pandemic. My world-beating mathematical skills tell me that means three-quarters of them haven’t been inspected. No employers have been prosecuted for violating Covid regulations.

That’s not to say that workplace outbreaks are due only to violations of the regulations, or that the regulations are up to the job of keeping people safe, only that they’re the measure we have at hand. 

If you want to read the guidelines, they’re here.  

At least part of what’s driving the push to get office workers back into the office–and this isn’t my speculation but that of genuine journalists (I only play one on the internet)–is that the businesses that feed on office workers need to be fed, and what they need to be fed is money. That can only happen when people work in central locations, then go out for lunch, stop in for coffee, and buy a pair of shoes on their way home. 

Office workers, put on your high heels and your ties (pick one, please; if you wear both you’ll draw too much attention to yourself) and get back into the office. Your nation needs you. 

Your nation needs your money.

 

So why isn’t the number of cases dropping?

I can’t give you a definitive answer on that, but I can toss a few possibilities at you. If we practice this long enough, you’ll know when to duck.

I mentioned that the schools have reopened. That’s one factor. Another is that fewer than one person in five requests a Covid test when they have symptoms and only half self-isolate when they have symptoms. That’s from a large study by the British Medical Journal

The people least likely to self-isolate are men, younger people, the parents of young kids, people from working-class backgrounds, people working in key sectors, and people with money problems.

One of the (many) glaring gaps in the government handling of the pandemic has been not giving low-income people who have to self-isolate enough money to live on while they’re off work. 

The reasons people don’t self-isolate range from the compelling, including the need to buy groceries and pay the rent, to the self-indulgent. The self-indulgent ones include exercising, meeting people, and having only mild symptoms so what the hell.

The study took place in waves, over a good stretch of time, and it did see some improvement as time went on, from 43% self-isolating to 52%. The study’s authors said greater practical and financial help would improve the numbers and messages addressed specifically to men, younger people, and key workers might also help.

In the meantime, the country’s budgeted £37 billion for a test and trace system that hasn’t shown any clear impact. The Public Accounts Committee said it was set up with the goal of preventing lockdowns, but the country’s had two since then. It also said the spending was “unimaginable” and that the taxpayer shouldn’t be treated like an ATM machine.

Some of the test and trace system’s consultants are paid more than £6,600 per day.

In a pinch, a person could live on that. 

 

The elusive Covid inquiry

Assorted troublemakers have called for an inquiry into the way Britain’s handled the pandemic. You know the sort of troublemaker we’re talking about. The doctors publication the BMJ wanted one as far back as last September. A group called Bereaved Families for Justice, whose name pretty much explains what they’re about. Health workers. Minority ethnic organizations, whose communities have been hit particularly hard by the virus. A small bouquet of academics. The children’s book writer Michael Rosen, who recovered from Covid after a long (long, long) hospitalization and has written movingly about the experience, so he’s able, for the moment, to grab some lines of newsprint. Your basic troublemaking pick-and-mix.

Some of them want a wide-ranging inquiry into what went wrong and others want a tightly focused inquiry into what should be done in the future, but that division’s in the background right now. They can argue over it later.

And then there’s Boris Johnson, who says he wishes he’d done some things differently but he’ll keep all that between himself and his pillow at 3 a.m. In the meantime, sorry, but no inquiry–not to not to figure out how to do better in the future and not to figure out what went wrong–and a horrifying amount has, both stuff you can chalk up to incompetence and stuff you can chalk up to corruption, not to mention stuff that embraces both with enthusiasm.

Other ways of holding public inquiries are possible, though, and they’re outside the prime minister’s grasp. Ian Boyd, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, better known as Sage (Boyd’s a sir, but I never can bring myself to attach that sort of nonsense to people’s names), suggested a royal commission–basically a committee of experts pulled together to investigate an issue. It wouldn’t have as much power to gather evidence as an inquiry form with the prime minister’s blessing and that of his pillow, but it could get some work done–probably with less political interference.

Brexit, paperwork, and bad metaphors

What’s been happening in the US these days makes Britain look like an island of sanity. Yes, we’re led by a buffoon who can’t remember from one minute to the next which direction he’s leading us in, only that he wants to lead, but at least he’s not inciting armed mobs to storm Parliament.

Admittedly, Boris Johnson did–with only a bit of exaggeration on my part–invite a virus in to storm the population, but the times we’re living through set a low bar for political wisdom. The last time I looked the bar was underground and you could shuffle across it without having to lift your feet out of the dead leaves. So yes, he lost control of a pandemic through stupidity and for political gain–not to mention financial gain, although I have no evidence that he’s personally one of the beneficiaries. But hey, look, no armed mobs inside Parliament! 

So yeah, we’re doing fine. Let’s check in on Brexit, shall we?

 

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil after the rain. It has been raining a lot, and the first daffodils really are coming out, but I stole this from an earlier year.

Brexit

Brexiteer Bill Cash (he’s a Conservative and a Member of Parliament, known as Sir Bill to his nearest and dearest) compared Brexit to the end of the Stuart dynasty. 

How’d the Stuart dynasty end? Not well if you were a Stuart. Well enough if you weren’t either a Stuart or Catholic. We could call the transition either a coup or an invasion, depending on our mood. Since I haven’t decided what mood we’re in, we’ll leave both possibilities on the coffee table.

The last Stuart king was (gasp!) Catholic. That upset enough powerful people, but then he had the temerity to have a son, who even before he was out of diapers was clearly a Catholic-in-training. In fact, he’d barely had time to get into diapers before England’s Protestant elite invited William of Orange (whose wife, Mary, was the king’s Protestant daughter) to invade. Which he did, and James looked at the cards he was holding and–probably wisely–fled.

But having been invited to the card party, Will and Mary found that the hosts got to decide how the game was going to be played. And that, kiddies, is called the Glorious Revolution, because the hosts limited the monarchy’s power, handing it to Parliament. 

It’s also called that because the winning side went on to write the schoolbooks. 

Is Brexit the Glorious Revolution all over again? Only if the Brexiteers get a free hand in writing the schoolbooks. 

*

But we’re not far enough away yet to worry about schoolbooks. We’re worried about the country getting slapped in the face with the dead fish of a half-thought-through border arrangement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

That’s a horrible, half-thought-through metaphor. Sorry. If it hadn’t made me laugh–and if it didn’t have some truth to it–I’d replace it with something marginally more sensible.

What I’m talking about is that during the endless Brexit negotiations, relatively sane politicians were afraid of restarting the Troubles in Northern Ireland, so Boris Johnson was under a lot of pressure not to mess up the Good Friday Agreement which (a) ended them and (b) established an  invisible border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. It let goods and people flow between the two without so much as a wave or a wink from an official. 

The problem was how to keep that when the rest of Britain separated from the E.U. and the laws and regulations go out of synch, making barriers and inspections and paperwork necessary. The negotiators never found more than two possibilities: Either you have a visible, functioning border dividing the two parts of Ireland or you have one between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. Britain didn’t like either solution, and the problem stumped savvier politicians than Johnson, including Theresa May. 

I never expected to say anything good about May, but there you go, I just did: She had the smarts to know it was a problem. Johnson just signed an agreement putting the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, lied about it, and figured something would come along to save his hash. Paperwork? he said. There won’t be any paperwork. It’ll all be seamless.

It’s not, and the transition has found any number of companies in Britain waking up to discover that they need all the paperwork Johnson told them they wouldn’t. Trucks are getting stuck at what’s now an internal border somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea. We’re hearing tales about British companies that no longer deliver to Northern Ireland, although I have no idea if we’re talking about two companies or several thousand.

Presumably that will settle down once companies figure out the paperwork, but the long-term effect on Northern Ireland and its union with Britain should be, um, interesting.

*

An online group that campaigned for Brexit, Leave.eu, has found that an unexpected result of winning the Brexit battle is that it had to choose between keeping its domain name and leaving Britain for the EU, because .eu domains are limited to, you know, the EU. 

So the group re-registered itself in Ireland, using the contact details for businessman Sean Power, who when a newspaper contacted him about it seemed surprised said he had no links to the group.

 

And in other news

A new study says that if the world can stabilize carbon emissions at net zero, the planet’s climate could also stabilize within a couple of decades. The belief had been that the world would tip into runaway heating, but if the new model’s correct we have some hope.

We do need some hope. 

Net zero? It’s sort of like when you run water into the bathtub and the phone rings and it’s only going to be a minute so you don’t turn it off but you do go in the other room so you can hear yourself think but you lose track of things and by the time you come back the water’s up to the rim. If you’re going to put yourself in there (and what’s the point of all that water if you’re not), you have to take some water out. That’s net zero. You have to balance the amount of carbon you dump into the atmosphere with the amount  you take out. Otherwise the floor gets wet.

Over a hundred countries have pledged to reach net zero by 2050. 

Do they mean it? I wish I knew, but more and more businesses and people with money and power are starting to notice that an overheated planet looks promises to be expensive, so maybe they’ll do more than mouth good words. Watch this space.

This space being not my blog but our planet. It’s the only one we’ve got. Even if you lose the URL, it’ll be easy to find.

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A study in JAMA Internal Medicine tells us that even rich Americans have worse health than people in twelve other industrialized countries. They’re more likely to die from a heart attack or cancer, or during childbirth. They’re more likely to have an infant die. The only area where the U.S. did better is in treating breast cancer.

That’s comparing rich, white, non-average Americans to average other-industrialized-country people. In other words, comparing people who get far better care than their average and below-average fellow citizens to an average of citizens in countries with less fragmented health systems. 

The comparison countries were Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. 

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Experts have found a correlation between traffic accidents in Asia and major football games in Europe. 

Let’s tackle the important questions first: Experts in what? In intercontinental football/traffic accident correlations, of course. 

Honestly. I have to explain everything.

That leaves us with the question of why there should be a correlation, and the answer may have to do with time zones. More people watch football–by which, if you’re American, you have to understand that we mean soccer–than any other sport, but the highest profile games are played in Europe. And they’re popular enough that people stay up to watch them. If a game starts at 8 pm somewhere in Europe, people in various parts of Asia may have to stay up till 4:30 to see the end. Or 5:30. And you know how it is: Once they see the beginning they have to stay up for the end. Then they spend the day sleep deprived. And since we live in a car-based, not-net-zero world, they get behind the wheel and end up in a ditch.

The researchers estimate–and it is only an estimate–that football games might be responsible for Singapore cab drivers having 371 accidents a year. 

Aren’t you glad you learned that today?

*

An HG Wells memorial coin issued by Royal Mint uses images from “The War of the Worlds,” including a tripod with four legs. 

Tri,” a Wells biographer wrote. “The clue is in the name. . . . [But] at least the clock numbers round the edge don’t go up to 13.”

A snapshot of pandemic Britain

Britain’s back in lockdown and the number of Covid hospital admissions is higher than at the pandemic’s first peak. Go, us! The prime minister loves to set records. That’s why we had such a lovely Christmas germ exchange. 

 

The snapshot

Having reopened for exactly one day, the primary schools are now shut again. 

To explain the logic behind that, we go to Boris Johnson’s public statements. On Sunday he told us, “Schools are safe and . . . education is a priority.” On Monday he told us kids could (who knew this?) “act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.” 

Well, yes. Who would have thought that transmission thingy on a Sunday? It takes the cold light of a Monday morning for that to make its way through the fog.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. This is the season for them. Almost everyone around here is complaining about the cold, but I feel very lucky to live in a climate where flowers bloom in the winter.

By Tuesday, Johnson had added the word alas to the situation. He says alas a lot. Maybe he always did, but he’s given himself so many reasons to alas this past year that someone I know set up a drinking game before his most recent press conference that would have her taking a drink every time he said alas. 

In fairness, she had a fistful of other phrases that would trigger a drink. I haven’t checked back to see how many bottles she emptied, but if she played the game at all (questionable, since drinking games like a cheering crowd and we’re not in crowd mode just now) she’ll still have the hangover.

*

Unlike schools, preschools–or nurseries, if we’re talking British–will be staying open, and Purnima Tanuku, the head of the National Day Nurseries Association, said, “What we didn’t hear from the prime minister . . . is the reason behind the decision . . . to keep early years and childcare open, i.e. the science behind it.”

Science? Figures? Oh, these fussy people. 

Maybe in next Monday’s cold light the figures will surprise us, alas, and be forthcoming. At which point the preschools may also have to close.

Tanuku did say that with not many kids attending and staff being out sick, many of them weren’t likely to stay open for long anyway.

Cynics suggest that they’re staying open because it’s harder for people to work from home with a three-year-old underfoot than with an eight-year-old. In other words, forget health, it’s all about the economy.

You’re shocked, I know. So am I.

The data on how effectively kids spread the virus is still contradictory, but a study of Florida elementary schools and high schools shows that Covid infections went up after they reopened. Florida’s  statistics list an infected person’s age and county, which makes it a handy place to study.

After high schools reopened, infections went up almost 30%. For elementary schools (that’s kids age 6 to 13, so it seems to include middle schools or junior highs), that was about 20%. The study didn’t include preschools, but in times like these a person who happened to be prime minister, alas, might want to be make his mistakes on the side of caution.

*

Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies tells us that the pandemic’s widening Britain’s inequality gap. More surprises, right? Poorer communities have taken a harder financial hit and their members are dying at roughly twice the rate of richer communities. Black and minority ethnic groups also have a higher death rate, in part as a result of disproportionately holding jobs that put them front lines. 

Kids from poorer families are hit harder by school closures. And people under 25 are twice as likely as older workers to have lost their jobs. 

The IFS has made several sensible recommendations to ameliorate the damage. Isn’t that nice? They’ll be ignored. 

 

New technologies that seem to be on the way

A new Covid test has been developed that not only gives a faster rapid result (five minutes as opposed to 20 or 30) but is accurate. It works by converting DNA to RNA and combining it with a technique called EXPAR. It will be called RTF-EXPAR. 

After that, unfortunately, I ran out of capital letters and couldn’t understand a thing. But it’s all very promising, they’ve applied for a patent, and they’re trying to get the beast into production.

If it works, it could be used for any RNA-based infectious agent or disease biomarker, including cancer.

I don’t know about you, but I understood the “including cancer” part of that sentence. The rest of it kind of went over my head, but I was impressed anyway.

*

An at-home antibody test may become available, allowing people to track their Covid immunity by identifying neutralizing antibodies.

You know neutralizing antibodies, right? They’re the ones you met at the neighbors’ just before lockdown sent us all scuttling back inside our own four walls. They’re the tiny beasties that keep the virus from infecting your cells, and Medical Express tells us that “emerging research suggests neutralizing antibodies offer the best protection against the virus.” So learn to recognize them and say hello nicely when you see them, please.

Tests have been able to measure them before this, but not quickly, easily, or cheaply. And not accurately. Other than that, though, they’re great.

Since we’re dancing on the edge of what’s known–especially in countries like Britain that are deciding to administer one dose of a two-dose vaccine–monitoring immunity (your own; the general public’s; everyone’s) could be useful, she said in a masterful use of understatement. 

They’ve also filed a patent application.

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.

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.

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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