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

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

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

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

*

Irrelevant photo: St. Nectan’s Kieve

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

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

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

It was a rare moment of honesty in political discourse.

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

And the check is in the mail.

*

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

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

“International what?” Donald Trump replied. 

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

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

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

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

For how long?

They didn’t say.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

They also might not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ministry of Impulsive Decisions reports the news from Britain

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

How can we tell that they’re advanced?

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, planning is this government’s strength.

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

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

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

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

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

The Department of Relentless Optimism is surprised by this.

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

Which ones, the interviewer asked.

Brazil, he said.

Could he name any others? the interviewer asked.

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

Yes, she asked, but what others?

[….science….]

[….science…]

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

*

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

Their lungs, he says, can be completely unrecognizable.

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

The Department of Silver Linings has taken note.

*

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

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

Britain’s chimneys and chimney sweeps

Britain’s earliest chimneys were strictly for the rich, and in the Tudor era, they were the must-have accessory. The aristocracy’s news feeds were clogged with targeted ads saying, Heat Your Castle the Modern Way

Heat Your Hovel ads didn’t show up for many a year. 

Hovel-dwellers didn’t have news feeds anyway.

Hovel-dwellers lived in single-story houses with a central fire whose smoke worked its way out through the roof (thatch is good that way, and I’ve heard that slates aren’t bad) or through a hole in the roof. If you were clever about covering the hole, you could let the smoke out and keep the rain from pouring in, all in one go, but no matter how clever you were, above a certain height these houses were smoky.  

Irrelevant photo: osteospermum, with a bit of valerian getting ready to bloom.

With the introduction of the chimney, though, at least some of the the smoke went politely up and out, changing the residents’ lives and lungs. On the other hand, a good bit of the fire’s warmth was polite enough to follow the smoke, so the change wasn’t all about gain.

If you have a third hand, balance this on it: Chimneys also meant you could heat a second story. You could even add heat to rooms that didn’t have fireplaces. All they had to do was cuddle up against the back of the chimney and suck up a bit of warmth. 

By the seventeenth century, enough chimneys had been built around the country that they were worth taxing. Enter the hearth tax, which was based on the size of the house and, most importantly, the number of chimneys it had. 

So what did the rich do? To minimize taxes, they started running the flues of multiple fireplaces up a single chimney.  Many fireplaces, many flues, fewer chimneys. In a big house, they’d still end up with more than one chimney, but nowhere near as many as they had fireplaces.

What innocents they were back then. Today, they’d just build the chimney in a tax haven and have as many as they wanted. So what if it cost more to build them there and import the heat? They’d still be saving on taxes, and the point of the game, once you have that kind of money, is to pay as little in taxes as possible and then yell, “I win!”

Nothing I’ve read tells me how people first discovered that chimneys had to be cleaned, but I’m reasonably sure the realization took the form of chimney fires, complete with the neighbors standing around saying, “I could’ve told them this would happen.” Or whatever the era-appropriate version of withering scorn was.

That’s how the occupation of the chimney sweep  was born, and when the country’s primary fuel shifted from wood to coal, which lines chimneys with creosote, it became even more important.

I’d love to pinpoint the moment when children were first used as sweeps, but I can’t find any information on it. My best guess is that children working in dirty and dangerous occupations was so much a part of life that for a long time it was barely worth mentioning. Kids worked in mines and quarries and everywhere else. In slate quarrying country, where I live, they’d send boys over the cliffs in baskets to set the explosives. It only made sense: They were lighter than the adults. 

A website maintained by a chimney sweeping outfit in Hartford, Connecticut, doesn’t give a start date but does say that kids were used most heavily as sweeps during the two hundred years between with the Great Fire of London (that’s 1666) and the mid-nineteenth century, when Britain outlawed them. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but any number of chimney sweepers’ sites include some history of the trade, and they’re reasonably consistent.

So let’s talk about those kids. The apprentices to master sweeps were usually boys but sometimes girls, and they were generally paupers or orphans. Anyone who had choices in life would look somewhere else for their kid’s apprenticeship. 

How old were they? Well, they had to be strong enough to be useful but small enough to climb up the inside of a chimney. And since narrow flues created a better draft, you’d be talking about a very small kid–usually around six, but they could (rarely) be as young as four.

And here we circle back to all those flues running up a single chimney. Remember them? The flues made sharp turns and had awkward angles, making them that much harder to get through and putting even more of a premium on smallness.

The kids worked their way up the chimneys using their backs, elbows, and knees, knocking the soot loose with a brush as they went, so it fell on and past them.

According to some sources, the apprenticeships were for seven years and according to others until the apprentice was an adult, although reaching adulthood wasn’t guaranteed. The dangers of sweeping chimneys included getting stuck, suffocating, and breathing the carcinogenic soot (one form of cancer was common enough to be called chimney sweep cancer). The kids also lived in the soot, because we’re talking about people who had minimal chances to wash and who generally slept on the sacks of soot that they collected and the master sweep sold. They grew up stunted and deformed and were prone not just to cancer but to lung problems. 

So yes,it was just like in Mary Poppins, all singing and dancing along the rooftops.

They also had to contend with hot chimneys and rough brick on their knees, elbows, and backs.

Their conditions horrified a fair number of respectable people, and many attempts were made to improve their conditions, mostly without changing anything substantial, although over time the pressure did grow. The turning point came when a twelve-year-old, George Brewster, got stuck in a chimney. A wall was pulled down and he was gotten out, but he died not long after. After that, child sweeps were finally banned.

The sweeps were replaced with brushes on long, long handles, which an adult could work up a chimney.

The bright spot in sweeps’ lives was their one yearly holiday, May Day, which coincided with local celebrations that predated chimneys and sweeps–and Christianity, for that matter. In a few places, May Day is officially a sweeps’ festival. 

Why that day? No idea. We just have to accept that it is and go with it.

I’ll leave you with a link to William Blake’s poem about a child chimney sweep. He wrote two versions. This strikes me as the stronger of them.

Censorship and freedom of the press in England: a quick history

Let’s talk about freedom of the press in England.

Why not in Britain? Because we’ll start before Britain became a country and because English law doesn’t apply to all of Britain. It’s enough to make a non-Briton dizzy. Don’t think about it and you’ll be fine.

We’ll start in 1403, before the printing press was brought to England. Before, in fact, it was invented. That’s when the Guild of Stationers was recognized by London, and it’s an important part of the story, so stay with me. The guild’s members were text writers, book illuminators, booksellers, bookbinders, and suppliers of parchment, pens, and paper. Just to confuse things it’s also called the Stationers’ Company.

They were called stationers because they set up stations–what we’d be more likely to call stalls–around St. Paul’s Cathedral. So there’s one mystery solved. 

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, getting ready to bloom.

Then the printing press came to England and printers joined the guild. 

Printing was the hot technology of the day, so what would any sensible government do but restrict it? When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English–both Henry VIII and England were still Catholic at this point–he played hide and seek with government agents in print shops all across Europe, where he’d fled. Copies of his translation were printed in Germany and smuggled into England.

In England, though, printing could be done only by English citizens, and anything that was going to be printed had to be approved by the privy council. 

Eventually Mary Tudor became the queen and the Guild of Stationers got a royal charter. That gave them a monopoly on printing, so members didn’t face competition from outside the guild. They could only have seen that as a good thing. They also had to settle disagreements over who owned what works within the group, and that led to the invention of copyright. 

We won’t go down that rabbithole today. 

The royal charter also meant that the guild had the power–and presumably the responsibility–to search out seditious and heretical books. Or, as its preamble puts it, “seditious and heretical books rhymes and treatises [that] are daily published and printed by divers scandalous malicious schismatical and heretical persons”.

The heresy du jour  was Protestantism, but after Mary died the heresy du jour was Catholicism, along with more Protestant forms of Protestantism than the approved form of Protestantism. 

So the content of sedition and heresy changed but the concept itself didn’t. 

Isn’t the world a strange place?

In their search for heresy etc., the stationers had to power search, seize, and destroy

Didn’t they get to have all the fun? 

This wasn’t exactly state censorship. It was censorship by a body chartered by the state but working in response to its own interests. I’m speculating here, but you might have been safe enough printing heretical pamphlets on the quiet if you kept on the good side of the guild’s more powerful members. And you might have found some surprising pamphlets stashed in a quiet corner of your workshop if you pissed off the wrong person.

We won’t slog through the period Tudor by Tudor. Let’s just acknowledge that each of them had an interest in stamping out sedition and heresy, in all its alternating forms. Freedom of the press was the next-door neighbor of sedition and would’ve been a dangerous concept to defend in public. If you had nothing to hide, you wouldn’t have any problem showing it to the privy council. 

During the Civil War and under the Commonwealth–that brief period when England was a republic–religious and political thinking went in directions no one could have predicted and no one could control, and print, being the social media of the day, was what all that intellectual ferment poured itself into. 

Given that this was during and just after a civil war, if you’d wanted to argue that freedom of the press and anarchy went together, you’d have found a good stack of evidence for your argument.

Then Cromwell died and Charles II took the throne, and he needed to put all that debate and argument and printing back in the box. The government passed the Licensing Act of 1662. Anything printed now had to carry the name of its printer and its author, and it had to be submitted to a licenser–that was a government official–before it could be printed. 

The licenser kept a copy to check against the printed version, just in case some sly devil inserted a disparaging paragraph about the size of Charles’s wig.

If the text was approved, then it had to be registered with–they’re back again–the stationers. 

The act was meant to be temporary–a placeholder until something better could be pieced together–so it came with an end date, but when nothing better appeared it was renewed. Until 1679, when everyone important got into a tizzy because of Titus Oates’ fantasies about a popish plot, and the act lapsed.

Newspapers moved into the empty space where censorship had once been.

Six years later, the act was reinstated, but the fun had gone out of it, somehow. Licensing print didn’t have the appeal it had once had. It had grown a pot belly and a chicken neck, some mornings it didn’t bother to shave, and heads didn’t turn anymore when it walked down the street. 

But guess what: The government found it could still punish treason, seditious libel, and blasphemy, and it could keep the press in line pretty well that way. And it was all so much more efficient.

A Jacobite printer was executed to prove the point. 

The threat of prosecution was enough to keep most publishers well back from the political edges. And those didn’t stay back? Some were fined. Some were jailed. Some fled abroad. Most played nice.

Before long, London had multiple newspapers and towns around the country had their own papers. The newspaper had become an integral part of the political landscape and that’s glorious but a lot less interesting.

English defamation law has worked at times to limit freedom of the press, since it puts the burden of proof on the defendant, not the plaintiff. In other words, if someone wants to shut you up, unless you have enough money and sheer cussed energy to defend yourself in court, you might just consider shutting up. 

And there are specified limits on freedom of expression. They include making threats, harassment, glorifying terrorism, incitement to racial hatred, or–oh, hell–calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Or imagining overthrowing the monarchy.

That last one carries a life sentence, although the law hasn’t been enforced since 1879. The Guardian challenged it in court and lost on the grounds that the law was a relic of a bygone age and that any change was unnecessary.  

And with that, we’ve come to the present day, so let’s check in with the Stationers’ Company and see what they’ve become now that they can’t stamp out heresy and search other people’s premises. The organization says it has almost a thousand members and sounds deeply snoozeworthy. Most members are “senior executives in the complete range of trades within the Communications and Content industries.” That’s so dull I had to copy it and paste it into place. I tried typing the words but kept passing out.

One of the group’s goals is to create a broad balance of membership. Toward what end? Why, so it can maintain balance, of course. In its membership. 

Listen, don’t ask me these things. They have a hall. You can rent it if the pandemic ever ends.

The pandemic update from Britain: Downing Street plays musical chairs

Boris Johnson has instituted a shakeup in Number 10 Downing Street. According to a senior Conservative source, it’s to “bring some order” to the decision making process. Here’s how it’s going to work:

Johnson will chair a strategy committee, called CS, because committees work best when their initials run in one direction and their names run in the other. Michael Gove will chair on operations committee, called CO, because ditto. Then someone will put on a piece of music and four ministerial groups that were set up to deal with Covid-19, along with the regular Covid-19 morning meeting will all run down the hall screaming. When the music stops–which will happen at some unpredictable time, well before the song reaches its natural conclusion–whoever’s left without an office will be returned to parliament, postage due. 

This may, it’s rumored, curb Dominic Cummings’ influence, although I’d be inclined to try exorcism myself. 

Except for the business about the hallway, the music, and the exorcism, this is real. 

Oh. And the postage due.

Irrelevant photo: A gerbera daisy.

*

In a stunning display of pointless determination, the House of Commons took 46 minutes to vote on a single measure on Tuesday. Or possibly 1 hour and 23 minutes. It depends on your source. And possibly on which measure they were timing.

However long it took, the time didn’t include the debate. It was just for Members of Parliament to cast their votes–something that would normally take 15 minutes.

They were kept the proper distance apart while they waited by an airport-style system that channeled them into a kilometer-long, snaking line. Cleverer writers than me (and also than I) have said that it looked like the world’s most boring theme park. In the photos I’ve seen, somewhere between none of the MPs and very few of them were wearing masks. Because, what the hell, they’ve given up all hope of escaping the virus. 

Since the middle of April, parliament’s been operating on a hybrid system that allowed some MPs to show up in person and others to vote and debate remotely. But the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, scrapped the hybrid system, forcing MPs to show up in person if they wanted to vote.

Why does R-M want them all back? To set an example. 

Of what? I don’t think he’s said. Certainly not of following government advice to minimize contact with people outside your household, work from home if at all possible, and only meet people out of doors in groups of no more than I don’t remember how many. 

I’ll admit, though, that they’re setting an example of the British stiff upper lip. As one MP said, “If I haven’t already had Covid, I’m now resigned to the fact that I definitely will.” 

R-M also said everyone had to come back because it will make democracy “once again flourish.” 

I don’t think he’s explained that either.

MPs who, for medical reasons, can’t come back will be able to take part in some debates remotely but they won’t be able to vote. Because, hey, if they’d had any foresight they wouldn’t have gotten themselves into this situation. To compensate for that, there may be pairing arrangements. That means that if an MP from one party can’t vote a paired MP from the opposing party is taken out and shot so they can’t vote either.

Okay, that’s not the exact wording of the proposal. Maybe they just put a bag over the sacrificial MPs head and lead him or her into a nice dark closet until the voting’s over. Which may take a while. 

Given that there are more than two parties, which  party do they pull the sacrificial paired MP from? Do they ask the non-attending MP, “Who do you hate most? We’ll keep them from voting”? Or do they take one MP from each party? 

But that’s only for MPs with medical reasons not to attend. What happens to MPs who live hours’ away from London at a time when travel’s limited? That’s up from grabs. They too should probably have thought their lives through before they got into that position.

Predictably, opposition MPs voted against the recall, but they were joined by a number of Conservatives–especially the ones who need to keep themselves out of the virii’s path because of age or disability or because someone in their family is particularly vulnerable. 

I don’t even begin to understand British law, but even so I seem to catch the scent of a lawsuit in the wind–from disenfranchised constituents or from older and disabled MPs or from both.

I’m not directly affected by this. I’m not an MP and I’d be happy enough to see my MP blocked of voting for almost any reason, but if I got a chance I’d join the lawsuit anyway.

*

The head of the UK Statistics Authority, David Norgrove (Sir David Norgrove to his friends), criticized Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s use of statistics on coronavirus testing, saying they’re “still far from complete and comprehensible.”

“Statistics on testing perhaps serve two main purposes.

“The first is to help us understand the epidemic . . . showing us how many people are infected, or not, and their relevant characteristics.

“The second purpose is to help manage the test programme, to ensure there are enough tests, that they are carried out or sent where they are needed and that they are being used as effectively as possible.”

However, the aim of the statistics Hancock throws around in his briefings, he said, “seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding.”

*

A couple of unpublished pages of Isaac Newton’s notes are up for auction, and one of them has a remedy for the plague. It involves making toad vomit and making both the vomit and the unhappy toad itself into lozenges. 

Believe me, you don’t want to know how they got the toad to vomit. And it was a different plague, so I wouldn’t bother trying it for this one.

The pandemic update from Britain: lockdown, lunacy, and a mention of Minneapolis

A pilot flew a private plane from Surrey to an airfield belonging to the Royal Air Force. That set off an emergency response involving the Ministry of Defence and fire crews, who (I’m reading between the lines here) wanted to know what the hell he thought he was doing.

He wanted to go to the beach, he said. 

Since the airfield is in Wales, that was a breach of the lockdown rules, which are different in Wales than in England. Or it’s believed to be a breach, since the rules don’t specifically mention landing your private plane on an airforce base so you can go to the beach. 

I think I can safely say that he’ll be in trouble with multiple agencies. I’m reasonably sure that lockdown will be the least of his troubles.

To put the situation into bureaucro-speak, the police are ‘considering’ whether there were ‘potential breaches’ of coronavirus legislation. And the Civil Aviation Authority has been alerted. It will be demanding a note from his parents.

So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that Dominic Cummings was on board. And if you haven’t followed who Dominic Cummings is, just follow the handy link, which will take you to a post by that noted expert, me, which will explain all. Or enough, anyway.

*

England’s contact tracing campaign continues to be a mess, with many tracers not able to log on. Some recruits have set up support groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, pooling their knowledge about what the hell they’re supposed to do, and how. One contact tracer reported (anonymously) that the app wouldn’t work with his or her microphone. Another had been working for three weeks and been asked to do nothing more than join an online training session. A third says he or she has learned to juggle with three balls. 

*

Some of England and Scotland’s coronavirus testing centers aren’t matching test results to either people’s National Health Service numbers or their addresses, which means their doctors aren’t told about coronavirus patients on their caseloads and local authorities can’t track outbreaks in their areas.

Back in March, the devolved governments–that translates to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland–told Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, that the system he was setting up had problems, and Northern Irland and Wales insisted on changes. Scotland and England went ahead. 

Wales and Northern Ireland get to play a satisfying round of I-told-you-so. 

*

An NHS trial is giving Covid-19 patients blood plasma transfusions from patients who’ve recovered, and the trial’s set to expand. The hope is that the antibodies will help them fight off the disease. 

To date, it’s only been tried on patients in intensive care, but it may be more effective if it’s used earlier. Stay tuned.

*

Back in April, the British government’s science advisory group noted that only half the people who came down with Covid-19 symptoms followed the government’s advice to self-isolate for fourteen days. It recommended doing some quick research to figure out what it would take to get people to follow the guidelines. 

As the lockdown eases and the government’s betting its rapidly diminishing stack of chips on testing people, tracing the contacts of anyone who tests positive, and isolating the cases they find, people actually isolating themselves becomes crucial.

Not going into isolation when you should is apparently now known as doing a Cummings. 

Some members of the science advisory group are now warning that easing the lockdown now will lead to a second wave of cases. In England, 8,000 people a day are still becoming infected, and that doesn’t count people in care homes or hospitals. That data’s collected separately and the two data sets aren’t speaking. You know how it is in some families. 

It also doesn’t count cases in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.

One advisor, John Edmunds, said, “If you look at it internationally, it’s a very high level of incidence.”

The current R rate–the rate at which the virus spreads–is between 0.7 and 0.9. At anything above 1, the pandemic grows. At 1, it stays the same, which at a rough guess means 80 deaths a day.

John Edmunds’ colleague Jeremy Farrar tweeted, “Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. Agree with John & clear science advice. TTI [test, trace and isolate] has to be in place, fully working, capable [of dealing with] any surge immediately.”

 

*

England’s chief medical officer said, in a carefully worded statement, that the country’s at a very dangerous moment. It wasn’t a clear criticism of the government, but a listener could be forgiven for thinking it was.

He also said, mentioning no names, that England’s lockdown rules applied to all.

*

MPs’ inboxes have been swamped by messages about Dominic Cummings, most of them critical. So what does an overwhelmed MP do? Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall gave his responses the personal touch by hitting Send before he remembered to delete the part that said, “insert if there has been a bereavement.” 

He is, he said, incredibly sorry. He remembered to delete the part of the script that said, “Don’t get caught again.”

*

I don’t write much about American politics. Even though I’m American, I live in Britain. It’s not the best seat to watch the show from. But I have to go off topic and say something about what’s happening there, even though it’s happening in the wrong country and it’s not pandemic related.

I lived in Minneapolis for years, and a lot of you will know what’s happening: A few days ago, a white police officer killed an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck for seven minutes. On camera. While Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.”

What had Floyd done? Tried to buy something at a local food store. The clerk thought he’d paid with a counterfeit bill and called the police, because that was store policy. No one claims that Floyd knew it was counterfeit. At this point I don’t know if anyone cares whether it actually was.

First there were protests. Then there were riots. A CNN reporter was arrested while covering them, even after he showed  his i.d. He’s black. Yes, that’s relevant. 

Rumors are flying every which way. I can’t confirm them, so I’ll stick to what’s in the papers.

My old neighborhood’s been on fire. The post office, the library, and a whole lot stores have burned down, along with the police station where the officers involved in the killing were based.  

At a gym in another part of the city, a white man threatened to call the police on some black men because the gym was restricted to the tenants of the building and they couldn’t possibly have a right to use the same gym as he did. That was after demanding that they prove they had a right to be there. 

In Kentucky, police targeted a news crew covering a protest about a black woman who was killed by police in her own home. “Targeted” means they shot the reporter with pepper bullets. 

In Detroit, someone shot into a group of protestors from a car, killing a 19-year-old. 

In several cities, cars have driven into crowds of protestors.

I’m not using the word protestor to mean rioter.

Sorry–I’m supposed to be funny here, or to at least try. That’s the agreement we sort of made.  So to those of you who are in the U.S.: Guys, I know racism runs deep in our national DNA. If there’s such a thing as national original sin, that’s ours. But I also know that racism’s not the whole story, that there’s more to us than that. So I’m looking for you to sort this out, okay?

Don’t make me come over there. 

Cheese, spiders, and, um, let’s not put that in the headline: it’s the pandemic update from Britain

With the number of daily Covid-19 deaths falling, English schools are set to open on June 1, but not for all age groups, just for a couple. And not Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish schools, which make their own decisions. And not necessarily all English schools, because local governments–some of them–are digging their heels in and saying, forget it, we’re not opening. And not all kids, because parents have a get-out-of-school-free card and can look grim and keep their kids home if they want to.

But the government still says the schools will open, and if this is starting to sound like a round of The Cheese Stand Alone, that’s because it sounds like a round of The Cheese Stands Alone. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s a kids’ game that peels people away one by one until the cheese is left in the center of (if I remember right–it’s been a long time) the circle, feeling very lonely indeed. 

I thought I might have made that up but I checked with Lord Google, who assured me that I haven’t hallucinated my entire childhood. It’s a children’s game and song. One of the related questions that’s asked so commonly that it comes up all on its own is, “What does the cheese stands alone mean?”

Irrelevant photo stolen (twice now) from an old post: California poppies. Californians or not, they grow well in Cornwall and once you get a few going they’ll self-seed. Generally in places where you didn’t want them but they don’t object to being moved.

What indeed.

The question’s too deep for us here at Notes. We’re going to pretend we already know and skim right over the top.

At the beginning of the week, it looked like schools that didn’t open would have a fight on their hands. Now it looks like they won’t. The government isn’t in a position to fight this one.

*

What’s happening with the contact tracing app that’s going to make it safe to ease Britain’s lockdown, even if it limps in some weeks after the lockdown’s already been eased?

The tale gotten more interesting in the day or two. 

The government hired a couple of companies to hire a bunch of people to trace a whole bunch of contacts to control the virus. We’re not playing The Cheese Stands Alone now, we’re singing, “She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.” The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said that the spiders (those are the contact tracers) are going to have rigorous training,. With detailed procedures. Designed by experts.

Better yet, they’ve “stepped up to serve their country.”

They also–and I say this with no disrespect to the people involved–stepped up to get a badly needed paycheck.

One man who was hired broke cover to talk (anonymously) about the rigorous training. His day of online training started with an hour and a half of people typing, rigorously, to the trainer, “I can’t hear anything.” 

The trainer assured them that the problems were normal.  

Eventually either everyone could hear or enough people could hear that they began asking questions. The trainer told them he couldn’t answer them all–there were too many trainees. 

“After the full day of training,” the now-trained trainee said, “people were still asking the most basic things.”

Someone asked what to do if they talked to someone whose relative had died. They were told to look on YouTube for videos about sympathy and empathy. 

After that, the trainee was a fully qualified contact tracer, scheduled to work the next day. He logged in and got a message telling him he’d get instructions on what to do.

He waited all day. Nothing happened. 

He got an email telling him not to worry, he’d be paid anyway. And he’d get more training soon.

Another trainee said she hadn’t been able to log in for three days. 

At last call, they’d recruited 1,500 out of the 18,000 they set as a target.

Oops, sorry. We’ll have 25,000 in place by June 1 and they’ll be able to deal with 10,000 new cases a day. We already have 24,000. And we’ll have a “fully functioning perfect system.” And it’ll be beautiful.

It’s all under control, folks.

*

In South Korea, they’re playing professional football again, but to avoid spreading the virus there aren’t any fans in the stadium, so before a recent game a company offered to place thirty mannequins to the stands. It would make them look lived in. It would be great. 

Offer accepted. What could possibly go wrong?

The game was shown and people noticed that some of the mannequins were holding up signs for X-rated websites. And a few noticed that they all looked like sex dolls.

What does a sex doll look like? Sorry, we’re well outside my sphere of expertise here. But not outside of everyone’s. If you gather enough people, someone will be in possession of whatever obscure piece of information you really don’t want people to know. So it went public: Those were sex dolls in the stadium. 

The company that supplied the mannequins turns out to make sex toys. 

FC Seoul–the team whose stadium it was–has apologized and promised never to think about sex again. 

Pandemic reports from the Departments of Health, Bad Planning, and Unlikely Allies

The Guardian interviewed past British health ministers about their experiences. The best bit of advice came from Kenneth Clarke: “Get the prime minister to take as little interest in the subject as possible.” The best demonstration of cluelessness came from Jeremy Hunt: “I was gobsmacked to find that 150 patients a week die in the NHS because of treatment errors. Then I discovered that this was actually true all over the world, it’s what happens in medicine.”

Ah, Jeremy, it does me good to see that you came into the job with a real grounding in the subject.

*

Medical staff from the St. Peter Hospital turned out to meet Belgium’s prime minister, Sophie Wilmès. As her car rolled majestically between the two evenly spaced lines of people wearing scrubs, they turned their backs. It was to criticize staff shortages, low pay, budget cuts to health care, and the use of less qualified staff to do part of nurses’ jobs. I don’t know if it’ll change government policy, but it’ll sure as hell change the way the government organizes Wilmès’s public appearances.

*

Irrelevant photo: These are called, um, something. I always forget. They’re wonderful to touch, though.

Britain’s wrestling with the question of whether to reopen schools in June. So what does science have to tell us? 

Not much.

Only a few useful studies have been done, and they point in opposite directions. An Italian one from the town of Vo, which had a major outbreak, didn’t find a single kid under ten who’d been infected, even though plenty of them lived with people who were sick. Studies from Iceland, Norway, and Korea have similar findings.

But.

There’s always a but, isn’t there?

A British Office of National Statistic study looked at 10,000 people and found that the same proportion of people tested positive for the virus across all age groups. Or at least it found “no evidence” of differences, which may or may not be the same thing. (There’s always an or as well as a but. Or there is around here.) If you’re willing to trust a non-professional’s translation of that–and I admit, it’s a risk–kids get infected at the same rate as adults.

A German study seems to back that up. 

So is it safe to reopen the schools? I have no idea. If serious testing and contact tracing were in place, they could make a better argument for it.

Has the government studied the situation? It’s not impossible, but studying the situation has a way of bringing out all kinds of inconvenient information, so I wouldn’t put a lot of money on it.

*

So what’s happening with contact tracing? You would have to ask, wouldn’t you? A company that has a contract to recruit contact tracers emailed applicants to say that the jobs they were applying for had been put on hold because the government’s considering an alternative to the app that it had bet its chips on.

At which point the Department of Health said the email was wrong. The chips are still on the existing app. And the company that sent the email said it was all a miscommunication. 

So how’s the app performing on the Isle of Wight, where it’s being tested? Slightly under half of the population has downloaded it, although that may include people who downloaded it twice (that would’ve been me, but I don’t live there and don’t use a smartphone) or who are from the mainland and so don’t count. Still, it’s a better take up than in Singapore (20%) or Australia (25%). 

On the other hand, it’s an early, dumbed-down version of the app. It only asks about two symptoms. If a person’s answers send up red flag, their contacts get a warning. But there’s no way for the person to enter a test result (assuming that the government gets its testing centers working well enough for the person to get their results back in a reasonable time). So contacts get warned but then they’re left to wander around wondering what they should do. Isolate? Go to work? Write their wills?

*

And now a report from the Department of Bad Planning: Not only didn’t the government talk to teachers’ unions before announcing that the schools would reopen, it didn’t talk to city governments before announcing that the lockdown would be loosened. 

*

The Department of Unlikely Allies reports that a hundred people (or several hundred, depending on your source) demonstrated in London on Saturday, protesting (variously) the lockdown, 5G, the fake virus, contact tracing, and the vaccine that doesn’t exist yet, although to be fair they didn’t say that it did, they were just getting their licks in in advance. 

The protest was called by the UK Freedom Movement, which circulated a flyer on Facebook, saying, “We say no to the coronavirus bill, no to mandatory vaccines, no to the new normal and no to the unlawful lockdown.”

It called sixty mass gatherings around the country, but it’s not clear how many of them gathered. A dozen people micro-massed in Southampton. 

The group Hope Not Hate, which “uses research, education, and public engagement to challenge mistrust and racism,” said, “It is notable how diverse the people leading the groups appear to be, with some groups moderated entirely by vegan activists, others by committed Brexiteers and still others by full-blown conspiracy theorists.”

If I can translate that, these are people who wouldn’t normally talk to each other. Lockdown’s driving people to discover all sorts of new possibilities. Isn’t it wonderful?

Overall, a recent poll shows that the British public not only supports the lockdown but is uneasy about easing it.

*

After the leak of a report indicating that the government was thinking about freezing public sector wages, Boris Johnson has said no one has had that thought, even in passing. I only mention that because I caught a few drops of the leak and squeezed them out here, so I thought I should mop them up. I should also get out of the metaphor before I drown in it.

*

A new study makes singing look–well, nothing’s safe these days but as safe as anything else is. Anecdotal evidence had been pointing to it as a great way to spread little virii.

The anecdotes? A number of choirs popped up as virus hotspots, leading to the logical assumption that singing caused the spread. It’s common sense. Singers breathe deeply and exhale powerfully, so why wouldn’t they both spread and take in better than your average amateur breather? 

Well, because it doesn’t work that way–or it doesn’t seem to. I won’t rule out a contradictory report coming in next week. In the meantime, though, a specialist in fluid mechanics experimented to see how far singers and instrumentalists could shoot air, with all its virus-carrying droplets and aerosols.

Singers propel air about half a meter–maybe a foot and a half. His best guess is that the choir outbreaks came from socializing before or after singing, although the director of one choir swore they’d all been careful about both distance and sanitizing their hands.

The study also showed that flutes, oboes, and clarinets propelled air further than larger wind instruments. 

Stay away from people carrying flutes, please. They’re dangerous.

*

The U.S. Navy reports that thirteen sailors who’d apparently recovered from Covid-19, testing negative, tested positive for a second time. The same thing has been reported in South Korea. It’s possible, but far from certain, that the disease becomes dormant in a person’s system and then reactivates. 

*

The Department of Greed and Despair wishes to inform you that some of the protective gear that’s being sold comes with phony documentation. So as people return to work, they can’t know if they’re being handed workable protective gear or not. 

*

And finally, from the Ray of Hope Department, two vaccine updates:

A vaccine being worked on in the U.S. shows that the vaccine did create antibodies in eight people in the test, although this stage of the test is about safety, not effectiveness. 

Another vaccine being tested in Oxford protected monkeys against pneumonia and the most severe symptoms of the virus, but it hasn’t been tested in humans yet. 

The pandemic update from Britain: sniffer dogs and the return to work

England has approved a coronavirus antibody test that’s 100% accurate and highly specific. If England goes ahead and adopts it, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will probably do the same.

Being highly specific? That means it’s able to detect even a fairly weak antibody response. Being 100% accurate? That means it’s right. It’s a technical concept that sciency people like to use, but we can all get our heads around it if we pay attention.

The problem with the test is that it depends on a blood sample, so it has to be done by a medical person with a big, scary needle, and then processed in a lab. 

Why, other than the big, scary needle, is that a problem? Because you can’t just toss a bunch of tests in the mail for people to do at home and go home for a beer. You’ll have to organize testing. Preferably competently, and that’s where we hit a snag.

Irrelevant photo: love-in-a-mist

In the UK, the best way to do that would, almost inevitably, be through the National Health Service and, most heavily, local GPs, although they might need some extra (is anybody paying attention here?) money and staff. 

The government will probably centralize it, though, and hand the contract to huge private companies who’ve proved their competence by screwing up the testing program that’s in use now, which isn’t for antibodies but for current infections. Believing that private companies are more efficient than governments is a religious cult. 

And when the evidence shows that the opposite is true? You just draw the circle tighter and pray harder.

It’s an contradictory situation, though. Here’s a government demonstrating governmental incompetence through incompetent privatization and people who argue that government would be more competent criticizing the government for incompetence.

Did you follow that?

You might think that both sides of the disagreement should be equally unhappy, but you’d be wrong. Money’s being made. Someone’s happy.

*

Just so’s we all understand this: It’s still not clear whether having antibodies to Covid-19 means you’re immune to it. Widespread use of the antibody test should give us some information about that.

What immediate good does the test do, then? Almost everything I read on the subject talks about people who’ve been exposed going back to work, happy in the knowledge that they won’t get the bug again, although we don’t exactly know that and neither do they. They might be immune. We hope they’re immune.

And, since I’m splashing cold water on things, the test having been approved isn’t the same and the test having been bought. Or produced in large enough numbers. The government and the test’s developer, Roche, are talking. You know, price, quantities, delivery dates, can we get it in blue? 

No? We really like blue.

The government’s also talking to the developers of other tests. Hang in there. We’ll know something eventually.

*

Last weekend, lockdown restrictions were eased here in England and people who couldn’t work from home were urged to go back to work if they could do it safely, so Grant Shapps, Britain’s transport secretary, was flung to the press so he could reassure the nation. 

How’d he do that? He told us that the government doesn’t “know how the virus will respond” to lockdown’s semi-end. 

I feel deeply reassured, and I hope you do as well. 

Why was the transport secretary the one to get thrown to the press? Partly because people–having been told to avoid public transportation if they could–are using public transportation because how else are they supposed to get to work? Most people don’t have private planes. 

Also because he drew the slip of paper with the big red X on it.

He was especially reassuring about public transportation in London. 

“We have got the British Transport Police out there and we are even bringing in volunteers to remind people that we don’t want to see platforms crowded.”

Anyone who sees a crowded platform will then understand that they’re surplus to requirements and disappear in a cloud of blue smoke.

Would Shapps himself get on a crowded bus or train? an interviewer asked. Well, no, he said. And no one else should either. Please see cloud of blue smoke, above. 

In a different interview, he said, “Even with all the trains and buses back to running when they are, there will not be enough space. One in 10 people will be able to travel without overcrowding.” 

The news is full of pictures of packed tubes, trains, and buses in London. He’s an asset to the nation, Shapps is.

I’m still trying to figure out what “back to running when they are” means. 

*

I suppose this is where I have to write about a railway ticket office worker, Belly Mujinga, who was told she had to work out on the concourse instead of behind the ticket office’s barrier, although she had respiratory problems. 

“We begged not to go out,” a colleague said. “We said, ‘Our lives are in danger.’ We were told that we are not even allowed to put on masks.”

A passenger spat at her and a co-worker and said he had the virus. Both women came down sick and Mujinga has died of the virus, leaving a widower and an eleven-year-old daughter.

A GoFundMe campaign has raised over £27,000 for the family. Which is heartening, but she’s still dead.

Mujinga’s employer, Govia Thameslink, has only just given CCTV footage of the spitting incident to police, after weeks of being asked for it. The spitter was described by a witness as male, white, fiftyish, and well dressed. The women he spat at asked their managers to call the police. That was on March 22. The police say they only got a report on Monday. 

Rail unions are threatening to strike if drivers and passengers aren’t protected from overcrowding. Let’s hope they include other workers as well, in memory of Mujinga if nothing else.

*

So what are you supposed to do if your boss pressures you to go back to work but you don’t feel it’s safe–if, say, you’ve got a medical condition, or a family member who does, or an eight-year-old with no school to go to, or the workplace is too crowded, or your boss says you have to work out on the concourse? You probably have some protection under the law, but you’ll have to be pretty damn brave to claim it, because it could mean taking your case to an employment tribunal. It may mean risking your job.

How much money did you say do you have to fall back on?

Yup. That’s what most people say.  

In an interview, an employment lawyer said government guidance “seems to be suggesting that everyone who is not attending work but is unable to work from home should return to work, but they haven’t given much guidance to employers and employees about what exactly is expected if they have these difficulties turning up.”

She also said, “For example, if you’re a single parent with childcare obligations, we’ve seen some really unfortunate stories of mothers who are the sole parent and they’re stuck with children and they’ve been issued unfair ultimatums by their employer, wanting them to attend work on short notice when it’s just not possible.”

In the meantime, the business secretary, Alok Sharma, said workers don’t have an automatic right to walk out if they feel their workplaces are unsafe. 

“If somebody feels their workplace is not safe, they have to take that up with their employer,” he said. “If they don’t feel they are getting any traction they absolutely should get in touch with the Health and Safety Executive or the local authority.”

If I can translate that, if your workplace isn’t safe, you should follow the steps outlined above, keep on working, and hope you don’t die. 

Jason Moyer-Lee of the Independent Workers of Great Britain, which represents gig workers, said, “The return to work instruction is predicated on workplaces being safe because they follow new Government guidelines. The guidance is not law and is not mandatory.” In other words, he doesn’t think there’s much way to enforce it.

Just I think I’m too cynical–.

*

Teachers’ unions are saying the proposals to reopen schools in England on June 1 are unworkable. They’ve urged teachers not to “engage with” preparations.

No, I’m not sure what “engage with” means either. Teachers will, though. They teach things. Whatever needs to be known, they know it. 

Schools have been told that they don’t need protective gear, that they don’t need to keep the recommended six feet of distance between people, and that smaller classes and hand washing (sorry–stringent hygiene; maybe we’re talking about deodorant) will keep them safe.

They have not been told to sing “Happy Birthday” while stringently hygienizing themselves.

None of the teachers’ unions were contacted about the reopening before it was announced last Sunday.

Stay tuned. It should be interesting. 

*

A group of scientists who set up an alternative to the government’s official science advisory group have warned that the current strategy will bring more outbreaks of the virus and rolling lockdowns. It called for a campaign to test and trace, and to isolate infected people–and to scrap centralized testing and rely on GPs and local health teams, who can respond quickly to local outbreaks.

The current testing system doesn’t bother to send the results to GPs. And (anecdotal evidence warning here) doesn’t necessarily send the results to the people who’ve been tested either. Because what’re they going to do with them anyway? They’re all ignorant savages and it’ll only frighten them.

*

Oh, hell, let’s take a break for a little good news. The furlough scheme, which pays up to 80% of furloughed workers’ wages while they’re off work in the pandemic, will be continued until the end of October, although the small and medium-size print is changing. As of August, furloughed workers can go back to work part time. And at some point–and no one knows where the point is right now–companies will have to start picking up part of the bill. 

How much does it cost? About £12 billion per month.

How much did the 2008 bank bailout cost? About £850 billion.

There is support for the self-employed, but everything I read about it leaves me more confused than I was before. A program exists. It leaves some people out. It seems to have just started registering claims and what self-employed people were doing for money until now is anyone’s guess. But it’s better than no support at all.

Sorry, this was supposed to be our good news break, wasn’t it? Okay, how about this: 

Sniffer dogs are being trained to detect the virus. Dogs can already be used to spot cancer, Parkinson’s, and malaria. It’s still in the trial stages, but if it works they should be able to spot people with no symptoms. Our dogs know when we’re carrying treats, even when we think we show no symptoms, so yes, I do believe this could work.

My thanks to Catladymac for pointing me at this story. I’d have missed it.

*

And from the Department of Silver Linings comes this bit of news: The coronavirus lockdown could break the chain of transmission for HIV. The problem with HIV–other, of course, than that it kills people quite horribly–is that there’s a period of up to a month between the time a person’s exposed and the time current tests can detect it. And people can pass it on during that time. 

People who are on the current treatments can’t pass on the infection, and a drug that people can take both before and after sex reduces the risk of getting it, so the number of new cases in Britain is dropping anyway. But if no one has sex with new partners, it just might be possible to find everyone incubating the disease before they pass it on, treat them, and stop the spread of the infection. 

*

When I started doing more frequent virus updates, I thought they’d be short. What’s happened, though, is that the more attention I pay to this, the more I find to include. I’m oddly apologetic about that, although I didn’t invent the virus. Or the idea of an update. Hell, if you don’t want to read them, you won’t.

Take care, everyone. Listen to doctors and scientists and your own good sense. Stay well.

The pandemic update from Britain: golf balls, antibodies, and shreds of hope

As the English coronavirus policy wanders off in a different direction than the one Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are following, things are getting predictably strange around here. But first, some background. 

Anyone who isn’t from the U.K. could be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s all one country, with one government, one flag, and one national anthem, and one national policy. And it is. But it also isn’t.

Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England are all nations within that one country, with their own flags, and (except for England) their own national anthems, and (except for England) their own governments. So the British government governs Britain, but it also governs England. 

We won’t get into national anthems right now. The British–or maybe that’s the English; I’m American originally, so I get dizzy when we talk about this stuff–only sing when they’re drunk anyway.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Are you making any sense of this at all? 

No, I didn’t think so. The problem is, it could easily take up the whole post, but we need to move on to the important stuff, which is golf, so let’s condense it and say that the British government devolved some powers to the national (which you could call regional if it makes you happier) governments, and because of that when the prime minister announced to a baffled public that instead of staying home to beat the virus everyone now had to stay alert to beat the virus, the regional governments said, effectively, “You’re out of your mind.” They’re keeping both the lockdown and the stay-home slogan.

As a result (and we’ve finally gotten to the point), a golf course that straddles the border between England and Wales can’t figure out whether it’s open or closed. The Llanymynech golf club has fifteen holes that are in Wales, two that are in England, and one that starts in Wales and ends in England. Its official policy at the moment is, “We don’t know what we can do.”

I suggest opening the English holes but warning players that if a ball crosses into Wales, pffft, it will disappear in midair. 

*

In case my explanation of British politics doesn’t leave you confused enough, allow me to add that Britain isn’t really a country. We just call it that to confuse outsiders. The country’s full name is the United Kingdom of a Bunch of Random Places.

*

J.K. Rowling loved England’s new “stay alert” slogan enough to tweet, “Is Coronavirus sneaking around in a fake moustache and glasses? If we drop our guard, will it slip us a Micky Finn? What the hell is ‘stay alert’ supposed to mean?”

Dave Ward, of the Communication Workers Union, loved it too. He said, “Stay alert? It’s a deadly virus not a zebra crossing.”

A zebra crossing? That’s not a place where zebras cross. Zebras aren’t native to the country allegedly known as Britain. It’s a place where pedestrians cross a street, and it’s marked with white stripes that make it look nothing like a zebra.

It’s pronounced ZEBBra, not ZEEbra.

And the British spell mustache with an O, moustache, as if a small rodent had crawled in.

*

A healthcare company, Randox, was awarded a £133 million contract to produce Covid-19 testing kits for the Department of Health and Social care, without any competitive bidding. And the company just happens to pay Owen Paterson, who’s a Conservative MP, a former cabinet minister, and a big-league Brexiteer, £500 an hour to consult about the consulty-type things that consultants consult about. That adds up, in his case, to about £100,000 a year, and if a person was careful about the small things she or he could probably live on that. Although mercifully he doesn’t have to, since he also has his MP’s salary and expenses, plus I have no idea what else.

It’s not illegal for MPs to consult with or lobby for companies that do business with the government as long as their lobbying doesn’t (and I’m going to quote from an article in the Guardian here, because, A, I trust them to get their facts straight, and, B, I don’t understand a word of it, so I can’t paraphrase) “help to give an exclusive financial benefit to the client and the client [didn’t initiate] the lobbying.” 

So who can initiate the lobbying? The planet Saturn when it’s in the house of cocaine, because that’s always conducive to profit. 

I kind of thought, silly me, that the whole point of lobbying was to gain an exclusive financial benefit. But it’s all okay, beause the Department of Health and Social Care says it’s increased its testing capacity at phenomenal speed. 

Clap your hands and say with me: “I do believe in fairies. I do believe in fairies.”

*

The coronavirus tests that the National Health Service currently uses look for the presence of the virus itself in a person’s system. But there’s a different kind of test, which can pick up the presence of antibodies, spotting people who have the virus now but also people who used to have it and are better. Using it would let you test a sample population and figure out how far the beast has spread, which would let policymakers figure out what they’re actually dealing with. And (forgive me, I know this is a huge leap) let them make  sensible decisions about how to handle it. 

It could also provide useful information to people working on vaccines, including whether immunity exists at all and if it does whether it will be lifelong or short lived. A study from Shanghai hints that people who had a lighter case of the bug may come away with a lighter immune response. Widespread testing should give a better picture of that as well.

Antibody tests are evaluated on the basis of two things: their specificity and their sensitivity. 

Specificity means the proportion of healthy people the test recognizes as healthy, and for the test to be useful this has to be close to 100%. I’m going to explain this without understanding it myself, so if you have a seat belt, this would be a good time to fasten it. You could also stick your fingers in your ears and hum. It just might help.

If a test is 90% accurate, instead of mislabeling 10% of the population, it would (if 5% of the population had been infected) mislabel 70%. I’ve gone over that several times and it almost makes sense to me, but then it slips away. 

I’ll tell you what, don’t worry about it. It won’t make you happy. Numbers so seldom do. Let’s talk about sensitivity instead. 

Sensitivity is how many people who’ve had the virus the test is able to spot and (if I understood this correctly, which I can’t guarantee) how strong an antibody response to the virus a person has to have to register on the test. 

Two U.S. companies now have Food and Drug Administration approval for antibody tests that have 99.8% specificity and 100% sensitivity. The problem with them both is that they can’t be done at home. Someone medical has to take a blood sample and a lab has to process it.

Britain (remember than imaginary country, Britain, the one that’s really called the United Kingdom of Several Other Places?)–

Let’s start over: Britain has been chasing after a test that can be done at home and sold by the million, cheaply. In April, the government of our imaginary country spent £16 million buying 4 million tests, which turned out to fail on both sensitivity and specificity but other than that were great. 

Something in the neighborhood of 17.5 million more tests have been ordered provisionally from other suppliers. If they work, and if they’re used in a competent, coordinated way, we might find a way out of this mess. 

I was feeling good until I typed competent and coordinated

Still, the possibility of widespread testing, especially if it can be combined with tracing and sanity, does bring us a quick glimpse of hope.

*

Poland had a presidential election on Sunday with a record turnout of 0%. Even someone as mathematically impaired as I am can take that in. 

The vote wasn’t canceled, but on the other hand the polling stations stayed closed. 

What’s that got to do with the coronavirus? Opposition politicians had been pushing to postpone the election because of the pandemic, asking the government to declare either a state of emergency or a national disaster. The government refused, saying the situation wasn’t serious enough.   

The electoral commission now says it has two weeks to set a new date. 

*

A Republican state representative from Ohio, Nino Vitale, is refusing to wear a face mask because it would hide the image of god.

If you want to decide for yourself whether he looks like god, you can find photos of him here. Including one where he’s pointing a handgun. As gods do.

The White House is now requiring staff to wear masks. The president? He doesn’t have to.

Meanwhile, Kam Buckner, a Democratic state representative from Illinois was stopped by police as he came out of a store wearing a mask and gloves. Do I need to tell you that Buckner’s black and Vitale’s white?

He asked why he was being stopped and the cop (allegedly) said, “People are using the coronavirus to do bad things. I couldn’t see your face, man. You looked like you were up to something.”

*

And finally, some those shreds of good news that I promised you.

In Germany, the R number–basically, the rate at which the virus spreads–has fallen below 1. I want to keep this brief, so just take my word that this is good.

Iceland plans to let people coming into the country avoid quarantine by taking a Covid-19 test.

In Athens, the pandemic has led to pedestrians and cyclists taking over the public spaces abandoned by cars, and it’s such a hit that the city plans to ban cars from the city center permanently.

The World Health Organization says four or five treatments offer a shred of a hint of a possibility of hope for the fight against the virus. They don’t stop the virus, but they do seem–in very early trials–to limit the disease’s severity or shorten the time a person stays ill. That’s progress, people, or at least a faint whiff of it.

I hope the link at the top of the paragraph works–it’s from the Guardian‘s news update, which will inevitably move on.