How Boris Johnson fucks up a free lunch. Again.

In case anyone suffers from the delusion that Boris Johnson’s government learns from its mistakes, it’s proving them wrong by screwing up free school meals. Again.

 

The free school lunch saga

When schools are in session, the poorest kids are supposed to get a free lunch. Last year, though, when schools were locked down and what would normally have been a school holiday rolled around, the government announced that it’d be fine if the kids missed lunch for a few days. They weren’t the government’s problem during the holiday.

It held that position until a football player, Marcus Rashford, who grew up poor and hungry, kicked the issue squarely into social media and made the government back down. 

Now, with schools locked down again, a mother posted a picture of the sorry collection of food that was delivered for her kid. It had about £5 worth of food, although the company that’s contracted to deliver it swears it cost £10.50 to buy, package, and deliver. 

And profit from, of course. All hail the great god of privatization. 

Irrelevant photo: cotoneaster, pronounced ka-tone-ee-aster. The birds plant them.

The food was either supposed to last five or ten days, depending on who’s right about this, but either way it hasn’t impressed nutritionists or parents or the public at large. I don’t imagine it did much for kids either. 

Rashford waded in again, at which point Boris Johnson condemned the parcels and the company apologized, saying it would toss in a free breakfast starting on January 25. 

Yes, folks, it was a miracle.

Parents and campaigners are asking, Why not just give the parents a voucher? That way they can buy what their kids like, what they’re able to prepare, and what suits the family’s preferences and diet. And guess what, if you do that, nobody has to pack, deliver, and profit from it.

Last I checked, the government was ignoring the suggestion. Because what’s the point of feeding kids if no one can make a buck out of it? Or a quid, since I’m supposed to be, at least marginally, writing British here.

Has the government learned anything? Don’t be silly. When the next school holidays come up in February,  England plans to suspend the free school lunches again

But the final word on this has to go to Conservative MP Pauline Latham, who said, “It’s only their lunch, it’s not all meals every day.”

We’ll give her this week’s compassion award, okay?

And having nothing to do with free lunches but on the subject of MPs so clueless they sound like something I made up, her fellow Conservative MP, the Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, greeted the mess that Brexit’s unleashed on the fishing industry by saying, “They’re now British fish and they’re better and happier fish for it.”

He’ll have to wait for gets next week’s compassion award, since I lost last week’s and, um, last week’s over. But I award him next week’s not just to honor his sympathy for dead and dying fish but also his sympathy for the fishing industry, which is losing £1 million a day because they can’t get their catch to the European markets. 

Fish are reported to be rotting on the docks. Happily and Britishly.

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We need a shift in tone here, don’t we?

Scotland’s schools run under different rules than England’s, but even without the spur of England’s mean spiritedness, a group of chefs and hospitality workers in Edinburgh have delivered a quarter of a million meals to families during the pandemic. It’s all cost 50 p. per meal. (The p. stands for pence.) Each meal includes a main course, soup, bread, and a snack, and it’s free to anyone who asks. 

And it’s for the whole family, not just kids. Because you know what? Adults need to eat too. And while more affluent people have saved money during lockdown (no night at the pub, no meals out, no cappuccino on the way to work), the poorest people don’t have those small luxuries to give up and have had to spend more on food, gas, utilities, and the costs that go with home schooling. 

The Edinburgh program is organized by run by Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts and funded by donations, and it’s run by Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts.

 

The numbers

By now, over a hundred thousand people have died of Covid in Britain since the start of the pandemic. That’s almost one in every 660 people. Or to put that another way, one in every six deaths in the country can be traced back to Covid. 

Of course, whether those numbers are right depends on what you count as a Covid death. The government started out by counting everyone who’d had Covid (as far as was known) and later died, then it switched to a system that only counts people who die within 28 days of a positive test. Both are inaccurate. There’s no perfect system, but the government’s system, conveniently, gives us a lower inaccurate number.

If I was cynical, I’d think that was why they bought it in that color.

Even using the lower figures, though, Britain’s death rate per hundred thousand people is ahead of the United States’. That surprised me enough that I checked it with a second source, which confirmed it. I thought Britain was doing better than the US. Maybe that’s because the British government gives some semblance of sanity. It recognizes that the disease is real and makes noises about fighting it. Even if it gets it wrong almost every time.  

A member of the government’s science advisory group, SAGE, said, “The UK ranks seventh in the world in terms of numbers of deaths per million population through the pandemic. During the last week, our rate is the second highest in the world–a record that is ‘world-beating’ in all the wrong ways.”

Which not only confirms that we’re in deep shit but that the government’s own advisors can’t pass up a chance to whack Johnson over the head for bragging about the world-beating ways Britain was going to respond to the virus.

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Whatever the numbers, intensive care patients are being moved from overloaded London hospitals to others as far as 300 miles away. But lockdown does seem to be working. The R number, a measure of how many people each infected person gives the disease to, seems to be going down.

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Since we were talking about kids a minute ago, let’s talk check in on their parents. Over 70% of the women who ask to be furloughed from their jobs because the schools are closed have been turned down, or so says a survey of 50,000 working women. 

Nowhere near as many men asked for furloughs because of childcare (167 compared to 3,100) but 75% of them were turned down.

How are any of them managing? Some are taking any leave they’ve accumulated. Some are cutting back their working hours. Others (I’m extrapolating here) are managing it all and either quietly or noisily losing their minds.

The difference between furlough and any of the other alternatives is that people are paid 80% of their wages or salary if they’re furloughed. The government kicks in most of that, but the employer kicks in part, and that’s where the reluctance comes from.

 

Vaccine updates

Britain’s drive to vaccinate as many people as possible is being slowed down by an inconsistent supply of vaccine. Doctors’ offices aren’t able to schedule patients more than a few days in advance because they don’t have enough notice of when the vaccine will show up.

That’s called a push model: Doctors can’t order the vaccine. Instead they have to be ready to jump in and use what appears. 

Although having said that, our local GPs are almost through vaccinating the over-80 group and are scheduling the 75- to 80-year-olds. How those two pieces of information fit together is anyone’s guess.

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Internationally, 95% of the vaccine doses that have been punched through human skin have gone to people in just ten countries: the US, China, the UK, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Russia, Germany, Spain, and Canada. 

It will be March before Africa gets its first vaccine doses from COVAX, an international effort to be sure vaccines reach the poorest countries. More doses are expected in June, but doses from COVAX are expected to cover just 20% of the population–by what point I can’t say.

The continent has about 30,000 new cases per day now. During the first surge, it had 18,000.

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Back in Britain, there’s talk of the second vaccine dose being postponed even further than originally planned, depending on whether the first group to be vaccinated, the over-80s, turns out to be well protected by the initial dose. Public Health England says it’ll be reviewing infection data weekly to track how well the first dose works.

Some evidence is surfacing that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may get more effective with a longer time between the two doses, but you’ll have to follow the link if you want more information on that. It involved too many numbers. I fled.

But I can tell you what the rationale is behind vaccinating the elderly before younger people: According to Professor Wei Shen Lim, for every 25 to 40 people vaccinated in a care home, one life is saved. For every 250 over-80s vaccinated, ditto: one life. You’d have to vaccinate thousands of train operators to save that one life. 

To make sense of that, though, we’d have to understand the definition of a train operator. Are we talking about the person sealed into the booth at the front who drives the train–what Americans call the engineer and the British call the train driver? Or does it mean people working with and sharing air with the public? 

Does that number hold true for bus drivers or does there have to be a train involved? What about people working in supermarkets and warehouses and meatpacking plants? People working in hospitals? I have no idea. I’m passing it along because it’s an insight into how these decisions get made. 

Covid, Christmas, and other pandemic news

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

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

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

Really, really appreciate it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vaccinations

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

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

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

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

It was finally allowed through the door in September. 

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

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

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

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

Um, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Testing

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

What’s test and release? 

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

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

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

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

Hooray. Everyone wins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Triumphantly irrelevant news

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

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

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