The pandemic update from Britain, political edition: Boris’s brain breaks Boris’s rules

Back in March, Boris Johnson’s brain–that’s his advisor, who has a name of his very own, Dominic Cummings–was infected with Covid-19. Keep him in mind, because he’s the heart of the story, but as usual we need some background.

Britain had gone into lockdown by then, and had widely publicized guidelines on what that meant. Leaving home (defined as “the place you live,” because a lot of us weren’t clear about that) “to stay at another home is not allowed.”

The guidelines didn’t define that other home, the one you don’t live in and weren’t to go to. Presumably it was a place someone else lived, although it could also have been a second home–a place no one lived. 

That’s enough possibilities. If I go on, it’ll only get worse.

Unnecessary travel was banned. Unnecessary wasn’t defined, but let’s take a shot at it ourselves: If you were being chased by a bear, it probably would be okay to run down the street or take other evasive action. No bear? You stay in the home where you live.

Completely irrelevant photo: an azalea.

People who had the virus were told to self-isolate. That collision of words, self impaled on isolate, was created by a computer that hadn’t been fully briefed on the spoken language, but most of us accepted it. We were thinking about a deadly virus. 

And it wasn’t just people who had the virus who were supposed to self-isolate: So was anyone they had contact with. Because we had to stop the virus. And the whole thing was serious enough that the police could fine people who broke the rules.

The rules, admittedly, were still hazy. In the most extreme case I know of, the police scolded people for buying (or was it a store for selling?) chocolate Easter eggs, which unlike Red Bull aren’t strictly necessary. 

After a wobble or two, though, the line between necessary and unnecessary became clearer. What really mattered was the We Were Taking This Seriously. So seriously that Boris Johnson made a public appeal to our better natures, asking us not to go see Mom on Mother’s Day. 

And most people listened. They didn’t visit their mothers. They didn’t visit their elderly relatives in nursing homes. They didn’t say their goodbye to dying family members. Because this was the way to beat the virus and we were all in it together.

Except for Boris’s brain, who by that time knew he was ill and drove 260 miles, leaving a trail of virii behind him. And with him went his wife (who was also sick) and their kid. 

Why’d they do that? To get to his parents’s home (sorry: estate), because, hell, they needed help with childcare. What else were they to do?

Well, gee, what would anybody else do? Manage, probably. Not expose their parents, possibly, not to mention whoever they had contact with between the home where they lived and the where home they didn’t live. Turn to somebody local if they could–a relative, an organization that could help. See if a relative wouldn’t come to them, which wouldn’t be within the guidelines but would have been a hell of a lot safer.

I don’t minimize how hard the disease can hit people–a friend of ours died of it–but these are two people who were well enough to drive 260 miles but weren’t well enough to deal with their kid.

I admit, I don’t know their particular kid. 

We’ll skip the which-day-did-what-happen details. Someone local called the cops, who talked with someone at the home where they did not live.

“Oh, no, they didn’t,” 10 Downing Street says.

“Oh, yes, we did,” the police say. 

Cummings was seen 30 miles away from his parent’s estate, out in public, not self-isolating.

Cummings went back to London and returned to work at 10 Downing Street. 

A few days later, he was seen 30 miles from his parents’ estate again. 

“Oh, no, he wasn’t,” Downing Street says.

“Oh, yes, he was,” the witness says, “and I have the browser history to prove that I checked his license plate number at the time to make sure it was  him.” Except you don’t call it a license plate in Britain, but let’s not stop for that, we’re busy doing something else here.

The witness has filed a complaint with the police.

What does Boris’s brain have to say? That he did the right thing by driving to his parents’ estate.

What did Boris’s body have to say? “I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly, and legally and with integrity and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of this virus and saving lives.”

Other politicians and one scientific advisor who’ve been caught messing around with the lockdown rules have stepped down. 

Will Cummings? Like hell he will.

The steps under his feet aren’t looking overly solid, though. After Johnson’s press conference, Stephen Reicher, a scientific advisor to the government, tweeted, “In a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19.,” and “It is very hard to provide scientific advice to a government which doesn’t want to listen to science.”

Not to mention, “Be open and honest, we said. Trashed.

“Respect the public, we said. Trashed

“Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same, we said. Trashed.

“Be consistent we said. Trashed.

“Make clear ‘we are all in it together’. Trashed.”

Someone got onto the Civil Service twitter account and called Johnson “an arrogant truth-twister.” Nine minutes later, the tweet was taken down but it had been shared 25,000 times. No one knows who done it at the moment, but J.K. Rowling offered to pay them a year’s salary if their name became public.

A group called Led by Donkeys parked a van outside Cummings’ house with a huge screen on the back. It plays a clip of Boris Johnson telling people to stay home and  interviews with people who’ve struggled to care for their kids while they were sick. Over and over again.

The Financial Times writes that “The prime minister’s efforts to save his aide appeared to have failed. Support for Mr Cummings appeared to be spread thinly across the government and Conservative party. Following a barrage of supportive messages from cabinet ministers on Saturday, a notable silence on Sunday suggested that backing for the adviser was evaporating. One member of the government said the prime minister’s press conference had made the situation worse.”

One more quote, then I’ll stop: Former Brexit minister Steve Baker said the government was spending “enormous political capital…saving someone who has boasted of making decisions beyond his competence and clearly broke at the very least the guidance which kept mums and dads at home.”

Life’s going to be interesting around here for the next week or two. Watch this space. Or any other. 

Good news, goat news, and some dry stuff: it’s the pandemic update from Britain

The goats

With more and more people using Zoom to stay in touch or to hold work meetings, a goat farm, Cronkshaw Fold Farm in Lancashire, has figured out a way to make some money during the lockdown. They’re offering a book-a-goat service for Zoom meetings. 

Dot McCarthy, who runs the farm, said, “People are just in hysterics because they’ve sneaked a goat into a business meeting and the boss hasn’t noticed.”

You can even choose your goat. Let’s meet three.

What to expect from Mary: ambivalence, limited attention span, totally fine peeing in front of you.

“What to expect from Lisa: passive aggressive bleating, ferocious hunger, lack of any form of patience or tolerance of anything.”

To be fair, Lisa was pregnant when they wrote that. She has since had two kids and mellowed out a bit.

Sorry, I should have a picture of a goat here. Will a cat do? This is Fast Eddie, in his most typical pose.

“What to expect from Bret: all the energy, all the opinions, none of the substance.”

That’s not pure sex-role stereotyping, even if it sounds like it is. Some of the males are described as lovely, with velvety ears, although the ears may not be a big draw on Zoom.

The cost’s £5.99 for a ten-minute cameo. 

Other farms offer Zoom alpaca visits. 

You’re welcome.

Containment and testing in poor countries

You’ll forgive me for a couple of hopeful stories about the pandemic, right? Even if they’re not funny? 

Senegal’s working on a testing kit that will cost $1 per patient, doesn’t need a lab, and gives a result in less than ten minutes. Using saliva it will detect current infections and using blood, antibodies from past ones. If the trials go well, it should be in use next month. 

The country started planning its response to the pandemic in January, closing its borders and doing intensive contact tracing. Because people tend not to live alone, it organized a bed for every Covid-19 patient, either in a hospital or a community clinic. It’s had 30 deaths out of a population of 16 million. That’s in a country whose gross domestic product was $1,546 per capita in 2018. By way of contrast, the UK’s was $46,827 in 2019. The US’s was $62,794.59 in 2018.

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Ghana has used community health workers and volunteers to do contact tracing and tests by combining multiple blood samples and only doing individual tests if the pool tests positive. It’s had 31 deaths in a population of 30 million. It’s gross domestic product is $1,807 per capita.

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In various parts of Africa, traditional herbal remedies are being investigated, and one, sweet wormwood, has drawn some attention. The Max Planck Institute in Germany is interested in a different variety of the plant and is doing trials on it.

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The Indian state of Kerala has 690 cases and 4 deaths. It has a gross domestic product of £2,200 per capita in–oh, hell, some recent year. Their rapid response team met in January. By the time the first case came in on a plane from Wuhan, they met the plane, sending anyone without a fever home to quarantine themselves, hospitalizing the one who was feverish. 

A bit later, the virus did spread (somebody had been in Italy and dodged the checks), and they traced hundreds of contacts and before they contained it. 

Repeat the story as workers returned home from the Gulf states and as the country went into lockdown and jobless migrant workers began walking home. They found housing and food for 150,000 migrant workers, and when the lockdown lifted they chartered trains to send them home. They’ve supervised the quarantine of 170,000 people and improvised isolation units for people whose homes don’t have inside toilets. 

Shreds of hope

People in the U.K. is also working on a ten-minute test, along with a two-minute test, both using saliva to check for current infections. The test that’s in use right now not only has to be processed in a lab but (if you send for one to use at home) asks you to swab your nostrils and, according to someone who used one, tonsils. Or the place where your tonsils used to be. 

I do have tonsils but have no idea where they are. I haven’t heard from them in years. They could be living in Argentina for all I know. 

Because so many people are as out of touch with their tonsils as I am (sorry–it’s a sad tale but it has to be told), the test may come back with false negatives as much as 30% of the time. And that’s not just the tests people use at home. Some of the official testing centers are handing people a nine-page booklet and telling them to do the swab themselves. So a test that relies on saliva would be a big step forward. Even I know where my saliva is. 

A twenty-minute antibody test is also being worked on. 

If you get the sense that everything’s being tried simultaneously, you’re probably right. There has to be a way out of this mess. 

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A new treatment for the most seriously ill patients is also being tested. It’s based on the observation that the people who get sickest are seriously low on an immune system component called T-cells. The idea is to use interleukin 7 to boost T-cell production. 

The observation could also lead to a test predicting who will go on to have the most serious reactions to the virus.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been good about staying in touch with my T-cells. I’m doing what I can to patch up our relationship, though, starting with a card and a heartfelt apology. The tonsil thing, that can happen to anyone and they were at fault as much as I was. But the T-cells, that was me. All I can do is hope they accept the apology.

My card end with, “Multiply like hell, you little bastards.”

Who could resist?

Other news, good and bad and goatless

During the potato famine, the Choctaw Nation heard that people were starving in Ireland and sent $170 to the Society of Friends in Dublin, which was distributing food. That would be about $5,000 in today’s money. Sixteen years before, the Choctaw had been forced off their land and relocated to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears and they’d barely begun to rebuild their lives. But they knew starvation and disease and they sent what they could.

Now Ireland is returning their generosity, even if it’s to a different tribe. Some 24,000 Irish donors have given $820,000 to an online fundraiser to buy food and supplies for the Navajo and Hopi reservations, which have been hit hard by the virus. It will go to people who are raising grandkids, have underlying health conditions, or are positive for the virus.

Thanks to Electrica in the Desert for tweeting this one.

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A study of 15,000 patients given hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, or one of those drugs combined with an antibiotic found that with any of those four treatments patients were more likely to die in the hospital (1 in 11 compared to 1 in 6 1 in 5, and 1 in 4). 

No comment. 

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In the face of a rebellion not just from the opposition (which is to be expected) but from its own MPs, the British government has backed away from charging foreign NHS and care workers a yearly fee to use the National Health Service–£400 per family member per year. 

The government spent a day or two arguing that of course it was right to charge them, the money goes into the NHS and the NHS needs it, but at a certain point it was just too embarrassing a position to defend. Government officials must be seen to clap for NHS and care every Thursday at 8 pm. Any politician who skips the 8 pm roll call or  shows up but looking less than appreciative is liable to be chopped up and added to Larry the 10 Downing Street Cat’s food bowl.

And if that isn’t enough, NHS and care workers already pay taxes, which are what fund the NHS. Many of them are low paid. They’re risking their lives in the pandemic and are holding the NHS and the care system together. 

Enough. That’s ended. 

Not the roll call and not their role; the surcharge. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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 (and elsewhere): arms, archeology, and apps

Rest easy, people. Someone is addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The Academie Francaise has announced that we’re dealing with la Covid, not le Covid. In other words, the virus is grammatically female.

The French language divides its nouns into male and female, and which gender a noun belongs to has nothing to do with any intrinsic quality of the thing itself. Nobody knows whether a sandwich considers itself more female than male, and nobody except the sandwich cares. A linguist could explain it all to you (and I’m looking forward to whatever comments you leave, my friends), but in the meantime, as far as I can see, you deduce the word’s femininity or masculinity out of a sixty-forty mix of thin air and history, which you whip until the resulting froth looks inevitable. 

In this case, the Academie decided that the root of the word Covid is maladie–illness–which is already feminine, so Covid is also feminine. And since this is all about getting the language right, I apologize for missing the accent mark in Academie: I’m writing this first thing in the morning and my accent marks are asleep.  

Irrelevant photos: Hydrangeas.

In the absence of the Academie’s decision, though, people started calling it le Covid, making it masculine. Will they change? No idea. On the one hand, French speakers seem to take the Academie seriously. On the other hand, language is a slippery beast and it can slither out of even the most powerful hands. 

Spanish is (I think–let me know if I’m wrong) closer to English in not recognizing anyone’s final authority over the language, but the Real Academia de la Lengua Española has just decided that Covid is feminine. To date, it’s been predominantly masculine, or at least people have written and spoken it as if it is. What’ll happen next? You’re on the edge of your chair, aren’t you? We’ll just have to wait and see–if we can remember to check back.

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So what’s the news on coronavirus immunity? Not much. No one knows yet if having had the virus gives you immunity. I mention that because so many people are sure they know what the scientists don’t.

Arne Akbar of the British Society of Immunology said that an antibody test “does not tell us if these antibodies will stop you getting sick from Covid-19 in the future or how long any protection generated might last.” And just to complicate the picture, he also said, “The immune system is extremely complex and there are lots of ways that it can generate immunity, antibodies being only one.”

So what good does antibody testing do? It can help experts figure out how many people have had Covid-19 and what its spread is. 

Some 10% of Londoners may (emphasis on may) have been infected with it, and maybe 4% of the rest of the country. At this stage, so much isn’t known (and so many people talk as if it was) that you’d be wise to stock up on wishy-washy words: suggests, probably, may, might, and could, possibly are all available from my Etsy shop. I’ll give you 20% off if you let me know that I referred you to me.

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And while we’re talking about bargains, the British government spent almost £20 million buying up drugs that Donald Trump claimed would cure Covid-19. I can’t say for sure that the two things are linked, only that they both happened.

What did it get for its money? Chloroquinine phosphate, choloroquinine, hydroxycholoroquinine (those are normally used for malaria and other diseases), and lopinavir/ritonavir (normally used for HIV). 

What’s my problem with that? As yet, there’s no scientific evidence that they’re any use against Covid-19. They might be. They also might not be. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that one trial of lopinaetc. showed no “observable benefit.” 

But that’s a minor objection. The real one is that they’re horrible words to type. You have no idea why I have to go through here. On top of which, lupus patients use hydroxyetc. and are worried about a drug they depend on being snapped up on the theory that something just might pan out.

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Want more bargains? Who wouldn’t. Britain’s given £1 billion worth of contracts to companies without any competitive bidding process. Because we’re in a crisis.  

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Enough about Britain. Let’s talk about Texas, which has always been a little crazy. I’m originally from New York, but I can claim half a right to say that because my partner is a Texan born and raised. If I get in trouble on this, I’m calling her as my witness.

The state recently eased its coronavirus restrictions, allowing restaurants, malls, and some other businesses to open, but it didn’t include bars, tattoo parlors, and other essential services, outraging some half a dozen business owners, who called in heavily and visibly armed civilians to stand around looking heavily armed and threatening. Then they opened up for business. 

I don’t know where it’s all headed. Not anyplace good.

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But I shouldn’t single out Texas. In Turkey, as elsewhere, teachers have encouraged kids to draw rainbows and put them in their windows during the lockdown. Then some of the local education boards told them to stop. Rainbows are part of a plot to turn the kids gay. 

Oh, sure, you can laugh if you want, but I’m gay–okay, lesbian; that’s close enough–and I saw rainbows as a kid. And not just one rainbow but lots of them, both the kind in the sky and the kind on paper. That happened repeatedly. And look where it led.

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In Spain, informal groups of parents are stepping in to help families whose kids are going hungry during the lockdown. And neighborhood associations and other local groups are supplying food, medicine, cleaning products, and (in one case) a tablet so a teenager could keep up with her school work. Social services are overwhelmed and haven’t been able to keep up with the need.  

*

Back to Britain: With people in lockdown getting bored enough to name their socks and teach them to leap through dog collars, a landscape archeologist from Exeter University, Chris Smart, has harnessed their skills and their boredom. He has them looking at aerial surveys of the Devon-Cornwall border for signs of ancient settlements. 

So far, they’ve found thirty settlements that date back to sometime between 300 BCE and 300 CE, along with twenty miles of road that linked Roman forts. 

“It will be hundreds [of settlements] by the time the volunteers are finished,” Smart said. “We’re seeing a much greater density of population than we thought.”

They’ve also found twenty prehistoric burial mounds, plus hundreds of medieval farms, field systems, and quarries. And so far, they’ve only worked on a tenth of the area.

*

In the village where I live, all our socks are named and yesterday morning my neighbor and I got excited about the possibility that the dump had reopened. Or as everyone but me calls it, the tip. If it has, we could all load up our green waste and take it for a drive.

I don’t actually have any green waste to take up there, but I was excited about Jane going.

Admit it: You understand. You know you do.

*

Every Thursday, Britain goes through the ritual of clapping for NHS and other frontline workers. They’re risking their lives for us. We love them all indiscriminately. Cynics see the cynicism of it–the government encourages us to clap but can’t manage to get them the protective gear or the equipment they need–but we do it anyway. Because we mean it. Because it feels right. Because a moment of solidarity with your neighbors just feels good.

Now a leaked document tells us the government’s considering a three-year freeze on public sector workers’ pay, including the pay of those heroic folks they encourage us to go out and clap for. Because someone has to be sacrificed to make up for the deficit we’re running and if it’s not going to be the people who can afford it most easily (and it’s not), then it’ll have to be the people who aren’t in a position to fight it effectively.

And I think I’m cynical.

*

A professor of infectious diseases, Paul Garner, caught Covid-19 and has been blogging about its effects. More than seven weeks later, he’s still sick.

The disease stays with some people like that. They call it the long tail of the virus. Garner says it kept coming up with new, disturbing symptoms. He had a muggy head, tinnitus, an upset stomach, pins and needles, breathlessness, dizziness, arthritic symptoms–. The list goes on.

And it would seem to get better and then come back. 

*

To learn more about the disease outside of hospital settings, King’s College, London, has introduced a tracker app where people can log their symptoms. 

There’s good clinical data for people in the hospital but not in the community, Professor Tim Spector said, but “there is a whole other side of the virus which has not had attention because of the idea that ‘if you are not dead you are fine.’ “

Rather than the cough, fever, and loss of the sense of smell that we’re told to watch for, some people get muscle aches, a sore throat, a headache. And Professor Lynne Turner-Stokes, also of King’s College, said Covid is capable of attacking any organ, including the lungs, brain, skin, kidneys, and nervous system. It can cause blood clots or confusion, delirium, and coma. 

“I’ve studied 100 diseases,” Spector said. “Covid is the strangest one I have seen in my medical career.”

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.

The pandemic update from Britain: science, censorship, and birthday celebrations

On Sunday night, Boris Johnson addressed Britain prime ministerially and assured us that we have a plan for getting the country out of lockdown without loosing the hounds of hell–or at any rate letting Covid-19 gain ground on us again.

Or he has a plan. Or someone has a plan.

What is it? People who can’t work form home should go back to work if they can do so safely, starting the next day. That’s Monday. Which is–oh, wait, it’s today. Or, depending on when you read this, yesterday or further back than that. So they’d better hurry. But they shouldn’t take public transportation. They should drive, they should walk, they should bike, they should call the chauffeur.

If they have school-age kids, they should stash them in the freezer until they get home, because schools haven’t started yet.

Do their workplaces have plans for how they can work safely? Well, they had all night to work them up, so it should be fine.

Irrelevant photo. A plant from last summer. This year’s version still has the training wheels on its bike.

But what really matters is that we have a new slogan: Stay alert, control the virus, save lives.

What does that mean? Nothing much, but it fills a gap.

The changes Johnson announced only apply to England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland set their own rules on this, and Scotland and Wales, at least, aren’t sounding impressed.

*

We also learned that Britain will start quarantining people who come into the country. How? In an unspecified way.

To work, this should’ve started (in a specified way)–give me a minute here, I’m counting and I never was good at that–oh, let’s say something like five months ago, when Covid-19 first emerged and could have still been contained. At the time, though, the government’s response was to tell people to wash their hands while singing “Happy Birthday.” 

That was all we needed to do if we wanted to stay safe. 

Really. It was. I’d make that up if I could but I’m not that good. No one’s that good. You can only come up with something that stupid if you mean it. 

Why didn’t it work? A bunch of you hooligans sang the wrong song. You want to know how we got into this mess, that’s how we got into this mess.

The quarantine won’t apply to people coming from Ireland. Because Irish viruses don’t travel. On top of which, they speak English. Or people coming from France, because the prime minister was on the phone with Emmanuel Macron and everyone sang “There’ll Always Be and England” and hung up happy. And French viruses are bilingual.

Mind you, this may not be exactly a quarantine because it’s not clear that anyone’s going to be enforcing it. All the same, U.K. airports say it’ll kill the aviation industry.

And there was me thinking the pandemic had pretty much done that already. Shows you what I know. 

We won’t start the quarantine until the end of May. Why not? Because they’re recording fourteen days’ worth of “Happy Birthday” for everyone coming into the country to sing and these things take time.

*

Some groups in society adapted admirably to lockdown. Take drug dealers, for example. With streets empty and travel restricted, they were standing out for a while. Now they’re dressing as joggers or tricking themselves out with fake National Health Service i.d.

And a lot of them are respecting the social distancing guidelines by using cars to deliver drugs. If you’re buying, you throw your money into the back seat and they throw your drugs out the window. 

I thought you might need to know that, although your dealer will be happy to explain it if you call.

If you want to know why their sales force tends to be younger than me, it’s because to pass for a jogger you can’t just wear the clothes, you will, at some point, actually have to run, and my knees have never forgiven me for the small bit of running I did many decades ago. But with a little effort, I can pass as a harmless old lady, going about her business.

*

People who are convinced that 5G systems caused the coronavirus have been attacking engineers working for Openreach. 

Why Openreach? Because it has nothing to do with 5G, that’s why. It deals with the wiring that phones and broadband rely on–the cables, the ducts, the cabinets, the exchanges. I think we can all accept that this makes it the perfect target.

Engineers have been attacked, spat on, doused with water, and chased. The company reported 46 incidents in April. I’ve written to suggest they disguise themselves as drug dealers and am waiting to hear back.

*

From the beginning–in fact, from the time when we were told to wash our hands and sing “Happy Birthday”–the government has defended every decision it’s made by saying, “We’re just following the science.” Meaning, “Hey, if we got it wrong, the science is to blame.” 

Which explains why an April 1 report from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (called Sage by its friends and family) has been published with huge blocks of text blacked out. Presumably the science went someplace it shouldn’t have gone. 

Bad science. Naughty science.

Why publish it at all? Because the government’s been under pressure to be more transparent about what advice government ministers were actually getting. And nothing says transparency like blacking out huge chunks of text.

*

Black and minority ethnic people in Britain are four times more likely to die of the coronavirus than white people. That’s not accounted for by pre-existing conditions, age, or socio-economic differences.It could be accounted for by some groups being over-represented in jobs that bring them into contact with the public. Those include health care, other kinds of caring jobs, and all those jobs that used to be called unskilled and are now called essential. 

Even if, for reasons I can’t seem to put my finger on, they’re not getting paid essential-type wages.

People from “deprived social backgrounds” (I’m pretty sure that if you translate that it means people who are poor) are also at higher risk, whatever their ethnic background. 

As an aside, the British seem to use a different definition of black than Americans do, and since I wander through life with an almost complete set of American assumptions, it scrambles my head in an interesting way when I find people from south Asia defined as black. It’s a nice reminder that however seriously we take these categories and however powerful we make them, they’re arbitrary. 

These days, the phrase I see most is black and minority ethnic, or BAME

Within the BAME group, the only subgroup less likely than whites to die of Covid-19 is Chinese women. A lot of work seems to be devoted to figuring out what accounts for the differences. Or at least, a lot of ink’s being spilled over it. I may be making a leap when I assume it reflects actual research.

*

The Young Foundation and the Open University have started a Covid-19 citizen-science project, which invites people to “share their day-to-day experiences of pandemic via online platform over the next three months, creating a rich digital archive of life during a pandemic.”

The idea is to capture the social impact, across the UK, of what they call (and I can’t find a way to argue with them) a generation-defining moment.

There are several ways to participate, and I’ll leave you to chase them down if you’re interested. 

The pandemic update from Britain: protective gear, black holes, and dead rats

Some days the government gives me so much to make fun of that it’s just embarrassing.

Not so many days ago that we’ve forgotten about it yet, the government announced with great fanfare and many imaginary trumpets that it was buying protective equipment from Turkey to make up for the shortfall it had created. 

Okay, they didn’t say it that way. It was something about the shortfall that mysteriously created itself in spite of our government working day and night to procure the best equipment that our heroic frontline staff needs.

Anyway, a shipment was on its way. Along with a few more notes from the trumpets. 

After mysterious delays, the shipment limped into the airport and turned out to be less than a tenth of what they fanfare’d. 

Now the story’s worse than that: The 400,000 surgical gowns that did arrive are unusable. Or possibly most of them are unusable. I’ve heard the story both ways from different news outlets, probably because the trumpets are interfering with reception.

Either way, the gowns would expose the users to infection.

Stop, people. It’s not Christmas. I have more than enough to work with. 

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Irrelevant photo: A gerbera daisy.

Speaking of protective gear, Robert Jenrick, the housing, community, and local government secretary offered an explanation of why we’re having so much trouble getting protective gear where it’s needed: “Supply . . . in some areas is in short supply.”

Once you understand that, you can be more sympathetic.

Apologies for a messy link here. The quote’s in there, but you’ll have to dig around a bit.

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Forgive me for recycling something I already put on Twitter, but our cat, Fast Eddie, brought dead rats home for two nights running, and he has me worried: If this keeps up, who’s going to run the country?

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Now, about that tracing app that People Who Know These Things say may not work: Here’s the problem–or here’s the part of the problem I understand. The app relies on a kind of herd immunity. Not the kind that, if enough people die of Covid-19 and enough people get it but don’t die, will protect the people who did neither. This is virtual herd immunity. It relies on some minimum number of Android users in an area signing up for the app. If they don’t, it won’t work. 

The root of the problem is that Android phones aren’t allowed to stay connected to Bluetooth for long once they’re minimized. Basically, they hang up. Once that happens, the phone won’t register contact with an app on a nearby phone. So if one of the people carrying those phones is infected or needs to be told that the other person is? Even if when they passed each other they fell into each other’s arms and kissed with 46 minutes worth of passion, the apps on their phones would ignore each other. 

The only way to keep the app awake on an Android is for its owner to pass by a whole bunch of other Android owners who are all using the app. If that happens, their phones will chastely brush electronic feelers and the app will send the information to a central database.

Australia tried something similar in its app and now says the app “progressively deteriorated.”

The UK government is now “open” to the possibility of ditching the app and using a different one.

No, I don’t know how much that detours cost either.

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Astronomers have found a black hole a thousand light years from Earth. That’s close if you’re an astronomer. It’s in (or “among,” and I haven’t figured out what the difference is in this context) the beautifully named HR 6819 system.

What’s that got to do with the pandemic? The black hole is where all the missed targets are being shipped. And the missing protective gear? It’s there too. That’s why supply has been in short supply in undersupplied locations.

A new shipment of bad news has been launched in its general direction but will probably miss by a few dozen light years.

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I’m always a day or three behind the actual news here. It’s one of the many reasons I recommend reading actual newspapers. The real ones (as opposed to the bottom feeders) are better at this than I am. Even when they’re not funny.

Stay well, everyone. Even when it starts to feel delusional to hide from something invisible, remember that it’s real.

The pandemic news from Britain: tracing, testing, and goals no one expects to meet

Britain’s Prime Blusterer, Boris Johnson, set a new coronavirus testing goal: 200,000 tests a day by the end of May.

Did we meet our last testing goal? Well, no. We were supposed to be testing 100,000 people by the end of April and the government mythically met the goal for one day–the last day April had to offer–by counting tests that hadn’t been tested yet. After that, the numbers dropped down again.

But hey, They’re all all numbers. What’s your problem? When you’ve seen one number, you’ve seen ’em all.

Anyway, we now have a newer, cheerier, even more unreachable goal. And we’re happy.

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Irrelevant photo, because we all need something cheery in our lives: This is an odd geranium that a friend gave us. It only flowers after three years. Then it kicks the bucket and you have to hope you save some seeds.

Starting on Monday, the lockdown will be eased slightly, allowing people to leave the house more often and for a wider range of activities as long as they keep their distance from other people, although if localized infection rates go up, the restrictions may be adapted for those areas. (The link for that is that same as the one above. We’re all about efficiency here.)

Adapting the restrictions to smaller ares makes sense (as Almost Iowa pointed out in comments he left on an earlier post) but it’s also likely to mean that richer areas, which allow for more space between people when they’re outside and where people are statistically less likely to be hit as hard by the virus, will have an easier lockdown than poor areas.

And by areas, of course, I mean people.

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I’ve been hearing tales, from here in Cornwall, about people who book Covid-19 tests, show up, and then can’t get tested. One person got to her test to find out that the testing team had already gone home, presumably because they ran out of tests but who really knows?

Instead of doing what Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey says half the population would do, which is , “Fuck it,” she booked a second test. But they didn’t get the results back to her, so she followed up. they were backed up, They said. It might take as much as five days before they could test her sample.

After five days, I’m told, the sample has to be thrown away.

But it’s all privatized, so it’s all good. Because when private industry runs things, it’s more efficient.

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Okay, sooner or later I’ve got to write about the contract-tracing app that’s being introduced. I’ve been avoiding it because I’m too damn old to be at ease in the virtual world. Here’s about as much I can follow:

The National Cyber Security Centre says it’s good, and it says it in as down-homey a way as it can, given that it’s British and I’ve never heard anyone British say “down home.” It’s got to be an Americanism. Someone British might say “homely,” meaning not ugly (which is what an American would mean) but homey, but they wouldn’t say it in this context. I only tossed it in because I thought we needed a break. Homely isn’t the same thing as down home.

I’m sorry, but I have to ask: Why do you read this stuff?

Now, back to our point: The app’s so good that it won’t drain your battery, steal your data, or invade your privacy. It won’t even make you flip the E and R if you write center instead of centre. But that’s because it can’t–nothing’s that powerful yet. I only spelled it that way because, hey, I figure it can spell its name any way it wants.

Do I believe them about the privacy thing?

Umm. I think I’m gonna have to hear it from someone else first, and some experts have raised concerns about it. They know all sorts of things about this that I don’t, so in my ignorance I lean in the direction of listening to them. Especially since one of the reassurances about privacy is that the app asks your permission before it can do various things, and we all know how well we read the fine print when an app asks our permission before it can do something.

The app is a centralized one, so all the information your phone collects goes through whoever’s running this beast–a private company, as it happens, so it will be handled efficiently.

But forget privacy. I’ve clicked okay on so many websites that I doubt I have a scrap of the stuff left. Or if you can’t forget it, set it aside for a minute. Both the Health Service Journal and Business Insider say it won’t work on newer phones and Androids.

Both Google and Apple have dedicated tracing apps that we’re not using.

Downloading it isn’t mandatory, which is a good thing since I have a dumb phone, which is no better with apps than I am.

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At a virtual summit organized by the World Health Organization, a global alliance pledged $8 billion to develop vaccines and treatments for the virus and distribute them fairly.

The U.S. didn’t take part.

Why not? As the kids all said where I grew up, “Because.”

That was enough to explain pretty much anything.

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Stay safe out there if you can. I’ve explained this before, but it’s worth repeating: I don’t have so many readers that I can afford to lose any.