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. 

Hope, despair, and statistical glitches: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A couple of scientists discovered that Public Health England may be overcounting coronavirus deaths–or as they put it, overexaggerating them. They’re numbers people, not word people. I’d underexaggerate an equation if you were silly enough to let me near one.

Having heard about this, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, is calling for an urgent review of England’s coronavirus deaths.

Why’s this urgent? Because Britain has the highest Covid death rate in Europe, and England has the highest rate in Britain. And that doesn’t look good. So that sense of urgency that was missing when front-line workers were catching the virus (and, some of them, dying) because they couldn’t get protective gear? The one that was missing when an early lockdown could have prevented ten thousand or so deaths? It’s come out of quarantine feeling reinvigorated, partially exaggerated, and raring to go. Dissect those numbers, kids, because we need a better result.

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Irrelevant photo: a rose

The statistical glitch that may be overexaggerating the numbers is this: Anyone who tested positive for the virus and later died is counted as a virus death, although they could, for all we know, have been killed by a meteor or a health secretary falling from the sky. Fair enough. But it’s also true that many people, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, never got tested at all. I’m not sure how many of them were counted as Covid deaths. The person I know who died of it of wasn’t counted as a virus death. That’s one out of one, so 100% of my sample went uncounted.

There’s no accepted standard for untangling coronavirus deaths from other deaths, and given the complexity of the situation we’re in, that’s not surprising. Different countries are using different standards. The best measure is probably a count of excess deaths, which compares the deaths of, say, June 2020 with those in June 2019. 

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I read recently that Australian researchers have developed a new coronavirus test which can spot both current and past infections using a blood sample. It takes only 20 minutes to get a result. They’ve filed for a patent and are trying to gather both government and commercial support (that means money in case you were about to offer them a nice letter) so they can ramp up production.

It sounds hopeful, and it reminds me that I’ve posted news about a variety of other tests that also sound promising. I’d see and article about them, drop the news into a post, and then never hear of them again. Britain’s still using the same-old, same-old–the test with a false negative rate of 30%. 

So I asked Lord Google about other Covid tests, hoping to find updates on at least one or two of the ones I’d mentioned. Instead, I found one being developed in Canada that promises a 15-minute turnaround and the possibility that it could be done at home. It’s not one of the tests I’ve written about before, but what the hell, it’s a nice shred of hope.

And we do need shreds of hope. This one’s being developed by Sona Nanotech and doesn’t have approval yet. It sounds like it still relies on sticking something long and unpleasant up your nose or down your throat. 

You may be able to untangle the explanations better than I could. I found the article hard going. 

A saliva test had a trial run in Britain–and this is one I wrote about–but it turns out to miss more cases than testing mucus does. So we’re back to sticking something long and uncomfortable up your nose and down your throat. It’s better than no test at all and could be useful for people who can’t or won’t put up with the other, but it doesn’t seem like the solution to our problems. What is clear is that testing’s crucial in controlling the spread of the disease. 

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The government set itself a target of June 33 to get all covid tests back to people in 24 hours, but at the beginning of July and 50% of the tests still weren’t being returned in time. During the first week of July, they actually managed to get fewer results back to people on time than during the week before.

It’s okay, though, because we went right into July without passing June 33. 

And our world-beating test and trace system is managing not to trace the contacts of 21% of the people who test positive. Russian hackers may be interested in the vaccines being developed here, but they are, very wisely, passing on the opportunity to steal and replicate our test and trace system.

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In the meantime, Britain’s chief scientific advisor, Patrick Vallance, announced on July 16 that he didn’t see any reason to change the advice that people who can work from home should. 

The next day, Boris Johnson–he is, somehow or other, our prime minister–said that starting on August 1 employers would be given “more discretion” on calling employees back.

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Johnson told us recently the pandemic will all be over “in time for Christmas.” He did, at least, add “hopefully,” but to anyone who knows the history of World War I it has an ominous sound. When the first volunteers marched off to the sound of brass bands and cheering, that was the prediction: It would all be over by Christmas.

The war went on for four years and, arguably, destroyed a generation of young men.