Does the Covid virus work nights? It’s the pandemic update from Britain

With Covid cases rising in Britain and more than a quarter of the country living with local restrictions on top of the national ones, pubs in England have been told to close at 10 pm. So who can resist a story about Parliament’s bars being exempt from the rules?

Parliament has thirty bars and the booze is subsidized, so it’s cheap. And we shouldn’t be calling it booze, because a lot of these people are high-class guzzlers. They’re not in the habit of letting people talk about them as if they were your everyday, low-rent lush. They are extremely high-rent lushes.

But high rent or not, sitting in the House of Commons or the House of Lords is a thirsty job, so they need those bars. Which, I assume, is why they were neatly defined as workplace canteens, which gave them an exemption on both hours and a few other things until the opposition–that’s the Labour Party–started yelling, the whole thing got a bit of embarrassing publicity, and someone decided that, gee whiz, guys, this might give people the wrong idea about us. 

The bars now stop serving at 10 pm, and that will last until either the regulations change or outsiders promise not to notice.

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Irrelevant photo: Pansies. I’ve given up growing them. The slugs and snails just love ’em.

What’s the logic behind closing the bars at 10 pm? According to our prime minister, who’ll say anything that comes into his head, however incoherent it may be, “What we’ve seen from the evidence is that the spread of the disease does tend to happen later at night after more alcohol has been consumed.” 

What evidence do they have that the disease spreads late at night once the viruses or their containers (that’s us) have gotten shitfaced? Well, the BBC asked the Department for Health and Social Care for the specific evidence and didn’t get it. Instead, the BBC ran through an assortment of data from Public Health England, showing the number of outbreaks in schools, food-related businesses (you can slot the pubs in there), care homes, and workplaces, but it inevitably showed more transmission in places where testing’s heaviest, so it’s anything but conclusive. And it doesn’t mention time of day. Or night. 

Professor Mark Woolhouse, who’s on the government’s infection modelling team, explained (helpfully), “There isn’t a proven scientific basis for any of this.”

So as far as we know, the virus works both the day shift and the night shift.

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A study has begun on how long Covid can survive once it’s airborne. Figure that out and  you can figure out how to reduce the risk people run in enclosed spaces. 

The consensus is that it’s not just the larger droplets that humans breathe, cough, and sneeze out that carry the disease, it’s also aerosols–tiny beasties less than  5 microns across, which hang in the air much longer than droplets. By way of comparison, a human hair is 60 to 120 microns across. 

Because aerosols are so small, they stay airborne longer than droplets and can be carried by air currents. 

Humans are messy creatures, always breathing–not just in but (annoyingly) out–and we tend to share whatever’s taken up residence inside us. So if the disease does spread on aerosols, keeping two meters away isn’t going to keep us safe. 

Earlier research gave the rough estimate that Covid has a half-life of 1.1 to 1.2 hours in aerosol form, but the new research will create a closer replica of real-world conditions, even varying it for different climates. I’m hoping they don’t tell us that we all need separate countries. In spite of how difficult we are as a species, I actually like being around other humans. Not all of them, but a fair few.

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Here’s a quick snapshot of Britain at the moment: University students across the country went back to school this month, and (to no one’s surprise) universities are reporting Covid outbreaks. They’re being urged in all directions: to drop all face-to-face teaching, to continue normal teaching, to be sure campuses are two-thirds empty, to quarantine affected students and pretend that in a dorm that solves the problem, to let student life carry on as usual because the climate of fear is doing untold damage, to return the tuition they charged, and to keep the tuition they charged.  

The only way to choose the correct advice is by having a gorilla throw darts at a target.

A report says infections in the food industry are thirty times higher than are being reported. 

A scientist from SAGE–the group of scientists who advise the government–is arguing that repeated two-week lockdowns could knock the virus on the head. Not necessarily hard enough to kill it but enough to make it dizzy.

Outside of Britain? The world has now logged a million coronavirus deaths. Those are the ones that’ve been counted. How many are there really? No one knows. Countries haven’t even agreed on the definition of a coronavirus death, and we won’t get into the problem of figuring out who actually had it when testing is so patchy. But basically, a lot of people have died, and that’s not taking account of the people who are left debilitated or of the economic damage the pandemic leaves in its wake.

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A quick Covid test is now available. It gives a result in 15 to 30 minutes and works like a pregnancy test, but nine months later you don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night and feed anybody. 

Unless of course you want to. 

The makers claim it’s 97% accurate, but in real-world conditions it picks up something more like 80% to 90% of infections. Other quick tests are sold online, but this is the first one that meets the World Health Organization’s standards. By way of illustration, Spain ordered two sets of rapid tests in March and sent them back.

A second test is expected to get WHO approval shortly.

Under an initiative started by the WHO, the European Commission, the Gates Foundation, and the French government, 20% of the tests will be made available to low- and middle-income countries for $5 per test. The rest will go to wealthy countries. You may notice an, um, imbalance there between what wealthy countries get and what poor ones do, but it’s actually better than the alternative, which is to have them all go to the countries that can pay the most. 

Yes, it’s a lovely world we live in.

Right now, most low- and middle-income countries are doing minimal testing. North America tests 395 people per 100,000 daily, Europe tests 243, and Africa tests fewer than 16, but most of those are in just three countries, Morocco, Kenya, and Senegal.

It’s not clear whether the UK plans to buy any of the tests. It’s committed heavily to two different tests that take 90 minutes, aren’t as easy to use, and cost more.

 

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A reporter asked Boris Johnson to explain the tighter local restrictions that northeastern England is living with and, to prove how simple the rule of six is, he got it wrong. It all has to do with how many people you can get together with indoor and outdoors.

Here’s how it really works:

If you’re outside the restricted area, it’s six inside and six outside. But if you’re inside, it’s six inside but not six outside. 

I hope that clears everything up. If not, just hide in your basement, knock the glass out of a periscope, and breathe through that. We’ll look for you when this all passes, as all things must.

Freedom, survival, and flag waving: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A reporter asked Boris Johnson (although not in these words) whether the mess we call our Covid test and trace system might explain why Italy and Germany have lower infection rates. 

Britain’s a “freedom-loving country,” Johnson explained, “and if you look at the history of this country in the last 300 years, virtually every advance, from freedom of speech to democracy, has come from this.”

In other words, “I may not approve of the coronavirus, but I will defend to the death our right to respond with complete incompetence, as well as my right to give fat contracts to my friends and respond to pointed questions with irrelevant answers.”

Wave that flag, folks. Strike up the band. There’s money to be made.

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Irrelevant photo: Orange berries. What would you do without me to explain these thing to you?

England’s Covid tracing app, let’s call it App 2 point 0h-Yes-We-Will, is up and running. The older one, App 1 point 0h-No-You-Won’t crashed into the brick wall of reality when it was tested on the Isle of Wight, leaving barely enough shards to make fun of. But take heart: 2 point 0h-Yes-We-Will is off to a roaring start.

  • Android users were able to download the trial version, so of course some of them did. They hated it. 
  • iPhone users who left a hyphen out of the app’s name got the New Zealand version. None of them came within two meters–or several thousand miles–of anyone on the system. This may be the fastest way to stop the spread.
  • NHS workers who downloaded the app and brought their phones to work were told they’d been exposed, even though they were wearing protective gear. 
  • People with older phones were sent into the outer darkness–that place where apps are unavailable and contact with the rest of the human race has to be made in person. “Older” is defined as prior to 2018.
  • People who had symptoms but tested negative can’t enter that into the app. It only accepted positive. But since they’ve been tested, the isolate-yourself countdown began. And couldn’t be turned off.
  • People who took tests outside of the privatized testing system–through NHS England, for example–couldn’t enter them into the app. That was tens of thousands of results that were missed. Daily. 
  • Users could only mark themselves down as infectious if they’ve been tested. The idea–probably a reasonable one, given what the world’s like–was to keep a bunch of wiseasses from saying they were infectious for the sheer joy of sending people home to isolate needlessly and, basically, shutting the country down because it sounded like a fun thing to do on a Saturday night. But since the testing system’s broken and tests are hard to get, people who genuinely were infectious couldn’t prove it to the app. 

Other than that, though, it’s going well. Except for Downing Street at first saying the app couldn’t trace contacts and then having to explain that, well, yes, actually it can. And will. And sing “There’ll Always Be an England” while it does it. 

You have to love these people. I’m not sure what they thought the point of the app was if it couldn’t trace contacts, and whoever they threw out in front of the press apparently didn’t stop to wonder. By now, I expect everyone at the press conference was too punchy to think of the question until it was too late to ask it.

I’ve scrupulously listed the app’s problems in the past tense, although I’d bet a batch of very good brownies that most–possibly all–of them could be hurled into the present tense without damaging my credibility even a small amount.

My credibility’s limited, I know, but I still have more than the people running the country.

Britain, by the way, has more test capacity than Germany, Ireland, South Africa, Spain, or South Korea. And in spite of that, people can’t get tested. 

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A study said the privatized network of Covid testing labs “bypassed accreditation and raises quality concerns.” It also criticized the system of having people do their own swabs, saying it can lead to useless samples. 

When you do the test, you’re told to swab either your tonsils or their last known address. My tonsils still live with me, as they have for 73 years now, so I know they’re somewhere in Cornwall. But we don’t have the kind of relationship where we do a lot of hand-holding, so when I took a test I couldn’t tell if I was mopping my own tonsils or someone else’s. 

I’m relieved to hear that’s a flaw in the system, not a personal failing.

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Chancellor Rishi Sunak told us that there’s no “risk-free solution” to Covid and we all have to “learn to live with” it. Human contact is important. Spending money is also important, although I don’t think he exactly said that, but all the same the economy needs us. “Lives can no longer be put on hold,” he said. Britons should learn to live “without fear.”

Personally, I’m more interested in still being alive by the time this ends–assuming it does end–than in being fearless. Preferably with my lungs, heart, kidneys, brain and other body parts still working at full capacity, and with my energy in the functional zone. Also with my sense of taste and smell intact. Fear can be crippling, but its gift is that it can also keep us from crippling or killing ourselves–from walking off cliffs, say. It’s like pain. No one likes it, but it offers us important information. 

I can live with a reasonable amount of fear, especially if it means continuing to live.

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I can’t speak to Sunak’s genuine competence, but he’s the one member of this government who at least projects the image of it, leading to rumors that he may turn out to be Boris Johnson’s replacement–assuming, of course, that the Tories break with recent tradition and select for competence when they choose their next leader. He may be signaling here that he leans toward the libertarian wing of the party–the let ’em wander free, the virus will take care of itself wing. 

Never say it can’t get any worse.

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Enough with the politicians. Let’s visit the scientists: 

A Centers for Disease Control study found a correlation between eating out and catching Covid. That’s not proof, it’s just correlation, as in the two seem to be lining up more than is statistically likely. But it’s worth noticing.

Eating out included eating indoors, on patios, and outdoors. 

What’s the difference between a patio and outdoors? Damned if I know. I thought they were both outdoors.

Which should warn you about how little I know.

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A new Covid test can be done at home and it takes only fifteen minutes. What’s more, it’s cheap, although the article I saw didn’t say how cheap. The problem? It only detects the virus in people with a high viral load. The team that developed it talks about it as complementing existing tests, not replacing them, and says the people with the largest viral load are the people most likely to transmit the virus.

For some time now, I’ve been reading about fifteen-minute tests, half-hour tests, and instant tests that can be done only by large, bearded men with divining rods, but they’re always in development, or about to be set loose in the world but not quite yet. Or that they’re available on the internet but their accuracy ranges from who knows to don’t ask me. 

Then they drop out of sight. The only one that’s resurfaced is the sniffer dogs. Fido’s working in a pilot project in an airport in Finland. Do not go through a Finnish airport with dog biscuits in your pocket.

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Speaking of viral load, a study in Detroit found the viral load decreasing in hospitalized patients between April and June, and that lined up neatly with a lower number of deaths. They’re not sure why the viral load was lower, but it might be a result of social distancing, lockdown, and face masks–especially when they’re worn over the parts of the face that we breathe through.

Does anyone know why we keep talking about face masks? Is there some other part of the anatomy a mask could cover? The eyes are a possibility, but they’re generally located on the face.

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The city of Manaus, in Brazil, may have reached herd immunity: 66% of the population may have Covid antibodies. (Yes, but do notice that the word may squeezed itself in there not once but twice.) Getting to that point involved mass graves, overwhelmed hospitals, and corpses piled in refrigerated trucks. People there are still dying of Covid, but the numbers are going down. 

As soon as that went public, experts jumped in to warn against thinking that herd immunity is a viable strategy. 

Florian Krammer, professor of microbiology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, tweeted, “Community immunity via natural infection is not a strategy, it’s a sign that a government failed to control an outbreak and is paying for that in lives lost.” 

And after all those deaths, immunity to Covid may be short-term. No one knows yet.

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I said earlier that I wanted to get out of this mess with my sense of smell intact. Why do I care? Not only because I like food and if you lose your sense of smell your sense of taste goes with it, but because its loss may indicate some serious long-term losses.

Yeah, sorry, yet another study. Those scientists. They will keep worrying about this thing. How are we supposed to live without fear when they keep scaring the shit out of us?

This study takes off from Covid’s demonstrated ability to get into the brain and insult the cells. That’s is childish, I know, but brain cells aren’t used to it and they’re sensitive. Insult them enough and they die. 

True, Covid knows how to do insults. One of its insults involves starving the cells of oxygen, and that would probably upset anyone, so maybe we can cut the brain cells a little slack here.

Covid does less drastic things as well. The loss of smell is one, and the study treats that as a neurological symptom and an indicator that Covid’s up to something in the brain and nervous system. The loss of smell, it says, is caused by an inflammation that could cause long-term neurological problems.

Inflammation, it turns out, causes a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s, and 90% of people who get Parkinson’s report a loss of the sense of smell in the early stages. After the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, survivors had two or three times the risk of developing Parkinson’s.

So yes, even those of us who don’t speak science are starting to see a pattern.

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From the Department of What’s It Going to Take, People? comes the story of a gospel choir in Spain that scheduled an outdoor concert in September and then rehearsed for it indoors.

Members did the recommended stuff–kept a distance, washed their hands, and wore masks for most of the rehearsal. They even did a temperature check as people arrived. What they didn’t do was open the windows–there were moths out there, and mosquitoes. So they turned on the air conditioning, because hey, it was hot.

When the article was written, thirty of the choir’s forty-one members had tested positive.

Exactly what a gospel choir in Spain sings I don’t know. I’m probably defining gospel in American. 

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And from the Department of Good News at the End of a Post comes this: A study estimates that England’s decision to house the homeless in unused hotel rooms during lockdown may have saved 266 lives and avoided 21,000 infections, 1,164 hospitalizations, and 338 intensive care admissions among the homeless alone. That doesn’t count the people they’d have gone on to infect.

I’ve been trying to find out if the program’s still going on. I think so, but I can’t swear to it.

The vulnerabilities of younger people: It’s the pandemic update from Britain

England’s world-beating Covid test and trace system has people beating their heads against the wall. Anyone can mistake a wall for the world. It’s natural enough. Even in pandemic hot spots, symptomatic people are being turned away. The government’s labs had a backlog of 185,000 tests that were sent abroad over the weekend. But if test samples sit around too long, they’re useless. So, um, yeah. I’m not sure how that’s going to work. But let’s not be silly and hold out for competence.

English schools are warning that they’ll grind to a halt if students and staff can’t get tested, because people who might test negative will have to isolate.

Wales says it’s going to process its own tests. Scotland accused England of trying to limit its access to tests. Northern Ireland doesn’t seem to be taking part in the conversation, and nobody ever listens to Cornwall.  

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Screamingly irrelevant flowers. Whatsit flowers–probably osteospermum. In bloom. In our yard. They’re wonderful–the slugs don’t eat them.

Meanwhile, Doug Jaquier sent me a bit of wisdom from a Facebook site called Puns, One Liners & Clever Wordplay

“Due to the success of Covid testing the Government has taken over pregnancy testing too. The waiting list is currently 10 months.”

The capitalization is not mine. Neither, sadly, is the inventive mind that thought of that. If they’d waited another lifetime, I would’ve come up with it. I just know I would’ve.

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China has announced that it may have a vaccine ready for use by the public in November or December. It’s currently in phase 3 trials–the ones where they test it on a large number of people to see if it’s both safe and effective.

Britain’s Oxford vaccine phase 3 trials were interrupted when one of the test subjects got sick. They’ve resumed now. Presumably her illness was unrelated. Not that anyone’s actually said that. Confidentiality and discretion absolutely ruin a good bit of gossip. 

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An advisor to the British government said that details of the new rules limiting how many people can gather in what circumstances are irrational–you can get a larger group of people together for a sports event but a family of five can’t have two grandparents visit them at home. 

“It is on the other hand very simple,” he said.

And it is simple until you try to sort through the who, what, when, where, and how.

In case you were worried, you can gather in groups of up to thirty to shoot grouse. So don’t feel too bad about the grandparents. At least no one (that we know of) is hunting them.

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A lot of Britain’s recent Covid cases are among younger people, so let’s talk about the people who it’s hitting like a sledgehammer. The reason I want to focus on them is that we have the illusion that Covid’s only a danger to people over sixty. Or seventy. Or eighty. Younger people are immune. 

Okay, most of us have that illusion. You probably know better, but the rest of us can be pretty dumb sometimes.

At Mount Sinai Health System, in New York, doctors treated five Covid stroke patients in two weeks, all under fifty. Normally they’d see one every three weeks. Four of them were relatively healthy beforehand. Two were in their thirties and had no risk factors. 

That’s a lot of numbers in one paragraph. Five in two weeks instead of one every three. Hold onto that. It’s not a huge number, but it reminds us that the danger to younger people is real. If you have to draw a card out of the Covid deck, you have no way to know what card it’ll be. 

Dr. Adam Dmytriw, a University of Toronto radiologist, says, “We’re seeing a startling number of young people who had a minor cough, or no recollection of viral symptoms at all . . . and they have a sudden stroke.” 

How many is a startling number? Enough to startle a doctor. That’s the best I can do, because the article didn’t say. Some of them had underlying medical conditions, but none had risks that should have increased their chance of having a stroke. For some, the stroke was the first sign that they had the coronavirus because they had the mild cases we all expect them to have.

In the U.S., the number of hospitalizations among 18- to 29-year-olds quadrupled in just a couple months. From the week ending April 18 to the one ending June 27, it went from just under 9 for every 100,000 to roughly 35 per 100,000. It’s not a huge number, but it’s a big jump for a short stretch of time.

One study, again of Americans, says a third of all younger people have at least one risk factor for severe Covid. 

Other younger people end up with some version of post-Covid syndrome, which can include exhaustion, chest pains, migraines, breathlessness, dizziness. About 600,000 people (I think that’s in Britain, and it seems to include all ages, but don’t take my word for that) have some version of post-Covid syndrome as measured by the app Covid Tracker. Around 12% of them have had it for more than a month and one in two hundred for more than 90 days.

Something close to 100% of British publications (at least the ones I read) don’t bother to translate their statistics into comparable categories. I think that would be .5%, but I’m not going to crawl too far out on that limb.

The initial belief that Covid risk rises with age still seems to hold true, but even so the evidence is increasing that younger people aren’t immune. A retrospective Chinese study of Covid in children counts 2,143 cases. More than 90% of them were mild or moderate, but 6% of pediatric cases were severe and even critical, compared to 19% of adult cases. 

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Isn’t it just fun to spend time with me? Doom, gloom, and after that I’m out of relevant rhymes.

Zoom.

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A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine floated an unproven theory about Covid: that mask wearing may be immunizing people. The idea is that masks may cut down on the number of viruses that a person breathes in, so the body’s able to mount an immune response instead of getting overwhelmed. 

It’s the same process that made variolation–the early form of inoculation against smallpox–work. A person was deliberately exposed to a small amount of the disease and the body probably mounted an immune response. Emphasis on probably. You couldn’t be sure who would become immune and who would get sick and quite possibly die. 

The mask theory rests on two unproven assumptions: that exposure to a lower dose results in a milder case and that mild or asymptomatic cases confer some immunity. More than that, the only way to directly prove it is through clinical trials that would expose people, some wearing masks and some not, to the coronavirus. Which is unethical. So at this point it’s basically an interesting thought.

Flags and rust: It’s the pandemic update from Britain

The government tells us we have a great system of Covid testing. World beating. So let’s check in on it. Again.

If you live someplace that’s not a hotspot and want a test, you’ll be chasing all over the country to get one. Take, as a purely random example, me. The website where you register for a test wanted me to drive 86 point something miles to I’ve forgotten where. And back, although that wasn’t their problem but mine. It didn’t sound like a great idea, so I followed a link that took me to a page that promised I’d have a test in the mail the next day. 

The next day came and went, along with many of its friends, who followed in a line, as days will. I still haven’t had a test in the mail and have stopped expecting one. Fortunately, I’m fine. I had a sore throat–not the most Covid common symptom but not an impossible one–and a fit of paranoia collided with a sense of civic responsibility. It’s possible that I got downgraded because I had the wrong symptom. It’s also possible that they dumped everyone into electronic limbo. I have no way to know.  

What I do know is that the priority is being given to high-risk areas. That makes a kind of sense, but it also leaves clusters to build up, unspotted, in new areas. It also means the people allegedly in charge of the country have once again let us run short of tests–the number of people requesting them has gone up–leading them to set up a kind of triage-by-determination system. If you’re willing to drive 65 point something miles, you can have your test. If you’re too sick to do it, you can’t. 

You can also (or so the radio tells me–and yes, it was on at the time) log back into the website later and you might be offered a perfectly sane location for a test. Or you might not. Nothing is guaranteed.

In calculating the distances between the person using the website and the nearest testing center, they seem to have assumed that they’re dealing with crows rather than drivers. According to a BBC calculation, a 109-mile trip would’ve involved 206 miles of driving. I suspect mine would’ve as well, because I think they wanted to send me to Wales, and I’m not much of a swimmer.

This is happening just as the schools reopen. So will there be testing to make sure the kids don’t all infect each other and bring the bug home? Of course not. It’s not a priority.

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The Notting Hill Carnival–usually the largest street party in Europe–went online this year. It’s director, Matthew Phillip, said, “For more than 50 years, carnival has been a statement that black lives matter. That’s normal practice for us, it’s not something that we’re just jumping on now because of the current global climate and what’s going on. Carnival has been making these statements for 50 years.”

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The Edinburgh festivals–that includes the International Festival, the Fringe, and the Book Festival–also went online. This was the first time they’d been canceled since 1947, and that was done–touchingly–in honor of my birth, even if they were a few months late. 

As far as I can figure out, its offerings ended in August, but if you want to mess around and see if I’m wrong (it happens), start here.

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In another heartwarming sign of unity among the four nations that make up the United Kingdom, England and Northern Ireland are telling travelers from Greece and Portugal that they don’t have to quarantine after they arrive in Britain but Scotland and Wales are (sort of) telling them that they do.

The sort of is because it’s not that simple. It involves parts of Greece, mainland Portugal, and–oh–Gibraltar. Have we mentioned Gibraltar? But that’s only for Wales. Scotland’s list is a little different. It’s complicated.

Complicated enough that a BBC TV show used a graphic with four flags to show who had to do what if they were landing where–or going there after they landed. Only instead of Northern Ireland’s flag, they substituted the Republic of Ireland’s. It’s easy to do. Northern Ireland doesn’t have a flag. All that symbolism and passion that people pour into their flags is too explosive for a divided nation and they’ve (probably wisely) decided to live without one. They’re stuck with the Union Jack.

The BBC made the appropriate straight-faced apology, but I can’t help thinking that someone’s giggling uncontrollably behind a closed door somewhere. 

Or maybe normal people don’t react to embarrassing mistakes that way.

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Since schools have opened, this might be a good time to announce that vomiting and diarrhea may be key signs of Covid-19 in kids

I almost reported that as “voting and diarrhoea.” It was a typo, but they might do better than we adults have lately.

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Tony Abbott, Australia’s former prime minister, is being considered for the position of UK trade envoy. He’s a man of great compassion, having argued that since Covid meant it cost the Australian government up to $200,000 for an extra year in an elderly person’s life, families should be able to let their eldery relatives die of the virus the natural (not to mention cheaper) way if they want to. 

I’m happy to report that Mr. Abbott is not one of my relatives.

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After that, we need something that isn’t about the pandemic: The earth is making the moon rust.

The problem with that is that rust only happens in the presence of oxygen, and the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere. It spent it all when it was a kid, buying candy and sugary drinks. 

Ah, but it does have trace amounts of oxygen hidden away, and it’s all due to Earth’s magnetic field. Oxygen molecules, it turns out, can hitch a 385,000 kilometers ride on the magnetic field and land on the moon, needing a shower and a change of clothes but otherwise none the worse for their travels. 

It’s also possible, although less fun, that the oxygen got there when the moon and the Earth were closer together. Or that it’s released when dust particles hit the ice hidden under lunar craters. 

How does dust hit something hidden under a crater? Dunno. There’s a third theory, but I understood even less of that. It has to do with hydrogen and solar winds. You’re on your own. I really should stick to topics I understand, but I couldn’t resist the idea of the moon rusting.

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And finally for the heartening spectacle of someone who understands social media less than I do: A Scottish member of parliament, Annie Wells, has two Twitter accounts. One is her own and the other is Women2Win Scotland (“Leading the campaign to elect more Conservative women to Parliament”). 

Using her own account, she tweeted something snotty about a political opponent. Then, thinking she’d changed accounts, she tweeted, “Spot on@AnniewellsMSP,” adding a thumbs up, a Union flag, and a Saltire to make the celebration complete. 

Only she hadn’t switched accounts. She was praising herself from her own account. She deleted it, tweeted it from her other account, and hoped no one had noticed.

They had. Of course they had. They always do.

The Saltire, in case I lost you back there a ways, is Scotland’s flag. It’s not to be confused with Ireland’s. Or Northern Irelands. Or, most especially, England’s. Or Britain’s. You probably won’t confuse it with the Welsh flag, because that has a dragon.

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WP in its wisdom dumped me into its glorious new editing experience–which of course I hate. Anyone know how to resize photos or add captions?

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.