How much should we worry about the British Covid variant?

Whoopee! It’s another moment when Britain gets to claim world-beating status. Its new Covid variant may be more deadly than the old ones. In addition to maybe being more transmissible.

Maybe. (Also may be, if you want to split hairs and words.) Nothing’s certain yet, although we’d be smart to act as if the possible bad news is rock-solid certain bad news. Otherwise even more people might die. That has a way of focusing a person’s attention. Or at least it should. 

But that doesn’t mean that the evidence on it is clear.

Nervtag–the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group–says there’s a “realistic possibility” that it’s more deadly, but it’s by no means a sure thing, and the government’s chief science advisor, Patrick Vallance (known as Sir to his friends and family), said the data on this is “not yet strong.” 

The Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are both expected to work against the new variant, but they may be less effective against the variants from South Africa and Brazil. Not completely ineffective, just less effective. 

So it is time to be careful but it’s not time to panic. We can always do that later.

Irrelevant photo: A winter tree.

 

If we don’t panic, what should we do?

Susan Michie, an adviser on the government’s Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours says Britain’s lockdown rules aren’t strong enough, so she’d recommend strengthening them. 

There’s been a lot of focus on people who break the rules, and government ads urge people to stay home, “But actually,” she said, “all the data show that the overwhelming number of people are sticking to the rules with one exception which is self-isolation.

“In fact I would say that it’s not so much people not sticking to the rules, but it’s the rules themselves that are the problem.”

Compared to the first lockdown, twice as many people are going to work and using public transportation, and more kids are in school because the definition of key worker has been broadened.

“The better the lockdown is now the shorter it will be,” she said.

And the problem with self-isolation doesn’t seem to be that people don’t care but that so many of them can’t afford to miss work.

 

Your feel-bad stories for the day

Just when you think the government might be taking the pandemic seriously and understanding how important the people who work in the National Health Service are–

Nah, I won’t go on. It’s too silly. Foreign and minority group NHS workers in England might be disproportionately ineligible for Covid vaccines because guidelines on who hospitals should vaccinate rule out anyone without an NHS number.

Who’s that going to affect? Disproportionately, foreign-born workers and people from Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic backgrounds. They’re all less likely to have registered with a doctor’s practice, which means they haven’t gotten a number.

Some hospitals are working around the guidelines and vaccinating them anyway. 

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In case you’ve wondered how Britain’s £22 billion test and trace system manages to spend so much money while barely functioning–and I have–its bottom line gets a boost from a consulting company, Deloitte, which has 900 consultants on the test-and-trace books, each earning £1,000 a day.

Maybe that’s an average. Do we care? Nah, not really.

That’s a savings from last year, when the number of contractors was over 1,000. I can’t find the hourly wage for people working the test and trace phone system, but memory insists it’s minimum wage.

 

Your feel-good story for the day

On January 14, Dzhemal Senturk was hospitalized with Covid in Trabazon, Turkey, and his dog, Boncuk, ran after the ambulance all the way to the hospital and waited for him.

Senturk’s family took her home.

The next day, she came back, and she came back every day, waiting from 9 a.m. until dark. 

On January 20th, the man was released and she went home with him. And they lived happily ever after. Except that some papers spell the man’s name Cemal. It’s okay, though. Boncuk can’t spell.

 

And your information-packed snippet for the day

And now down to serious business: A British survey reports a lot of uncertainty about what key pandemic words and phrases mean, and as ever I’m here to help. 

Epidemiologist: These are doctors who treat the epidermis–your skin. Why is the news making such a fuss over them when the skin is one of the few things Covid isn’t interested in? Because so many people observing the current lockdown have gained weight and are desperate to get skinnier.

Flattening the curve: See above. 

Antibody: This is how people feel after failing to flatten the curve.

R number: This is the plural of the Is number, but abbreviated.

Is number: This is a secret metric kept by the deep state. You won’t hear about it anywhere but here. Doesn’t metric sound more worrying than measurement

Support bubble: This is the collection of imaginary friends you’ve gathered around you during the pandemic. They offer emotional support from within the confines of  your four walls.

Stay alert: This is a government slogan–or at least it was. It may have been retired by now and it’s okay not to know what it means because it never did mean anything, it just filled space while the government dithered.

The interesting thing about the survey–at least as far as I could tell from the article about it (my research didn’t take me as far as reading the survey itself)–is that it seems to have asked people if they could confidently explain the terms. It doesn’t seem to have cross-referenced their explanations with reality. In other words, were they even remotely right or only confident? It’s the perfect survey for our fact-free world.

Will Britain go into full Covid lockdown?

Covid cases are rising across Britain, with ambulances backing up outside the hospital doors and hospitals reporting that the rivets are popping out of their metaphorical bluejeans. The Independent Sage group is calling for another national lockdown. 

What’s Independent Sage? It’s a scientific advisory group that the government doesn’t listen to because it’s independent. The government has its own fully domesticated Sage group, but I can’t guarantee that it listens to them either.

 

Current Covid restrictions

As I write, 40% of England is in the highest Covid restriction tier–that’s tier 4–with the devolved governments (Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland) setting assorted their own standards and if I had a shred of decency I’d cover them as well but it’s hard enough to keep this mess straight without taking in all its complications. I live in Cornwall, which legally speaking is part of England. That sets my focus. 

Apologies. I’m not a real newspaper, I just suffer from the occasional delusion that I should be. 

Irrelevant photo: A tree, pointing–as trees around here do–away from the coast and its winds.

One of the primary differences between tier 4 and the lockdown we had earlier in the year, when the government woke up and noticed that the pandemic hadn’t skipped merrily over Britain on its way to the US or Ireland, is that under tier 4 the schools stay open. 

The cabinet office minister, Michael Gove–a man who looks like a balloon wearing a bowtie–says England’s secondary schools will be safe to reopen after the holidays if the kids come back in stages instead of all at once. They’ll be protected by rapid-results Covid testing, which is roughly 50% accurate (not to mention 50% inaccurate, which sounds 51% more shocking than if you put it the other way around). 

Teachers unions and an organization of school governors say the testing can’t realistically be set up in the time they’ve been given. Other than those small problems, though, it’s a great plan.

As an aside, I agree that it’s cheesy to attack people for their looks, but you have to make an exception for some people. Not because of their looks. Because of their actions. 

Okay, it’s cheesy in all situations. What can I tell you? I’m not a good person. 

The cabinet is reported to be split over reopening the schools, and Independent Sage has called for schools to be reopened only when smaller classes, adequate ventilation, and free masks can be organized. That will all happen the minute someone locks the current government in a back room–I understand there’s a small one available underneath Big Ben–and launches a coup.

 

Assorted recommendations

A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says the only way for the country not to exceed the levels of intensive care unit usage set during the first Covid peak is to impose nationwide tier 4 restrictions after Boxing Day (that was December 26, which has come and gone without the advice being followed); keep the schools closed throughout January; and vaccinate 2 million people a week. 

I can’t find any ongoing vaccination figures, but in the first week roughly 138,000 people were vaccinated. I’m not good with numbers, but I’m reasonably sure that’s less than 2 million.

 Independent Sage has called for: 

  • Covid tracing to be run by local public health staff, since contracting it out has been a staggeringly expensive disaster, and for it to trace not just who the identified carriers gave the disease to but also who they got it from. 
  • Practical support to be given to people who have to isolate. They cite New York as an example, where support can range from money to a hotel room to pet care.  In Britain, they say, less than 20% of people with symptoms self-isolate.
  • Workplaces to be adapted to prevent transmission. This would involve funding, inspection, and certification of all workplaces.
  • Financial support to be available to the public. Inequality, they say, plays a central role in the pandemic. 

 

Who gets the vaccine?

Tom Sasse, of the Institute for Government, has called for a public debate about vaccination priorities. National Health Service staff weren’t in the top priority group, although their work exposes them to the virus and staffing shortages are one of the reasons the hospitals’ rivets are popping out of place. 

They are in the second group, which is now being vaccinated, but they’re getting just 5% of the doses, which translates, in expert language, to nowhere near enough to go around. 

 

Life under lockdown 

A new report on what Britons did during the height of lockdown tells us that they spent 40% of their waking time watching TV–90 minutes a day more than in the comparable month last year. 

How much time is that? If 90 minutes leaves London traveling west at a speed of 65 miles per hour and Arabella British stays awake watching 40% of her TV from her couch–which she may call a sofa or a settee or a davenport, depending on what class she comes from or wants to sound like she comes from–

Sorry, where were we? All I have to do is catch a whiff of how class affects British word choice and I get disoriented. And extremely American.

The couch. I was trying to work out how much time, in absolute numbers, Arabella British spent watching TV during (or was it before?) lockdown, but I’m beginning to understand that I won’t come up with the number. Possibly not with the figures I’ve been given and definitely not the mind I so impulsively bought. She watched a lot of TV. Let’s leave it there. With a second full-scale lockdown looking possible, you have to wonder if we’ll keep in touch with reality at all or just give in and lose ourselves in our screens. 

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A small group of Britons lurched into the cold brick wall of reality just hard enough to decide they didn’t like it, so they packed up and fled.

What am I talking about? A bunch of British tourists at a Swiss ski resort were told to quarantine for ten days from the date of their arrival to avoid spreading Britain’s new Covid variant all over Switzerland. 

Or maybe they were staying in several Swiss ski resorts, not one. It doesn’t matter. Swiss officials found about 420 British tourists, told them to stay in their rooms to avoid infecting anyone else, and about half of them packed up and snuck away in the night, leaving a trail of their possible germs all the way to the French border and from there back to Britain.

In case that doesn’t offend you sufficiently, I’ll add that once they got home some of them called the hotel to ask if they still had to pay for the nights they’d booked but not used. Or if I’m guessing right about the sort of people they are, they called not to ask but to demand a refund. 

 

Update

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has just been approved for use in Britain. It’s cheaper and easier to produce and store than the Pfizer vaccine, although the statistics on how effective it is are a bit on the murky side. It’s far better than nothing. Right now, that looks pretty good.

Long Covid, vaccine safety, and ferrets: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

A drug that’s still in the experimental stage promises to stop Covid transmission. So far, we know it works in ferrets. If you’re a ferret, you probably don’t care about this because ferrets are like young adults: They have fur and like to eat raw meat.

The similarity’s struck you before now, hasn’t it?

They also become infected with Covid and can pass the infection on, but they don’t get sick. 

Strictly and importantly speaking, that’s true of ferrets but not true of young adults (see below), because some young adults get mildly sick and then get long Covid, which is a particularly nasty kick in the head. And some are hospitalized. In fact, some die, although nowhere near as many as older adults, which is where the myth of young adult immunity comes from. 

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Or part of it. This bit was left on the mainland when the land bridge to the island collapsed. 

So let’s say that most young adults are like ferrets, and I’m told they make excellent pets and can be quite affectionate. They’re intelligent, energetic, and shouldn’t be left in cages.

If I’ve driven that joke into the ground, we’ll move on. 

How long will it be before the drug is available for humans? Well, they’ll probably want to test it in something furless before it gets to the market. I’ve read, and I’ve often written here, about all sorts of promising drugs. And that’s the last we hear about most of them. Or at least the last I hear of them. I don’t really know what you hear, do I?

I keep promising myself that I won’t write about any more early-stage drugs, but then I read about one that I can’t pass up and I break my promise. You should know better than to trust me with promises, so you have no one to blame but yourself. 

This one, I think, is worth breaking a promise for. It not only stops Covid transmission, it also stops the progression of the disease. And works against the flu.

Let us all become ferrets, friends, and put an end to this plague. 

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The news about the Moderna vaccine is that it gives people (at least the 94% it works in) an immune response that lasts at least three months. That’s from a study run by NIAID, which is not a Greek goddess of springs, rivers, fountains, and lakes (you’ll need change the vowels a bit if you’re calling the goddess) but (more helpfully at this moment in history) the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. 

Immunity may last longer, but that’s as many pages as they’ve had time to read.

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How has it been possible to develop the Covid vaccines so fast? Several factors came together.

Once the virus’s genome was decoded, it was shared immediately with the world’s scientific community. Chinese scientists published a draft of the genome of January 11. No one had to waste time repeating work that had already been done. 

After that, the world’s bad luck was put to good use: With the hounds of hell nipping at their heels, governments were willing to pour immense amounts of money into research. That translated to equipment and researchers. 

Next, it was easy for researchers to recruit participants for both the early and the later tests. That usually takes time, but people were motivated and anxious to sign up.

It usually takes a good long time before enough of the test subjects become infected to prove or disprove the vaccine’s effectiveness. But because Covid was so widespread, people got sick quickly. That comes to us compliments of the Department of Silver Linings.

On top of that, the pandemic hit just as scientists worked the kinks out of the mRNA vaccine process. I’m not going to try to explain that, but if you follow the link a few paragraphs back, someone who knows what they’re talking about will. 

Finally, a good bit of research that had already been done gave Covid research a running start: into creating  new flu vaccine; into SARS and MERS, both of which threatened to turn epidemic but didn’t; and into Zika.

Experts say no steps were missed in checking the safety and effectiveness of the Covid vaccines. I respect the well-honed skepticism that develops in a population that’s been lied to a lot, but I haven’t read any solid evidence that would lead me to wait when I’m offered a vaccine. I’m running around with one sleeve already rolled up.

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The Serum Institute of India has asked for fast-track approval of the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine, which doesn’t need refrigeration and which–if it gets approval–it will sell in India for something in the neighborhood of $3 a dose.

India is the second hardest hit country in the world’s Covid disaster race. Or the third. I’ve seen it listed both ways. It probably depends on what you count and how.

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A British trial will play around with mixing Covid vaccines to see if a mix creates a stronger immune response than two doses of a single vaccine. It’s due to start in January.

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Less encouragingly (but entirely realistically), the World Health Organization warns that the introduction of vaccines doesn’t mean an end to the Covid crisis. The logistics and economics of getting the world’s population vaccinated are massive, especially since two of the early vaccines need super-cold storage. 

And that doesn’t touch on the issue of how many people will be willing to accept vaccination or whether the vaccine will continue to circulated in spite of vaccinations.

In the meantime:

  • Wear a mask
  • Be careful
  • Grow fur 

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A small study (40 people, with a control group of 58) from the University of Dayton shows that 51% of young adults who are diagnosed with mild to moderate Covid had complications (chest pain, breathing difficulty, headaches, exhaustion, brain fog, diarrhea, loss of smell or taste, etc.) for more than 28 days afterward, and 30% had complications for more than 50 days.

The lead researcher, Julie Walsh-Messinger, said, “The common belief in the U.S. is that COVID-19 is benign or short-lived in young adults. Our study, which we believe is the first to report on post-COVID syndrome in college students, almost exclusively between 18 and 21 years of age, suggests otherwise. More research needs to be done to confirm these findings, but until then, we urge the medical and scientific community to consider young adults vulnerable to post-COVID syndrome.”

For a brief description of what long Covid is like, this is a good place to start, although from what I’ve read it can get far worse. 

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Like ferrets, cars don’t contract Covid. Unlike ferrets, they’re inanimate. But they can spread it. They’re like schoolrooms, like bars, like supermarkets: They depend on breathing humans to help them with their work.

A study at Brown University shows that opening car windows reduces Covid transmission. This probably won’t surprise you, given what’s known about air, breath, wind, cars, and Covid. But scientists have this pesky habit of wanting to prove things instead of just asserting them. They’re the kind of people who want to know how cold it is and how long it’s been how cold before they drive the car out on the frozen lake. They’ll want to calculate the depth of the ice and find out if the lake has currents where the ice will be thinner. They can be absolute mood-killers, but if you’re driving across a frozen lake they’re the people you want to ride with. 

Speaking just for myself (as if I had a choice), I appreciate them.

Asimanshu Das, co-lead author of the car window research, said, “Driving around with the windows up and the air conditioning or heat on is definitely the worst scenario, according to our computer simulations. The best scenario we found was having all four windows open, but even having one or two open was far better than having them all closed.”

But even with all the windows open and the roof sawed off, everybody should wear masks.

The article’s full of drawings and arrows. I’m not sure what they demonstrate, but they impressed the hell out of me.

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Semi-relevantly, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital are working on a vaccine for a wide range of influenza strains. Early-stage clinical trials indicate that it could give a long-lasting immunity, eliminating the need for yearly updates. 

But it’s in the early stages. In the meantime, we’re all supposed to keep downloading our yearly flu shots. Or, in British, jabs.

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And, completely irrelevantly, an experimental drug can reverse age-related memory loss within days. So far, unfortunately, that only applies to mice, but it may work its way up to ferrets and eventually to us. 

It’s called ISRIB and it also works on traumatic injuries, noise-related hearing loss, and cognitive impairment in Down Syndrome. Yes, mice can have Down syndrome-like characteristics. I didn’t know either.

It also fights certain kinds of prostate cancer and enhances cognition in healthy animals.

And it makes coffee, but it’s pretty bad. I wouldn’t recommend drinking it.  

The Oxford vaccine: a quick update

Thanksgiving brings less than great news on the Oxford vaccine: Its tests used control groups that weren’t comparable, and its initial report kind of glossed over that by averaging the two together. One group got two equal doses of the vaccine. The other got an initial half dose, then a second full dose, and it responded better than the first.

But that second group also had a top age of 55 and the other group included older people. So what was responsible for the difference, age or dosage? 

The control groups in the two different tests–those are the people who didn’t get the real vaccine–also got different placebos, which may or may not make a difference.

That initial half dose wasn’t a deliberate decision but a manufacturing mistake that seems to have paid off. Regulators were told about it at the time.

I’m not sure how much of a problem any of this is. An article in Wired makes it sound damn near skulldugerous. One in the Financial Times is more ho-hum about it. At this point, it’s worth knowing while we wait and see what the experts have to say.

 

The pandemic news from Britain: A few success stories and some screwups

Europe doesn’t have many Covid success stories, but Finland’s isn’t bad. Its infection rate is the lowest in the European Union (that’s based on a spot check of two weeks that started at the end of October and sloshed over into early November, leaving only a few hard-to-remove stains). It’s infection rate is also five times below the EU average. It was the only EU country whose rate went down in that period.

It responded to the pandemic with an early lockdown, an app, and testing and tracing–things many countries have done but I’m going out on a limb and assuming that they did all of the above competently. It’s odd, but that does make a difference. 

That’s not a comment on how countries like, say, Germany and Wherever Else handled it, because I haven’t been following them. It’s a comment on Britain.

Finland is the only country I know of where 23% of people in a survey said the lockdown had actually improved their lives. Maybe it’s the only country where anybody thought that was a reasonable question.

Nelli Hankonen, an associate professor of social psychology at Helsinki University, said, “In Finnish culture we are not that highly sociable.” So maybe the lockdown took some pressure off people. They could stop trying.

The economy also took less of a hit than most EU economies, with a 6.4% drop compared with 14%. To quote the good prof again, “The economy is structured so that it’s not necessary for a large proportion of the Finnish workforce to be in the workplace.”

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Screamingly irrelevant photo: Strawberry leaves after a frost. We haven’t had a serious frost yet. This is from last year.

Japan also contained the virus effectively, and a study looked at phone data to see how much people in Tokyo moved around. “We found that 1 week into the state of emergency, human mobility reduced by 50%, which led to a 70% drop in social contacts.”

The government declared a state of emergency in April and asked businesses to close and people to work from home. It also restricted travel, but Japanese law doesn’t allow for a mandatory lockdown.

One of the study’s co-authors said, “With a noncompulsory and nonpharmaceutical intervention, Tokyo had to rely on citizens’ cooperation. Our study shows they cooperated by limiting their movement and contact, subsequently limiting infections,” 

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What’s happening with the mass testing that England’s banking on? In a real-world trial in early October, the quick-turnaround test at the heart of the strategy, the Opti-Gene test, missed more than 50% of positive cases. That was, I think, compared to the test that’s been in use for some time now.

Local leaders in cities where the test’s scheduled to be used asked for clinical validity data and didn’t get it, but the Department of Health and Social Care said the test was validated in three other trials. 

Somehow, though, it didn’t make the data public.

The tests have cost £323 million.

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Denmark has discovered that Covid jumped to farmed mink (the country raises a lot of mink for fur; who knew mink was still a thing?), and from them back to some 200 humans. 

That may or may not pose a danger. Viruses do mutate, but so far Covid’s mutations haven’t been significant. The fear is that in jumping to a different species, it may have been forced to pick up more significant mutations, which could, in turn, affect how well vaccines work. Or make it more–

Nah, let’s not even think about that.

So far, there’s no evidence that any of that has happened, and vaccines are fairly easy to tweak–once, of course, we have one or more. The flu vaccine’s tweaked every year in response to educated guesses about the strain of flu that will be circulating. 

People in one affected area of Denmark, northern Jutland, are being urged to stay home to control the spread of the virus variant. And if you think that’s tough, it’s been harder on the mink: 17 million of them are being killed.

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A few comments I’ve gotten convince me that I should say this: I pour a lot of words onto the virtual page about the many things wrong in Britain’s handling of the virus, and even so I barely touch the surface. But for everything that’s been screwed up, at least Britain hasn’t thrown up its hands and let the virus run wild and there’ve been some efforts to support people who’ve lost their incomes. It’s not enough, it’s not being handled well, people are facing eviction, and food banks are swamped while massive amounts of money are poured into outsourcing companies that make a hash of whatever job they’re given, but in contrast to the way the U.S. has handled the pandemic–

Okay, that’s not a demanding point of comparison, but Britain is at least acknowledging the danger and doing something. I do want to acknowledge that.

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A year or two  back, an artist created a spoof of some painfully cheery, squeakily white, fifties-era (I think) British kids’ books, the Ladybird series, and she’s just published one about lockdown. By way of a review, I’ll quote one page: 

“We are shopping for emergency supplies.

“‘There is no Lemongrass!’ says Mummy.

“‘Oh dear!’ says John.

“‘I’m starting to understand what life was like in World War II,’ says Mummy.”

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After the business secretary, Alok Sharma, was exposed to Covid he soldiered on and held meetings with foreign dignitaries anyway, creating a (very minor) scandal. Now it turns out that when he got home he met with (gasp, wheeze) Prince Charles. 

As far as I can tell from the papers, everyone involved seems to have dodged the bullet, but exposing Prince Charles did create a bigger scandal in the press than exposing foreign dignitaries. Because the thing about foreign dignitaries is that they’re foreign. And none of them were (slight pause while I try to assemble some small pretense of respect) royal. 

The funny thing about viruses, though, is that they don’t give a rip who people’s ancestors were. If it’s true, as the proverb says, that a cat may look at a king, it’s also true that a virus will be as happy infecting a prince’s cells as yours or mine.

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A woman with the main Covid systems was trying to get Covid tests sent for herself and her partner but was told they’d have to go to a test site because their identities couldn’t be verified. They have no car and were responsible enough not to take public transportation when they might be infectious, so they ended up going to a walk-in site 90 minutes away.

The reason she couldn’t get the tests sent, it turns out, is that she didn’t have much of a credit history, and the assumption is that people will order multiple home kits. And do what with them? No idea. You can’t process them without a lab, so I doubt they’re worth much on the street.

The woman was on the electoral roll and had a bank account and utility bills in her name, so she could prove her existence in the world, but not in the specified way.

Anna Miller, from Doctors of the World, questioned whether setting this limitation solved a problem that didn’t exist, and in the process locked out people with minimal credit history, “people whose financial situations tend to be organised by other people in a family”–young adults, the elderly, and women, not to mention people with low incomes.

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The government has backed down in the face of Marcus Rashford, a twenty-something football player, over a million signatures on a petition, and many individuals and businesses: It has agreed to provide low-income kids in England–the ones who’d normally get free school lunches–with lunches over the Christmas holiday

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have already committed to do this. Only England was digging its heels in, and over the last holiday, called half term (don’t ask),it left them lunchless. At a time when so many people’s incomes have disappeared and people are turning to food shelves in large numbers, small businesses filled the gap in endless, often touching, ways, some out of their own pockets and some with the help of customer contributions. 

They’ve shamed the government into doing the right thing. 

Pesky science and contact tracing: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A former Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, accused Boris Johnson of “giving in” to the government’s scientific advisers when he declared a second lockdown. 

Those damn scientific advisors. You can’t turn your back on them for a minute. It’s all just science, science, science. 

So what have those pesky scientists done lately? 

Some have demonstrated that masks don’t deprive you of oxygen. Yes, they already knew that, but the rumor that they do has a life of its own, so a few of them went ahead and rigged up a clutch of people with portable pulse oximeters (the measure blood oxygen levels), and guess what: They found no signs that any participant was short of oxygen. 

In other words, they’re saying you should wear a mask. You’ll still be able to breathe.

Pesky damn know-it-alls.

They’re also developing an overwhelming number of possible vaccines–more than I can keep up with–and identifying existing drugs that hold out the hope of treating Covid well enough to at least prevent hospitalization. But stay strong, people. We mustn’t give in to them. We’re doing just fine by our own ignorant selves.

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We haven’t heard much drum-beating lately about Britain’s world-beating Covid app–the one that was going to save us all–but every so often an article surfaces about what’s gone wrong with it. The latest is that it was set at the wrong sensitivity level, so it missed notifying thousands of people that they’d been in contact with and infected person, and it stayed at that setting for a month. A government source said a “shockingly low” number of people were sent warnings. 

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Someone working in Britain’s business secretary’s private office tested positive for Covid and the rest of the office went into isolation. But the business secretary himself, Alok Sharma, went to South Korea and even after he heard of the positive diagnosis held meetings there . 

He hadn’t had close contact with the person who tested positive, he said. 

They had a meeting four or five days before, the papers say–and people are contagious before symptoms begin. 

Sharma hadn’t “been told to isolate by NHS test and trace,” a spokesperson said.

Well, no, I don’t expect he had been. The test and trace system is notoriously nonfunctional.

Sharma tested negative before he left for the trip and again when he arrived, someone the spokesperson said, not mentioning the test’s percentage of false negatives or its inability to pick up pre-symptomatic cases reliably.

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Before England went into lockdown, the universities minister (hands up: who knew Britain had one?) urged university students to stay where they were for the duration of the lockdown. Some uncounted many headed home anyway. 

Most of them are taking classes online anyway. 

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Michael Gove, the cabinet office minister, and Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, gave out assorted wrong information on what people could and couldn’t do under the new lockdown rules. There’s no point in repeating misinformation, so let’s just say that it hasn’t helped. They apologized very nicely, and in fairness the new lockdown was hauled out of the flatpack so quickly that the government only had time to put half the screws in place. We’ve been asked not to rest heavy objects on it until November 15.

Still, I don’t think they’ll be letting any ministers out on their own for a while.

*

The Department for Education has outsourced the work of advising schools on how to handle Covid. Until recently, this was done by clinicians from Public Health England, who advised, did spot checks, followed up, and advised further. Then in September they were replaced with a call center whose workers read from a script. One teacher was told to send thirty-two students home.

Why thirty-two? he asked.

The call handler didn’t know. 

*

At the end of October, Boris Johnson promised England that we’d have Covid tests we could read ourselves. Better yet, they’d give us a result in ten to fifteen minutes. They’d work on presymptomatic people, asymptomatic people, semisymptomatic dogs, cats in all states of symptomosity, and ham sandwiches–in short, everyone and everything. Including–this being England, a nice cup of tea.

People could be tested, know they were safe, and go on with normal life. And the would still be warm enough to drink.

The government bought 20 million of tests. 

Unfortunately, the maker’s website says the tests aren’t meant for people without symptoms and are meant to be read by a health professional. 

Step away from that tea, please.

*

Just in time to beat lockdown, a couple got married, joined their last names, and became Mr. and Mrs. White-Christmas.

Seriously. Tilly Christmas and Kieran White. I doubt they had any arguments over whose name would come first.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-dorset-54822289

 

 

Lockdown part two: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

England’s about to enter a month-long lockdown that includes pubs, restaurants (except takeaway), nonessential stores, and going in to work if you can work from home. The biggest exception involves schools and universities, and that loophole is big enough that we can move in the construction equipment and build a world-class germ exchange.

Five and a half weeks ago, the government’s own science advisory group suggested a two-week lockdown, but the government, in its wisdom, decided it would be too damaging to the economy. So now we have a longer lockdown in response to a higher number of infections and it will inevitably create a longer economic interruption. And of course it has that big honkin’ loophole I mentioned, so it may not work all that well, but we’re going to pretend that kids don’t spread the virus (which is possible but far from established) and that students, teachers, and staff don’t interact with anyone except each other. 

The emotional pitch for the new lockdown is that if we do this now, we can save Christmas. 

Someone’s been reading too much Dr. Seuss. 

Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower.

The press conference where Boris Johnson announced the new lockdown started three hours behind schedule, and I would love to have eavesdropped on whatever was going on behind the scenes. So far, no one’s talking but I’m hoping for leaks. 

The delay left fans of a dance competition show, Strictly Come Dancing, frantic, and the BBC cut away a little early so they could start the show only a few minutes late, thus saving not Christmas but Strictly, which is important enough that the nation’s on first-name terms with it.

Only slightly less important than Strictly is a newly announced extension of the job furlough scheme–the one that pays people whose jobs haven’t gone up in smoke but instead have been shelved and may yet be unshelved. The furlough scheme is full of holes, but it’s better than nothing. 

But. When areas in the north of England were in local lockdowns, people who were eligible for the scheme got a smaller percentage of their usual pay. Now that the whole of England’s going into lockdown, people who are eligible will get a larger percentage. Because, um, yeah, basically the areas up north are up north somewhere, and they have these accents that don’t sound right in the hallowed halls of Parliament and–

Oh, hell, they’re a long way away. Who cares, right? 

That can’t be going down well up north. 

As recently as last week, a local government in West Yorkshire, which was moving into a local lockdown, was told there were no plans to make the lockdown national. I hate to sound naive, but I actually believe this. That’s the way Johnson’s government works: There were no plans. At a certain point, they just jumped. 

*

England–or Britain, if you prefer, because elements of this will overlap–isn’t alone in facing a second spike, but it does have its own particular causes, and an economist from the University of Warwick has traced one of them back to the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which offered half-price meals (up to a certain limit) to people who ate out at participating restaurants. 

Thiemo Fetzer traced three sets of data: the number of restaurants participating in the scheme in a given area, the days of the week the scheme ran, and the amount of rain that fell during lunch and dinner on those days. (Not as many people eat out when it’s raining hard.) Then he compared those to the number of known new infections in an area and concluded that the scheme “may be responsible for around 8% to 17% of all new detected Covid-19 clusters emerging in August and into early September.”

To which the Treasury Department said, “Bullshit.”

Okay. They said, “We do not recognize those figures.”

In early October, though, Boris Johnson said in an interview, “It was very important to keep [those two million hospitality] jobs going. Now, if it, insofar as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus, then obviously we need to counteract that […] I hope you understand the balance we’re trying to strike.”

If you’ll allow me to translate that, since it’s mildly incoherent, it means we knew it would spread the virus, but we had to balance that against getting people to spend their money.

Another swathe of infections can be traced back to a government effort to save the travel industry by opening “travel corridors”–arrangements that would let people travel to other countries withour having to go into quarantine when they came home. A Covid variant that originated in Spain is now widespread in the U.K.–and a lot of Europe, while we’re at it.

Spain was on Britain’s list of safe places to visit. Just bring your sunscreen and a bathing suit. Come home with some chorizo and a nice tan. The government cares about you and wants to make sure you can have your holiday–or vacation, if you’re speaking American, which no one was. It’ll all be fine.

The Covid variant, by the way, isn’t a particularly significant variation from the original. For a virus, Covid is surprisingly stable, but like all viruses it evolves and that means sometimes the origin of a cluster can be traced. In this case to Spain, and to a government policy that tried to save the travel industry. 

So here we are again, entering our second lockdown. Forgive me if I haven’t managed to be funny this time out. I support the lockdown, late and flawed as it is. Covid’s a dangerous disease, not only because of the deaths it causes and the way it overwhelms our hospitals but also because of the people it leaves disabled for no one knows how long, maybe for months, maybe for a lifetime. If you’re dealt a card out of the Covid deck, you can’t know in advance which one it will be. Will you be asymptomatic, have a bad week or two, become disabled, or die? 

And you don’t know who you’ll pass it on to, because people are infectious not just when they’re sick but before they have symptoms, or if they have no symptoms. So we gamble not just with our own lives but with the lives of people we love and of people we don’t know at all but share breathing space with. 

Stay safe, my friends. Be cautious. 

Wear a damn mask. They do make a difference.

 

Are clothes essential in a pandemic? It’s the news from Britain

In a protest over the Welsh government’s ban on stores selling nonessential goods during the current lockdown, Chris Noden turned up at a supermarket in nothing but his undies and tried to shop while his wife followed along behind and recorded everything on her phone. A store employee kept him from going in, and as soon as Noden got him to admit that clothing was essential, he decided he’d made his point and left.

“I understand they have to control crowds in shops,” he said later, “but if someone really needs something or an item, what is it to stop them? They are actually blocking these aisles off with sweets, chocolate, bottles of vodka, whisky, lager, they are blocking it off with all nonessential items, essentially. I don’t know what is essential or not, it is a bit mad, like.”

What he’s talking about is that supermarkets blocked off areas selling nonessentials.

It’s true that he does seem to get stuck on a thought and repeat it, but he managed to make his point all the same. It’s also true that he didn’t just wear his undies. He also wore shoes, socks, a mask, and a tattoo. 

The essentials, essentially.

My thanks to Ocean Bream. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have missed this and what a tragedy that would’ve been.

*

Irrelevant photo: If I remember right, this is a thistle. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, on October 29, British papers reported that nearly 100,000 people a day were catching Covid in England. That’s based on a study by Imperial College London, which also estimated that the rate of infection was doubling every nine days. That takes us close to the peak of infections last spring, although the death rate for people who have severe Covid is down from last spring, probably because a lot’s been learned about how to treat it.

Every age group in every region shows growth in the number of cases. In London, the R rate–the number of people each infected person passes the disease on to–was 3. The Southeast, Southwest, and East have an R rate above 2. On a national average, it’s grown from 1.15 to 1.56.

Regional lockdowns in the north may have slowed the spread, although they don’t seem to have stopped it. The government is frantically trying to avoid a national lockdown.

*

But it’s all going to be okay, because the government has plans to do a Covid test on 10% of England’s population every week, using tests based on saliva, which are easier to manage than the current ones and give a result in thirty minutes. The plan is ambitious, headline-grabbing, and badly thought out. In other words, pretty much what anybody who watches this government would expect. 

The idea is that local directors of public health will “be eligible to receive” tests “equivalent to” 10% of their population. Which is a roundabout way of saying that’s how many tests they’ll get, but with a small escape clause in case someone needs to wriggle through the definitions of equivalency and eligibility. A properly motivated politician could emerge from that snarl rumpled and stained but still claiming victory.

In a moment of heroic bad planning, the project was launched without anyone talking to the local governments and health officials whose cooperation it depends on. 

What will the program expect of them? The head of the test and trace program, Dido Harding, said local authorities will “be responsible for site selection and deployment of [lateral flow] testing in line with their priorities.”

Lateral flow? Oh, come on, you know that. It’s what happens when things flow laterally, which is to say sideways.  

Did that help? 

I thought it would.

But it’s even better than that, since we’re translating. Things will flow not just sideways but also in a line with their priorities, which we can assume run sideways.

Whose priorities? I’m not entirely sure. Local governments’, probably, and they’ll get to choose their priorities by picking Option A or Option A. That way it’ll be their fault if Option 3 turns out to have been the obvious choice. Honestly, anyone would’ve been able to see it.

And no, I didn’t add that “[lateral flow]” business. That was some desperate reporter trying to condense a document full of waffle and bureaucro-speak.

So are local people wild about the program? Not demonstrably.

An anonymous director of public health said, “There is no point in testing large numbers of the population unless you do something with the results. We really, really want to improve testing and tracing, but once again this is the wrong way to go about it.”

Another public health official–a senior one, whatever that may mean, and also  anonymous–said, “We don’t know who does the contact tracing or how the workforce [to carry out the tests] is resourced. [That means paid for–and this is my addition.] We are trying to work out how this fits with the test-and-trace strategy with PCR testing and how any positive results are followed up and people are isolated.”

PCR testing is the kind that’s currently being done–the slower, more invasive kind of test.

And yet another anonymous senior public health official said, “They have come to us with a proposal that is poorly thought through. It is not clear what the cost is or the amount of work involved and there is nothing about contact tracing.”

As for the existing test and trace system, it might just meet its target of testing 500,000 people a day by the end of the month, but it’s done it by getting the results back to people more slowly than promised–sometimes at half speed–and bungling the tracing element. One in five people who test positive and are referred to the tracing side of the system are never heard of again. They’re abducted by flying saucers and held out of range of cell phones–or if you’re British inflected, mobile phones, whose name only promises that you can move them around, not that they’ll work where you so foolishly brought them. 

Are those lost people isolated while they’re there so they can’t pass on the virus? That’s the thing: We don’t know. But if you will get yourself abducted by flying saucers, you can’t blame Dido Harding for it, can you?

It’s also possible that the system’s missing more than one in five people. It depends when you wandered into the movie. Another article says less than 60% are reached, so that would be two out of five. 

I think. 

Oh, never mind the specifics. It’s all just a lovely, poetic way of saying the program’s a mess.

One article I found included an example of the kind of snafu that happens in the vicinity of the test and trace system: a small war over who’d pay for a portable toilet at a mobile testing station. The central government (I’m reasonably sure that would be the test and trace program itself) refused. Because they’re test and trace, after all, not test and toilet. That left two local entities playing hot-potato with it for days. In the meantime, the station couldn’t be set up, because no matter how little you pay people, and even if you put them on zero-hours contracts, they will want to pee eventually. 

*

However hot that potato was, though, it’s a small one. Here’s a considerably larger one:

After advertising for people with a health or science degree (or an equivalent something or other) to work with experienced clinicians  in the English test and trace system, Serco–a private contractor–instead upgraded a bunch of people who were already working there, people with no relevant degrees or experience and who were working for minimum wage. That’s £6.45 an hour if you’re between 18 and 20 and £8.72 if you’re over 25.

You may have noticed that some years are missing there. That’s okay. Most of the callers are in the 18 to 20 group.

The job as originally advertised–the one the minimum-wage folks got moved into–was supposed to pay between £16.97 and £27.15 an hour. The people who got moved into the job are still working for minimum wage. 

That’s called upskilling. It’s not called up-paying. 

We can’t exactly say they weren’t trained. They got four hours of power-point training, an online conversation, a quiz, some e-learning modules (doesn’t that phrase send a thrill down your spine?), and some new call scripts. 

“It’s been an absolute shitshow,” one highly anonymous caller told a reporter. The callers are talking to people who’ve lost family members. People who cry. People who are in pieces. And the callers’ training manual says things like, “If somebody’s upset, be patient.” 

It leaves some of the callers themselves in pieces. They’re young. They have no training to help them deal with this. They’re in over their heads and they know it. 

I can’t imagine the system’s working any better for the people they call.

Somewhere in between advertising the higher pay level and giving the job to people at the lower one, the Department of Health and Social Care made a decision to split the job in two. The first set of callers would make the initial calls and then “qualified health professionals” would follow up. 

But Mr, Ms, of Mx Anonymous says, “There is no other call by a trained clinician.” The callers read out a list of symptoms, refer anyone who needs medical advice to 111, the Covid hotline, and only if they decide that there’s an immediate risk do they pass calls to a clinical lead. 

So this is, on average, a 20-year-old being asked to decide if there’s an immediate risk. No disrespect to 20-year-olds–I was one myself once–but you don’t have a lot of life experience to draw from at that age.  

Have I mentioned that the test and trace service is privatized? And that to date it’s cost £12 billion–more than the entire budget for general practice. More than the NHS capital budget for buildings and equipment.   

Which is one reason that a group of doctors have called for the money to be diverted to local primary care, local NHS labs, and local public health services. Local, local, and local. 

I’m not expecting anyone to listen to them.

*

And so we don’t end on a completely sour note, Taiwan has marked 200 days without a domestically transmitted Covid case.

Its success is due mostly to reacting early and sanely: establishing coordination between government departments; emphasizing the use of masks; quarantining new arrivals. It didn’t hurt that both the strategy and communications with the public were led by experts.

It’s a radical concept, but it just might work.

What we’re not supposed to do: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A whopping 13% of people in England say they fully understand the lockdown rules. In Wales and Scotland, they’re doing better: 15% are fully enlightened. No one in charge of the survey managed to locate Northern Ireland, so I don’t have any data from wherever it is today. 

No, I can’t explain its absence. I’m only somewhat British–I was adopted, and late in life at that–so I can’t be expected to understand how this stuff works, not to mention why. What I can tell you is that 51% of people in England, 62% in Wales, and 66% in Scotland say they understand the majority of the rules. 

Do they really? Maybe. Which also implies maybe not. It was a survey, not a test. 

*

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper.

Meanwhile, in response to a ban on social get-togethers, the police in Scotland have broken up hundreds of house parties since August. Or possibly thousands. The number I found was 3,000, but that was how many times they’d been called out, not how many gatherings they broke up. 

Let’s say lots and leave it at that.

What kind of get-togethers? A party involving 270 students at a dorm. A religious gathering of 20 people. The virus doesn’t care whether you’re praying or shouting, “Sweet Jesus, I’ve never been this drunk in my life.” 

Places rented on Airbnb have been used for a number of the parties, indicating that people aren’t in the awkward position of have 264 more friends show up at their house than they’d planned on, they’re going into it with malice aforethought. 

A police spokesperson said the gatherings weren’t limited to any one age group. 

*

A Spanish company, working together with a university, has come up with a machine that should be able to disinfect a room in minutes. It uses cold atmospheric plasma to clean surfaces and to kill 99% of viruses and bacteria in the air.

And if you’re not sure what atmospheric plasma is, what have you been doing with your life? It’s a deeply scientific-sounding phrase that I quoted in order to sound like I know more than you. 

Okay, haven’t a clue. I do understand cold, though. I used to live in Minnesota, which is close enough to Canadian border than the icicles that dangled from their roofs grew right past our windows.

Why don’t we go to a spokesperson, who can explain it all? 

Broadly speaking, we subject the surrounding air to a very strong electrical field, pulling electrons from the neutral particles in the air and forming ions. This system can generate up to 70 different types, from ultraviolet rays to peroxides, ozone, or nitrogen oxides. The synergies between these allow bacteria and viruses to be neutralized.”

Got it?

Me neither. What I do understand is that it’s the size of a laptop, it’s silent, and it can be used to clean either an empty room or one with people in it, recirculating the air. 

Let’s quote the article I stole that information from

“To do this, the system releases ions which, once disinfected, are reconnected in neutral particles.” 

They’re hoping to have it tested and certified by the end of the year. The snag? No one’s said–at least within my hearing–how much it’s going to cost. 

*

Staff at some universities complain that they’ve been pressured to stop working at home and show up on campus so that the schools can create a vibrant atmosphere. Because what could be more exciting, when you’re young and taking on a  debt the size of Wales, than having lots of people around you to participate in the Great Covid Lottery? And who’s more exciting to play it with than the back-office staff? 

One school, in explaining why it needed bodies behind desks, wrote that it was trying to keep students from asking to have their tuition refunded, which at least has the virtue of being honest.

*

The AstraZeneca / Oxford vaccine–one of the front runners in the race to make a massive viral load of money in the Covid vaccine market–reports that it’s sparked a good immune response in older adults as well as the young. Old codgers (and being one, I get to call us that) also have fewer side effects than the young. 

AstraZeneca says it will be available for limited use in the coming months.

Um, yes, and how fast, exactly, will those months be in coming? AZ says before the end of the year where countries approve its use. Britain’s health secretary says the first half of 2021 is more likely. But whenever it happens, it’s likely to be available to only a limited group at first. 

*

Which leads me neatly into my next item, a warning from scientists that the rush to adopt a vaccine may get in the way of finding the best vaccine. Once a vaccine’s in widespread use, it’ll be harder to prove the efficacy of a later vaccine, especially among particularly vulnerable groups. Some mechanism, they say, needs to be set up to compare them.

The vaccines that are ahead in the race are using new approaches, but it’s possible that the older approaches will yield a better result. It’s not necessary, but it is possible.

*

The US Centers for Disease Control has (or should that be have, since they insist on being multiple centers instead of a single one?) redefined what close contact means when we’re talking about exposure to Covid. The earlier guidance counted close contact as being within six feet of an infected person for fifteen minutes. Now the CDC reminds us that six feet isn’t a magic number, and neither is fifteen minutes. They’re rough estimates, and being around an infected person fifteen times in a day for a minute each time exposes you to as much virus as fifteen lovely, relaxed minutes in a single encounter.

That may seem obvious, but someone’s always ready to take these things literally. Some schools were moving students around at fourteen-minute intervals. Quick, kids, the virus is onto us! Everybody split up and move to different classrooms!

Basically, what they’re saying is that the more virus you’re exposed to, the greater your risk. Exposure isn’t something that happens all at once, like falling off a cliff. 

*

And finally, a bit of rumor control: Wales did not classify tampons and sanitary pads as nonessential items and ban their sale during its current lockdown. What happened was that someone tweeted to Tesco that a store had refused to sell her period pads. Tesco tweeted back that it was government policy.

Tesco then deleted the tweet and apologized. It turns out that the store had cordoned off an aisle because of a break-in. Had someone knocked a wall down? No. The police were investigating, and anyone who’s ever been on a British highway after an accident can testify that you don’t mess with the police when they’re investigating. Everything stops until they’re damn well done.

But by the time Tesco deleted its tweet, the rumor-horse was out of the social media barn and galloping happily toward the Severn–the river that divides Wales from England–reciting, “One if by land and two if by sea, and I spreading rumors of all sorts shall be.” 

Sorry. American poem that kids of my generation had to memorize if we hoped for lunch period to ever arrive. It’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” ever so slightly bastardized, and it’s totally irrelevant but we’re getting toward the end of the post here and headed not just for the Severn River but the Stream of Consciousness.

Should we go back to our point? Sanitary products are recognized as essential and are available for sale. The Welsh health minister added that stores can sell nonessential items to customers in “genuine need,” which is defined as I think it’s lunchtime and I’m leaving now, so define that for your own hair-splitting self.  

The Welsh government is meeting with retailers to review the regulations and guidelines, after which it will all make sense.

Feeding hungry kids: the English public strikes back

After the government voted to deny £15 vouchers to low income families in England so that their kids wouldn’t go hungry during the school holidays, a local pub banned the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, from its premises.

For life.

It did the same to three other local MPs who voted against the vouchers with him.  Pubs can do that here, but they usually reserve it for the kind of customer who sets off fireworks on the bar or pulls the plumbing out of the men’s room. But I guess it’s a question of who does more damage in the long run.

The ban was posted on the pub’s Facebook page, which also reproduced a menu from one of the House of Commons’ many restaurants, where steak and chips are going for £11.77–a price subsidized by the taxpayer.

Don’t usually do politics but here goes,” the Facebook page said. “I have never known a Government which is consistently the wrong end of every argument.”

*

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

In tweeting about against the vouchers, Conservative MP Ben Bradley wrote, “At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime.

“One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids.”

FSM being free school meals. This is shorthand for the voucher program. Which is also shorthand.

Don’t worry about it.

When he started catching flak for that and a few other tweets, he complained that they’d been taken out of context. I’m still trying to figure out how to squeeze any context at all into 280 characters. Short of writing in Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, where a single character can be a whole word. 

*

In the meantime, players from Leeds United donated £25,000 for kids’ meals over the school break, and the club they play for has announced that it will match that.  

Businesses, restaurants, and local governments (including at least a few led by the Conservative Party–the party that voted against the £15 vouchers) have also stepped up with offers to help, and Conservatives are beginning to say that the government misjudged the feelings of the country. Not that kids need to eat and they want to do the right thing, but that people are mad at them.

They don’t even know how to say, “Ooops,” right.

All of it goes a good distance toward restoring my battered faith in humanity, but it’s worth remembering that whether kids get fed will depend on where they live. In some places there’ll be multiple offers and in others there’ll be none.

*

This morning, I listened to Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care, interviewed on the radio. I was driving and it was him or nothing. We eventually realized that nothing was much better, but before we did I was interested to hear that he’s not singing Ben Bradley’s tune. I doubt even Ben Bradley’s singing Ben Bradley’s tune anymore. It didn’t go over well. What he said was that of course the government’s making sure every child gets fed, but local governments are better at that than central government and we’ve given them money for it.

But, the interviewer said, that was way back when and it was spent long ago.

We’ve given them money, he said in seventeen different ways.

It’s an approach I’ve heard a lot in the last few years. Ask a government minister why the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank is so short of money and they’ll tell you how much money they already spent on the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank. It doesn’t answer the question, and sometimes they’re talking about money that was allocated before William the Conqueror’s boat first touched England’s southern shores, but it sounds like an answer and can usually be counted on to derail the conversation.

*

Since as a nation we’re not handing low-income parents £15 to waste on feeding their kids, let’s review another spending program. No one tweeted that the £12.7 billion program to help the self-employed through the pandemic was pouring spaghetti sauce into crack dens, but a study from the Resolution Foundation says it gave £1.3 billion to workers who hadn’t lost any income while successfully missing 500,000 who did. The study blames a combination of strict eligibility rules and weak assessment. Basically, they excluded lots of categories of the self-employed and then didn’t ask people in the categories they accepted to document their losses. 

The  study also said that the self-employed were hit even harder in the first six months of the pandemic than employees were. Three out of ten stopped working during the worst of the crisis, and one in six is still out of work. 

About 5 million people count as self-employed in Britain, although some of them, inevitably, will be the mythically self-employed. It pays for corporations to offload the expenses of employing people by calling them freelancers, and people are desperate enough to accept that.

Do you remember when life was going to get endlessly better? 

*

The lockdown in Wales is tighter than England’s, and it’s closed shops that sell nonessential goods, which has had the odd consequence of restricting supermarket sales of the same items. They’ve had to have had to cover shelves to hide the socks, the decorative hair thingies, the–

Actually, it’s hard to decide where to draw the line. The cake decorations? They’re edible, so maybe they can stay. The birthday candles? Non-edible but on the same shelves as the cake decorations. The mugs that say, “You’re the best”? The ones that say, “I changed my mind. You’re a cockwomble”?

Let’s turn to the experts: Nonessentials include electrical goods, telephones, clothes, toys and games, garden products, and homewares, and the decision on individual items depends on what part of the supermarket they’re in rather than their inherent essentialness. So forget the cups, but you can probably buy birthday candles.

Supplies for the “essential upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household,” such as batteries, light bulbs, and rubber gloves, are okay. Because who could function without rubber gloves?

It’s easy to make fun of, and I’m having a hard time holding myself back, but there is a logic to it. To slow the virus, you need to shut down everything you can, but they don’t want to hand supermarkets the business they’ve denied to small shops. Yes, it’s crazy. And yes, it makes sense anyway.

*

While we’re talking about the odd places that rules lead us into, England’s rule of six limits gatherings–indoor, outdoor, underground, and hallucinated–to six people unless they’re all from a single household (it’s slightly more complicated than that, but close enough for our purposes). But some of London’s fancier restaurants have discovered that if people are talking business they can gather in groups of thirty.

Wheee. Take your foot off the brake and don’t be such a scaredy cat. 

One of the restaurants emailed its client list to let them know that “when the topic is business you can still meet over a fabulous working lunch or dinner without the restriction of the ‘single household rule.’ ” 

You will, however, need to employ at least one overcooked adjective and a full set of quotation marks, however unnecessary and aesthetically offensive they may be. 

At one expensive restaurant, the Sexy Fish, caviar sushi sells for £42 a piece, and you can buy a £16,000 Armand de Brignac champagne if you really need to. The reporter who scouted the place and asked diners if they were discussing business got himself thrown out. Which was lucky, because I doubt the Guardian’s budget stretches as far as the sushi, never mind the champagne.