How Boris Johnson fucks up a free lunch. Again.

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

 

The free school lunch saga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, folks, it was a miracle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Vaccine updates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lockdown in a hall of mirrors

If the Nobel committee ever gives a prize for incompetence, please, someone, can I nominate Britain’s current government?

It’s hard to know where to start, but let’s jump in with the government deciding to go off-label and give people their second dose of the Covid vaccines later than the manufacturers recommend. That set off a good bit of screaming by doctors and scientists, not because they know it’ll be a problem but because no one knows how it’ll work. 

But that’s serious stuff, so forget about it. What about the people who’d already gotten their first dose and were given appointments for the second one? 

Well, on the same day that the minister for Covid vaccine deployment (no, I didn’t know we had one either) said it was doctors could let patients keep their second-dose appointments, National Health Service England said the appointments needed to be “cancelled and rearranged.”

So that’s clear.

Irrelevant photo: skimmia japonica, I believe. 

Meanwhile, a Labour peer is suing the government over its decision to delay the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Not the Oxford vaccine as well? 

Nope. Its clinical trials offer some evidence that getting the second dose later might not be a problem. Might. Some. Pfizer, though, has said there’s no evidence to support delaying its second dose. So that’s the stronger case.

Her argument is that the decision is unlawful and potentially unsafe.

Two notes before I go on: One, a Labour peer is, in normal language, a member of the House of Lords who’s a Labour Party member. If you live in the real world that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but if you follow British politics long enough it starts to sound frighteningly normal. 

Two, something I read the other day objected to calling the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine simply the Oxford vaccine. I’m sure they’re right, and it’s annoying as hell. I really should do it right.

 

Lockdown in a hall of mirrors

The government has changed the lockdown rules sixty-four times since the pandemic started, according to a human rights lawyer who sat down and counted them. That’s an average of one change every four and a half days–and that’s just the actual laws, not advice or guidelines. So basically no one knows what we’re supposed to be doing.

That’s led to cops, lawyers, and government ministers not knowing law from advice or their ass from an apple. 

A lot of the information on lockdown that filters out to the public doesn’t reflect the actual law, and the average cops on the beat get their information from the same not-necessarily-accurate sources as members of the public. They’re not lawyers and they don’t read the new laws every four and a half days. 

What the ministers’ excuses are, I don’t know, but Boris Johnson’s recent bike ride reminds us that they’re as muddled as we are.  

What I’m talking about is that Boris Johnson, allegedly our prime minister, although I’m not sure how much of his time or attention the job claims, took a bike ride and a member of the public spotted him seven miles from home. That was after two women were fined £200 (each) for meeting five miles from their homes to take a walk. Because, after all, we’re in lockdown.

They were supposed to stay local, the cop who fined them told said.

The fines–after lots of embarrassing publicity–were withdrawn, but the incident did set a context. Was Johnson staying local? What does local mean?

The policing minister (I didn’t know we had one of those either) said, helpfully, that whether seven miles is local “depends on where you are.” 

And while we were all chewing our way through that, syllable by unhelpful syllable, he added, “Seven miles will be local in different areas.”

I hope that clarifies the issue. 

 

Deaths and other serious stuff 

On January 13, the UK had 1,564 Covid deaths–more than we saw on any day of the first pandemic wave. The best estimates are that those were people who’d been infected before the great Christmas germ exchange, so we can expect the daily number of deaths to rise when the Christmas cases start rolling in.

The situation in some hospitals is serious enough that to free up beds for Covid patients they’ve started discharging some patients to their homes, where they can at least theoretically be cared for by family, and others to hotels, where they’ll be cared for by volunteer organizations, medical people from the military, and (less realistically, since they’re already overstretched) NHS personnel. 

These are patients who they’d otherwise keep in the hospital. 

The NHS has also asked care homes to start accepting Covid patients who don’t have a recent negative test as long as they’ve been in isolation for 14 days and have no new symptoms. I don’t know about you, but I see trouble coming there.

No one sounds happy about any of this. It’s a measure of how bad things look right now. 

 

The vaccine in Britain and around the world

London is getting fewer doses of vaccine per person than other parts of the country, and it’s not being quiet about it. But the country as a whole is getting fewer doses than it was promised. We were told we’d have 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in our eager (and very cold) little paws as soon as it was approved. By Christmas, half that amount had made its presence known.

For the Oxford vaccine that I now have to call the AstraZeneca vaccine, 30 million doses were supposed to materialize immediately. By Christmas, 4 million were available.

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That hapless minister in charge of vaccine deployment said the government would absolutely switch the mass vaccination centers to 24-hour-a-day operations if that became necessary or possible. Then the prime minister’s press secretary said there hadn’t been any clamor for the centers to stay open overnight. 

I hate to side with Johnson’s office, but people do need to sleep–especially overstretched medical people. 

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While many countries are vaccinating their oldest people first, Indonesia is prioritizing people who are between eighteen and fifty-nine. Professor Amin Soebandrio said, “We are targeting those that are likely to spread the virus”–people who “go out of the house and all over the place and then at night come back home to their families.”

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The first reports on the Sinovac vaccine (it’s called CoronaVac–Sinovac’s the maker) said it was 78% effective, but new reports say it’s more like 50% effective at preventing the disease but 78% effective at keeping people from needing medical treatment. That makes it a perfectly workable vaccine but the first vaccines reported such high numbers that we’ve started to expect fantastic instead of just workable. 

SinoVac was tested in Brazil, where it’s become a political football, with the president, Jair Bolsonaro, feeding into an antivaccination movement and the governor of Sao Paolo, João Doria (who hopes to run for president), championing the vaccine.

 

And a bit of research that doesn’t fit anywhere else

Researchers are reporting that double-masking–wearing one on top of another–can protect not just the person on the outside of the mask but you, the person on the inside, especially if the masks are thin. You don’t want to get so crazy with this that it’s hard to breathe, but two relatively flimsy masks can approach the effectiveness of the N95 masks that medical workers wear. 

The researchers also say you can get a better fit out of a mask with add-ons: ties from ear loop to ear loop or nose bridges to keep it in place. And you’ll be in the height of fashion. I felt like a bit of an idiot, but I did wear two masks yesterday and it wasn’t much different than wearing one.