What stolen science tells us about the pandemic

Remember when we used to hear that kids don’t spread Covid? Remember when we used to hear that the earth was flat? 

Yeah, I really am that old.

New research tells us that opening the schools has helped drive second waves of the virus, because yes, kids do spread the virus. Even those cute little younger ones who are unlikely to get sick themselves–they can spread the virus too. They’re high-minded little creatures, and they like to share.

It’s our own fault. We taught them sharing was good.

A study in Germany found that in the majority of cases, kids’ infections hadn’t been spotted because they’d been asymptomatic. Or to put that another way, you find a lot more cases if you test for them. 

A different study, this one in Australia, showed that the majority of kids don’t transmit the disease to anyone. But that doesn’t let kids off the hook. The same thing’s true of adults: Just 10% of infected people are responsible for 80% of infections.

At a minimum, the article I stole my statistics from recommends that staff and students (including primary school students) should wear masks, school buildings should be well ventilated, and class sizes should be reduced.

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Again contrary to the standard wisdom from the early days of the pandemic, a study of masks shows that they protect both the wearer and people near the wearer. 

The reason they were thought not to protect the wearer is that the virus is tiny–about 0.1 microns. (Why 0.1 gets a plural is beyond me–it’s less than singular–but try it with a singular and your ear will scream explain how wrong it is. The English language doesn’t come armed for less-than-singular.) 

Small the virus may be, but according to airborne disease transmission expert Linsey Marr, the virusdoesn’t come out of us naked.” It clothes itself in the beautiful respiratory droplets known as aerosols, which contain salts, proteins, and organic compounds. With all that wrapped around its shoulders, the virus ends up looking like that portrait of Henry VIII and can be up to 100,000 times larger than the virus is without clothes. 

Irrelevant photo: An azalea starting to blossom indoors. It should really be a picture of Henry VIII, but he died before cameras were invented.

If you want a breakdown of fabrics and what percentage of aerosols they filter out, you’ll have to click the link. You can’t trust me with that level of detail. In the meantime, though, walk outside feeling confident that your mask isn’t just protecting others, it’s also protecting your own good self.

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The bad news about masks is that they deteriorate over time. The elastic stretches, the loops fall out of love with your ears, and the fibers get thin. The Centers for Disease Control recommends replacing them periodically. 

Phooey.

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A study from the University of Colorado and Harvard says that frequent fast testing–even with less-than-ideally-accurate tests–could stomp the virus into the ground. People who tested positive could get personalized stay-at-home orders and, at least in theory, bars, restaurants, stores, and schools could stay open.

The important thing, according to the calculations, is to test a population often–as much as twice a week–and get the results back quickly. 

The quick tests can cost as little as $1 each. One of the researchers said, “Less than .1% of the current cost of this virus would enable frequent testing for the whole of the U.S. population for a year.”

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Boris Johnson is promising England (or possibly Britain–it gets hazy, or I do) a mass testing program. I’m not sure what the details are, but until proven otherwise I’ll expect the usual competence we see from his government–in other words, a shambles. 

I’d love to be wrong on that, but the thing is, a testing program only works if you do something sensible with the information. 

In the meantime, the plans for Christmas are to declare a five-day truce so that families–up to three households–can get together, trade presents, overeat, and let long-buried family tensions surface festively. 

Cynic? Me?

Christmas truce negotiations with the virus are ongoing and look as hopeful as the Brexit negotiations. 

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I’m still wiping down my groceries and feeling like a bit of a maniac, since there’s been no evidence that in the real world Covid is spread by touching contaminated surfaces. Now there’s–well, something vaguely related to evidence:

An outbreak in Shanghai has been traced back to a couple of cargo handlers and who were sent to clean a contaminated container from North America. The container was damp and closed while they cleaned it, and neither was wearing a mask. The virus likes sealed, damp environments. 

Neither of them was taking groceries out of a shopping bag and they may well have caught it from airborne particles, so it’s not at all the same thing, but what can wiping down the groceries hurt? It gives me the illusion that I have some control over how this mess affects me.

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France’s current lockdown rules demands that people who are out carry a note, an attestation, with their name and address, the time they left home, and the reason for their trip. 

It’s been interesting.

When the police stopped one man who was hiding behind a car and looking suspicious, he was carrying a meticulously filled-our attestation: name, address, time.

Why had he left home? 

“To smash a guy’s face in.”

“We told him his reason for going out was not valid,” the local police chief said.

In either this lockdown or the last one, a man told the police he was going to see his grandmother. 

What was her name?

He couldn’t remember.

 

Still disinfecting the groceries? News on how Covid’s spread, plus other sciency stuff

A new study reports that most Covid infections are spread by aerosols–in other words, by the awkward fact that we breathe, a process that leads us to trade both air and germs with those we love, not to mention those we don’t. Earlier studies measured how long the virus could survive on objects and speculated about that as a route of transmission, but this one didn’t find much evidence that transmission happens that way in the real world. 

So the good news is that you can stop boiling the toilet paper when you bring it home from the store. Also that those masks really do make a difference–possibly to you, but definitely to the people around you. And that keeping your distance from other people is good protection.

But anytime you say, “The good news is,” you have to follow it with parallel bad news. So the bad news, if we’re to believe the rumor I heard yesterday, is that people are expecting Britain to go into another lockdown and already they’re panic buying. Because the country’s semi-officially in the second wave of the pandemic. Cases are doubling every week. The test and trace system that was supposed to let us control the spread is demented, broken, and–forgive the technical language here–completely fucked. The people who purport to govern the country say they want to avoid a lockdown, and the more they say it, the more inevitable it looks. So stock up on toilet paper. Also flour. And if you’re British, baked beans. 

Everything else you can do without. Unless you have pet food. Stock up on pet food.

Irrelevant photo: Erigeron. Really. That’s what they’re called.

But forget rumor. Let’s go back to science and the study I was talking about. It also reports that Covid transmission is highest about a day before the symptoms show up, making complete nonsense of the idea that we should limit tests to people with symptoms. 

No transmission has been documented after a patient’s had symptoms for a week. That doesn’t completely rule it out, but it does kind of point us in that direction.

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A new study of Covid and singing–more bad news; sorry, everyone–pretty much contradicts the last study of aerosols and singing that I told you about. That earlier one measured the aerosols and droplets sprayed into the air by individual singers and by individual speakers and reported that quiet singing doesn’t spread aerosols much more than quiet speaking does. Turn up the volume on either and you up the Covid spread.

But.

This latest study looked at a superspreader event involving one choir rehearsal that caused over fifty cases of Covid and two deaths. It broke down people’s interactions at the rehearsal, concluding that the combination of poor ventilation, many people, a long rehearsal, and body heat led to a buildup of aerosols that circulated with the air in the room.

No one was wearing masks. This was well before masks were recommended, and although I haven’t tried singing through one I have trouble imagining that it’d work well. 

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A third study reports that most homemade masks work just fine, even when we sneeze. Emphasis on most. I still see the occasional online photo of or pattern for crocheted masks. What are people thinking? They might as well take chalk and draw a mask on their faces.

Or magic marker if they want a longer-lasting useless gesture.

Sorry about the lack of a link here. I cleverly linked it to this post. By the time I figured that out, I’d lost the actual article.

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One more study and then I’ll shut about about science and we can go back to the glorious and multicolored ignorance that marks public life these days. This one comes from Dublin, was presented at a conference involving many initials, and shows that about half the people who get ill with Covid have persistent fatigue ten weeks after they recover, even if they had mild cases. The fatigue hits women more often than men.

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A man coming back from traveling abroad was told to isolate himself for two weeks. Instead he went on a pub crawl with some friends. They hit a number of pubs, then two days later the returned traveler tested positive. 

The area went from 12 cases per 100,000 to 212 cases per 100,000 in less than three weeks. 

See? I told you we’d stop talking about science.

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Spain is developing a test that will allow people to test themselves and get a result in thirty minutes. It works like the gizmos that diabetics use to measure their blood sugar, meaning a person could use it and reuse it, and it gives no false positives.

Does it give any false negatives? Good question, and wasn’t I clever to ask it? I’m not sure. I could only find one reasonably up-to-date article on the thing and it didn’t say. 

The test is called the Convat and it’s “very advanced” and “almost at a pre-commercial level,” whatever that means. It sounds good unless you slow down, at which point you notice how little you understand it. 

It may be available to the public in December or January. Emphasis on may.

Now the fine print: They’re talking about the public in Spain. The project manager, Laura Lechuga, talked about the importance of having Spanish technology, since what’s available in one country may not become available in another. In other words, this is Spain trying to make sure they can handle their problems, not ours.

Sorry to tease you with that. We really need to all be in this together, but at the moment we don’t seem to be.

Face masks, baronets, and a parallel universe: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Britain’s subsidy on eating out is due to end this month, and it sounds like servers will breathe a sigh of relief. It’s brought money into pubs, cafes, and restaurants, and along with it, crabby, demanding customers. 

One server said, “Last week I had someone swearing at me on the phone. They wanted to book a party of 20. I tried to explain there’s no way we could book in 20, the only thing we could do is we have got tables outside. He told me I’d ruined his day.”

You know how it is: Nothing says “Let’s have a good day” the way ruining someone else’s does. 

I don’t know what it is about having part of your meal subsidized that puts people in a temper, but any number of servers report that it’s been horrible.

Irrelevant photo: It’s blackberry season.

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Having advised English secondary schools against using face masks when they reopen, the government has now changed its mind and is giving head teachers (if you’re American, that means principals) discretion over whether to require them or encourage them, although how much encouragement a mask needs is anyone’s guess. 

A fair number of schools had already said they were going to require (or encourage) masks anyway and the World Health Organization has said it’s a good idea. (Okay, I’ve simplified WHO’s advice, but we’re in the neighborhood.) So the government’s avoided the embarrassment of a showdown with the schools and instead is having a showdown with its own MPS, who are saying things like: 

“Masks should be banned in schools. The country should be getting back to normal not pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff. It is time to end the fear. And keep it away from our kids, thank you very much.”

“We need to embed Covid and proportionately live with it.”

My favorite is the statement that Boris Johnson–that’s our alleged prime minister–has been “reprogrammed by aliens.”

So yes, we’ve confused WHO and Dr. Who, but we’re on top of this. It’ll be fine.

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Speaking of our alleged prime minister: Dominic Cummings, who is Johnson’s brain and quite possibly his programmer, although I don’t think he’s an alien, already caused a lot of trouble by breaking his own lockdown rules, getting caught, and swearing blind that he drove 60 miles to make sure his eyesight was good enough to drive–.

Should we start that over? Dominic Cummings hasn’t been an easy presence in 10 Downing Street, and I don’t think anyone would argue that he’s united the country. Today, though, it’s his father-in-law in the news. He told a visitor (who told the world) that Johnson will be stepping down in six months because he’s struggling with the aftereffects of Covid-19, which he caught by being an idiot. 

Not that I blame people who catch the disease. Only the ones who think the rules of epidemiology don’t apply to them.

Johnson denies that he’ll step down. Number 10 denies that he’ll step down. The father-in-law’s in hiding. Cummings has stolen a tardis and is not available for comment.

The father-in-law’s a baronet. That’s not a weapon, it’s a title–the lowest order of hereditary title, and it’s available to commoners, so feel free to be snobbish about it. It gives you–or him, really–the right to be called sir. But only by people willing to call him that. Its rare female equivalent is a baronetess, and if you find one with your birdwatcher’s field glasses she will probably not want to be addressed as sir. Or siress. 

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The Oxford Vaccine Group says it just might have enough data gathered before the end of the year to bring its vaccine before the regulator for approval. 

And that doesn’t say the regulator will approve it. 

Anything leaning that heavily on the word might is a kind of non-news item, but it appeared in a large enough range of publications to make it look like news. Presumably they put out a press release. Maybe they decided we all need cheering up and a press release is cheaper and more practical than tea and cookies. Or maybe they’re afraid we’ll forget them and start looking to Russia and China for salvation. Either way, please join me in a cup of tea, a cookie, and a shred of hope.

Or a biscuit if you’re holding out for British English. I’m very nearly bilingual and happy to work with either version of good cheer.

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Okay, that’s enough with the good cheer. You knew it couldn’t last, didn’t you?

The world now has the first fully documented case of someone getting Covid a second time. The man’s 35 and was diagnosed in March and again in August. The two infections have some genetic differences, which says that this isn’t a single infection that hung around.

It’s not clear whether the genetic differences are enough to have made his body not recognize the second version. All anyone can say so far is that nobody should count on being immune. Beyond that, no one’s drawing sweeping conclusions.

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At least in Europe, the coronavirus is becoming less deadly, although it’s not clear why. 

If you divide England’s Covid deaths by its cases (and England follows the European pattern in this), you get a fatality rate of 1% in August but 18% in April. And if you take those figures too seriously, you’ll be misled, because deaths lag a couple of weeks behind infections and because testing has changed during that time. 

Still, something seems to be going on.  It could be that the disease is infecting a younger group, who are, wisely, less prone to dying to if. It could also be that hospitals are treating it more effectively. 

One set of scientists thinks a variant of the virus, known by its friends and family as D614G, is more infectious but less deadly. A second set thinks that’s not so. I think we’ll find out occasionally, so let’s wait and see. 

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For a while there, it looked like scientists in Antarctica might have found a parallel universe, created in the big bang right with ours. In it, left is right, up is down, and time runs backward.

Then it looked like they hadn’t found one at all, damn it. A new paper argues that the pulses that hinted at the parallel universe were reflections off the ice formations. 

Am I disappointed? Damn right. If time was running backwards, there’d be a way out of the pandemic. Not to mention climate change and anything else we’ve screwed up, although I’ll admit there’s an awful lot of stuff in the past to not look forward to. 

Money, masks, and rumors: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The number of coronavirus cases in England went up 17% in the past week. Some of those are concentrated in hotspots, but there’s been an increase outside those areas as well. And the test and trace system is managing not to contact almost half of the new cases.

But the spread of the virus among people outside of hospitals and other institutions may be leveling off. I think that’s in Britain, not England, but when I went back to check (I found that in an ongoing pandemic news update and it’s easy to lose an old item as new ones are added) I found a newer item saying the R rate–the rate at which the disease spreads–may be rising. In England, as opposed to Britain as a whole. 

What do all those contradictory statistics mean? Part of the difference has to do one set of numbers covering everyone and the other covering only people outside of institutions. Beyond that, I’m not really sure. 

Irrelevant photo:California poppies, which grow well in Cornwall. You’d hardly notice their accent.

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In April, England bought 50 million face masks for the National Health Service, which can’t use them. They’re not a tight enough fit. To be any use at all, they have to pass a face-fit test, which checks that they seal tightly to the wearer’s face. These don’t. 

The masks were the most expensive part of a £252 million contract given to Ayanda Capital, which says it specializes in “currency trading, offshore property, private equity and trade financing.” As the BBC explains it, “It has emerged that the person who originally approached the government about the deal was a government trade adviser [that’s Andrew Mills, and no, I never heard of him either] who also advises the board of Ayanda.

“But he told the BBC his position played no part in the awarding of the contract.”

Mills’ company “had secured the rights to the full production capacity of a large factory in China to produce masks and was able to offer a large quantity almost immediately.

“But the legal document seen by the BBC notes that Mr Mills requested the government instead sign the contract for the masks with Ayanda Capital, whose board he advises, because it could arrange overseas payment more quickly.” 

Far be it from me to imply that there’s any skullduggery going on here.  Or incompetence. But, the director of the Good Law Project, one of two organizations pushing for a judicial review, mentioned three Covid-related contacts, each worth over £100 million, going to a pest control company, a confectioner, and a family hedge fund.

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This might be a good time to tell you about a study of what’s being called the Cummings effect. Dominic Cummings is Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisor and external brain, and when he came down with Covid he broke the lockdown rules he helped write. The most interesting of the ways he broke them was to take a 60-mile round trip, with his kid in the car, to test his eyesight. 

Then he got caught. Then he refused to resign. Then Johnson refused to dump him. Because without him, he has no thoughts. None. Not even “I wonder what’s for supper.” It all just goes silent in there.

As you might expect, it’s been harder, since that happened, to convince people to follow the guidelines, but now we don’t have to guess: It’s been established by 220,755 surveys of 40,597 people in England, Scotland, and Wales. 

The more often Lord Google showed people doing searches on Cummings’ name, the more confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic declined. And it hasn’t come back. 

Confidence in the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales didn’t drop. Northern Ireland had stepped outside for a smoke at a crucial time and was left out of the survey.

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Unlike Cummings, when the mayor of Luton, Tahir Malik (along with two fellow members of the Luton Council), got caught–on video–attending a party that broke the lockdown guidelines, he had the decency to resign. The limit was supposed to be six people or two  households. There were twelve, and there’d just been a warning that the town had a spike in virus cases.

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In the early stages of the pandemic, the BBC was busy debunking pandemic rumors that circulated on WhatsApp. 

What rumors? 

One: Tanks were rolling into Middle Britain, ready to put down civil unrest. That came with photos. When you looked closely, though, the tanks were on the wrong side of the road and the license plates were wrong.

Who knew that tanks had license plates? Or even kept to their own side of the road. Call me naive, but I kind of thought that any vehicle that can get past a trench can drive on whatever side of the road it wants to.

Two: Dead bodies were being stored in ice rinks. 

Three: Helicopters were spraying disinfectant at night. 

Four: Sipping warm water every twenty minutes would wash any virii out of your throat and into your stomach, where they’d be slaughtered by the gastric juices that work there twenty-four hours a day.

Someone sent me that one on Facebook, although by the time I got it, it was considerably more complicated and the water was no longer warm.

A Londoner got into the spirit of the thing and sent out a message that went viral: Wembley Stadium was going to be turned into a giant oven so the government could make a massive lasagna. He heard about it from his sister’s boyfriend’s brother, who worked for the Ministry of Defense. 

Other people got into the act. The Channel Tunnel was being used to bake a giant garlic bread and the Rome Coliseum was being used as a bowl for a giant salad. 

I wish I’d thought of at least one of those.

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For a while there, governments–or at least some governments–were considering issuing immunity passports, which would exempt people who’d had Covid from whatever the restrictions the rest of the country was expected to follow. Because they’d be immune.

The problem with doing this is that no one knows whether immunity’s available for it. Virus stores have lots of immunity on hand, but not necessarily in your size or in the color you need. Covid immunity is on back order and will be shipped as soon as it’s available. Please try us again at your earliest convenience.

The World Health Organization says there’s no scientific evidence to show that immunity passports make any sense. Other than that, they’re a great idea. 

They’re also called immunity certificates, and there’s no scientific evidence for them under that name either. But if you ask Lord Google, he’ll be happy to refer you to an outfit that’ll sell you one for $89.95. All you do is get tested, come up negative, connect your doctor to the company, and open your wallet.

“ImmuniPass is your Immunity Passport!” it says. 

Indeed it is. It’s absolutely useless, but it is your Immunity Passport and yours alone, and it comes with a tasteful sprinkling of capital letters and a hand-crafted exclamation mark.

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The Covid antibody test that Britain’s using may be giving more false positives than anyone thought. A recent study from Oxford University tested 9,000 healthcare workers and found 11% less sensitivity than they expected. To translate that, go back to the first sentence: More false negatives. More people told they don’t have the virus when they do. It has to do with the level of antibodies you need to convince the test that you’re toxic. 

The study found people who’d lost their senses of taste and smell, suggesting they had the disease, but still tested negative. It’s not definitive, but it rings alarm bells. 

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That’s not the best intro to this next bit of information, but my partner and I both tested negative on Wednesday. And of course, in our case negative really is a negative. And we know that because–

Okay, we don’t know it, but Cornwall (so far) has a relatively low rate of infection. How long that’ll last with all the summer people running around is anyone’s guess, but for the moment we’re okay. May you be as well.

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Australia, having worked its way onto the all-too-short list of countries that were handling the pandemic well, saw the beginnings of a second wave. Unlike New Zealand, which is somewhere near the top of the list, it didn’t try to eliminate the disease, just suppress it. (New Zealand is warning itself not to get complacent, but that’s a different tale.)

Australia has responded to the second wave with hard regional lockdowns, including fines for not wearing masks and the possibility of manslaughter charges for people who cause a death by spreading the disease. 

A group of people who refuse to wear masks claim that being sovereign citizens means they’re exempt from an assortment of laws they don’t like–not just the ones about masks but having to pay parking fines and local taxes. Basically, the argument goes, the government has no power over them. It’s an idea that gained traction in the U.S. in the 1990s and it seems to be popping up across the world now. Legally it’s complete bullshit, but in these post-truth days, that doesn’t weigh heavily with everyone.

The police have found themselves baited at checkpoints and dealing with people who refuse to give their names and addresses. One woman who refused to wear a mask smashed a cop’s head into the cement repeatedly.  The police link the incidents to the sovereign citizen movement. 

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This has nothing to do with the pandemic, but let’s end with the anti-immigrant campaigner Tommy Robinson (whose real name isn’t Tommy Robinson, but never mind all that) having moved himself and his family to Spain, claiming that it’s not safe from them to stay in Britain after an arson attack on their home. 

In one article, that’s an alleged arson attack. I’m not clear on how alleged or established it is, but I am clear on the irony of an anti-immigration activist becoming an immigrant because, hey, his home country just isn’t safe anymore and what else can a responsible parent do but try to make sure his kids are safe? It’s a Dominic Cummings moment: one set of rules for me and another set for you lot.

 

Face masks, tutting, and electric fences: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

England’s pubs have opened, and the rule is that you can sit at the tables but not hang around at the bar. A pub in St. Just, Cornwall, is taking that seriously. They installed an electric fence at the bar. According to one version of the tale, it’s mostly off but if you get in the bartender’s face and it goes on, and–zap– you will respect social distancing. 

According to the other version, it’s never on but just having it there makes the point.

Take your pick. 

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After a false start, or two, England finally has a policy on face masks

The false starts? While the prime minister hinted that we would probably, maybe, almost certainly, and quite possibly need to wear masks in shops, a government minister was saying categorically that we wouldn’t. Then they went into the back room to arm wrestle, came out friends, and agreed that we do need to. 

But not right away. Starting on the 24th. 

Why not right away? 1) We need to allow time for people to locate their mouths. 2) The government needs time to craft a message explaining that masks, properly worn, cover the entire human breathing apparatus, which includes both the mouth and the nose. C) We need to allow time for people to absorb that message and then locate their noses. 4) What’s your hurry anyway?

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

What will happen if someone doesn’t wear a mask in a shop?

Good question. Theoretically, they’re risking a £100 fine, only the police have said they’re not in the business of policing shops and should be called only as a last resort. Many shops and shop workers are, understandably, hesitant about enforcing it. 

The country may have to rely on the power of tutting to enforce the rule. 

Tutting? I’m going to refer to that more unreliable of experts, me, for an explanation. It’s point number 2.

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With its usual laserlike precision, the government is trying to boost the economy by offering people half off when they eat out in August. From Mondays to Wednesdays. Excluding alcohol. Up to a value of £10. If the place you eat is eligible. But you yourself? You’re eligible time after time after time until the end of August. 

The slogan is, “Eat out to help out.” 

Not that I’m trying to draw a parallel or anything, but the number of kids showing up in hospitals with malnutrition has doubled this year, to 2,500, although the number’s probably higher, since not all hospitals responded to the request for information. Food bank use has surged, and government figures show that as many as 7.7 million adults cut their portion sizes or missed meals because they couldn’t afford food.

So half off for people who can afford the other half? Yup, we’ve got our priorities right.

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Speaking of laserlike targeting of economic stimulus, let’s indulge in a semi-good news story. Primark–a clothing chain–announced that it wouldn’t take up a government offer of £1,000 for every employee that they brought back from furlough. The company doesn’t need it. 

That’s £30 million it’s passing up.

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Most Augusts, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival turns everything larger than a trash can into a theater, packs as many people in as is physically possible, and fire regulations be damned. Edinburgh fills up with as many people as it can hold plus many thousand more. The shows range from the professional, unexpected, and inspired to the amateur and embarrassing.

This year, with the pandemic still on the prowl, it’s not going to happen, so the festival’s gone virtual. You can sit on your couch and watch a selected number of shows. You can fund the artists. I’m not sure what else you can do, if anything, because I’m too busy telling you about it to actually learn anything. But it looks like it’s worth some exploration. 

Enjoy.