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.