How the pandemic tempts us into insults and sports metaphors

Britain has approved the first Covid vaccine, thereby starting a robust exchange of insults with a random sampling of other countries, and in case that didn’t bring enough joy to the world, setting off another round of the sort of chaos that allows us to recognize Boris Johnson’s government even when we’re blindfolded in the woods on a moonless night. 

I look at each day’s news with a mixture of dread and glee.

The insult exchange

It started with Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, who you might think (being the education secretary and all) would know better but, hey, silly you.

Williamson went on the radio and said Britain was the first country to approve the vaccine because “we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator, much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all, because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”

Several winces later, Conservative peer Michael Forsyth (his friends and family call him Lord Forsyth; you can call him Mikey) tweeted, “Frankly, [that’s]  just unseemly.” 

European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer pointed vaguely in the direction of the high road and said, “This is not a football competition.”

 

Irrelevant photo: erigeron

Anthony Fauci, on the other hand,  ignored all of that, but he was critical of how quick Britain was to approve the vaccine, saying the UK hadn’t reviewed it “as carefully” as US health regulators.

The next day he backtracked, saying, “I have a great deal of confidence in what the UK does both scientifically and from a regulator standpoint” and on top of that, “I did not mean to imply any sloppiness.”

The difference in speed is because the US regulator often goes back to the raw test data while both UK and European Union regulators work from the reports the companies assemble. 

A few people have commented not that the slower approval process would be any safer but that people might have more confidence that it was safe. It could be a valid point, but where’s the fun in that?

 

The Brexit connection

Unable to see a flap going on and not jump into the middle of it, prominent Brexiteers in the government waded in and claimed that Brexit was the reason Britain had been able to approve the vaccine so quickly. 

“Prominent Brexiteers” describes pretty much the whole government, but this was only a couple of them, Matt Hancock and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Their quotes, sadly, are as boring as they’ve turned out to be inaccurate, so we’ll skip them, but you can follow the link if you want all the Ts dotted and the Is crossed.

The inaccuracy, though? EU law allows individual countries to distribute a vaccine in an emergency. They don’t have to wait for the European Medicines Agency to approve it. In fact, since Britain’s in a transition period until the end of the year, we’re still running on EU law and yes, that’s what we’ve done.

 

The chaos

Having approved the vaccine so quickly, we’re kind of like the kid who snatched the first potato out of the oven. Yes, he made sure he got the big one, and yes he gets to boast to everyone else about that, but he might’ve been smart to grab a potholder first. It would only have taken a few seconds.

In other words, as far as I can tell, from my vantage point on the couch, we’re having trouble figuring out what to do with the vaccine now that we have it. Because it all happened so fast and we haven’t exactly been (I know this’ll surprise you) planning for it. 

I seem to remember some loose talk, oh, maybe last week sometime, about frontline staff being a top priority for the vaccine, although I don’t remember hearing a definition of frontline staff. There was equally loose talk about NHS staff being at the top of the list. Whether those two were the same thing or not is anyone’s guess. 

During the first lockdown, we were all governmentally cranked up to respect the underpaid people who kept the buses and trains running, the stores stocked, the cash registers registering, the packages delivered, the food produced, and the cabs zipping around our towns. They put their lives on the line, we were reminded, and if they didn’t get the pay they deserve and need, they did at least get a bit of recognition.

Now that a vaccine’s imminent, are they still frontline staff? 

Well, um, it doesn’t look like it.

The government’s circulated (and the newspapers have duly published) a priority list with nine categories, starting with care home residents and the people who take care of them and working its way down to people over fifty. The list has some oddities, including putting frontline medical (and only medical) staff in the second category instead of the first and not bringing in the clinically vulnerable until the fourth category, where they keep company with the over-seventies. The Black and minority ethnic people (it’s a category in Britain, however vague it may seem to me as a foreigner) who are statistically at higher risk are mentioned nowhere. It also leaves out teachers and people who work in public transportation and food processing and retail the many other jobs that put people at risk. You know, all those people we appreciated so much the first time around and have now forgotten.

Then, after the list had been circulated, it somehow looked like care home residents and their carers might have to wait, because the vaccine has to be stored at the temperature of dry ice and you can’t just toss it in your back seat and drive it to the nearest care home. But hospital inpatients and outpatients who are over eighty might just skip to the top of the list because they’re easy to find. 

I have a picture of NHS staff running down hospital corridors vaccinating any random person who looks old enough. Whether they’ll find them again when it’s time for their booster shot is a whole different problem. But we have weeks  before we have to solve that one.

What we do know is that the first batch of the vaccine has arrived in the UK and that it will be distributed to hubs–places selected because they have the equipment to keep it cold enough. 

How many doses do we have? 

Um. Dunno. The business secretary, Alok Sharma, said that by next week, when vaccinations are supposed to start, the government’s “absolutely confident” that it will have 800,000 of them. 

I wasn’t worried until I saw that “absolutely confident.” 

Are they going to divide those 800,000 doses so they cover 400,000 people at two doses each? Or is the plan is to give one each to 800,000 people and trust that the second dose will be available when it’s needed? More doses are expected before the end of the year, but Sharma couldn’t say how many and NHS Providers said the UK would have to assume that more doses might not arrive “for some time.”

Sober-sounding voices on the radio advise us not to try to book a vaccination. The NHS will contact people to let them know their vaccination category is open and tell them how to register. But the NHS generally communicates with patients by letter. You know letters? Those paper things that appear in your mailbox or fall through a slot in your door? They take time to write, to print, to seal into envelopes, to move from wherever they started to wherever they’re going.

In theory, the vaccination program begins on Tuesday.

Independent of all this, I’ve read that it may be April before everyone in the nine at-risk categories is vaccinated. 

 

Mass testing

In the meantime, we have lots of twenty-minute Covid tests, which are also called lateral flow tests, in case it makes your life better to know that. They were supposed to be game changing, but the government’s announced so many game changers since the start of the pandemic that I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be running around with a tennis racket or a pool cue. 

The tests were rolled out on a mass scale in Liverpool, which has a high infection rate, and Dr. Angela Raffle, a consultant in public health and an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Bristol, said, “The infection rate in Liverpool has come down no quicker than in many other places that haven’t got mass testing and we haven’t yet seen a proper evaluation report from Liverpool.”

I read elsewhere else that mass testing alone isn’t a solution. You have to do something useful with the results if testing’s going to bring down the infection rate, and we seem to have missed that part of the plan. Possibly because it involves different sports equipment, which is stuck in the government’s Warehouse of Sports Metaphors. We filed forms that will let us get our hands on it long ago, but they’re still waiting for approval.

The NHS test and trace program, which is the key to doing something useful with the test results, usually hits the headlines because it misses some absurd percentage of people (4 out of 10 a month ago, which is–holy shit–almost half), but recently it improved its contact rate. 

How’d it do it? 

It changed the way it reports its data. I’d love to give you a link on that, but I heard that on the radio and I can’t find the right combination of words to coax the information out of Lord Google. But it was the BBC, and whatever complaints everyone from all sides has about, it isn’t known for making up its facts.

The rapid tests are also being used to allow relatives to visit people in care homes and do what I’m old enough to remember once seemed natural: hug them. But because the rapid tests miss some problematic percentage of infections, the BBC writes that “there has . . . been concern in some parts of the care home sector over the use of the tests, with homes in Greater Manchester reportedly urged not to use them to allow visits.” 

Some homes report not having received tests, in spite of a government announcement that everything was in place and reunions were possible. Others say they have the tests but not the training to use them

And there I have to leave you. A masked delivery driver is at the door and I hope he’s brought my sports metaphor delivery. 

He’s not on the list of priorities for a vaccination and he’s working on a zero-hours contract.

Scapegoats, efficiency, and contracts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

After England’s pandemic-related, algorithmically driven screwup of graduating students’ grades, no interview with Gavin Williamson, the human at least nominally in charge of the mess, was complete without the interviewer asking, “Are you going to resign?” 

Williamson would then blither on about whatever topic he could grab hold of as it flitted through his brain and the interviewer would repeat the question at least once, preferably twice.

Why didn’t he just say no? An algorithm told him that it would call attention to his mistakes. If he pretended not to hear the question, no one would notice.

Algorithms are the modern version of reading tea leaves, or chicken entrails. Someone claims a lot of expertise, interprets the tea leaves/chicken guts/computer reports, and isn’t to be held responsible if the prediction doesn’t match reality. 

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

The prime minister announced, from his vacation hideout in Wherever, that he has complete confidence in Williamson. In normal political-speak, that means someone’s done for, but Johnson said the same thing about his official Toxic Advisor Dominic Cummings and he’s still firmly rooted.

Why are they keeping Williamson  on? 

  1. This isn’t a government that insists on competence. Take a minute to consider the prime minister.
  2. The schools are reopening soon, and if it follows the pattern the government has established, it’ll be a mess. So they’ll be able to sacrifice one minister to the gods of public outrage instead of two. This’s known in the trade as efficiency.
  3. Both of the above.

Your answers will be graded by an algorithm that takes your parents’ income and educational background into account. The results may be reversed as soon as a second algorithm determines that the moment of maximum chaos has arrived, but I can’t promise. 

The correct answer is C. Not that it matters. Your grade’s already been determined, your fate is fixed, and there is no such thing as free will.

Doesn’t it just make you happy to read Notes?

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Speaking of blame, Public Health England is being folded into a new agency, along with the Covid track and trace system, and it will not, may the heavens forbid, be put in the hands of someone with a public health background but those of Dido Harding, whose background is in business and who’s proved her worth by organizing the complete mess that is track and trace. This is also efficient. The government gets to blame a now-defunct body, Public Health England, for screwing up its response to the pandemic while rewarding one of the Conservative Party’s inner circle. And we’ll all forget that the government was the outfit going for herd immunity when the pandemic started. You remember herd immunity, right? The theory that said, “It’s okay if someone else’s granny dies. We can’t shut down the economy.”

Somehow they never think it’ll be their own granny who dies. Or themselves.

*

I read about a new home coronavirus test that works like a pregnancy test. I don’t think you pee on it, but it reports back in the time (the article said) that it takes to  eat your cornflakes. I was starting to get excited about it when I noticed that the article was in an absolute rag–an unreliable source. I got mad, deleted, it and haven’t been able to find it again. I googled pregnancy-style covid tests and got information on what to do when you’re pregnant with covid, which sounds like someone out there is spending nine months incubating a virus.

And there I was, thinking Rosemary’s Baby was scary. Anyway, at that point I decided not to worry about the link.

According to the description of the test, you add whatever precious bodily fluid the test asks for, plug the kit into the wall, and wait an hour for your result. 

Well, I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take me an hour to eat a bowl of cornflakes.

Okay, full disclosure: I don’t eat cornflakes–they’re soggy and horrid–so I might not be eligible for the test. If I had to choose between knowing whether I had the virus and avoiding the cornflakes, I might well choose ignorance.

But never mind me. We’re trying to discuss public health, so stop fooling around, please. I’m sure I I could apply for an exemption anyway–maybe substitute an old sock or something else tasty to fill the time while I wait. 

The problem with the test is that it may or may not be legit. The Royal College of Pathologists (if you want to be impressive in Britain, find a way to get royal into your name)–

Can we stop wandering off the topic, please? The Royal College of Pathologists has called for the rules to be tightened on the home antibody testing kits that are being sold to consumers. And here I do have a link.

Why are they complaining? Well, to start with, no one knows whether having antibodies protects you from the disease. And if that doesn’t discourage you from buying a kit, the result might not be accurate. Or it might not be clear. The BBC tested 41 kits and found that a third were either inaccurate or gave incomplete information. 

Other than that, though, they’re great. And if you are pregnant, I’m sure your baby will be lovely. 

*

There’s good and bad news for singers worried about the pandemic. A study reports that, as a way of spreading the droplets and aerosols that are believed to carry the virus from person to person, singing quietly is only marginally more efficient than talking quietly. If you shout or sing loudly, though, and you’ll produce 24 times (shouting) or 36 times (singing) more of the suspect droplets and aerosols.

The study hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, but a lot of studies are being released before they’re reviewed in the midst of the current crisis. 

The size of the space where you sing or yell, as well as its ventilation, also come into the equation. Singing in a cathedral is going to be safer than singing in a pub. Singing in the shower, no matter how small, is safe as long as you don’t pack twenty of your closest friends in there with you.

The study is the first one to look systematically at singing, but it has its limits. It didn’t look at how much of the virus aerosols actually carry or how much of a risk they pose, and it didn’t look at the dynamics of choir singing.  

*

How much has Britain paid consultants for, um, whatever crucially important, world-beating work that it is they’ve done to help us out during the pandemic? That’ll be £56 million, please, and we don’t take checks. And most of their contracts have been given without competition. Because, hey, it’s a crisis. C’mon, studies are being published before they’re peer reviewed. Contracts are falling from the sky like candy from a pinata. 

Sorry about missing the tilda over the N in pinata. I’m sure Word Press has one somewhere, but I can’t find it and haven’t looked very hard.

Some of the contracts haven’t been made public yet but they have been leaked. Because, hey, it’s a crisis. Candy. Pinata. Want a sampling? PwC got a £1.4 million six-month contract to  to help run an emergency fund for small charities struggling to survive the pandemic. And McKinsey got £14,000 per day for six weeks to help create a replacement for Public Health England. I’m not sure if that includes any nitty-gritty work or if it’s just about defining its “vision, purpose and narrative.” I’m cynical enough by now to believe that the answer is behind door number two. And that the result will be some corporate gibberish that will mean nothing but will, I’m sure, look lovely when it’s printed in gold on the front of thousands of folders to hand out at conferences.

*

Speaking of contracts, a company called Public First, run by long-time associates of cabinet member Michael Gove and of the prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings, got a contract–again, with no competition–to work with Ofqual on its recent disaster, that algorithmically driven disaster I mentioned in the first paragraph. 

The association with Gove and Cummings goes back some twenty years, to the early days of the campaign to haul Britain out of the European Union. It was a long-shot investment that seems to have paid off.

How much were they paid for all their hard work? Dunno. It hasn’t been made public. It’s believed (remember, the contract hasn’t been made public) that the company was hired to help secure public confidence in what Ofqual did in downgrading 40% of graduating students’ grades. 

Stop laughing. It’s deeply disrespectful.