When Covid proximity sensors go wrong

Wanting to be responsible journalists–and responsible bureaucrats who are responsible for responsible journalists–the BBC bought proximity sensors in January. Thousands of them. They were to protect the newsroom staff during the pandemic. Because not everyone could work from home. Some of them had to show up, so they’d wear these gizmos and if anyone got too close to anyone, they’d scream.

Not the people, the sensors. 

It was a great plan, and it worked: The sensors screamed. Especially when people were recording. You know: “This afternoon in Birmingham–” 

“Nyeee-ah, nyeee-ah, nyee-ah.”

Take two.

“This aftern–”

“Nyeee-ah, nyeee-ah.”

Before long, most people had stopped using them. Not everyone, though, because one started smoking and threatened to set itself on fire. Why? No other sensors were being around to scream at and it lost its sense of purpose and became suicidal. 

Irrelevant photo: strawberry blossoms

A BBC spokesperson said staff were still using them.

Staff members stopped giggling long enough to say they weren’t. 

“We are surprised that a problem with a single electronic device is a news story,” the spokesperson said

Her or his proximity sensor said, “Nyeee-ah, nyeee-ah.”

Here at Notes, we aren’t surprised that a single sensor that entered a smoldering, screaming state of despair is a good story. We’ve all been there during this past year and a fraction. At least once. It spoke for us all.


Britain wonders if it’s out of the woods yet

June 1 was the first day since last summer that no Covid deaths were reported in Britain for twenty-four hours. But before we celebrate being out of the woods, let’s check in with the scientists peskily pointing to trees and saying, “Woods, people. If we have enough trees, that means we’re in the woods.”

What’s the problem? We do have an effective (although distinctly incomplete) vaccination campaign. We also have a new Covid variant that seems to spread faster than the dominant variant that used to scare the pants off us because it spread more rapidly than the one before it but that we now look back at nostalgically and think of as our old friend. 

Never mind if you didn’t entirely follow that. We can say the new variant’s scary and leave it at that. The day before we had no deaths, the country reported 3,000 new Covid cases for six days running. We hadn’t been at those levels since early April. 

So which way is the country going to tip? Herd immunity? Third wave?

Several experts that the Relevant Authorities don’t particularly want to hear from are sending out warnings. A third wave, they say, is likely. 

Nyeee-ah. Nyeee-ah. 

Martin McKee, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said he thinks the third wave had already started. 

“The current measures are not stopping cases rising rapidly in many parts of the country,” he said. “Unless there is a miracle, opening up further in June is a huge risk.”

Why June? The 21st is the still somewhat tentative target date for the next stage of opening up. 

Ravi Gupta, who’s on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group–called Nervtag, said, “If things go as I think they are going to go, we will likely end up with a third wave. It will be a big wave of infections and there will be deaths and severe illness.”

All waves, he reminded us, start small. 

My best guess is that the government will open the country up regardless of the warnings, regardless of what’s happening as the date comes closer. Because the business community’s pushing for it. Because there’s money to be made. Because they want to deliver good news. Because they seem to be wired for it. 

I would love to be wrong about this.


Renaming the Covid variants

The World Health Organization is renaming the Covid variants to avoid calling them by names no one outside the field can remember (B.1.617.2, anyone?) or after the places they were first identified, which has led people to blame them on the places. So the former Kent (or UK, or British) variant is now Alpha. The former South African variant is Beta. The former Brazilian variant is Gamma. And the former Indian variant is Delta.

It follows from this that the world will have to beat this beast before the Greek alphabet runs out of letters. It has twenty-four. Get with it, people.

How’s the new Covid variant affecting Britain?

If nothing changes before June 21, England will lift all its restrictions on social gatherings. 

Unless, of course, it doesn’t. Because since that date was penciled in, something has changed: We’ve got a new Covid variant and anyone who’s even marginally awake is nervous about it. On the other hand, anyone who’s even marginally in government is nervous about not ending the Covid restrictions. Because the national mythology of the moment is that We’re on Top of This.

With capital letters.

The new variant’s the one that’s devastating India, although it’s up for grabs still whether its impact is because of conditions in India or because of the variant itself. It’s also up for grabs whether it’s turning into Britain’s dominant variant because it spreads more easily or because it’s been lucky. 

Irrelevant photo: bluebells

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I said England would lift the last restrictions if nothing changes, but the government may already have changed its mind about the parts of the country where the variant’s spreading most quickly. 

Or it may not have.

You have to love this government. It’s a gift to satirists and wiseacres everywhere. 

What’s happened is that the government website changed its Covid recommendations but did it quietly, with none of the usual trumpeting and drumming and press releasing. No one made an announcement. No one told local governments that things were changing. 

No one told local residents. It didn’t even call out the morris dancers. And nothing happens in this country without morris dancers.

You can see already how effective the changes are likely to be.

The website now carries advice for Bedford, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester, and North Tyneside. Stare at that list long enough and you’ll figure out that it’s dangerous to live in a town or city that starts with a B.

But never mind that. What’s the advice? Don’t enter or leave those areas unless you really, really have to. And if you  live in one of them, don’t meet people indoors unless you really, really have to. And get tested. And to get vaccinated. And to keep 2 meters away from people unless you share a kitchen table with them or have included them in that imaginary relationship called a bubble, into which you may or may not be able to fit a kitchen table.

Is that just friendly advice or is it a legal requirement? Initially, it wasn’t clear, but the government’s now said it’s just advice. You should feel free to ignore it if you want, because if the variant causes a spike the government will need someone to blame and there you’ll be, in all your beauty and convenience.  


How worried should we be about the variant?

The chief medical officer of Wales says we should be worried. Even though the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are effective against it, they seem to be less effective than they are against the Kent variant. And they’re noticeably weaker if you’ve only had one dose of vaccine instead of two. 

All of that is to the extent that data’s available. 

The votes aren’t all in yet even on whether the new variant spreads more quickly than the Kent variant–the one we used to worry about because it spreads more quickly than the one it replaced. But this isn’t one of those competitions where the audience gets to vote. We have to wait for the judges and they don’t like to just pick a side and stick with it. They want information. 

You know what scientists are like. Fussy, fussy, fussy. So don’t turn off your TV set just yet.

In the meantime, Public Health England says that 12.5% of the close contacts of a person with the new variant will get infected. For the Kent variant, that was 8.1%. That’s called the secondary attack rate.

No, I’d never heard of it either.

That makes it look like it spreads more easily, but we haven’t gotten to the buts yet. 

  • But they have compared the vaccination status of those contacts.
  • But they have compared how close those close contacts are. 

Once the buts get factored in, the variant may not be quite as transmissible as it looks right now, but the early signs are that we should pay attention to this. Even if it’s not quite as bad as it looks, it could still be pretty damn bad. 


One of the things that worries me is that government actions are weighted toward avoiding the kind of serious illness that clogs hospitals and threatens to collapse the National Health Service. I don’t advocate an onslaught of serious Covid, but I’m very aware of the dangers of milder Covid, and of long Covid, and of isolated cases of Covid. I’d like us to avoid them too if anyone’s taking orders, thanks. I’m not happy about avoiding only the worst outcomes.


The political side of it all

A screwup in the test and trace system (or the £37 billion test and trace system, as the paper where I found this reminds me) might have opened a door for the new variant when it was still sampling the air in the country and deciding whether to settle here. A coding error meant that information about positive cases didn’t get passed to local authorities, so they couldn’t follow up on them. 

Did that make a difference? We’ll probably never know but it seems like it would. For three weeks, some 700 people, plus the people they shared a kitchen table, bubble, or work changing room with, weren’t contacted, so unless they got actively sick they felt free to float through the world shedding germs.

The number of missing cases was highest in one of those areas starting with a B, Blackburn with Darwen, which has one of the biggest outbreaks, but it also affected other places starting with B, including Blackpool, Bristol, Bath, and York.

Sorry: Byork. 

The government assures us that the screwup only lasted a short time and it handed out large if irrelevant numbers related to the number of people it had traced. 

Go back to sleep. Everything’s fine. 


Meanwhile, a government minister is urging people not to go to Spain unless they really, really want to. And I mean really seriously badly want to.

Okay, what she actually said was without an “urgent family reason and so on,” but my version is what people who really seriously badly want to go will hear, because Spain’s lifted its restrictions on visiting Brits and Britain’s put Spain on the amber list of countries–the ones that aren’t recommended but where no one’s going to do anything to stop you going if you really seriously think you have a compelling reason, such as wanting to eat paella. 

When I say no one’s going to stop you, though, what I really mean is that no one’s going to stop you unless the situation changes while you’re there and you come home to find that you have to go into a very expensive quarantine. But no one ever thinks that’ll happen to them. 


In spite of the new variant, England lifted its mask mandate for school kids. Interestingly enough, a pre-print report from Public Health England included data on the spread of the new variant in the schools.

In the final edition, that page had vanished

Cue accusations of political meddling.

Cue denials of political meddling. 

Cue end of post.