Lockdown part two: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

England’s about to enter a month-long lockdown that includes pubs, restaurants (except takeaway), nonessential stores, and going in to work if you can work from home. The biggest exception involves schools and universities, and that loophole is big enough that we can move in the construction equipment and build a world-class germ exchange.

Five and a half weeks ago, the government’s own science advisory group suggested a two-week lockdown, but the government, in its wisdom, decided it would be too damaging to the economy. So now we have a longer lockdown in response to a higher number of infections and it will inevitably create a longer economic interruption. And of course it has that big honkin’ loophole I mentioned, so it may not work all that well, but we’re going to pretend that kids don’t spread the virus (which is possible but far from established) and that students, teachers, and staff don’t interact with anyone except each other. 

The emotional pitch for the new lockdown is that if we do this now, we can save Christmas. 

Someone’s been reading too much Dr. Seuss. 

Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower.

The press conference where Boris Johnson announced the new lockdown started three hours behind schedule, and I would love to have eavesdropped on whatever was going on behind the scenes. So far, no one’s talking but I’m hoping for leaks. 

The delay left fans of a dance competition show, Strictly Come Dancing, frantic, and the BBC cut away a little early so they could start the show only a few minutes late, thus saving not Christmas but Strictly, which is important enough that the nation’s on first-name terms with it.

Only slightly less important than Strictly is a newly announced extension of the job furlough scheme–the one that pays people whose jobs haven’t gone up in smoke but instead have been shelved and may yet be unshelved. The furlough scheme is full of holes, but it’s better than nothing. 

But. When areas in the north of England were in local lockdowns, people who were eligible for the scheme got a smaller percentage of their usual pay. Now that the whole of England’s going into lockdown, people who are eligible will get a larger percentage. Because, um, yeah, basically the areas up north are up north somewhere, and they have these accents that don’t sound right in the hallowed halls of Parliament and–

Oh, hell, they’re a long way away. Who cares, right? 

That can’t be going down well up north. 

As recently as last week, a local government in West Yorkshire, which was moving into a local lockdown, was told there were no plans to make the lockdown national. I hate to sound naive, but I actually believe this. That’s the way Johnson’s government works: There were no plans. At a certain point, they just jumped. 

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England–or Britain, if you prefer, because elements of this will overlap–isn’t alone in facing a second spike, but it does have its own particular causes, and an economist from the University of Warwick has traced one of them back to the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which offered half-price meals (up to a certain limit) to people who ate out at participating restaurants. 

Thiemo Fetzer traced three sets of data: the number of restaurants participating in the scheme in a given area, the days of the week the scheme ran, and the amount of rain that fell during lunch and dinner on those days. (Not as many people eat out when it’s raining hard.) Then he compared those to the number of known new infections in an area and concluded that the scheme “may be responsible for around 8% to 17% of all new detected Covid-19 clusters emerging in August and into early September.”

To which the Treasury Department said, “Bullshit.”

Okay. They said, “We do not recognize those figures.”

In early October, though, Boris Johnson said in an interview, “It was very important to keep [those two million hospitality] jobs going. Now, if it, insofar as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus, then obviously we need to counteract that […] I hope you understand the balance we’re trying to strike.”

If you’ll allow me to translate that, since it’s mildly incoherent, it means we knew it would spread the virus, but we had to balance that against getting people to spend their money.

Another swathe of infections can be traced back to a government effort to save the travel industry by opening “travel corridors”–arrangements that would let people travel to other countries withour having to go into quarantine when they came home. A Covid variant that originated in Spain is now widespread in the U.K.–and a lot of Europe, while we’re at it.

Spain was on Britain’s list of safe places to visit. Just bring your sunscreen and a bathing suit. Come home with some chorizo and a nice tan. The government cares about you and wants to make sure you can have your holiday–or vacation, if you’re speaking American, which no one was. It’ll all be fine.

The Covid variant, by the way, isn’t a particularly significant variation from the original. For a virus, Covid is surprisingly stable, but like all viruses it evolves and that means sometimes the origin of a cluster can be traced. In this case to Spain, and to a government policy that tried to save the travel industry. 

So here we are again, entering our second lockdown. Forgive me if I haven’t managed to be funny this time out. I support the lockdown, late and flawed as it is. Covid’s a dangerous disease, not only because of the deaths it causes and the way it overwhelms our hospitals but also because of the people it leaves disabled for no one knows how long, maybe for months, maybe for a lifetime. If you’re dealt a card out of the Covid deck, you can’t know in advance which one it will be. Will you be asymptomatic, have a bad week or two, become disabled, or die? 

And you don’t know who you’ll pass it on to, because people are infectious not just when they’re sick but before they have symptoms, or if they have no symptoms. So we gamble not just with our own lives but with the lives of people we love and of people we don’t know at all but share breathing space with. 

Stay safe, my friends. Be cautious. 

Wear a damn mask. They do make a difference.

 

The pandemic news: Science, social media, and the rule of six

England’s in three separate stages of Covid restrictions right now, with the stage depending on where you live and how high the local infection rate is, but weeks ago the government’s official scientific advisory group urged it to impose a short, tight lockdown to stop the rise in infections. To which the government said, “What do you know? We’re following the science.”

“Wait a minute,” the scientists said. “We’re the scientists.”

“Not the scientists,” the government said. “The science.”

It’s not clear at the moment exactly what science they’re following. I’ve been wondering if they got hold of one of those “The Science of. . . ” books. You know: The Science of Getting Rich, The Science of Storytelling. Or if they have science confused with Scientology.

Entirely relevant photo (if you read to the end), which won’t play well on social media: This is Fast Eddie thinking deeply.

In the meantime, though, everyone’s mad at everyone. Local governments in the areas with tighter restrictions are furious that they’ve been allowed no power (never mind funding or serious consultation) to deal with their local situations. People whose workplaces will be shuttered are mad that they’ll be paid a smaller percentage of what they’d have earned than they were paid during the national lockdown. Disregarded parts of the country are feeling more disregarded than usual. They tend to be the places where the infection rate’s high, because transmission’s highest among low-income groups and minority ethnic groups, which aren’t groups that get a lot of help from governments in general but that get even less when the Conservative are in power. So they’re mad. Parts of the Conservative Party are mad because they don’t want the government closing things. The Labour Party’s mad because it’s sure it could handle the pandemic better than the Conservatives–and to be fair, it would be hard work not to. And I’m not particularly happy because I’m buried in newspaper clippings. 

Yes, I work from actual paper, at least to start with. Some days, all you can see of me is a tuft of white hair and a pile of newspaper. 

Send tea. The dogs will know how to find me. 

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It’s not just local governments who are feeling slighted. MPs from hard-hit areas are finding out about government plans for their areas via What’sApp or being given twenty minutes notice of briefings. One, from Wigan, claimed she was left out of a briefing because the ministers in charge didn’t know where Wigan is. To make up for that, another was invited to a briefing for an area her constituency isn’t part of. 

A third heard about a twenty-minute briefing eight minutes after it had started.

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You know those face shields that are (presumably) more comfortable than masks? It turns out that they’re the next best thing to useless. Almost all those lovely, airborne droplets and aerosols that the wearers breathe out escape through the gaps. But you’ve got to admit they make a person look like they’re serious about not spreading the disease.

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In September, while England was learning to count all the way to six in order to figure out who it was safe to get together with outside of a work or educational setting, a stag hunt not only got 130 people together, almost all without masks, the outfit putting it on also got a £10,000 government grant and a £50,000 loan from pandemic-related programs.

Grouse hunts are also exempt from the six-person get-together limit. But if you want to get together and grouse about how inconsistent the rules are, the limit’s still six.

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People (predictable creatures that we are) increased their use of social media during lockdown, and it turns out that people who send more pictures on social media are at greater risk of depression. Or so says an admittedly small study involving 170 participants, an online questionnaire, and absolutely no photos of anyone standing on a beach looking 30 pounds thinner and 10 years younger than their actual weight and age. 

Does that mean photo-sharers are depressed (or at risk of . . . ) because they send photos or do they send photos because they’re depressed or at risk of? We don’t know. Or I don’t, and the report I saw doesn’t say. All I know for sure is that one fact one lines up with the other one. So can we be safe, please, just in case sharing photos does cause depression. Tell the cat he can stop doing that thing with the lettuce and the chisel because you’ve put the camera down and you’re going to face an entire day without clicking the imitation shutter even once. Even if he starts playing the banjo, you’re not picking it up. Not today.

Yes, bare-assed reality’s tough, but it’s out there anyway. Might as well see what it looks like.

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In an earlier post (and if you think I know how much earlier, you don’t understand how things work around here), I mentioned a Covid bailout program for small businesses that the British government set up so loosely that it screamed “Scam me!” and people obligingly did. Well, for the sake of balance, it set up another one to be so complex that only one company got all the way through the process. 

The idea behind Project Birch was that big companies would get emergency finance and in exchange give the government a stake in the company. Ten companies were interested but found the process so complicated that they walked away.

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The U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said that the pandemic has shown us that the world needs universal health care if it’s going to deal with the next pandemic. 

By not responding adequately to this one, we’ve let the pandemic cause more than a million deaths, infect more than 30 million people in 190 countries, wipe out 500 million jobs, and cost the global economy $375 billion a month. 

The standard indicators of human advancement and well-being are going in reverse for the first time since the U.N. started measuring them in 1990.

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It’s not news that the pandemic’s put a strain on health systems everywhere and that both non-urgent and damn urgent treatments have been postponed. But how is NHS England (NHS being the National Health Service) planning to respond? It plans to fine NHS trusts (that means hospitals, or at least the organizations that run them) that haven’t gotten back to near-normal schedules by the end of the month. Because what could possibly make more sense than taking money away from an overstretched system when it shows signs of being overstretched?

You bet. That’ll learn ‘em.

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Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine trial has gone on hold while they frantically try to figure out why one of the participants got ill. That’s roughly all the information that’s available, although any decent reporter can fill several paragraphs with it. I’m not a reporter, so all you get is two sentences.

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The following is a note from that deepest of thinkers, Fast Eddie the cat. He doesn’t usually communicate with strangers, and since he’s broken his silence I believe we should pay attention: 

sddddddddd bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbm,

Please, people, give it some thought.

 

Fairy dust and pushups: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Let’s say you’re a prime minister who got this pesky pandemic thing wrong, hesitating to lock the country down, shaking hands with hospital patients, refraining from kissing babies only because parents clutched their kids and turned away when they saw you coming. A prime minister who told the country that washing hands and singing Happy Birthday would keep everyone safe, and who then, embarrassingly, got sick yourself, either because you didn’t wash your hands or went off key on one of those tricky passages in “Happy Birthday.” A prime minister who locked the country down late but made an exception for your special advisor so he could run around the country scattering virii because he’d mistaken them for fairy dust.

So you’re that prime minister, and after you’d been sick you came back to work to hear lots of speculation whether you were really up to running the country.

Irrelevant photo: a thistle

What would you do?

Pushups, that’s what you’d do. Publicly.

Or maybe you wouldn’t, but that’s what Boris Johnson did, except the British seem to call them press-ups. Never mind. Same thing. Floor, hands, arms, body weight. Straight back if you’re doing them right.

There were two problems with the strategy: Your ability to do pushups has no bearing on your ability to run a country, and Johnson isn’t what you’d call a natural athlete. The photos show a kind of lumpy, overage guy in a dress shirt and slacks looking baffled by a floor. Has this thing always been here? he seems to be asking himself. Can I outsource it?

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He can’t, but let’s go back to that special advisor, the one with the fairy dust. A law graduate is trying to crowdfund £300,000 for to pay for a private prosecution of Dominic Cummings’ two breaches of lockdown.

“I am trying to encourage the re-establishment of the concept of the rule of law – one law for all,” Mahsa Taliefar said. “What Cummings did demonstrated that at the moment in the UK if you are rich and have powerful friends the law doesn’t apply to you.”

I just checked the website and she’s raised £31,000 so far.

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You know the theory that we all have to choose between the economy and our health? The theory that says lockdown destroys the economy and we have to open back up to get things going? Well Sweden–the one Scandinavian country that never did lock down, relying on some vague instructions, hand washing, and good sense–not only has a five times Denmark’s death rate but roughly the same economic performance.

Whether there’s a lockdown or not, it turns out that in a pandemic most people avoid public transportation, stay out of shops, and keep their kids home from school. In other words, they exercise the good sense they were advised to. The problem is that a minority will do none of that. Ten percent of the people create ninety percent of the infections.

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A while back I posted the news that Britain’s free school lunch program for the most economically vulnerable kids will be continued into the summer. It’s good news, but it’s looking a little tarnished lately. It turns out that the £234 million program was outsourced to a private company whose helpline charges £21 an hour.

It used to charge £60 an hour, but–you know what people are like–they had complaints and switched over to the cheaper one in April.

Hey, people, you’re saving–um, hang on–£39 an hour. Focus on that.

Parents and schools also complain about the vouchers being hard to use. Not all stores will take them, and at stores that do, they often don’t scan correctly so they’re unusable.

Oh, and the website leaves people waiting long stretches of time to get their coupons.

And that, my friends, is how to fuck up a free lunch.

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Scotland has had no coronavirus deaths for four days and has only ten cases in intensive care. The first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is talking about the possibility of eliminating the disease, and at a press conference she dropped hints that they might have to test or quarantine visitors from England. She has no plans at the moment, she said, but she’s not ruling it out.

On the other hand, she didn’t do a single pushup, so what’s she worth?

Meanwhile, a spike in virus cases in Leicester has sent the city going back into lockdown, with non-essential shops shutting their doors, schools closing to most students, and people advised to stay home except for essential trips.

It’s the first of local lockdown since Britain opened back up.

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A jazz club in Paris has opened up for private concerts. They let people in either singly or in pairs if they live together. Three musicians take turns giving five-minute concerts to each individual or couple.

The concerts are free but guests are welcome to pay what they can or want.

The club’s director said the concerts “generate a kind of magic. People become very emotional. Some come out in tears.”

 

 

The Ministry of Impulsive Decisions reports the news from Britain

You’ve probably heard this by now, but good news is hard to come by so let’s not waste it: A cheap, easily available steroid, dexamethasone, can cut the risk of death in seriously ill Covid-19 patients. The bad news? It doesn’t help in milder cases. Still, this is a bit of genuine good news. Gift horse; mouth.

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Faced with the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping through Britain, our rumpled and (lately) not entirely present prime minister Boris Johnson announced a commission to study inequality.

That’ll slow down those pesky protesters, right? By the time it reports back, everyone will have forgotten how to even spell inequality.

So what was his first move? He appointed Munira Mirza to set it up. And she’s on record as having said that institutional racism is “a perception more than a reality,” not to mention as having complained that earlier inquiries (there’ve been six in four years) fostered a culture of grievance.

If all goes according to plan, the commission’s report will be referred to the Department of Cynicism and Bitter Irony. They do a lot of filing there.

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Irrelevant photo: Hydrangea–our neighbors’. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Astronomers report that our galaxy may be home to as many as thirty advanced civilizations.

Sorry, but the link won’t lead you to any information about them. All it does is confirm that I don’t make this shit up.

How can we tell that they’re advanced?

Well, they’ve been smart enough to stay away from us.

Okay, that isn’t necessarily by choice. They’d be, on an average, 17,000 light years away. Too far for them to drop by casually for a cup of tea. Too far, most likely, to even know about tea. Quite possibly too far for us to pick up any signs of their existence. And vice versa, although if they get close enough to pick up a hint of what’s going on here, they’ll decide no cup of tea is worth it. 

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And since we’re talking about the whole galaxy, let’s forget Britain for another minute and talk about Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ.

The autonomous zone was set up after clashes in which the police used pepper spray, teargas, and flash bangs while Black Lives Matter protesters threw rocks, bottles, and fireworks.

Then someone drove a car into a crowd of protesters and shot one of them. I’m not sure what impact this had on events, but I’d bet a bowl of popcorn that it didn’t lower the tension level.

Eventually, the police withdrew from the neighborhood, boarding up the police station and leaving protesters to set up the CHAZ, which covers a few blocks. CNN describes it as more like a festival than a protest. It’s stocked with all the essentials: granola bars, water, toilet paper, and toothpaste.

The mayor, Jenny Durkan said, ”It’s not an armed takeover. It’s not a military junta. We will make sure that we will restore this but we have block parties and the like in this part of Seattle all the time. . . . There is no threat right now to the public.”

Reporting on the situation, Fox News mistook a joke on Reddit for a split in the organization running the CHAZ.

Okay, I have no idea if any organization really is running things or if it’s all evolving on the fly–or if an organization thinks it’s running it and things are also (or instead) evolving on the fly. I also don’t know if I’m supposed to call it just CHAZ or the CHAZ , but never mind the many things I don’t know. (Why do you listen to me anyway?) What matters is that Fox News thought a group was in charge and reported on the split, reading the Reddit post on the air: “I thought we had an autonomous collective, an anarcho-syndicalist commune at the least, we should take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.”

What the post’s doing there isn’t commenting on a split but playing off Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur introduces himself to a peasant, saying he’s the king, and the peasant announces that they already have their own government.

“We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of purely external affairs.”

I’d have missed the Python reference myself. Unlike a few people I’ve known and worked with, I don’t have the dialogue memorized. But I like to think that a line Fox News left out would have made me think that something other than a mail-order organizational squabble might be going on: that the king couldn’t “simply expect to wield supreme executive power just because someone threw a sword at him,”

I’ve been in more than one strange political conflict, but none of them have involved swords. Everyone has their limits, and I’m pretty firm about that one, although I did, for a long time, have a friend’s (American) Civil War-era sword hanging on my wall. It was blunt and wouldn’t have been any use in political disputes, but no, I would not have been tempted.

I did once sit in a meeting and consider whether a crochet hook would be any use as a murder weapon, but that’s a different story.

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Back to Britain: There’s lots of flap here about when, how, and where the kids are going back to school.

In the first plan, two age groups were going back, then the rest of at least the primary school kids would follow before the school year ended. The British school year runs later into the summer than the American one does, but even so it wasn’t clear that they’d be in school long enough to do more than exchange germs.

This was all handled by the Ministry of Impulsive Decisions, which didn’t do any serious consulting with the schools or the teachers’ unions, so a lot of the schools said they couldn’t open safely even for the first group, and some parents, in the interest of safety, kept their kids home from the schools that did open.

But some kids from two age groups went back, and the rest of the plan was sent to the Ministry of Lost Ideals.

Cue calls–including some from within the Conservative Party, which is all that matters since it has a huge majority and doesn’t really have to listen to anyone else–for emergency measures: a summer tutoring program, possibly, or what are being called Nightingale schools, mirroring the Nightingale hospitals, which were basically field hospitals set up at the beginning of the pandemic and barely used, partly because they turned out not to be needed and partly because no one had figured out how to magic up the staff a hospital relies on.

Who knew that hospitals aren’t just buildings–that if you don’t have staff you don’t have a hospital?

Yes, planning is this government’s strength.

So long ago that I’ve lost track of the date, the Department of Good Intentions promised both internet access and computers to any kids in year 10 who didn’t have them.

Why year 10? Why not year 10? It’s random enough to sound like it has some research behind it.

Many headteachers report not having seen so much as a computer cable.

And none of that solves the problem of what the kids in other age groups are supposed to do.

A recent study reports that a third of students have done no lessons at all while the schools are closed and that less than half have sent work to their teachers. Students in what they call the most disadvantaged schools are the least likely to be doing any schoolwork.

The Department of Relentless Optimism is surprised by this.

Let’s move on before I get started on the mind that classifies schools as disadvantaged, as if somehow their problems came from a combination of bad luck and birth trauma.

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After having said that the free school meals for the most vulnerable kids would stop at the end of the school year, the Department of We Never Said That and if We Did We Didn’t Mean It That Way has announced that free school meals will continue.

How come? A footballer, Marcus Rashford, campaigned for them.

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Dozens of hospitals are still reporting a shortage of scrubs. This much, you’d think, the Department of We’ve Been Here Before could get right by now. They’re not high-tech equipment. Volunteers have been supplying some. Any place with a sewing machine could turn them out.

Some doctors report that they’re taking their home to wash, which is what they’ve been advised to do even though it risks spreading infection.

The NHS says there’s no shortage of scrubs and asks everyone to go have a cup of tea and think about all those intelligent civilizations somewhere in the galaxy, who see us on Instagram and wish they had such a nice cup of tea.

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Speaking of Instagram, it’s time for everyone who’s feeling bad because they’re not in a relationship to stop fretting. In Britain, married people and people in civil partnerships reported the highest rise in anxiety levels during lockdown.

That’s not the same as saying they have the highest level of anxiety, only the highest increase. But still.

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In the Caribbean and South and Central America, the pandemic is kicking off an epidemic of hunger, the U.N. warns.

And in France, a demonstration by healthcare workers demanding more funding for the health system ended with some people in black setting fire to a car (actually, a vehicle–it could be a tank for all the word gives away) and throwing things at the police, at which point the police fired tear gas at the demonstrators, although as far as I can tell from a short mention they didn’t start the violence.

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Britain’s health secretary was on Sky News talking about how quarantine would protect us from countries where the coronavirus rate of infection is higher than ours.

Which ones, the interviewer asked.

Brazil, he said.

Could he name any others? the interviewer asked.

Um, well [insert vague blither here, along with the word science].

Yes, she asked, but what others?

[….science….]

[….science…]

It’s all about the science, folks. That’s why we’ve imposed a quarantine at a time when we’re the folks other countries want to quarantine.

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A professor of cardio-vascular science, Mauro Giacca, says, “What you find in the lungs of people who have [died of Covid-19 after 30 to 40 days in intensive care] . . . is something completely different from normal pneumonia, influenza or the Sars virus. You see . . . a complete disruption of the lung architecture.”

Their lungs, he says, can be completely unrecognizable.

And a professor of medicine, John Bell, says that a second wave of the virus, which he considers likely now that Britain’s lockdown is being released, should at least allow scientists to measure whether people who survived one bout of the virus become immune to it.

The Department of Silver Linings has taken note.

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I can’t let you go until you’ve read this: In Vienna, a man has been fined 500 euros for farting loudly at the police–or, to be formal about this, for offending public decency. He got up from a park bench, looked at the cops, and “let go a massive intestinal wind apparently with full intent.”

He also behaved “provocatively and uncooperatively” beforehand, but that doesn’t seem to be why they arrested him.

The pandemic update from Britain: lockdown, lunacy, and a mention of Minneapolis

A pilot flew a private plane from Surrey to an airfield belonging to the Royal Air Force. That set off an emergency response involving the Ministry of Defence and fire crews, who (I’m reading between the lines here) wanted to know what the hell he thought he was doing.

He wanted to go to the beach, he said. 

Since the airfield is in Wales, that was a breach of the lockdown rules, which are different in Wales than in England. Or it’s believed to be a breach, since the rules don’t specifically mention landing your private plane on an airforce base so you can go to the beach. 

I think I can safely say that he’ll be in trouble with multiple agencies. I’m reasonably sure that lockdown will be the least of his troubles.

To put the situation into bureaucro-speak, the police are ‘considering’ whether there were ‘potential breaches’ of coronavirus legislation. And the Civil Aviation Authority has been alerted. It will be demanding a note from his parents.

So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that Dominic Cummings was on board. And if you haven’t followed who Dominic Cummings is, just follow the handy link, which will take you to a post by that noted expert, me, which will explain all. Or enough, anyway.

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England’s contact tracing campaign continues to be a mess, with many tracers not able to log on. Some recruits have set up support groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, pooling their knowledge about what the hell they’re supposed to do, and how. One contact tracer reported (anonymously) that the app wouldn’t work with his or her microphone. Another had been working for three weeks and been asked to do nothing more than join an online training session. A third says he or she has learned to juggle with three balls. 

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Some of England and Scotland’s coronavirus testing centers aren’t matching test results to either people’s National Health Service numbers or their addresses, which means their doctors aren’t told about coronavirus patients on their caseloads and local authorities can’t track outbreaks in their areas.

Back in March, the devolved governments–that translates to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland–told Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, that the system he was setting up had problems, and Northern Irland and Wales insisted on changes. Scotland and England went ahead. 

Wales and Northern Ireland get to play a satisfying round of I-told-you-so. 

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An NHS trial is giving Covid-19 patients blood plasma transfusions from patients who’ve recovered, and the trial’s set to expand. The hope is that the antibodies will help them fight off the disease. 

To date, it’s only been tried on patients in intensive care, but it may be more effective if it’s used earlier. Stay tuned.

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Back in April, the British government’s science advisory group noted that only half the people who came down with Covid-19 symptoms followed the government’s advice to self-isolate for fourteen days. It recommended doing some quick research to figure out what it would take to get people to follow the guidelines. 

As the lockdown eases and the government’s betting its rapidly diminishing stack of chips on testing people, tracing the contacts of anyone who tests positive, and isolating the cases they find, people actually isolating themselves becomes crucial.

Not going into isolation when you should is apparently now known as doing a Cummings. 

Some members of the science advisory group are now warning that easing the lockdown now will lead to a second wave of cases. In England, 8,000 people a day are still becoming infected, and that doesn’t count people in care homes or hospitals. That data’s collected separately and the two data sets aren’t speaking. You know how it is in some families. 

It also doesn’t count cases in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.

One advisor, John Edmunds, said, “If you look at it internationally, it’s a very high level of incidence.”

The current R rate–the rate at which the virus spreads–is between 0.7 and 0.9. At anything above 1, the pandemic grows. At 1, it stays the same, which at a rough guess means 80 deaths a day.

John Edmunds’ colleague Jeremy Farrar tweeted, “Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. Agree with John & clear science advice. TTI [test, trace and isolate] has to be in place, fully working, capable [of dealing with] any surge immediately.”

 

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England’s chief medical officer said, in a carefully worded statement, that the country’s at a very dangerous moment. It wasn’t a clear criticism of the government, but a listener could be forgiven for thinking it was.

He also said, mentioning no names, that England’s lockdown rules applied to all.

*

MPs’ inboxes have been swamped by messages about Dominic Cummings, most of them critical. So what does an overwhelmed MP do? Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall gave his responses the personal touch by hitting Send before he remembered to delete the part that said, “insert if there has been a bereavement.” 

He is, he said, incredibly sorry. He remembered to delete the part of the script that said, “Don’t get caught again.”

*

I don’t write much about American politics. Even though I’m American, I live in Britain. It’s not the best seat to watch the show from. But I have to go off topic and say something about what’s happening there, even though it’s happening in the wrong country and it’s not pandemic related.

I lived in Minneapolis for years, and a lot of you will know what’s happening: A few days ago, a white police officer killed an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck for seven minutes. On camera. While Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.”

What had Floyd done? Tried to buy something at a local food store. The clerk thought he’d paid with a counterfeit bill and called the police, because that was store policy. No one claims that Floyd knew it was counterfeit. At this point I don’t know if anyone cares whether it actually was.

First there were protests. Then there were riots. A CNN reporter was arrested while covering them, even after he showed  his i.d. He’s black. Yes, that’s relevant. 

Rumors are flying every which way. I can’t confirm them, so I’ll stick to what’s in the papers.

My old neighborhood’s been on fire. The post office, the library, and a whole lot stores have burned down, along with the police station where the officers involved in the killing were based.  

At a gym in another part of the city, a white man threatened to call the police on some black men because the gym was restricted to the tenants of the building and they couldn’t possibly have a right to use the same gym as he did. That was after demanding that they prove they had a right to be there. 

In Kentucky, police targeted a news crew covering a protest about a black woman who was killed by police in her own home. “Targeted” means they shot the reporter with pepper bullets. 

In Detroit, someone shot into a group of protestors from a car, killing a 19-year-old. 

In several cities, cars have driven into crowds of protestors.

I’m not using the word protestor to mean rioter.

Sorry–I’m supposed to be funny here, or to at least try. That’s the agreement we sort of made.  So to those of you who are in the U.S.: Guys, I know racism runs deep in our national DNA. If there’s such a thing as national original sin, that’s ours. But I also know that racism’s not the whole story, that there’s more to us than that. So I’m looking for you to sort this out, okay?

Don’t make me come over there. 

The pandemic update from Britain: swans, spike, and Scunthorpe

The BBC has commissioned TV shows (or maybe that’s one show–we’ll find out eventually) that will, they say, be “a powerful snapshot” of lockdown Britain. One of them is a version of Swan Lake performed in the dancers’ bathtubs and showers.

The director? He directed it from his toilet seat. Sitting there, he said, kept him conscious of the limits the dancers were working with. 

“It’s been like hanging a picture blindfolded,” he said, “a mile away.”

Stay tuned, kids. It should be a one-of-a-kind moment in British culture.

*

Irrelevant photo: a stone age monument.

With all the flap around Dominic Cummings, why hadn’t he trended on Twitter? Because his name causes anti-porn filters to wake from their slumber and block–well, something. Possibly the tweets themselves, more likely the mass of them trending. How would I know? I’m 107 years old and even typing this much woke my anti-tech filters from their slumbers so they could block me from understanding the story. 

I do understand this much: The spam filters have driven people to all sorts of creative mis-spellings of his last name.

The problem of accidental, automated censorship is called the Scunthorpe problem. Scunthorpe is a real place, and that’s its real name. If you’re not a spam filter or a ten-year-old, it’s an inoffensive one, pronounced SCUNNthorp. 

The challenge of figuring out what to block and what not to block is also real. It’s right up there with trying to find pictures of seventeen animals hidden in the picture of a tree. Find the naughty words; don’t find the not-naughty words.

Oops. You got it wrong. Return to Scunthorpe and start over. 

*

In the period that starts on the week that ended on March 20 (that’s a convoluted way to tell time, but I didn’t invent it), the U.K. has the highest excess death rate of any country with reliable statistics: 891 per million.

The highest what? 

Excess deaths: the ones that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. They matter because not all coronavirus deaths are counted as coronavirus deaths. In many countries–possibly in all; how would I know?–how they’re counted depends on what goes on the person’s death certificate, which is decided by a scattering of doctors who may make very different decisions for all sorts of reasons. 

And in the absence of testing, who’s to say who died of the virus and who didn’t?

Excess deaths also matter because people die in a pandemic of things that wouldn’t have killed them if life had been what we so airily think of as normal. So the person who has a heart attack and decides they’d be better off at home than in an overloaded hospital with a high infection rate? Or who calls an ambulance that doesn’t get there for hours? The person whose cancer surgery was postponed because the surgeons didn’t have surgical gowns and couldn’t operate safely?

They all end up as excess deaths, indirectly attributable to the virus.

The data comes from nineteen countries.

*

A study in France finds that even mild Covid-19 cases leave 98% of people with protective antibodies. That’s the good news. The bad news is that 2% of the population is left out and that no one knows how long it will last. At this point, they’ve seen it lasting a month.

*

South Korea’s second pandemic spike is inching upward, and Jeong Eu-kyeong, the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they may have to re-impose social distancing. 

“We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures,” she said, “but there’s a limit to such efforts.” 

A lockdown has been reimposed in Seoul.

*

England’s test and trace system launched on Thursday, to the blatt of off-key trumpets and the curses of employees who couldn’t log on. It was supposed to be fully operational by this coming Monday, but Monday has been postponed till late June. Don’t fret. Every month has a solid handful of Mondays.

One contact tracer said they’d been told on Wednesday that the system would start on June 1, not Thursday, and added that there was no vetting or quality control over who was being hired. The tracers are a mix of medical professionals, people who’ve worked in call centers, students working a summer job, and I have no idea who else. They work from a script.

A doctor working as a team leader isn’t optimistic. 

“It’s difficult when you see people breaking rules,” he said. “Everyone is confused what the message is.”

The app that’s supposed to make all this work seamlessly is, um, being tweaked. I don’t think that’s classic British understatement. It’s classic governmental mumblespeak. They did a limited trial on it, discovered problems, and took it into the back of the workshop, where they’re pounding on it with sledgehammers.

Local governments, apparently, feel just as well prepared as the contact tracers, with an unnamed someone accusing the NHS and Department of Health of “control freakery.”

A lot of people are speaking out on this as unnamed someones or by first name only. 

Public health experts say they were sidelined during March and April, as the tracing campaign was being put together, and only involved in May after a behind-the-scenes campaign. 

England–not Britain this time; the overlap and divisions can make a person dizzy–has a network of contact tracers who work with TB and sexually transmitted diseases and could have shifted to the pandemic months ago. Contact tracing interviews, they say, take tact and experience, and they sound skeptical about the effectiveness of people who were hired by the truckload, trained briefly and online, and turned loose to work with a system that–. Well, one person who was supposed to use it said, “I have not been given any details of who to call if I have problems, only an email address…which largely goes unanswered.”

But this will make it safe for us all to emerge from lockdown and we’ll all be just fine, folks. And we don’t have to wait until the tracing system works. We can just go ahead on the promise.

The plan is that when testing identifies local hotspots, local governments, health people, and all the area’s chickens will work together and do something.

What will they do? It’s hard to say, because local authorities don’t have power to close down schools or workplaces, and chickens don’t even have the power to decide when to brood their eggs and when to let the humans do whatever it is they do with them.

Is anyone else feeling a bit chickenish?

*

On Friday morning I promise you something unrelated to the virus.

The pandemic update from Britain, political edition: Boris’s brain breaks Boris’s rules

Back in March, Boris Johnson’s brain–that’s his advisor, who has a name of his very own, Dominic Cummings–was infected with Covid-19. Keep him in mind, because he’s the heart of the story, but as usual we need some background.

Britain had gone into lockdown by then, and had widely publicized guidelines on what that meant. Leaving home (defined as “the place you live,” because a lot of us weren’t clear about that) “to stay at another home is not allowed.”

The guidelines didn’t define that other home, the one you don’t live in and weren’t to go to. Presumably it was a place someone else lived, although it could also have been a second home–a place no one lived. 

That’s enough possibilities. If I go on, it’ll only get worse.

Unnecessary travel was banned. Unnecessary wasn’t defined, but let’s take a shot at it ourselves: If you were being chased by a bear, it probably would be okay to run down the street or take other evasive action. No bear? You stay in the home where you live.

Completely irrelevant photo: an azalea.

People who had the virus were told to self-isolate. That collision of words, self impaled on isolate, was created by a computer that hadn’t been fully briefed on the spoken language, but most of us accepted it. We were thinking about a deadly virus. 

And it wasn’t just people who had the virus who were supposed to self-isolate: So was anyone they had contact with. Because we had to stop the virus. And the whole thing was serious enough that the police could fine people who broke the rules.

The rules, admittedly, were still hazy. In the most extreme case I know of, the police scolded people for buying (or was it a store for selling?) chocolate Easter eggs, which unlike Red Bull aren’t strictly necessary. 

After a wobble or two, though, the line between necessary and unnecessary became clearer. What really mattered was the We Were Taking This Seriously. So seriously that Boris Johnson made a public appeal to our better natures, asking us not to go see Mom on Mother’s Day. 

And most people listened. They didn’t visit their mothers. They didn’t visit their elderly relatives in nursing homes. They didn’t say their goodbye to dying family members. Because this was the way to beat the virus and we were all in it together.

Except for Boris’s brain, who by that time knew he was ill and drove 260 miles, leaving a trail of virii behind him. And with him went his wife (who was also sick) and their kid. 

Why’d they do that? To get to his parents’s home (sorry: estate), because, hell, they needed help with childcare. What else were they to do?

Well, gee, what would anybody else do? Manage, probably. Not expose their parents, possibly, not to mention whoever they had contact with between the home where they lived and the where home they didn’t live. Turn to somebody local if they could–a relative, an organization that could help. See if a relative wouldn’t come to them, which wouldn’t be within the guidelines but would have been a hell of a lot safer.

I don’t minimize how hard the disease can hit people–a friend of ours died of it–but these are two people who were well enough to drive 260 miles but weren’t well enough to deal with their kid.

I admit, I don’t know their particular kid. 

We’ll skip the which-day-did-what-happen details. Someone local called the cops, who talked with someone at the home where they did not live.

“Oh, no, they didn’t,” 10 Downing Street says.

“Oh, yes, we did,” the police say. 

Cummings was seen 30 miles away from his parent’s estate, out in public, not self-isolating.

Cummings went back to London and returned to work at 10 Downing Street. 

A few days later, he was seen 30 miles from his parents’ estate again. 

“Oh, no, he wasn’t,” Downing Street says.

“Oh, yes, he was,” the witness says, “and I have the browser history to prove that I checked his license plate number at the time to make sure it was  him.” Except you don’t call it a license plate in Britain, but let’s not stop for that, we’re busy doing something else here.

The witness has filed a complaint with the police.

What does Boris’s brain have to say? That he did the right thing by driving to his parents’ estate.

What did Boris’s body have to say? “I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly, and legally and with integrity and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of this virus and saving lives.”

Other politicians and one scientific advisor who’ve been caught messing around with the lockdown rules have stepped down. 

Will Cummings? Like hell he will.

The steps under his feet aren’t looking overly solid, though. After Johnson’s press conference, Stephen Reicher, a scientific advisor to the government, tweeted, “In a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19.,” and “It is very hard to provide scientific advice to a government which doesn’t want to listen to science.”

Not to mention, “Be open and honest, we said. Trashed.

“Respect the public, we said. Trashed

“Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same, we said. Trashed.

“Be consistent we said. Trashed.

“Make clear ‘we are all in it together’. Trashed.”

Someone got onto the Civil Service twitter account and called Johnson “an arrogant truth-twister.” Nine minutes later, the tweet was taken down but it had been shared 25,000 times. No one knows who done it at the moment, but J.K. Rowling offered to pay them a year’s salary if their name became public.

A group called Led by Donkeys parked a van outside Cummings’ house with a huge screen on the back. It plays a clip of Boris Johnson telling people to stay home and  interviews with people who’ve struggled to care for their kids while they were sick. Over and over again.

The Financial Times writes that “The prime minister’s efforts to save his aide appeared to have failed. Support for Mr Cummings appeared to be spread thinly across the government and Conservative party. Following a barrage of supportive messages from cabinet ministers on Saturday, a notable silence on Sunday suggested that backing for the adviser was evaporating. One member of the government said the prime minister’s press conference had made the situation worse.”

One more quote, then I’ll stop: Former Brexit minister Steve Baker said the government was spending “enormous political capital…saving someone who has boasted of making decisions beyond his competence and clearly broke at the very least the guidance which kept mums and dads at home.”

Life’s going to be interesting around here for the next week or two. Watch this space. Or any other. 

Cheese, spiders, and, um, let’s not put that in the headline: it’s the pandemic update from Britain

With the number of daily Covid-19 deaths falling, English schools are set to open on June 1, but not for all age groups, just for a couple. And not Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish schools, which make their own decisions. And not necessarily all English schools, because local governments–some of them–are digging their heels in and saying, forget it, we’re not opening. And not all kids, because parents have a get-out-of-school-free card and can look grim and keep their kids home if they want to.

But the government still says the schools will open, and if this is starting to sound like a round of The Cheese Stand Alone, that’s because it sounds like a round of The Cheese Stands Alone. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s a kids’ game that peels people away one by one until the cheese is left in the center of (if I remember right–it’s been a long time) the circle, feeling very lonely indeed. 

I thought I might have made that up but I checked with Lord Google, who assured me that I haven’t hallucinated my entire childhood. It’s a children’s game and song. One of the related questions that’s asked so commonly that it comes up all on its own is, “What does the cheese stands alone mean?”

Irrelevant photo stolen (twice now) from an old post: California poppies. Californians or not, they grow well in Cornwall and once you get a few going they’ll self-seed. Generally in places where you didn’t want them but they don’t object to being moved.

What indeed.

The question’s too deep for us here at Notes. We’re going to pretend we already know and skim right over the top.

At the beginning of the week, it looked like schools that didn’t open would have a fight on their hands. Now it looks like they won’t. The government isn’t in a position to fight this one.

*

What’s happening with the contact tracing app that’s going to make it safe to ease Britain’s lockdown, even if it limps in some weeks after the lockdown’s already been eased?

The tale gotten more interesting in the day or two. 

The government hired a couple of companies to hire a bunch of people to trace a whole bunch of contacts to control the virus. We’re not playing The Cheese Stands Alone now, we’re singing, “She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.” The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said that the spiders (those are the contact tracers) are going to have rigorous training,. With detailed procedures. Designed by experts.

Better yet, they’ve “stepped up to serve their country.”

They also–and I say this with no disrespect to the people involved–stepped up to get a badly needed paycheck.

One man who was hired broke cover to talk (anonymously) about the rigorous training. His day of online training started with an hour and a half of people typing, rigorously, to the trainer, “I can’t hear anything.” 

The trainer assured them that the problems were normal.  

Eventually either everyone could hear or enough people could hear that they began asking questions. The trainer told them he couldn’t answer them all–there were too many trainees. 

“After the full day of training,” the now-trained trainee said, “people were still asking the most basic things.”

Someone asked what to do if they talked to someone whose relative had died. They were told to look on YouTube for videos about sympathy and empathy. 

After that, the trainee was a fully qualified contact tracer, scheduled to work the next day. He logged in and got a message telling him he’d get instructions on what to do.

He waited all day. Nothing happened. 

He got an email telling him not to worry, he’d be paid anyway. And he’d get more training soon.

Another trainee said she hadn’t been able to log in for three days. 

At last call, they’d recruited 1,500 out of the 18,000 they set as a target.

Oops, sorry. We’ll have 25,000 in place by June 1 and they’ll be able to deal with 10,000 new cases a day. We already have 24,000. And we’ll have a “fully functioning perfect system.” And it’ll be beautiful.

It’s all under control, folks.

*

In South Korea, they’re playing professional football again, but to avoid spreading the virus there aren’t any fans in the stadium, so before a recent game a company offered to place thirty mannequins to the stands. It would make them look lived in. It would be great. 

Offer accepted. What could possibly go wrong?

The game was shown and people noticed that some of the mannequins were holding up signs for X-rated websites. And a few noticed that they all looked like sex dolls.

What does a sex doll look like? Sorry, we’re well outside my sphere of expertise here. But not outside of everyone’s. If you gather enough people, someone will be in possession of whatever obscure piece of information you really don’t want people to know. So it went public: Those were sex dolls in the stadium. 

The company that supplied the mannequins turns out to make sex toys. 

FC Seoul–the team whose stadium it was–has apologized and promised never to think about sex again. 

The pandemic update from Britain: sniffer dogs and the return to work

England has approved a coronavirus antibody test that’s 100% accurate and highly specific. If England goes ahead and adopts it, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will probably do the same.

Being highly specific? That means it’s able to detect even a fairly weak antibody response. Being 100% accurate? That means it’s right. It’s a technical concept that sciency people like to use, but we can all get our heads around it if we pay attention.

The problem with the test is that it depends on a blood sample, so it has to be done by a medical person with a big, scary needle, and then processed in a lab. 

Why, other than the big, scary needle, is that a problem? Because you can’t just toss a bunch of tests in the mail for people to do at home and go home for a beer. You’ll have to organize testing. Preferably competently, and that’s where we hit a snag.

Irrelevant photo: love-in-a-mist

In the UK, the best way to do that would, almost inevitably, be through the National Health Service and, most heavily, local GPs, although they might need some extra (is anybody paying attention here?) money and staff. 

The government will probably centralize it, though, and hand the contract to huge private companies who’ve proved their competence by screwing up the testing program that’s in use now, which isn’t for antibodies but for current infections. Believing that private companies are more efficient than governments is a religious cult. 

And when the evidence shows that the opposite is true? You just draw the circle tighter and pray harder.

It’s an contradictory situation, though. Here’s a government demonstrating governmental incompetence through incompetent privatization and people who argue that government would be more competent criticizing the government for incompetence.

Did you follow that?

You might think that both sides of the disagreement should be equally unhappy, but you’d be wrong. Money’s being made. Someone’s happy.

*

Just so’s we all understand this: It’s still not clear whether having antibodies to Covid-19 means you’re immune to it. Widespread use of the antibody test should give us some information about that.

What immediate good does the test do, then? Almost everything I read on the subject talks about people who’ve been exposed going back to work, happy in the knowledge that they won’t get the bug again, although we don’t exactly know that and neither do they. They might be immune. We hope they’re immune.

And, since I’m splashing cold water on things, the test having been approved isn’t the same and the test having been bought. Or produced in large enough numbers. The government and the test’s developer, Roche, are talking. You know, price, quantities, delivery dates, can we get it in blue? 

No? We really like blue.

The government’s also talking to the developers of other tests. Hang in there. We’ll know something eventually.

*

Last weekend, lockdown restrictions were eased here in England and people who couldn’t work from home were urged to go back to work if they could do it safely, so Grant Shapps, Britain’s transport secretary, was flung to the press so he could reassure the nation. 

How’d he do that? He told us that the government doesn’t “know how the virus will respond” to lockdown’s semi-end. 

I feel deeply reassured, and I hope you do as well. 

Why was the transport secretary the one to get thrown to the press? Partly because people–having been told to avoid public transportation if they could–are using public transportation because how else are they supposed to get to work? Most people don’t have private planes. 

Also because he drew the slip of paper with the big red X on it.

He was especially reassuring about public transportation in London. 

“We have got the British Transport Police out there and we are even bringing in volunteers to remind people that we don’t want to see platforms crowded.”

Anyone who sees a crowded platform will then understand that they’re surplus to requirements and disappear in a cloud of blue smoke.

Would Shapps himself get on a crowded bus or train? an interviewer asked. Well, no, he said. And no one else should either. Please see cloud of blue smoke, above. 

In a different interview, he said, “Even with all the trains and buses back to running when they are, there will not be enough space. One in 10 people will be able to travel without overcrowding.” 

The news is full of pictures of packed tubes, trains, and buses in London. He’s an asset to the nation, Shapps is.

I’m still trying to figure out what “back to running when they are” means. 

*

I suppose this is where I have to write about a railway ticket office worker, Belly Mujinga, who was told she had to work out on the concourse instead of behind the ticket office’s barrier, although she had respiratory problems. 

“We begged not to go out,” a colleague said. “We said, ‘Our lives are in danger.’ We were told that we are not even allowed to put on masks.”

A passenger spat at her and a co-worker and said he had the virus. Both women came down sick and Mujinga has died of the virus, leaving a widower and an eleven-year-old daughter.

A GoFundMe campaign has raised over £27,000 for the family. Which is heartening, but she’s still dead.

Mujinga’s employer, Govia Thameslink, has only just given CCTV footage of the spitting incident to police, after weeks of being asked for it. The spitter was described by a witness as male, white, fiftyish, and well dressed. The women he spat at asked their managers to call the police. That was on March 22. The police say they only got a report on Monday. 

Rail unions are threatening to strike if drivers and passengers aren’t protected from overcrowding. Let’s hope they include other workers as well, in memory of Mujinga if nothing else.

*

So what are you supposed to do if your boss pressures you to go back to work but you don’t feel it’s safe–if, say, you’ve got a medical condition, or a family member who does, or an eight-year-old with no school to go to, or the workplace is too crowded, or your boss says you have to work out on the concourse? You probably have some protection under the law, but you’ll have to be pretty damn brave to claim it, because it could mean taking your case to an employment tribunal. It may mean risking your job.

How much money did you say do you have to fall back on?

Yup. That’s what most people say.  

In an interview, an employment lawyer said government guidance “seems to be suggesting that everyone who is not attending work but is unable to work from home should return to work, but they haven’t given much guidance to employers and employees about what exactly is expected if they have these difficulties turning up.”

She also said, “For example, if you’re a single parent with childcare obligations, we’ve seen some really unfortunate stories of mothers who are the sole parent and they’re stuck with children and they’ve been issued unfair ultimatums by their employer, wanting them to attend work on short notice when it’s just not possible.”

In the meantime, the business secretary, Alok Sharma, said workers don’t have an automatic right to walk out if they feel their workplaces are unsafe. 

“If somebody feels their workplace is not safe, they have to take that up with their employer,” he said. “If they don’t feel they are getting any traction they absolutely should get in touch with the Health and Safety Executive or the local authority.”

If I can translate that, if your workplace isn’t safe, you should follow the steps outlined above, keep on working, and hope you don’t die. 

Jason Moyer-Lee of the Independent Workers of Great Britain, which represents gig workers, said, “The return to work instruction is predicated on workplaces being safe because they follow new Government guidelines. The guidance is not law and is not mandatory.” In other words, he doesn’t think there’s much way to enforce it.

Just I think I’m too cynical–.

*

Teachers’ unions are saying the proposals to reopen schools in England on June 1 are unworkable. They’ve urged teachers not to “engage with” preparations.

No, I’m not sure what “engage with” means either. Teachers will, though. They teach things. Whatever needs to be known, they know it. 

Schools have been told that they don’t need protective gear, that they don’t need to keep the recommended six feet of distance between people, and that smaller classes and hand washing (sorry–stringent hygiene; maybe we’re talking about deodorant) will keep them safe.

They have not been told to sing “Happy Birthday” while stringently hygienizing themselves.

None of the teachers’ unions were contacted about the reopening before it was announced last Sunday.

Stay tuned. It should be interesting. 

*

A group of scientists who set up an alternative to the government’s official science advisory group have warned that the current strategy will bring more outbreaks of the virus and rolling lockdowns. It called for a campaign to test and trace, and to isolate infected people–and to scrap centralized testing and rely on GPs and local health teams, who can respond quickly to local outbreaks.

The current testing system doesn’t bother to send the results to GPs. And (anecdotal evidence warning here) doesn’t necessarily send the results to the people who’ve been tested either. Because what’re they going to do with them anyway? They’re all ignorant savages and it’ll only frighten them.

*

Oh, hell, let’s take a break for a little good news. The furlough scheme, which pays up to 80% of furloughed workers’ wages while they’re off work in the pandemic, will be continued until the end of October, although the small and medium-size print is changing. As of August, furloughed workers can go back to work part time. And at some point–and no one knows where the point is right now–companies will have to start picking up part of the bill. 

How much does it cost? About £12 billion per month.

How much did the 2008 bank bailout cost? About £850 billion.

There is support for the self-employed, but everything I read about it leaves me more confused than I was before. A program exists. It leaves some people out. It seems to have just started registering claims and what self-employed people were doing for money until now is anyone’s guess. But it’s better than no support at all.

Sorry, this was supposed to be our good news break, wasn’t it? Okay, how about this: 

Sniffer dogs are being trained to detect the virus. Dogs can already be used to spot cancer, Parkinson’s, and malaria. It’s still in the trial stages, but if it works they should be able to spot people with no symptoms. Our dogs know when we’re carrying treats, even when we think we show no symptoms, so yes, I do believe this could work.

My thanks to Catladymac for pointing me at this story. I’d have missed it.

*

And from the Department of Silver Linings comes this bit of news: The coronavirus lockdown could break the chain of transmission for HIV. The problem with HIV–other, of course, than that it kills people quite horribly–is that there’s a period of up to a month between the time a person’s exposed and the time current tests can detect it. And people can pass it on during that time. 

People who are on the current treatments can’t pass on the infection, and a drug that people can take both before and after sex reduces the risk of getting it, so the number of new cases in Britain is dropping anyway. But if no one has sex with new partners, it just might be possible to find everyone incubating the disease before they pass it on, treat them, and stop the spread of the infection. 

*

When I started doing more frequent virus updates, I thought they’d be short. What’s happened, though, is that the more attention I pay to this, the more I find to include. I’m oddly apologetic about that, although I didn’t invent the virus. Or the idea of an update. Hell, if you don’t want to read them, you won’t.

Take care, everyone. Listen to doctors and scientists and your own good sense. Stay well.

The pandemic update from Britain: science, censorship, and birthday celebrations

On Sunday night, Boris Johnson addressed Britain prime ministerially and assured us that we have a plan for getting the country out of lockdown without loosing the hounds of hell–or at any rate letting Covid-19 gain ground on us again.

Or he has a plan. Or someone has a plan.

What is it? People who can’t work form home should go back to work if they can do so safely, starting the next day. That’s Monday. Which is–oh, wait, it’s today. Or, depending on when you read this, yesterday or further back than that. So they’d better hurry. But they shouldn’t take public transportation. They should drive, they should walk, they should bike, they should call the chauffeur.

If they have school-age kids, they should stash them in the freezer until they get home, because schools haven’t started yet.

Do their workplaces have plans for how they can work safely? Well, they had all night to work them up, so it should be fine.

Irrelevant photo. A plant from last summer. This year’s version still has the training wheels on its bike.

But what really matters is that we have a new slogan: Stay alert, control the virus, save lives.

What does that mean? Nothing much, but it fills a gap.

The changes Johnson announced only apply to England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland set their own rules on this, and Scotland and Wales, at least, aren’t sounding impressed.

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We also learned that Britain will start quarantining people who come into the country. How? In an unspecified way.

To work, this should’ve started (in a specified way)–give me a minute here, I’m counting and I never was good at that–oh, let’s say something like five months ago, when Covid-19 first emerged and could have still been contained. At the time, though, the government’s response was to tell people to wash their hands while singing “Happy Birthday.” 

That was all we needed to do if we wanted to stay safe. 

Really. It was. I’d make that up if I could but I’m not that good. No one’s that good. You can only come up with something that stupid if you mean it. 

Why didn’t it work? A bunch of you hooligans sang the wrong song. You want to know how we got into this mess, that’s how we got into this mess.

The quarantine won’t apply to people coming from Ireland. Because Irish viruses don’t travel. On top of which, they speak English. Or people coming from France, because the prime minister was on the phone with Emmanuel Macron and everyone sang “There’ll Always Be and England” and hung up happy. And French viruses are bilingual.

Mind you, this may not be exactly a quarantine because it’s not clear that anyone’s going to be enforcing it. All the same, U.K. airports say it’ll kill the aviation industry.

And there was me thinking the pandemic had pretty much done that already. Shows you what I know. 

We won’t start the quarantine until the end of May. Why not? Because they’re recording fourteen days’ worth of “Happy Birthday” for everyone coming into the country to sing and these things take time.

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Some groups in society adapted admirably to lockdown. Take drug dealers, for example. With streets empty and travel restricted, they were standing out for a while. Now they’re dressing as joggers or tricking themselves out with fake National Health Service i.d.

And a lot of them are respecting the social distancing guidelines by using cars to deliver drugs. If you’re buying, you throw your money into the back seat and they throw your drugs out the window. 

I thought you might need to know that, although your dealer will be happy to explain it if you call.

If you want to know why their sales force tends to be younger than me, it’s because to pass for a jogger you can’t just wear the clothes, you will, at some point, actually have to run, and my knees have never forgiven me for the small bit of running I did many decades ago. But with a little effort, I can pass as a harmless old lady, going about her business.

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People who are convinced that 5G systems caused the coronavirus have been attacking engineers working for Openreach. 

Why Openreach? Because it has nothing to do with 5G, that’s why. It deals with the wiring that phones and broadband rely on–the cables, the ducts, the cabinets, the exchanges. I think we can all accept that this makes it the perfect target.

Engineers have been attacked, spat on, doused with water, and chased. The company reported 46 incidents in April. I’ve written to suggest they disguise themselves as drug dealers and am waiting to hear back.

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From the beginning–in fact, from the time when we were told to wash our hands and sing “Happy Birthday”–the government has defended every decision it’s made by saying, “We’re just following the science.” Meaning, “Hey, if we got it wrong, the science is to blame.” 

Which explains why an April 1 report from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (called Sage by its friends and family) has been published with huge blocks of text blacked out. Presumably the science went someplace it shouldn’t have gone. 

Bad science. Naughty science.

Why publish it at all? Because the government’s been under pressure to be more transparent about what advice government ministers were actually getting. And nothing says transparency like blacking out huge chunks of text.

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Black and minority ethnic people in Britain are four times more likely to die of the coronavirus than white people. That’s not accounted for by pre-existing conditions, age, or socio-economic differences.It could be accounted for by some groups being over-represented in jobs that bring them into contact with the public. Those include health care, other kinds of caring jobs, and all those jobs that used to be called unskilled and are now called essential. 

Even if, for reasons I can’t seem to put my finger on, they’re not getting paid essential-type wages.

People from “deprived social backgrounds” (I’m pretty sure that if you translate that it means people who are poor) are also at higher risk, whatever their ethnic background. 

As an aside, the British seem to use a different definition of black than Americans do, and since I wander through life with an almost complete set of American assumptions, it scrambles my head in an interesting way when I find people from south Asia defined as black. It’s a nice reminder that however seriously we take these categories and however powerful we make them, they’re arbitrary. 

These days, the phrase I see most is black and minority ethnic, or BAME

Within the BAME group, the only subgroup less likely than whites to die of Covid-19 is Chinese women. A lot of work seems to be devoted to figuring out what accounts for the differences. Or at least, a lot of ink’s being spilled over it. I may be making a leap when I assume it reflects actual research.

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The Young Foundation and the Open University have started a Covid-19 citizen-science project, which invites people to “share their day-to-day experiences of pandemic via online platform over the next three months, creating a rich digital archive of life during a pandemic.”

The idea is to capture the social impact, across the UK, of what they call (and I can’t find a way to argue with them) a generation-defining moment.

There are several ways to participate, and I’ll leave you to chase them down if you’re interested.