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.

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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.”

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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–.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

The pandemic news from Britain: tracing, testing, and goals no one expects to meet

Britain’s Prime Blusterer, Boris Johnson, set a new coronavirus testing goal: 200,000 tests a day by the end of May.

Did we meet our last testing goal? Well, no. We were supposed to be testing 100,000 people by the end of April and the government mythically met the goal for one day–the last day April had to offer–by counting tests that hadn’t been tested yet. After that, the numbers dropped down again.

But hey, They’re all all numbers. What’s your problem? When you’ve seen one number, you’ve seen ’em all.

Anyway, we now have a newer, cheerier, even more unreachable goal. And we’re happy.

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Irrelevant photo, because we all need something cheery in our lives: This is an odd geranium that a friend gave us. It only flowers after three years. Then it kicks the bucket and you have to hope you save some seeds.

Starting on Monday, the lockdown will be eased slightly, allowing people to leave the house more often and for a wider range of activities as long as they keep their distance from other people, although if localized infection rates go up, the restrictions may be adapted for those areas. (The link for that is that same as the one above. We’re all about efficiency here.)

Adapting the restrictions to smaller ares makes sense (as Almost Iowa pointed out in comments he left on an earlier post) but it’s also likely to mean that richer areas, which allow for more space between people when they’re outside and where people are statistically less likely to be hit as hard by the virus, will have an easier lockdown than poor areas.

And by areas, of course, I mean people.

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I’ve been hearing tales, from here in Cornwall, about people who book Covid-19 tests, show up, and then can’t get tested. One person got to her test to find out that the testing team had already gone home, presumably because they ran out of tests but who really knows?

Instead of doing what Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey says half the population would do, which is , “Fuck it,” she booked a second test. But they didn’t get the results back to her, so she followed up. they were backed up, They said. It might take as much as five days before they could test her sample.

After five days, I’m told, the sample has to be thrown away.

But it’s all privatized, so it’s all good. Because when private industry runs things, it’s more efficient.

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Okay, sooner or later I’ve got to write about the contract-tracing app that’s being introduced. I’ve been avoiding it because I’m too damn old to be at ease in the virtual world. Here’s about as much I can follow:

The National Cyber Security Centre says it’s good, and it says it in as down-homey a way as it can, given that it’s British and I’ve never heard anyone British say “down home.” It’s got to be an Americanism. Someone British might say “homely,” meaning not ugly (which is what an American would mean) but homey, but they wouldn’t say it in this context. I only tossed it in because I thought we needed a break. Homely isn’t the same thing as down home.

I’m sorry, but I have to ask: Why do you read this stuff?

Now, back to our point: The app’s so good that it won’t drain your battery, steal your data, or invade your privacy. It won’t even make you flip the E and R if you write center instead of centre. But that’s because it can’t–nothing’s that powerful yet. I only spelled it that way because, hey, I figure it can spell its name any way it wants.

Do I believe them about the privacy thing?

Umm. I think I’m gonna have to hear it from someone else first, and some experts have raised concerns about it. They know all sorts of things about this that I don’t, so in my ignorance I lean in the direction of listening to them. Especially since one of the reassurances about privacy is that the app asks your permission before it can do various things, and we all know how well we read the fine print when an app asks our permission before it can do something.

The app is a centralized one, so all the information your phone collects goes through whoever’s running this beast–a private company, as it happens, so it will be handled efficiently.

But forget privacy. I’ve clicked okay on so many websites that I doubt I have a scrap of the stuff left. Or if you can’t forget it, set it aside for a minute. Both the Health Service Journal and Business Insider say it won’t work on newer phones and Androids.

Both Google and Apple have dedicated tracing apps that we’re not using.

Downloading it isn’t mandatory, which is a good thing since I have a dumb phone, which is no better with apps than I am.

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At a virtual summit organized by the World Health Organization, a global alliance pledged $8 billion to develop vaccines and treatments for the virus and distribute them fairly.

The U.S. didn’t take part.

Why not? As the kids all said where I grew up, “Because.”

That was enough to explain pretty much anything.

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Stay safe out there if you can. I’ve explained this before, but it’s worth repeating: I don’t have so many readers that I can afford to lose any.


The pandemic update from Britain: research, testing, and spitting your coffee

Britain hit its arbitrary goal of testing 100,000 people a day by the end of April, the government announced triumphantly. How’d they do it? By including 52,000 tests that hadn’t been analyzed yet. Or taken, for that matter. They’d been put in the mail. Presumably to real people, although I can’t vouch for that. I have a picture of some hapless intern sent to the corner mailbox and stuffing them in by the handful. After being told to address them to his or her entire third-grade class, thousands of times over. At the addresses they had then. 

Third grade? Sorry. It’s an Americanism. In Britain, it’d be year three, more or less. 

Without the intern’s work, the number was 73,191.

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Irrelevant photo: rhododendron

The New Scientist article where I found the real test numbers (although for some reason it didn’t mention the intern) also tells me that the U.S. director of national intelligence announced that Covid-19 was not engineered in a Chinese lab, or in any other lab. It’s a natural occurrence. 

Sorry, Don. 

It also mentions that the English and Welsh coronavirus death rate for people from black African backgrounds is 3.5 times higher than for it is white people in England and Wales. Other ethnic minorities are also getting hit harder than whites. 

I don’t have statistics for the U.S., but I do know it’s hitting black people much harder than whites. Which makes the scenes of armed white guys demanding to end state lockdowns particularly chilling.

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Since we’re messing around on the New Scientist website, let me quote another article: Just four coronaviruses (virii?) are responsible for 20% to 30% of our colds, and they may once have been deadly, toning down as time went on until now they’re no more than a damned nuisance. 

Researchers now believe that all four of these viruses began to infect humans in the past few centuries and, when they did, they probably sparked pandemics.”

A careless person could almost get hopeful, reading that. Waiting this one out, though, is not a workable strategy. All those people who want to wait for herd immunity? They think they’re not part of the herd. They are.

The New Scientist is a good website and very much worth a trip. Especially since a lot of us can’t go anyplace real these days. 

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Just to prove that it’s useful, and to lead us all quietly away from that dangerous spark of  hope, I’ll draw on one more article from it: It’ll be a long time before we have a vaccine, it says. If, in fact, it turns out to be possible to develop one for this bug. 

The average experimental vaccine has a 6% chance of being safe and effective enough to make it to the market. Of the vaccines that get as far as trials, about 33% make it to the market.

So let’s assume one of the vaccines being frantically worked on in labs around the world works. It’ll take twelve to eighteen months to manufacture enough doses for it to be widely available, and that would be a remarkable speed. The fastest vaccine ever made to date was for Ebola, and that took five years.

To make a vaccine available faster–. Well, basically, you have to start step two before step one is complete, and maybe step three as well. So if the drug fails somewhere along the way, a lot of money gets lost–and time with it. 

Speed also raises worries about safety. There’ll be less time to study the vaccine’s long-term effects, so problems can be missed. And, let’s face it, when an awful lot of money has been committed, people will be under pressure not to quibble about minor problems that might turn out to be major.

Because we all know how all existing political systems welcome whistle blowers. 

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Some scientists (and in the U.S. at least, some lawmakers, in a rare moment of bipartisanship) and pushing to test vaccines by deliberately exposing a test group to the virus instead of letting nature take its course and seeing how many people get sick. It could shave months off the trial. It could also kill people or leave them with long-term complications.

If you’re spitting your coffee across the room right about now, I have the impression that the idea made immunologist Matthew Memoli from the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases do the same thing, although what he actually said is fairly mild: “Where you’re going to give somebody a virus on purpose, you really want to understand the disease so that you know that what you’re doing is a reasonable risk.”

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The crews from cruise ships–some 100,000 of them–have been left stranded on the ships after their passengers were repatriated. The crew are shut out of ports and banned from air travel home, leaving them stranded. Covid-19 is rife on some of the ships. 

A couple of class action suits have been filed. On some ships, crews report being treated well while on others food it running out and many people aren’t being paid. 

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An article in the Guardian’s worth your time if you’re trying to wrap your brain around how this virus works. I’ll pick some pieces out of it, but there’s a lot more. It’s accessible and it’s informative.

One subset of patients are showing brain inflammation, agitation, and personality or behavioral changes. Another–including some young ones–are getting strokes. Some patients have low oxygen levels in their blood but aren’t showing much lung damage. If they were suffering from altitude sickness, it would make sense, but they’re not. One doctor’s hunch is that it must have to do with the blood vessels, but the research hasn’t been done yet. 

Another doctor’s hunch is that the virus affects men more than women because it’s activated by androgens. But again, that’s a hunch. 

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While we’re talking about subsets, a subset of scientists are trying to figure out how this beast spreads. Ending lockdown without understand that is–

Um. It’s hard to find the right word. Dumb? Dangerous? Dicing with disaster?

No, that last one’s three words. 

Anyway, let’s settle for “a problem” and move on.

So various groups of sciencey minds are coming at this from different angles. One is figuring out how virus-laden aerosols (those are–at the risk of, ahem, oversimplifying and distorting just the slightest bit–the tiniest of spit particles, being ridden like race horses by virus jockeys) behave in air. Another gropu is trying to work out if the aerosols carry enough of the virus to be infectious or if infection can only happen with larger droplets–the kind that go flying on the winds of a cough or a sneeze. They can carry larger doses of the virus (someone’s already told you that more isn’t always better, right?) but don’t travel as far as the aerosols. This involves a high-containment lab where they can spray the things around, varying the temperature, humidity, ozone, and sunlight levels. 

Some people get to have all the fun.

Other groups are studying the pathways the virus follows to pass from patients to health and care workers and then to new patients. Half of all new cases in Britain a couple of weeks ago (sorry–I’m always limping behind events here) were among healthcare workers. 

A lot of modeling has been done on the disease’s spread, but so far it’s all based on assumptions about how it spreads. This is research that could fill in that gap.

In the meantime, I am really tired of washing my hands. I just thought you might want to know that. 

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In the meantime, 77% of Britons want the lockdown to continue and 15% want to see it end.

What happened about the others? They’re watching Coronation Street and won’t notice the lockdown until they run out of new episodes in June.