Reform UK, Covid, and the definition of freedom: It’s the news from Britain

Nigel Farage, who was pivotal in convincing Britain that Brexit would be as much fun as a pint in a pub on a Tuesday afternoon, has rebranded the Brexit Party now that Brexit’s about to happen and there’s no more fun to be had from it. 

It might be relevant that Farage was in the US for a while, pumping up Donald Trump’s balloon, and a lot of the fun’s gone out of that as well. He had a £10,000 bet riding on Trump winning. A rebranded party might be just the thing to cheer him up.

The party is now called Reform UK, and it advocates letting Covid circulate freely among young people while the old and the vulnerable dig holes in the ground and hide.

Okay, what they actually said was that in response to the pandemic, “The Government has dug itself into a hole and rather than admit its mistakes, it keeps on digging.” But hey, I’m certifiably old. I’ve been around long enough to know that if you identify a hole and the digger won’t jump in, someone else is likely to be pushed. For all the rhetoric about protecting the vulnerable, someone’s going to end up in there. 

The party’s argument is a simple one: Not that many people die from Covid and “the new national lockdown will result in more life-years lost than it hopes to save, as non-Covid patients with cancer, cardiac, lung and other illnesses have treatments delayed or cancelled again.”

Wait, though. Are those cancellations really a result of the lockdown or are they a result of Covid itself? 

Oh, stop fussing. If we move fast enough, no one will ask. Let’s move on:

Irrelevant photo: Orange berries. What would you do without me to explain these thing to you?

“Focused protection is its key, targeting resources at those most at risk, whether it is the elderly, vulnerable or those with other medical conditions. The rest of the population should, with simple hygiene measures and a dose of common sense, get on with life—this way we build immunity in the population. We must learn to live with the virus not hide in fear of it.”

You know to saying that for every complicated question, there is an answer that is simple, appealing, and wrong? 

Farage’s argument against lockdowns–or his party’s; it’s hard to know where the line between them is, since his ventures are strongly personality driven–is based on the Great Barrington Declaration. So, sigh, let’s talk about the GBD. (Great Barrington, by the way, is a town in Massachusetts where the declaration, for some reason, started.)

The GBD was written by three public health experts and signed by 15,000 public health experts and medical practitioners, some of whose expertise is questionable, especially that of Johnny Bananas and Professor Cominic Dummings. Another signer’s name is the entire first verse of “La Macarena.” About a hundred were therapists whose fields of expertise included massage, hypnotherapy, and Mongolian khoomii singing. Nothing against Mongolian khoomii singing, but it doesn’t make you an expert in public health. So I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t a highly selective group. 

The last time I checked, 160,000 members of the public had also signed. And some uncounted number of scientists have jumped in to criticize the declaration, which argues that lockdowns cause all sorts of harm, both physical and mental. 

The statement was sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian, free-market think tank that’s part of a network of organizations funded by Charles Koch, a right-wing American billionaire who promotes climate change denial and opposes regulations on business. He’s one of two brothers who have something in the neighborhood of $40 billion to play with, who donate lots of money to the Republican Party, and who funded the Tea Party. To quote Rolling Stone, they’re using their money “to buy up our political system.”

Why one of them went out to play without the other I don’t know.

But let’s not throw out the declaration because of the company it keeps, however much we might not want to have Thanksgiving dinner with them. The question is, does it make sense?

Mmmm, no. First, let’s think about the difficulty of separating out the elders from the youngers. About the mulit-generational families who live together; the isolated elderly whose lives are held together by the visits of younger carers, either paid or unpaid; the institutionalized elders cared for by younger people; and any other intergenerational border that functions without a checkpoint and barbed wire.

Think about the vulnerable people who aren’t elderly. The ones with asthma, the ones with medical conditions of various sorts, the ones who are pregnant, the ones who are obese. Forget the smokers, the vapers. Also the people who are Black or from other minority ethnic groups, who are dying at higher rates than whites. Or (and there’s some overlap here) the people in low-paid jobs, who are in contact with wide swathes of the public and all the viruses they carry. 

Think about the medical professionals and non-professional medical staff who as an occupational hazard are in contact with the sick. 

 In a study of 106 Covid deaths among health-care workers, 8% were 30 or younger, 26% were between 31 and 50, and 38% were between 51 and 60. That doesn’t add up to a free pass for younger people. 

But even younger people with less exposure don’t get a Get out of Covid Free card. In an article in the Medical Express (I think it was a reprint), an imaging cardiologist, Partho Sengupta, reports “heart abnormalities in over one-third of student athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 and underwent cardiac screening at West Virginia University this fall.”

That’s not damage to the heart itself. It’s ”evidence of inflammation and excess fluid in the pericardium, the sac around the heart. Almost all of the 54 students tested had either mild COVID-19 or were asymptomatic.”

It could cause myocarditis, pericarditis, heart failure, or arrhythmia in athletes.

“There is still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19 and its lingering effects on the human body,” Sengupta writes. 

“We didn’t find convincing signs of ongoing myocarditis, but we did see a lot of evidence of pericarditis. Among the student athletes screened, 40% had pericardial enhancement, suggesting resolving inflammation in the sac that protects the heart, and 58% had pericardial effusion, meaning excess fluid had built up.

“Usually, this kind of inflammation heals within a few weeks with no residual effects. However, in some cases, there can be long-term effects, like pericardial inflammation recurring. It can lead to scarring of the pericardial sac, which in rare cases can be severe, and the pericardium can constrict around the heart. This can lead to symptoms similar to heart failure and cause congestion in the lungs and liver.

“It’s difficult to predict if a patient will develop any of these rare long-term complications, and it’s too soon to tell if it’s happening.

“. . . COVID-19 is no joke. The best way for athletes to stay healthy so they can keep playing sports is to avoid getting the coronavirus in the first place. Teams should test student athletes for the virus and make sure those who test positive see a doctor to determine if screening tests for heart damage are needed.”

I mention that particular study because it wandered into my inbox recently, not because it’s the only evidence of younger people being vulnerable to Covid. When I consulted Lord Google, he pointed me to a Johns Hopkins Medicine article with statistics from last March, when 38% of the people hospitalized with Covid in the US were between 20 and 54. Half of the people who ended up in intensive care were under 60,

The trend in Europe was the same. 

I could point out that Farage is getting on toward sixty and shrugging off a case of Covid might not be as easy as shrugging off last night’s pints, but it wouldn’t be wise to position myself between Mr. F. and the spotlight. 

An article in the Lancet says that “no population group is completely safe from COVID-19 at the present time, and there is no room for complacency.”

In Britain, patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 after Aug 1 tended to be younger than the ones at the start of the pandemic, although they were less likely to end up on ventilators. A lot of them were women. This probably has to do with what jobs they do: A lot of people working in service jobs and what’s dismally called the hospitality industry are women. A lot of their customers breathe. The higher the dose of the virus a person takes in, the more likely they are to get a severe case.

It’s not just about your age.

One study estimates that one in seven people who gets ill with Covid is sick for at least four weeks, one in twenty for at least eight weeks, and one in forty-five for at least 12 weeks.

How long does “at least” go on? No one knows. 

If anyone wants to risk exposing themselves in the name of freedom and living their lives to the full, that’s their call. But as someone or other said, My rights end where the other fellow’s nose begins. You can find the quote in a variety of formats and attributed to a variety of people (Abraham Lincoln, John Stuart Mill, Oliver Wendell Holmes; not Yogi Berra, although he said almost everything else worth quoting), but the sense still holds: You have the right to judge your own level of risk but at the point where you’re risking other people’s health, your rights end. 

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Can we end with some good news, please? This should come with trumpets blaring at the top of the post, but odd are that you’ve heard it by now anyway: A preliminary analysis of the Pfizer and BioNTech Covid vaccine says it protects 90% of people from the virus.  It’s been tested on 43,500 people in six countries and so far no safety concerns have popped up. It involves two doses given three weeks apart and that magical 90% protection was calculated seven days after the second dose. 

The data hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, and the vaccine has to be kept in ultra-cold storage–below minus 80 C–so it won’t be easy to work with. Still, let’s enjoy a shred of hope when we can. If it works, it could take the fun out of the Reform UK party. What ever will Farage find to do with himself next?

The pandemic news from Britain, for at least the next 20 minutes

Unless you took too long to get around to reading this, here’s the Covid situation in Britain at this very minute: Wales is in a circuit breaker lockdown, which they’re calling a firebreak in order to distinguish it from the circuit breaker the British government’s refusing to impose on all of England, even though its experts say it should.

A brief interruption, just so we’re clear: Both of those are short lockdowns. And just so we’re even clearer, the British government doesn’t govern Britain as far as lockdowns are concerned. It governs England, which is part but not all of Britain. And when I say England, of course, I also mean Cornwall, because Cornwall’s governed by English law. 

It’s so simple I’m almost embarrassed to explain it.

Irrelevant photo: Cylamen, one of those magical British plants that bloom in the winter.

Scotland’s lockdown will have five tiers, and Northern Ireland’s will be northern. And also Irish, although let’s be honest, I don’t understand what happens up there. They’re across some water, I don’t swim well, and if I say too much I’ll expose my ignorance. They were the first part of the UK to impose a circuit-breaker lockdown. And I have a link to back that up.

None of the lockdowns sound as complete as the lockdown we all went through in March to keep the Covid horse from getting out of the barn, although by then the horse hadn’t just left the barn, it had gone to the pub for a drink and decided to move to a bigger barn. 

Are you still with me? By now, the horse has invested in a whole series of barns, because what’s the point of getting stuck in one barn when you can become a developer? In other words, since the metaphor’s also left the barn, the country locked down too late to control the virus the first time around and is now looking at the second wave and wondering if maybe it shouldn’t take some sort of action in case the wave turns out to be full of swimming horses. 

Stop me, someone.

What the British government’s trying to do where it has some power–in other words in England–is to on one hand lower the number of Covid cases but on the other avoid locking down the whole country. Hence the idea of local lockdowns where the virus is concentrated.

It sounds sensible until you put it into practice, at which point it gets messy. The earliest local lockdowns don’t seem to have worked well, but the emphasis there is on seem. The most authoritative assessment I’ve found is that it’s hard to say whether they’re working. That’s balanced but it’s not reassuring.

The local lockdown that’s getting the most press is Manchester’s, where the mayor, backed by local politicians, including some from Boris Johnson’s own party, wouldn’t agree to go into the most restrictive category because the government refused to give them enough money to cover the losses to workers and businesses. A lot of public snarling followed until Johnson said, “It’s my ball, so I get to make the rules,” and imposed the lockdown anyway. It will take effect on Friday.

One of the major issues they fought over is that people who can’t work during the lockdown will get less than they did during the national lockdown. 

Why? 

Because.

What’re they supposed to live on?

The government doesn’t much care. 

How do I know that? 

I’m channeling them. I hear them in my head, and if you think that’s fun, I invite you to play host to a bunch of overprivileged ex-Etonians. Especially when you thought the wine on sale at the supermarket would be fine.

Eton? That’s a public school, which in British means it’s a private school–a place where parents with too much privilege pay too much money to have their darling boys taught how to be part of the ruling class. 

No, I’m not exaggerating.

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Universities–which in the US would be called colleges, but that has a whole ‘nother meaning here–are trying frantically to deal with their own localized Covid outbreaks. 

In Bristol, 900 students and staff have tested positive, and both they and the people who’ve been in contact with them are having to self-isolate. Hundreds of students who live in university housing have signed up to a rent strike that’s due to start at the end of the week. They’ve been locked down twenty-four hours a day and want to be released from their rental contracts if they move out or have their rent reduced if they stay. They also want people who test negative to have access to the outdoors, and they’re unhappy with the food boxes that are delivered to them (since they can’t go out), which they say don’t have enough food, don’t work for all diets, and sometimes don’t include essentials like cleaning products or sanitary products. 

Complaints about the food delivered to students who are expected to self-isolate are widespread, and I don’t think this is a case of kids complaining that they’re not getting quail under glass but that a week of instant noodles and energy bars doesn’t make a workable diet. Also that delivering pork products to Muslim students doesn’t communicate cultural sensitivity.

Of course, the kids who put “Send Beer” posters in their windows aren’t doing the cause a whole lot of good, although they are at least finding a way to pass the time that doesn’t involve either property damage or self-harm.

Rent strikes are already going on at Glasgow and Cambridge.

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Arts organizations have been struggling during the pandemic and lobbying hard for some help, so when some got rescue grants from the government and were told to pour a bit of public praise on the campaign, they (at least mostly) did.

“Welcome this funding on your social media accounts . . . on your websites . . . and in your newsletters,” they were told. “In receiving this funding, you are agreeing to acknowledge this funding publicly by crediting the government’s Culture Recovery Fund.” 

And so on. 

Recipients obediently went online and sang the praises of their glorious leaders, who are also our glorious leaders. 

I used to work for an arts organization and it made my flesh crawl to watch how some of the staff members fluttered around when large donors appeared, but at least the donors had the good grace not to dictate their own thank-you letters.

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In an unexpected side effect of the pandemic, Britain may be facing a shortage of tracksuit bottoms, leggings, and running shoes. Think of it as the Zoom meeting effect. Only half of you needs to look respectable. 

There’s a more serious side to it, though. A lot of clothing factories in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Bangladesh closed in response to the pandemic. Sorry to chuck that in, but it is part of the story.

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And now a feel-good story as a reward for having gotten this far: 

Football teams (and if you’re American, please understand that in Britain football teams play soccer) have been playing to empty stadiums in the pandemic and making money by broadcasting the games on pay-per-view TV. The cost is £14.95 a game.

Earlier in the pandemic, the games were shown free. And since fans–or many of them, anyway–have already paid for subscriptions to the stations carrying the games, the extra fee didn’t sit well. 

Newcastle United Supporters urged a boycott and raised £19,000 for local food bank instead.

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The UK will be the first country to deliberately expose volunteers to Covid in order to test the effectiveness of vaccines. They’re called challeng trials, and there’ve been debates about the ethics of doing that with a life-threatening disease that we have no cure for, but it’s a lot faster than injecting people with the vaccine, then winding them up, letting them go about their ordinary business, and waiting to find out if they get the virus.

The volunteers are between 18 and 30, and they’re healthy, so they’re in a relatively low risk group. They’re also, given the dangers that long Covid presents to people in all age groups, incredibly brave.