Politicians and hungry kids: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

After refusing to find common ground with Manchester’s political leadership over money to support workers and businesses devastated by a local lockdown, the government announced a new package of support for businesses and workers devastated by local lockdowns. 

Andy Burnham, Manchester’s mayor, said it was what he’d been pushing for all along

So why did the government let the talks blow up before agreeing to provide support? So it can say, “Nyah, nyah, we win.” The government can now claim that it was their idea all along and that they’ve forgotten where Manchester is anyway.

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Irrelevant photo: Starlings in the neighbors’ tree. They gather in large flocks in the fall and winter. The Scandinavian starlings spend their winters here. The ones that spend the summer here head south in the winter. Go figure.

This might be an appropriate time to talk about sewage

No, that wasn’t an editorial comment. I am so politically neutral that I can’t even see myself in a mirror. 

Ninety sewage treatment sites in England, Wales, and Scotland are starting to test for Covid. A pilot program in Plymouth spotted an outbreak that was clustered around some asymptomatic cases well before the test and trace system spotted it.

Admittedly, the test and trace system couldn’t spot a Covid-infected camel if it crashed  through the Serco board room with a nickelodeon on its back playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but the point is that the sewage folks spotted the outbreak at an early stage. They’d have no problem spotting a camel either. 

The nickelodeon might be more of a problem. It needs a different set of reagents and an entirely different testing protocol.

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Having finally noticed that the test and trace system not only isn’t working but that the percentage of people it contacts has fallen, the government placed an ad for someone with a track record of “turning around failing call centres.” 

The job pays £2,000 a day. And as I often have to remind you, in a pinch a person can live on that.

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When I was looking for details on the program to support workers and businesses devastated by etc., I thought I could save myself a few keystrokes by just typing in the chancellor’s last name, Sunak. Auto-complete took what I’d written and supplied “flip-flops.” I was delighted: Sunak and Johnson had both flip-flopped on support for etc, and here Lord Google was writing an editorial for me. 

I followed Lord G.’s editorial to pictures of physical flip-flops–those plastic sandals you can slip your feet into without having to fasten anything. Turns out I’d flip-flopped a couple of letters and typed “Sanuk,” a brand of flip-flop that cost anywhere between £20 and £55. 

I remember when flip-flops were cheap. Of course, I remember when gas (or petrol if you speak British) was $0.29 a gallon. I also remember when I was nineteen, and it was a shockingly long time ago. 

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After rising for seven weeks, the number of Covid cases in England looks like it’s stopped rising. Hospitalizations always tag along behind, kind of like a pesky younger brother, so they’re still going up.

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An Australian company is working on a Covid test based on saliva–no swabs involved–that reports back in fifteen minutes and uses a hand-held device. That doesn’t necessarily mean the device is cheap–the article didn’t say what it costs–but it does mean you don’t need an entire lab for the test, so there ought to be some savings in there somewhere.

Of course, in Britain, we’ll have to contract with an outsourcing company to bring it into the country, and that should add a few million to the cost, if they get it here at all. But hey, what’s a few million pounds between friends? After all, Parliament just voted not to give low-income families £15 per kid over the school holidays so the kids wouldn’t go hungry. We might as well spend that money somewhere. 

The tests themselves work out to about $25 each, although to get a more exact figure I expect you’d have to do some sort of mathematical gymnastics involving the cost of the hand-held gizmo and the number of tests you’re going to do on each one. 

The bad news is that the system’s still being tested, but the hope is that it’ll detect the virus when people haven’t  yet shown any symptoms but are already contagious. The current tests are most effective after symptoms have started, meaning they give a lot of false negatives.

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After Parliament voted not to give families that £15 per low-income kid over the school holidays, cafes, restaurants, and local governments stepped in to help fill the gap.

The issue of kids going hungry was raised by a football player, Marcus Rashford, who learned enough about hunger as a kid to qualify as an expert. He shamed the government into creating a program over the summer, but the thing about eating is that having done it once doesn’t keep you from needing to do it again.

Reacting to businesses stepping in to help, Rashford said, “Even at their lowest point, having felt the devastating effects of the pandemic, local businesses have wrapped arms around their communities today, catching vulnerable children as they fell.

“I couldn’t be more proud to call myself British tonight.”

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, “declined to welcome the offers of assistance,” as one paper put it. I assume some reporter gave him the opportunity just to see if he would. But hell, if these kids wanted to eat over the holidays, they should’ve had the foresight to get themselves born into better-off families, the way he did.

Arguing against spending the money on kids, MP Brendan Clarke-Smith said, “I do not believe in nationalising children.

“Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility and this means less virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty.”

Like low pay, possibly? Or a lack of jobs? 

Nah, it’s got to be personal irresponsibility.

The government’s decision is particularly grotesque since it spent over £522 million on a summer program to tempt people back into cafes and restaurants, but only if they could afford to pay half the cost. And MPs are expected to get a £3,000 raise.

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.