The pandemic news from Britain: A few success stories and some screwups

Europe doesn’t have many Covid success stories, but Finland’s isn’t bad. Its infection rate is the lowest in the European Union (that’s based on a spot check of two weeks that started at the end of October and sloshed over into early November, leaving only a few hard-to-remove stains). It’s infection rate is also five times below the EU average. It was the only EU country whose rate went down in that period.

It responded to the pandemic with an early lockdown, an app, and testing and tracing–things many countries have done but I’m going out on a limb and assuming that they did all of the above competently. It’s odd, but that does make a difference. 

That’s not a comment on how countries like, say, Germany and Wherever Else handled it, because I haven’t been following them. It’s a comment on Britain.

Finland is the only country I know of where 23% of people in a survey said the lockdown had actually improved their lives. Maybe it’s the only country where anybody thought that was a reasonable question.

Nelli Hankonen, an associate professor of social psychology at Helsinki University, said, “In Finnish culture we are not that highly sociable.” So maybe the lockdown took some pressure off people. They could stop trying.

The economy also took less of a hit than most EU economies, with a 6.4% drop compared with 14%. To quote the good prof again, “The economy is structured so that it’s not necessary for a large proportion of the Finnish workforce to be in the workplace.”

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Screamingly irrelevant photo: Strawberry leaves after a frost. We haven’t had a serious frost yet. This is from last year.

Japan also contained the virus effectively, and a study looked at phone data to see how much people in Tokyo moved around. “We found that 1 week into the state of emergency, human mobility reduced by 50%, which led to a 70% drop in social contacts.”

The government declared a state of emergency in April and asked businesses to close and people to work from home. It also restricted travel, but Japanese law doesn’t allow for a mandatory lockdown.

One of the study’s co-authors said, “With a noncompulsory and nonpharmaceutical intervention, Tokyo had to rely on citizens’ cooperation. Our study shows they cooperated by limiting their movement and contact, subsequently limiting infections,” 

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What’s happening with the mass testing that England’s banking on? In a real-world trial in early October, the quick-turnaround test at the heart of the strategy, the Opti-Gene test, missed more than 50% of positive cases. That was, I think, compared to the test that’s been in use for some time now.

Local leaders in cities where the test’s scheduled to be used asked for clinical validity data and didn’t get it, but the Department of Health and Social Care said the test was validated in three other trials. 

Somehow, though, it didn’t make the data public.

The tests have cost £323 million.

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Denmark has discovered that Covid jumped to farmed mink (the country raises a lot of mink for fur; who knew mink was still a thing?), and from them back to some 200 humans. 

That may or may not pose a danger. Viruses do mutate, but so far Covid’s mutations haven’t been significant. The fear is that in jumping to a different species, it may have been forced to pick up more significant mutations, which could, in turn, affect how well vaccines work. Or make it more–

Nah, let’s not even think about that.

So far, there’s no evidence that any of that has happened, and vaccines are fairly easy to tweak–once, of course, we have one or more. The flu vaccine’s tweaked every year in response to educated guesses about the strain of flu that will be circulating. 

People in one affected area of Denmark, northern Jutland, are being urged to stay home to control the spread of the virus variant. And if you think that’s tough, it’s been harder on the mink: 17 million of them are being killed.

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A few comments I’ve gotten convince me that I should say this: I pour a lot of words onto the virtual page about the many things wrong in Britain’s handling of the virus, and even so I barely touch the surface. But for everything that’s been screwed up, at least Britain hasn’t thrown up its hands and let the virus run wild and there’ve been some efforts to support people who’ve lost their incomes. It’s not enough, it’s not being handled well, people are facing eviction, and food banks are swamped while massive amounts of money are poured into outsourcing companies that make a hash of whatever job they’re given, but in contrast to the way the U.S. has handled the pandemic–

Okay, that’s not a demanding point of comparison, but Britain is at least acknowledging the danger and doing something. I do want to acknowledge that.

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A year or two  back, an artist created a spoof of some painfully cheery, squeakily white, fifties-era (I think) British kids’ books, the Ladybird series, and she’s just published one about lockdown. By way of a review, I’ll quote one page: 

“We are shopping for emergency supplies.

“‘There is no Lemongrass!’ says Mummy.

“‘Oh dear!’ says John.

“‘I’m starting to understand what life was like in World War II,’ says Mummy.”

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After the business secretary, Alok Sharma, was exposed to Covid he soldiered on and held meetings with foreign dignitaries anyway, creating a (very minor) scandal. Now it turns out that when he got home he met with (gasp, wheeze) Prince Charles. 

As far as I can tell from the papers, everyone involved seems to have dodged the bullet, but exposing Prince Charles did create a bigger scandal in the press than exposing foreign dignitaries. Because the thing about foreign dignitaries is that they’re foreign. And none of them were (slight pause while I try to assemble some small pretense of respect) royal. 

The funny thing about viruses, though, is that they don’t give a rip who people’s ancestors were. If it’s true, as the proverb says, that a cat may look at a king, it’s also true that a virus will be as happy infecting a prince’s cells as yours or mine.

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A woman with the main Covid systems was trying to get Covid tests sent for herself and her partner but was told they’d have to go to a test site because their identities couldn’t be verified. They have no car and were responsible enough not to take public transportation when they might be infectious, so they ended up going to a walk-in site 90 minutes away.

The reason she couldn’t get the tests sent, it turns out, is that she didn’t have much of a credit history, and the assumption is that people will order multiple home kits. And do what with them? No idea. You can’t process them without a lab, so I doubt they’re worth much on the street.

The woman was on the electoral roll and had a bank account and utility bills in her name, so she could prove her existence in the world, but not in the specified way.

Anna Miller, from Doctors of the World, questioned whether setting this limitation solved a problem that didn’t exist, and in the process locked out people with minimal credit history, “people whose financial situations tend to be organised by other people in a family”–young adults, the elderly, and women, not to mention people with low incomes.

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The government has backed down in the face of Marcus Rashford, a twenty-something football player, over a million signatures on a petition, and many individuals and businesses: It has agreed to provide low-income kids in England–the ones who’d normally get free school lunches–with lunches over the Christmas holiday

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have already committed to do this. Only England was digging its heels in, and over the last holiday, called half term (don’t ask),it left them lunchless. At a time when so many people’s incomes have disappeared and people are turning to food shelves in large numbers, small businesses filled the gap in endless, often touching, ways, some out of their own pockets and some with the help of customer contributions. 

They’ve shamed the government into doing the right thing. 

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.