Still disinfecting the groceries? News on how Covid’s spread, plus other sciency stuff

A new study reports that most Covid infections are spread by aerosols–in other words, by the awkward fact that we breathe, a process that leads us to trade both air and germs with those we love, not to mention those we don’t. Earlier studies measured how long the virus could survive on objects and speculated about that as a route of transmission, but this one didn’t find much evidence that transmission happens that way in the real world. 

So the good news is that you can stop boiling the toilet paper when you bring it home from the store. Also that those masks really do make a difference–possibly to you, but definitely to the people around you. And that keeping your distance from other people is good protection.

But anytime you say, “The good news is,” you have to follow it with parallel bad news. So the bad news, if we’re to believe the rumor I heard yesterday, is that people are expecting Britain to go into another lockdown and already they’re panic buying. Because the country’s semi-officially in the second wave of the pandemic. Cases are doubling every week. The test and trace system that was supposed to let us control the spread is demented, broken, and–forgive the technical language here–completely fucked. The people who purport to govern the country say they want to avoid a lockdown, and the more they say it, the more inevitable it looks. So stock up on toilet paper. Also flour. And if you’re British, baked beans. 

Everything else you can do without. Unless you have pet food. Stock up on pet food.

Irrelevant photo: Erigeron. Really. That’s what they’re called.

But forget rumor. Let’s go back to science and the study I was talking about. It also reports that Covid transmission is highest about a day before the symptoms show up, making complete nonsense of the idea that we should limit tests to people with symptoms. 

No transmission has been documented after a patient’s had symptoms for a week. That doesn’t completely rule it out, but it does kind of point us in that direction.

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A new study of Covid and singing–more bad news; sorry, everyone–pretty much contradicts the last study of aerosols and singing that I told you about. That earlier one measured the aerosols and droplets sprayed into the air by individual singers and by individual speakers and reported that quiet singing doesn’t spread aerosols much more than quiet speaking does. Turn up the volume on either and you up the Covid spread.

But.

This latest study looked at a superspreader event involving one choir rehearsal that caused over fifty cases of Covid and two deaths. It broke down people’s interactions at the rehearsal, concluding that the combination of poor ventilation, many people, a long rehearsal, and body heat led to a buildup of aerosols that circulated with the air in the room.

No one was wearing masks. This was well before masks were recommended, and although I haven’t tried singing through one I have trouble imagining that it’d work well. 

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A third study reports that most homemade masks work just fine, even when we sneeze. Emphasis on most. I still see the occasional online photo of or pattern for crocheted masks. What are people thinking? They might as well take chalk and draw a mask on their faces.

Or magic marker if they want a longer-lasting useless gesture.

Sorry about the lack of a link here. I cleverly linked it to this post. By the time I figured that out, I’d lost the actual article.

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One more study and then I’ll shut about about science and we can go back to the glorious and multicolored ignorance that marks public life these days. This one comes from Dublin, was presented at a conference involving many initials, and shows that about half the people who get ill with Covid have persistent fatigue ten weeks after they recover, even if they had mild cases. The fatigue hits women more often than men.

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A man coming back from traveling abroad was told to isolate himself for two weeks. Instead he went on a pub crawl with some friends. They hit a number of pubs, then two days later the returned traveler tested positive. 

The area went from 12 cases per 100,000 to 212 cases per 100,000 in less than three weeks. 

See? I told you we’d stop talking about science.

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Spain is developing a test that will allow people to test themselves and get a result in thirty minutes. It works like the gizmos that diabetics use to measure their blood sugar, meaning a person could use it and reuse it, and it gives no false positives.

Does it give any false negatives? Good question, and wasn’t I clever to ask it? I’m not sure. I could only find one reasonably up-to-date article on the thing and it didn’t say. 

The test is called the Convat and it’s “very advanced” and “almost at a pre-commercial level,” whatever that means. It sounds good unless you slow down, at which point you notice how little you understand it. 

It may be available to the public in December or January. Emphasis on may.

Now the fine print: They’re talking about the public in Spain. The project manager, Laura Lechuga, talked about the importance of having Spanish technology, since what’s available in one country may not become available in another. In other words, this is Spain trying to make sure they can handle their problems, not ours.

Sorry to tease you with that. We really need to all be in this together, but at the moment we don’t seem to be.

Fun with the pandemic: It’s the update from Britain

What could possibly go wrong when they reopen England’s schools? Well, they may be short of 6,000 buses. If so, the problem will hit kids who get to school on public transportation. Some bus companies reduced the number of buses on their routes when the pandemic hit, and social distancing will reduce capacity even further.  

Just to make this more fun, no one knows where the shortages will be. Some councils (that translates to local governments) are putting on kids-only public buses. Others are installing dart boards and using the tried-and-true method of having a blindfolded, socially distanced elected official throw a single dart. If she or he misses the board, no extra buses will be needed.

Bus companies got extra funding to ride out the pandemic (if you’re American, fasten your seat belt, because the language is going to get bumpy), but coach companies didn’t. 

Irrelevant photo: Morris dancers. Because what could be more fun that putting on a costume and whacking at one stick with another stick? This is from way before the pandemic, when people–yes, really–did stuff like this. 

What’s the difference? A bus runs a local route in a metropolitan area. A coach runs between cities. Or internationally. Possibly interplanetarily. But it’s still, physically speaking, a bus. Or so says Lord Google, although he doesn’t mention the interplanetary routes. Only a few of us know about them. We scoop up hints from the far corners of the internet and piece together the patterns.

Coaches are largely for privately chartered trips. 

Let’s review that: A bus is not a coach. A coach is a bus only different. And a couch is neither.

You’re welcome.

Why do we need two separate words? So that we’ll know who not to fund, silly. Also to confuse Americans who pretend to know something about Britain but understand less than they think they do. I don’t promise that I got the definitions right. What I can tell you with authority is that there is a difference and that it’s a mystery tightly held by people who descended from the Druids and who still know some of their secrets.

What do coaches have to do with the problem of kids getting to school? Some school districts may have to hire coaches to pretend they’re buses. But by November, the best data-driven dartboards predict, 18,000 of the 42,000 people working in the coach industry will be out of jobs and nearly 16,000 coaches will be off the roads. That’s something like half the UK’s fleet.

See lack of funding, above.

The Department of Education has issued guidance to local authorities saying that “at least 50% of journeys to school of two miles or less” need to be done on foot or by bike to leave space on the buses for longer trips.

And they’re going to convince the kids to do that how, exactly?

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Another unexpected result of the pandemic has been that cooks are turning back to canned food. Or as they put it here, tinned food. When the pandemic and panic buying rode into Britain like two lonely horsemen of the apocalypse, canned tomatoes disappeared off the shelves as quickly as toilet paper. 

No, sorry, I don’t have the recipe.

Sales of canned food went up 72.6% in March. That’s compared to March of 2019. 

So what are the canned-food companies doing? Kicking off a canned food festival on Instagram, dragging in TV chefs with Michelin stars to convince us that a curry involving canned spinach, potatoes, and chickpeas is a good idea.

I’ll go as far as the chickpeas. After that, I’m outta here. 

To be fair, they’re urging people to donate to food banks, so I can’t make fun of them too much.

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The pandemic hasn’t sent Britain back to the age of Victorian prudery, but the country does have a new set of guidelines on how to shoot sex scenes. It comes from Directors UK and it’s about how to handle “nudity and simulated sex.” I recommend paying attention, because you can never predict when you’ll be called on to deal with simulated sex. If I’d known when I was twenty–

Nah, we’ll skip the details. I could’ve spared myself no end of awkward situations.

What are the directors going to do? Well, for one thing–and I know this will shock you–they recommend looking at scripts to see if sex scenes couldn’t be replaced with emotional intimacy. 

See? I told you you’d be shocked.

They recommend looking at some of the classics (Casablanca’s mentioned) to see how sexual tension can be built without the flapping breasts that are generally thrown in as a quick and easy substitute.

They also raise the possibility of actors quarantining for two weeks before shooting a sex scene or using real-life partners. In case emotional intimacy’s too much work and the flapping breasts are absolutely necessary.

In Australia, a long-runnnig soap, Neighbours, has started shooting again. Actors keep a meter and a half apart and (you’d guess this, since it’s not practical at that distance) there’s no kissing. 

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Facial recognition technology is having a hard time telling the difference between a person wearing a mask and a spoof of a face. That made the news because shoppers who use it to pay for things with their phones are either having to take their masks off or enter a code instead, but the CCTV cameras of the world are having a quiet breakdown in a back room somewhere. Their failure rate ranges from 5% to 50%.

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Since the organization that will replace Public Health England is being handed to the person who set up England’s world-beating test and trace program, I can’t let you go without an example of test and trace success:  An anonymous tracer writing in the Guardian says, “I was hired as a contact tracer in the north-west of England at the end of May. . . . 

“In 12 weeks I have not made a single call, despite working 42 hours a week. . . . We have a WhatsApp group comparing notes with other call handlers and quite a few haven’t had even one job. . . . 

“Given that the north-west has seen some of the biggest spikes in infections, you would think we would be busy. . . . 

“Despite not being allocated any cases in three months, I was offered an extension on my contract this morning.”

Outsourced tracing companies have missed 46% of contacts in the hardest hit parts of England.

It’s all good though. 

Tea, biscuits, and sewage: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

How did the  Great British Public cope with lockdown? By spending an extra £24m on tea and coffee in the last three months, and they splurged an extra £19m on biscuits–or to put that in American, on cookies. 

Alcohol? Sales were up by 41% this month. And people are reading more, although based on the alcohol sales they can’t remember a word of it come morning.

A number of readers have written that they look for something upbeat in these posts. I hope that qualifies. I’m vain enough that I want people to remember what I write, but let’s face it, I’ve written–yea, and published–some stuff that if they couldn’t remember it by morning they’d be doing me a favor.

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Screamingly irrelevant flowers. Whatsit flowers. In bloom. In our yard. They’re wonderful–the slugs don’t eat them.

By the end of October, the Great British Government will have some Great British Walk-In Testing Centers open in the hope that they’ll persuade more people to get tested. According to Great Government Estimates, the current testing program is picking up only a third of the estimated 1,700 Great New Infections per day.

Why? For starters, they’re testing either primarily or only people with symptoms. That leaves the symptomless carriers walking around shedding their germs. The rumor mill insists that if you go deeply enough into the small print of the government website you’ll find that symptomless people can be tested, but the font must be too small for my aging eyes. I haven’t found it. 

Of course, you can also just lie about having symptoms, and if I thought I’d been exposed I’d do it with no hesitation, but most people aren’t as [fill in your choice of adjective(s) here] as I am, and counting on people lying when it’s necessary isn’t the best way to set up a program.

Meanwhile, the centralized Test and Trace system is missing 45% of infected people’s close contacts. Or according to a different source, 20%. (Those may cover different areas. They may not. Go figure.)Local teams miss 2%, but we can’t rely on them because it’s important to privatize the service so someone can make a profit.

Does my writing look bitter in this?

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With twelve hours to go before face masks became compulsory in some places in England but not in others, the government released details on who-what-when-where-how. 

Okay, less than twelve hours, but I like round numbers.

We won’t do all the details. If you need them, go someplace sensible. But to give you a sense of how well thought out the guidelines are, if you’re a shop worker, you don’t have to wear a mask but if you’re a shop customer you do. However, they’re strongly recommended for shop workers. Where appropriate. 

What’s appropriate? The shop has to figure that out.

You do have to wear a mask in a bank. You don’t have to wear one in a movie theater. The virus is highly distractible. Give it a good shoot-em-up and it forgets its goal, which is to spread. Money, on the other hand, bores it shitless, so in a bank it continues to methodically infect your cells and spew forth its colleagues to infect new people.

Assuming, of course, that you’re a carrier. Which I don’t wish on any of us, but we can’t cover all the possible variations here. We’ll sink under the weight of verbiage. It’s bad enough as it is.

You do have to wear a mask when you go into a sandwich shop or cafe, but when you sit down to eat you can take it off. There’s no need to liquidize your sandwich and infuse through the layers or shove the mask into your mouth as you bite into your sandwich. If there’s table service, though, the virus getss lazy, so again, no mask.

Cabinet Minister Brandon Lewis explained that this is all “clear, good common sense.” 

I hope he and I have cleared things up.

Some chains have announced that they won’t be enforcing the rules. The police have said they can’t be bothered. 

Thanks, everyone. Speaking only for myself and a few hundred of my closest friends, we appreciate everything you’re doing to keep us safe. We’ll have to rely on the Great British Institutions of quiet social pressure and tutting. According to Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, they work. My partner stopped at the store today and everyone was wearing a mask except for one man. He looked around uneasily and tied a sweatshirt around his face. So that’s 100% out of a sample of one.

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Early studies in several countries make it look like sewage sampling will give an early warning of local coronavirus flare ups, even before people notice any symptoms. That bit of news comes from the most romantic of cities, Paris. From Eau de Paris, in fact, which sounds like something ladies dabbed behind their ears and on their wrists when I was a kid but is, in fact, the water and sewage company.

Who said the virus hasn’t brought us anything to enjoy?

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As long as we’re in France, a hospital in Lyon is running trials on a breathalyzer-like Covid detector that gives a result in seconds. They hope to have it up and running by the end of the year so they can test patients as they come in. If it gets through the early tests, the next hurdle will be making it affordable. At the moment, it’s too expensive to distribute widely.

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An international team has identified what seem to be the most powerful anti-Covid antibodies. Some of them, they think, hold promise as treatments. You may be able to get more out of the article than I could, so I’ll give  you a link. I didn’t even understand enough to make jokes. What little I’m telling you comes from a dumbed-down summary. What I do understand–or think I understand–is that the antibodies could be reproduced on a large scale and work as a treatment. 

Potentially.

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And finally, 84 of the world’s richest people have called for governments to tax the world’s wealthiest people–including them–more heavily to fund the world’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic’s economic impact, they say, could last for decades and “push half a billion more people into poverty” while they–the world’s wealthiest–have money and it’s desperately needed. 

Masks, anti-masks, treatments, and vaccines: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

I shouldn’t keep telling you about small, promising trials of one thing or another that’ll prevent or cure  Covid-19, should I? Or the ones that will–it they work–roll time backward so humanity wiped the virus out before it sank its teeth into our immune systems. Because most of them, inevitably, won’t come to anything.

But you know what? I will anyway. Because I can’t help myself. Because one just might work. And because we need some hope, no matter how badly shredded it is these days. As long as it’s not total bullshit.

A company in Britain has run a small trial on a protein called interferon beta, which patients inhale through a nebuliser–one of those things that people with serious asthma use when it gets particularly bad. That puts the protein deep into the lung, where–apologies for using heavy-duty scientific language–it gives the immune system a swift kick in the pants and tells it to get back to work. 

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

Interferon beta was tried on hospitalized patients and they were 79% less likely to develop severe disease. Their hospital stays were shorter, and (better yet) they were two or three times more likely to recover well enough to handle everyday activities.

One of the particularly frightening things about Covid-19 is that not everyone who survives can go back to handling everyday activities. 

Interferon beta may be even more effective on patients who aren’t as sick. It’s on its way to a larger trial. 

And an early trial of an Oxford University vaccine shows that it makes both antibodies and white blood cells that fight the coronavirus. It appears to be safe. The question, though, is how well it will work in the real world. 

The answer is a resounding we dunno. Now they need to set volunteers loose to toddle through the real world, some with the real vaccine in their systems and some with a placebo, and then wait to see how many get infected. 

Let’s hope it does, because Britain’s ordered 100 million doses. Plus 90 million doses split between two other vaccines that are still in development. 

Do they pay for those in advance? Or do they pony up some small amount of money to prove they know where their wallets are and promise the rest if the things works out? They pay in advance.

All told, 163 vaccines are in various stages of testing. They may be as promising as the Oxford one, or more so, but Oxford’s the one getting a lot of ink in Britain just now.

C’mon, admit it: You’re glad to know some of that, aren’t you?

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A hundred or so people gathered in London for an anti-mask rally. They hugged each other. They posed for photos. They carried signs saying things like “Flu world order” and “Spread love, not fear.” 

They spread fear all the way down here to me in Cornwall. In the most loving possible way.

One of the organizers said they were “campaigning for the return of our rights and liberties.” 

Ah, yes, those traditional rights and liberties set out in the  Magna Carta. You know, the part where it says, “No Briton shall be compelled to wear a mask, or even shamed into it, yea, even during a plague year. Even if it would save another person’s life.”

Except that since the Magna C. was written when spelling was still a liquid, nothing except  the word a was spelled the way you’d expect. Which is why no one’s ever drawn attention to that clause before.

You won’t find news like that in the press. What are they covering up? Have you ever asked yourself that?

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In spite of the many ways Britain has mishandled the pandemic, the number of infections is, generally, falling. Speaking for myself and several thousand of my closest friends, we’d feel more confident about those numbers if the test and trace program was testing everyone it could convince to stick a swab up their nose instead of concentrating on people with symptoms. But even if we don’t know how many cases we really have, fewer people are dying. That can only be a good thing. 

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However. 

An assortment of doctors are basically (and I’m doing just the tiniest bit of paraphrasing here) giving up on government leadership and hoping the public stays (or in some cases, becomes) sane, understanding “that [the virus] has certainly not disappeared and could come back and cause even more suffering.”

That’s Carrie MacEwen that I’m quoting, the chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. Try typing that three times quickly. She expects a second surge in the winter, which could be larger than the first.

“The public has begun to think we are free of this,” she said, “but we are not.”

Why are they giving up on the government?

On the one hand, it’s finally telling people they have to wear masks in shops and on public transportation when on the other hand they’re saying people don’t have to wear one at work because “when you’re in close proximity with somebody that you have to work closely to, if you’re there for a long time with them, then a mask doesn’t offer that protection.”

That incisive bit of explanation comes from our health secretary, Matt Hancock, and if you followed his logic you might be eligible for a cabinet post yourself, because not many people could. 

In case you can’t, it works like this: Masks keep people from spreading the virus, but if you share a workplace with someone for eight hours a day, they stop offering any protection because familiarity breeds contempt. Even in the virus world. Once you and I get to know each other, my germs lose interest in you. And yours–it’s dismaying but it’s true–see right through me and look for someone more exciting to infect.

I might be eligible for a cabinet post myself, and may all the gods I don’t believe in protect us.

The noises coming from government ministers haven’t consistently supported even the government’s half-hearted policy on wearing masks in shops. Michael Gove, the cabinet minister, said it was best to “trust people’s common sense” on mask wearing instead of mandating it. 

Indeed. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, common sensically posed for one of those press photos where he pretended to serve food to restaurant customers, with his naked face smiling over two plates of food. I like to think the customers got up and fled, but they may not have been real, in which case they didn’t.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, wore a mask out of doors when she met her French counterpart and then took it off for their indoor meeting.

Well, of course she did. It’s a workplace. Germs got bored during meetings. 

Conservative MP Desmond Swayne called masks a “monstrous imposition.”

All of which helps explain why Chaand Nagpaul of the British Medical Association said, “There needs to be clear, concise public messaging. To introduce measures for shops but not other situations where physical distancing is not possible–including some workplaces –is illogical and adds to confusion and the risk of the virus spreading.”

A poll shows that 71% of the public support making masks mandatory in shops. Another 13% oppose it. The remaining 16%? (It is 16%, isn’t it?) They’re still trying to work out which part of the face a mask is supposed to cover and haven’t formed an opinion yet. 

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I keep reading King-Kong-meets-Godzilla warnings about what will happen when the current pandemic meets the upcoming flu season, and I finally found an explanation of what that’s about. The worry goes like this:

There’s this thing called viral interference. It happens when you (or an entire population) get one virus and it keeps you (or that same population) from getting a second one at the same time. 

Yes, that really happens. Think of it as professional courtesy. But it doesn’t happen with all viruses. Some of them don’t play nice. They push other viruses off the monkey bars. They steal their lunch money.

What no one knows for sure is what kind of virus Covid is. In one early case from China, it infected a man who also had the flu. Beyond that, not much is known. In Australia, lockdown short-circuited the winter flu season, so we didn’t get any information from it. 

It’s not impossible that when kids go back to school in the fall (assuming they do) and start trading all their usual seasonal colds, they’ll short-circuit the coronavirus. It’s also possible that they won’t. 

It’s not clear what the effect of having the flu and Covid-19 at the same time would be, but the assumption is that it wouldn’t be good. The worst scenario would be if this winter’s flu turns out to be a pandemic in its own right and, to pick up our opening metaphor, if Godzilla and King Kong join forces. Who made the rule that they have to fight each other? They don’t. 

And that, at long last, brings us to another bit of good news: For years, researchers–unrealistic souls that they are–have been working on a universal flu vaccine. The idea behind it is to target the viral bits shared by all versions of the flu. It’s good science but, in the current system, bad economics. The researchers haven’t been able to run the expensive trials that are needed to show that it’s safe and effective so it can be marketed. Because where’s the profit in selling people a vaccine they’ll only need once or twice in their lives when you can sell them one every damn year?

All of a sudden, though, a universal flu vaccine looks profitable, and one is being tested. Expect results by the end of the year.

Boris Johnson’s minders, & other pandemic and Black Lives Matter news from Britain

Somebody in government let the prime minister out on his own and before anyone could shut him down he’d blamed care homes for the nearly 20,000 Covid-19 deaths on their premises.

“Too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way they could have,” Boris Johnson said. 

All the predictable hell broke loose, along with reminders that: Care homes hadn’t been able to get protective gear. What guidelines they were given were unclear. They couldn’t get either staff or patients tested for the virus. Agency staff–that’s British for temporary workers–spread infections between homes because (guess what) they couldn’t get tested. The government rejected a proposal to lock down care homes before the infection entered. 

And did I mention that 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested?

Sorry, I meant to mention it. It’s a detail. It slipped my mind.

As soon as Johnson was bundled back out of sight, a government spokesperson said, “The PM was pointing out that nobody knew what the correct procedures were because the extent of asymptomatic transmission was not known at that time.”

Which sounds almost exactly like what Johnson said if you took away his words and replaced them with other, more coherent words on a slightly different subject.

FYI: Asymptomatic transmission was known at that time, and at several other times, but let’s not pretend we’re talking about reality here.

Johnson’s minders are under strict instructions not to let him wander loose that way, but you know what it’s like. They can’t keep an eye on him every minute of every day. And he is the prime minister, so he gets to give the orders, at least when Dominic Cummings is out of the office.

They don’t have an easy job.

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Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker.Not an actual one, you understand. A flower by that name.

The health minister has said that in all but  “certain circumstances” the government will be scrapping free parking for National Health Service staff members once the pandemic eases. No one’s told us yet what he really meant to say, but the shit is flying thick and fast. By tomorrow, someone should step in to explain that he really meant there’s been some concern about people parking on the white lines that divide their spaces and would they please exercise a bit more care.

Clapping for NHS workers, which the top government ministers did dutifully on many a Thursday, doesn’t cost anything, but it did have an unfortunately way of focusing the nation’s attention on NHS staff. And the next thing you know, people are looking asking why it’s been so long since they got a pay raise. And why they were charged for parking in the first place? 

It’s not easy, placating an entire country.

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The committee of the Morris Federation–an organization of morris dancing groups–has written to its members calling for a halt to the use of blackface.

One strand of morris dancing has a tradition of appearing in blackface. No one’s sure when or how that started, and some dancers argue that it isn’t racist, it came out of the dancers’ need to disguise themselves. Other dancers have stopped arguing about origins and dropped it.

The committee writes:

Our traditions do not operate in a vacuum. . . . We must recognise that full-face black or other skin tone makeup is a practice that has the potential to cause deep hurt.

“Morris is a living tradition and it is right that it has always adapted and evolved to reflect society. . . .  We welcome the fact that many long-standing teams who used to wear full-face black makeup have chosen to use masks, alternative colours, or other forms of disguise.  We now believe we must take further steps to ensure the continued relevance and inclusivity of the tradition.”

They’ll be asking the group’s annual general meeting not to renew the membership of teams that continue to use blackface.

An annual general meeting? It’s a British thing. All you have to do is say AGM and everyone will know what you mean. It’s an–um, well, it’s complicated. It’s a general meeting. Held annually. And you have to have one or your right to call yourself an organization will be revoked. That’s enforced, with no mercy and no appeal, by the laws of physics, a handful of which apply only in Britain.

My thanks to @amuddleofmorris for keeping me up to date on this. 

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I keep promising myself that I won’t report on coronavirus studies, possibilities, and assorted carrots dangling in front of us as we look for a way out of the hall of Covid mirrors. Most of them will come to nothing. That too is enforced, with no appeal, by the laws of physics. 

They’re ruthless bastards, those laws of physics.

Then I see a mention of another promising study or three and I break my promise. Because promises aren’t governed by law. And because we all need shreds of hope as we stumble through, bumping our noses into exits that turn out to be more damn mirrors.

So, here’s what I’ve found. I don’t promise that any of them will ultimately work, but they might. They just might.

1. A proposal to try the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine against the coronavirus in the hope that it will reduce lung inflammation and sepsis, two of the body’s most dangerous responses to the disease.

2. A synthetic antibody that may be able to neutralize Covid-19, both preventing any initial infection and helping people who’ve become infected to recover. Basically, it works as a decoy, drawing virus particles away from cells that could become infected. It was developed in mouse models. 

Mouse models? They’re improbably good-looking mice. The scientists give them the drug and photographers take pictures.

The less than great news is that if it works it would have to be injected into the bloodstream every two to four weeks.

They’re working toward human trials.

3. A test of canakinumab, a drug no one can pronounce that’s used to treat juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It damps down the body’s immune response and could prevent the cytokine storm–the immune overreaction–that occurs in some severe cases.

I was going to say it works by being so hard to pronounce that the disease goes into a state of paralysis, but I was afraid someone would believe me.

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Madrid’s Teatro Real became the first European theater to stage a live production (as far as I know, which isn’t all that far; it’s a big continent) since the continent locked down. That doesn’t include the concert that was staged in Barcelona for an audience of live plants. That one’s in a category of its own. 

The Madrid production was Verdi’s La Traviata.

How’d they do it? They doubled the size of the orchestra pit so the musicians could keep a safe (we hope) distance from each other. The intermission lasted forty minutes so everything could be disinfected. The conductor was behind a plastic screen. The production was semi-staged, presumably to keep the singers at a distance from each other. And the audience wore masks and was half the usual size.

The production opened with a moment of silence for the victims of the virus and a statement from journalist Iñaki Gabilondo: “Nothing is simple now, including being here tonight. “ 

My thanks to Max Burrows for sending me a link to this article.

*

If you’re still holding out for herd immunity to protect us from Covid-19, prepare to accept a lot of dead bodies and damaged survivors along the way, because we’re nowhere close. A large study in Spain, which was hit hard by the virus, found that only 5.2% of the population has antibodies. The standard estimate is that 60% would need antibodies before you could talk about herd immunity.

If–and it’s a big if–anyone develops immunity to the virus. That hasn’t been established. We may, we may not. 

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A group of 239 scientists from 32 countries urged the World Health Organization to give more emphasis to the use of masks and to acknowledge that the virus is spread not just by the big droplets we breathe out but by the aerosols we breathe out along with them–those tiny, near-weightless bits of breath that surf the air currents more gracefully (and more to the point, for longer) than their clunky droplet cousins.

WHO seems to be taking it on board. Its latest statement says there’s emerging evidence of aerosol transmission but it’s not definitive.

If the 239 scientists are right, it means that we may need to do more than keep two (or one, or however many) meters (or yards) apart. It means that especially in crowded, badly ventilated space, we need masks. 

Yeah, you too, cowboy. 

And there’s some evidence that wearing a mask does give the wearer a bit of protection. Which is a bit better than no protection.

*

York Minster’s been the center of a debate over whether a statue of a Roman emperor, Constantine, should be removed because of his support of slavery. Two newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, have run articles. Comedians and politicians have tweeted in the statue’s defense. It’s Black Lives Matter gone insane, they say.

The only problem is that no one proposed getting rid of it.

“We have not received a single complaint about Emperor Constantine’s statue,” a minster spokesperson said. “Nothing is happening: there is no discussion, action, intention or even thoughts about it.”

It’s disappointing. Just when you get a good lungful of outrage going–

*

That’s it for the moment. Stay well. I don’t have so many readers that any of you are expendable. 

Drinking while drunk, driving while black, advertising while fake: It’s the news from Britain

England’s pubs reopened, and either there was chaos or the predictions of mass disorder turned out to be exaggerated. It depends on what papers you read. But where’s the fun in people behaving sensibly? Let’s talk about what disorder there was.

The predictions were that drunks not only wouldn’t social distance but couldn’t if they wanted to, and to at least some extent that was true. A policeman from Southampton, said he’d dealt with “naked men,  happy drunks, angry drunks, fights, and more angry drunks.”   

In London, Soho was packed. “Barely anyone was wearing masks and nobody respected social distancing,” a store manager said. “To be honest, with that many people on one street it was physically impossible.”

A few days later, three pubs announced that someone who’d been there had come down with the virus and they  were closing temporarily. Three out of however many pubs there are in England isn’t bad, but it doesn’t make me want to go out. 

People had to leave contact information, so they’re able, at least, to get in touch with everyone who’d been in.

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Screamingly irrelevant photo: The white cliffs of–nope, not Dover. They’re in Dorset, near Swannage.

Here in Cornwall, we’re meeting the onslaught of visitors with mixed feelings. The economy depends on them. So jobs, businesses, all that stuff: We need them. Our health, though? It does better without them. Compared to many parts of the country, we haven’t had that many cases.

Our neighbor, who cuts lawns for second homes and holiday cottages, was calling the first day outsiders could legally stay overnight in the county (we won’t discuss the illegal ones) Spiky Saturday. Someone else tweeted a photo of three people holding up a sign on a Cornish highway bridge. It said, “Turn around and fuck off.”

The country government estimated the influx at 70,000 to 80,000 people. Who all ignored the sign. 

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In case you’re wondering what Britain’s Black Lives Matter is fussing about, two black former Olympic athletes were stopped by the police in their own neighborhood, and handcuffed, while their three-month-old son was in the car. The police claim they were stopped because the car had blacked-out windows and they were driving on the wrong side of the street. 

The couple, Bianca Williams and Ricardo dos Santos, say they were stopped because they’re black and were driving a Mercedes. Dos Santos said the police have stopped him  as many as 15 times since 2017, when they bought the car. They weren’t charged with driving on the wrong side of the road, which makes me (cynic that I am) think they probably weren’t, and tinted car windows aren’t illegal, although there’s a limit on how dark they can be. 

After a forty-five minute search, they were let go. 

The police Directorate of Professional Standards said they’ve reviewed footage of the incident and don’t see any problem with the officers’ conduct. So that solves that.

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From the Ministry of Embarrassing Decisions comes this story:

The government launched an ad campaign urging people to “enjoy summer safely,” which disappoints those of us who’d planned to spend it bungee jumping off London Bridge at the end of rubber bands and ending up in a plague-infested hospital–

Sorry, where was I? A government campaign urging us toward unobjectionable behavior used a photo of a baker from Haxby, near York. It ran in newspapers with the headline “Welcome back to freshly baked bread.”

Why freshly baked bread? Bread–stale, fresh, and every state in between–was available throughout Britain’s lockdown. Probably more of it than before the virus hit, since with cafes and restaurants closed bakeries had more bread than usual and the number of newly converted home bakers exceeded the number of men, women, children, and dogs living in Britain. On top of which, the government didn’t invent the fresh baked bread and not many people will be convinced that they did, so why are they acting as if they did? But never mind. That wasn’t the fault of the Ministry of Embarrassing Decisions. The ad’s text came from the Undersecretary of World-Beating Pandemic Screwups. All the Ministry of Embarrassing Decisions contributed was the photo, which was of a baker, Phil Clayton, who not only has no use for the way the government’s handled the pandemic, he’s a long-time Labour and Corbyn supporter, a Brexit opponent, and known for stenciling political slogans onto his bread. He’s demanding that they pull the ads and pay him a modeling fee.

I don’t know if they pulled the ad or not, but I know I couldn’t find it. On the other hand, I had no trouble finding multiple articles about it. 

The bread looks delicious. Especially the loaf that says “F*ck Boris.”

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The British government has announced a large support package for arts organizations, but film and theater director Sam Mendes, together with Netflix, has set up an emergency fund for theater freelancers who haven’t received any government support and are at the “breaking point.” The idea is to get £1,000 grants to them as quickly as possible. 

There’s been some government support for people whose jobs disappeared, but it hasn’t covered everybody and there doesn’t seem to be any governmental interest in identifying the gaps and filling them. 

The fund was set up after Mendes called on Netflix to use some of its pandemic windfall to support the performing arts. It donated £500,000. The money’s expected to run out quickly but the fund’s hoping for additional donations. 

Sorry, I haven’t found anything funny about that, but good news stories are hard to find, so I figured it was worth including.

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Which?, a group that offers consumer advice and advocacy and claims the question mark as part of its name, decided to test how hard they’d have to work to pay Lord Google and Facebook to run fake ads. The answer is, not hard at all. They set up a website claiming that a nonexistent brand of water could help you “lose weight, improve your mood and feel better.” 

Yes, it both improved your mood and made you feel better. The ordinary stuff–you inow, the stuff that comes out of your tap–might do one or the other, but never both.

A second site offered health and hydration “pseudo-advice.” I’d love to quote the pseudo-advice, but I can’t find any of it. Still, the internet’s awash with pseudo-advice. Ask Lord Google about weight loss and you’ll find more advice than one human being could follow in a lifetime. If you want to, you can lose so much weight that when you step on the scales you’ll register in the negative numbers. 

We didn’t need to provide any proof that our business actually existed,” Which? said. “In fact, it took barely an hour for our fake advert applications to be approved by Google, with no further input required from our fake company. . . .

“Our first Facebook ad targeted accounts that Facebook had deemed to be UK females aged 18-65 with interests including ‘health and wellbeing’ and ‘water’. That may seem fairly reasonable. However, we were also able to target those with the associated terms ‘extreme weight loss’ and ‘defeat depression’. Our second ad targeted US women, with interests including ‘insomnia’, ‘suicide prevention’ and ‘panic’. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see how having these sorts of ‘interests’ attached to individual accounts could lead to people whose search history shows them to be in a vulnerable position being hand-picked by scammers wishing to prey on those vulnerabilities.”

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A Colombian tree frog turned up in Wales, having ridden there in a bunch of bananas. A staff member took it home and got it to an animal center. 

It’s doing just fine, thanks. Amphibians can slow down their metabolism, and that let it survive the trip without food or water. The animal center has put in a special order for crickets.

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This is a followup to the story about the Starbucks barista, Lenin Gutierrez, who asked a customer to wear a mask only to be cursed at and blasted on social media for it. A stranger set up a GoFundMe page for the barista.

According to ComicSands, “It’s gotten over $100k for Lenin, who used to teach dance to children before the pandemic. Lenin has said he will use the money to further his education, continue dancing and give back to the community by launching a community dance program to teach children who could not afford lessons.”

The woman who started this mess is now demanding at least half of the money and threatening to sue him if she doesn’t get it. And while she’s at it, she wants to sue GoFundMe. But before any of that, someone set up a GoFundMe page for her–to redress the defamation and slander against her. I found a link to it , but the page seemed to have been taken down. 

Since ComicSands isn’t what you’d call a news site, so I thought I’d better look around for confirmation. Most newspapers have lost interest in the story by now, but I did find something in the Mail, a trashy newspaper that I also don’t trust, but it is at least a newspaper. Same story. It seems to be true.

*

The president of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan, has said that wearing masks protects both other people and the wearer. He says everyone should be wearing them in crowded public spaces. 

According to Paul Edelstein of the University of Pennsylvania (which, just to be clear, is not in the U.K.) the evidence that they protect other people is clearer all the time but there’s also some evidence that they protect the wearer.

The British news update, complete with a make-your-own Stonehenge

Missed the solstice? No problem. You can still take part in a virtual festival, making your own Stonehenge out of the cardboard cores of toilet paper rolls or cookies or some things that look a lot like sugar cubes but could be a lot stranger. I’m not trying to sound like I know something you don’t but would if you were one of the elect, I just can’t tell what I’m looking at a photo of.

If you’re in your teens, you can click on the one-finger salute to find the Quaran-teen section of the site. If you’re not, or want to see what the grownups get up to when they think you’re not around (answer: nothing all that interesting), then head over to the Twitter hashtag and see if it’s worth your time. 

I decided it wasn’t, but then I’m not much on festivals, even when they’re real. 

*

A rare relevant (if out of season) photo. Primroses. The next story features plants. Don’t count on this happening often.

Barcelona’s opera house, the Liceu, will open for the first time since lockdown by live-streaming a string quartet playing Puccini’s “Chrysanthemums” to 2,292 potted plants. The plants must already be in place, because photos of them filling the seats accompany the articles I’ve seen. 

None of them are wearing masks.

You can catch the concert on June 22, at 5 pm local time. 

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The world’s largest liquid air battery is being built near Manchester, so unlike a lot of what I sneak in here this really is British news. 

What’s liquid air? I’ve lived in Britain long enough that I thought it was just, you know, air in Britain. It’s a wet country. After Brexit, wet air may be all we’re able to export. But no, liquid air is what you get when you compress air down so much that it turns into–yes! You got it! A liquid.

Doesn’t Britain already have enough liquid? Most of the time, yes, although some people claim, during a fair part of the day, to be perishing for a cup of tea. But in general, yes, lots of liquid. The point of this liquid, though, is to store energy. When wind and solar power are producing excess energy, it uses it to squish that air down, and when the sun goes down and the wind stops blowing and everyone comes home from work (in that mythical world where everyone’s going to work and then coming home) and puts the kettle on for a nice cup of tea, it lets up on the air, turning it back to a gas and in the process powering a turbine that powers something else that powers that kettle.

And that, my children, is how we store green energy. Or how we will as soon as they get this beast built, which should be sometimes in 2022.

It’s being built by Highview Power, whose chief executive is a high-tech guy who says things like, “Air is everywhere.”

He really did say that. 

I hate it when tech people can’t explain things simply. 

*

Britain’s lost a lot of money during the coronavirus lockdown, and it’s spent a lot of money trying to get the country through these unprecedented times–some of it well and the rest of it on subsidizing satirists. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself if we ever get a sensible government. 

But to our point: Air really is everywhere, and so is incompetence, along with its good friend ProfitingFromACrisis, which (or possibly who) spells its name solid like that because you can never tell what will leak to the press if you leave space between the words. Not that leaks can’t be faced down if you have the right friends, but still, who wants the bother?

Never mind all that, though. It’s what we’ve learned to expect. I want to talk about money well spent.

How do I know it was well spent? I know because the prime minister said so–or at least his news flacks did. It’s “value for money,” they told us, and it’ll promote the U.K. around the world, and besides all the work’s being done in the U.K., so it’s twice the value for–

Half the money? Or is that twice the money? 

We’ll skip the math. For £900,000, which will cover the work of repainting the prime ministerial plane so that it looks like the British flag. 

Before he became prime minister he complained that it was dull looking–and also that he didn’t get to use it often enough. And you don’t want the prime minister getting bored, do you? 

You can never keep everybody happy, though. The plane has to do double duty as an air force plane, and a defense analyst and former military pilot, Andy Netherwood, complained that it will make it useless outside of the safest of safe airspace.

“No one wants to go to war in a jet painted like a brightly colored lollipop.”

Except, being British, he said “coloured.”

*

At England’s first Premier League football games (which if you’re American are soccer games), the players on four teams, along with staff and match officials, took a knee before starting. The players’ names on their shirts had been replaced with “Black Lives Matter.”

I hope I got the details of that–the number of teams, the plural in games–right. I have a sports allergy, so I’m a little vague on the sports part of this. I’d been going on the assumption that a football game involves two teams, not four, so I’m guessing this was two separate games. Or else it was one, played in some parallel universe where four teams play one game and it takes three parents to make a child.

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Did I mention how moving it is to see our government’s competence in action? First it was going to develop its own app to notify people who’ve been to Covid-19 that they need to get tested. This was going to fit seamlessly with a testing and tracing system and all together it was going to be the envy of the world, because what’s the point of having something like that if the world doesn’t envy you? 

Then the app’s grand unveiling was postponed because it had a small problem, which was that it didn’t work. Which is pretty much what experts had been saying would happen. 

But what do experts know? The unveiling was postponed again while some tinkering was done.

I won’t drag this out. They abandoned it the other day. Britain’s now going to use a Google-Apple app. But it won’t be ready until the autumn because it doesn’t measure distance accurately enough and so it sends out you’ve-been-exposed notices to people who were a safe distance from an infected person.

What they’re going to do is stick the two apps in the oven and bake on a low heat until they meld, at which point Britain’s will transfer its innate sense of distance to the Google-Apple app. 

Of course, they may just end up with melted gigabytes, in which case all the combined app will do is let people who think they’re coming down sick report their symptoms. It won’t notify anyone of anything.

Why bother to have it, then? Well, it’ll make everyone feel better, although we could probably buy everyone in the country a nice stuffed bear instead. A good cuddle makes everyone feel better.

The app was initially sold to us as an essential part of the test-and-trace system which was going to get us safely out of lockdown. We’re now coming out of lockdown with no app and a questionable system of testing and tracing. But we’ll be fine. Don’t worry about a thing.

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What went wrong with the world-beating British app? Well, it only recognized 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Androids. No one’s saying how much money was spent on it, but some clever devil of a reporter got into a database: The company that developed it had three contracts worth £4.8 million. 

They repainting four or five planes for that amount of money. 

*

In the meantime, scammers are busy telling people they’re tracing the virus. If you don’t want to get sick, they tell you, you should give them your bank details, call a premium rate number, and spend money on a free test kit. For extra safety, there’s some software you can download. Because this is a very sneaky virus and can infect your computer as well as your lungs.

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Oriel College–the Oxford University college with the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes outside it–has voted to remove the statue. That doesn’t mean it comes down tomorrow. It’s set up an independent inquiry into the issue involved in taking it down. One of them is that some donors will stop supporting the college–something they’re aware of because some have been in touch to say they’d do just that. Now a tech entrepreneur, Husayn Kassai, has pledged to “make up for every penny any racist does pull.”

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The internet is full of claims that wearing masks can kill you–they trap all your nasty exhaled carbon dioxide inside the mask, leaving you to re-breathe it. 

Predictably enough, this is total bullshit. The carbon dioxide molecule is smaller than the droplets that masks keep it. They pass quite happily through the kind of masks people wear. And surgeons wear much heavier masks for longer periods and don’t have a track record of dropping down dead during surgery.

Another claim is that wearing a mask “literally activates your own virus.” The video that said that has been taken down.

Someone named Aubrey Huff tweeted that “it’s not healthy to breathe in your own CO2 all the time.”

I’m going to break the quote here so I can start it again: “I would rather die from coronavirus than to live the rest of my life in fear and wearing a damn mask,” Huff huffed.

Cheesy joke, but I had to do it.  

The problem, of course, is that the mask isn’t to protect him. It’s to protect other people. So they’re the ones who he’s rolling the dice for.

The pandemic update from Britain: numbers, alcohol, and ice cream

Somebody enjoyed Britain’s lockdown: Looking at all those empty roads, a handful of drivers said, “Wheee,” or whatever the British equivalent is if that’s an Americanism. I can’t remember hearing anyone British say it, but at 107 years old I don’t find myself in as many whee-like situations as I used to. 

No, I can’t explain it either.

Around the country, a few drivers dedicated themselves to finding out if the high numbers on their speedometers were only there for decoration or if their cars would really go that fast. On mine, anything over 70 is decorative unless we’re going downhill, but that’s okay because they do look very nice. 

The record was set by someone driving 163 miles an hour on a London motorway, which in American is a highway. That’s a meer 93 miles an hour over the speed limit. But the winner (and I can’t be entirely objective in how I award the prizes here) was someone driving 134 miles an hour in a 40 mile an hour zone. 

 

*

 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: a geranium.

As lockdown eases, we’re all being profoundly sensible. In Accrington (wherever that may be), a birthday party turned into a fight and three people were arrested after an enthusiastic exchange of germs. I’m not sure how many people were at the party, but that’s okay because by now I’ve forgotten how many people are allowed to meet up. I do remember that they’re supposed to be out of doors, which (in a startling break with protocol) makes sense, but the number is arbitrary, so why remember it? However many it’s supposed to be, let’s assume they had more.

The evening news showed photos of mobbed beaches here in the southwest, with people packed especially tightly on a path leading to a beach. And to celebrate the chance to enjoy nature at its best, people left their litter when they went home, knowing that it would go on celebrating without them.

*

And from the department of non-snarky reporting, a bakery in Liverpool was offering a free coffee or ice cream to anyone people who’d helped clean up the local parks. All they had to do was dump their bag of litter in the bin outside the shop.

Liverpool’s too far from Cornwall for a free ice cream to be worth the trip, but I did give it some thought.

*

We’re getting details of Britain’s proposed quarantine for international visitors and it’s a masterstroke of pointlessness. It puts travelers in quarantine for two weeks, but it’s an imaginary quarantine. They’ll be asked to self-isolate, and about a fifth of them will be spot checked. But they can go out to shop for food and medicine. They can move from one residence to another. And they can take public transportation to get to wherever the hell they’re staying. And they can breathe both in and out while they do all of the above.

Oh, and they’ll be advised to download the contact tracing app when it’s available. If it ever is available. 

Predictably, no one’s happy with the plan. People who want travelers and business, not to mention the money they bring, want no quarantine.  And people who do want a quarantine want the kind of quarantine that quarantines people. 

*

A report published in the Lancet reports that–

Well, what it reports depends on what newspaper you read. According to the Guardian, the Independent, and the Irish Times, if instead of keeping 2 meters from other people we keep 1 meter away, we’ll double the risk of Covid-19 infection. 

According to the Mail, however, keeping 1 meter apart “slashes” the risk of infection by  80 percent. “Researchers found there was roughly a 1.3 per cent chance of contracting the virus when two metres from an infected patient. But halving this gap raised the risk to only 2.6 per cent.” 

According to the Sun, “Keeping 1 metre apart IS enough to cut risk of virus.” But only if you put your VERBS in ALL CAPS. 

All three are technically accurate, they just use the numbers differently and make the report’s information sound very different. 

*

In the meantime, almost half of all drinkers in Britain are starting to drink earlier in the day during the pandemic. We’ll use a Guardian link for that, because if we go to the Mail, we learn that  “Nearly HALF of Britons” end up in all caps. 

And with that we end our comparative survey of the British press.

*

British hospitals will run five drug trials to see if they work against Covid-19. They range from heparin (already in use as a blood thinner but will be tried in nebulized form to see if it works as an anti-inflammatory and protects cells against the virus) to Bemcentinib (used to treat blood disorders but carrying an antiviral effect). 

Okay, I kind of lied about ending our survey of the British press, because it seems worth noticing that the Guardian, the Mail, and the Sun all pretty much agree on that. So to keep myself kind of honest, I’ll  give you a link from the Post Courier, from Papua New Guinea.

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A study from McMaster University shows that cloth masks do keep the droplets and aerosols that we breathe out from spraying into the world around us. And that may reduced the odds of spreading the virus.

For droplets and aerosols,  if you want, you can substitute the words spit and micro-spit.

“The point is not that some particles can penetrate the mask, but that some particles are stopped, particularly outwardly, from the wearer,” said Catherine Clase, the paper’s first author.

First author? That’s the big name on the paper. The one who’d get ALL CAPS if she were a Sun or Mail headline.

The mask’s effectiveness, predictably enough, depends on what it’s made of. A commercial mask made with four layers of cotton muslin reduces particles by 99%. A scarf, sweatshirt, or T-shirt could reduce them by 10% to 40%. 

I’ve seen a pattern for a crocheted mask that would reduce transmission by 0%, because the nature of crocheting is that it’s full of holes. It was on someone’s blog. I was too floored to leave a comment. Someone’s probably out there somewhere, wearing one.