Volunteers, the virus, and the Wayback Machine: it’s the pandemic update from Britain

Our prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings, held a press conference on Monday to explain that he hadn’t broken any of the lockdown rules he helped write and why he had no plans to resign, and I was going to shut up about him for a while, but the absurdities keep piling up, and I’m a sucker for absurdity.

Among other things, he said, “For years, I have been warning about the dangers of pandemics. Last year, I wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning.”

He did indeed write about the threat of coronaviruses in a 2019 blog post, but he wrote the coronavirus part of it in April of 2020–that was last month, in case you’ve gone adrift–and edited the reference in as if it had been there the whole time. 

Hands up anyone who knew about the internet archiving service called the Wayback Machine. I didn’t. It doesn’t look like Cummings did either.

The government has confirmed that the blog post was indeed edited.

Irrelevant photo: Sunset from the cliffs near St. Materiana.

Cummings also said in the press conference that after he left his job in Downing Street and went home because his wife had Covid-19 symptoms, he returned to Downing Street–another breach of the rules he helped write, which  no one seems to have known about it until he brought it up in his own defense. 

He also explained that he drove thirty miles from his parents’ home, with his wife and kid in the car, to make sure his eyesight was good enough to drive back to London.

And in case you care, he was half an hour late to his own press conference. 

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How’d it go down? Not that well. In a YouGov poll, 59% of the people surveyed thought Cummings should resign (7% more than thought that three days before) and 71% thought he had broken the lockdown rules.

Since Cummings has said he won’t resign, will Johnson dump him? I doubt it. I don’t think he has an alternative source of ideas. 

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A study from Japan, combined with anecdotal evidence and a study from Hong Kong (which hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, meaning we can take it seriously but shouldn’t turn it into a bronze plaque) indicates that Covid-19 doesn’t spread easily out of doors but that it just loves enclosed spaces.

Okay, the wording there is mine. Don’t put that on a bronze plaque either. The information, though, comes from an article in the Atlantic, which also says, “Our understanding of this disease is dynamic. Today’s conventional wisdom could be tomorrow’s busted myth. Think of these studies not as gospels, but as clues in a gradually unraveling mystery.”

The risk of infection is (or seems to be) nineteen times higher indoors than out. The virus doesn’t seem (emphasis on seem, remember) to spread easily on objects–elevator buttons, door knobs, bottles of bleach on the supermarket shelves. It seems to travel most happily directly from one person to the next on the tiny droplets that we breathe out (and of course, in), and it just loves it when we get into enclosed areas and talk, shout, sing, and breathe. 

A while back, I linked to a study that said the droplets singers breathe out don’t travel any further than half a meter. I don’t know which of these contradictory reports is yesterday’s busted myth, but I thought I’d better follow up the first study with this yeah-but.

If the studies are right about the virus not spreading well out of doors, we can expect a dip this summer (in the northern hemisphere, at least, where summer currently resides, or soon will). People will spend more time outside. Then we can expect to see a spike in the fall. 

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Need a morale boost after that? In Britain, ten million people have been volunteering during the pandemic–helping out with grocery shopping and picking up prescriptions, phoning people who are alone, working at food banks. They were counted by an insurance company, called (confusingly enough) Legal and General, along with the Centre for Economic and Business Research. That (and I’m going to have to take their word on this; if it doesn’t add up, blame someone else) is almost one in five adults, putting in an average of three hours. Presumably per week, but possibly per lifetime. Sorry. 

And since if something isn’t worth  money, it didn’t really happen, their work is worth more than £350 million per week. It’s measured by a magical system that I can’t explain. Let’s call it a money-o-meter. 

“Many” people, the study said, are continuing to pay gardeners, cleaners, and other people who provide services, and to support local businesses, although they didn’t offer numbers on that. 

And since we’re playing with numbers, 65% of the British public (and 68% of Conservatives) support raising income tax to pay care workers more. 

The average annual pay for a care worker is £16,400 per year.

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What’s happening around the world

New Zealand’s gone 5 days with no new Covid-19 cases.

South Korea reported 40 new cases in one day–its biggest spike in 50 days–just as kids are going back to school. Most of them are concentrated around Seoul and linked to nightclubs, a warehouse, and karaoke–um, whatever you call the places where people karaok.

Spain has declared ten days of mourning. 

And the Japanese football league (if you’re American, that means soccer) has introduced a remote cheering app for games played in empty stadiums. Loudspeakers will play fans’ voices in real time. It’ll be exactly like the real thing.

The pandemic update from Britain, political edition: Boris’s brain breaks Boris’s rules

Back in March, Boris Johnson’s brain–that’s his advisor, who has a name of his very own, Dominic Cummings–was infected with Covid-19. Keep him in mind, because he’s the heart of the story, but as usual we need some background.

Britain had gone into lockdown by then, and had widely publicized guidelines on what that meant. Leaving home (defined as “the place you live,” because a lot of us weren’t clear about that) “to stay at another home is not allowed.”

The guidelines didn’t define that other home, the one you don’t live in and weren’t to go to. Presumably it was a place someone else lived, although it could also have been a second home–a place no one lived. 

That’s enough possibilities. If I go on, it’ll only get worse.

Unnecessary travel was banned. Unnecessary wasn’t defined, but let’s take a shot at it ourselves: If you were being chased by a bear, it probably would be okay to run down the street or take other evasive action. No bear? You stay in the home where you live.

Completely irrelevant photo: an azalea.

People who had the virus were told to self-isolate. That collision of words, self impaled on isolate, was created by a computer that hadn’t been fully briefed on the spoken language, but most of us accepted it. We were thinking about a deadly virus. 

And it wasn’t just people who had the virus who were supposed to self-isolate: So was anyone they had contact with. Because we had to stop the virus. And the whole thing was serious enough that the police could fine people who broke the rules.

The rules, admittedly, were still hazy. In the most extreme case I know of, the police scolded people for buying (or was it a store for selling?) chocolate Easter eggs, which unlike Red Bull aren’t strictly necessary. 

After a wobble or two, though, the line between necessary and unnecessary became clearer. What really mattered was the We Were Taking This Seriously. So seriously that Boris Johnson made a public appeal to our better natures, asking us not to go see Mom on Mother’s Day. 

And most people listened. They didn’t visit their mothers. They didn’t visit their elderly relatives in nursing homes. They didn’t say their goodbye to dying family members. Because this was the way to beat the virus and we were all in it together.

Except for Boris’s brain, who by that time knew he was ill and drove 260 miles, leaving a trail of virii behind him. And with him went his wife (who was also sick) and their kid. 

Why’d they do that? To get to his parents’s home (sorry: estate), because, hell, they needed help with childcare. What else were they to do?

Well, gee, what would anybody else do? Manage, probably. Not expose their parents, possibly, not to mention whoever they had contact with between the home where they lived and the where home they didn’t live. Turn to somebody local if they could–a relative, an organization that could help. See if a relative wouldn’t come to them, which wouldn’t be within the guidelines but would have been a hell of a lot safer.

I don’t minimize how hard the disease can hit people–a friend of ours died of it–but these are two people who were well enough to drive 260 miles but weren’t well enough to deal with their kid.

I admit, I don’t know their particular kid. 

We’ll skip the which-day-did-what-happen details. Someone local called the cops, who talked with someone at the home where they did not live.

“Oh, no, they didn’t,” 10 Downing Street says.

“Oh, yes, we did,” the police say. 

Cummings was seen 30 miles away from his parent’s estate, out in public, not self-isolating.

Cummings went back to London and returned to work at 10 Downing Street. 

A few days later, he was seen 30 miles from his parents’ estate again. 

“Oh, no, he wasn’t,” Downing Street says.

“Oh, yes, he was,” the witness says, “and I have the browser history to prove that I checked his license plate number at the time to make sure it was  him.” Except you don’t call it a license plate in Britain, but let’s not stop for that, we’re busy doing something else here.

The witness has filed a complaint with the police.

What does Boris’s brain have to say? That he did the right thing by driving to his parents’ estate.

What did Boris’s body have to say? “I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly, and legally and with integrity and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of this virus and saving lives.”

Other politicians and one scientific advisor who’ve been caught messing around with the lockdown rules have stepped down. 

Will Cummings? Like hell he will.

The steps under his feet aren’t looking overly solid, though. After Johnson’s press conference, Stephen Reicher, a scientific advisor to the government, tweeted, “In a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19.,” and “It is very hard to provide scientific advice to a government which doesn’t want to listen to science.”

Not to mention, “Be open and honest, we said. Trashed.

“Respect the public, we said. Trashed

“Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same, we said. Trashed.

“Be consistent we said. Trashed.

“Make clear ‘we are all in it together’. Trashed.”

Someone got onto the Civil Service twitter account and called Johnson “an arrogant truth-twister.” Nine minutes later, the tweet was taken down but it had been shared 25,000 times. No one knows who done it at the moment, but J.K. Rowling offered to pay them a year’s salary if their name became public.

A group called Led by Donkeys parked a van outside Cummings’ house with a huge screen on the back. It plays a clip of Boris Johnson telling people to stay home and  interviews with people who’ve struggled to care for their kids while they were sick. Over and over again.

The Financial Times writes that “The prime minister’s efforts to save his aide appeared to have failed. Support for Mr Cummings appeared to be spread thinly across the government and Conservative party. Following a barrage of supportive messages from cabinet ministers on Saturday, a notable silence on Sunday suggested that backing for the adviser was evaporating. One member of the government said the prime minister’s press conference had made the situation worse.”

One more quote, then I’ll stop: Former Brexit minister Steve Baker said the government was spending “enormous political capital…saving someone who has boasted of making decisions beyond his competence and clearly broke at the very least the guidance which kept mums and dads at home.”

Life’s going to be interesting around here for the next week or two. Watch this space. Or any other. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And by areas, of course, I mean people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do I believe them about the privacy thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The U.S. didn’t take part.

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

That was enough to explain pretty much anything.

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


The pandemic news from Britain

So you think you’re bored? An astrophysicist in Australia dealt with coronavirus isolation by trying to build a gizmo that would warn people when they started to touch their faces. He used four powerful neodymium magnets–and no, I never heard of them either but you can buy them online for any price between £4 and £2,000. I’m not sure what range his fell into.

I know: Australia isn’t in Britain. It’s too good a story to pass up. And no, this is not an April Fool’s joke. 

He wasn’t working in his area of expertise, but he figured that if he wore magnets on his wrists and made a necklace out of something else, it would buzz when the two got too close.

Nice try. It buzzed until the two got close together, basically nagging until you were driven to touch your face. So he gave up on that, but he still had those magnets.

“After scrapping that idea, I was still a bit bored, playing with the magnets. It’s the same logic as clipping pegs to your ears – I clipped them to my earlobes and then clipped them to my nostril and things went downhill pretty quickly when I clipped the magnets to my other nostril.”

What he’d done was clip one inside and one outside each nostril, and all was well until he took the outside ones off and the two inside clipped themselves together. When he went to get them off, they would fit past the ridge at the bottom of his nose. So he turned to Lord Google, who told him that an eleven-year-old had had the same problem and that the solution was to use more magnets, from the outside, to counteract the pull of the ones inside.

Do not believe everything Lord Google tells you. Even if you’re an astrophysicist. Lord G. does not have your best interests at heart. The magnets did indeed pull and he lost his grip on them and now had four magnets up his nose instead of two. So he tried to use a pliers, but “every time I brought the pliers close to my nose, my entire nose would shift towards the pliers and then the pliers would stick to the magnet. It was a little bit painful at this point.”

He ended up in the hospital where his partner works and they sprayed an anesthetic into his nose and pulled out three magnets, at which point the fourth one dropped down his throat. He was lucky enough to cough it out. If he’d swallowed it, apparently, he’d have been in real trouble.

He’s sworn never to play with magnets again.

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In the meantime, how’s the UK coping with the virus? Well, it turns out that in 2018 it published a biological security strategy addressing the threat of pandemics. And then ignored it. As a former science advisor to the government, Ian Boyd, put it, “Getting sufficient resource just to write a decent biosecurity strategy was tough. Getting resource to properly underpin implementation of what it said was impossible.” 

Which is one reason that when the government heard a pandemic was coming, it put magnets up its nose. 

To be entirely fair, it’s been putting metaphorical magnets up its nose for years now, cutting money from the National Health Service on every week that started with Monday (or Sunday, depending on your calendar) until the service was barely handling ordinary problems.

The government tested the NHS a while back to see if it was ready to handle an epidemic. It wasn’t. So what did they do? Buried the findings. 

And three years ago the Department of Health got medical advice saying it should stock up on protective equipment for NHS and social care staff to prepare for a flu epidemic. But an economic assessment showed that it would cost actual money, so they didn’t do it.

Doctors and nurses are being asked to come out of retirement during the current crisis, and younger doctors are being asked to increase their hours or work on the front lines, but a doctors organization says many are hesitant because they would not be eligible for death-in-service benefits, “leaving their families in financial difficulty” if they died as a result. 

As I write this, our prime minister, health secretary, and chief medical officer all have Covid-19. So does the prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings. But Larry the Cat, who lives and works at Number 10 Downing Street, is immune and he’s prepared to step in as soon as everyone admits that he’s needed. 

He was originally brought into government to take charge of pest control, but you know what cats are like: They study everything everyone does. 

People, he’s ready for this. 

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A lot of ink has been spilled over why Britain didn’t go in with the European Union on a bulk buying deal for ventilators and other medical equipment to help deal with the epidemic. First we were told it was because Britain isn’t part of the EU. Then it turned out that Britain was eligible. So last week we were told it was because the government missed the deadline by accident–it didn’t get the email. But Britain had representatives at four or more meetings where the plan was discussed, and there were phone calls about it.

The cabinet hasn’t commented yet but watch this space. They’re going to blame Larry.

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Farm organizations and farm labor recruitment agencies say that between Brexit and the virus, Britain is short something like 80,000 agricultural workers. They’re calling for a land army to help with the harvest. It’s too early to say how well it’ll work.

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Who’s at the highest risk of exposure to the virus? Low-paid women. They cluster in social care, nursing, and pharmacy jobs–jobs with high exposure to lots of people. They make up 2.5 million of the 3.2 million highest risk workers. So we’re all in it together, but some of us are in it a lot deeper than others, and with a lot less protection.

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People whose health puts them most at risk from the virus have been contact by the government and advised to stay in for twelve weeks. And food parcels are being delivered to at least some of them–something I know not just from the papers but because friends received one and were also put in touch with a neighbor who’s able to shop for them. It’s impressive, but there are still huge gaps. People who have to depend on supermarket deliveries haven’t been able to set them up–there just aren’t enough slots. And sorting out who needs them and who wants them but doesn’t completely need badly? That’s not going well.

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Emergency legislation had given the police the power to

Um. Do something about slowing the spread of Covid-19, but no one’s sure what, and police forces across the country interpreted their new powers in new and interesting ways. 

One force dyed a lagoon black to keep visitors away. Another insisted people could only have an hour’s exercise a day, and a third issued a summons to a family for shopping for non-essential items. A fourth used a drone to film dog walkers and a fifth told a shop to stop selling Easter eggs.

Part of the problem is that there’s a gap between what the legislation says and comments from our notoriously loose-lipped prime minister, who said (before he got sick himself) that people should only exercise once a day. Another part of the problem is that the legislation was rushed through, without much time for thought. 

Senior police commanders are trying to bring some kind of sense to this mayhem. Expect the Easter egg ban to be lifted any day now. I glanced at a summary of the legislation. Easter eggs aren’t mentioned. 

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The government has announced a program to get the homeless–called rough sleepers here–off the streets and into hotel rooms, which aren’t being used anyway, or into empty apartment buildings. As long as they’re on the streets, they can’t self-isolate, and until you address that you can’t control the virus. 

It’s funny how an insoluble problem becomes soluble once the solvers have an interest in doing something about it.

I admit, I was impressed. But the problem is money. Homelessness groups say cities aren’t getting enough of it to implement the program. And they need to provide not just a place with a roof but also food, medical care, and support people if it’s going to work.

At one estimate, 4,200 homeless people were found shelter in a couple of weeks, but thousands are still on the streets and food is hard to come by. Among them are people whose immigration status doesn’t allow them any recourse to public funds because of a Home Office policy that also keeps them from working. No one wants to find them shelter because there’s no money for it.

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To do a decent job reporting on this, I should include the plans to keep people paid, at least partially, and not evicted from their homes, but they’re complicated enough that I sank. The self-employed are in one category. The employed-employed are in another. The self-employed who haven’t been self-employed long enough aren’t in either category. Renters are in a different category from homeowners. 

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And now a non-pandemic bonus to reward you for having gotten this far with precious little to laugh at: Researchers are working on a program that can read brain activity and turn it into speech. 

It works by learning what happens in the brain as people speak, and to build it they had a group of people read the same set of sentences over and over. It started by spitting out nonsense and compared that to what it should have read, and gradually it got so good that it turned “those musicians harmonize marvelously” into “the spinach was a famous singer.”

I love this program. It’s going to write my next post for me.