Local lockdowns and, as always, money: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

Britain’s Covid test and trace system may be a functional disaster, but boy is it a moneymaker. Management consultants are taking home as much as £6,250 a day. Admittedly, not all of them, but you know, in a pinch a person could live on that.

One of the big track-and-trace players here is Boston Consulting Group, known to its friends as BCG. You and I can call it Boston Consulting Group. Senior execs are being paid as much as £1.5 million a year to salvage the test-and-trace mess. 

To throw another set of numbers at you, 40 people were paid £10 million for four months’ work. The government’s budgeting £12 billion for the program. 

I have no idea how all those numbers come together. Are we supposed to add them together? Divide? Multiply? Hide them under the floorboards? All I get out of them is that a lot of money’s flying around.

There’ve been too many screwups to list, but a recent one saw the program giving out used swabs for people to test themselves with. 

Irrelevant photo: roses.

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In the meantime, the government’s at odds with its scientific advisory committee, SAGE, which advocates a short national lockdown–now called a circuit breaker–that would last a couple of weeks. Instead, the government’s doing local lockdowns.

How do they work? 

If you’re in tier one, you can get together with 6 people from up to 6 households (or 6 people from 12 households if your friends are divisible) indoors or out, with or without alcohol. If you add enough alcohol, you won’t care if you’re indoors or out. You’ll find yourself falling on people you barely know, people who come from 12 or 14 different households, telling them how much you love them. That’s not allowed, but it happens anyway. 

If you’re in a pub or restaurant, you have to sit at a table, which means you can only fall on the random acquaintances who are sitting next to you, but you’ll have to leave at 10 p.m., because that’s when pubs and restaurants close now. Once you’re outside, you can fall on all sorts of people and tell them you love them, and it’ll be all the sweeter for not being allowed.

If you’re in tier two, you can get together with 6 people from, oh, you know, hundreds of households, but only outdoors, with or without alcohol. See above for alcohol and closing times and love.

In tier three, you get multiple paragraphs because your life’s going to be complicated. Or at least your restrictions will be. You can’t socialize with anyone you don’t live with or who isn’t in your support bubble. What’s a support bubble? It’s an idea that at one point made sense but no longer does because politicians poked so many holes in it that all the logic leaked out. We’ll talk about it some other time, okay? 

Casinos, betting shops, bingo halls, and soft play centers are closed but gyms and leisure centers aren’t. Why? They have better lobbyists, that’s why.

Pubs are closed unless they serve substantial meals, in which case they can serve alcohol with the meal, but only with the meal. 

Eat slowly.

What’s a substantial meal? The evening news had lots of fun interviewing people about whether a pasty qualified or whether it had to have a side salad or potatoes with it to be a meal. Since a pasty’s pastry with potatoes and some other stuff inside, that’s sort of like having potato pie with a side of potatoes, so nutritionists might get huffy about it, but even they will have to admit that it’s substantial. 

Okay, a traditional pasty has meat and a stray bit of veg, but yeah, it still has a fair bit of potato. 

If you live in, say, a tier three area but work in a tier two area, whose restrictions are you supposed to follow? I haven’t seen anything that explains that. The government’s advising against traveling to any part of the country in a higher tier except for work, education, or a few other reasons. If it advises against traveling to a lower tier, I haven’t seen that either, although you’d think it would make sense. 

Which may be why they haven’t addressed it.

A separated parent asked the prime minister whether he’d be able to see his son. The prime minister, true to form, gave the father the wrong information. The correct answer is yes, you can see your kid, regardless. Johnson’s answer was–well, there’s no point in repeating incorrect information. What he meant was, “Why are you asking me? I’m the prime minister. Go ask someone who knows something.”

What about people in established relationships who don’t live together? If they’re in one of the higher tiers, they get to see each other outside and not touch. Unless they’re in a support bubble. Remember support bubbles–those things I’m working so hard not to define? But they can only ecstatically unite into a single bubble if one of them lives alone, at which point they can safely hold hands. 

By now it would’ve been simpler if I’d just explained support bubbles, but I’ve got too much invested in not doing it. Besides, we all need a little mystery in our lives.

As you can see, it’s a simple system.

In the meantime, the prime minister and the local leaders in Greater Manchester are arguing about whether the area belongs in tier two or tier three. Rumor has it that Johnson wants to impose tier three restrictions but is afraid the police would side with local government and refuse to enforce them. The main difference between the two sides–I think–is how much the government is willing to pay workers who are locked out of their jobs. So far, they’re offering less for the local lockdowns than they did for the national one.

On Saturday, the prime minister and the mayor couldn’t even agree on whether they’ve scheduled a phone call to discuss the problem on Sunday. 

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Gordon Brown, who was Britain’s chancellor and briefly its prime minister, warned that the country’s facing a double cliff edge, Brexit and the costs of Covid. He knows a shitload more about finances than I do but he’s not so great with a metaphor: “I think we’ve got two cliff edges coming,” he said hallucinogenically. He did modify that by adding, “If it’s possible to go over two cliff edges at once,” but he doesn’t seem to have noticed that cliff edges mostly stay put and insist that you come to them.

Never mind. The point’s still valid.

The pandemic news: Science, social media, and the rule of six

England’s in three separate stages of Covid restrictions right now, with the stage depending on where you live and how high the local infection rate is, but weeks ago the government’s official scientific advisory group urged it to impose a short, tight lockdown to stop the rise in infections. To which the government said, “What do you know? We’re following the science.”

“Wait a minute,” the scientists said. “We’re the scientists.”

“Not the scientists,” the government said. “The science.”

It’s not clear at the moment exactly what science they’re following. I’ve been wondering if they got hold of one of those “The Science of. . . ” books. You know: The Science of Getting Rich, The Science of Storytelling. Or if they have science confused with Scientology.

Entirely relevant photo (if you read to the end), which won’t play well on social media: This is Fast Eddie thinking deeply.

In the meantime, though, everyone’s mad at everyone. Local governments in the areas with tighter restrictions are furious that they’ve been allowed no power (never mind funding or serious consultation) to deal with their local situations. People whose workplaces will be shuttered are mad that they’ll be paid a smaller percentage of what they’d have earned than they were paid during the national lockdown. Disregarded parts of the country are feeling more disregarded than usual. They tend to be the places where the infection rate’s high, because transmission’s highest among low-income groups and minority ethnic groups, which aren’t groups that get a lot of help from governments in general but that get even less when the Conservative are in power. So they’re mad. Parts of the Conservative Party are mad because they don’t want the government closing things. The Labour Party’s mad because it’s sure it could handle the pandemic better than the Conservatives–and to be fair, it would be hard work not to. And I’m not particularly happy because I’m buried in newspaper clippings. 

Yes, I work from actual paper, at least to start with. Some days, all you can see of me is a tuft of white hair and a pile of newspaper. 

Send tea. The dogs will know how to find me. 

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It’s not just local governments who are feeling slighted. MPs from hard-hit areas are finding out about government plans for their areas via What’sApp or being given twenty minutes notice of briefings. One, from Wigan, claimed she was left out of a briefing because the ministers in charge didn’t know where Wigan is. To make up for that, another was invited to a briefing for an area her constituency isn’t part of. 

A third heard about a twenty-minute briefing eight minutes after it had started.

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You know those face shields that are (presumably) more comfortable than masks? It turns out that they’re the next best thing to useless. Almost all those lovely, airborne droplets and aerosols that the wearers breathe out escape through the gaps. But you’ve got to admit they make a person look like they’re serious about not spreading the disease.

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In September, while England was learning to count all the way to six in order to figure out who it was safe to get together with outside of a work or educational setting, a stag hunt not only got 130 people together, almost all without masks, the outfit putting it on also got a £10,000 government grant and a £50,000 loan from pandemic-related programs.

Grouse hunts are also exempt from the six-person get-together limit. But if you want to get together and grouse about how inconsistent the rules are, the limit’s still six.

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People (predictable creatures that we are) increased their use of social media during lockdown, and it turns out that people who send more pictures on social media are at greater risk of depression. Or so says an admittedly small study involving 170 participants, an online questionnaire, and absolutely no photos of anyone standing on a beach looking 30 pounds thinner and 10 years younger than their actual weight and age. 

Does that mean photo-sharers are depressed (or at risk of . . . ) because they send photos or do they send photos because they’re depressed or at risk of? We don’t know. Or I don’t, and the report I saw doesn’t say. All I know for sure is that one fact one lines up with the other one. So can we be safe, please, just in case sharing photos does cause depression. Tell the cat he can stop doing that thing with the lettuce and the chisel because you’ve put the camera down and you’re going to face an entire day without clicking the imitation shutter even once. Even if he starts playing the banjo, you’re not picking it up. Not today.

Yes, bare-assed reality’s tough, but it’s out there anyway. Might as well see what it looks like.

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In an earlier post (and if you think I know how much earlier, you don’t understand how things work around here), I mentioned a Covid bailout program for small businesses that the British government set up so loosely that it screamed “Scam me!” and people obligingly did. Well, for the sake of balance, it set up another one to be so complex that only one company got all the way through the process. 

The idea behind Project Birch was that big companies would get emergency finance and in exchange give the government a stake in the company. Ten companies were interested but found the process so complicated that they walked away.

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The U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said that the pandemic has shown us that the world needs universal health care if it’s going to deal with the next pandemic. 

By not responding adequately to this one, we’ve let the pandemic cause more than a million deaths, infect more than 30 million people in 190 countries, wipe out 500 million jobs, and cost the global economy $375 billion a month. 

The standard indicators of human advancement and well-being are going in reverse for the first time since the U.N. started measuring them in 1990.

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It’s not news that the pandemic’s put a strain on health systems everywhere and that both non-urgent and damn urgent treatments have been postponed. But how is NHS England (NHS being the National Health Service) planning to respond? It plans to fine NHS trusts (that means hospitals, or at least the organizations that run them) that haven’t gotten back to near-normal schedules by the end of the month. Because what could possibly make more sense than taking money away from an overstretched system when it shows signs of being overstretched?

You bet. That’ll learn ‘em.

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Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine trial has gone on hold while they frantically try to figure out why one of the participants got ill. That’s roughly all the information that’s available, although any decent reporter can fill several paragraphs with it. I’m not a reporter, so all you get is two sentences.

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The following is a note from that deepest of thinkers, Fast Eddie the cat. He doesn’t usually communicate with strangers, and since he’s broken his silence I believe we should pay attention: 

sddddddddd bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbm,

Please, people, give it some thought.

 

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.

Covid, the brain, and the toffs: The pandemic update from Britain

The Covid targets targets that we hear most about are the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, and the blood vessels, but some Covid patients also have neurological symptoms, ranging from headaches to confusion to full-out delirium, and evidence is mounting that Covid can attack the brain. 

That’s according to a study posted online and–like most Covid studies in this crisis–not yet peer reviewed. 

Covid isn’t the only virus that does some breaking and entering inside the brain. Zika did, but the body mounted an immune response. Covid, though, is a sneaky little s.o.b., and the body doesn’t seem to notice what it’s doing up there, which is making copies of itself and leaving a trail of destruction. The study found no evidence of an immune response to its presence in the brain.

“Days after infection, and we already see a dramatic reduction in the amount of synapses,” Dr. Alysson Muotri of the University of California said. “We don’t know yet if that is reversible or not.”

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Researchers will need to analyze brain samples from autopsies to see if it’s present in people with milder versions of the disease and in the people who are being called long-haulers, the people whose symptoms hang on and on. A lot of them have a range of neurological symptoms. 

Some 40% to 60% of hospitalized patients have neurological and psychiatric symptoms, but they may not all come from brain infections. Some may come from inflammations throughout the body. So: autopsies.

The problem, though, is that autopsies need people to die first, so this all depends on the right categories of people conveniently keeling over.

Everybody seems to be saying this, but it bears repeating: So much about this disease is still unknown.

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So what do you do about a disease like that? Well, at a town hall event hosted by the ABC network (that’s a TV channel), Donald Trump told the world that Covid will disappear when everyone develops a herd mentality. 

Conform, people. It’ll save us all.

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At least in the absence of a vaccine and a herd mentality, testing is the most likely thing to save us, and a new Covid test that’s still in the development stage sounds promising enough to lift even my gloomy spirits. 

Gloomy spirits? Well, I keep telling people that it’s going to be a long winter, then I have an impulse to slap myself silly. I’m sure the other people in question feel the same way. To date, everyone’s good manners have kept the situation from spinning out of control.

But back to the Covid test: Researchers wanted to come up with a quick, accurate test that would be cheap enough for people to test themselves at home every day, and it’s looking promising. 

The test is called STOPCovid, which probably stands for something, since half of it is in caps, and the researchers come from enough U.S. universities that I won’t bother to list them all.

The details of the test involve RNA, magnetic beads, and a high sensitivity, meaning it correctly identifies a lots o’ positive cases. The details are also over my head and I’m going to arbitrarily decide that they’re over yours too, but hey, I’m giving you a link so you can go prove me wrong. 

Actually, it didn’t seem that complicated until I realized that I understood the sentences but not their content. A lot of my life is like that. What I did understand is that it’s promising and that it’s designed to be cheap, fast, and usable. 

Also that it’s not ready yet.

Stay tuned. 

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The STOPCovid test can’t come fast enough for Britain, because the government’s taken what was already an expensive privatized mess of a testing program and made it worse.

It’s good that in these dark days we’re led by damn fools. 

What’s wrong with the testing program? People are being sent hundreds of miles from home for tests. People with symptoms can’t find tests, meaning they’re left not knowing if they can safely go back to work or if their kids can safely go back to school. 

The head of the test and trace program, Dido Harding (whose background is in business, not public health), explained the disaster by saying that nobody “was expecting to see the really sizable increase in demand.”

Of course not. No one knew schools were reopening or thought that might mean more people being exposed ans needing tests. No one noticed when Boris Johnson nagged everyone who was working from home to go back into the office, which would mean more people getting exposed and needing–yeah, you can see where this is going.

Meanwhile, Jacob Rees Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, is hailing the testing program as a phenomenal success and telling us all to stop carping about it. 

Me, I’m not carping. I’m a vegetarian. But I will say that the demand for tests is four times greater than the testing capacity.  

All hail the wondrous testing program.

You have to love these people. They have absolutely no shame and minimal contact with reality. Or any desire to contact reality. They caught a glimpse of it once. It involved a lot of people with accents they didn’t like and clothes that cost less than theirs. Not to mention with infinitely less money than they have. It was all very unpleasant and why go through that again?

Anyway, the problems with testing seem to involve a shortage of lab capacity. The labs are also privatized, not that I’m trying to make a point here or anything. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-54163226

Meanwhile the number of cases is rising in parts of Britain and people are facing increased localized restrictions. 

Contact tracing’s going well too. Some people working in the system report–anonymously–that by the time they contact people who’ve been exposed to Covid and tell them to isolate themselves for two weeks, more than two weeks have gone by since they were exposed. And this past week, the tracing firm’s software was too embarrassed to go on and some tracers had to be told not to refresh their screens too often. Some of the people they called got so frustrated with how long the calls took that they hung up. 

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Shall we be completely fair here? The full quote from Jacob Rees-Mogg is, “The issue of testing is one where we have gone from a disease that nobody knew about a few months ago to one where nearly a quarter of a million people a day can be tested, and the prime minister is expecting that to go up to half a million people a day by the end of October.

“And instead of this endless capring, saying it’s difficult to get them, we should actually celebrate this phenomenal success of the British nation.”

All hail the British aristocracy. They either manage to believe this shit or don’t care what they say. 

And somehow or other, they stay in office. No, I can’t explain it either.

Moonshots and international law: It’s the news from Britain 

We all just love good news, which is why we’ll try not to gag when we discuss Boris Johnson’s moonshot plan to test everybody in Britain for Covid all day every day, including when they’re asleep, working in their pajamas, or breaking and entering because they want to wear someone else’s pajamas for a change.

I know, but you do need to let me exaggerate now and then. It prevents explosions.

The moonshot plan is about ramping up Covid testing from 200,000 tests a day to 10 million a day by early next year. It would cost, at a wild and irresponsible guess (sorry–at a sober but preliminary estimate), £10 billion plus. 

Plus how much? At those levels, who cares? By way of comparison, that’s roughly equal to the UK’s education budget, but since the alternative, at least in the scenario posed by the prime minister, is a second lockdown, it’s a bargain at twice the price. 

Or something along those lines. 

Completely relevant photo: Have I mentioned that we’re going to the dogs?

It’ll involve lots of private companies–some of them the same ones who are screwing up the current test and trace program–so I could see where we’d end up paying twice the price. For half the product.

Given that the current testing program is short of something–probably lab capacity but who really knows?–and is therefore suggesting that people drive to hell and back if they seriously want to get tested because Britain’s a small island and when I was a kid we walked to school. Through the snow. We didn’t stand around waiting for a bus to pick us up and moaning about a little rain–

Let’s start that over. Why do you people keep leaving me in charge? 

The moonshot tests, or at least some of them, will give results in minutes. 

The problem is–

No, one of the problems is that the technology to make this work doesn’t exist yet. Another problem is the public health leaders are screaming for more control of the current testing program because the companies running it are making such a mess. 

This time, though, they’ll get it right. And I’ll be twenty again, only much smarter than I was the first time around. 

Also taller.

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Want another problem with the moonshot program? The government’s advisors weren’t called upon to advise before it was shot at the press. The National Screening Committee was sidelined on the grounds that the moonshot is a testing program, not screening. 

“Mass testing is screening,” according to Allyson Pollock, the director of something very impressive at Newcastle University. I’d give her full title but we need to move on. Sorry.

See how British I’ve gotten in fourteen years? I apologize all the time. I don’t mean it, but I do apologize. 

If I were Britishly British, though I’d write “I’ve got” instead of “I’ve gotten.” Don’t ask me to explain it, but I’ve discovered that the American version annoys the hell out of someone in the village who’s well worth annoying. I’d use it anyway–my speech pattern, c’est moi–but it does add joy to the words.

Where were we? 

If the committee had been involved, it could consider the impact of false positives and false negatives and the social and economic impact of a large number of people being told to self-isolate. 

John Deeks, a professor of something equally impressive at the University of Birmingham said, “There is a massive cause for concern that there is no screening expertise evident in the documents. They are written by management consultants. . . . Before you start, you have to make sure you do less harm than good.”

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If a massive testing program really happens, is anyone talking about paying people enough that they can afford to stay home if they test positive? 

Don’t be silly. It would set a bad precedent and make people lazy. 

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While the official testing program limps along, running short of whatever it’s running short of, the University of Exeter is buying its own tests for students and staff–saliva tests that promise results either the same day or the next. They’re made by an outfit called Halo, which says they’re wonderful. As they may well be, but I’d like to hear that from an unbiased source and so far I haven’t found one. With a different test, people who actually understand these things complained that although the company making the test reported that it registered very few false negatives or false positives, it’s possible to game the data and unless companies make their testing process transparent, no one will know if they have. 

I don’t know if Halo’s transparent. 

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Covid cases have been  rising in Britain, but the number of deaths has stayed low, presumably because the infections are concentrated among younger people, who are less likely to die or be hospitalized. A fair number of fingers have been wagged at them for getting sick. They’ve been out seeing friends, drinking in pubs, eating in cafes, attending illegal raves. 

Of course, the government’s been dangling vouchers in front of them–and the rest of us–to lure us into pubs and cafes so we could support the economy, as well as telling everyone working at home to get out of their bathrobes (which could use a good wash by now anyway) and relocate their hind ends to whatever office it is they used to work in. The economy can’t deal with this many people working from home.

That says something about how much sheer uselessness it takes to keep the economy rolling.

Now that more people are testing positive for Covid, though, it’s their own fault for listening to the government. They should’ve known better. 

Why are younger people really picking up the disease? A combination of factors, probably. Many of them have jobs that put them into contact with the public, and with all the viruses the public carries. Some of them are careless. They’ve been told they’re unlikely to get seriously sick. The police have broken up some illegal raves, but the entire younger population of the country wasn’t at them, 

You also have to figure that a lot of us who are retired are still in hiding, or semi-hiding, so we’re a little harder for the germs to find. Opportunists that they are, they jump into whoever they find.

What’s the government’s advice to  keep young people on the straight and narrow? “Don’t kill granny.”

Seriously.

There’s something unnerving about that as a way of mobilizing a nation.

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No news from Britain is complete without a mention of Brexit: 

Rod McKenzie of Britain’s Road Haulage Association warns us, or warns the government, or warns anyone who’s listening, which may not be anyone at all since the government listens only to itself, I don’t really exist, and we’re not so sure about you–

Can we start that over?

Rod McKenzie, of Britain’s Road Haulage Association, warns us that we’re “sleepwalking to a disaster with the border preparations that we have, whether it is a deal or no-deal Brexit at the end of December.”

He’s worried about supply chains being interrupted, especially on the heels of the Covid crisis. 

“The difference here is between a disaster area and a disaster area with rocket boosters on.”

Remember the beginning of lockdown, when everyone was stocking up on toilet paper and bread flour (or hoarding it, depending on whether we were talking about ourselves or our neighbors)? If you’re in Britain, it might be worth doing that again. I have a recipe that calls for both if you want it.

Flags and rust: It’s the pandemic update from Britain

The government tells us we have a great system of Covid testing. World beating. So let’s check in on it. Again.

If you live someplace that’s not a hotspot and want a test, you’ll be chasing all over the country to get one. Take, as a purely random example, me. The website where you register for a test wanted me to drive 86 point something miles to I’ve forgotten where. And back, although that wasn’t their problem but mine. It didn’t sound like a great idea, so I followed a link that took me to a page that promised I’d have a test in the mail the next day. 

The next day came and went, along with many of its friends, who followed in a line, as days will. I still haven’t had a test in the mail and have stopped expecting one. Fortunately, I’m fine. I had a sore throat–not the most Covid common symptom but not an impossible one–and a fit of paranoia collided with a sense of civic responsibility. It’s possible that I got downgraded because I had the wrong symptom. It’s also possible that they dumped everyone into electronic limbo. I have no way to know.  

What I do know is that the priority is being given to high-risk areas. That makes a kind of sense, but it also leaves clusters to build up, unspotted, in new areas. It also means the people allegedly in charge of the country have once again let us run short of tests–the number of people requesting them has gone up–leading them to set up a kind of triage-by-determination system. If you’re willing to drive 65 point something miles, you can have your test. If you’re too sick to do it, you can’t. 

You can also (or so the radio tells me–and yes, it was on at the time) log back into the website later and you might be offered a perfectly sane location for a test. Or you might not. Nothing is guaranteed.

In calculating the distances between the person using the website and the nearest testing center, they seem to have assumed that they’re dealing with crows rather than drivers. According to a BBC calculation, a 109-mile trip would’ve involved 206 miles of driving. I suspect mine would’ve as well, because I think they wanted to send me to Wales, and I’m not much of a swimmer.

This is happening just as the schools reopen. So will there be testing to make sure the kids don’t all infect each other and bring the bug home? Of course not. It’s not a priority.

*

The Notting Hill Carnival–usually the largest street party in Europe–went online this year. It’s director, Matthew Phillip, said, “For more than 50 years, carnival has been a statement that black lives matter. That’s normal practice for us, it’s not something that we’re just jumping on now because of the current global climate and what’s going on. Carnival has been making these statements for 50 years.”

*

The Edinburgh festivals–that includes the International Festival, the Fringe, and the Book Festival–also went online. This was the first time they’d been canceled since 1947, and that was done–touchingly–in honor of my birth, even if they were a few months late. 

As far as I can figure out, its offerings ended in August, but if you want to mess around and see if I’m wrong (it happens), start here.

*

In another heartwarming sign of unity among the four nations that make up the United Kingdom, England and Northern Ireland are telling travelers from Greece and Portugal that they don’t have to quarantine after they arrive in Britain but Scotland and Wales are (sort of) telling them that they do.

The sort of is because it’s not that simple. It involves parts of Greece, mainland Portugal, and–oh–Gibraltar. Have we mentioned Gibraltar? But that’s only for Wales. Scotland’s list is a little different. It’s complicated.

Complicated enough that a BBC TV show used a graphic with four flags to show who had to do what if they were landing where–or going there after they landed. Only instead of Northern Ireland’s flag, they substituted the Republic of Ireland’s. It’s easy to do. Northern Ireland doesn’t have a flag. All that symbolism and passion that people pour into their flags is too explosive for a divided nation and they’ve (probably wisely) decided to live without one. They’re stuck with the Union Jack.

The BBC made the appropriate straight-faced apology, but I can’t help thinking that someone’s giggling uncontrollably behind a closed door somewhere. 

Or maybe normal people don’t react to embarrassing mistakes that way.

*

Since schools have opened, this might be a good time to announce that vomiting and diarrhea may be key signs of Covid-19 in kids

I almost reported that as “voting and diarrhoea.” It was a typo, but they might do better than we adults have lately.

*

Tony Abbott, Australia’s former prime minister, is being considered for the position of UK trade envoy. He’s a man of great compassion, having argued that since Covid meant it cost the Australian government up to $200,000 for an extra year in an elderly person’s life, families should be able to let their eldery relatives die of the virus the natural (not to mention cheaper) way if they want to. 

I’m happy to report that Mr. Abbott is not one of my relatives.

*

After that, we need something that isn’t about the pandemic: The earth is making the moon rust.

The problem with that is that rust only happens in the presence of oxygen, and the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere. It spent it all when it was a kid, buying candy and sugary drinks. 

Ah, but it does have trace amounts of oxygen hidden away, and it’s all due to Earth’s magnetic field. Oxygen molecules, it turns out, can hitch a 385,000 kilometers ride on the magnetic field and land on the moon, needing a shower and a change of clothes but otherwise none the worse for their travels. 

It’s also possible, although less fun, that the oxygen got there when the moon and the Earth were closer together. Or that it’s released when dust particles hit the ice hidden under lunar craters. 

How does dust hit something hidden under a crater? Dunno. There’s a third theory, but I understood even less of that. It has to do with hydrogen and solar winds. You’re on your own. I really should stick to topics I understand, but I couldn’t resist the idea of the moon rusting.

*

And finally for the heartening spectacle of someone who understands social media less than I do: A Scottish member of parliament, Annie Wells, has two Twitter accounts. One is her own and the other is Women2Win Scotland (“Leading the campaign to elect more Conservative women to Parliament”). 

Using her own account, she tweeted something snotty about a political opponent. Then, thinking she’d changed accounts, she tweeted, “Spot on@AnniewellsMSP,” adding a thumbs up, a Union flag, and a Saltire to make the celebration complete. 

Only she hadn’t switched accounts. She was praising herself from her own account. She deleted it, tweeted it from her other account, and hoped no one had noticed.

They had. Of course they had. They always do.

The Saltire, in case I lost you back there a ways, is Scotland’s flag. It’s not to be confused with Ireland’s. Or Northern Irelands. Or, most especially, England’s. Or Britain’s. You probably won’t confuse it with the Welsh flag, because that has a dragon.

*

WP in its wisdom dumped me into its glorious new editing experience–which of course I hate. Anyone know how to resize photos or add captions?

Lizards, sewage, antisemitism, and Rembrandt: It’s the non-pandemic news from Britain

Is anything happening in Britain other than the pandemic?

Why yes, and thank you for asking. 

A fake Rembrandt has been hiding in the basement of a museum. It’s a small picture of an old man with a beard, looking unhappy (the man, not the beard). When it was first stashed down there, the man was young, clean-shaven, and hopeful looking. 

The painting was given to the museum in 1951 and spotted as a fake in 1981 by the world’s leading authority on the subject, the Rembrandt Research Project. 

Then a new curator came along and the picture just bugged her. It looked too Rembrandtish to write off. 

It’s now been analyzed by dendochronologists. Those are people who, um, analyze dendos. Or possibly dendons. In time–that’s the chronology part. 

Oh, never mind. You don’t need to know what they do and I don’t either. What matters is that they’ve figured out that the wood the old man’s painted on came from the same tree as an acknowledged Rembrandt. So it was, at least, likely to have been from his workshop. And may be by the master himself.

It’s a pity it couldn’t have happened when the man was young and optimistic, but at least it’s happening.

*

Utterly irrelevant photo: A castle ruin near Edinburgh. Photo by Ida Swearingen

A seven-year-old with cerebral palsy climbed Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, raising over £17,000 for the National Health Service and a disability charity. 

When he was born, his parents were told he’d never walk, sit up, or talk, never mind raise money for the NHS. 

*

It was always going to be hard to make importing sewage sludge for farm fertilizer sound appealing, but it’s being imported anyway. It’s happening quietly, though, so no one has to take on the job of explaining why it’s a good idea. 

Why is it a good idea? Well, its use on farmland is effectively banned in the Netherlands, and the Dutch water authorities had problems incinerating it. And the stuff has to go somewhere, so they looked across the channel and saw Britain and said, “Hmmm. Betcha they’d pay good money for it.”

Only in Dutch. 

The sludge could contain E coli and salmonella, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals (not the musical kind–no one’s complained about it causing noise pollution), and microplastics. And it could be a source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Other than that, it’s nice stuff and does return nutrients and carbon to the soil. 

Yum.

*

The rapper, singer, and songwriter Stormzy has donated £500,000 to fund scholarships for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’ll go fifty students of any age–and not just university students. 

The plan is to give £10 million over ten years to groups fighting racial inequality in Britain. 

*

The street artist Banksy donated we don’t know how much for a refugee rescue boat, the Louise Michel, which is now sailing the Mediterannean. Last I heard, it had picked 219 people out of the water and the deck became so crowded that the boat was effectively stranded. The most vulnerable 49 (along with a man who died before being picked up) were transferred “to safety” (I’m not clear where), and the remainder were put aboard another rescue ship.

Finding a port willing to accept refugees is a serious problem. Plucking them out of the water is, relatively speaking, the simple part.

The International Organization for Migration says more than 7,600 people have been picked up at sea and forced back to Libya–a policy of both the Libyan coastguard and European Union states. Another 500 are known to have died in 2020, trying to make the crossing, although the actual number is likely to be higher. Libya has been accused of mistreating refugees at sea and of selling them to militias. 

Banksy explained why he wanted to get involved when he wrote to Pia Klemp, who’d captained several rescue boats: “I’ve made some work about the migrant crisis, obviously I can’t keep the money. Could you use it to buy a new boat or something?”

Klemp initially thought someone was putting her on, but they soon settled down and worked together. She summed up the arrangement this way: “Banksy won’t pretend that he knows better than us how to run a ship, and we won’t pretend to be artists.”

*

Local governments in Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole have proposed, in their wisdom, fining homeless people £100 for sleeping in doorways or leaving their belongings in the street. If they don’t pay up, that can go up to £1,000. 

Which of course they have. That’s why they’re living on the street.

*

Emma Cownie and Doug Jacquier have clued me into–

Guys, I don’t know how to break this to you, but it seems the royal family are actually lizards. Shapeshifting lizards.

I know. I couldn’t have imagined it either. And it’s not just the royal family. The whole world, it turns out, is run by lizards. It explains a lot, doesn’t it? 

This isn’t new news, but then this isn’t a newspaper, I’m not a reporter, and I only just found out about it. It rose from the depths of the conspirosphere in April, when a former broadcaster, David Icke, did a TV interview in which he left the road way, way behind. 

This wasn’t the first time he’d talked about it. You can find him here, explaining everything to us. “Much of it,” he says, “is backed up by hard factual information.”

And the rest of it? Oh, hell, who cares?

Okay, I confess: I haven’t listened to the interviews, relying on the writeups instead. How much time do you think I have here?

Icke’s life moved from sports to broadcasting through the Green Party and alternative medicine to spiritualism to–well, he did predict that the world will end in 1997. As far as I can tell, he was wrong. He’s been accused of antisemitism, which he denies, but he also says that whoever wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (an antisemitic forgery) ”knew the game plan.” 

I’m working from WikiWhatsia here. I normally hold out for something marginally more reliable, but with a topic like this, why quibble?

The lizards are from the Draco constellation and have been breeding with humans. And the scientific method is bollocks and climate change is a hoax. 

Um, yeah, I think he’d broken with the Green Party by the time he announced that.

Anyway, it all gets complicated. Have a good time. It could almost make a person go back to the pandemic for a little rest. 

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?

*

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.

*

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. 

*

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%.

*

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. 

Scapegoats, efficiency, and contracts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

After England’s pandemic-related, algorithmically driven screwup of graduating students’ grades, no interview with Gavin Williamson, the human at least nominally in charge of the mess, was complete without the interviewer asking, “Are you going to resign?” 

Williamson would then blither on about whatever topic he could grab hold of as it flitted through his brain and the interviewer would repeat the question at least once, preferably twice.

Why didn’t he just say no? An algorithm told him that it would call attention to his mistakes. If he pretended not to hear the question, no one would notice.

Algorithms are the modern version of reading tea leaves, or chicken entrails. Someone claims a lot of expertise, interprets the tea leaves/chicken guts/computer reports, and isn’t to be held responsible if the prediction doesn’t match reality. 

Irrelevant photo: If I remember right, this is a thistle. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

The prime minister announced, from his vacation hideout in Wherever, that he has complete confidence in Williamson. In normal political-speak, that means someone’s done for, but Johnson said the same thing about his official Toxic Advisor Dominic Cummings and he’s still firmly rooted.

Why are they keeping Williamson  on? 

  1. This isn’t a government that insists on competence. Take a minute to consider the prime minister.
  2. The schools are reopening soon, and if it follows the pattern the government has established, it’ll be a mess. So they’ll be able to sacrifice one minister to the gods of public outrage instead of two. This’s known in the trade as efficiency.
  3. Both of the above.

Your answers will be graded by an algorithm that takes your parents’ income and educational background into account. The results may be reversed as soon as a second algorithm determines that the moment of maximum chaos has arrived, but I can’t promise. 

The correct answer is C. Not that it matters. Your grade’s already been determined, your fate is fixed, and there is no such thing as free will.

Doesn’t it just make you happy to read Notes?

*

Speaking of blame, Public Health England is being folded into a new agency, along with the Covid track and trace system, and it will not, may the heavens forbid, be put in the hands of someone with a public health background but those of Dido Harding, whose background is in business and who’s proved her worth by organizing the complete mess that is track and trace. This is also efficient. The government gets to blame a now-defunct body, Public Health England, for screwing up its response to the pandemic while rewarding one of the Conservative Party’s inner circle. And we’ll all forget that the government was the outfit going for herd immunity when the pandemic started. You remember herd immunity, right? The theory that said, “It’s okay if someone else’s granny dies. We can’t shut down the economy.”

Somehow they never think it’ll be their own granny who dies. Or themselves.

*

I read about a new home coronavirus test that works like a pregnancy test. I don’t think you pee on it, but it reports back in the time (the article said) that it takes to  eat your cornflakes. I was starting to get excited about it when I noticed that the article was in an absolute rag–an unreliable source. I got mad, deleted, it and haven’t been able to find it again. I googled pregnancy-style covid tests and got information on what to do when you’re pregnant with covid, which sounds like someone out there is spending nine months incubating a virus.

And there I was, thinking Rosemary’s Baby was scary. Anyway, at that point I decided not to worry about the link.

According to the description of the test, you add whatever precious bodily fluid the test asks for, plug the kit into the wall, and wait an hour for your result. 

Well, I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take me an hour to eat a bowl of cornflakes.

Okay, full disclosure: I don’t eat cornflakes–they’re soggy and horrid–so I might not be eligible for the test. If I had to choose between knowing whether I had the virus and avoiding the cornflakes, I might well choose ignorance.

But never mind me. We’re trying to discuss public health, so stop fooling around, please. I’m sure I I could apply for an exemption anyway–maybe substitute an old sock or something else tasty to fill the time while I wait. 

The problem with the test is that it may or may not be legit. The Royal College of Pathologists (if you want to be impressive in Britain, find a way to get royal into your name)–

Can we stop wandering off the topic, please? The Royal College of Pathologists has called for the rules to be tightened on the home antibody testing kits that are being sold to consumers. And here I do have a link.

Why are they complaining? Well, to start with, no one knows whether having antibodies protects you from the disease. And if that doesn’t discourage you from buying a kit, the result might not be accurate. Or it might not be clear. The BBC tested 41 kits and found that a third were either inaccurate or gave incomplete information. 

Other than that, though, they’re great. And if you are pregnant, I’m sure your baby will be lovely. 

*

There’s good and bad news for singers worried about the pandemic. A study reports that, as a way of spreading the droplets and aerosols that are believed to carry the virus from person to person, singing quietly is only marginally more efficient than talking quietly. If you shout or sing loudly, though, and you’ll produce 24 times (shouting) or 36 times (singing) more of the suspect droplets and aerosols.

The study hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, but a lot of studies are being released before they’re reviewed in the midst of the current crisis. 

The size of the space where you sing or yell, as well as its ventilation, also come into the equation. Singing in a cathedral is going to be safer than singing in a pub. Singing in the shower, no matter how small, is safe as long as you don’t pack twenty of your closest friends in there with you.

The study is the first one to look systematically at singing, but it has its limits. It didn’t look at how much of the virus aerosols actually carry or how much of a risk they pose, and it didn’t look at the dynamics of choir singing.  

*

How much has Britain paid consultants for, um, whatever crucially important, world-beating work that it is they’ve done to help us out during the pandemic? That’ll be £56 million, please, and we don’t take checks. And most of their contracts have been given without competition. Because, hey, it’s a crisis. C’mon, studies are being published before they’re peer reviewed. Contracts are falling from the sky like candy from a pinata. 

Sorry about missing the tilda over the N in pinata. I’m sure Word Press has one somewhere, but I can’t find it and haven’t looked very hard.

Some of the contracts haven’t been made public yet but they have been leaked. Because, hey, it’s a crisis. Candy. Pinata. Want a sampling? PwC got a £1.4 million six-month contract to  to help run an emergency fund for small charities struggling to survive the pandemic. And McKinsey got £14,000 per day for six weeks to help create a replacement for Public Health England. I’m not sure if that includes any nitty-gritty work or if it’s just about defining its “vision, purpose and narrative.” I’m cynical enough by now to believe that the answer is behind door number two. And that the result will be some corporate gibberish that will mean nothing but will, I’m sure, look lovely when it’s printed in gold on the front of thousands of folders to hand out at conferences.

*

Speaking of contracts, a company called Public First, run by long-time associates of cabinet member Michael Gove and of the prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings, got a contract–again, with no competition–to work with Ofqual on its recent disaster, that algorithmically driven disaster I mentioned in the first paragraph. 

The association with Gove and Cummings goes back some twenty years, to the early days of the campaign to haul Britain out of the European Union. It was a long-shot investment that seems to have paid off.

How much were they paid for all their hard work? Dunno. It hasn’t been made public. It’s believed (remember, the contract hasn’t been made public) that the company was hired to help secure public confidence in what Ofqual did in downgrading 40% of graduating students’ grades. 

Stop laughing. It’s deeply disrespectful.

Standardization and movable goal posts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Earlier this year, in a King Kong meets Godzilla moment, Covid-19 ate the end-of-year standardized tests that older Britain’s students would normally have taken. For kids who were applying to universities, that meant–ack!–they had no test grades to submit. 

But they didn’t have no grades at all, because every year teachers estimate the grades their students can expect to get on the standardized tests, and kids submit those with their applications. Then they take the tests and submit the actual scores, which (or so I’ve read) are on average lower than the predicted grades. 

So what’s a sober, responsible education system to do when the actual tests can’t be taken? Why, make up a system as it goes along, of course. 

Scotland ran up against this first, since (limited) power over the schools has been devolved to the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s solution was to use an algorithm–because algorithms are fair, unbiased, don’t run for office, and don’t leave crumbs under their desks–to compare students’ predicted grades with the grades students from their schools got in previous years and with the lifecycle of the common earthworm. After the algorithm had ruminated for microseconds, it spit out corrected grades for everyone.

Irrelevant photo. Montbretia, a flower that spreads like mad and chases gardeners through their dreams.

And what happened? Lo and behold, the poorer (or in other ways the more disadvantaged) the families of the kids you went to school were, the more points you lost. Because guess what: Kids from your school just don’t do that well on standardized tests, so be realistic, you wouldn’t have either. 

All predictable hell broke loose, and the Scottish government backed down. The predicted grades will stand.

Then the hot potato was thrown to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland

How can you throw a hot potato simultaneously to three countries? Through the magic of privatization, that’s how. Our politicians can make one potato into three and lower taxes on corporations and the richest 1% all at the same time.

Okay, I’ll come clean: Privatization has nothing to do with this. I just slipped it in because I like to blame things on privatization. And I’m right often enough that the habit gets reinforced. See below.

England is saying students can accept the grades “based on teacher estimations” (there’s a lot of wiggle room in there, so I’m relying on quotation marks to keep everything in place), or swap them for the marks they got on their mock exams. Or they can take the test in the fall. 

Assuming that reality doesn’t intervene and cancel the tests again, although no one seems to be talking about that, at least not publicly.

Of course, that means this coming academic year goes straight into the trash.

Head teachers (if you’re American, read that as principals), though, are saying that mock exams aren’t graded in any consistent way. And some schools canceled mock exams when they saw the pandemic headed for them, so their kids have none to fall back on.

Wales says its modeling is fair, and nearly half of its student grades are based on AS levels. AS levels are a related test taken earlier that I’m not going to try to explain because, c’mon, I don’t really understand this stuff either. Just nod soberly and no one will know how lost you are. 

Northern Ireland is saying it’ll let students appeal their grades on the basis of their mock exam scores. 

I can’t explain why universities aren’t stepping up and saying, “We’re not taking any of this seriously and we’ll be making our own judgements on the basis of [fill in the blank].” Maybe there’s nothing to slot into that blank. I’m too distant from the British educational system to tell you anything useful. You can almost hear them getting ready to say, “Nothing to do with me, your honor.”

Everyone who writes about this is required to use the phrase moving the goal posts. So think of Britain as a country of four nations (which aren’t necessarily getting along well at the moment), and in each of those nations two people are running and random directions, struggling to keep goal posts upright and the space between them more or less even, because if you lose that relationship they’re not goal posts anymore, they’re just posts.

*

So much for the kids (or former kids) who’ve graduated. Let’s turn our jaded attention to the kids who are due back in school: Summer’s winding down and the government’s hell bent to get them back into the classroom. Because education matters and a generation is in danger of being lost. Because (somewhat less nobly) parents can’t go back to work until their kids can be safely stashed someplace. Because (still less nobly than that) the nation’s sandwich and coffee shops can’t sell sandwiches and coffee until office workers are poured back into their cubicles and deskicles. Without people pouring in and out of buildings, city centers are dying.

Spellcheck, in case you’re interested, doesn’t object to the word deskicle. What’s on earth has happened in the working world since I left? Are people really working at deskicles?

Schools will be safe, the government tells us. The kids will wash their hands and magical incantations will be both incanted and decanted over the school grounds at the start of each school day. Five-year-olds will be reminded every hour on the hour not to touch anything.

Oh, hell, don’t worry about the details. It’ll be fine.

And while that’s being released to the press, what should happen but that a couple of new bits of information appear, from the U.S. and Israel, about kids and the virus.

From a summer camp in Georgia comes the news that younger kids get infected as well as older ones. As the Center for Disease Control so poetically put it, “The findings demonstrate that Sars-CoV-2 spreads efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among persons in all age groups, despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission. . . .

“This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to Sars-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

Israel had been fairly effective in clamping down on the virus, but in May it reopened its schools. By the end of the month, it had closed a hundred of them and ordered thousands of students and staff to quarantine. 

Epidemiologist William Hanage said, “If community transmission is low, the costs to kids of keeping schools closed are much greater than keeping them open.

“However if community transmission is high or increasing, opening schools can only add to it. It’s not clear by how much.” 

So nothing’s certain yet, but the reports are sobering. 

What does the government tell us? The education secretary, Gavin Williams, said on Monday that opening the schools carried few risks. And Public Health England, having apparently said in an unpublished study that older kids were more likely than younger ones to get and transmit the disease, publicly said that reports that it has recommended tougher rules for older kids were incorrect. Also wrong. And false. Did I mention false? 

“Parents can be reassured that to [blah blah blah] an extremely stringent system of controls by” et cetera. Also and so forth. 

It’ll all be fine. 

*

A health minister, Edward Argar, told the world (or as much of it as was listening) that Britain’s system of tracing the contacts of infected people is almost as good as New Zealand’s

“We’ve traced a quarter of a million in the space of about two and half months . . .” he said. “Look at New Zealand, they have a slightly higher percentage success rate, they’ve traced 360 people.

New Zealand’s population is 4.8 million. England’s is 56 million. Last I checked, New Zealand had had a total of 1,570 cases compared to England’s 270,000. So yeah. We’re hardly behind them at all.

On the other hand, New Zealand has 26.7 million sheep.

Argar–and this, of course, is no more relevant than the sheep or the photo I dropped in at the top this post–is a former lobbyist for Serco, which runs the £108 million test and trace system. The system that only managed to contact a little over half the people in the same household as folks who’d tested positive. 

In the same household. They’d do a better job if they called the sheep.

Someone has leaked a memo from Public Health England in which they approached Serco about the test and trace contract. No bids were taken from other companies.

But it’s worth mentioning that Argar has also served in the Justice Department, and that Serco runs five private prisons and a prisoner escort service. The justice secretary, David Gauke, felt he needed to reassure the world at large that there wouldn’t be any conflict of interest.

So settle down, cynics of the world. It’s all in good hands.

My thanks to Bear Humphries and Annie Robinson for letting me know about the esteemed Mr. Argar.

*

What’s the story on Russia’s vaccine? Skeptics point out that they’ve skipped phase III trials–the ones that look for side effects and measure its effectiveness, preferably in the widest possible sample of the population. The phase that generally takes months. 

So it’s not clear either how safe or how useful the vaccine will be. Russian officials say they hope its antibody response will last for as long as two years. Skeptics point out that no one knows much about how long Covid antibodies last or what protection they offer, and they worry that a partially effective vaccine could lead governments and people to abandon efforts to suppress the virus. 

Professor of immunology Danny Altmann said, “The collateral damage from release of any vaccine that was less than safe and effective would exacerbate our current problems insurmountably. . . . We are all in this together.”

Vladimir Putin’s daughter has taken a dose. Make of that what you will.