Bunnies, scotch eggs, and religions: England greets the pandemic

No set of guidelines is so perfect that someone, somewhere won’t see a loophole and someone else won’t see a joke. A bar in Nottingham sees both. 

As usual, we need some background before we go on. Remember how Julius Caesar divided all of Gaul into three parts? No? Well, I was kind of young back then, but I swear no one talked about anything else for months. And here we are a couple of thousand years later with all Britain divided three tiers.

It’s so exciting. We’re following the example of the Roman Empire. We haven’t elected a horse to Parliament yet, so we may not follow every detail, but we haven’t ruled it out yet.

But back to the bar: Britain’s just come out of a lockdown and the tiers are about how many Covid cases each area has. If you have more cases, you have more restrictions, and if you have more restrictions, you have a higher tier number.

Nottingham is in tier three. That means that bars, pubs, cafes, restaurants, and social clubs are closed “except for takeaway, delivery and click and collect services.”

Bowling alleys, casinos, and movies (not being able to do click and collect) are also closed, along with everything else you can think of that’s fun (or that someone you know thinks is fun even if  you don’t) and indoors and a handy place to trade viruses. So are some things that are outdoors, and I have no idea what the logic there is.

Irrelevant photo: A something plant. We got it last year and whatever is it, it survived the last winter. I’m hoping it’ll make it through another.

Places of worship are open, along with hairdressers, massage parlors, tattoo parlors, gyms, and a few other things that don’t like to be seen rubbing shoulders in a single category.

So what’s an enterprising bar to do? A tequila and mezcal bar called 400 Rabbits has applied to be recognized as the Church of the 400 Rabbits. Its website says:

“Join us as we begin our journey to answer absolutely none of life’s big questions. Such questions as why are we here, what’s the meaning of life, why didn’t they just fly the eagles to mordor and why did dominos stop making the double decadence pizza base?!

“Our aim is simple, to offer a place of worship to our deity the mezcal bunny. A place where you can drink mezcal without having to order a carvery dinner alongside it, a place where you aren’t kicked out into the cold heartless night at 10pm, a place where you can get away from the busy gyms, supermarkets, shops, beauty salons, massage parlours, cinemas, theatres, sports venues, xmas markets, schools, universities, betting shops and literally everywhere else that will be allowed to remain open while pubs and bars will remain shut.”

[I think their list’s of what’s allowed to stay open is off a bit, but let’s not quibble.]

“Our application to be recognised as an official place of worship and open our doors has been submitted to the registrar general. You can support our application by joining our congregation. Choose to be a ‘Bunny Believer’ or become ordained as a ‘Reverend of the Righteous Rabbits’ by signing up below.”

Membership costs £10 and gets you a T-shirt and an invitation to attend worship “if our application is granted (it definitely won’t be).”

The money will go to the Emmanuel House Support Centre, which works with the homeless.

How do you become recognized as a religion in Britain? It’s not easy, because England doesn’t have a central register of religions or any way to formally recognize one. (I think that’s true of the rest of the country but I’m not sure–sorry.)

What it does have, though, is a handy Form for Certifying a Place of Meeting for Religious Worship under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855, and that’s what the bar owner is working with. The form asks about the building you’ll be using, the faith and denomination of the congregation, and whether it meets regularly for worship (“daily until late,” the 400 Rabbits wrote). That seems to be about it.

Given that the government hasn’t put itself in the business of deciding on any religion’s legitimacy, I don’t know if they’ll have any grounds to turn down the Church of the 400 Rabbits. 

The church is also on Facebook, and its page says, “We’ve had an absoloutely [nobody ever claimed rabbits could spell] overwhelming response to the church with hundreds of sign ups to the congregation from all over the world, from Kazakhstan to New Zealand, Russia and the USA and of course right here at home. And that’s before we’ve even officially launched the site!

“. . . Thanks to everyone for showing your support and helping us highlight the plight of hospitality businesses under the government’s batshit new tier restrictions!

“Now i’m off to have a hearty scotch egg for dinner!

“Praise be the bunnies.

I’m pretty sure I’d disagree with the owner–James Aspell–about opening bars in the middle of a pandemic, but he’s damn funny. Even if he and his rabbits can’t spell. 

 

What’s this about scotch eggs?

I wrote about this before, but hey, this is important, so let’s come back to it. The government’s tying itself in knots over scotch eggs (which, it turns out, don’t take a capital S) and the definition of a substantial meal. The definition matters because a pub can sell alcohol to anyone buying a substantial meal. But all a government has to do is tell that to the press (or the pubs) and they’ll start asking what a substantial meal is. Is it a scotch egg? A ham sandwich? A sausage roll?

The environment secretary said a scotch egg would qualify if the pub had table service. 

Then the prime minister’s spokesperson said the government wasn’t going to get into the definition of every possible meal.

Then the minister for the cabinet office, Michael Gove, said scotch eggs would make a starter but not a meal, and after that he backtracked and said they were a substantial meal. He also said the government was relying on people’s common sense.

That’s safe enough. They’re not using much, so there’s plenty left for the rest of the country.

This came up before, in October, when the housing secretary said a pasty was a substantial meal if it came with side dishes, and also when the Manchester police stopped a pizzeria called Common from selling single slices, although Common argued that the slices were “f*****ng massive.”

Full disclosure: That may have been the Manchester Evening News, not the restaurant, being coy about spelling out fucking. Or it could have been the rabbits, although I wouldn’t expect them to be coy about that.

The police, someone from Common said, told them the slices “don’t fit the substantial food brief,” but ”couldn’t tell [them] what substantial food was.”

All this matters because businesses face a £10,000 fine if they sell someone alcohol without a substantial meal. That’s enough money to focus your attention on exactly what a substantial meal is. Common is now serving only whole pizzas. To the best of my knowledge, they haven’t started a religion, although I just might join one that prayed for pizza.

 

The Oxford vaccine: a quick update

Thanksgiving brings less than great news on the Oxford vaccine: Its tests used control groups that weren’t comparable, and its initial report kind of glossed over that by averaging the two together. One group got two equal doses of the vaccine. The other got an initial half dose, then a second full dose, and it responded better than the first.

But that second group also had a top age of 55 and the other group included older people. So what was responsible for the difference, age or dosage? 

The control groups in the two different tests–those are the people who didn’t get the real vaccine–also got different placebos, which may or may not make a difference.

That initial half dose wasn’t a deliberate decision but a manufacturing mistake that seems to have paid off. Regulators were told about it at the time.

I’m not sure how much of a problem any of this is. An article in Wired makes it sound damn near skulldugerous. One in the Financial Times is more ho-hum about it. At this point, it’s worth knowing while we wait and see what the experts have to say.

 

What stolen science tells us about the pandemic

Remember when we used to hear that kids don’t spread Covid? Remember when we used to hear that the earth was flat? 

Yeah, I really am that old.

New research tells us that opening the schools has helped drive second waves of the virus, because yes, kids do spread the virus. Even those cute little younger ones who are unlikely to get sick themselves–they can spread the virus too. They’re high-minded little creatures, and they like to share.

It’s our own fault. We taught them sharing was good.

A study in Germany found that in the majority of cases, kids’ infections hadn’t been spotted because they’d been asymptomatic. Or to put that another way, you find a lot more cases if you test for them. 

A different study, this one in Australia, showed that the majority of kids don’t transmit the disease to anyone. But that doesn’t let kids off the hook. The same thing’s true of adults: Just 10% of infected people are responsible for 80% of infections.

At a minimum, the article I stole my statistics from recommends that staff and students (including primary school students) should wear masks, school buildings should be well ventilated, and class sizes should be reduced.

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Again contrary to the standard wisdom from the early days of the pandemic, a study of masks shows that they protect both the wearer and people near the wearer. 

The reason they were thought not to protect the wearer is that the virus is tiny–about 0.1 microns. (Why 0.1 gets a plural is beyond me–it’s less than singular–but try it with a singular and your ear will scream explain how wrong it is. The English language doesn’t come armed for less-than-singular.) 

Small the virus may be, but according to airborne disease transmission expert Linsey Marr, the virusdoesn’t come out of us naked.” It clothes itself in the beautiful respiratory droplets known as aerosols, which contain salts, proteins, and organic compounds. With all that wrapped around its shoulders, the virus ends up looking like that portrait of Henry VIII and can be up to 100,000 times larger than the virus is without clothes. 

Irrelevant photo: An azalea starting to blossom indoors. It should really be a picture of Henry VIII, but he died before cameras were invented.

If you want a breakdown of fabrics and what percentage of aerosols they filter out, you’ll have to click the link. You can’t trust me with that level of detail. In the meantime, though, walk outside feeling confident that your mask isn’t just protecting others, it’s also protecting your own good self.

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The bad news about masks is that they deteriorate over time. The elastic stretches, the loops fall out of love with your ears, and the fibers get thin. The Centers for Disease Control recommends replacing them periodically. 

Phooey.

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A study from the University of Colorado and Harvard says that frequent fast testing–even with less-than-ideally-accurate tests–could stomp the virus into the ground. People who tested positive could get personalized stay-at-home orders and, at least in theory, bars, restaurants, stores, and schools could stay open.

The important thing, according to the calculations, is to test a population often–as much as twice a week–and get the results back quickly. 

The quick tests can cost as little as $1 each. One of the researchers said, “Less than .1% of the current cost of this virus would enable frequent testing for the whole of the U.S. population for a year.”

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Boris Johnson is promising England (or possibly Britain–it gets hazy, or I do) a mass testing program. I’m not sure what the details are, but until proven otherwise I’ll expect the usual competence we see from his government–in other words, a shambles. 

I’d love to be wrong on that, but the thing is, a testing program only works if you do something sensible with the information. 

In the meantime, the plans for Christmas are to declare a five-day truce so that families–up to three households–can get together, trade presents, overeat, and let long-buried family tensions surface festively. 

Cynic? Me?

Christmas truce negotiations with the virus are ongoing and look as hopeful as the Brexit negotiations. 

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I’m still wiping down my groceries and feeling like a bit of a maniac, since there’s been no evidence that in the real world Covid is spread by touching contaminated surfaces. Now there’s–well, something vaguely related to evidence:

An outbreak in Shanghai has been traced back to a couple of cargo handlers and who were sent to clean a contaminated container from North America. The container was damp and closed while they cleaned it, and neither was wearing a mask. The virus likes sealed, damp environments. 

Neither of them was taking groceries out of a shopping bag and they may well have caught it from airborne particles, so it’s not at all the same thing, but what can wiping down the groceries hurt? It gives me the illusion that I have some control over how this mess affects me.

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France’s current lockdown rules demands that people who are out carry a note, an attestation, with their name and address, the time they left home, and the reason for their trip. 

It’s been interesting.

When the police stopped one man who was hiding behind a car and looking suspicious, he was carrying a meticulously filled-our attestation: name, address, time.

Why had he left home? 

“To smash a guy’s face in.”

“We told him his reason for going out was not valid,” the local police chief said.

In either this lockdown or the last one, a man told the police he was going to see his grandmother. 

What was her name?

He couldn’t remember.

 

What might a vaccine mean? It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Now that we (may) have a vaccine, let’s talk about what it could mean. Because it’s not all Problem Solved. We’ve had a little time to feel good, so now we get to look for monsters under the bed. They may turn out not to be there, but let’s take a look while it’s daytime. Just to be safe.

Potential monster number one: We don’t know yet whether the Pfizer vaccine will keep people who’ve been exposed to the virus from spreading it. It may, but it’s also possible that it–or any other vaccine–will keep people from getting sick but not keep them from being silent spreaders. That would mean we can’t end social distancing and can’t burn our masks.

I can’t tell if those are beady little monster eyes I’m seeing or if it’s the buttons I lost a couple of years back.

I really should clean under there more often.

Potential monster number two: If the Pfizer vaccine is the one we all go with initially, logistical problems are a certainty. It has to be kept at an insanely cold temperature–minus 70 C. That’s minus 94 F. Not even forty years in Minnesota prepared me to understand how cold that is. The worst I saw was minus 40 F., and I think that counted the wind chill. It was cold enough to freeze any thought other than How do I get indoors but wasn’t cold enough to impress this vaccine.

That’s going to be more of a problem in countries without a well-developed infrastructure and without the money for a supply of–um, what do you use to keep a drug at that temperature? Something with more insulation than your average lunch bucket. 

Irrelevant photo: mallow

Potential monster number three: How much of the vaccine can be produced how quickly, and at what cost. And how much of what’s produced will be available to poorer countries? Because until the virus is under control everywhere, it won’t be fully under control anywhere. 

Potential monster number three and a half: Initial supplies will be limited, and the British government’s drawn up a tentative list of what sort of people will be priorities, but no country’s likely to have enough doses for all of its population. So what does that mean?

Say a vaccine protects 70% of the people who get it. (This is based on an article that came out before the preliminary Pfizer announcement of 90% protection, so the numbers will change but the structure of the problem won’t.) If 70% of the population is vaccinated, which is unlikely at first, 49% of the population will be immune.

Why 49%? Why not 49%. It’s a nice number–just off balance enough to be convincing. What it’s not, though, is enough to give us herd immunity. If the priorities for vaccination are the oldest people, the most vulnerable, and (please!) the front-line workers, that will still mean that younger healthy people need to maintain social distancing, wear masks, and generally continue to live the way we’ve been living. And people who’ve been vaccinated probably will as well if the vaccine doesn’t keep them from being contagious. Otherwise they’ll endanger both the 51% of vulnerable people who haven’t been protected. And (I know, I keep saying this) younger people are more vulnerable to this than we tend to think, so they’ll endanger them as well.

But it’s not all monsters and buttons and dust bunnies under the bed. We’ve got some potential monster-slayers too. 

Sorry, I don’t mean to get bloodthirsty about this. If you’re squeamish about killing a virus, take heart: A virus is not actually alive. Or else it is. This is something microbiologists argue about. It all depends on how you define life. Either way, though, it’s them or us. It’s enough to drive even the most dedicated pacifist to sit down and have a good long think.

So, potential monster-slayer one: On a very long-term basis, it’s possible that young kids who catch the virus but don’t get sick will build up a generational semi-immunity and Covid will eventually become just another cold. It’s possible that the four coronaviruses that cause colds started out like Covid. One of the four left cattle and discovered humans around 1890–the same year as what’s been thought of as a flu pandemic but might, in hindsight, have been a cousin of Covid. 

It’s possible. It’s also possible that all that is wrong. And of course most of us have to live long enough and emerge healthy enough for that to matter.

Potential monster-slayer two: More immediately, with the introduction of a vaccine, testing and tracing come into their own. They’re most effective when case numbers are relatively low–much lower than Britain has at the moment– because a country needs to track and quarantine every case. A vaccine could put us in a position to use testing and tracing well. 

Of course, even if you only have three cases, you still need a competent track and trace system. I’m not sure ours is up to the challenge of three cases yet.

Early in the pandemic, South Korea used track and trace well and Joshua Gans of the University of Toronto says, “We need to all become South Korea as quickly as possible.”

That will mean ensuring that quarantine actually works. Estimates of the percentage of people in England who fully self-isolate when they’re supposed to are low (11% according to one study), and the situation isn’t helped by the lack of genuine financial support. Some people can’t afford to stay home. Others, presumably, don’t take it seriously.

One problem with testing has been that the fast tests are less accurate than the slow ones. A test that is 90% sensitive will miss 10% of positives. But don’t despair. Baffling math may save us here. “Two tests five to seven days apart are 99% sensitive in finding you positive–if you actually are,” according to epidemiologist Tim Sly.

No, don’t ask me. They’re numbers. I can’t explain why they do what they do. The main thing is not to let them sense your fear.

The recommendation is to test people frequently–frontline workers, people who fly, people who breathe. Some of the rapid tests can spot people who are actually transmitting the virus, not just people who have symptoms. 

So we’re not ready to have a massive, maskless, indoor party the day after the vaccine arrives. Or maybe even the year after the vaccine arrives. Put away the confetti. Take a bite of the ice cream, then shove it back in the freezer.

But the picture is changing, and even though we have a government that’s elevated incompetence to an art form, I’m hopeful.

Are clothes essential in a pandemic? It’s the news from Britain

In a protest over the Welsh government’s ban on stores selling nonessential goods during the current lockdown, Chris Noden turned up at a supermarket in nothing but his undies and tried to shop while his wife followed along behind and recorded everything on her phone. A store employee kept him from going in, and as soon as Noden got him to admit that clothing was essential, he decided he’d made his point and left.

“I understand they have to control crowds in shops,” he said later, “but if someone really needs something or an item, what is it to stop them? They are actually blocking these aisles off with sweets, chocolate, bottles of vodka, whisky, lager, they are blocking it off with all nonessential items, essentially. I don’t know what is essential or not, it is a bit mad, like.”

What he’s talking about is that supermarkets blocked off areas selling nonessentials.

It’s true that he does seem to get stuck on a thought and repeat it, but he managed to make his point all the same. It’s also true that he didn’t just wear his undies. He also wore shoes, socks, a mask, and a tattoo. 

The essentials, essentially.

My thanks to Ocean Bream. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have missed this and what a tragedy that would’ve been.

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

Meanwhile, on October 29, British papers reported that nearly 100,000 people a day were catching Covid in England. That’s based on a study by Imperial College London, which also estimated that the rate of infection was doubling every nine days. That takes us close to the peak of infections last spring, although the death rate for people who have severe Covid is down from last spring, probably because a lot’s been learned about how to treat it.

Every age group in every region shows growth in the number of cases. In London, the R rate–the number of people each infected person passes the disease on to–was 3. The Southeast, Southwest, and East have an R rate above 2. On a national average, it’s grown from 1.15 to 1.56.

Regional lockdowns in the north may have slowed the spread, although they don’t seem to have stopped it. The government is frantically trying to avoid a national lockdown.

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But it’s all going to be okay, because the government has plans to do a Covid test on 10% of England’s population every week, using tests based on saliva, which are easier to manage than the current ones and give a result in thirty minutes. The plan is ambitious, headline-grabbing, and badly thought out. In other words, pretty much what anybody who watches this government would expect. 

The idea is that local directors of public health will “be eligible to receive” tests “equivalent to” 10% of their population. Which is a roundabout way of saying that’s how many tests they’ll get, but with a small escape clause in case someone needs to wriggle through the definitions of equivalency and eligibility. A properly motivated politician could emerge from that snarl rumpled and stained but still claiming victory.

In a moment of heroic bad planning, the project was launched without anyone talking to the local governments and health officials whose cooperation it depends on. 

What will the program expect of them? The head of the test and trace program, Dido Harding, said local authorities will “be responsible for site selection and deployment of [lateral flow] testing in line with their priorities.”

Lateral flow? Oh, come on, you know that. It’s what happens when things flow laterally, which is to say sideways.  

Did that help? 

I thought it would.

But it’s even better than that, since we’re translating. Things will flow not just sideways but also in a line with their priorities, which we can assume run sideways.

Whose priorities? I’m not entirely sure. Local governments’, probably, and they’ll get to choose their priorities by picking Option A or Option A. That way it’ll be their fault if Option 3 turns out to have been the obvious choice. Honestly, anyone would’ve been able to see it.

And no, I didn’t add that “[lateral flow]” business. That was some desperate reporter trying to condense a document full of waffle and bureaucro-speak.

So are local people wild about the program? Not demonstrably.

An anonymous director of public health said, “There is no point in testing large numbers of the population unless you do something with the results. We really, really want to improve testing and tracing, but once again this is the wrong way to go about it.”

Another public health official–a senior one, whatever that may mean, and also  anonymous–said, “We don’t know who does the contact tracing or how the workforce [to carry out the tests] is resourced. [That means paid for–and this is my addition.] We are trying to work out how this fits with the test-and-trace strategy with PCR testing and how any positive results are followed up and people are isolated.”

PCR testing is the kind that’s currently being done–the slower, more invasive kind of test.

And yet another anonymous senior public health official said, “They have come to us with a proposal that is poorly thought through. It is not clear what the cost is or the amount of work involved and there is nothing about contact tracing.”

As for the existing test and trace system, it might just meet its target of testing 500,000 people a day by the end of the month, but it’s done it by getting the results back to people more slowly than promised–sometimes at half speed–and bungling the tracing element. One in five people who test positive and are referred to the tracing side of the system are never heard of again. They’re abducted by flying saucers and held out of range of cell phones–or if you’re British inflected, mobile phones, whose name only promises that you can move them around, not that they’ll work where you so foolishly brought them. 

Are those lost people isolated while they’re there so they can’t pass on the virus? That’s the thing: We don’t know. But if you will get yourself abducted by flying saucers, you can’t blame Dido Harding for it, can you?

It’s also possible that the system’s missing more than one in five people. It depends when you wandered into the movie. Another article says less than 60% are reached, so that would be two out of five. 

I think. 

Oh, never mind the specifics. It’s all just a lovely, poetic way of saying the program’s a mess.

One article I found included an example of the kind of snafu that happens in the vicinity of the test and trace system: a small war over who’d pay for a portable toilet at a mobile testing station. The central government (I’m reasonably sure that would be the test and trace program itself) refused. Because they’re test and trace, after all, not test and toilet. That left two local entities playing hot-potato with it for days. In the meantime, the station couldn’t be set up, because no matter how little you pay people, and even if you put them on zero-hours contracts, they will want to pee eventually. 

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However hot that potato was, though, it’s a small one. Here’s a considerably larger one:

After advertising for people with a health or science degree (or an equivalent something or other) to work with experienced clinicians  in the English test and trace system, Serco–a private contractor–instead upgraded a bunch of people who were already working there, people with no relevant degrees or experience and who were working for minimum wage. That’s £6.45 an hour if you’re between 18 and 20 and £8.72 if you’re over 25.

You may have noticed that some years are missing there. That’s okay. Most of the callers are in the 18 to 20 group.

The job as originally advertised–the one the minimum-wage folks got moved into–was supposed to pay between £16.97 and £27.15 an hour. The people who got moved into the job are still working for minimum wage. 

That’s called upskilling. It’s not called up-paying. 

We can’t exactly say they weren’t trained. They got four hours of power-point training, an online conversation, a quiz, some e-learning modules (doesn’t that phrase send a thrill down your spine?), and some new call scripts. 

“It’s been an absolute shitshow,” one highly anonymous caller told a reporter. The callers are talking to people who’ve lost family members. People who cry. People who are in pieces. And the callers’ training manual says things like, “If somebody’s upset, be patient.” 

It leaves some of the callers themselves in pieces. They’re young. They have no training to help them deal with this. They’re in over their heads and they know it. 

I can’t imagine the system’s working any better for the people they call.

Somewhere in between advertising the higher pay level and giving the job to people at the lower one, the Department of Health and Social Care made a decision to split the job in two. The first set of callers would make the initial calls and then “qualified health professionals” would follow up. 

But Mr, Ms, of Mx Anonymous says, “There is no other call by a trained clinician.” The callers read out a list of symptoms, refer anyone who needs medical advice to 111, the Covid hotline, and only if they decide that there’s an immediate risk do they pass calls to a clinical lead. 

So this is, on average, a 20-year-old being asked to decide if there’s an immediate risk. No disrespect to 20-year-olds–I was one myself once–but you don’t have a lot of life experience to draw from at that age.  

Have I mentioned that the test and trace service is privatized? And that to date it’s cost £12 billion–more than the entire budget for general practice. More than the NHS capital budget for buildings and equipment.   

Which is one reason that a group of doctors have called for the money to be diverted to local primary care, local NHS labs, and local public health services. Local, local, and local. 

I’m not expecting anyone to listen to them.

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And so we don’t end on a completely sour note, Taiwan has marked 200 days without a domestically transmitted Covid case.

Its success is due mostly to reacting early and sanely: establishing coordination between government departments; emphasizing the use of masks; quarantining new arrivals. It didn’t hurt that both the strategy and communications with the public were led by experts.

It’s a radical concept, but it just might work.

What we’re not supposed to do: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A whopping 13% of people in England say they fully understand the lockdown rules. In Wales and Scotland, they’re doing better: 15% are fully enlightened. No one in charge of the survey managed to locate Northern Ireland, so I don’t have any data from wherever it is today. 

No, I can’t explain its absence. I’m only somewhat British–I was adopted, and late in life at that–so I can’t be expected to understand how this stuff works, not to mention why. What I can tell you is that 51% of people in England, 62% in Wales, and 66% in Scotland say they understand the majority of the rules. 

Do they really? Maybe. Which also implies maybe not. It was a survey, not a test. 

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Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper.

Meanwhile, in response to a ban on social get-togethers, the police in Scotland have broken up hundreds of house parties since August. Or possibly thousands. The number I found was 3,000, but that was how many times they’d been called out, not how many gatherings they broke up. 

Let’s say lots and leave it at that.

What kind of get-togethers? A party involving 270 students at a dorm. A religious gathering of 20 people. The virus doesn’t care whether you’re praying or shouting, “Sweet Jesus, I’ve never been this drunk in my life.” 

Places rented on Airbnb have been used for a number of the parties, indicating that people aren’t in the awkward position of have 264 more friends show up at their house than they’d planned on, they’re going into it with malice aforethought. 

A police spokesperson said the gatherings weren’t limited to any one age group. 

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A Spanish company, working together with a university, has come up with a machine that should be able to disinfect a room in minutes. It uses cold atmospheric plasma to clean surfaces and to kill 99% of viruses and bacteria in the air.

And if you’re not sure what atmospheric plasma is, what have you been doing with your life? It’s a deeply scientific-sounding phrase that I quoted in order to sound like I know more than you. 

Okay, haven’t a clue. I do understand cold, though. I used to live in Minnesota, which is close enough to Canadian border than the icicles that dangled from their roofs grew right past our windows.

Why don’t we go to a spokesperson, who can explain it all? 

Broadly speaking, we subject the surrounding air to a very strong electrical field, pulling electrons from the neutral particles in the air and forming ions. This system can generate up to 70 different types, from ultraviolet rays to peroxides, ozone, or nitrogen oxides. The synergies between these allow bacteria and viruses to be neutralized.”

Got it?

Me neither. What I do understand is that it’s the size of a laptop, it’s silent, and it can be used to clean either an empty room or one with people in it, recirculating the air. 

Let’s quote the article I stole that information from

“To do this, the system releases ions which, once disinfected, are reconnected in neutral particles.” 

They’re hoping to have it tested and certified by the end of the year. The snag? No one’s said–at least within my hearing–how much it’s going to cost. 

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Staff at some universities complain that they’ve been pressured to stop working at home and show up on campus so that the schools can create a vibrant atmosphere. Because what could be more exciting, when you’re young and taking on a  debt the size of Wales, than having lots of people around you to participate in the Great Covid Lottery? And who’s more exciting to play it with than the back-office staff? 

One school, in explaining why it needed bodies behind desks, wrote that it was trying to keep students from asking to have their tuition refunded, which at least has the virtue of being honest.

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The AstraZeneca / Oxford vaccine–one of the front runners in the race to make a massive viral load of money in the Covid vaccine market–reports that it’s sparked a good immune response in older adults as well as the young. Old codgers (and being one, I get to call us that) also have fewer side effects than the young. 

AstraZeneca says it will be available for limited use in the coming months.

Um, yes, and how fast, exactly, will those months be in coming? AZ says before the end of the year where countries approve its use. Britain’s health secretary says the first half of 2021 is more likely. But whenever it happens, it’s likely to be available to only a limited group at first. 

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Which leads me neatly into my next item, a warning from scientists that the rush to adopt a vaccine may get in the way of finding the best vaccine. Once a vaccine’s in widespread use, it’ll be harder to prove the efficacy of a later vaccine, especially among particularly vulnerable groups. Some mechanism, they say, needs to be set up to compare them.

The vaccines that are ahead in the race are using new approaches, but it’s possible that the older approaches will yield a better result. It’s not necessary, but it is possible.

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The US Centers for Disease Control has (or should that be have, since they insist on being multiple centers instead of a single one?) redefined what close contact means when we’re talking about exposure to Covid. The earlier guidance counted close contact as being within six feet of an infected person for fifteen minutes. Now the CDC reminds us that six feet isn’t a magic number, and neither is fifteen minutes. They’re rough estimates, and being around an infected person fifteen times in a day for a minute each time exposes you to as much virus as fifteen lovely, relaxed minutes in a single encounter.

That may seem obvious, but someone’s always ready to take these things literally. Some schools were moving students around at fourteen-minute intervals. Quick, kids, the virus is onto us! Everybody split up and move to different classrooms!

Basically, what they’re saying is that the more virus you’re exposed to, the greater your risk. Exposure isn’t something that happens all at once, like falling off a cliff. 

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And finally, a bit of rumor control: Wales did not classify tampons and sanitary pads as nonessential items and ban their sale during its current lockdown. What happened was that someone tweeted to Tesco that a store had refused to sell her period pads. Tesco tweeted back that it was government policy.

Tesco then deleted the tweet and apologized. It turns out that the store had cordoned off an aisle because of a break-in. Had someone knocked a wall down? No. The police were investigating, and anyone who’s ever been on a British highway after an accident can testify that you don’t mess with the police when they’re investigating. Everything stops until they’re damn well done.

But by the time Tesco deleted its tweet, the rumor-horse was out of the social media barn and galloping happily toward the Severn–the river that divides Wales from England–reciting, “One if by land and two if by sea, and I spreading rumors of all sorts shall be.” 

Sorry. American poem that kids of my generation had to memorize if we hoped for lunch period to ever arrive. It’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” ever so slightly bastardized, and it’s totally irrelevant but we’re getting toward the end of the post here and headed not just for the Severn River but the Stream of Consciousness.

Should we go back to our point? Sanitary products are recognized as essential and are available for sale. The Welsh health minister added that stores can sell nonessential items to customers in “genuine need,” which is defined as I think it’s lunchtime and I’m leaving now, so define that for your own hair-splitting self.  

The Welsh government is meeting with retailers to review the regulations and guidelines, after which it will all make sense.

Feeding hungry kids: the English public strikes back

After the government voted to deny £15 vouchers to low income families in England so that their kids wouldn’t go hungry during the school holidays, a local pub banned the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, from its premises.

For life.

It did the same to three other local MPs who voted against the vouchers with him.  Pubs can do that here, but they usually reserve it for the kind of customer who sets off fireworks on the bar or pulls the plumbing out of the men’s room. But I guess it’s a question of who does more damage in the long run.

The ban was posted on the pub’s Facebook page, which also reproduced a menu from one of the House of Commons’ many restaurants, where steak and chips are going for £11.77–a price subsidized by the taxpayer.

Don’t usually do politics but here goes,” the Facebook page said. “I have never known a Government which is consistently the wrong end of every argument.”

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Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

In tweeting about against the vouchers, Conservative MP Ben Bradley wrote, “At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime.

“One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids.”

FSM being free school meals. This is shorthand for the voucher program. Which is also shorthand.

Don’t worry about it.

When he started catching flak for that and a few other tweets, he complained that they’d been taken out of context. I’m still trying to figure out how to squeeze any context at all into 280 characters. Short of writing in Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, where a single character can be a whole word. 

*

In the meantime, players from Leeds United donated £25,000 for kids’ meals over the school break, and the club they play for has announced that it will match that.  

Businesses, restaurants, and local governments (including at least a few led by the Conservative Party–the party that voted against the £15 vouchers) have also stepped up with offers to help, and Conservatives are beginning to say that the government misjudged the feelings of the country. Not that kids need to eat and they want to do the right thing, but that people are mad at them.

They don’t even know how to say, “Ooops,” right.

All of it goes a good distance toward restoring my battered faith in humanity, but it’s worth remembering that whether kids get fed will depend on where they live. In some places there’ll be multiple offers and in others there’ll be none.

*

This morning, I listened to Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care, interviewed on the radio. I was driving and it was him or nothing. We eventually realized that nothing was much better, but before we did I was interested to hear that he’s not singing Ben Bradley’s tune. I doubt even Ben Bradley’s singing Ben Bradley’s tune anymore. It didn’t go over well. What he said was that of course the government’s making sure every child gets fed, but local governments are better at that than central government and we’ve given them money for it.

But, the interviewer said, that was way back when and it was spent long ago.

We’ve given them money, he said in seventeen different ways.

It’s an approach I’ve heard a lot in the last few years. Ask a government minister why the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank is so short of money and they’ll tell you how much money they already spent on the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank. It doesn’t answer the question, and sometimes they’re talking about money that was allocated before William the Conqueror’s boat first touched England’s southern shores, but it sounds like an answer and can usually be counted on to derail the conversation.

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Since as a nation we’re not handing low-income parents £15 to waste on feeding their kids, let’s review another spending program. No one tweeted that the £12.7 billion program to help the self-employed through the pandemic was pouring spaghetti sauce into crack dens, but a study from the Resolution Foundation says it gave £1.3 billion to workers who hadn’t lost any income while successfully missing 500,000 who did. The study blames a combination of strict eligibility rules and weak assessment. Basically, they excluded lots of categories of the self-employed and then didn’t ask people in the categories they accepted to document their losses. 

The  study also said that the self-employed were hit even harder in the first six months of the pandemic than employees were. Three out of ten stopped working during the worst of the crisis, and one in six is still out of work. 

About 5 million people count as self-employed in Britain, although some of them, inevitably, will be the mythically self-employed. It pays for corporations to offload the expenses of employing people by calling them freelancers, and people are desperate enough to accept that.

Do you remember when life was going to get endlessly better? 

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The lockdown in Wales is tighter than England’s, and it’s closed shops that sell nonessential goods, which has had the odd consequence of restricting supermarket sales of the same items. They’ve had to have had to cover shelves to hide the socks, the decorative hair thingies, the–

Actually, it’s hard to decide where to draw the line. The cake decorations? They’re edible, so maybe they can stay. The birthday candles? Non-edible but on the same shelves as the cake decorations. The mugs that say, “You’re the best”? The ones that say, “I changed my mind. You’re a cockwomble”?

Let’s turn to the experts: Nonessentials include electrical goods, telephones, clothes, toys and games, garden products, and homewares, and the decision on individual items depends on what part of the supermarket they’re in rather than their inherent essentialness. So forget the cups, but you can probably buy birthday candles.

Supplies for the “essential upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household,” such as batteries, light bulbs, and rubber gloves, are okay. Because who could function without rubber gloves?

It’s easy to make fun of, and I’m having a hard time holding myself back, but there is a logic to it. To slow the virus, you need to shut down everything you can, but they don’t want to hand supermarkets the business they’ve denied to small shops. Yes, it’s crazy. And yes, it makes sense anyway.

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While we’re talking about the odd places that rules lead us into, England’s rule of six limits gatherings–indoor, outdoor, underground, and hallucinated–to six people unless they’re all from a single household (it’s slightly more complicated than that, but close enough for our purposes). But some of London’s fancier restaurants have discovered that if people are talking business they can gather in groups of thirty.

Wheee. Take your foot off the brake and don’t be such a scaredy cat. 

One of the restaurants emailed its client list to let them know that “when the topic is business you can still meet over a fabulous working lunch or dinner without the restriction of the ‘single household rule.’ ” 

You will, however, need to employ at least one overcooked adjective and a full set of quotation marks, however unnecessary and aesthetically offensive they may be. 

At one expensive restaurant, the Sexy Fish, caviar sushi sells for £42 a piece, and you can buy a £16,000 Armand de Brignac champagne if you really need to. The reporter who scouted the place and asked diners if they were discussing business got himself thrown out. Which was lucky, because I doubt the Guardian’s budget stretches as far as the sushi, never mind the champagne. 

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

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

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

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

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

This might be an appropriate time to talk about sewage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nah, it’s got to be personal irresponsibility.

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

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.