The pandemic news from Britain, with a side of cultural appropriation

With English schools set to reopen in September, the papers are crammed with discussions about the safety of kids, of their families, and of school staff during the pandemic. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland make their own rules on this, so let’s keep it simple by pretending we’ve never heard of any of them. We’ll focus on England’s schools and preparations. Or lack thereof.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said there’s not much evidence of the virus being transmitted in schools. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has–hang on; I’m looking for a diplomatic way to say this–his head up his ass. But when you’re part of a government like the current one, that’s sometimes the best place to keep it, so we can’t entirely blame the man. 

As far as I can figure out, the evidence on how readily kids transmit the virus isn’t clear. Here’s what I think I know. Emphasis on think.

Irrelevant photo: Cotoneaster–pronounced kuh-tone-ee-ASS-ter, not cot-ton-EAST-er. The mysteries of English spelling.

One outbreak in a French high school ended up with 38% of students, 43% of teachers, and  59% of the non-teaching staff being infected. But a primary school in the same city had a much lower rate of infection in both students and staff. But don’t worry, Gavin. All of that happened in French and French isn’t a required subject, so we don’t need to worry about it.

Older kids seem to transmit it more often than younger ones. No one is sure why, since young kids, cute as they are, are usually little germ factories. It might be because younger kids are less likely to get sick, so they’re less likely to cough and sneeze. It also might not be. 

Before anyone sorts out how extensively younger kids transmit the virus, we need a better understanding of who’s catching it from who. Or from whom, if you want to be like that. The studies indicating that young kids don’t transmit it widely are still pretty limited.

There’s some discussion of opening schools and counterbalancing that by closing pubs and restaurants. The idea is to trade one place of transmission for the other, keeping the overall national rate the same.

Possibly.

The Association of School and College Leaders said that in the absence of clear guidance from the government, schools are making their own plans.

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Why don’t younger kids catch Covid more often? One theory is that the ACE2 receptors that Covid uses to invade the lungs haven’t developed much in young kids. (Don’t I sound like I know what I’m talking about here?) But then kids get older and wiser and they make more of those nifty little receptors, because hey, that’s what grownups do, and in marches the virus until, lucky them, they have enough that they can get sick too.

Remember when we all taught ourselves to smoke because it made us look grown up? We never seem to learn, do we?

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Would it help control the virus if staff and students were tested regularly once the schools reopen? Possibly, but the schools minister, Nick Gibb, said the government’s not going to do it. They’ll stick to testing people with symptoms. Because that’s the way they’re going to do it and by god it will work. 

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But forget about the schools for a minute. Let’s talk about England’s world-beating test and trace system. It’s laying off 6,000 people.

Take that, world.

While the world lies on the mat recovering and the umpire counts, let me explain: The track and trace system was centralized and contracted out to mega-companies who know zilch about public health. It’s generated reports of people having been hired, minimally trained, and then given next to no work. It hasn’t done well at tracing the contacts of people who test positive for the disease. 

The contact tracers who haven’t been canned will now be assigned to work with local public health teams, who have a much better success rate and who (I’m speculating here) might offer them some training, since they actually know a bit about public health. 

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We are, of course, all hoping for a vaccine that will make the rest of this nonsense irrelevant, which is a nifty lead-in to this next item: The trials of the Oxford and Moderna vaccines could be undermined by too monochrome a test group. The Oxford trial group was only 1% black and 5% Asian. In Moderna’s test group–and here I have to shift from percentages to numbers because that’s what the article I’m linking to did and I’m too numerically incompetent to shift them over myself, although mixing them is senseless and makes comparison harder–40 of the 45 participants were white. 

As researcher and surgeon Oluwadamilola Fayanju of Duke University explained it, “Diversity is important to ensure pockets of people don’t have adverse side-effects.”

Anyone who’s still countering Black Lives Matter by saying that all lives matter, please take in the implications of that. It might help explain why the focus is on black lives just now.

Based on the numbers, I think we’re talking about the safety trials there, not the larger ones that test for effectiveness.

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Best of luck with that link, by the way. Several publications–New Scientist, the BBC, the Guardian–keep ongoing pandemic updates. They’re incredibly useful, but I’m never sure that the link I drop here will take anyone to quite the place where I found the information. 

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It must be time for a non-Covid break here. We’ve been almost serious for long enough to have earned one.

A couple of Canadian businesses thought they’d swipe a bit of the Maori language to make their products look cool. Which is how a brewery and a leather store ended up naming their ale / entire outlet Pubic Hair–or huruhuru, in te reo Maori, the Maori language. 

The brewery’s cofounder said he thought huruhuru meant feather. 

To be fair–and I am sometimes–huruhuru has a number of meanings, and feather is one of them. I don’t speak Maori, but I’ve brushed up against it enough to wonder if everything doesn’t have a number of meanings. But according to  TeHamua Nikora, who used Facebook to explain the problem, the first thing Maori speakers will think of when they see the brand is not going to be feather. 

“It’s that entitlement disease they’ve got,” he said. “Stop it. Use your own language.” 

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Heinz, on the other hand, was using its own language when it named its combined ketchup-mayonnaise Mayochup, but it put its foot in it anyway. Cree speakers went on–what else?–Twitter to say that in Cree that means shit-face.

Enjoy your burger. 

Money, masks, and rumors: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The number of coronavirus cases in England went up 17% in the past week. Some of those are concentrated in hotspots, but there’s been an increase outside those areas as well. And the test and trace system is managing not to contact almost half of the new cases.

But the spread of the virus among people outside of hospitals and other institutions may be leveling off. I think that’s in Britain, not England, but when I went back to check (I found that in an ongoing pandemic news update and it’s easy to lose an old item as new ones are added) I found a newer item saying the R rate–the rate at which the disease spreads–may be rising. In England, as opposed to Britain as a whole. 

What do all those contradictory statistics mean? Part of the difference has to do one set of numbers covering everyone and the other covering only people outside of institutions. Beyond that, I’m not really sure. 

Irrelevant photo:California poppies, which grow well in Cornwall. You’d hardly notice their accent.

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In April, England bought 50 million face masks for the National Health Service, which can’t use them. They’re not a tight enough fit. To be any use at all, they have to pass a face-fit test, which checks that they seal tightly to the wearer’s face. These don’t. 

The masks were the most expensive part of a £252 million contract given to Ayanda Capital, which says it specializes in “currency trading, offshore property, private equity and trade financing.” As the BBC explains it, “It has emerged that the person who originally approached the government about the deal was a government trade adviser [that’s Andrew Mills, and no, I never heard of him either] who also advises the board of Ayanda.

“But he told the BBC his position played no part in the awarding of the contract.”

Mills’ company “had secured the rights to the full production capacity of a large factory in China to produce masks and was able to offer a large quantity almost immediately.

“But the legal document seen by the BBC notes that Mr Mills requested the government instead sign the contract for the masks with Ayanda Capital, whose board he advises, because it could arrange overseas payment more quickly.” 

Far be it from me to imply that there’s any skullduggery going on here.  Or incompetence. But, the director of the Good Law Project, one of two organizations pushing for a judicial review, mentioned three Covid-related contacts, each worth over £100 million, going to a pest control company, a confectioner, and a family hedge fund.

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This might be a good time to tell you about a study of what’s being called the Cummings effect. Dominic Cummings is Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisor and external brain, and when he came down with Covid he broke the lockdown rules he helped write. The most interesting of the ways he broke them was to take a 60-mile round trip, with his kid in the car, to test his eyesight. 

Then he got caught. Then he refused to resign. Then Johnson refused to dump him. Because without him, he has no thoughts. None. Not even “I wonder what’s for supper.” It all just goes silent in there.

As you might expect, it’s been harder, since that happened, to convince people to follow the guidelines, but now we don’t have to guess: It’s been established by 220,755 surveys of 40,597 people in England, Scotland, and Wales. 

The more often Lord Google showed people doing searches on Cummings’ name, the more confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic declined. And it hasn’t come back. 

Confidence in the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales didn’t drop. Northern Ireland had stepped outside for a smoke at a crucial time and was left out of the survey.

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Unlike Cummings, when the mayor of Luton, Tahir Malik (along with two fellow members of the Luton Council), got caught–on video–attending a party that broke the lockdown guidelines, he had the decency to resign. The limit was supposed to be six people or two  households. There were twelve, and there’d just been a warning that the town had a spike in virus cases.

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In the early stages of the pandemic, the BBC was busy debunking pandemic rumors that circulated on WhatsApp. 

What rumors? 

One: Tanks were rolling into Middle Britain, ready to put down civil unrest. That came with photos. When you looked closely, though, the tanks were on the wrong side of the road and the license plates were wrong.

Who knew that tanks had license plates? Or even kept to their own side of the road. Call me naive, but I kind of thought that any vehicle that can get past a trench can drive on whatever side of the road it wants to.

Two: Dead bodies were being stored in ice rinks. 

Three: Helicopters were spraying disinfectant at night. 

Four: Sipping warm water every twenty minutes would wash any virii out of your throat and into your stomach, where they’d be slaughtered by the gastric juices that work there twenty-four hours a day.

Someone sent me that one on Facebook, although by the time I got it, it was considerably more complicated and the water was no longer warm.

A Londoner got into the spirit of the thing and sent out a message that went viral: Wembley Stadium was going to be turned into a giant oven so the government could make a massive lasagna. He heard about it from his sister’s boyfriend’s brother, who worked for the Ministry of Defense. 

Other people got into the act. The Channel Tunnel was being used to bake a giant garlic bread and the Rome Coliseum was being used as a bowl for a giant salad. 

I wish I’d thought of at least one of those.

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For a while there, governments–or at least some governments–were considering issuing immunity passports, which would exempt people who’d had Covid from whatever the restrictions the rest of the country was expected to follow. Because they’d be immune.

The problem with doing this is that no one knows whether immunity’s available for it. Virus stores have lots of immunity on hand, but not necessarily in your size or in the color you need. Covid immunity is on back order and will be shipped as soon as it’s available. Please try us again at your earliest convenience.

The World Health Organization says there’s no scientific evidence to show that immunity passports make any sense. Other than that, they’re a great idea. 

They’re also called immunity certificates, and there’s no scientific evidence for them under that name either. But if you ask Lord Google, he’ll be happy to refer you to an outfit that’ll sell you one for $89.95. All you do is get tested, come up negative, connect your doctor to the company, and open your wallet.

“ImmuniPass is your Immunity Passport!” it says. 

Indeed it is. It’s absolutely useless, but it is your Immunity Passport and yours alone, and it comes with a tasteful sprinkling of capital letters and a hand-crafted exclamation mark.

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The Covid antibody test that Britain’s using may be giving more false positives than anyone thought. A recent study from Oxford University tested 9,000 healthcare workers and found 11% less sensitivity than they expected. To translate that, go back to the first sentence: More false negatives. More people told they don’t have the virus when they do. It has to do with the level of antibodies you need to convince the test that you’re toxic. 

The study found people who’d lost their senses of taste and smell, suggesting they had the disease, but still tested negative. It’s not definitive, but it rings alarm bells. 

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That’s not the best intro to this next bit of information, but my partner and I both tested negative on Wednesday. And of course, in our case negative really is a negative. And we know that because–

Okay, we don’t know it, but Cornwall (so far) has a relatively low rate of infection. How long that’ll last with all the summer people running around is anyone’s guess, but for the moment we’re okay. May you be as well.

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Australia, having worked its way onto the all-too-short list of countries that were handling the pandemic well, saw the beginnings of a second wave. Unlike New Zealand, which is somewhere near the top of the list, it didn’t try to eliminate the disease, just suppress it. (New Zealand is warning itself not to get complacent, but that’s a different tale.)

Australia has responded to the second wave with hard regional lockdowns, including fines for not wearing masks and the possibility of manslaughter charges for people who cause a death by spreading the disease. 

A group of people who refuse to wear masks claim that being sovereign citizens means they’re exempt from an assortment of laws they don’t like–not just the ones about masks but having to pay parking fines and local taxes. Basically, the argument goes, the government has no power over them. It’s an idea that gained traction in the U.S. in the 1990s and it seems to be popping up across the world now. Legally it’s complete bullshit, but in these post-truth days, that doesn’t weigh heavily with everyone.

The police have found themselves baited at checkpoints and dealing with people who refuse to give their names and addresses. One woman who refused to wear a mask smashed a cop’s head into the cement repeatedly.  The police link the incidents to the sovereign citizen movement. 

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This has nothing to do with the pandemic, but let’s end with the anti-immigrant campaigner Tommy Robinson (whose real name isn’t Tommy Robinson, but never mind all that) having moved himself and his family to Spain, claiming that it’s not safe from them to stay in Britain after an arson attack on their home. 

In one article, that’s an alleged arson attack. I’m not clear on how alleged or established it is, but I am clear on the irony of an anti-immigration activist becoming an immigrant because, hey, his home country just isn’t safe anymore and what else can a responsible parent do but try to make sure his kids are safe? It’s a Dominic Cummings moment: one set of rules for me and another set for you lot.

 

Small changes in the world of pandemic Britain

How is our world changing with the onset of the pandemic? Well, the International Football Association, which sets the rules for international competition, has added a new offense: deliberately coughing at another player. The referee gets to decide what’s deliberate and what’s close enough to be offense-worthy, and the player who’s on the wrong side of the decision can be sent off the field.

If you’re American, you should understand that football is soccer but that coughing is still coughing.

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A company in Taiwan has developed a robot that can swab noses to test for the coronavirus. It sounds silly, but it’s one of those jobs that puts health care workers at risk. And you might as well admit it: You’ve always wished automation would swab your nose for you. 

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Vaguely relevant photo: Fast Eddie, who can’t be bothered opening doors. He has people who do that for him.

When Britain was still in lockdown, adults went from watching an average of 34 minutes a day of streaming services in April 2019 to an average of 71 minutes a day in April 2020. Those are the Netflix-type shows that you pay for. But that’s nothing. They also went from watching 4 hours and 53 minutes of TV and online video a day to 6 hours and 25 minutes. 

If I understand this correctly, that’s 6 hours and 25 minutes of TV shows, online pornography, and videos clips of cats opening doors and performing brain surgery. Per day. 

Who says lockdown is destroying our cultural life?

Okay, I only know about the cats because I sneak a peek now and then. You can also find videos of bears sitting in blow-up wading pools or canoodling with cats.

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How are we, as a nation, doing for money? About a third of Britain’s biggest companies have cut their top execs’ salaries in the face of the pandemic. 

Impressed? Don’t be. Top execs make as much or more from bonuses and share schemes as they do from their salaries.

What kind of money are we talking about? The head of Ocado–a grocery delivery outfit–made £58.7 million in 2018-2019–1,935 times the median salary of a full-time UK worker. To put that another way, it would take the average worker eight years to earn what he earns in a day. If that doesn’t add up, don’t blame me. I stole the statistic. See the link above if you want to argue. Or argue with me, but don’t expect a decent opponent. I’m a word person.

I don’t know if Ocado cut his pay–probably not, since food delivery businesses have been making out like (excuse the language) bandits–but I can’t see where he’d have a whole lot of trouble getting by if they did.

Back in the real world, there’s a ban at the moment on landlords evicting tenants who’ve fallen behind on their rent, but when the ban ends (as it’s scheduled to) they’ll owe a huge whackin’ amount of rent and no one who makes the decisions is talking, at least in public, about how they’ll to pay it off.

And a quarter of all adults are struggling with what’s being called food insecurity. That’s not exactly hunger. It’s hunger and being susceptible to hunger and to malnutrition. Almost a quarter have eaten less so they can feed their kids. 

In case anyone’s in danger of forgetting.

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Like the rest of the world, we live in the shadow of the disease–some of us more immediately and some of us less so.

My partner and I got tested for Covid-19 yesterday. Not because we have symptoms but because a friend whose husband died of the virus really, really wanted us to. And because every country should be testing asymptomatic people on a mass scale. It’s the only way to identify clueless carriers, and until we do that they’ll keep spreading the virus. 

I was reluctant. To work, testing has to be on a mass scale and we’re only two people. We could test negative and be exposed tomorrow, so what does a test tell us, really? And the British government isn’t doing mass asymptomatic testing. It’s pushing testing for people with symptoms. But, as our friend reminded me, I didn’t have any overwhelming amount of respect for the way the government’s handling the pandemic, so why did I suddenly want to respect their decision on this? 

We signed up.

So here’s the report on testing: The website where you book the test got stuck in a loop when Ida signed up, repeatedly asking for her date of birth, so that she wasn’t just born again but again and again and again. But it did eventually let us schedule the tests.

Okay, Ida booked both tests while I sat on the couch and kibbitzed.

The system only wanted my date of birth once. 

The testing was well organized. We found a variety of ways to screw up, but the people who worked there were patient and got us through it. Then we came home to go online and register the tests, because if you don’t, you don’t get your results and the whole thing’s pointless. 

Ida couldn’t get past the screen that asked for her post code. It didn’t believe her. Or it didn’t like her neighborhood.  

Whatever. She gave up and called the phone number that the form gave as a backup option.

I got past the post code with no problem. We live in the same house but my half is in a better neighborhood than hers. I was getting all ready to feel  smug when I realized that the page the form had sent us to exists to book a test, not to register a test you just took. 

When do you want to book your test? it asks. 

Two hours ago, please. 

I picked up the phone and called.

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I can’t leave you without a word or six about the government’s world-beating test and trace system. Because contact tracing is–or at least needs to be–a part of our lives these days.

Some of the people who’ve been hired as contact tracers still report–as they have from the beginning–having nothing to do. They’re supposed to call people who’ve tested positive, ask who they’ve been around, and then call them. And talk to them all about quarantining themselves. 

Some contact tracers report only making a handful of calls a month, including the ones to nonexistent numbers. Team leaders are keeping them busy with quizzes and offering prizes for the most calls made. 

One company subcontracting from the outsourcing giant Serco had 471 agents and made 135 calls in two days. That includes calls to wrong numbers, calls to voicemail, and multiple calls to a single person. The tales go on, but you get the drift. 

In early July, the system was reported to cost £10 billion.

That’s in addition to the contract tracing app that failed. That cost £11.8 billion

Yet another game changer: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The British government’s buying two new Covid tests that take only 90 minutes to cough out a result. As usual, they’re going to be game changing. I can’t remember how many times we’ve been told that, and here we are, still whacking the same old volleyball over the same old weary net. Or in my case, into the same old weary net. 

The reason I’m expressing just the slightest touch of cynicism about the tests–other than experience and generalized characterological weaknesses–is that next to nothing is known about the tests. How many false negatives do they produce? How many false positives? Dunno and dunno. No data’s been published.

That’s not a good sign. And the government has a track record of leaping in to buy pandemic goodies that then turned out to be somewhere between useless and not much better than.

Every last one of them was going to be either game changing or world beating. And no, we’re not competitive about this. We just don’t see the point of breathing if we’re not better than you lot.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, it’s a dandelion, doing its bit to help its species take over the world. Let’s be grateful it’s not a virus.

Okay, when I say “every last one of them” I’m exaggerating. The swabs they bought and then had to toss in the dumpster didn’t get much fanfare, but the useless personal protective gear that they sent planes to Turkey for? The fraction of it that reached Britain was practically greeted with confetti and marching bands.

The new tests are called DnaNudge and LamPORE. And they detect flu and other viruses and well as Covid-19.

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Watching how the press responded to the announcement of the new tests was interesting. On Monday–that was yesterday as I write this–they made front-page, huge-type, game-changing headlines in the sleazier papers and I wondered why the more responsible ones were either silent or downplaying the news. On Tuesday–today–they ran longer articles with a bit of analysis and skepticism. 

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Meanwhile, a group of not quite 70 virologists publicly criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic, especially the test and trace system, saying virologists are being bypassed.

One of the group, Deenan Pillay, said, “There’s always new tests being developed. And it’s almost as if they’re being pushed as a sort of magic bullet.” But what really needs to be done, he said, is “the more boring but really hard work of doing proper contact tracing.” 

Part of the problem is that the testing that is being done–much of it by private contractors –isn’t feeding data to the National Health Service or local public health officials, who would be able to follow up on it. 

The link for that is the same one as the one in the volleyball paragraph.

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The British government has told drug suppliers that they should have six weeks’ worth of drugs stockpiled before the Brexit cut-off date of December 31. In case the supply chain gets disrupted, what with this little pandemic we’re experiencing and all. Because there isn’t going to be an extension, no matter what. 

During  the Brexit referendum, Remainers warned that this sort of thing would happen. Brexiteers–a.k.a. the people who are now in government–called it Project Fear.

I wouldn’t say I’m afraid exactly, although maybe I should be. But I’d be a damn fool not to take notice. Excuse me while I go check our stash of omeprazole. It doesn’t get you high, but it does control acid reflux.

If that doesn’t tell you my age, nothing will.

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Russia says it will start production on a Covid vaccine in September and begin mass immunizations by October. Non-Russian experts are waving a few caution flags, though. The trials have been rushed, they say. 

Not much is known about the development process, but there’ve been rumors that Russia’s elite got a prototype vaccine in July. Emphasis on rumors. The Russian media reports that doctors and teachers will be among the first people to be immunized.

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A family went to a drive-in Covid testing center in a London parking lot, got tested without leaving the car, and were sent a notice that they owed a £90 fine for not paying for parking. 

The company that issued the ticket is canceling it. I’m not sure if the driver managed to get that done before the press got involved–they don’t make that easy–or if it was the publicity that magicked it away.

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A few more possible Covid risk factors and symptoms are being reported–still somewhat tentatively. 

Possible symptoms are hair loss, rashes, and hearing loss.  

Possible new risk factors might include being tall and being bald. Emphasis on might, but as a short, hairy woman I’m doing my best not to gloat.

The study on tall people has been criticized for not being well designed. It’s working theory, however, is that being tall exposes people to more of the aerosols that carry the virus. In other words, it’s nothing personal.

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According to a study by the Office of National Statistics, less than half of British adults are keeping to the distancing guidelines when they see family and friends, and 8% never keep to the guidelines.

The survey was based on people’s own estimates of their behavior, which is notoriously faulty. In an earlier survey, 79% of the people surveyed thought they were doing better than average on keeping to the guidelines. So we can probably figure the true figure is less than less-than-half. 

Speaking of notoriously faulty, I’m pulling that 79% figure from a notoriously unreliable memory–mine–so it may be off by a percentage point or two. But the original was well over the 50% you might reasonably expect.

Lockdowns and communication problems: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Cynics claim the British government has a communication problem. To demonstrate that this is a lie and a slander, I offer you the following statement from Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care. He’s explaining why a local semi-lockdown was imposed in Manchester. 

“We know that from the contact tracing information so whenever anybody tests positive the vast majority of them, unmm, we manage to speak to and we ask which contacts they’ve had who they– we been in contact with and that’s shown that the vast majority of contacts of people who have the virus are pe– are from other than people in their own household of course, unmm, who have to self isolate– anyway– is is is from households visiting and them visiting friends and relatives uhh err and and those two are bigger than the impact– the number of contacts that people have say at work or visiting ehm visiting shops and and and that means that we’re– because we have that information from the NHS test and trace system it means that we’re able to take this action which is more targeted at uhm erm controlling the spread of the virus.”

I hope that clarifies the situation. If the punctuation’s a bit unorthodox, I know you’ll understand. 

My thanks to the inimitable Bear Humphries, from Scribblans, who managed to extract the text from the internet and who is not responsible for anyplace it deviates from the spoken original. He tried to convince me to double check but it’s hard, when you’re looking at this level of iron-bound logic to imagine that anything could possibly have gone wrong. 

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Irrelevant photo: Pears on our tree last year. This year’s aren’t quite this far along yet.

Since we’re talking about communications, the Manchester lockdown was announced just after 9 pm on Thursday and went into effect at midnight. Guidance on what was and wasn’t permitted was published well ahead of time, at 11 pm. Eid al Adha, an important Muslim holiday when families gather together, began on Thursday night, making the issue of what can and can’t be done under the guidelines particularly fraught.

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You’re dying to know how I do my research, right? If you (or at least if I) toss Lord Google the phrase “new lockdown manchester,” the first link Lord G. suggests reads, “Seven simple tricks to fix a noisy washing machine in lockdown.” The second one said, “Doet het aantal stappen tijdens de lockdown er echt toe? – myprotein.com” 

I do, in fact, have lockdown toe. I don’t know how Lord G. knew that, since I hadn’t googled it yet, but I won’t be fixing my washing machine, no matter how noisy it gets. I once turned a 29-cent leak in the toilet into a $250 repair job, plus I took out the kitchen ceiling. When anything involves more water than fits in the dog bowl, it’s cheaper to call a professional.

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And now it’s time to sit at your desks and settle down, people, because we’re going to talk about serious stuff.

Yes, you too, Bear.

The number of Covid-19 infections in England has risen slightly. Or seems to have risen slightly. That’s based on a weekly random sample, so it won’t have been skewed by either more or less testing of the population. The estimate is that 36,000 people are now infected, with 4,200 new infections per day, up from 28,000 with 2,800 new infections per day last week. 

Restrictions were supposed to be eased on August 1, with essential services like, um, casinos and bowling alleys reopening. That’s now on hold, and you’ll have to wear a mask if you go to a movie, a museum, or an assortment of other indoor places.

On the other hand, 2.2 million extremely vulnerable who’ve been advised to stay home up to now can go back to work if they can’t work from home and if the place they work is Covid-secure. 

What’s Covid-secure? You got me.

Is this a good idea? We’ll get back to you about that when someone dies.

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I am endlessly indebted to Boris Johnson’s government for keeping me supplied with blog fodder. A new scheme to make Britain slim, Covid-resistant, and bike-addicted opened as farce this week. 

Picking up on a link between obesity and dying from Covid-19, Johnson launched a program to make Britain lose weight, saying it wouldn’t be “excessively bossy or nannying.”

These people who grew up with nannies. They’ve got a thing about them.

The program hits out at a few of the predictable targets: no more junk food ads on the TV before 9 pm. Information about calories visible on menus (or somewhere–I haven’t read the fine print; possibly in the back office). No junk food displays by the checkout. 

But the bit that’s getting the most press is the offer of a £50 bike repair voucher to anyone (up to some limit–it doesn’t matter just now what it is) stubborn and clever enough to survive its website. That eliminates anyone who doesn’t have a computer, an internet connection, or a bike–in other words, anyone who’s poor. Because the problem with poor people is that they don’t have enough money. And a shortage of money leads to a shortage of bikes, internet connections, and computers. Not to mention other stuff, like good food. So we can discount them.

We can also discount old people (that’s defined as older than me, and I’m upwards of 300), who also may not have computers, internet connections, or bikes, and who therefore aren’t really part of our culture and don’t matter.

But plenty of people wanted–and quite possibly needed–those vouchers enough that they hurled themselves at the website as soon as it went live.

Which crashed the thing. Twitter was alight with comments. The one that interested me most said, “Since when did the govmt use a one man band in Doncaster who has a £30k company with £455 of assets to develop WordPress websites for their national schemes??”

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that claim and I’m too clueless to follow it up myself, but I thought I’d toss it into the conversation and see if anyone knows more about it than I do. The government has a habit of handing out contracts like that. They once, famously, gave a ferry contract to a company with no ships. 

Another tweet reported an improvement in the site: It had gone from not letting him in to crashing once he’d entered his information. 

Will any of it make the nation thinner? Governments have been trying to slenderize Britain for twenty years without any noticeable success. But it does give everyone the satisfying impression that Steps Are Being Taken. 

*

And now let’s drop in on the U.S of infectious A. Congressman Louie Gohmert has tested positive for Coronavirus and said in an interview, “I can’t help but wonder if by keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, I might have put some germs–some virus–on to the mask and breathed it in.” 

*

But that’s amateur hour. Donald Trump promoted a tweet by Dr. Stella Immanuel which sung the praises of hydroxycloroquine. She has an impressive medical track record that includes warning people that alien DNA shows up in various medicines and that having sex with demons and witches in your dreams has a terrible impact on your health.

She also mentioned a vaccine that will prevent people catching religion. It doesn’t seem to be working, but maybe we don’t have herd immunity yet.

The caption on one of her videos asks, “How long are we going to allow the gay agenda, secular humanism, Illuminati and the demonic New World Order to destroy our homes, families and the social fibre of America.”

The quote didn’t come with a question mark at the end, and as far as I can figure out it didn’t have one in the original. I shouldn’t get snotty about punctuation, but “Get snotty about punctuation” is on the gay agenda for today at 2:50 pm, and I’m helpless in its grip.

I’d like to be better than that. Really I would.

I’d end by telling you to stay sane, because it’s crazy out there, but I worry that you’ll stop reading Notes. Stay only mildly crazy. Don’t get sick.

The National Health Service & lockdown rules: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Run for the hills, everyone: If the political tea-leaf readers are right, Britain’s National Health Service is going to be restructured. Again. Because in the face of a pandemic, it’s important to throw everything up in the air and see where it lands.

That information has a bit of history clanking along behind it. Remember the ghosts from A Christmas Carol? Didn’t one of them clank chains as it walked? Or did I make that up? Let’s pretend I didn’t. The clanking you hear is from The Ghost of the Christmas We Set the Tree on Fire and Burned the House Down Because We Wanted to Privatize the Candles.

Except it wasn’t the tree or the house that we burned. It was the NHS and–since we need two things to make this image work–the NHS.

Irrelevant photos: Hydrangeas.

Back in 2012, when the Conservatives shared power with the Liberal Democrats–this was in prehistoric times, before anyone dreamed the country would be facing a pandemic –the two parties passed a bill that restructured the NHS, putting elements of the NHS into competition with other elements and setting up bidding for contracts in ways that advantaged the largest, privatest contractors and disadvantaged the NHS itself. 

In the name of simplifying a complicated organizational structure, the bill created new levels of management. Then some poor soul was given the job of producing graphics illustrating how simple it all was. They were, by accident, by necessity, maybe even by some sly bit of honesty, very funny. They involved arrows running in all directions to illustrate how simple it was.

And in the interest of saving money, the restructuring was very expensive. 

One of the changes it made was to put some distance between the government and the NHS. At the time, I’d have told you that was a bad idea, and I had a lot of company in thinking that. The government had just denied its responsibility for the NHS and the nation’s health.

This re-reorganization–the current one–will give the government back control of it. The health minister will be able to say, “Fix this,” and see it fixed.

What do they want fixed? Staff shortages, long waiting times, budget overruns.Especially budget overruns.

Will the government having the power to say “fix this” help? Well, it’s been underfunding the NHS for over ten years now. And it’s made staff shortages worse by cutting the support that was available to nursing students and by the country’s hostility to immigrants, who keep the NHS working. Unless it’s planning to change that, then no. 

But it’s good to have a few weeks when you can point at the old structure, say it’s to blame, and wait to see if it works.

What will happen when the government has power over the NHS and none of the problems get solved? We may have to invade some small country to distract everyone. Or set the house on fire. 

*

Since I mentioned contracts, let’s talk about contracts. One for £840,000 was given, without competition, to Public First, an outfit owned by two long-term associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings.

Cummings is the prime minister’s brain and advisor. Gove? He’s a member of parliament and the minister for the cabinet office. I had to look that one up. It means he’s the minister responsible for cabinet office policies. If you feel like you’re going in circles there, it’s okay. I am too. 

Since the pandemic, a lot of contracts have been handed out without competitive bidding. Hey, we’re in a crisis. Who’s got time to find the lowest bidder or, god forbid, the most competent one?

Only part of this contract is about Brexit, not the pandemic. 

*

Let’s not slog through an entire post without some good news: During the pandemic–and possibly before; what do I know?–the University of London is offering free online courses. I have no idea what they’re like, but if you’re interested, they’re there. I wish I’d known during lockdown. Sorry.

*

A survey of what we have to assume is a representative sampling of British society reports that 72% of Britons followed lockdown rules more closely than the average person. 

Statistically, that means that, um–

Okay, I’m not good with numbers, but I’m reasonably sure it means that 72% of people are above average. I knew I loved this country. Now I understand why. 

 

Traffic cones, pubs, and coronavirus testing: It’s the news from Britain

According to a small and deeply meaningful study, fans of apocalyptic movies may be handling the pandemic better than the rest of us. 

I wasn’t part of the study, but I’ve watched one or possibly two movie apocalumps (that’s the not-quite-official plural of apocalypse), and I don’t know about other people, but I come out thinking, Live? Die? Does it really matter? I can see where take some of the angst out of the pandemic.

*

There’s a bit more news about remdesivir, the drug that shortens people’s Covid-19 recovery time: The studies showing that shortening turn out to be small, preliminary, and ambiguous. In one small study that was cut short, it didn’t outperform a placebo. In another, patients on remdesivir recovered an average of four days ahead of the control group, but there was no difference in their death rates. 

But, according to the Medical Express, “That study was also stopped early, which can lead to exaggerated estimates of treatment benefits. A British Medical Journal editorial highlighted the study’s financial links to Gilead [the drug’s manufacturer] as another source of bias.”

The U.S. has bought out almost three months’ worth of Gilead’s production of remdesivir, for a sizable sum of money.

Now we have to wait and see how useful it’ll be.

*

This isn’t, as you’ll probably have noticed, the Duke of Wellington on his horse. (Wellington appears just below, with his horse). It’s a wild horse on the Cornish cliffs, but it’s as close as I could come. No traffic cones were injured in the making of this photo.

Let’s take a break from the coronavirus. We owe ourselves that.

In Glasgow, a statue of the Duke of Wellington generally wears a traffic cone on his head, and he looks quite fetching in it. Go on, click both links here. This is important.

The city authorities generally take it down.

And someone generally puts it back on. 

This has been going on since the 1980s. That’s a lot of traffic cones. I like to think the city puts them back into its working stash of traffic cones instead of throwing them away, and if today weren’t Saturday I’d play intrepid reporter and make a phone call or two, but as things stand I just don’t know. And, you know, we have to go to press. We have deadlines to meet. The world is counting on us.

And by us, of course, I mean me.

The city estimates that it spends £10,000 a year taking traffic cones off the duke’s head. That’s £100 per cone. 

The city may or may not be padding its expenses. That’s another thing I don’t know. Let’s pretend we believe them. It’ll keep the story flowing.

In 2011, the Lonely Planet included the Coneheid (as Duke W. is known locally) on a list of the world’s ten most bizarre monuments, and if you don’t think that’s a big deal, just try getting something on the list by your own self.

In 2013, the council decided to stop all this fooling around once and for all by doubling the height of the statue’s base–called a plinth in case you ever need to know that–to the tune of £65,000. By the next day, 72,000 people had signed onto a Facebook page supporting the cone. Before much more time had passed, a petition had 100,000 signatures. A demonstration was held.

How many people showed up? Somewhere between 3 and several million.

The cone was local culture, they said, and the council had better keep its hands off it.

It all settled down for a while, with the cone staying in place, but a July 3 tweet showed that in retaliation for the cone being taken down again someone had put a whole stack of cones on the duke’s head. And one on the horse’s. 

And the pubs in Scotland hadn’t even re-opened yet. 

My thanks to Pete Cooper, who was entirely sober when he sent me these links. As–I would never imply anything else–he generally is. 

*

A new coronavirus testing program worth £5 billion looks like it will go to private companies, although the president of the Institute of Biomedical Science said, “We are campaigning for NHS labs to be allowed to bid for these contracts. This should not be exclusive to commercial partners.”

Translation? Britain’s own National Health Service is blocked from the bidding. Why? Because.

NHS sources say the money will go to expand the Lighthouse laboratory program, which has successfully kept communities from getting early notice of local spikes, making it impossible for them to respond to them. For two months, IT and data protection problems meant they didn’t let local governments, hospitals, or doctors know about growing clusters of cases in their areas. They’ve also (anecdotally: I wasn’t there and I can’t prove it) lost samples, left them sitting until they were too old to be tested, and generally made themselves beloved of the medical community.

Some of those problems have been sorted out, but if a patient’s test was processed by a Lighthouse lab, hospitals still can’t find out the result. 

The number of Covid cases and deaths have both gone down in Britain–and in England, where I think this program is running. The more I read about it, though, the more I wonder how.

*

Locally, a friend who drives people to medical and hospital appointments was exposed to the virus by a symptomatic passenger and spent ”a silly part of the day trying to find out how this works, with no joy at all.” 

She called 111, the number for medical advice. They told her to phone 119, “even though 119 is supposed to be to book a test only.” 

She called anyway and the “operator only knew how to book a test but couldn’t as I didn’t have any symptoms.” 

Government advice is that you shouldn’t get tested unless you have symptoms. The test, they say, is most accurate in a relatively short window of time after the symptoms appear.

That left my friend with no idea of what to do next. She went into isolation, which she’d have to do anyway, since the test comes up with a fair percentage of false negatives. But she would like to know if she has a life-threatening disease. You know how these whims can be.

She tried to find out how long it would be before the woman who’d exposed her would get a test and how long would it be before she herself would be contacted if the woman tested positive.

No answers.

She gave up and phoned the doctor’s office–called, in British, a surgery. They were in the dark, they said. The test and trace program doesn’t talk to them. Or write. Or email. You could say it was a bad breakup, but they’d never been married.

She phoned the woman who’d exposed her. She hadn’t been contacted about having a test.

If I weren’t a better person, I’d remind you that all that only costs us £5 billion. But I won’t because that wouldn’t be accurate. The £5 billion’s to expand this wondrous program, not fund its current work of saving our sorry asses.

*

So how can a country find asymptomatic cases if the tests are most accurate after symptoms appear? 

By massive testing. With the same type of test the government’s using–a PCR test. As far as I can follow this, the tests may be more accurate once symptoms appear, but they’re very much worth doing beforehand.

According to Healthline“ ‘People exposed to the virus who have had close contact with a confirmed case should get tested whether or not they have symptoms,’ Amira Roess, PhD, a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, told Healthline.

“ ‘By identifying individuals who are positive early in disease progression before they develop symptoms and implementing public health interventions, we can prevent a large percentage of infections. This is key, because we have learned that asymptomatic infection is a key driver of this epidemic,’ she said. ‘Finding asymptomatic individuals will allow us to prevent them from spreading the virus.’ ”

As far as I can sort this mess out, it seems to be true that early testing comes up with some false negatives (the test has a fair number of those anyway), but Antibiotics Research UK talks about the importance of mass testing to identify asymptomatic carriers, meaning both people with symptoms and people without, and notes that the World Health Organization has called for it.

“Doing so has seen South Korea handle the outbreak with exceptional efficacy. A similar project in Iceland has shown that around half of the people who tested positive are showing no symptoms, too. Mass testing is the example we should be following here in the UK. This should be followed by tracking and quarantining the people who have been in contact with those found to have the virus. We need to be able to identify asymptomatic coronavirus carriers to further limit the spread.”

And we’re not doing that.

*

On the other hand, the virus must be under control, because England’s pubs are opening today. The prime minister’s urging us all not to be silly about it, and of course we won’t be. But I would recommend putting the traffic cones someplace safe for a few days.

*

Finally, Florida State University sent out an email saying that starting on August 7 it would “no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely.”

Predictably enough, the shit started flying in all directions. So they sent out new announcement, saying, “We want to be clear—our policy does allow employees to work from home while caring for children.”

And that upset the people who’d already cleared out space in their freezers to stash their kids in. All that ice cream gone to waste.

Fairy dust and pushups: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Let’s say you’re a prime minister who got this pesky pandemic thing wrong, hesitating to lock the country down, shaking hands with hospital patients, refraining from kissing babies only because parents clutched their kids and turned away when they saw you coming. A prime minister who told the country that washing hands and singing Happy Birthday would keep everyone safe, and who then, embarrassingly, got sick yourself, either because you didn’t wash your hands or went off key on one of those tricky passages in “Happy Birthday.” A prime minister who locked the country down late but made an exception for your special advisor so he could run around the country scattering virii because he’d mistaken them for fairy dust.

So you’re that prime minister, and after you’d been sick you came back to work to hear lots of speculation whether you were really up to running the country.

Irrelevant photo: a thistle

What would you do?

Pushups, that’s what you’d do. Publicly.

Or maybe you wouldn’t, but that’s what Boris Johnson did, except the British seem to call them press-ups. Never mind. Same thing. Floor, hands, arms, body weight. Straight back if you’re doing them right.

There were two problems with the strategy: Your ability to do pushups has no bearing on your ability to run a country, and Johnson isn’t what you’d call a natural athlete. The photos show a kind of lumpy, overage guy in a dress shirt and slacks looking baffled by a floor. Has this thing always been here? he seems to be asking himself. Can I outsource it?

*

He can’t, but let’s go back to that special advisor, the one with the fairy dust. A law graduate is trying to crowdfund £300,000 for to pay for a private prosecution of Dominic Cummings’ two breaches of lockdown.

“I am trying to encourage the re-establishment of the concept of the rule of law – one law for all,” Mahsa Taliefar said. “What Cummings did demonstrated that at the moment in the UK if you are rich and have powerful friends the law doesn’t apply to you.”

I just checked the website and she’s raised £31,000 so far.

*

You know the theory that we all have to choose between the economy and our health? The theory that says lockdown destroys the economy and we have to open back up to get things going? Well Sweden–the one Scandinavian country that never did lock down, relying on some vague instructions, hand washing, and good sense–not only has a five times Denmark’s death rate but roughly the same economic performance.

Whether there’s a lockdown or not, it turns out that in a pandemic most people avoid public transportation, stay out of shops, and keep their kids home from school. In other words, they exercise the good sense they were advised to. The problem is that a minority will do none of that. Ten percent of the people create ninety percent of the infections.

*

A while back I posted the news that Britain’s free school lunch program for the most economically vulnerable kids will be continued into the summer. It’s good news, but it’s looking a little tarnished lately. It turns out that the £234 million program was outsourced to a private company whose helpline charges £21 an hour.

It used to charge £60 an hour, but–you know what people are like–they had complaints and switched over to the cheaper one in April.

Hey, people, you’re saving–um, hang on–£39 an hour. Focus on that.

Parents and schools also complain about the vouchers being hard to use. Not all stores will take them, and at stores that do, they often don’t scan correctly so they’re unusable.

Oh, and the website leaves people waiting long stretches of time to get their coupons.

And that, my friends, is how to fuck up a free lunch.

*

Scotland has had no coronavirus deaths for four days and has only ten cases in intensive care. The first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is talking about the possibility of eliminating the disease, and at a press conference she dropped hints that they might have to test or quarantine visitors from England. She has no plans at the moment, she said, but she’s not ruling it out.

On the other hand, she didn’t do a single pushup, so what’s she worth?

Meanwhile, a spike in virus cases in Leicester has sent the city going back into lockdown, with non-essential shops shutting their doors, schools closing to most students, and people advised to stay home except for essential trips.

It’s the first of local lockdown since Britain opened back up.

*

A jazz club in Paris has opened up for private concerts. They let people in either singly or in pairs if they live together. Three musicians take turns giving five-minute concerts to each individual or couple.

The concerts are free but guests are welcome to pay what they can or want.

The club’s director said the concerts “generate a kind of magic. People become very emotional. Some come out in tears.”

 

 

Britain’s back in business and to hell with the virus

Britain’s coming out of lockdown. Not because we’ve got Covid-19 under control but because it’s time. Because the hospitality industry is campaigning for it. Because too much money is turning to dust. 

Not literal dust. Pixel dust. Fairy dust. Money dust. 

Money, it turns out, isn’t a physical object. It’s not that stuff you keep in your wallet that you call money. Or it is, but that’s the smallest part of it. The biggest part–the serious part –is made up of pixels and numbers on a screen and stuff that disappears when conditions aren’t right. When the weather turns, when the wind blows the wrong way, when half the country has to stop working and stop spending. Poof: It’s fairy pixel money dust. 

Irrelevant photo:California poppies. Because we all need something to cheer us up.

And that’s why the country’s reopening. People who still have jobs will go back to work. People who have money will start spending (presumably). And to make all that happen, the two-meter distance we were told to keep from each other is now one meter. Because it turns out that the further we stay from each other, the more money leaks out into the open space and goes poof.

See, that’s what the economists don’t tell you. Don’t trust them. Listen only to me. I may not actually know anything, but I’m a lot more fun.

Anyway, we’ll all be fine. The virus has signed an agreement not to jump more than one meter from host to host. At least it has in England, In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, it hasn’t. They’re still negotiating and have to stay further away from each other. Poor them.

Besides, even in England we’ll all stay two meters apart except when it’s inconvenient and money’s likely to disappear. 

*

And since we’re in a celebratory mood, people who are especially vulnerable and who for the last three months have been told to stay home are being told that they can safely come out on July 6. They can go grocery shopping. They can see up to five friends as long as they’re outside. 

Why July 6? Because the virus can only count to 5. Why five friends? It’s complicated. But hey, these guys are running a government. They have access to the best expert advice. They must know something, right?

The free food deliveries that extremely vulnerable people were getting will stop now that they can emerge blinking from their homes. And if they were working before the lockdown, their sick pay will stop. In the most compassionate possible way.

Britain’s back in business. Get with it, people.

*

Cornwall, where I live, has had relatively few cases of Covid-19 (with the emphasis on relatively; we’ve had cases and we’ve had deaths). But the visitors are on their way, wagging their big-city germs behind them. 

I don’t want to be a snot about this. I’m a city girl myself. I have nothing against cities or the people who live in them. And I understand why people who make a living off tourism are desperate to do business. But holy shit, how many people are going to die for it? And how many who recover will have their lives irrevocably changed?

Follow-up scans of people who’ve been hospitalized for the virus show that 20% to 30% have lung scarring six weeks later.

The scarring isn’t reversible. 

*

Speaking of experts the government’s daily coronavirus briefings are over. In the last couple of weeks, scientific advisors had been pushed off stage and political figures quietly filled the gaps. Because the problem with sciency-type people is that they’re likely to say embarrassing things. So we’ve canceled the science. 

And then we canceled the briefings. They were only focusing people on the disease and from here on we’re going to be happy.

Happy, happy, happy. 

*

As of June 23, 42,927 people in Britain had died of the virus. Worldwide, it took three months for the first million cases to show up. It took just eight days to clock up the most recent million, and by the 23rd that had taken us almost up to 9 of them. 

It’s hard to take in. And I can’t help noticing the contrast between our response to the recent stabbing of three people in Reading (pronounced Redding; don’t ask) and those forty thousand dead. Not that the three in Reading don’t matter, but we can take that in and there’s a tendency to shrug off the forty thousand as inevitable, along with however many will follow them.  

*

Speaking on inevitability, an open letter in the British Medical Journal says a second wave of infections is inevitable and urgent action is needed.

Just before that was published, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that he didn’t believe there was “a risk of a second peak of infections that might overwhelm the NHS.”

Notice the wording. Forget avoiding a second peak. What we need to avoid is overwhelming the NHS. He didn’t mention urgent action. 

The news from Britain, with neolithic sites and new coronavirus tests

News about the government’s failed Coronavirus tracing app keeps trickling out. This weekend, we learned that several groups responded when the prime minister called for a national effort to create a smartphone app. Dunkirk spirit! Save the nation! 

What happened next? NHSX, the outfit that made the failed app the government committed to, treated them as rivals. 

NHSX, ever so incidentally, was set up by the health secretary before he became the health secretary, so he was able to be totally neutral about it.

Don't worry about it. The photo's just to break up the text. It's completely irrelevant.

Irrelevant photo: pansies

“We naively thought they would incorporate them into one,” Tim Spector, one of the rival developers said. “The whole point was to help the NHS, to find the hotspots so they could get the resources to the right hospitals.”

Silly him. NHSX, he said, treated his team like the enemy and people within the NHS were told not to work with them. 

“They were very worried about our app taking attention away from theirs and confusing the public,” he said, but if the NHSX app had worked they’d have happily handed over what they’d done. 

Of the rival apps, Covid Symptom Study has 3.5 million users and helped spot symptoms like loss of taste and smell, and Evergreen Life has 800,000 and spotted a local outbreak around Manchester before testing was available. 

The Covid Symptom Study reports that although the number of people reporting symptoms are decreasing around the country, they’re staying steady in London. As far as I can tell, it’s getting zilch in terms of backing from the government, which is now betting its chips on an adaptation of the Apple-Google app, which won’t be ready till fall. 

The delay is because the government says the distance calculator on the app isn’t accurate enough. That means it’ll send people who haven’t been exposed notices that they have been, and they’ll have to self-isolate when they shouldn’t have to. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the government’s working closely with  Apple-Google and will come up with a hybrid version. Which will be better, bigger, more accurate, and have polkadots.

“Oh yeah?” said  Apple-Google. “We never heard of you and where exactly is Britain anyway?”

Okay, what they–the they in question here being Apple–actually said was, “It is difficult to understand what these claims are as they haven’t spoken to us.”

They said they’re not aware of a distance problem and have no idea what the hybrid model’s about.

The NHS, however, said, “NHSX has been working with Google and Apple extensively since their API [application programming interface ] was made available.”

Google said, diplomatically, that it welcomed the government’s announcement.

Yeah, we’re doing fine over here, and thanks for asking. Hope you are as well.

*

While we’re doing tech news: K-pop fans have co-opted the #BlueLivesMatter hashtag by tweeting images of Smurfs and other blue characters. They also flooded #WhiteLivesMatter with K-pop videos to the point where it became known as a K-pop hashtag.

*

Let’s check in on what’s happened with all those possible tests that we heard about and that were going to save our viralized asses from an enemy that’s not only too small to see but too small for most of us to imagine. 

A four-week trial of a saliva test is about the start. All people have to do is spit in a plastic jar instead of letting someone stick a swab down their throats and up the  noses (or worse yet, having to do it themselves, which involves finding either your tonsils or the address where they once lived).

People can do the test at home. They can even do it out in public if they don’t mind being disgusting. Cross your fingers. 

The current test has multiple problems. In addition to having to figure out where your tonsils used to live, it gives a lot of false negatives–20%. It also makes people cough and sputter, putting people administering the test at risk. And the virus doesn’t last long on the swabs, so too much delay and the test’s invalidated. 

Another new test gives results in 50 minutes and should be tested on NHS staff starting this week. Unlike the saliva test, which reports back in 48 hours, though, it relies on a throat swab. 

*

When the government instituted a program to deliver food parcels to people who are in deep hiding from the virus because they or a family member are particularly vulnerable, I had a moment of thinking the government might get its act together and I before long I wouldn’t have anything to make fun of. 

That’ll show me what I know.

Where the program works, it’s great. But. It’s delivering pork products to Muslim families. It’s delivering free food to families whose pride is hurt by the assumption that they need help and who would happily take themselves off the list if someone had asked.

I’d be willing to bet they’re sending beef to HIndus, but I haven’t seen that reported. 

The program’s being run by a private firm and the government says anyone with special dietary needs should contact their local government and leave the national government the hell alone. Want to place any bets on how long it takes to get through three levels of local government to the company that’s actually running things?

*

In the department of slight over-reactions, North Korea lost its temper over a defector’s plan to send propaganda across the border from South Korea and blew up an office that was set up to improve north-south communications. 

Am I making assumptions when I say they lost their temper? Probably not. The official news agency said the move reflected “the mindset of the enraged people to surely force human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes.”

So yeah. Lost temper. Plus a few commas gone a-wandering.

*

Near Stonehenge, archeologists have found a 4,500-year-old circle of shafts that’s 1.25 miles across. Or 2 kilometers, if you take your distances metric. That may be a rough approximation. I’d be surprised if they match that neatly but I’m too lazy to check. Whatever it translates to, it’s the biggest prehistoric structure found to date in Europe. A paper on it has been published in Internet Archaeology and is available to any idiot–and I offer myself as an example of the species–who clicks on it.