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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are they keeping Williamson  on? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop laughing. It’s deeply disrespectful.

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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.