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.

 

The pandemic update from Britain: lockdown, lunacy, and a mention of Minneapolis

A pilot flew a private plane from Surrey to an airfield belonging to the Royal Air Force. That set off an emergency response involving the Ministry of Defence and fire crews, who (I’m reading between the lines here) wanted to know what the hell he thought he was doing.

He wanted to go to the beach, he said. 

Since the airfield is in Wales, that was a breach of the lockdown rules, which are different in Wales than in England. Or it’s believed to be a breach, since the rules don’t specifically mention landing your private plane on an airforce base so you can go to the beach. 

I think I can safely say that he’ll be in trouble with multiple agencies. I’m reasonably sure that lockdown will be the least of his troubles.

To put the situation into bureaucro-speak, the police are ‘considering’ whether there were ‘potential breaches’ of coronavirus legislation. And the Civil Aviation Authority has been alerted. It will be demanding a note from his parents.

So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that Dominic Cummings was on board. And if you haven’t followed who Dominic Cummings is, just follow the handy link, which will take you to a post by that noted expert, me, which will explain all. Or enough, anyway.

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England’s contact tracing campaign continues to be a mess, with many tracers not able to log on. Some recruits have set up support groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, pooling their knowledge about what the hell they’re supposed to do, and how. One contact tracer reported (anonymously) that the app wouldn’t work with his or her microphone. Another had been working for three weeks and been asked to do nothing more than join an online training session. A third says he or she has learned to juggle with three balls. 

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Some of England and Scotland’s coronavirus testing centers aren’t matching test results to either people’s National Health Service numbers or their addresses, which means their doctors aren’t told about coronavirus patients on their caseloads and local authorities can’t track outbreaks in their areas.

Back in March, the devolved governments–that translates to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland–told Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, that the system he was setting up had problems, and Northern Irland and Wales insisted on changes. Scotland and England went ahead. 

Wales and Northern Ireland get to play a satisfying round of I-told-you-so. 

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An NHS trial is giving Covid-19 patients blood plasma transfusions from patients who’ve recovered, and the trial’s set to expand. The hope is that the antibodies will help them fight off the disease. 

To date, it’s only been tried on patients in intensive care, but it may be more effective if it’s used earlier. Stay tuned.

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Back in April, the British government’s science advisory group noted that only half the people who came down with Covid-19 symptoms followed the government’s advice to self-isolate for fourteen days. It recommended doing some quick research to figure out what it would take to get people to follow the guidelines. 

As the lockdown eases and the government’s betting its rapidly diminishing stack of chips on testing people, tracing the contacts of anyone who tests positive, and isolating the cases they find, people actually isolating themselves becomes crucial.

Not going into isolation when you should is apparently now known as doing a Cummings. 

Some members of the science advisory group are now warning that easing the lockdown now will lead to a second wave of cases. In England, 8,000 people a day are still becoming infected, and that doesn’t count people in care homes or hospitals. That data’s collected separately and the two data sets aren’t speaking. You know how it is in some families. 

It also doesn’t count cases in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.

One advisor, John Edmunds, said, “If you look at it internationally, it’s a very high level of incidence.”

The current R rate–the rate at which the virus spreads–is between 0.7 and 0.9. At anything above 1, the pandemic grows. At 1, it stays the same, which at a rough guess means 80 deaths a day.

John Edmunds’ colleague Jeremy Farrar tweeted, “Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. Agree with John & clear science advice. TTI [test, trace and isolate] has to be in place, fully working, capable [of dealing with] any surge immediately.”

 

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England’s chief medical officer said, in a carefully worded statement, that the country’s at a very dangerous moment. It wasn’t a clear criticism of the government, but a listener could be forgiven for thinking it was.

He also said, mentioning no names, that England’s lockdown rules applied to all.

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MPs’ inboxes have been swamped by messages about Dominic Cummings, most of them critical. So what does an overwhelmed MP do? Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall gave his responses the personal touch by hitting Send before he remembered to delete the part that said, “insert if there has been a bereavement.” 

He is, he said, incredibly sorry. He remembered to delete the part of the script that said, “Don’t get caught again.”

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I don’t write much about American politics. Even though I’m American, I live in Britain. It’s not the best seat to watch the show from. But I have to go off topic and say something about what’s happening there, even though it’s happening in the wrong country and it’s not pandemic related.

I lived in Minneapolis for years, and a lot of you will know what’s happening: A few days ago, a white police officer killed an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck for seven minutes. On camera. While Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.”

What had Floyd done? Tried to buy something at a local food store. The clerk thought he’d paid with a counterfeit bill and called the police, because that was store policy. No one claims that Floyd knew it was counterfeit. At this point I don’t know if anyone cares whether it actually was.

First there were protests. Then there were riots. A CNN reporter was arrested while covering them, even after he showed  his i.d. He’s black. Yes, that’s relevant. 

Rumors are flying every which way. I can’t confirm them, so I’ll stick to what’s in the papers.

My old neighborhood’s been on fire. The post office, the library, and a whole lot stores have burned down, along with the police station where the officers involved in the killing were based.  

At a gym in another part of the city, a white man threatened to call the police on some black men because the gym was restricted to the tenants of the building and they couldn’t possibly have a right to use the same gym as he did. That was after demanding that they prove they had a right to be there. 

In Kentucky, police targeted a news crew covering a protest about a black woman who was killed by police in her own home. “Targeted” means they shot the reporter with pepper bullets. 

In Detroit, someone shot into a group of protestors from a car, killing a 19-year-old. 

In several cities, cars have driven into crowds of protestors.

I’m not using the word protestor to mean rioter.

Sorry–I’m supposed to be funny here, or to at least try. That’s the agreement we sort of made.  So to those of you who are in the U.S.: Guys, I know racism runs deep in our national DNA. If there’s such a thing as national original sin, that’s ours. But I also know that racism’s not the whole story, that there’s more to us than that. So I’m looking for you to sort this out, okay?

Don’t make me come over there.