Education, chaos, and lawsuits: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Way back when pandemics were nothing more than handy plot devices for weary writers or the nightmares of sensible scientists, I remember reading about a different nightmare scenario, the investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause that was being negotiated into an assortment of international trade and investment agreements. It allows foreign companies to sue governments in what are always described as highly secretive tribunals (and I’m paraphrasing some slippery language, so I may not be hitting this next bit directly on the head) for money they lost, or might have lost, due to government actions. 

I read a lot of nightmare scenarios, and I try not to let them keep me awake at night. This one came from sensible sources, so I didn’t disbelieve it, but nothing happened (at least where I could see it), the world as I knew it didn’t end, so I went back to sleep. 

Sunday’s paper, though, brought the news that it’s time to wake up. Big-money law firms are shooting emails to their clients on the subject. One, Ropes & Gray, wrote that actions brought under investment treaties could be “a powerful tool to recover or prevent loss resulting from Covid-19-related government actions.” 

The fear of lawsuits may mean that governments will back away from decisive responses to the pandemic, or to its economic impact, for fear of getting sued. investor 

Just when you thought we’d hit bottom, right?

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New research suggests something we already know: that we still don’t know much about how actively kids spread Covid-19. Researchers in South Korea first suggested that kids from ten to nineteen are better virus spreaders than adults, but once people dug deeper into their it became less clear just who infected who. 

So the current best educated guess is that kids in that age group are at least no more likely to spread the infection than adults are. Unless, of course, they go out and act stupid, in which case they will, but not because they’re biologically better conduits.

But–and there’s always a but–kids do tend to have contact with more people than adults do, which would mean they could be great conduits, but for social rather than biological reasons.

I hope I’ve confused the picture sufficiently.

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Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper getting ready for autumn.

A company in Cardiff has developed a quick test that spots Covid-19 T cells. T cells last longer than antibodies and have their own ways of fighting infection. They’re the things your body turns to when the first line of defense crumbles. 

The test may be useful in developing a vaccine.

It’s been possible to test for T cells before this, but it’s a slower process. The developer, Dr. HIndley, said, the new test  “stripped back everything to the bare bones” and a lab can get a result in 24 hours.

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England has been in chaos over A-level grades

A bit of background: A-levels are a standardized test that students hoping to go to university (if you’re American, substitute college) first take and then submit. But the tests were canceled this year because of the virus. 

What to do? Well, every year teachers submit predicted grades–an estimate of how well students will do–and students either prove them right or don’t.

Could the students use their predicted instead? No, that would be too simple. The government stepped in to prevent the horror of grade inflation by applying an algorithm to the grades and creating grade deflation, penalizing students from poor and minority backgrounds, from schools that don’t usually do well, and from larger classes in more popular subjects. It didn’t penalize students from affluent, non-minority backgrounds, good schools, and private schools. Or students who were in very small classes.

Some 40% of the estimated grades were downgraded.  

An assortment of students lost the university places they’d been offered because their grades had been downgraded.

Then when everyone started shouting, the government said, fine, your school can appeal your grades. 

Then the secretary of state for education, on behalf of the government, said the process was robust and fair.

Then the government said, okay, we won’t charge your school if it appeals your grades and loses, something it would normally do.

Then the exam regulator published advice which contradicted something the government had said about the appeals process.

Then the regulator withdrew its advice. 

Then several students filed a lawsuit against the regulator.

Then members of parliament from all parties got inundated with letters from their constituents and felt the need to make very-unhappy noises to the government.

Then Boris Johnson, our alleged prime minister, went on vacation.

Then everybody remembered that the grades for a different standardized test for somewhat younger students are due to be released on Thursday and all hell was going to break loose all over again. Or not all over again, because this particular hell hadn’t stopped breaking yet.

Then I finally understood why universities didn’t declare the whole system invalid and accept the students they wanted in the first place: The government had limited the number of students they can accept. Why did they do that? I don’t understand the logic here, so I’ll quote an explanation from March of this year:

Strict limits on the number of students that each university in England can recruit were imposed by the government in an effort to avoid a free-for-all on admissions, with institutions plunged into financial turmoil as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Guardian has learned.

“A government source said each university would face limits on the number of UK and EU undergraduates it could admit for the academic year starting in September, in a move backed by higher education leaders. It will be the first such limit since the university admission cap was lifted in 2015.”

Exactly why extra students would be a problem when they’re losing international students I can’t explain, but it’s good to know that the government wants to avoid turmoil.

Then the secretary of state for education said he was really sorry and he hadn’t meant any of it. Everyone could use their predicted grades. And the cap on the number of students? They hadn’t meant that either. 

Then the universities were left to pick up the pieces, which you’ll find scattered on the floor of admissions offices all over the country, along with the admissions officers themselves, who are currently unable to haul themselves into their chairs.

And the kids–or former kids–who hadn’t been able to take the test get to pick up the pieces as well, because reversing the decision didn’t make everything snap back to the way it had been before their grades were lowered. Some kids missed out on scholarships. Programs with a limited number of places have already offered those places to other candidates. 

Scotland got itself into the same problem but made a quick u-turn, reverting to the grades the teachers had predicted. Why did England hold out for so long? Why, to wring the maximum amount of chaos out of the situation. Why look like a jerk by reversing yourself quickly when you can look like a world-class jerk and make scads of enemies by reversing yourself slowly? I’m a devotee of the mess as an art form–it’s underestimated, in my opinion–but really, guys, schools start again in September and I’ll have plenty to work with. You can stop anytime you like. 

Which reminds me to say that the government’s abolishing National Health England, folding it into the test-and-trace system. Since test and trace has been a disaster, they’re handing the two services to the person who’s been in charge of it, Dido Harding. We’ll catch up with that eventually.

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This final item has nothing to do with Covid, but let’s toss it in anyway: The Home Office refused a British lawyer a visa he hadn’t applied for. 

He got married abroad and applied for a visa so his wife to join him in the country, submitting hundreds of pages of documents and a fee that topped £3,000. The Home Office refused him a £95 visa for a visit. And he couldn’t appeal the decision because he hadn’t applied for that visa.

Do we summon up the spirit of Joseph Heller (that’s Catch-22‘s author) or Franz Kafka?

When a newspaper called the Home Office, presumably for a quote, they decided to consider the application the man had actually filed.

His brother, who also married abroad, was refused a visa for his wife on the grounds that his description of the family restaurant’s menu differed from his father’s description. The father said it served pizza. The son said it also served garlic bread, chicken wings, and ice cream.

It’s a good thing capital punishment’s been abolished in the U.K. or they might’ve been hung for that.

A judge overturned the Home Office decision and ordered them to pay the couple £140. They still haven’t gotten it.

Moles, pizza, and remdesivir: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A local spike in coronavirus cases in Leicester has been handled with all the grace and efficiency we expect of our government. It announced a local lockdown. The health secretary said the police would enforce it as needed. The message was, we’re tough. We’re efficient. We’re gonna win this thing.

The local police and crime commissioner still didn’t know where he was supposed to enforce the lockdown, though, because he hadn’t been sent a map. Then he got a map but still didn’t know the details of what they were supposed to enforce. 

But it’s okay, because we have a prime minister who can do at least one pushup while keeping two yards away from a photographer.

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Irrelevant photo: St. Nectan’s Kieve

Chaand Nagpaul, from the British Medical Association, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy of dealing with local outbreaks will be no use if the local people who are expected to contain them aren’t given the data they need. 

I could have said that, but it sounds better coming from someone with a medical degree. Leicester could’ve responded earlier if they’d been told they had a problem, and where and how and why.

When Johnson introduced his strategy of containing local outbreaks, he described it as whack-a-mole–a game where you whack a plastic mole with a plastic hammer and even if you’re fast enough to hit it, it pops up out of another hole. 

It was a rare moment of honesty in political discourse.

While we wait to see where the mole’s going to pop up next, Johnson tells us that local authorities have been sent the data they need. 

And the check is in the mail.

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You’ve probably heard by now that the U.S. bought up almost the entire stock of remdesivir–500,000 doses: 100% of the manufacturer’s July production, 90% of August’s and 90% of September’s.

Remdesivir cuts Covid-19 recovery times, although it’s not clear whether it improves survival rates. Other counties have pointed out that buying up almost the entire stock might, um, undercut international cooperation in the face of the pandemic. 

“International what?” Donald Trump replied. 

Okay, he didn’t actually say that. I can’t remember ever seeing a quote in which he asks a question. 

The sale makes it sound like other countries are thoroughly screwed, but in fact they should be able to get the drug via compulsory license, which allows countries to override patents and buy generic versions from countries where the patent isn’t registered. This one is widely registered, but there will, it seems, be gaps.

The drug is made by Gilead, which sounds like it escaped from The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d love to tell you that it didn’t, but I don’t really know that. Lots of things have escaped from fiction lately, and nothing is more bizarre than reality. 

The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care tells us it’ll be fine and it has enough remdesivir “to treat every patient who needs the drug.” 

For how long?

They didn’t say.

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The New Scientist says, “There is no longer any serious doubt that our bodies can form an immune memory to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.” 

The bad news is that we still don’t know how effective that memory will be. In other words, we don’t know if an immune memory’s the same thing as immunity.

Don’t you just love to hear from me? Don’t I just lift your spirits?

And from the Department of Confusing Information comes this snippet: For every person testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies, two more turn out to have specific T-cells that identify and destroy Covid-infected cells. That’s true even in people who had asymptomatic cases or mild ones.

What does that mean in everyday English? It means that for every person who registers positive on an antibody test, two more have some sort of immune response that doesn’t register. 

Those T-cells the two people have might give them some immunity to the disease. They might keep them from passing the disease on to other people.

They also might not.

The reason T-cells don’t register on an antibody test is antibodies are a whole ‘nother part of the immune system. Expecting to notice T-cells on an antibody test is like making yourself a pizza and wondering why it doesn’t come out of the oven with a side salad.

Basically, antibodies–that’s the pizza–attack the virus before it enters the body’s cells. T-cells–they’re  the salad, and it’s important to remember which is which–go into action once cells have been infected, attacking  them so they won’t infect  new ones. A balanced immune system meal needs both pizza and that salad.

You’re welcome. I’m here to clarify every baffling bit of our world, just for you.

What does all that mean for herd immunity? Not much, because for all anyone knows at this point, those T-cells could protect the bearer without keeping him or her from passing the virus on. 

If you worked this many twists into a pandemic movie, I’d throw my popcorn at the screen and stomp out, muttering, “Enough already.” 

Then I’d go out for pizza and a salad.

I’m just about old enough to remember a world where it was safe to go to movies and pizza joints.