Covid, the brain, and the toffs: The pandemic update from Britain

The Covid targets targets that we hear most about are the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, and the blood vessels, but some Covid patients also have neurological symptoms, ranging from headaches to confusion to full-out delirium, and evidence is mounting that Covid can attack the brain. 

That’s according to a study posted online and–like most Covid studies in this crisis–not yet peer reviewed. 

Covid isn’t the only virus that does some breaking and entering inside the brain. Zika did, but the body mounted an immune response. Covid, though, is a sneaky little s.o.b., and the body doesn’t seem to notice what it’s doing up there, which is making copies of itself and leaving a trail of destruction. The study found no evidence of an immune response to its presence in the brain.

“Days after infection, and we already see a dramatic reduction in the amount of synapses,” Dr. Alysson Muotri of the University of California said. “We don’t know yet if that is reversible or not.”

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Researchers will need to analyze brain samples from autopsies to see if it’s present in people with milder versions of the disease and in the people who are being called long-haulers, the people whose symptoms hang on and on. A lot of them have a range of neurological symptoms. 

Some 40% to 60% of hospitalized patients have neurological and psychiatric symptoms, but they may not all come from brain infections. Some may come from inflammations throughout the body. So: autopsies.

The problem, though, is that autopsies need people to die first, so this all depends on the right categories of people conveniently keeling over.

Everybody seems to be saying this, but it bears repeating: So much about this disease is still unknown.

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So what do you do about a disease like that? Well, at a town hall event hosted by the ABC network (that’s a TV channel), Donald Trump told the world that Covid will disappear when everyone develops a herd mentality. 

Conform, people. It’ll save us all.

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At least in the absence of a vaccine and a herd mentality, testing is the most likely thing to save us, and a new Covid test that’s still in the development stage sounds promising enough to lift even my gloomy spirits. 

Gloomy spirits? Well, I keep telling people that it’s going to be a long winter, then I have an impulse to slap myself silly. I’m sure the other people in question feel the same way. To date, everyone’s good manners have kept the situation from spinning out of control.

But back to the Covid test: Researchers wanted to come up with a quick, accurate test that would be cheap enough for people to test themselves at home every day, and it’s looking promising. 

The test is called STOPCovid, which probably stands for something, since half of it is in caps, and the researchers come from enough U.S. universities that I won’t bother to list them all.

The details of the test involve RNA, magnetic beads, and a high sensitivity, meaning it correctly identifies a lots o’ positive cases. The details are also over my head and I’m going to arbitrarily decide that they’re over yours too, but hey, I’m giving you a link so you can go prove me wrong. 

Actually, it didn’t seem that complicated until I realized that I understood the sentences but not their content. A lot of my life is like that. What I did understand is that it’s promising and that it’s designed to be cheap, fast, and usable. 

Also that it’s not ready yet.

Stay tuned. 

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The STOPCovid test can’t come fast enough for Britain, because the government’s taken what was already an expensive privatized mess of a testing program and made it worse.

It’s good that in these dark days we’re led by damn fools. 

What’s wrong with the testing program? People are being sent hundreds of miles from home for tests. People with symptoms can’t find tests, meaning they’re left not knowing if they can safely go back to work or if their kids can safely go back to school. 

The head of the test and trace program, Dido Harding (whose background is in business, not public health), explained the disaster by saying that nobody “was expecting to see the really sizable increase in demand.”

Of course not. No one knew schools were reopening or thought that might mean more people being exposed ans needing tests. No one noticed when Boris Johnson nagged everyone who was working from home to go back into the office, which would mean more people getting exposed and needing–yeah, you can see where this is going.

Meanwhile, Jacob Rees Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, is hailing the testing program as a phenomenal success and telling us all to stop carping about it. 

Me, I’m not carping. I’m a vegetarian. But I will say that the demand for tests is four times greater than the testing capacity.  

All hail the wondrous testing program.

You have to love these people. They have absolutely no shame and minimal contact with reality. Or any desire to contact reality. They caught a glimpse of it once. It involved a lot of people with accents they didn’t like and clothes that cost less than theirs. Not to mention with infinitely less money than they have. It was all very unpleasant and why go through that again?

Anyway, the problems with testing seem to involve a shortage of lab capacity. The labs are also privatized, not that I’m trying to make a point here or anything. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-54163226

Meanwhile the number of cases is rising in parts of Britain and people are facing increased localized restrictions. 

Contact tracing’s going well too. Some people working in the system report–anonymously–that by the time they contact people who’ve been exposed to Covid and tell them to isolate themselves for two weeks, more than two weeks have gone by since they were exposed. And this past week, the tracing firm’s software was too embarrassed to go on and some tracers had to be told not to refresh their screens too often. Some of the people they called got so frustrated with how long the calls took that they hung up. 

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Shall we be completely fair here? The full quote from Jacob Rees-Mogg is, “The issue of testing is one where we have gone from a disease that nobody knew about a few months ago to one where nearly a quarter of a million people a day can be tested, and the prime minister is expecting that to go up to half a million people a day by the end of October.

“And instead of this endless capring, saying it’s difficult to get them, we should actually celebrate this phenomenal success of the British nation.”

All hail the British aristocracy. They either manage to believe this shit or don’t care what they say. 

And somehow or other, they stay in office. No, I can’t explain it either.

Moonshots and international law: It’s the news from Britain 

We all just love good news, which is why we’ll try not to gag when we discuss Boris Johnson’s moonshot plan to test everybody in Britain for Covid all day every day, including when they’re asleep, working in their pajamas, or breaking and entering because they want to wear someone else’s pajamas for a change.

I know, but you do need to let me exaggerate now and then. It prevents explosions.

The moonshot plan is about ramping up Covid testing from 200,000 tests a day to 10 million a day by early next year. It would cost, at a wild and irresponsible guess (sorry–at a sober but preliminary estimate), £10 billion plus. 

Plus how much? At those levels, who cares? By way of comparison, that’s roughly equal to the UK’s education budget, but since the alternative, at least in the scenario posed by the prime minister, is a second lockdown, it’s a bargain at twice the price. 

Or something along those lines. 

Completely relevant photo: Have I mentioned that we’re going to the dogs?

It’ll involve lots of private companies–some of them the same ones who are screwing up the current test and trace program–so I could see where we’d end up paying twice the price. For half the product.

Given that the current testing program is short of something–probably lab capacity but who really knows?–and is therefore suggesting that people drive to hell and back if they seriously want to get tested because Britain’s a small island and when I was a kid we walked to school. Through the snow. We didn’t stand around waiting for a bus to pick us up and moaning about a little rain–

Let’s start that over. Why do you people keep leaving me in charge? 

The moonshot tests, or at least some of them, will give results in minutes. 

The problem is–

No, one of the problems is that the technology to make this work doesn’t exist yet. Another problem is the public health leaders are screaming for more control of the current testing program because the companies running it are making such a mess. 

This time, though, they’ll get it right. And I’ll be twenty again, only much smarter than I was the first time around. 

Also taller.

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Want another problem with the moonshot program? The government’s advisors weren’t called upon to advise before it was shot at the press. The National Screening Committee was sidelined on the grounds that the moonshot is a testing program, not screening. 

“Mass testing is screening,” according to Allyson Pollock, the director of something very impressive at Newcastle University. I’d give her full title but we need to move on. Sorry.

See how British I’ve gotten in fourteen years? I apologize all the time. I don’t mean it, but I do apologize. 

If I were Britishly British, though I’d write “I’ve got” instead of “I’ve gotten.” Don’t ask me to explain it, but I’ve discovered that the American version annoys the hell out of someone in the village who’s well worth annoying. I’d use it anyway–my speech pattern, c’est moi–but it does add joy to the words.

Where were we? 

If the committee had been involved, it could consider the impact of false positives and false negatives and the social and economic impact of a large number of people being told to self-isolate. 

John Deeks, a professor of something equally impressive at the University of Birmingham said, “There is a massive cause for concern that there is no screening expertise evident in the documents. They are written by management consultants. . . . Before you start, you have to make sure you do less harm than good.”

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If a massive testing program really happens, is anyone talking about paying people enough that they can afford to stay home if they test positive? 

Don’t be silly. It would set a bad precedent and make people lazy. 

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While the official testing program limps along, running short of whatever it’s running short of, the University of Exeter is buying its own tests for students and staff–saliva tests that promise results either the same day or the next. They’re made by an outfit called Halo, which says they’re wonderful. As they may well be, but I’d like to hear that from an unbiased source and so far I haven’t found one. With a different test, people who actually understand these things complained that although the company making the test reported that it registered very few false negatives or false positives, it’s possible to game the data and unless companies make their testing process transparent, no one will know if they have. 

I don’t know if Halo’s transparent. 

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Covid cases have been  rising in Britain, but the number of deaths has stayed low, presumably because the infections are concentrated among younger people, who are less likely to die or be hospitalized. A fair number of fingers have been wagged at them for getting sick. They’ve been out seeing friends, drinking in pubs, eating in cafes, attending illegal raves. 

Of course, the government’s been dangling vouchers in front of them–and the rest of us–to lure us into pubs and cafes so we could support the economy, as well as telling everyone working at home to get out of their bathrobes (which could use a good wash by now anyway) and relocate their hind ends to whatever office it is they used to work in. The economy can’t deal with this many people working from home.

That says something about how much sheer uselessness it takes to keep the economy rolling.

Now that more people are testing positive for Covid, though, it’s their own fault for listening to the government. They should’ve known better. 

Why are younger people really picking up the disease? A combination of factors, probably. Many of them have jobs that put them into contact with the public, and with all the viruses the public carries. Some of them are careless. They’ve been told they’re unlikely to get seriously sick. The police have broken up some illegal raves, but the entire younger population of the country wasn’t at them, 

You also have to figure that a lot of us who are retired are still in hiding, or semi-hiding, so we’re a little harder for the germs to find. Opportunists that they are, they jump into whoever they find.

What’s the government’s advice to  keep young people on the straight and narrow? “Don’t kill granny.”

Seriously.

There’s something unnerving about that as a way of mobilizing a nation.

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No news from Britain is complete without a mention of Brexit: 

Rod McKenzie of Britain’s Road Haulage Association warns us, or warns the government, or warns anyone who’s listening, which may not be anyone at all since the government listens only to itself, I don’t really exist, and we’re not so sure about you–

Can we start that over?

Rod McKenzie, of Britain’s Road Haulage Association, warns us that we’re “sleepwalking to a disaster with the border preparations that we have, whether it is a deal or no-deal Brexit at the end of December.”

He’s worried about supply chains being interrupted, especially on the heels of the Covid crisis. 

“The difference here is between a disaster area and a disaster area with rocket boosters on.”

Remember the beginning of lockdown, when everyone was stocking up on toilet paper and bread flour (or hoarding it, depending on whether we were talking about ourselves or our neighbors)? If you’re in Britain, it might be worth doing that again. I have a recipe that calls for both if you want it.

Brexit, Covid spikes, and lies: It’s the news from Britain

Britain is gearing up to break international law in “a very limited and specific way,” according to Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary. 

Last October, Boris Johnson’s government negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the European Union that would avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, something everyone with half a brain and no political advisors with the initials D.C. considers important because a hard border threatens to reignite the Troubles in Northern Ireland. We’ll skip the background there because it’s long and complicated. If you’re not up on it, just nod sagely and pretend you know what I’m talking about. 

It was a patched-together agreement and even at the time it looked unworkable because if Britain left the EU there had to be a hard border somewhere, and if it wasn’t going to be between Ireland and Northern Ireland, then it was going to be in the middle of the Irish Sea, pushing Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK. 

Wave bye-bye to the nice island, Boris. 

Look! It’s waving back. 

Or maybe that’s Northern Ireland waving hello to the Irish Republic. Either way, aren’t the Irish friendly?

Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker.Not an actual one, you understand. A flower that goes by that name.

Anyway, it was all going to be okay, we were told, because they–they being some unnamed genius in a governmental office somewhere, whose initials were probably D.C.–would figure out a way to make it work.

So what have they figured out? Well, um, nothing. Which is why we’re gearing up for that limited and specific little law-break, Your Honor. See, we were painting the floor. And then we realized we were in a corner and surrounded by wet paint. And we really needed a beer, and on top of that, we had to pee.

Sorry, did I just say pee? We needed to visit the loo and drive to Barnard Castle to test our eyesight. But you understand the difficulty, right?

Sorry: British political in joke implanted there. I couldn’t help myself. It all has to do with a prime ministerial advisor who doesn’t believe laws apply to him.

The former prime minister Theresa May asked how the government planned to “reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreement.” And you know what, no one answered her. Because she’s the former prime minister, not the current one.

Somewhat more noticeably, the most senior legal civil servant resigned over it, and that seems to be creating a few shock waves. He’d advised ministers–or so Westminster gossip (which I get by way of the newspapers) holds–that the changes would be illegal, and since civil servants are required to stay within the law, he quit.

That raises the question of whether the justice secretary and attorney general, who take oaths to uphold the rule of law, will find themselves in deep shit at some point over this.

The government’s said to have asked for independent legal advice and when they didn’t like what the advice advised are said to have ignored it. 

Senior Tories are urging the government to perform yet another U-turn–a maneuver the government does well. The question is, how many senior Tories are we talking about, and how many junior ones? The Tories have a majority of 80, so it’ll take more than a handful to have an impact.

Please ensure that your seat belts are securely fastened. We’re headed for turbulence.

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Britain’s had a spike in Covid cases and is imposing new restrictions to try to stop it. Or to slow it down. Or to be seen to be doing something while still trying to get people who’ve been working at home back into the office so they can support the economy by buying sandwiches and expensive coffees and those sparkly notebooks that eight-year-olds like. Without those sales, the economy’s sinking.

Whatever. We now have new restrictions. 

In England, starting on Monday, social gatherings of more than six people or from more than two households will be illegal. Unless they’re weddings or funerals or organized team sports. Or schools or work, which aren’t exactly social but the health secretary Matt Hancock mentioned them anyway because he was trying to make the point that the ”the rule is really simple.” 

“What,” a friend asked me as I was explaining how simple this is, “about my brother, who has six kids?”

“Well,” I said, “he should’ve thought of that before he had them.” 

And just so I’d sound all British about this, I added, “Shouldn’t he?”

As it turns out, it really is simple. It’s either six people from any number of households (two households, six households, thousands of households if you can make the numbers work) or any number of people from any two households. Plus either a dessert or an appetizer.

Fizzy drinks and alcohol cost extra. And my friend’s brother can keep all his kids. 

Of course, the rules are different if you’re in one of the cities and towns that have local lockdowns or the restrictions that are an attempt to avoid a full-out lockdown. No two local rules seem to be the same. In some, restrictions involve venues–however the hell they’re defining that–having to close between 10 pm and 5 am, which is when the virus is known to come out and play. In others, you can’t have people over, indoors or in your garden, which in American is called a yard, unless you’ve formed a support bubble, which is created when a household with one adult joins another household and when they add soap to a dishpan of water (glycerine helps) and have a bubble pipe or wand. 

It’s best to do this outdoors, because it’s messy.

With the emphasis on gardens, it sounds like you could get together if you put a fence between one household and the other as long as no more than six people are inside the fence.

Anyway, it’s really very simple. 

I’ve always considered the mess an art form. I should idolize Hancock, but somehow he just doesn’t do it for me. 

All of that, of course, only applies to England. What about in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (if it hasn’t floated out of sight yet)?

It’s simple, so I’ll quote the BBC to be sure I get it right:

  • In Scotland, up to 15 people from five different households can meet outdoors.
  • In Wales, up to 30 people are allowed to see each other outdoors.
  • In Northern Ireland, the maximum number of people who can meet outdoors has been reduced from 30 to 15.

However, if we’re talking about being indoors, either at your place or in a pub, the rules alllow:

  • In Scotland, up to eight people from three different households
  • In Northern Ireland, up to six people from two households
  • In Wales, up to four households can form an “extended household.”

I don’t know how it can get any clearer than that. But keep in mind that the distance you’re supposed to keep from other people will vary depending on whether you’re in England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. Because the virus behaves differently depending on the accent it hears.

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I can’t think why I’m so tired.

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Last week sometime, I told you my tale about trying to get one of Britain’s world-beating Covid tests and being advised to go from Cornwall to Wales. I’m used to being told where to go, and it doesn’t usually involve anyplace as nice as Wales, so I didn’t get my feelings hurt. 

But now it turns out that I’m the reasons Britain is short of Covid testing materials, and that does hurt my feelings. 

Matt Hancock, our secretary of state for health, social care, and public excuses, tells us the shortage of Covid tests is the fault of people getting tested when they don’t need a test. A full 25% of the people asking for tests turn out to be this sort of me-too-ers. They don’t have the symptoms, so what are they up to? 

We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about symptoms. The government web site gives you a choice of three, but if you bump around the internet, limiting yourself to entirely responsible sites, you’ll find that the virus is more generous than that. You can have five symptoms if you want them. You can probably have more than that, but I’m prone to dizziness when I work with higher numbers so I stopped there.

But even if the government could count to five, it shouldn’t matter whether you have symptoms. One of the things that makes the virus so damn hard to stamp out is that asymptomatic people can and do transmit it. Any chance of controlling it rests on (a) a highly effective vaccine, (b) magic, or (c) testing–lots and lots of testing, including testing people who don’t have any symptoms so they can find out if they’re carrying it and then isolate themselves and not pass it on. 

Let’s pause here for some advice: If you have an off-brand symptom and want to get tested, you should lie. Don’t worry. This is a government that understands lying. 

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Trials for the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine hit Pause when a participant was hospitalized with what may be a serious reaction to the vaccine and may be something unrelated. You know, the kind of thing that happens when a satellite flies over your house just as you’re chewing bubble gum and the cat’s litter tray needs cleaning and you’ve got Billie Holiday playing on whatever on earth it is you use to play recorded music these days. And–I almost forgot–you breathe in a virus that isn’t the one we’re concerned about but does still make you very, very sick.

These things do happen and you can’t know in advance what effect they’ll have. Researchers are trying (frantically, I’d think, but we all know I’m not there, so let’s not take me too seriously) to figure out if the participant’s illness is related to the vaccine or not. It may not be, but this is why political pressure to shorten the testing process is really very stupid.

Standardization and movable goal posts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Earlier this year, in a King Kong meets Godzilla moment, Covid-19 ate the end-of-year standardized tests that older Britain’s students would normally have taken. For kids who were applying to universities, that meant–ack!–they had no test grades to submit. 

But they didn’t have no grades at all, because every year teachers estimate the grades their students can expect to get on the standardized tests, and kids submit those with their applications. Then they take the tests and submit the actual scores, which (or so I’ve read) are on average lower than the predicted grades. 

So what’s a sober, responsible education system to do when the actual tests can’t be taken? Why, make up a system as it goes along, of course. 

Scotland ran up against this first, since (limited) power over the schools has been devolved to the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s solution was to use an algorithm–because algorithms are fair, unbiased, don’t run for office, and don’t leave crumbs under their desks–to compare students’ predicted grades with the grades students from their schools got in previous years and with the lifecycle of the common earthworm. After the algorithm had ruminated for microseconds, it spit out corrected grades for everyone.

Irrelevant photo. Montbretia, a flower that spreads like mad and chases gardeners through their dreams.

And what happened? Lo and behold, the poorer (or in other ways the more disadvantaged) the families of the kids you went to school were, the more points you lost. Because guess what: Kids from your school just don’t do that well on standardized tests, so be realistic, you wouldn’t have either. 

All predictable hell broke loose, and the Scottish government backed down. The predicted grades will stand.

Then the hot potato was thrown to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland

How can you throw a hot potato simultaneously to three countries? Through the magic of privatization, that’s how. Our politicians can make one potato into three and lower taxes on corporations and the richest 1% all at the same time.

Okay, I’ll come clean: Privatization has nothing to do with this. I just slipped it in because I like to blame things on privatization. And I’m right often enough that the habit gets reinforced. See below.

England is saying students can accept the grades “based on teacher estimations” (there’s a lot of wiggle room in there, so I’m relying on quotation marks to keep everything in place), or swap them for the marks they got on their mock exams. Or they can take the test in the fall. 

Assuming that reality doesn’t intervene and cancel the tests again, although no one seems to be talking about that, at least not publicly.

Of course, that means this coming academic year goes straight into the trash.

Head teachers (if you’re American, read that as principals), though, are saying that mock exams aren’t graded in any consistent way. And some schools canceled mock exams when they saw the pandemic headed for them, so their kids have none to fall back on.

Wales says its modeling is fair, and nearly half of its student grades are based on AS levels. AS levels are a related test taken earlier that I’m not going to try to explain because, c’mon, I don’t really understand this stuff either. Just nod soberly and no one will know how lost you are. 

Northern Ireland is saying it’ll let students appeal their grades on the basis of their mock exam scores. 

I can’t explain why universities aren’t stepping up and saying, “We’re not taking any of this seriously and we’ll be making our own judgements on the basis of [fill in the blank].” Maybe there’s nothing to slot into that blank. I’m too distant from the British educational system to tell you anything useful. You can almost hear them getting ready to say, “Nothing to do with me, your honor.”

Everyone who writes about this is required to use the phrase moving the goal posts. So think of Britain as a country of four nations (which aren’t necessarily getting along well at the moment), and in each of those nations two people are running and random directions, struggling to keep goal posts upright and the space between them more or less even, because if you lose that relationship they’re not goal posts anymore, they’re just posts.

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So much for the kids (or former kids) who’ve graduated. Let’s turn our jaded attention to the kids who are due back in school: Summer’s winding down and the government’s hell bent to get them back into the classroom. Because education matters and a generation is in danger of being lost. Because (somewhat less nobly) parents can’t go back to work until their kids can be safely stashed someplace. Because (still less nobly than that) the nation’s sandwich and coffee shops can’t sell sandwiches and coffee until office workers are poured back into their cubicles and deskicles. Without people pouring in and out of buildings, city centers are dying.

Spellcheck, in case you’re interested, doesn’t object to the word deskicle. What’s on earth has happened in the working world since I left? Are people really working at deskicles?

Schools will be safe, the government tells us. The kids will wash their hands and magical incantations will be both incanted and decanted over the school grounds at the start of each school day. Five-year-olds will be reminded every hour on the hour not to touch anything.

Oh, hell, don’t worry about the details. It’ll be fine.

And while that’s being released to the press, what should happen but that a couple of new bits of information appear, from the U.S. and Israel, about kids and the virus.

From a summer camp in Georgia comes the news that younger kids get infected as well as older ones. As the Center for Disease Control so poetically put it, “The findings demonstrate that Sars-CoV-2 spreads efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among persons in all age groups, despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission. . . .

“This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to Sars-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

Israel had been fairly effective in clamping down on the virus, but in May it reopened its schools. By the end of the month, it had closed a hundred of them and ordered thousands of students and staff to quarantine. 

Epidemiologist William Hanage said, “If community transmission is low, the costs to kids of keeping schools closed are much greater than keeping them open.

“However if community transmission is high or increasing, opening schools can only add to it. It’s not clear by how much.” 

So nothing’s certain yet, but the reports are sobering. 

What does the government tell us? The education secretary, Gavin Williams, said on Monday that opening the schools carried few risks. And Public Health England, having apparently said in an unpublished study that older kids were more likely than younger ones to get and transmit the disease, publicly said that reports that it has recommended tougher rules for older kids were incorrect. Also wrong. And false. Did I mention false? 

“Parents can be reassured that to [blah blah blah] an extremely stringent system of controls by” et cetera. Also and so forth. 

It’ll all be fine. 

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A health minister, Edward Argar, told the world (or as much of it as was listening) that Britain’s system of tracing the contacts of infected people is almost as good as New Zealand’s

“We’ve traced a quarter of a million in the space of about two and half months . . .” he said. “Look at New Zealand, they have a slightly higher percentage success rate, they’ve traced 360 people.

New Zealand’s population is 4.8 million. England’s is 56 million. Last I checked, New Zealand had had a total of 1,570 cases compared to England’s 270,000. So yeah. We’re hardly behind them at all.

On the other hand, New Zealand has 26.7 million sheep.

Argar–and this, of course, is no more relevant than the sheep or the photo I dropped in at the top this post–is a former lobbyist for Serco, which runs the £108 million test and trace system. The system that only managed to contact a little over half the people in the same household as folks who’d tested positive. 

In the same household. They’d do a better job if they called the sheep.

Someone has leaked a memo from Public Health England in which they approached Serco about the test and trace contract. No bids were taken from other companies.

But it’s worth mentioning that Argar has also served in the Justice Department, and that Serco runs five private prisons and a prisoner escort service. The justice secretary, David Gauke, felt he needed to reassure the world at large that there wouldn’t be any conflict of interest.

So settle down, cynics of the world. It’s all in good hands.

My thanks to Bear Humphries and Annie Robinson for letting me know about the esteemed Mr. Argar.

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What’s the story on Russia’s vaccine? Skeptics point out that they’ve skipped phase III trials–the ones that look for side effects and measure its effectiveness, preferably in the widest possible sample of the population. The phase that generally takes months. 

So it’s not clear either how safe or how useful the vaccine will be. Russian officials say they hope its antibody response will last for as long as two years. Skeptics point out that no one knows much about how long Covid antibodies last or what protection they offer, and they worry that a partially effective vaccine could lead governments and people to abandon efforts to suppress the virus. 

Professor of immunology Danny Altmann said, “The collateral damage from release of any vaccine that was less than safe and effective would exacerbate our current problems insurmountably. . . . We are all in this together.”

Vladimir Putin’s daughter has taken a dose. Make of that what you will.

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. 

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.