Coffee mugs and vaccines: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Let’s not go into the details of the government’s plan to jump-start the British economy. Let’s talk instead about the serious stuff: The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, presented his budget sitting at a desk the size of Ohio with a computer in front of him and rows of identically bound books behind him, looking at a printout, pen in hand as if he’s about to take three zeros away from a whole bunch of programs and add one to a bunch of other, worthier ones.

Have I built up enough suspense yet?

So there he is, presenting himself to the nation as the guy we can trust to save our asses from looming economic disaster, and what does he have on the corner of his desk? A mug. 

No big deal, you say? I’d have said the same thing, but some wiseacre spotted that it’s a £180 mug. The kind that keeps your beverage at exactly the temperature you set it to. 

“Our smart mug,” the copy on the mug’s website drones, “allows you to set an exact drinking temperature and keeps it there for up to three hours, so your coffee is never too hot, or too cold.”

And the promotional copy comes with a spare comma at no extra charge. Bonus points if you can spot it.

It’s good to be reminded that the country’s being led by people who understand how ordinary folks live.

The identically bound books? Did he buy them wholesale because they make an impressive backdrop? 

Nah, that’s too cynical even for me. I would never plant that thought in your head.

Irrelevant photo: a stone age monument.

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Okay, I shouldn’t exaggerate. The mug doesn’t really cost £180. It costs £179.95, but by the time they add shipping and handling–hell, I figured we’d be somewhere in the neighborhood.

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Drive-in comedy clubs have opened in London parking lots, allowing you to go to a live (sort of) show without risking the spread of the virus. You park, you tune your radio to whatever they tell you to tune it to, and you watch someone perform standup on a big screen. If you’d like to laugh, you honk your horn to set that tone of communal experience that’s so important in live theater. 

You’re welcome to laugh as well, but you’re less likely to want to, because something about hearing other people laugh makes us laugh. If other people are laughing, our bodies decide, we must be hearing something funny. We’re herd animals. It’s the same mechanism that sets whole fields full of cows laughing at the same time.

FYI: In British, a parking lot is a car park. In American, a car park is a parking lot. In the rest of the world, I’m out of my depth so I’ll shut up. 

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The government missed another coronavirus testing target. Does anyone care anymore? Nah. We just tell each other, “Well, at least they’re still setting targets. That means they’re trying, right?”

The correct answer to that is, “Right.” It makes us feel so much better.

This target was about getting test results to people. By the end of June, 100% were supposed to get toe people in 24 hours. Or–why be misers?–possibly more than 100% Instead, they managed 54.9% by July 1. But hey, close enough. They both involve numbers. And months. So the will was there.

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The government has finally extended testing to asymptomatic workers whose  jobs put them in contact with lots of people–folks like cab drivers, pharmacists, and cleaners. 

What took the government so long? Good question. Without testing asymptomatic people, we’re not likely to get ahead of this beast.

But I don’t really give you a full picture here. I focus on the fuckups and the bad decisions. That’s partly because they infuriate me and partly because they’re easy to make fun of. And the government makes so many of them. Wouldn’t I be ungrateful not to enjoy that bounty?

In spite of the incompetence this government’s so good at, cases are going down by somewhere between 2% and 5% a day. Assuming, of course, that anyone knows what the numbers are given how limited testing’s been. 

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It looks like Britain will tell the European Union that it doesn’t want to be part of an EU corona virus vaccine-buying plan. According to a House of Commons committee, that’s because Britain refused to pay the EU some money this year. According to government ministers, though, it’s because Britain can get just as good a deal on its own. Besides, the EU plan would limit the number of doses it could get, would be slower than going it alone, and the grapes were sour anyway.

We’ll be fine.

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Enough about Britain. Let’s hear from New York.

A Manhattan branch of the upscale (I think–I haven’t been there) food market Trader Joe’s has had long lines outside since the start of the pandemic, and people on the line do what people do these days when they have to wait: They talk on their phones. Loudly. Driving the people who live in the building (or possibly buildings, but we only know about one–and by we, of course, I mean me) behind them nuts, because let’s face it, most of those conversations are dull as ditchwater and even the ones that aren’t, you know, sometimes you just want to sleep in, or have your own conversation, or think your own thoughts.

So being New Yorkers, the people in one building took action: They copied down parts of the conversations they overheard, put them on signs, and hung them out their windows. 

“Stacey,” one read. “Shut up. No one cares you are getting more frozen berries for your epic smoothies.”

They change some of the names, but there’s no guarantee.

“You know what Jaclyn!? I think he IS cheating on you.”

“Hey Christopher, we can hear that Match, Tinder, Bumble and maybe Grindr have not been doing you justice in these times.”

You can find more on Instagram: @traderjoeslineUWS.

Has it make people shut up? Given how many signs there are, I’d guess not, but it’s made everyone who lives in the building happier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The city authorities generally take it down.

And someone generally puts it back on. 

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

And by us, of course, I mean me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we’re not doing that.

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

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

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

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