Brexit, royalty, and falling iguanas: it’s the news from Britain

Britain and the European Union now have a Brexit deal, so instead of complete chaos on January 1, we can only expect moderate chaos.

Moderate chaos looks good these days. 

Like 99.4% of the country–and quite possibly like the Members of Parliament who are expected to approve all 1,246 pages of it before their tea’s had time to cool down (some sources say it’s 2,000 pages; does it really matter)–I have only the more general idea of what the deal says or what it will mean for any of us, although the papers are starting to fill us in. 

Before the agreement was reached, a poll asked people first whether they thought we were wrong to leave the EU and then how they’d vote in a referendum to rejoin: 49% said we were wrong to leave and 39% said we were right. Then they took one chair away, restarted the music, and asked the next question. (Presumably that same) 49% said we should apply to rejoin while 51% said we shouldn’t.

So 10% had no opinion on leaving or staying but did on rejoining. I have no idea what that means. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: strawberry leaves after a frost.

The queen

Britain’s Channel Four showed a fake queen’s Christmas speech, timed to follow the real one on Christmas afternoon. 

The queen’s speech? It’s a British institution, and everywhere but here it gets capital letters. Every Christmas day, she addresses the nation and says something. I don’t know what because even during the brief moments when I haven’t been able to avoid listening all I heard was a faint buzz.

People take it very seriously, though. At various times, I’ve been asked if I was going to listen to the queen’s speech, if I did listen to the queen’s speech, if I do in general listen to the queen’s speech. It’s a measure of something, although I don’t know what. When I answer, I try to avoid expressions of horror and I try to avoid making jokes. A fair number of my fellow citizens–and even of my friends–take her seriously. And I’m an outsider here. It’s best not to walk into someone’s house and rearrange the furniture, although I might whisper quietly to a few thousand of my closest readers that I find the whole queen thing–not to mention the queen’s speech–odd.

So, yes, this Christmas we doubled down on oddity and had a real queen’s speech followed by a fake queen’s speech. Officially, the fake one was to send a “stark warning” about deep fakes and the possibility of fake news. Unofficially, I’m pretty sure lockdown was responsible. A bored mind is a dangerous thing. 

The fake speech has been criticized as not a very good fake, and it’s true that the queen looks rigid, but I watched a (very short) snippet of the real speech and the real queen was also rigid.

The fake includes  a TikvTok dance and the queen saying about Harry and Megan that it’s hurtful when someone tells you “they prefer the company of Canadians.” 

That was entirely realistic.

Yeah, go on and watch it.

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Speaking of the queen, England and Wales are fighting the history of colonialism all over again.

To brush up on our British history: England’s bigger than Wales. England conquered Wales and did all the unpleasant things that conquerors do. That started centuries ago. It lasted until–

Um, yeah. We could argue about the end point, and also about whether there’s been one. But even if we agree that it’s all in the past (we won’t, but never mind that), I doubt anyone in Wales has forgotten the history.

That takes us up to the present day, when a few politicians on the English side of the Severn Bridge, which links England and Wales, proposed renaming it to mark the queen’s platinum jubilee

No, I don’t know how many years you have to put behind you to get a platinum jubilee and I don’t care enough to look it up. A lot. It’s not the point.

The proposal woke both residents and politicians on the Welsh side of the bridge, and they all sat up in bed to said–in unison, mind you–that if the bridge gets renamed it should be named after either the Welsh rugby hero Gareth Edwards or the Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan, who led the establishment of Britain’s National Health Service. That last idea is guaranteed to annoy the Conservative politicians who want to rename the bridge (and quite possibly the health service and also your back teeth) after the queen. 

The bridge is made up of several parts, and one of them both starts and ends on English soil, which is why the English politicians think they can pull this off, but the collection of bridge part-lets are maintained as a unit and up to now seem to have been named as a unit. 

In addition to offending the Welsh, the renaming would cost money–probably a lot of it, although no one’s mentioned a figure yet. It’s maintained by Highways England, which was itself renamed recently at a cost of £7 million after having been called–apparently quite happily–the Highways Agency.

 

Chilly weather and a chance of falling ignuanas

On December 23, the south Florida weather forecast included cold weather and the possibility of falling iguanas. 

I know. Florida’s not in Britain. I cheat. It’s your own fault for not keeping an eye on me.

Iguanas are cold blooded. At around 45 F., they go dormant and look like they’re dead. They’re not. Or at least the ones who don’t die aren’t. The larger they are, the more likely they are to be alive but dormant.

The problem is that they like to sleep in trees and if they go dormant up there they have a habit of falling out. Which doesn’t do them any good and can also be a problem for humans underneath. Iguanas can measure up to 5 feet long and weigh as much as 20 pounds. 

If you need to know the impact of a 20-pound iguana falling out of a tree–and who doesn’t?–the formula is W=PE=Fd=mghF=d [over–sorry, my computer skills aren’t up the finding the right symbols and this is too important to leave out] mgh

I have no idea what any of that means, but I do know that at some point you’ll need the height of the tree before it does you any good. After that it gets complicated–there’s a second step, where you have to plug in the results of the first step. You’ll be happier going to the website for the second formula without me. 

Iguanas aren’t native to Florida, but they have adapted. Some dig deep burrows to stay warm. Some live near water, where the air temperature’s higher. Some sleep in trees and fall out if it gets too cold. And some cry weee, weee, wee, all the way home.

It’s a brutal kind of personality test. 

Or maybe which way they face the cold doesn’t depend on their personalities but on what they find to work with–cement, water, tree, diggable dirt. We are all, to some extent, creatures of our environment.

Are clothes essential in a pandemic? It’s the news from Britain

In a protest over the Welsh government’s ban on stores selling nonessential goods during the current lockdown, Chris Noden turned up at a supermarket in nothing but his undies and tried to shop while his wife followed along behind and recorded everything on her phone. A store employee kept him from going in, and as soon as Noden got him to admit that clothing was essential, he decided he’d made his point and left.

“I understand they have to control crowds in shops,” he said later, “but if someone really needs something or an item, what is it to stop them? They are actually blocking these aisles off with sweets, chocolate, bottles of vodka, whisky, lager, they are blocking it off with all nonessential items, essentially. I don’t know what is essential or not, it is a bit mad, like.”

What he’s talking about is that supermarkets blocked off areas selling nonessentials.

It’s true that he does seem to get stuck on a thought and repeat it, but he managed to make his point all the same. It’s also true that he didn’t just wear his undies. He also wore shoes, socks, a mask, and a tattoo. 

The essentials, essentially.

My thanks to Ocean Bream. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have missed this and what a tragedy that would’ve been.

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

Meanwhile, on October 29, British papers reported that nearly 100,000 people a day were catching Covid in England. That’s based on a study by Imperial College London, which also estimated that the rate of infection was doubling every nine days. That takes us close to the peak of infections last spring, although the death rate for people who have severe Covid is down from last spring, probably because a lot’s been learned about how to treat it.

Every age group in every region shows growth in the number of cases. In London, the R rate–the number of people each infected person passes the disease on to–was 3. The Southeast, Southwest, and East have an R rate above 2. On a national average, it’s grown from 1.15 to 1.56.

Regional lockdowns in the north may have slowed the spread, although they don’t seem to have stopped it. The government is frantically trying to avoid a national lockdown.

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But it’s all going to be okay, because the government has plans to do a Covid test on 10% of England’s population every week, using tests based on saliva, which are easier to manage than the current ones and give a result in thirty minutes. The plan is ambitious, headline-grabbing, and badly thought out. In other words, pretty much what anybody who watches this government would expect. 

The idea is that local directors of public health will “be eligible to receive” tests “equivalent to” 10% of their population. Which is a roundabout way of saying that’s how many tests they’ll get, but with a small escape clause in case someone needs to wriggle through the definitions of equivalency and eligibility. A properly motivated politician could emerge from that snarl rumpled and stained but still claiming victory.

In a moment of heroic bad planning, the project was launched without anyone talking to the local governments and health officials whose cooperation it depends on. 

What will the program expect of them? The head of the test and trace program, Dido Harding, said local authorities will “be responsible for site selection and deployment of [lateral flow] testing in line with their priorities.”

Lateral flow? Oh, come on, you know that. It’s what happens when things flow laterally, which is to say sideways.  

Did that help? 

I thought it would.

But it’s even better than that, since we’re translating. Things will flow not just sideways but also in a line with their priorities, which we can assume run sideways.

Whose priorities? I’m not entirely sure. Local governments’, probably, and they’ll get to choose their priorities by picking Option A or Option A. That way it’ll be their fault if Option 3 turns out to have been the obvious choice. Honestly, anyone would’ve been able to see it.

And no, I didn’t add that “[lateral flow]” business. That was some desperate reporter trying to condense a document full of waffle and bureaucro-speak.

So are local people wild about the program? Not demonstrably.

An anonymous director of public health said, “There is no point in testing large numbers of the population unless you do something with the results. We really, really want to improve testing and tracing, but once again this is the wrong way to go about it.”

Another public health official–a senior one, whatever that may mean, and also  anonymous–said, “We don’t know who does the contact tracing or how the workforce [to carry out the tests] is resourced. [That means paid for–and this is my addition.] We are trying to work out how this fits with the test-and-trace strategy with PCR testing and how any positive results are followed up and people are isolated.”

PCR testing is the kind that’s currently being done–the slower, more invasive kind of test.

And yet another anonymous senior public health official said, “They have come to us with a proposal that is poorly thought through. It is not clear what the cost is or the amount of work involved and there is nothing about contact tracing.”

As for the existing test and trace system, it might just meet its target of testing 500,000 people a day by the end of the month, but it’s done it by getting the results back to people more slowly than promised–sometimes at half speed–and bungling the tracing element. One in five people who test positive and are referred to the tracing side of the system are never heard of again. They’re abducted by flying saucers and held out of range of cell phones–or if you’re British inflected, mobile phones, whose name only promises that you can move them around, not that they’ll work where you so foolishly brought them. 

Are those lost people isolated while they’re there so they can’t pass on the virus? That’s the thing: We don’t know. But if you will get yourself abducted by flying saucers, you can’t blame Dido Harding for it, can you?

It’s also possible that the system’s missing more than one in five people. It depends when you wandered into the movie. Another article says less than 60% are reached, so that would be two out of five. 

I think. 

Oh, never mind the specifics. It’s all just a lovely, poetic way of saying the program’s a mess.

One article I found included an example of the kind of snafu that happens in the vicinity of the test and trace system: a small war over who’d pay for a portable toilet at a mobile testing station. The central government (I’m reasonably sure that would be the test and trace program itself) refused. Because they’re test and trace, after all, not test and toilet. That left two local entities playing hot-potato with it for days. In the meantime, the station couldn’t be set up, because no matter how little you pay people, and even if you put them on zero-hours contracts, they will want to pee eventually. 

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However hot that potato was, though, it’s a small one. Here’s a considerably larger one:

After advertising for people with a health or science degree (or an equivalent something or other) to work with experienced clinicians  in the English test and trace system, Serco–a private contractor–instead upgraded a bunch of people who were already working there, people with no relevant degrees or experience and who were working for minimum wage. That’s £6.45 an hour if you’re between 18 and 20 and £8.72 if you’re over 25.

You may have noticed that some years are missing there. That’s okay. Most of the callers are in the 18 to 20 group.

The job as originally advertised–the one the minimum-wage folks got moved into–was supposed to pay between £16.97 and £27.15 an hour. The people who got moved into the job are still working for minimum wage. 

That’s called upskilling. It’s not called up-paying. 

We can’t exactly say they weren’t trained. They got four hours of power-point training, an online conversation, a quiz, some e-learning modules (doesn’t that phrase send a thrill down your spine?), and some new call scripts. 

“It’s been an absolute shitshow,” one highly anonymous caller told a reporter. The callers are talking to people who’ve lost family members. People who cry. People who are in pieces. And the callers’ training manual says things like, “If somebody’s upset, be patient.” 

It leaves some of the callers themselves in pieces. They’re young. They have no training to help them deal with this. They’re in over their heads and they know it. 

I can’t imagine the system’s working any better for the people they call.

Somewhere in between advertising the higher pay level and giving the job to people at the lower one, the Department of Health and Social Care made a decision to split the job in two. The first set of callers would make the initial calls and then “qualified health professionals” would follow up. 

But Mr, Ms, of Mx Anonymous says, “There is no other call by a trained clinician.” The callers read out a list of symptoms, refer anyone who needs medical advice to 111, the Covid hotline, and only if they decide that there’s an immediate risk do they pass calls to a clinical lead. 

So this is, on average, a 20-year-old being asked to decide if there’s an immediate risk. No disrespect to 20-year-olds–I was one myself once–but you don’t have a lot of life experience to draw from at that age.  

Have I mentioned that the test and trace service is privatized? And that to date it’s cost £12 billion–more than the entire budget for general practice. More than the NHS capital budget for buildings and equipment.   

Which is one reason that a group of doctors have called for the money to be diverted to local primary care, local NHS labs, and local public health services. Local, local, and local. 

I’m not expecting anyone to listen to them.

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And so we don’t end on a completely sour note, Taiwan has marked 200 days without a domestically transmitted Covid case.

Its success is due mostly to reacting early and sanely: establishing coordination between government departments; emphasizing the use of masks; quarantining new arrivals. It didn’t hurt that both the strategy and communications with the public were led by experts.

It’s a radical concept, but it just might work.

What we’re not supposed to do: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A whopping 13% of people in England say they fully understand the lockdown rules. In Wales and Scotland, they’re doing better: 15% are fully enlightened. No one in charge of the survey managed to locate Northern Ireland, so I don’t have any data from wherever it is today. 

No, I can’t explain its absence. I’m only somewhat British–I was adopted, and late in life at that–so I can’t be expected to understand how this stuff works, not to mention why. What I can tell you is that 51% of people in England, 62% in Wales, and 66% in Scotland say they understand the majority of the rules. 

Do they really? Maybe. Which also implies maybe not. It was a survey, not a test. 

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Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper.

Meanwhile, in response to a ban on social get-togethers, the police in Scotland have broken up hundreds of house parties since August. Or possibly thousands. The number I found was 3,000, but that was how many times they’d been called out, not how many gatherings they broke up. 

Let’s say lots and leave it at that.

What kind of get-togethers? A party involving 270 students at a dorm. A religious gathering of 20 people. The virus doesn’t care whether you’re praying or shouting, “Sweet Jesus, I’ve never been this drunk in my life.” 

Places rented on Airbnb have been used for a number of the parties, indicating that people aren’t in the awkward position of have 264 more friends show up at their house than they’d planned on, they’re going into it with malice aforethought. 

A police spokesperson said the gatherings weren’t limited to any one age group. 

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A Spanish company, working together with a university, has come up with a machine that should be able to disinfect a room in minutes. It uses cold atmospheric plasma to clean surfaces and to kill 99% of viruses and bacteria in the air.

And if you’re not sure what atmospheric plasma is, what have you been doing with your life? It’s a deeply scientific-sounding phrase that I quoted in order to sound like I know more than you. 

Okay, haven’t a clue. I do understand cold, though. I used to live in Minnesota, which is close enough to Canadian border than the icicles that dangled from their roofs grew right past our windows.

Why don’t we go to a spokesperson, who can explain it all? 

Broadly speaking, we subject the surrounding air to a very strong electrical field, pulling electrons from the neutral particles in the air and forming ions. This system can generate up to 70 different types, from ultraviolet rays to peroxides, ozone, or nitrogen oxides. The synergies between these allow bacteria and viruses to be neutralized.”

Got it?

Me neither. What I do understand is that it’s the size of a laptop, it’s silent, and it can be used to clean either an empty room or one with people in it, recirculating the air. 

Let’s quote the article I stole that information from

“To do this, the system releases ions which, once disinfected, are reconnected in neutral particles.” 

They’re hoping to have it tested and certified by the end of the year. The snag? No one’s said–at least within my hearing–how much it’s going to cost. 

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Staff at some universities complain that they’ve been pressured to stop working at home and show up on campus so that the schools can create a vibrant atmosphere. Because what could be more exciting, when you’re young and taking on a  debt the size of Wales, than having lots of people around you to participate in the Great Covid Lottery? And who’s more exciting to play it with than the back-office staff? 

One school, in explaining why it needed bodies behind desks, wrote that it was trying to keep students from asking to have their tuition refunded, which at least has the virtue of being honest.

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The AstraZeneca / Oxford vaccine–one of the front runners in the race to make a massive viral load of money in the Covid vaccine market–reports that it’s sparked a good immune response in older adults as well as the young. Old codgers (and being one, I get to call us that) also have fewer side effects than the young. 

AstraZeneca says it will be available for limited use in the coming months.

Um, yes, and how fast, exactly, will those months be in coming? AZ says before the end of the year where countries approve its use. Britain’s health secretary says the first half of 2021 is more likely. But whenever it happens, it’s likely to be available to only a limited group at first. 

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Which leads me neatly into my next item, a warning from scientists that the rush to adopt a vaccine may get in the way of finding the best vaccine. Once a vaccine’s in widespread use, it’ll be harder to prove the efficacy of a later vaccine, especially among particularly vulnerable groups. Some mechanism, they say, needs to be set up to compare them.

The vaccines that are ahead in the race are using new approaches, but it’s possible that the older approaches will yield a better result. It’s not necessary, but it is possible.

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The US Centers for Disease Control has (or should that be have, since they insist on being multiple centers instead of a single one?) redefined what close contact means when we’re talking about exposure to Covid. The earlier guidance counted close contact as being within six feet of an infected person for fifteen minutes. Now the CDC reminds us that six feet isn’t a magic number, and neither is fifteen minutes. They’re rough estimates, and being around an infected person fifteen times in a day for a minute each time exposes you to as much virus as fifteen lovely, relaxed minutes in a single encounter.

That may seem obvious, but someone’s always ready to take these things literally. Some schools were moving students around at fourteen-minute intervals. Quick, kids, the virus is onto us! Everybody split up and move to different classrooms!

Basically, what they’re saying is that the more virus you’re exposed to, the greater your risk. Exposure isn’t something that happens all at once, like falling off a cliff. 

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And finally, a bit of rumor control: Wales did not classify tampons and sanitary pads as nonessential items and ban their sale during its current lockdown. What happened was that someone tweeted to Tesco that a store had refused to sell her period pads. Tesco tweeted back that it was government policy.

Tesco then deleted the tweet and apologized. It turns out that the store had cordoned off an aisle because of a break-in. Had someone knocked a wall down? No. The police were investigating, and anyone who’s ever been on a British highway after an accident can testify that you don’t mess with the police when they’re investigating. Everything stops until they’re damn well done.

But by the time Tesco deleted its tweet, the rumor-horse was out of the social media barn and galloping happily toward the Severn–the river that divides Wales from England–reciting, “One if by land and two if by sea, and I spreading rumors of all sorts shall be.” 

Sorry. American poem that kids of my generation had to memorize if we hoped for lunch period to ever arrive. It’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” ever so slightly bastardized, and it’s totally irrelevant but we’re getting toward the end of the post here and headed not just for the Severn River but the Stream of Consciousness.

Should we go back to our point? Sanitary products are recognized as essential and are available for sale. The Welsh health minister added that stores can sell nonessential items to customers in “genuine need,” which is defined as I think it’s lunchtime and I’m leaving now, so define that for your own hair-splitting self.  

The Welsh government is meeting with retailers to review the regulations and guidelines, after which it will all make sense.