The Covid update for Britain

Between lockdown and vaccination, Britain has fewer people dying of Covid on any given day than in–well, let’s say anytime in the last three months because I found some very pretty graphs that use that as a reference point. We also have fewer Covid cases (as opposed to deaths) than we did three months ago, but the downward slanting line has flattened out. Maybe because the schools have reopened, but that’s guesswork. You’ll find other possible reasons below.

By mid-March, half of Britain’s population had antibodies, some from vaccination, others from having had Covid. 

Okay, not half: 54.7%. Most of us who’ve been vaccinated have only had one dose and are waiting nervously for the second. At least my partner and I are nervous. We’re coming up toward twelve weeks and haven’t heard a memory of an echo of a whisper of a date. 

The main thing, though, is that case numbers and deaths are both down and we’re breathing a bit easier. The country’s coming out of lockdown in stages, peeping its head over the parapet to see if the virus is still shooting at us.  

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn

Should people be working from home?

So what would any sober, sensible prime minister do in that situation?

Damned if we know, because we don’t have one. We’ve got Boris Johnson, and he’s told us that people who’ve been working at home should go back to–

What do you call that place? The office. They should go back and start working from their offices. They’ve had enough days off, he told the Conservative Party spring conference.

The exact quote is, “The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.” Making it not exactly his idea, but one that originated elsewhere and meandered into his head because there isn’t much in there to stop it. 

That followed on the heels of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, saying that people are likely to quit their jobs if they’re not allowed to go back to the office and businesses had better open up if they want to keep them.

Are office workers really desperate to start working from work again? It seems to depend when you ask, and who, so we’ll skip the numbers and say that some want to keep working from home, at least until they can count on the workplace being Covid-free, and some would love to go back because they’ve been calling one square foot of kitchen table an office and they’ve had to share that with a cup of tea and the toast crumbs from breakfast. Not to mention until recently a small kid or three who they were supposed to be homeschooling. And the cat, whose spelling is terrible.

Recruitment agencies expect that a lot of people will want to work remotely after the pandemic ends. 

So working from home isn’t a simple yes/no question. It involves a lot of ifs and no answer will be unanimous. But offhand I’d say Johnson may have had his own work habits in mind when he assumed people were sitting around with their feet up, drinking wine and contemplating how to get someone who isn’t himself to pay for new wallpaper

Okay, it’s more than wallpaper. It’s also furniture. To the tune of £200,000. Which is, at least, more than the £2.6 million spent on a new briefing room.

But forget all that. How safe are workplaces?

A strike’s pending at the Swansea Department of Vehicle and Licensing Agency over workplace safety after 560 workers tested positive for Covid. That’s out of, as far as I can tell, something in the neighborhood of 2,000, so let’s say a quarter of the workforce. 

The union says the building’s too overcrowded for pandemic working. 

Britain’s had 4,500 workplace Covid outbreaks. 

What are businesses doing to make workplaces safe? Half of them have done Covid risk assessments. Others have done none or have outdated assessments. A quarter of them have been inspected during the pandemic. My world-beating mathematical skills tell me that means three-quarters of them haven’t been inspected. No employers have been prosecuted for violating Covid regulations.

That’s not to say that workplace outbreaks are due only to violations of the regulations, or that the regulations are up to the job of keeping people safe, only that they’re the measure we have at hand. 

If you want to read the guidelines, they’re here.  

At least part of what’s driving the push to get office workers back into the office–and this isn’t my speculation but that of genuine journalists (I only play one on the internet)–is that the businesses that feed on office workers need to be fed, and what they need to be fed is money. That can only happen when people work in central locations, then go out for lunch, stop in for coffee, and buy a pair of shoes on their way home. 

Office workers, put on your high heels and your ties (pick one, please; if you wear both you’ll draw too much attention to yourself) and get back into the office. Your nation needs you. 

Your nation needs your money.

 

So why isn’t the number of cases dropping?

I can’t give you a definitive answer on that, but I can toss a few possibilities at you. If we practice this long enough, you’ll know when to duck.

I mentioned that the schools have reopened. That’s one factor. Another is that fewer than one person in five requests a Covid test when they have symptoms and only half self-isolate when they have symptoms. That’s from a large study by the British Medical Journal

The people least likely to self-isolate are men, younger people, the parents of young kids, people from working-class backgrounds, people working in key sectors, and people with money problems.

One of the (many) glaring gaps in the government handling of the pandemic has been not giving low-income people who have to self-isolate enough money to live on while they’re off work. 

The reasons people don’t self-isolate range from the compelling, including the need to buy groceries and pay the rent, to the self-indulgent. The self-indulgent ones include exercising, meeting people, and having only mild symptoms so what the hell.

The study took place in waves, over a good stretch of time, and it did see some improvement as time went on, from 43% self-isolating to 52%. The study’s authors said greater practical and financial help would improve the numbers and messages addressed specifically to men, younger people, and key workers might also help.

In the meantime, the country’s budgeted £37 billion for a test and trace system that hasn’t shown any clear impact. The Public Accounts Committee said it was set up with the goal of preventing lockdowns, but the country’s had two since then. It also said the spending was “unimaginable” and that the taxpayer shouldn’t be treated like an ATM machine.

Some of the test and trace system’s consultants are paid more than £6,600 per day.

In a pinch, a person could live on that. 

 

The elusive Covid inquiry

Assorted troublemakers have called for an inquiry into the way Britain’s handled the pandemic. You know the sort of troublemaker we’re talking about. The doctors publication the BMJ wanted one as far back as last September. A group called Bereaved Families for Justice, whose name pretty much explains what they’re about. Health workers. Minority ethnic organizations, whose communities have been hit particularly hard by the virus. A small bouquet of academics. The children’s book writer Michael Rosen, who recovered from Covid after a long (long, long) hospitalization and has written movingly about the experience, so he’s able, for the moment, to grab some lines of newsprint. Your basic troublemaking pick-and-mix.

Some of them want a wide-ranging inquiry into what went wrong and others want a tightly focused inquiry into what should be done in the future, but that division’s in the background right now. They can argue over it later.

And then there’s Boris Johnson, who says he wishes he’d done some things differently but he’ll keep all that between himself and his pillow at 3 a.m. In the meantime, sorry, but no inquiry–not to not to figure out how to do better in the future and not to figure out what went wrong–and a horrifying amount has, both stuff you can chalk up to incompetence and stuff you can chalk up to corruption, not to mention stuff that embraces both with enthusiasm.

Other ways of holding public inquiries are possible, though, and they’re outside the prime minister’s grasp. Ian Boyd, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, better known as Sage (Boyd’s a sir, but I never can bring myself to attach that sort of nonsense to people’s names), suggested a royal commission–basically a committee of experts pulled together to investigate an issue. It wouldn’t have as much power to gather evidence as an inquiry form with the prime minister’s blessing and that of his pillow, but it could get some work done–probably with less political interference.

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.

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.