Day Sixty: Thursday 14th May 2020

Daily Diary: Tail Chasing!

Still in catch up. Writing, writing, writing.

I’ve been waiting for the ruling on general aviation all week. Finally, Nigel picked up on the letter from the Department for Transport and circulated it to the club on WhatsApp. The restrictions on leisure flying, including paragliding have not been lifted. In addition, the tardiness of the Government is that people’s hopes that had been lifted by Boris Johnson are then slammed down again.

Personally, at 68, I’m not going anywhere and certainly won’t go out to fly any time soon. But there are many other, especially younger pilots who are going to feel let down. It’s going to be hard to break the news, but it has to be done.

I’ve opened up Zoom for a brief chat at 8.30 pm with the committee. There’s a full club meeting scheduled tomorrow.

The Bigger Picture: Shockingly Unprepared But Evolving Rapidly.

We were shockingly unprepared.

How could we be so unready? It was common knowledge that there was a biosecurity threat. So many movies have been made about viral plagues they could be a genre in their own right. Health experts have warned about a coronavirus-like outbreak for years. But just like with previous epidemics, their recommendations were ignored, leaving countries around the world woefully underprepared.

The World Health Organisation has been criticised by some for its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the problem is deeper than that. Starting with the deep distrust of multinational corporations and their contribution to the widening divide between the rich and poor, which in turn has led to a global uber-class, there has been a lessened enthusiasm for the worldwide, along with a rise in more local and insular populism. In doing so, international organisations, such as the United Nations and World Health Organisation became caught in the fray, Trump on occasion hitting out at both of them, and he’s by no means alone in doing so. 

Nevertheless, there is no alternative to the WHO when it comes to fighting the disease, and any others that may appear in the future.

Another way in which the world was unprepared has been the mechanism by which scientific advances in preventing and treating a rapidly spreading disease such as Covid-19 went from research to medical practice. Traditionally, the process has been intentionally slow, careful and deliberate. But the pandemic moves far too fast for that.

So findings, such as in the case of remdesivir, go from pre-print to practice follow a fast track that brings with it its own set of problems, not least that the media get hold of the story and the public invest their hopes in it before everything is cut and dried. Data is released following preliminary analysis

The rationale’s easy to understand. In a pandemic, who doesn’t want insight into a useful therapy as soon as possible? So on this basis, the data becomes sufficient to allow Emergency Use Authorisation in hospitals, despite this is not the best approach to science or medicine.

Rather than release information in dribs and drabs, study sponsors whether a government, company, or university, should release all the results as soon as possible, especially when it comes to medicines for fighting a pandemic. Data should not be held back.

“If we can’t see the study protocol and a concise research report, you shouldn’t be talking about it in the news,” said Joseph Ross, a professor medicine and public health at Yale University, who studies clinical trial practices. “Instead, we now have a situation where partial data is disclosed and physicians have to use that to make a decision in the moment.”

Indeed. In the absence of full results, we lack further insight into safety or how the drug may work on subsets of patients. And for now, the extent to which remdesivir can prevent deaths – a key metric – is unsettled. Fewer patients died while on the drug than placebo, but the findings were not statistically significant and need further analysis.

But the decision moves from being scientific to being political.

So Dr Fauci, adviser and spokesman for President Trump, insists about the EUA for remdesivir “the conclusion will not change,”

Even so, until the data are released, doctors are left with a mix of facts and assumptions, we run the risk of making a decision based on the wrong info.”

And the combination of less rigour, along with allowing the media to access incomplete evidence about the efficacy and risks of treatments (and in time vaccines) allows for some members of the public to invest their faith and hope in more questionable therapies, such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

And that lowering of the bar will prove to be a growing problem as the pandemic progresses.

The Office for National Statistics has estimated that 136,000 people in England have been infected with Covid-19. Over thirty three thousand have died in the UK. By comparison, twenty seven thousand have died in France.

The independent SAGE group, twelve scientists and public health experts, warns that the UK will face further lockdowns if it follows the current path, calling the UK government to change its approaches to tackling Covid-19, and releasing a set of recommendations that challenge the current strategy. “We detect ambivalence in the Government’s strategic response, with some advisers promoting the idea of simply “flattening the curve” or ensuring the NHS is not overwhelmed. We find this attitude counter-productive and potentially dangerous,” their report states.

That ambivalence suggests that the Government simply didn’t ‘get it,’ having failed to engage with the crisis until it was fully upon the nation.

Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary and Chair of the Parliamentary Health and Social Care Committee, said, “I don’t think it’s very important not to finger-point at the individuals, and I think the Government is getting excellent scientific advice. But to ask why it is that SAGE, the Government’s scientific advisory committee, didn’t model the South Korean test, track and trace approach that we are now adopting right at the beginning? The Government was given two very extreme options, the sort of extreme lockdown we are just coming out of, or mitigated herd immunity. And the middle way, the South Korean route, wasn’t modelled.

He also said that Covid-19 tests are taking much too long to be processed.

Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition takes PM Johnson to task on care home deaths, using the Government’s own words and track record against it. How covid could be so carelessly sent untested from hospitals to care homes for such a vulnerable sector of society, seeding death after death like falling dominos, is an ignominious blunder, a stain on the Government and a failure of policy.

It’s unpreparedness, failure to mentally walk the walk, not even working through the findings of Exercise Cygnus carried out to test the UK’s readiness for a hypothetical flu pandemic, that leads to such catastrophes costing thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, Dr Nishant and his wife, Dr Meenal Viz are taking legal action to challenge the lawfulness of PPE guidance published by the Government, which they argue exposes healthcare workers to a greater risk of contracting Covid-19. The doctors also argue that the guidance is not in line with international standards set by the WHO or domestic legislation regarding health and safety at work, that it fails to address the greater risks faced by BAME healthcare workers and that the lack of clarity has resulted in inconsistent practices across NHS Trusts.

It’s a muddle. A mess. This time Johnson’s boosterism will not get us out of it.

Unlike the Brexit unicorns on the sunny uplands, people dying is for real.

Britain’s lack of preparedness and political focus on Brexit were the two key factors in the country’s economy shrinking at its fastest pace since the 2008 financial crash. The UK suffers a bigger economic hit than any other G7 economy. Chancellor Rishi Sunak admitted it was “very likely” the UK is in a “significant recession” as new figures showed. GDP fell by 2 per cent in the first three months of 2020. With just one week of lockdown in those stats the next quarter will be much worse.

There are losers, including struggling markets, such as airlines and oil and gas companies, that are sucking king’s ransoms from governments to keep them alive. 

Spectator sports wonder if they too will be among the losers. Can they survive the pandemic without spectators? Making professional games safe may be feasible.

Making them pay will be harder.

There are winners too. The biggest players are e-commerce – including Amazon, Alibaba and Walmart – have all experienced growth, thanks to the rise in online shopping.

Then there’s the economy that envelops our everyday lives.

  • English councils fear they will have to make budget cuts of 20 per cent and face a social care funding shortfall of £3.5 billion due to the pandemic.
  • House prices could take a year to recover from a Covid-19 slump, warn surveyors. As they call for stamp duty cut for downsizers.
  • A link between poverty and Covid-19 deaths in Scotland laid bare in shock new figures.

And the impact Covid-19 has had on the wider global economy. Economies are deeply intertwined, and the largest economies reach deeply into those of other countries.  So that when Australia has said that it will continue to push for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, even if it hurts trade relations, China responds by suspending beef imports from abattoirs and planning to impose tariffs on Australian barley, after warning that the inquiry could harm two-way trade ties.

The meat trade is more directly affected by the virus too. Meat processing plants have become hot spots and with a high incidence of affected workers, several meat processing plants have had to close, leading to a surge in American meat prices. Working conditions for migrants in German slaughterhouses are in the spotlight after more than 200 workers tested positive for Covid-19 at a factory near Caesfield, in the west of the country. Covid-19 outbreaks have also been identified in at least two other meat processing plants in Germany. The majority of people infected were from Romania and Bulgaria.

Warehouses have also become local epicentres for the outbreak. In a number of US states, officials demand that Amazon tell them how many warehouse workers have died from Covid-19. While in Britain the GMB union has called for the closure and deep cleaning of  fashion retailer ASOS’s warehouse at Little Houghton, near Barnsley, after reports emerged that workers have tested positive for Covid-19.

While billionaire and Tesla founder, Elon Musk, wins a legal battle with the State of California to reopen his car plant.

Early signs that business and manufacturing will weather the storm.

Even though it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

Although we entered the pandemic poorly prepared, it has brought biomedical research front of stage.

The genomes of thousands of patients with coronavirus will be sequenced to understand how a person’s genetic make-up could influence susceptibility to the virus. The study will sequence the whole genomes – the genetic code – of up to 20,000 people who were previously in intensive care or who are currently in intensive care at 170 NHS units across the UK. Patients will have their results compared with 15,000 people who have suffered only mild or moderate symptoms. Experts hope to explain why some patients with Covid-19 experience mild infection, but others require intensive care or go on to die.

Meanwhile the consumer genomics companies 23andMe and Ancestry, each with tens of thousands of customers who have already been tested positive for Covid-19 have also joined the search for the relationship between our DNA and disease susceptibility.

The novel coronavirus known for infiltrating the body through the respiratory tract. However, researchers in Hong Kong are now warning that infection via the eyes is also a big risk, because the strain is stronger than previous coronaviruses. But they insist hand hygiene is still more important than wearing face protection.

Doctors in Bergamo, Italy have reported the first clear evidence of a link between Covid-19 and Kawasaki disease, a rare but serious inflammatory disorder that has required some children to undergo life-saving treatment in intensive care units. NHS bosses issued an alert to doctors after hospitals admitted between 75 and 100 children with a mixture of toxic shock and Kawasaki symptoms, typically including a fever, skin rashes, red eyes, cracked lips and abdominal pain. On Tuesday, medics at the Evelina London Children’s Hospital announced the death of a 14-year-old boy, the first known fatality from the condition in Britain. Doctors suspected early on that coronavirus played a role in the new disorder by triggering an excessive immune reaction in the children, but there was no proof that the two were linked.

The virus has changed, possibly irreversibly, how the process of medicine works. With a highly contagious airborne pathogen on the loose and the absence of a vaccine or especially efficacious medication keeping distance is the only option, one that has been around since Babylon had its first public health problem some time lost in antiquity.

That combines with the ultra-new. We can pick up what the good citizens of ancient Babylon would see as a work of magic, or maybe divine intervention, to see and even talk with each other. We can cheat isolation and being separated.

The massive decline in in-person doctor-patient consultations has been replaced in a rapid growth in telemedicine. In the US, Doctor on Demand becomes the first major telemedicine company to expand its services to Medicare Part B beneficiaries. My wife and I find ourselves, unable to get in touch with our long-standing family doctor, resorting ironically to our Babylon app.

And much as I would still like to meet up with our family doctor, who over decades has become an old friend who knows our personal journeys, at least in terms of our health, I have to accept that telemedicine has opened up new possibilities.

One has been with many vulnerable patients with opioid addiction. Coming to the clinic during a pandemic could well be more dangerous than staying home alone. In the US, Lev Facher reports in STAT that many doctors have taken advantage of new regulations that allow them to prescribe buprenorphine without evaluating patients in person, instead conducting visits by video chat or even by phone, and in some instances, it’s led to unexpected breakthroughs.

One doctor from Tennessee said that telehealth visits have allowed him to gain insight into his patients’ living situations, which has often led to critical discoveries about their life circumstances that he would otherwise have missed.

“I found three patients in the past two weeks that I didn’t know were homeless or living in a car. So we’ve been able to hook them up with some housing services that we have access to.”

Other doctors have argued the new allowances for telehealth and medication delivery could result in a sweeping expansion of treatment services in rural areas, where finding qualified doctors to conduct in-person visits is often difficult.

The Babylon Box can do more, as Erin Brodwin explains in STAT online magazine.

Tech companies, health providers, and patients alike were increasingly looking to remote devices like miniature electrocardiograms and blood pressure cuffs connected to the internet that let clinicians keep tabs on care from afar. Now, with virtual care emerging as a safer alternative to in-person care, remote heart monitoring tools may be having a breakout moment.

The devices could prove useful during the pandemic for a range of reasons, from their ability to catch undiagnosed heart abnormalities in patients missing routine medical appointments, to their usefulness in gauging Covid-19 patients’ responses to experimental medications that impact the heart.

Wearables like the kind made by Apple and Fitbit are already being tested as early warning systems to detect Covid-19 using data from the heart as well as insights on sleep and activity levels, all of which have been previously found to be helpful in predicting clusters of the flu.

There remains a question over whether the change in thinking around remote heart monitoring will stick after the pandemic subsides.

If virtual care — including remote heart monitoring — can give patients and clinicians a clearer picture of heart health in real time, experts project their use could become far more widespread in the coming months and years.

During which virtually all the heart-monitoring technology may well be Zio patches, Apple Watches, or Bluetooth phones for example.

Having said that, checks for cancer such as mammograms, lung x-rays, colonoscopies and smear tests still require in person visits and fears of Covid-19 have led to appointments dropping markedly. In the NHS the backlog was already worrying before the pandemic. It is set to get much worse.

Britain, amongst other countries, has been unprepared is in testing for the virus. The country hasn’t been clear, or honest, about what testing involves. We knew that test and trace had been effective in managing STDs, not least of all HIV/AIDS and some tropical diseases, such as Ebola,  brought in from the developing world by aid workers, with a limited number of contacts. That seems to have shaped public health thinking. Highly infectious airborne viruses, such as colds and flu were not considered sufficiently virulent.

The virus moves quickly, especially in an era of air transport, Britain’s borders were wide open, and by the time news reports were coming in about Covid-19 it was all too late – Covid-19 had arrived and established itself.

The spread of the virus might be tamed if people were to be tested in large volumes. But there simply isn’t the human or material capacity to test on such a huge scale. So the virus tears through the population, and getting a grip on the situation means setting priorities.

At this stage of the pandemic there are three: healthcare personnel and first responders, randomised testing of representative samples of the population to understand the overall pandemic dynamic, and high risk groups.

For a long time to come testing will be cumbersome, with PCR tests taking up to several days to produce results, and as has happened already the horse has bolted before the stable door is shut. Apps will prove inconsistent in tracing the virus and protecting individuals. Only when home-use lateral flow tests become widely available, with rapid results in less than half an hour, even if they are have a sensitivity of 80 per cent (see yesterday’s post about how the tests work), will testing have a widespread effectiveness.

If there is one aspect of dealing with the pandemic that Britain has been slow to adapt it has been the wearing of face masks. Despite the practice being commonplace in countries that had been hit by previous viral epidemics, such as South Korea, neither the Government nor public health leaders seem to have registered their significance. Throughout April the share of Americans wearing face masks increased dramatically, rising from 17 per cent in early April to 69 per cent by the third, although there is a considerable difference in usage rates geographically. By contrast, the UK languished at 26 per cent, despite the public’s very positive response to other measures, such as distancing, hand washing, avoiding public transport (which Brits have excelled at – working from home might have been a factor) and sanitiser.

Wearing a mask has been absent from the all too familiar Number Ten briefings, which focused on those other measures.

The Government’s advisers were themselves divided over the importance of masks, and there was a tacit messaging from Johnson’s libertarian government that somehow masks were an infringement of people’s liberties. Even leading politicians were heard to describe masks as muzzles and face nappies. Misinformation abounded, like wearing a mask for long hours to reduce the spread of Covid-19 will put you at risk of carbon dioxide poisoning.

It was nonsense. Hospital staff have long worn masks without such consequences. They mightn’t be especially comfortable, they do tend to mist up glasses, but that’s as far as it goes.

The precautionary principle, which I’ve personally adopted since before the lockdown when it comes to mask-wearing, in the same way as I look at my helmet, reserve parachute and pre-flight checks when paragliding, simply hasn’t been part of the playbook. For Boris Johnson it has always been the bold versus the timid, and masks are no exception.

But for the mask-wearing minority, people began to engage positively with the challenge. Some, like my sister started to make her own masks and went on to selling them to raise funds for her local hospice. She’s part of a growing mask-sewing army, lessening the acute shortage of masks by hospitals and setting a trend of mask individuality.

But masks never stop being a divisive issue.

Or as straightforward one, particularly where it overlaps with other divisive issues such as racism. Gabriel Felix, a black doctor, wrote in the medical online magazine STAT:

“With the emergence of Covid-19, I’ve spent time weighing the pros and cons of wearing a face mask on evening walks to pick up takeout food or to go to the grocery store. I often opted not to wear one so I wouldn’t be perceived as appearing “suspicious.” My decision-making went as far as limiting how often I went out after dark, knowing that some people will see a masked Black man as a threat.

Then I received a text alert from my city one morning telling me that using a face mask is now mandatory in public and that people who don’t comply with the order could face a $300 fine.

As a physician, I favour things that will help reduce the transmission of coronavirus infections. But as a Black man, I wondered how this order will affect people who look like me. I wondered if this order went into effect with any understanding of the fear and anxiety it could inflict on people of colour.”

In Flint, Michigan, a security guard at a Family Dollar store was fatally shot on a Friday afternoon after an altercation that had occurred over another customer refusing to wear a face covering, which is required in Michigan in any enclosed public space.

If covid teaches us anything, it’s nothing in life is ever that simple.

Even when there are a lot of folk telling you it is.

I’m not sure now whether this is a late message on my email feed from my local Nextdoor user group, or whether I was behind on catching up because of my birthday, but here it is:

“Police Notice: Coronavirus outbreak FAQs – what you can and can’t do. Thanks to your sacrifices, social distancing is working. But if we stop now, we risk increasing the spread of the coronavirus. The Government has now published ‘staying safe outside your home’ for guidance on what the new rules will mean. These will take place on Wednesday 13 May 2020.”

However, police in England revealed they have no powers to enforce two metre social distancing. New guidelines issued by the College of Policy and the National Police Chiefs’ Council urges officers to only enforce what is written in law. It is prudent. The loss of policing by consent in the longer term is a much bigger issue than managing the public during a pandemic.

Also in this new reality we find ourselves in:

Building sites are to stay open longer to ‘help workers follow social distancing.’ Sites in residential areas can remain operating until 9 pm and those in non-residential places can work later.

New cycle paths are being created to encourage people to hop onto their bikes rather than into their cars. Leaders and urban planners say it’s a unique opportunity to advance green policy goals while encouraging social distancing.

The Foreign Office has issued a warning for Brits with holidays booked for Spain. Following further border restrictions, only Spanish citizens, those who are legally resident in Spain, frontier workers or those who can prove they need to enter Spain for essential reasons will be allowed to enter the country. Only green residency certificates will be accepted as proof of residency in Spain and British travellers who are not resident and/or not in possession of this certificate should not attempt to enter the country. Padron certificates, utility bills and property deeds will not be accepted by Spanish authorities as proof of residency. British travellers who are not resident in Spain or do not have a residency certificate with them should not travel to Gibraltar and then attempt to enter Spain via the land frontier. From May 15, all new international arrivals entering Spain, including Spanish nationals and residents, will be required to self-isolate in their residence or hotel for a period of 14 days.

Holiday firms are accused of ‘bullying’ customers into paying balances. Customers have been told they must pay the remaining amount for their trips or lose their deposit.

Green and red zones: As summer approaches, governments fear the increased number of people will spark a fresh wave of infections. One study from Spain has an innovative solution. It suggests dividing Europe into red and green zones, according to the impact of Covid-19. Under the scheme, Europeans would be able to travel freely to and from proposed green zones, such as Norway, southern France and Scotland. Red zones, such as northern Spain, London and Sweden would be off-limits.

The EU is trying to salvage summer with social distancing rules for hotels.

But for some, like 39 year old Emiliane, who is spending lockdown in temporary accommodation in an inadequately converted office block Harlow, Middlesex, any idea of a holiday is a million miles away.

“I’m spending lockdown in a former office block with my two kids and I’m scared. I’ve felt scared living in this building,” she says.

Lockdown for many is horrible.

There has to be a way out.

And it has to be managed well.

Professor Mauro Guillén of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has advised a staggered reopening of businesses with periodic checks before proceeding. He has suggested an “incremental reopening,” with proper planning for transportation of people from home to work, and back to home. Alongside, there would have to be protocols in place for contact tracing if a worker falls ill, he said. In reopening schools, he has recommended that children be taken to school in groups of 20 per cent and step that up gradually while ensuring that the requisite testing and contact tracing capabilities are in place.

Well managed, lifting lockdown is achievable but in England the loosening of the rules remain confusing.

This problem is not unique to England. Protests have broken out in Madrid after the Spanish government eased the lockdown everywhere except for the capital and Barcelona. France is also leaving the lockdown, but the process is hampered by adversarial labour relations and distrust of government.

But elsewhere lifting lockdown goes more smoothly. Belgians resume social life. People in Belgium have been able to gather in small groups again after the government eased the country’s lockdown. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia open borders to each other to form a ‘Baltic Bubble.’

One restaurant in Sweden is taking the new way of life as an opportunity to launch a truly unique dining experience. Bord For En, in the small town of Ronseter, lays out a single table a single chair and cooks up a three course meal for a single guest, once a day …. In the middle of a field.

In England, garden centres reopen. “Gardening helps me to deal with things,” one pleased customer declares.

Lifting the lockdown changes behaviour rapidly. Data published by location technology from TomTom shows that the level of road congestion in London at 8 am on Thursday was 19 per cent, up from 16 per cent a week earlier. Transport for London said there were 10 per cent more Tube journeys made between 5 am and 6 am on Thursday than the same period last week.

Well managed or not, clear or confusing, lockdowns in Britain and Europe are coming to an end and most are relieved.

In the US there is talk of lifting restrictions too and a growing desire to return to normality, even though polls indicate that a majority of Americans say that gatherings are unsafe, at least until July. Last week, the share of Americans staying home fell to 36 per cent, down from 44 per cent a few weeks ago.

In New York, the news about Covid-19 has improved over the past week. There have been fewer than 200 deaths in New York for two consecutive days, down from around 1,000 in early April. Nationwide, the number of confirmed new cases each day has finally begun to decline substantially.

As some governors consider easing social distancing restrictions, new estimates by researchers at Harvard University suggest that the United States cannot safely reopen unless it conducts more than three times the number of Covid-19 tests it is currently administering over the next month.

There is a growing gap between politicians and scientists and the medical profession. The main White House model now projects 147,000 people will die in the US by August 4th due to the easing of social distancing measures.

Dr Fauci testified to Congress that the country does not have the Covid-19 outbreak completely under control and the national death toll is “likely higher” than 80,000 as states begin to reopen.

A view which received sharp criticism from President Trump.

Wisconsin Governor, Tony Evers, a Democrat, had extended the prohibition on most travel and operation of non-essential businesses until May 26. But in a 4 to 3 ruling, the conservative-leaning court said that the measure had exceeded the top health official’s authority under state law.

Also in the US:

  • A new analysis says 80 per cent of people who have recently lost their jobs are likely eligible for healthcare coverage under Medicaid and Obamacare.
  • California State University, the nation’s largest four year public university system, cancelled in-person classes for the fall.
  • Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, was released from prison to home confinement over fears of the spread of the coronavirus.

Most prisoners, without the connections in high places, were not so lucky.

Elsewhere in the world:

  • Pandemic fails to damp armed conflicts, despite truce calls.
  • The virus came late to Latin America, but death rates there are comparable to those in Europe.
  • A strong typhoon roared towards the Philippines as authorities work to evacuate tens of thousands of people, while avoiding overcrowding emergency shelters that could spread Covid-19. Governors say social distancing will be nearly impossible for residents staying at emergency shelters. Some shelters are now functioning as quarantine facilities, and they will have to be turned back to emergency storm shelters.
  • Taiwan responded quickly to the outbreak and appears to have limited its spread. Its government leveraged technology to trace and quarantine sick people, upped its mask production, and trained communities for lockdowns through large-scale simulations. At this stage it promises to come out of the pandemic stronger than ever, but there is still a long way to go.

While the unusual feature of today’s international news is a particular focus on so often much ignored and neglected Africa:

Lesotho: This tiny kingdom of has confirmed its first case of the coronavirus. Entirely surrounded by South Africa, which has more than 11,000 confirmed cases, Lesotho had been the only country in Africa without any reported infection. But this week dozens of people who arrived from Saudi Arabia via South Africa were tested and one case was found.

Uganda: A member of parliament was detained and tortured for ten days as the government and aligned paramilitary groups persecuted opponents in the name of halting the virus.

Liberia: Broadcaster Spoon FM closed its newsroom after its general manager was one of several journalists stopped by the police. Press pass issues were preventing journalists from informing communities on protection against the virus, she said, while a minister warned journalists that they would be ‘embarrassed’ at security checkpoints for not complying with the virus.

Cameroon: As battles with separatists continued, the government has banned humanitarian flights as part of its efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

Madagascar: Several African countries received shipments from Madagascar of a plant based ‘cure’ for Covid-19 promoted by president Andry Rejoelina, despite warnings from the WHO that its efficacy is unproven.

Tanzania: President John Magafuli denounced Covid-19 statistics from health officials as fake and “imperialist sabotage,” stopping release of further results, suspending the director of the national health laboratory and instituting an investigation. Tanzania also gets Madagascar’s anti-Covid-19 drink disputed by WHO.

Ethiopia: The government has been accused of using a state of emergency to crack down on freedom of speech.

Western Sahara: The wife of a Saharawi activist has called on occupying Morocco to free political prisoners from the country’s liberation movement as Covid-19 spreads through the nation’s jails.

Finally, another uplifting story.

Margaret Payne, a 90 year old woman raising money for health and emergency services by climbing the height of Suilvan, a Scottish mountain, on her stairs has said she is “looking forward to a good rest at the summit.”

Suilven is 2,398 ft (730m) high, and Margaret’s challenge means she’ll need to take 282 trips up her staircase in total.

Margaret is expected to take around two months to complete the challenge, which she says was inspired by the charity garden walks by 99-year-old veteran Captain Tom Moore, who has raised more than £18m for the NHS.

I’m hoping that such feats will mark what history will record as The First Lockdown. They tell a story of a moment in time, that like clapping for carers, will pass, but should never be forgotten.


Al Jazeera, Associated Press, BBC News, Care2, Crowd Justice, Daily Record, Economist, Euronews, Evening Standard, Financial Times, Forbes, France24, Guardian, Huffington Post, Independent, iNews, ITV News, Liverpool Echo, New Statesman, New York Times, Nextdoor, Open Democracy, Quartz, Royal Society, STAT, This Is Money, Wharton Business School University of Pennsylvania,

Day Fifty Nine: Wednesday 13th May 2020

Daily Diary: Over The Garden Wall – A Tale of Socially Distanced Celebration.

I’m really behind myself. I blame my birthday. Once you’ve had a drink or two it’s pretty hard to write anything. And best not to try.
It would have been churlish to grind my way through more of this diary than celebrate. So this was the proposition: Emily would visit with presents at around five. She would bring a collapsible chair and sit in Midge’s front garden (Midge having departed to her daughter’s in Rainham at the start of the pandemic), and Vicky and I would sit in ours and we’d have a wee family get-together, socially distancing over the garden wall. Since the new rules were you could meet up with one family member at a social distance and since Tom goes in and out of London two or three times a week we have a beer on WhatsApp while Emily heads over. That way it’s all pretty kosher. Tom, Vicky and I have a great glass-raising, beer drinking and whisky swigging chat, which goes on for an hour until Emily turns up.
The front wall is covered with party paper and cake and prosecco grace it, but not before the front of our house is decorated with balloons, ‘Happy Birthday’ messages and bunting. We celebrate and chat, Emily wears a face covering and rubber gloves.
Meanwhile, passers-by come along the street. Every time someone comes, Vicky, who’s entered the hail fellow, well met spirit of the occasion, calls out:
“He’s sixty eight, you know!”
Which obliges them to say, “Happy Birthday!”
One guy tells me that I didn’t look a year older than twenty,
“That’s a really hard-lived twenty,” I reply.
He doesn’t disagree.
Then a white van pulls up and a man in his thirties climbs out.
“He’s sixty eight, you know!” Vicky calls to him.
The guy’s very affable and wishes me a happy birthday. We talk a little over the front garden wall (socially distanced, of course), and in a moment of generosity Vicky offers him a glass of bubbly.
I see Emily look on in horror, and say, “Nooooo!”
Turns out the guy’s a plumber on call.
So we chat on a bit. The plumber’s called Danny and he’s a local lad. It’s awkward. Got to stay friendly and cheerful, but there’s an undercurrent of risk.
More of the general public pass and greet with varying degrees of enthusiasm. A distressed young woman passes by, intoxicated by drugs or alcohol and in a bad way.
She doesn’t get the “He’s sixty eight, you know” treatment. That would have been inappropriate.
At the end everything goes into a bucket of bleach. It was nice for Danny the plumber to drop by. But it wasn’t smart.
That night Vicky was anxious about the consequences, and I must admit I wondered if we had had that moment of weakness that could have opened up the gates of Hell, destroying what has been up to date a very careful existence.
I hope not.
Postscript: Little did any of us at the time realise that while we were consumed by angst and guilt about every slip up, the staff at the Prime Minister’s residence and heart of government were casually having regular alcohol-swigging get-togethers. But that’s another story to be told over a year and a half from now.

The Bigger Picture: Britain In A Bad Way

Covid Britain on the 13 May 2020 is a strange, disjointed land. A government driven by a whimsical cause to repatriate powers it had never lost and take back control of its borders, perversely has chosen to leave those borders wide open and its population unprotected from lethal infection.

Brexit continues to be a painful and messy divorce on an international stage, and like all too many divorces in their early stages involves bitterness, spiteful redress and irrationality. Point making and point scoring, which includes an apparently doctrinaire refusal to participate in EU programmes to procure ventilators, tests and PPE.

And that mother of Brexit – years of malignant austerity – contributed to the country entering the pandemic with vital protective public health systems downsized and dysfunctional. Urgent warnings from Exercise Cygnus in 2016 were suppressed and ignored while work by the Pandemic Flu Readiness Board and the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Programme Board, including scheduling a pandemic influenza exercise in 2019-20, were paused or postponed to free up resources for EU exit work.

“We’re following the science,” is the government’s mantra, but in reality science policy advice on national biosecurity is manipulated by spin doctors. The old and vulnerable have been left to die unseen, untreated and alone, while health and care professionals have been sent with inadequate protection into harm’s way, for many at the cost of their own lives.

On this day, May 13 2020 the growing British pandemic death toll, much of it avoidable, is already the highest in Europe and outnumbers deaths in the WWII Blitz.

Britain is a country in a bad way.

The ONS, Office of National Statistics, reports a contraction of two per cent in the UK economy in the first quarter of 2020, after plunging 5.8 per cent in March as the coronavirus crisis took hold. The Resolution Foundation think tank warned that the first quarter drop was an ominous sign of things to come, while retailers warn of shop closures and job losses because of lockdown.

The Treasury is faced with £337 billion budget deficit. Furlough has been extended until October, which bodes ill for getting the nation back to work. Employers are to contribute to workers’ salaries from August, prompting fears of ‘mass redundancies.’ Speaking for the Government, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the furlough scheme is very generous and employers should not be claiming government money while making them work. In time it will transpire that over four billion pounds of fraudulent claims will be simply written off.

Holiday giant TUI said it will slash up to 8,000 jobs to trim costs in the light of the coronavirus crisis hit to the travel sector. The world’s largest package holiday operator wants to cut costs by one third and also to put more focus on regional breaks as opposed to jaunts abroad. The job cuts would represent 15 per cent of the workforce. The company is eyeing a return to tourism.

It’s a worldwide problem. The CEO of Boeing predicted that less airline travel due to the pandemic likely means a major airline will go out of business this year.

Brits in particular do a lot of flying from their wet and windy homeland to sunnier climes.

So the solution from government is as nearly purely political as you can make…..

Let’s lift the lockdown.

The first stages of easing restrictions, from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’ have been confusing to many.

Tory veteran MP Peter Bone blames Number 10 advisers for the PM’s communications errors. “Many of them have clearly been watching too many episodes of West Wing,” he says in a way that reminds me of the comedy dialogue routine by John Bird and John Fortune.

While Manchester and Liverpool metro mayors, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram wrote to the PM to say it is ‘too early’ to change the Stay Home lockdown slogan, and demanded regional publication of their own R-number for the virus.

But a message from a local resident on Nextdoor tells me that among libertarians frustration with lockdown is already bubbling up.

“I hope this isn’t serious,” the message says. “I received this and I’m not sure if this is true but let’s try to get through the next couple of weeks without protesting in Hyde Park.”

“UK Mass Gathering, Hyde Park: Saturday 16th May at 12:00 pm. Join the Freedom Movement and be part of the largest mass gathering since the lockdown. We say No to mandatory vaccines, No to the new normal and No to the unlawful lockdown.


It’s the height of lockdown and such a mass gathering is clearly an act of defiance. Of civil disobedience by those who share Johnson’s libertarian take on society.

So he needs to throw a morsel of red meat to fellow libertarian travellers.

Let’s lift lockdown!

There’s a lot of enthusiasm for lockdown easing and millions being set to return to work and spend more time outside from leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees Mogg, as he announces that MPs are to be ordered back to Parliament to ‘set an example,’ even though the prime minister is more measured, saying he was not expecting a ‘flood’ of people going back to work this week.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps publishes new guidance urging the public to travel by foot, bicycle or car in order to avoid public transport, while those who have no choice but to take the bus, train or tube are told they should wear masks on public transport and avoid peak times.

While health secretary Matt Hancock tells ITV’s ‘This Morning’ that it’s unlikely that big, lavish, international holidays are going to be possible for this summer.

It’s looking like British destinations are on the rise, and with the change in lockdown rules and a good weather forecast English tourist spots are on alert for what some describe as ‘weekend mayhem.’

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick unveiled new plans to restart the housing market with safer, ‘socially distanced property viewings, while big property developer Taylor Wimpey is to start reopening show homes and sales centres from next Friday.

Eating out makes its first baby steps back to a kind of normality. McDonald’s announces phase two of plan to reopen its restaurants, but when we are able to travel again and hotels open up to the public, breakfast buffets will not be coming back.

Reopening is still in question for schools, as the headteachers’ union NAHT warned that it may be ‘impossible’ for schools in England to start admitting more pupils from June 1, amid safety fears.

These are the first steps to manage human contact and social distancing. For the next, the UK is currently muddling over the idea of implanting “social bubbles” – a restricted form of face to face contact – while waiting for a vaccine to be developed. The general principle of a social bubble is that you can have contact with people outside of your household, but keep the number tightly restricted.

It is a human analogy of a top predator swimming over a coral reef. Down the food chain the lesser critters make themselves scarce, vanishing into every nook and crevice available. As the danger passes the critters re-emerge, bravest first, cautious last.

The coming out of crevices is happening all over Europe:

  • It’s a dilemma that restaurateurs have been scratching their heads about: how to reopen to diners and stay safe amid the Covid-19 pandemic. One venue in Amsterdam thinks it might have found a solution. Mediamatic Biotoop, an art centre in the Dutch city, is putting outdoor diners into tiny greenhouses in a bid to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
  • Most shops in Greece are allowed to reopen, but some owners are worried about what comes next. They fear that if infections rise again in the coming weeks and restrictions are reinstated, their businesses will never recover. While Greece has so far managed to weather the health crisis comparatively well, it’s expected to be one of the countries that suffers the most for economic fallout.
  • Commuters in Paris are subject to strict rules and regulations stretching beyond carrying a work certificate as they board public transport.
  • The Faroe Islands kick off the season, as football restarts in Europe.
  • Europe’s biggest budget airline will resume 1,000 flights a day from 1 July and restore 90 per cent of its pre-pandemic route network. Before the Covid-19 crisis, Ryanair was operating 2,400 flights a day. It will restart flying from most of its 80 bases across the continent. All passengers will be forced to wear face masks and yes, put their hand up if they want to use the toilet.
  • Putin is criticised for ending ‘non-work period’ amid record Covid-19 figures.

All the while, continuing to work the metaphor, there are fears of the return of the reef predator.

In this case a second wave. It’s well documented in studies of previous pandemics, a second wave is likely to occur this time as well, especially in the absence of a vaccine. Countries are starting to ease lockdown measures and citizens are gradually returning to return to some semblance of normality. Experts warn lower infection rates combined with higher temperatures could lead to complacency among people regarding social distancing and hygiene rules.

The niche of Covid-19 lies in the mechanisms of human behaviour and we’d all be well-advised to be mindful of that.

Especially as lockdown is lifted.

But the kid in us still remains, and we’re wired to resent being told what to do. Lockdown means precisely that. A London park boss warns that park rangers and security will “step in” if people breach social distancing rules as lockdown restrictions are eased in the UK. Visitors will be watched closely, with many expected to flock to parks and recreational areas following the Government’s relaxation of the “stay local” message, many people can drive to outdoor open areas.

It’s not the only conflict. Yesterday was International Nurses’ Day, a time to reflect on how important these healthcare providers are to maintaining healthcare and looking after Covid-19 patients.

For now, we clap and bang pots as gestures of appreciation. But as the weeks pass it begins to feel like tokenism, and already it’s beginning to wane. Coming from a military background I’m aware that ritual and symbolism eventually become substitutes for genuine empathy.

The reality is that nurses on the Covid-19 frontline need more mental health support. Health workers are becoming unexpected targets during Covid-19 and the toll on them may last long after the pandemic has abated.

And there are other signs of the new lockdown reality that call for recording:

Work: Twitter say they will allow employees to work at home ‘forever’ after the virus crisis.

Entertainment: Some Cinemas plan to have socially distanced film screenings. The drive in cinema makes a comeback.

Travel: The car is making a comeback, spurring oil’s recovery. Cars are becoming the de-facto means of transit post-lockdown, with roadtrips replacing plane and train travel for summer holidays.

DIY hairdressing: Buzzcuts are in and perms are out, according to Google searches.

A troublingly intimate impact: A third of girls in the UK are struggling to access period products in lockdown. The issue of period poverty has been exacerbated by Covid-19, a charity has warned, as many young women and girls have less access to free products.

Young activism: Eighteen year old Sophia Kianni, still at high school in Virginia, USA, has started a nonprofit called Climate Cardinals to translate climate and environmental information into different languages. She’s still working to get a website up and running as of this writing, but has already received international attention and has more than 100 volunteers participating in the effort.

Aged activism: 100 year old man raises £130,000 to fight Covid-19 during Ramadan with laps of his garden.

While in America Dr Anthony Fauci told a Senate Committee hearing on Tuesday that the US does not have the Covid-19 outbreak “completely under control,” and that the national death toll is “likely higher” than 80,000 as states begin to reopen, sparking concerns about a resurgence of the virus over the coming months.

The US must shore up key capabilities to safely reopen or ‘run the risk of having a resurgence,’ four senior health advisers to the Trump administration testified.

Because it was a virtual hearing it had an almost surreal quality to it (I always feel the same about Zoom). Other things that emerged were:

  • Even expert senators are overly optimistic about vaccine development.
  • Fauci is more willing to back Trump than other administration officials.
  • If the death toll is wrong, the claim is it’s because deaths are undercounted.
  • Top officials still can’t say how the government will distribute remdesivir.
  • Congress is worried about healthcare beyond just Covid-19 cases.
  • Even the Senate isn’t ready to reopen.

Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, is worried about your dentist. And for good reason: During Tuesday’s hearing, she amplified the concerns of dental health providers across the country, who have fretted that Americans missing appointments for the sake of social distancing could cause a secondary crisis. Cavities that go unfilled could result in the need for root canals, and root canals that go untreated could result in the need for teeth to be extracted altogether. It’s a reminder that Covid-19 has upended health care in ways that have nothing to do with the disease itself. And this extends to many areas of medicine.

Elsewhere in US news Hollywood star Robert de Niro has reopened his feud with Donald Trump, claiming the US president “doesn’t care about how many people die from Covid-19,” while following on from Trump’s bizarre comments on air accidental poisonings from bleach and disinfectants continued to rise in April.

Among First Nation Americans there is a different attitude. Almost an acceptance, especially among elders. “They have been through so much and experienced so much that there’s no need to fear or even panic,” says Tiokasin Ghosthouse, the Stoneridge New York-based host of First Voices Radio and a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation from South Dakota. “It’s almost like this (pandemic) is familiar.” As such, indigenous communities aren’t dwelling on the pandemic’s backstory. “Indigenous peoples don’t always need to go and explain what happened,” says the Reverend David Wilson, a Methodist minister in Oklahoma City and member of the Choctaw Nation. “We just know it’s there.” “We’re taught not to think of Nature as separate,” explains Ghosthouse, and that includes Covid-19. “The coronavirus is a being,” he says. “And we have to respect that being in an “awe state” and “wonder state” because it’s come to us as a medicine to “treat spiritual ills.”

Elsewhere in the world:

  • It was Africa, where a great deal of attention and money would be focused. There were fears that much of the continent would be overwhelmed, with many countries beset by weak healthcare systems, corrupt governments, war on megacities where social distancing would be impossible. The Financial Times reported that in early April that Sierra Leone had just one ventilator for its 7.5 million people. In the Central African Republic there were just three machines and Burkina Faso had eleven. The situation and predictions were dire.
  • Authorities in Wuhan, China, where the Covid-19 virus was first spotted, plan to test all 11 million residents after new cases crop up.
  • As Covid-19 cases in Yemen surge, some sources see undercounting.
  • Russia is now second in the world for total Covid-19 cases.
  • Refugees are being forgotten in the fight against Covid-19. Thousands of refugees remain trapped in dangerous conditions on Greek islands.
  • Care home deaths: The Irish government is coming under mounting pressure over the number of deaths in care homes. Residential and community care facilities, including nursing homes, now account for more than 62 per cent of covid related deaths in the country, according to figures released by the Department of Health. One nurse told Euronews that more than half of the care staff in the nursing home where she works are off sick.
  • As the coronavirus R-value rises above one in Germany, one in five companies has laid off workers as a result of the Covid-19 recession, as the economic consequences of the disease make themselves felt, even in Europe’s largest economy.

These are the pandemic’s darkest days in the west. The British government’s chief science adviser, Patrick Vallance has said there was no guarantee of a vaccine for Covid-19 but added he would be “surprised if we didn’t end up with something like a drug treatment or a vaccine.” There are few drug treatments specific to Covid-19, and certainly no ‘miracle cure’ as yet. There’s still too little data about the hottest drug on the block, leaving doctors struggling to decide which Covid-19 patients should get remdesivir.

The Biotech company, Moderna announced today that it is fast-tracking its Covid-19 vaccine candidate, but to get beyond Covid-19 all citizens should be vaccinated against it.

That’s going to be quite a challenge. Large numbers are not just anti-vax, but equally likely complacent. The current figure for Americans, for example, who have foregone getting vaccinated against influenza stands at 43 per cent.

All that we have to keep Covid-19 at bay is socially distancing supported by testing, and the testing industry is racking up its production on a scale hitherto never seen before.

If we can ‘see’ the coronavirus before it spreads we might be in with a chance.

Production is still at a level too modest for the scale of the problem. Abbott labs, for example, says it will have produced 60 million antibody tests by June.

So how do these tests work?

If the rest of today’s record gets a bit textbookish, I’ll fully understand if you skip it and call off today’s ‘Bigger Picture’ bit here.

So here goes…..

  • A Covid-19 test can give a positive result, meaning you have been infected, or a negative result.
  • The result of a Covid-19 test may be right or wrong, so you can get true and false positive results, and true and false negative results.
  • The two main tests are the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, which identifies and amplifies sections of the virus’s genetic code, and the Antigen (or Lateral Flow) test, which detects Covid-19 proteins.
  • The PCR test is much more sensitive, but takes around 24 hours to get a result.
    The Antigen test is less sensitive, but can give a result in 15 minutes, making it very useful, albeit less reliable, on a day to day basis.   

There are also Antibody tests, but these are part of a blood test and detect the presence of antibodies to Covid-19. They determine whether you have been infected, but can’t differentiate when that infection occurred, so it tells you that you have had the disease but not whether you still have it. Antibody tests are useful to researchers but impractical for day to day management of the disease – whether you should go to work, or travel, for example.


A low sensitivity would mean that many cases of infection will be missed. This is clearly not a good thing. An example of a low sensitivity test is using someone’s Tinder profile alone to determine if s/he is a good lifetime partner.

The PCR test is much more sensitive than the Antigen test but the logistics of taking a day and requiring a lab, along with the speed at which the virus spreads are disadvantages.


A low specificity would mean that many people would get positive tests when they weren’t actually infected. This can lead to a lot of people being isolated and worrying unnecessarily.

Positive Predictive Value

Are you confident that the positive test is correct? The positive predictive value (PPV) measures the probability that you actually have a Covid-19 infection if a test result comes back positive.

A low PPV means that a lot of people will think that they’re infected when in fact they aren’t.

Negative Predictive Value

If you get a negative test, what is the probability that you really don’t have a Covid-19 infection? The negative predictive value (NPV) measures this.

A low NPV means that many people will get false assurances that they’re not infected. This could lead to people not getting appropriate care in time and unknowingly spreading the virus to others.

Like many others I thought testing was all pretty straightforward, but the more I looked at it the more involved it became. Throughout the pandemic the nature of testing is changing, from a gatekeeping to a management tool for a disease that has fully infiltrated a population. Issues like test availability – a major issue on May 13th 2020, missed test opportunities and test turnaround all play their part. It’s imperfect and horribly complex and it is clear that many countries were not prepared in having fit for purpose testing regimes when Covid-19 struck. 

From a biosecurity perspective we’re still not that smart.

Imagine if we were as slack with other aspects of our national security.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.


ABC News, Bloomberg, Cleveland Clinic, Economist, Euronews, Evening Standard, Forbes, Global Citizen, Guardian, Huffington Post, London 4 Europe, iNews, National Geographic, Nextdoor, New Statesman, New York Times, PA Media, Reuters, Sky News, STAT, Telegraph.

Day Fifty Eight: Tuesday 12th May 2020

Daily Diary: Ten Thousand Pounds I’ll Give Away!

Every time Pa Finagin notched up another year on the clock he would say at the breakfast table:

“Today it is my birthday!

Ten thousand pounds I’ll give away!”

And Ma Finagin, along with my sisters Corrie and Judith would all shout out:

“Hooray! For he’s a jolly good fellow! Three cheers for Pa on his birthday!”

Then he’d follow:

“On second thoughts I think it best

To put it back in the old, old chest!”

And we’d all call out!

“Boo! Shame! Meanie! What a bludger! String him up”

Well it’s my birthday today. I’m sixty eight, and although I don’t feel another year older I do feel older than I did say fifteen years ago. I remember Nana, my grandmother, who lived until she was a hundred and two, that she always felt that she was still an eighteen-year-old inside. But I know I’m ageing, and I know it’s a one-way journey. The secret, I was once told, is to make the most of this journey.

I’m lucky. By and large I have enjoyed good health. I had gallstones in my thirties. If I had lived in the middle ages I guess at some point I’d have been done for. But maybe in the middle ages my diet might have been different and no stones would have appeared. On the other hand, my guess is that there’s a characteristic in my genetic make-up that predisposes my liver to less than perfect cholesterol metabolism, that could have precipitated my downfall. Who knows? The likelihood is that twentieth century surgery saved me and gave me decades more life, and enough to read this.

Even so, it was deeply invasive surgery in the pre-keyhole era. A diagonal slice through the body wall, lift up the lobes of the liver and whip out the gall bladder, along with the offending stones. One stone was quite large, about two centimetres in diameter, looking just like a pebble. The other had shattered into gall-gravel. Because I was a biology teacher the medics presented me with a nicely labelled path tube, that I’d take out of my pocket every time I taught about the digestive system.

That’s what I call an intimate association with my subject. For a teacher that’s important. From some pupils it will get oohs and ahhs. Others it will be ewwwws and urghs, but what matters is that memorable moments matter.   

Then, shortly after I turned sixty, I had an unpleasant experience. I was paragliding at Liddington, just south of Swindon. It’s a shallow, often tricky hill and pretty technical to fly. On the other hand it works well on thermic days and has a good reputation as a good site for setting off on cross-country flights. It was on one such day I caught a thermal on the western side of the hill and started climbing. The whole hillside started kicking off lifty air, and over the newly cropped summer fields the thermals were big and not too easy to fall out of. So with others I started to climb, circling like a cluster of multicoloured buzzards. Every turn up and up until I was a couple of thousand feet above the ground.

And then it happened.

I needed to go for a shit!

It’s a horrible, urgent feeling. Under normal circumstances it’s the sort of feeling that makes you bolt for the toilet. A couple of thousand feet up you don’t have that luxury. There’s you, a canopy, a harness and not much else.

No one in their right mind wants to crap themselves, so I break away from the gaggle and head back to the hill. I land at the bottom in a big cropped field next to where my car was parked. Relief! But also an awareness of the danger I was in. Bodily sensations can be overwhelming and stuff going wrong in the sky is what I call a serious situation.

I managed to drive to a nearby service station and just made it too their loo, thanking my lucky stars it was vacant.

The experience alarmed me. Normally, your bowels don’t threaten to kill you. At least not dramatically. So I saw my doctor, and although I made light of the situation and she shared the associated graveyard humour, she referred me for a colonoscopy ….. that found a polyp just past its benign stage ….. that resulted in a hemicolectomy. The cancer was still at a very early stage. Whether it was the cause of the ‘urgency,’ or whether it frightened the shit out of me – literally – it was found early and didn’t get a chance to progress. I’m pretty much back to normal and consider it to have been a strange stroke of luck.

My left knee went about five years ago, climbing back up the hill after bottom landing at Dunstable Downs. At the time I thought, “that’s it,” and was very lame for quite a while, but a short hospital visit, an operation, lots of physiotherapy and my knees are back to normal now. No discomfort. No pain. Lots of gain.

So I’ve been lucky. I’ve got this far. I don’t have high blood pressure, chest pains, diabetes or anything degenerative. I don’t want to throw that good fortune away by chancing it with Covid-19.

Which presents me with a dilemma of sorts…..

As chairman of a hang gliding and paragliding club I sent out an email to members today, following on from prime minister Boris Johnson’s Sunday announcement. The ban to drive somewhere for an outdoor activity has been lifted with effect from tomorrow (although that wasn’t made particularly clear). People will, we’re told, be able to re-engage with many outdoor activities, including golf and fishing. The surfers are already riding the waves – probably because no police officer is going to wade out to chide them. It is only a matter of time now that free fliers will soar above our hills again.

Personally, I think all of this is premature. It’s clear that loosening restrictions can only increase the chance of contagion. Yesterday we had 3,877 hospital cases and 210 deaths. Those figures alone would terrify many countries into lockdown. Frankly, I want to see the new cases to drop to below 100 to feel it’s safe enough to go out and fly. We’re way off from that yet!

It’s not the flying necessarily that leads to the risk. It’s everything else that goes with it, from the inevitable gathering on the hill to those moments of exposure, like at a petrol station, or buying a sandwich that may have been touched. Contact with someone else’s kit and so on. The virus has found a niche in the dynamics of human behaviour, and with the events of the ‘day to day’ the banal ‘mistakes’ we make. In the same way it’s a struggle to keep a mouse out of our house because it exists in a different scale, so it’s almost impossible to deal with a pathogen that’s a tiny fraction of a micron – that’s a thousandth of a millimetre – across. These are different, alien worlds, beyond our natural grasp. All we can do is apply the precautionary principle. Avoid. Isolate. Shield.

So it doesn’t come naturally for myself, or other members of the club committee to give a green light to fly.

We’ll soon tell. I’m expecting the CAA to lift their restrictions on leisure aviation. Then it will be inescapable that some will want to fly and there’s nothing I can do about it.

It’s the problem of a free society. The freedom to get things wrong. To make mistakes. To endanger others. And a big political clash is on its way where more authoritarian ideologies will present themselves as the more desirable option for humanity. The ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats have already begun the argument as China and the West start trading verbal, ideological blows.

But enough of all this! It’s my birthday and in a couple of hours our daughter Emily will drop by for a socially distanced celebration.

The Bigger Picture: A Pivotal Pandemic

Plagues, wars and revolutions. These are pivotal events, and the world is never the same after them than it was before. It’s not just the immediate impact of events that change us, but the shifts in perception that happen as a result of their occurrence, even to witnesses without direct experience. These are paradigm shifts.

There was a world before covid and one which will follow, and they will have only a passing resemblance to each other.

The pandemic exposes our weaknesses and strengths. How the story unfolds will depend on our leaders.

Leaders know they can lie, if they choose to do so, about most things and the passage of time dulls those lies and creates an amnesic disconnect between what was promised and what was delivered. By the time a lie is exposed a dozen further promises will have been made and hopes raised for a better future.

And people, having largely forgotten and by default forgiven, share those hopes.

But Covid-19 is different. It moves on a timescale hundreds of times faster than an economy or a policy initiative, and with it consequences months or even years in their unfolding happen in days. So, regardless of spin or rhetoric the real measure of a leader’s intentions and competence is exposed in days.

In this way, Covid-19 has revealed the dark sides of our world, including the fragility of international supply lines, the disadvantages of offshore sources for critical goods and the limits of international bodies. More locally, it unveils the intentions of those governing – whether they seek to build better ways of dealing domestically and internationally with this challenge and prepare for inevitable future ones or let our world become meaner and more selfish, divided and suspicious.

South Korea, Denmark and New Zealand have controlled the pandemic more effectively than other countries, a common denominator being that citizens have faith in the authorities and each other. By the same token, those governments that have made chaotic responses and played blame games, have exacerbated divisions in their societies, and even with other nations. So Trump’s America, withdrawing from moral and material leadership of the world, has grown more hostile towards China, and it’s a two way street. Rogue states such as Russia gleefully stir up more trouble, and seem more preoccupied with that than the pandemic within its own borders, while the UN increasingly looks like a side-show, full of good ideas about a worldwide solution to Covid-19 but, without America’s unequivocal support, without the authority needed to implement them.

Britain remains diverted by the whole Brexit process, its government most likely calculating that if it let the project drop it would lose momentum, and with that would come losing the engineered divisiveness that brought them to power.

All of this is worrying, as the lesson from history is those societies that survive and adapt best to catastrophes are already strong.

The historian, Margaret Macmillan, wrote in ‘The Economist:’

“For every Jacinda Ardern or Angela Merkel, the leaders of New Zealand and Germany who are talking to their citizens about the difficult road ahead, there is an illiberal, populist demagogue playing to baser fears and fantasies. In Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro dismisses covid-19 as “the sniffles”; in India the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party blames it on the Muslims. President Donald Trump claimed he had “total” authority, demonstrating something about his instincts if not his knowledge of the American constitution.”

It doesn’t look as though all governments are sufficiently wise, but perhaps the experience of what it takes not just to endure Covid-19, but to recover and eventually thrive in its aftermath, will bring about the changes needed to move on. Keynesian economics is already replaced the harshness of monetarism through pragmatic necessity rather than political ideology. Brits might not continue to stand by so quietly about the underfunding of the NHS, to the point it becomes untouchable politically. Countries, especially the more powerful might invest in key international organisations like the World Health Organisation and give it greater power to protect the world from disease, and bodies such as the G7 and G20 could become more actively collaborative, rather than groups of countries arguing their own interests regardless.

It’s possible. Humanity might still fall short of the mark, but what it cannot do is reset itself to a time before Covid-19.

And perhaps more countries will learn that strong societies arise from their social capital being in balance with material capital. A moral tale, dare I say it, that’s nothing new. In fact it’s as old as the most ancient religions on the block.

Meanwhile Planet Earth continues to warm inexorably and humanity will need those lessons to have been learned if it is to thrive.

Possibly even survive

Today also marks the US Congressional Hearing about the country’s Covid-19 response to date. The panel includes senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Patty Murray, and sitting in the hot seats are the White House administration’s advisory team, Anthony Fauci, Director of NAIAD, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and who will be one of the most prominent figures throughout the course of the pandemic, Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a vital organisation that’s been often marginalised by the Trump administration, Stephen Hahn, Commissioner of the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, that Trump has boasted about his ability to direct their actions, and Assistant Health Secretary, Robert Giroir, who has become known as the ‘testing czar,’ although to be czar of a creaking regime is at best a dubious honour. Under investigation are the Trump administration’s lack of preparedness for a pandemic, the confusion arising over the few pharmaceutical responses medical services have, and non-pharmaceutical responses that appear to be all over the place.


The Trump administration decided to end a $200m early warning program designed to alert it to potential pandemics just three months before it is believed Covid-19 began infecting people in China.

It’s unclear whether the project, called Predict, had been run by the US Agency for International Development since 2009. It had identified more than 160 different coronaviruses that had the potential to develop into pandemics, including a virus that is considered the closest known relative to Covid-19.

The end of the program saw the departure of dozens of scientists and analysts working to identify potential pandemics in countries around the world, including China.

According to the AACN, the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, the administration’s lack of preparedness has also led to shortages in PPE, personal protective equipment, ventilators and other lifesaving equipment, posing a clear and present danger to nurses and other healthcare professionals caring for patients diagnosed with or suspected of having COVID-19.

It will also transpire in five months’ time that that almost half of American nursing homes have gone through 2020 with dangerously low levels of PPE.


At this time the only drug appearing to have a limited success in treating hospitalised Covid-19 patients is Gilead Sciences’ experimental drug, remdesivir. It is understood that at a time of crisis like this there is the need to balance the rigorous testing of a new medicine for safety and effectiveness with the moral imperative to get patients a treatment that works as quickly as possible. But the calling of that balance by Gilead is shrouded by bureaucracy secrecy, and that lack of transparency extends to which hospitals are being supplied with the drug and on what basis.

Meanwhile, as hydroxychloroquine, a drug much touted by the president himself, becomes increasingly discredited, questions are arising about why it continues to have a EUA, an Emergency Use Authorisation.

The Wider Response to the Pandemic:

Trump is eager to reopen the economy. Time before the November election is now limited and the president is a man both feeling the pressure of time and needing to be where business rather than public health is the key paradigm. He is much more comfortable with the reality of the former compared to the latter. A month ago he announced a reopening in May and set up a White House special council to get it underway. Conspicuously absent from that council is anyone from a scientific, medical or public health background, although Trump claims it was made up of “the greatest minds.”

So it was pretty clear that certain questions would arise, such as:

  • Why is the White House encouraging states to lift restrictions when they haven’t met the White House’s own guidance for reopening?  
  • Why did the White House shelve a CDC report that outlined how and when to safely reopen?
  • Having said only last week that testing was “overrated,” does the president believe that testing is the key to reopening the economy, and if so, why is he pushing for states without sufficient testing capacity to reopen? President Trump said last week that testing was “overrated” but outside experts across the political spectrum have said that there still aren’t enough tests to safely reopen schools and businesses.
  • Models of the epidemic are already predicting a second wave, likely as winter approaches. What is being done about it?

In the meantime there is mixed messaging, particularly about masks, which become the first expression of America’s deep-seated culture war, dividing the country into mask wearers and refusers, coinciding closely with people’s political affiliations. The White House orders staff to wear masks while Trump himself is wilfully ambiguous.

Trump displays his attitude towards dealing with the pandemic when he abruptly ends a press conference after a heated exchange with reporters: Weijia Jing of CBS asked Trump, who frequently compares the United States’ testing ability and mortality rate with those of other countries, why the statistics surrounding the virus are a “global competition” to him. “Well they’re losing their lives everywhere in the world, and maybe that’s a question you should ask China,” Trump responded. “Don’t ask me. Ask China that question. Okay? When you ask that question you may get a very unusual answer.”

“Why are you asking me that specifically?” asked Jing, who was born in China and raised in West Virginia.

“I’m not saying it specifically to anybody. I’m saying it to anybody who would ask a nasty question like that,” Trump replied before moving on to another reporter. The president has frequently blamed China for the outbreak, suggesting that the country could have stopped the spread of Covid-19 if it had acted sooner.

Meanwhile, America remains fractured:

New York reports 521 new covid hospitalisations – bringing the state “right back to where we started,” Governor Cuomo says.

Despite that, a growing number of conservative personalities on media sites are claiming that the government’s Covid-19 death toll numbers are exaggerated. It’s now possible to create conspiracies around the death toll.

Fewer than five per cent of US employers are sold on Covid-19 antibody tests.

Little wonder, therefore, that protestors started waiting out on the pavement outside a Florida courthouse yesterday in a call for gyms to open amid the lockdown. The group of 30 gym-goers gathered outside Pinellas County courthouse in Clearwater to protest against a statewide order that closed gyms last month because of the virus outbreak.

The cracks are appearing.

Riddle me this.

When is it hard to count how many people have died from a particular disease?

Today’s figure from the ONS, Office for National Statistics, shows that there were 35,044 deaths involving Covid-19 in England and Wales up to May 1st, and which were registered up to May 9th. This compares with 26,251 deaths of people testing positive for Covid-19 reported by the DHSC, Department of Health and Social Care for the same period. The ONS total is 33 per cent higher than the Department of Health total. This is because ONS figures include all mentions of Covid-19 on a death certificate, including suspected Covid-19, and are based on the date that the deaths occurred. The DHSC are based on when the deaths were recorded and are for deaths where a person has tested positive for Covid-19 within 28 days.

There is also an unspecified number of deaths at the outset of the pandemic in the UK in March that were not directly attributed to Covid-19 but to other causes, as expressed by the symptoms, such as pneumonia, for example, so pinpointing exactly how many people have died from the novel coronavirus is at best problematic.

The commonly used statistic of excess deaths is also unreliable, because they cover a number of causes, and there will be times during the course of the pandemic that the excess death indicator will be lower than deaths within 28 days of testing positive.

The discrepancy is estimated to be about 20,000, and there are many who will add this to the DHSC’s official figures when making statements about the effectiveness, or otherwise, of the Westminster government in dealing with the pandemic.

In many countries in the developing world the unreliability of data is even worse. A lack of testing, incomplete record keeping, especially in the poorest and most remote areas, underdeveloped healthcare systems and instability, including civil wars, all add to difficulties. Reported deaths worldwide turn out to be half the estimate for total deaths for Covid-19.

At best it seems that all we can do is get a sense of order of magnitude. The exact numbers will never be known.

It is the twenty first century and we’re having trouble counting our dead.

I find the idea chilling.

However, we are learning, bit by bit, about the disease:

  • The chances of catching covid outside are lower. Outdoor spaces with higher degrees of ventilation prove to be less problematic environments.
  • AIDS, TB and malaria are set to get deadlier due to Covid-19.
  • It’s possible to spread Covid-19 without symptoms, meaning any one of us could be a ‘Typhoid Mary.’
  • Covid-19 has been found in semen, but that doesn’t mean it can be sexually transmitted.
  • Higher Covid-19 death rate in men doing low-skilled work. Male security guards, taxi drivers and chefs are among the worst hit by Covid-19, according to new data released by the ONS.

In England, the biggest problem for the majority of people is the confusion that’s arisen with a much anticipated statement about the replacement of the Government’s “Stay at Home” message with “Stay Alert.”

We’re told by prime minister, Boris Johnson, that “common sense” will help beat Covid-19, followed by a garbled list of unclear messaging, such as work from home if you can, unless you can’t, in which case definitely try to get to work, but do not – if at all possible – take public transport.

Some are concerned that citizens will consider the crisis over. Others that the lack of clarity will lead to anxiety about how the new lockdown rules may impact people’s mental health.

There is a feeling that the prime minister is only reluctantly committed to the covid restrictions,  and, being the libertarian that he declares himself to be, is eager to fully reopen up the economy, even if it incurs some setback in controlling covid.

That ambiguity, along with hospitalisation and mortality rates that don’t compare well internationally, leads some to begin to lose trust. Only the first sign, but the political capital he had gained from weathering the storm when hospitalised a little over a month ago is already starting to recede.

His journey of the soul in St Thomas’ Hospital was what anthropologists call a “credibility-enhancing-display,” something they believe was crucial for establishing trust between strangers. When people walk the walk, and not simply talk the talk, co-operation becomes possible.

Johnson had walked that walk during those days in the ICU, and in good faith the public bought into it.

Now they can be now best described as alert but confused. 

“You can meet a new person in the park every day,” the health secretary tells the nation as he denies that the new rules are confusing. Airlines and airports declare they are baffled by the quarantine guidelines. Schools are told that classes are to have a 15 pupil limit when they return in June, but how they manage after that is up to them. And Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, accuses Johnson of giving no clear direction on the lockdown exit.

Then dark news breaks that several councils have threatened to withhold funding to help care homes deal with the Covid-19 outbreak if they didn’t agree to take in Covid-19 patients. It comes as care homes fear a government policy allowing the transfer of covid positive or untested patients is a “major factor” why Covid-19 deaths are so high. The policy was changed in the middle of April but some care homes believe the damage was done by then.

Saving the NHS involved sacrificing tens of thousands of elderly care home residents, and many staff. As hospital beds became released without due care and attention, so outbreaks appeared in residential homes.

Combined with the poor provision of PPE there is a national scandal, but with a public inquiry two years from now and parliamentary democracy creaking on Zoom it’s all overtaken by the here and now.

It appears that the trial on the Isle of Wight of the Government’s much-vaunted homegrown NHS Covid-19 tracing app has run into difficulties. To date more than 55,000 islanders have downloaded the app but it’s been beset by technical glitches. It was as much about Brexit nationalism as it was about managing a pandemic. With much less media hype the NHS is developing a second app, pretty much in the same mould as Britain’s European neighbours it so desperately didn’t want to be seen emulating. It seems, as one reporter from The I wryly commented, that it’s the Government, rather than the Isle of Wight’s residents who may be technologically challenged.

Brexit nationalism has also fused with the Covid-19 in making the country a less attractive prospect for skilled workers. The twin economic impacts of lockdown and Brexit have plunged future plans into uncertainty across the whole of society, but particularly those from eastern Europe who want to build their lives in the UK. “There was an element of disappointment in the British response,” Barbara Drozdowicz, chief executive of the East European Resource Centre said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “The restrictions were introduced too late, they were too light touch. In Poland people were under quarantine much earlier – from the week commencing 16th – and I think if you had the option to return, many people would have done so.”

Over the months ahead this particularly toxic combination would result in East Europeans leaving the UK in the largest numbers since their countries joined the EU, hitting some areas of the economy such as hospitality, agriculture, construction, transport and health and social care particularly hard.

Already, restaurateurs, along with the rest of the hospitality industry are among the hardest hit by Covid-19, losing both income and staff, and want to know what the Government’s new lockdown strategy means for them. Reopening strategies are hard to configure without clear, set guidance, and at the moment such guidance is vague.

This is echoed in the US, where even massive hospitality industries, such as Disney are being hit hard. Disney grew, thanks to their parks and resorts. Then came Covid-19. The firm finds itself having diversified into exactly the wrong businesses for a pandemic. There is something almost Darwinian about the random curveballs the virus throws into human endeavours and American executives are more worried about the economy than were last month.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to extend the furlough scheme to September, but to be cut to 60 per cent of earnings. He actually extended it to October.

The political and economic pressure to exit lockdown is huge.

WHO warns that some countries are blind-driving their exit from lockdown.

Their fears are that such exits, especially if poorly thought through, will not mark the end of the pandemic.

In the United Kingdom, the devolved governments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make their own decisions about dealing with Covid-19. All too often, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make more measured decisions than England. The Westminster government appearing obsessed with reopening the economy, some conservatives, it has to be said, expressing the view that turning a penny was more important than saving lives, although it isn’t expressed as directly as that.

Here’s how Northern Ireland plans to set about lifting the lockdown:

The Northern Ireland Executive document states an ambition to relax restrictions and shares a five-point plan:

The first step of this includes groups of four to six people who are not from the same household being able to meet outdoors, while monitoring social distancing, drive through church services, churches opening for private prayer, opening of outdoor spaces and public sport amenities, drive through cinemas and more sports, including some water activities, golf and tennis.

The second step will see groups of ten being able to meet outdoors, team sports training on a non-contact basis in small groups, reopening some libraries and open air museums, as well as indoor activities involving limited contact of less than ten minutes and with two to four people.

The third step will see groups of up to 30 being able to gather outside, reopening of more libraries as well as museums and galleries, concert and theatre rehearsals resuming and larger indoor gatherings.

The fourth step is set to see socially distanced church services, resumption of competitive sports behind closed doors, or with a limited number of spectators, leisure centres reopening and outdoor concerts resuming on a restricted basis.

The fifth step will include the resumption of close physical contact sports, spectators at live events, as well as the reopening of nightclubs and concerts, all on a restricted basis.


  • Countries in Europe and elsewhere are beginning to lift lockdowns, pushing social distancing to the fore in the fight to prevent the spread of Covid-19. But getting people to keep their distance – especially in the busy metro networks and crowded train platforms – is a huge challenge.
  • As already mentioned, hospitality finds itself at a crossroads. As restrictions ease across Europe, many in the travel industry hope that with higher cleaning standards and social distancing, businesses can continue in a new form. Hotels and Airbnb managers, reeling from the economic paralysis and border closures, now face crucial questions, which could determine their chances of survival.
  • The Czech Republic has so far managed to escape the worst of Covid-19 and it’s all been done with outdoor life continuing relatively normally. Parks and public squares are busy with people cycling, jogging, or taking the crisp spring sun. Nurseries, gyms and small shops reopened last week, and by May 25th almost all business activity is set to resume. And, starved for culture, Czechs have a drive-in festival.
  • After extending the state of health emergency until 10th July, France began to relax lockdown restrictions today. Shops are reopening and people are allowed to leave their homes without having to carry a certificate to prove why they’re out. Speaking to Rosie Wright in the centre of Lyon, Bruno Bonnell, an MP from La République En Marche, admitted that the new situation was a “risk,” and the government might have to reimpose lockdown if the infection reproduction rises above 1.85.
  • Life in Berlin as lockdown eases: “It feels like reawakening from hibernation.” It’s after the sun sets, however, that the city feels most strange.
  • Lockdown measures will be eased today in Djibouti, which has had over 1,000 cases of the novel coronavirus and at least three deaths, the highest total in east Africa.
  • Relief mixes with anxiety as New Zealand eases its lockdown.

For the most part, lockdown has not ended. Here are some of the stories about the ‘new reality’ that have emerged today:

  • The BBC released the documentary, “Hospital Special: Fighting Covid-19,” an excellent programme that showed the faces behind the masks.
  • Pornography is booming during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Social distancing rules prompt performers to offer their private webcam shows.
  • The National Women’s Health Network is urging the FDA to make the abortion pill more widely available to women who are quarantined at home.
  • Brits are unlikely to be able to travel abroad for summer holidays this year, health secretary Matthew Hancock has said. The health secretary warned that restricted movement is a “reality of life” amid the pandemic. Asked whether “summer was cancelled,” he told ITV’s ‘This Morning’ show he thought that was “likely to be the case.”
  • In the US (and elsewhere) child contact centres are forced to close due to the pandemic means some parents are unable to see their children, while others fear for their safety.
  • And online child abuse complaints surpass 4 million in April.
  • There are fears that UK students could be trapped paying rent into next year. The National Union of Students said there is “no clarity” about whether students will be held to future rental contracts signed months ago.
  • Doctors and nurses suffered as Iran ignored virus concerns
  • Sun-shy Indonesians are suddenly soaking up the rays. The belief that sunlight kills the coronavirus is widespread.
  • Wuhan reported five new Covid-19 cases on Monday, after confirming its first infection since 3rd April on Sunday. Authorities said the small number of cases came from the same residential compound. But there are also concerns elsewhere in China and South Korea, where Covid-19 is largely thought to be under control.
  • The South Korean government has been forced to re-adopt some stricter social distancing measures after a fresh outbreak in Seoul’s clubbing district.
  • Canada: Health inspectors who refuse to work at meat processing plants with Covid-19 outbreaks are being threatened with disciplinary action by the government, the country’s agricultural union has said.

But it’s important to realise that the history of the pandemic is a tapestry woven from people’s stories.

Ticket collector Belly Mujinga, 47 died in hospital on April 5 – 13 days after she had been spat upon by a passenger at London’s Victoria Station.

Rory Kinnear touchingly describes in The Guardian how his disabled older sister Karina died from Covid-19. He wanted to make the point that it was the virus rather than her health conditions that killed her and it didn’t mean her life was “disposable.”

And in the mixed bag of experiences there are triumphs too, as a 113 year old Spanish woman becomes the oldest person in the world to beat Covid-19.

Many of us hope that the world is moving on to become a better place. Hoping too that the pandemic will somehow be a punctuation mark in the course of human history, the paragraph following it being more positive than the one before.  

Already it doesn’t look like it will be.

The rising tensions between America and China arising from trade imbalances and increasingly nationalistic politics in both superpowers, particularly following the ascendence of Xi Jinping and Donald Trump as presidents of their respective nations, have been exacerbated by western accusations that the novel coronavirus originated in China.

It all became politicised. I can still almost hear Trump sneering, “the Chinaaah virus.”

So China’s emissaries have done away with diplomacy. The niceties of international relationships, hypocritical at the best of times but essential nonetheless, have been binned.

Beijing’s ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomats – named after a set of films in which Chinese special operations fighters defeat west-led mercenaries – have over the past two months replaced courtesy with intimidation, with claims that pensioners in French retirement homes were being left to die, threats of a boycott of Australian produce if Canberra pursued an investigation into Covid-19, pressure on governments from Prague to Wellington for public praise in exchange for mask shipments, along with tweets of conspiracy theories that the US created the pandemic to hurt China.

The current narrative about the pandemic has caused reputational damage to the world’s most aspirational superpower. Admitting liability would dent their assertiveness (someone once said countries were prone to behave like paranoid adolescents) would be a display of weakness, not fitting with the assertive world power Xi’s China sees itself as being.

And the virus has pushed aggressive tactics to the centre of Beijing’s foreign policy.

Those tactics have included cyber warfare and China is not alone in presenting digital threats to the west. Russia and Iran are in there too.

A cyber-attack brought a Czech covid testing laboratory to its knees in the middle of a pandemic. Japan faced a deluge of hacking attempts from Russia and China, immediately after the Covid-19 lockdown ended in Wuhan. And as the world leader with more than 50 million internet assets that are remotely accessible – thus vulnerable – the United States is a giant sitting duck.

It’s not just government departments and agencies that are being targeted. Major manufacturers, energy industries, critical infrastructure are all ‘fair game’ and security specialists are in demand more than ever before in helping  institutions protect themselves from a spate of cyberattacks launched amid the panic of the pandemic.

Coping with the pandemic is also a sign of national strength. Some countries, like New Zealand come out well by prudently managed measures and trust by the public in their government.

Others bluff.

With difficulties managing the pandemic Putin locks down and the Russian capital resembled a ghost town on Victory Day, with traditional military parades and lavish celebrations cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The once bustling and traffic-clogged streets of Moscow were eerily empty with only the occasional car or passer-by to be seen. By contrast, President Lukashenko, in neighbouring Belarus, puts on a full military parade of some 3,000 soldiers in Minsk. Tens of thousands of spectators, few of them wearing masks, attended the event.

He’s a leader who’s told his citizens that a good shot of vodka will send covid packing.

Recently his citizens have learned Lukashenko imprisons those who disagree.

Reported deaths from Covid-19 are low.

Excess deaths in the Belarus population are huge. A tragedy no one dare speak of in this autocratic regime.

Finally, it’s not just international politics that have been soured by the pandemic. The world’s climate has too. There was a hope that we would learn from the clear blue skies of the lockdown spring, the suppressed din of traffic so we could hear birdsong so much more clearly and the lockdown extending Britain’s longest run without coal since 1882.

Then we discover that global carbon dioxide levels are at a record high and deforestation of the Amazon has soared under cover of the coronavirus.

And hopes, if not dashed, are a little bruised.

After this lockdown we still have a long way to go.


ABC News, American Association of Critical Care Nurses, Associated Press, Economist, Euronews, Evening Standard, Financial Times, Forbes, Guardian, Huffington Post, Independent, iNews, Mail, Mirror, New Statesman, New York Times, Sky News, STAT, Telegraph, The Hill.

Day Fifty Seven: Monday 11th May 2020

Daily Diary: A Muddled Monday For Me.

Today has already been called “Muddle Monday,” after the confused messaging from prime minister Boris Johnson, and it has already promised to give me a headache or two about the club taking to the air again. I have an exchange of emails with the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (BHPA) chairman, Marc Asquith. From the BHPA’s point of view they will give clubs the decision once they get the green light from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Then the decision is ours, club by club. There are eager pilots out there, straining at the bit to fly. Covid-19 might be a risk, but in a sport which has the potential to have serious, even mortal, consequences, it’s easy to see how to some the virus is a relatively small element when they consider the overall risk being taken, and anyway there are very few places indeed that are more covid-free than climbing up towards cloudbase thousands of feet above the ground.

There is a Zoom meeting this coming Friday and I’ve got to get my head around this over the next day or two. If the CAA don’t give a green light for leisure aviation to continue then there isn’t an issue, but in the general scheme of things and the restlessness of many people they might, and we’ve got to be ready. For my part, I probably won’t fly any time soon. Vicky and I have committed ourselves to isolating as the means of protecting ourselves. Sheltering from the storm.

Today I rang the pharmacist to get our repeat prescriptions. They’re there and she tells me to collect them in half an hour.

I ask if they are doing a delivery service like they did last time.

“We’re not doing staff delivery. There’s an 0800 number, where you can get a volunteer to come along….”

That poses extra layers of difficulty. Are we over seventy? No, we’re 67 and 68 respectively. Did we have any health conditions? Well, not exactly, but we’ve always had a bit of a worry after Vicky almost died a few years back, as a result of a botched operation. We don’t fit the criteria. We ‘kind of’ almost do, but not quite. We’d have to explain all that perhaps, or at least feel that we have to. Along with a subtext of feeling fraudulent, knowing there are many out there much needier and more deserving than we are.

“I’ll wear a mask and gloves and come along,” I said. It breaks the perfect isolation and compromises the shield we’ve made for ourselves, but it is the easiest course of action, and perhaps the first babystep in ending our own lockdown.

After all, the snail has to come out of his shell a little to start moving.

Then the postman comes along with a package. It’s quite big, containing four nursery planter trays, so I can now transfer the geranium seedlings that are about to leave the nursery for primary school. They’re just what the doctor ordered and the little geraniums will be rehoused in a day or two. The package is decontaminated with bleach spray and the conservatory smells like a swimming pool for a few minutes.

I head off to the pharmacy. I have a freshly sterilised mask and a pair of surgical gloves. When I get there I see the following notice:




The whole operation takes place outside and the medicines are passed out as if I’m picking up something dodgy on the black market.

In the short wait another person shows up. He too is wearing a mask and gloves. We have a brief chat, which can be paraphrased as “when will this end?” which ends when we get our medicines. An icy wind is blowing – deceptive, because it looks like t-shirt weather.

I take the medicines home and decontaminate the packaging. Then I take the car for a short run to see if it’s still working okay, having been nowhere since the start of lockdown.

I find the drive really enjoyable. It’s good to be back in that liminal space, LBC blaring through the speakers about the muddle and confusion of ‘stay alert.’

Mostly it was good just to drive and watch the world pass by,

Even if it was only to Erith and back again.

The Bigger Picture: A Muddled Monday For Britain.

As of today, Covid-19 has infected more than 4.1 million people and killed over 282,000, according to a tally by John Hopkins University. It is a cruel, ruthless disease, choosing those already less favoured in increasingly unequal societies, passing some by almost arbitrarily, yet kicking others hard who are already weakened by age and infirmity.

Yet for the most part, as if it’s trying to persuade us that it isn’t the spawn of diabolical creation, the virus spares our young.  Numerous studies have found that the virus is a mild disease for children. In one of the largest studies, conducted by doctors in Shanghai, 94 per cent of children with the virus had an asymptomatic, mild or moderate illness. A separate review by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, found that children accounted for fewer than five per cent of diagnosed Covid-19 patients globally. Of 2,572 infected children analysed by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 5.7 per cent were hospitalised, and three died.

On the diabolic scale, there are humans in our troubled, unsettled world, who are less sparing of children. Humans so gifted with the cornucopia of code genetica it elevates them to the domain of choice and free will.  Covid at least has the mitigation of being a relatively short strand of ribonucleic acid, doing what relatively short strands of ribonucleic acid do best.

But it’s that meeting of those ultimately simple and ultimately elaborate codes genetica  where the truly diabolic happens.

Because covid confounds.

Being the simplest of all life forms – so simple many argue it’s not a life form at all – its existence can be checked in the simplest way of all. By simply not allowing it to pass from one person to the next.

Being the most elaborate of life forms – so elaborate many argue they have transcended beyond the natural world – putting a stop to the existence of SARS-CoV-2 proves to be insurmountable. Not allowing it to pass from one person to the next is hampered by the elaborate world we have created for ourselves and our indulgences.

The more we wish to indulge ourselves in that elaborate world the more confounded we become.

Cue Muddle Monday.

As we locked down, a huge sector of the economy that serviced our elaborate needs, to eat out, have a bevy or two and shopped till we dropped froze in time, like the courtiers in ‘The Sleeping Beauty.’

Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing has warns, “Our industry is on the brink of collapse,” while retail footfall suffers biggest ever drop with shoppers.

Not even the dead are exempt. British funeral services group, Dignity, has said that clients seeking to bury loved ones during the pandemic were opting for simpler services, as it reported a rise in the overall deaths compared to last year, and a drop in profits.

The conflicting desires to start the escape from lockdown while at the same time controlling the spread of a virus has led to a loss of focus and direction.

For a start, largely straightforward rules about lockdown have become more complicated and in many cases, logically inconsistent, making them more difficult both to explain and enforce. For instance, Londoners are allowed to drive to the beach to sunbathe but unable to take a bus to get to one of the capital’s great parks, which is one in the eye to millions who do not have a car and rely on public transport.

Secondly, the prime minister’s messaging left the Great British public nonplussed, with a new poll finding less than a third of people saying that they know what the Government’s new ‘stay alert’ Covid-19 message is asking them to. The confusion arising from what can only be described as a ‘back to work for some’ message resulted in commuters packed on to the London Underground, while foreign secretary Dominic Raab belatedly explained they were supposed to have stayed off until Wednesday.

Many scratched their heads, trying to remember where this whole ‘Wednesday thing’ came from.

And almost instantly the Government’s lack of clear messaging around plans to ease lockdown has fuelled a rise in rule-breaking, despite lockdown spot fines rising to £100 on Wednesday.

The ‘back to work for some’ message is also met with unease, as it starts to highlight the deep inequalities in British society.

The GMB union said ONS figures indicating raised rates of deaths involving Covid-19 among men in certain occupations were “horrifying,” John Phillips, acting GMB general secretary said: The figures are horrifying, and they were drawn up before the chaos of last night’s announcement.

With the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reporting that caring, leisure and service occupations have the highest female death rate.

In other words, if you are low paid and working through the Covid-19 crisis you are more likely to die.

John Phillips went on to urge Ministers to pause any return to work until proper guidelines, advice and enforcement are in place to keep people safe – something that fails to adequately materialise in many sectors.

The same muddle applies to Britain’s borders:

  • Heathrow Airport calls on the UK government to layout its plans for reopening borders.
  • Willie Walsh, chairman of IAG, the aviation group including British Airways, Iberia and United Airlines, asks the Commons Transport Select Committee, “What about passengers coming into the UK on other forms of transport besides air travel?”
  • A reasonable question, bearing in mind that French passengers are exempt from the UK quarantine plans ‘at this stage’ of the coronavirus lockdown.
  • While migrants stranded in Greece by Covid-19 fly to the UK. A group of 50 refugees and asylum seekers flew from Greece to Britain on Monday to reunite with relatives in a transfer that had been held up by the coronavirus lockdown. The group includes 16 unaccompanied minors, Greek migration ministry officials said. Some 130 Greek nationals stranded in the UK because of the COVID-19 lockdown will be repatriated on the return flight, the ministry said.

Muddle and confusion at UK borders continue to be a continuing theme throughout the pandemic. Ironic, because ‘taking back control of Britain’s borders’ was central to the Government coming to power.

In America more than 1.3 million people have been infected, and at least 78,700 have died from Covid-19. Nearly a third of those deaths were linked to long term care homes for older adults. There have been at least 189,791 cases of Covid-19 in New York City according to the New York Times database. As of Sunday afternoon, at least 19,429 have died.

Nowhere occupied by human beings is exempt from the virus.

Hearts of government, where people closely associate for power, influence and all too often personal gain are particularly vulnerable. Like moths drawn to a flame. Vice President Mike Pence was expected back to work today after one of his top aides tested positive for Covid-19 amid fears an infection could be spreading through the White House.

Despite that, Covid-19 ‘Liberate’ Groups are finding an audience in the White House. They form a caucus of conservatives, climate change deniers, and now anti-science Covideniers.

This overlap of views is something really puzzling. It’s as if they come as a package. With other opinions you get diverse responses. What’s your favourite colour? Favourite food? Music genre? Spectator sport? And so on. Ask a handful of questions and you’d soon be identifying individuals.

Not so, it seems, with contrarian views. In for one means in for all. These aren’t opinions, but tribal markers.

Covid denial is definitely one of them. It will form a whole new cluster of takes on the pandemic, from claims that the death toll is being inflated, to the lack of importance of social distancing, mask wearing and when they become widely available, vaccines.

The denial started very early. On January 20th 2020, the WHO declared that the outbreak of the novel CV 2019, which causes the disease Covid-19, was officially a ‘public health emergency of international concern.’ At the time there were cases confirmed in 19 countries, and deaths in China had reached 170. The very next day, the pro-industry advocacy group, American Council of Science and Health (ACSH) published an article entitled, ‘Coronavirus in the US: How Bad Will It Be?’

‘Is coronavirus worse than the flu?’ it began.

‘No. Not even close.’

The ACSH is part of what President Trump has come to call the “Liberate Movement,” also known as the State Policy Network (SPN), a network of state-level conservative think tanks advancing pro-corporate agendas, which has received money, among others, the Koch, Devos and Mercer families.

Supporting corporate interests knows no bounds, even during a pandemic.

US fossil fuel companies have taken at least $50 million in taxpayer money they probably won’t have to pay back, according to a review of what Covid-19 meant for struggling small businesses, according to the investigative research group Documented and the Guardian. A total of $28 million is going to three coal mining companies, all with ties to Trump officials, bolstering a dying American industry and a fuel that scientists insist world leaders must shift away from to avoid the worst of the climate crisis.

Something stinks!

In the meantime, the virus continues its relentless path across the globe:

  • The Queen will reportedly withdraw from public life for “months.” The absence is expected to be the longest period in the Queen’s 68 year reign, during which she has stepped back from public duties.
  • India reports its biggest increase in cases as it prepares to gradually resume train services while easing its virus lockdown. On Monday, India’s government reported 4,213 new cases of Covid-19 infections in the last 24 hours. It now has more than 67,000 cases, which includes 2,206 deaths. Footage showing half a dozen dead bodies lying on beds next to Covid-19 patients in hospital has horrified India and exposed how the nation’s health system is struggling, in some areas, to cope during the pandemic. The footage from Sion hospital in Mumbai showed the bodies, wrapped in black plastic, lying next to patients undergoing treatment. Families tending to the patients were also seen moving round the ward with the bodies lying nearby.
  • Informal labour may look entirely different in the post-lockdown world – and with fewer breaks, lower wages and longer hours, may involve a great deal more exploitation. This is no clearer than in India, where the lockdown enforced to fight the spread of the virus suddenly left hundreds of thousands of informal workers without their livelihoods. Experts predict that as workplaces rush to reopen and recover lost time after lockdown, these informal workers – already among the country’s most exploited – face seriously modern slavery risks. This is because informal workers by nature have no legal protection from exploitation, despite the fact that they are estimated to form close to a staggering 93 per cent of India’s total population.
  • Russia, once so eager to send support to Italy during earlier pandemic days (only a couple of months ago) has registered a fresh daily record high of new Covid-19 cases. The Government’s task force in charge of combating the outbreak said the country has registered over 11,600 new infections in the last 24 hours, more than half of them in Moscow. That has brought the nation’s total to more than 221,000 cases, including about 2,000 deaths.
  • Increase in Covid-19 infections in Germany is a cause for concern. Dynamo Dresden put team in quarantine after positive Covid-19 tests. The 2 Bundesliga team were due back in action on 16th May, but say they will not be able to participate.

Despite that, more than 130 are detained in Germany after protests against lockdown. Lockdowns are proving to be difficult options, especially in liberal democracies, where people’s personal freedoms, from the sublime to the ridiculous, have come to be cherished.

Although numbers are high it seems like the high point has passed and they are now steadily declining. The seven day average daily deaths in Britain still stands at 476, something like seven times the peak midwinter high for influenza in pervious years, and horrific when seen that way, it raises the possibility of better times ahead when we can stop battening down the hatches. The high tide mark has been passed too in other parts of Europe too, it seems.

  • Boris Johnson reveals more lockdown exit plan details as Dominic Raab announces pubs and restaurants to reopen in July. Primark is poised to reopen stores as soon as lockdown rules are lifted. Store managers are reportedly returning to branches of Primark to prepare for reopening. There is also a call for vigilance from Britain’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton. As businesses reopen and seek to recruit workers quickly in sectors such as hospitality, vulnerable workers are at risk of trafficking and exploitation. Meanwhile, a petition circulates to give parents the option not to send children back to school if they reopen in June.
  • The French government approves new health measures as it prepares to ease lockdown. Measures include collecting health data ‘without consent’ if necessary. The French have begun leaving their homes for the first time in two months without permission slips as the country starts lifting its lockdown. The reopening is somewhat chaotic, however, with mixed messages from authorities and a last-minute legal tangle for President Emmanuel Macron and his government. In Paris, crowds packed into some subway lines and train stations despite new social distancing rules. Clothing shops, hair salons and estate agencies were among businesses large and small reopening on Monday, with strict precautions to keep Covid-19 at bay.
  • Belgium is taking a major step in relaxing its Covid-19 lockdown by opening shops under strict conditions. Even still, public transport in the capital city of Brussels was hit by a strike because bus drivers did not feel safe under the current virus precautions. Authorities on Sunday permitted people to start meeting with four close relatives or friends, allowing many families to celebrate a restricted Mother’s Day.
  • Dutch schools are welcoming back students who had been forced to stay at home for two months. Schools, libraries and businesses such as hairdressers were allowed to reopen on Monday in the Netherlands on condition that they take measures to enforce social distancing. Some hairdressers opened their doors at midnight to welcome customers desperate for a trim.
  • Some fitness clubs in North Rhine-Westphalia opened shortly after midnight to let gym-starved customers build up a sweat again. Authorities agreed last week to further loosen restrictions on movement, but with a fallback clause designed to clamp down on any new covid clusters.
  • Roughly half of 47 million Spaniards are stepping into a softer version of the country’s strict confinement, beginning to socialise, shop in small establishments and enjoy a meal or a coffee in restaurants and bars with outdoor seating.
  • Greece has entered the second phase in lifting its lockdown with all remaining retail stores that had been shut down in March allowed to reopen and the final year of high school resuming classes.
  • Shopping centres, barbers shops, hairdressers and beauty salons have reopened for business across Turkey for the first time in seven weeks as the country gradually eases restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19. Turkey has recorded nearly 140,000 cases of the virus and almost 3,800 deaths attributed to Covid-19.
  • Shanghai Disneyland reopens with Covid-19 precautions.

But for all the upbeat moves an uncertain and ominous future is spelled out, as Wuhan reports its first Covid-19 cluster since the lifting of lockdown.

Finally, Captain Tom Moore is to get Freedom of the City of London in a virtual ceremony. The WWII veteran, who raised £33 million for NHS Charities Together by completing 100 laps of his garden before his hundredth birthday. It’s another honour after his promotion to Colonel.

Sources:, Desmog, Euronews, Evening Standard, France 24, Freedom United, Guardian, The i, New York Times, PA Media, Reuters, Sky News, Ozy, Times

Day Fifty Six: Sunday 10th May 2020

Daily Diary: Cracks Start Appearing.

The weather changes as a cold front comes in. The temperature has dropped from the twenties centigrade to the low tens. The sky is leaden and there’s a strong wind howling. There are not so many out on the common today, but there’s still at least two families gathering and not respecting social distancing. It seems increasingly that a part of our population has got bored with lockdown, or complacent about the threat of a deadly virus. There’s a very selfish thread that’s come to run through our society. It started with Thatcher and has grown step by step ever since.

That was part of that conversation with Cathy. An observation by her daughter Edie, now a young woman of university age. To what extent we have become a culture of self-absorption is hard to say:

“We’ve become an Instagram culture. Everybody posing as if they’re desperate to be glamorous. But inside there’s nothing.”

And I wonder whether our culture has descended into being the epitome of self-centredness. Because being self-centred is not to care about being the cipher, the conduit by which a deadly virus can reach a hitherto ‘safe’ person who will become susceptible to it, even mortally so.

I’ve watched these cracks appearing. On the TV, in the news, out of my front window. The police are almost powerless to stop the civil disobedience, not because of the righteousness of its cause, but the extent to which it has already been eroded.

I feel that the shift of message from “stay at home” to something much more nebulous like “stay alert” is a worrying development.

The Swedes had registered that their population was well-behaved, would apply self-restraint and would act responsibly. I’m not at all sure that that’s true of a sizeable proportion of we Brits. In the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak there were reports of British holidaymakers in Spain, wandering the streets during lockdown, singing to the Conga tune, “We have got the virus! We have got the virus! Duh-dah-dee-dah! Duh-dah-dee-dah!” before they were moved on by Spanish police.

To me it’s the final part of a process by which the British myth of refinement and restraint, as exhibited by David Niven, Michael Howard and the like, has been well and truly exploded. Like with most countries there’s a huge, vulgar underbelly to Britain that’s not pretty to behold, and rallied politically it has created something very ugly indeed. Boris Johnson champions that vulgar upswell, as does Trump in America. In Corona Days such behaviour serves no one well.

I guess we’ve lost discipline, or maybe the capacity for restraint, and those forces have been indulged over the last four years. I remember as a teacher that if you gave way to such forces in the classroom little progress would be made by anyone. It is that loss of discipline which means we have politicians – and I say that rather than leaders – who are more focused on playing to the gallery than keeping to structure and rules.

Next week I’ll have to address those pressures and social forces as fellow flyers will follow the same relentless zeitgeist. Reopening the hills is going to be tricky, even though it’s not a patch on reopening society.

It’s a government wanting to be seen to be doing stuff. A bit like the kid who pretends s/he’s working whenever the teacher looks their way. But, as a result, it’s a shambles. Testing is all about numbers, as if we’re meant to be impressed by big figures rather than a strategy. Because we must test, test and test again, and not allow anyone to start up again until there’s an all-clear. The testing should be phased and systematic – it’s all over the place at the moment, and opening sectors should follow our capacity to test and check before they open up. Otherwise Covid-19 runs rampant and those in charge are little more than headless chickens, more intent on lying to us all, rather than telling us straight.

In the garden things are progressing. The kids’ garden cress ended their days in an egg sandwich. I save some cornflowers and mixed annuals, and the geraniums are getting to the point where they’ll be out of the propagator and into their first pot, that have been reused after containing yogurt.

Things move on.

The Bigger Picture: Your Country Needs Lerts.

It was a trope long before people used the word trope.

A meme before the concept was coined.

“Be alert!” it said. “Your country needs lerts!”

I remember the joke on one of those anarcho-hippy badges, next door to “Don’t vote – It only encourages them,” and escorted by that yellow smiley face that evolved into the first emoji.

So I can understand why the sudden change of slogan to “stay alert,” evoked a certain cynicism, as far as I was concerned. What I didn’t fully grasp was that others without my particular and occasionally somewhat quirky life history shared the same reaction.

Stay alert? Was keeping an eye out for the virus a bit like collecting Pokémon characters? It didn’t make sense to me and others, it seemed.

So as Boris Johnson prepares to address the nation on his revised lockdown plan, with its five step Covid-19 alert levels, mirroring terror threat levels, and the new ‘stay alert’ slogan is about to be rolled out, questions are asked.

The Liberal Democrats have demanded Boris Johnson ‘publishes evidence’ for ‘stay alert’ slogan. Changing the slogan now, while in practice keeping the lockdown in place, makes the police’s job near-impossible and may cause considerable alarm. Ministers risk sowing confusion and losing public trust with this muddled communications strategy and lack of transparency. While Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon rejects the slogan as a backlash grows.

The police, who have to enforce this, are far from happy with the slogan and the pandemic response in general which they describe as “wishy washy.” They have just had to deal with the May Day Bank Holiday, where fine weather has led to crowded parks and beaches. In London’s parks people gather in the hundreds, many picnicking on pizzas, beer and wine.

The blasé attitude is in total contrast to the horrors of those hospitalised with Covid-19, and today 268 Brits will die from the disease. A senior police officer tweets:

“A month ago on a ventilator and in a coma, I started to breathe for myself! I am v disturbed by the increasingly blasé way ppl are treating the lockdown. With lack of answers around immunity, my family and I are going to remain shielding. I can’t go through that again. #Covid19.”

And many covid deaths in care homes are still unrecorded. It’s a hidden calamity.

Part of the problem is that we are still familiarising ourselves with the disease. In contrast to influenza – flu – which has been characterised as “an unvarying disease caused by a varying virus,” because of its tendency to mutate annually yet still produce the same symptoms of fever, malaise, headaches, muscular aches and coughing in pretty much all sufferers, Covid-19 by comparison, because it travels so deep into the lungs can be carried in the bloodstream to other organs, such as the intestines, heart, kidneys and even the extremities such as ‘covid toe.’

It could be because the ACE2 cell receptors that the novel coronavirus seeks out and bids to are found in these other parts of the body, although some suggest that our very familiarity with the flu virus means we largely take it for granted and don’t examine the virus’ behaviour too closely any more.

Furthermore, many who become infected by Covid-19 become asymptomatic, or largely asymptomatic. It’s in those who only partially express symptoms that the disease expresses itself in unexpectedly, such as a gastro-intestinal complaint.

That in turn reveals what a number of doctors have described as a “fatal flaw” at the heart of the new NHS covid test and trace. By concentrating solely on cough and temperature it misses a number of other symptoms.

Britain has a government that at senior level has only a rudimentary grounding of science. In senior ministerial posts there isn’t one who has a university degree in the sciences. What counts is that there was a lack of full grasp of the significance of evidence – that somehow basic facts could be counterbalanced by political messaging. It’s a way of seeing the world and ways of seeing the world are moulded by education and the echo chamber people find themselves in.

And science barely enters that echo chamber where the key players are barely past the first grade.

In connection with that, Sir David Spiegelhalter, professor of the Public Understanding said it was “extraordinary” how the Government could not say how many people have been infected with Covid-19. He claimed that Number 10’s statistics are “not trustworthy” and that it is “number theatre co-ordinated by Number 10’s communications team.” He added, “I think it’s extraordinary that we’ve had to wait for this long for this most basic information and I think the one bit of criticism I am willing to make is the fact that …… development of testing has been delayed.”

Science has a habit of creating inconvenient truths. We’ve seen that with the health risks of smoking pitched against the commercial interests of the tobacco companies, or the contribution fossil fuels make towards global warming, now sanitised to climate change, a slightly more ambiguous term that has given wriggle-room to equivocators.

The same is rapidly becoming true for Covid-19 and the practical steps that need to be taken to control its spread.

Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday, described the lockdown as “mass house arrest” and identified Niall Ferguson as being “one of those largely responsible for the original panic.”

Niall Ferguson, vilified for being foolish enough to break lockdown rules to continue an affair with a married woman, becomes personally vulnerable to a lascivious press. In many ways that’s to be understood. But his science becomes vilified too.

A few days after Peter Hitchens’ article, the Wall Street Journal published an article by two British commentators that argued, “the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically demonstrated the limits of scientific modelling to predict the future.” It singled out Ferguson’s work and complained that “reasonable people might wonder whether something made with a 13 year-old undocumented computer code should be used to justify shutting down the economy.” Bizarrely, this article was written by Benny Peizer and Andrew Montford, the director and deputy director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which was set up by Nigel Lawson in 2009 to lobby against climate change policies. The foundation has a track record of attempting to discredit climate change models that show rising greenhouse gas levels risk warming the world to dangerous levels. The promoters of climate change denial, which includes some newspapers, are well used to attacking scientists they do not like.

It’s an ugly spectacle of kicking a man when he’s down

And putting the boot into his scientific work while at it.

It stinks.

Also not smelling of roses, the UK Government has announced what might be the largest handover of patient data to private corporations in history. American tech giants Amazon, Microsoft and Google, plus controversial AI firms Palantir and Faculty, “are now assisting the NHS in tracking hospital resources” and in providing “a single source of truth” about the epidemic, to stem its spread.

Faculty, an AI start-up, is headed by Mark Warner, the brother of Ben Warner, who ran the controversial data operation for the Vote Leave campaign. Meanwhile Palantir, funded by Silicon Valley billionaire and close Trump ally, Peter Thiel, is a data mining firm best known for supporting the CIA’s counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Big technology companies could use the pandemic to gain a foothold in the UK’s health service. A number getting unprecedented access to confidential patient data, such as test results and NHS 111 calls, after winning deals with the NHS to help tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. NHS X, the health service’s digital arm, insists that the access will be time-limited, subject to data-protection rules and only for specific purposes. But yet again there’s been a lack of transparency in awarding the deals and that once the health crisis is over, potentially placing the companies at a commercial advantage.

From America there are four disconnected news stories today:

  • Obama calls Trump’s Covid-19 response a “chaotic disaster” in a private call.
  • Dr Anthony Fauci and the heads of CDC and FDA will isolate themselves and mostly work from home because of potential exposure to the virus. In the latest sign of warning that the coronavirus could be spreading through the senior ranks of the Trump administration, three top public health officials have begun partial or full self-quarantine for two weeks after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.
  • African Americans are dying from Covid-19 at a disproportionately high rate, and one of the culprits is medical racism.
  • Tesla sues California county over plant closure.

In the new reality there are clear skies, family time and no more commuting. For some there is this dystopian covid honeymoon, a lockdown they don’t want to end.

But it’s not true for everyone, as nursing leaders ask the public to shine a light from their window on Tuesday night. We choose a large and lifelike LED candle.

The reason why people break travel restrictions would seem strange at other times, but they make a strange kind of sense, as police report drivers caught driving hundreds of miles to buy extras to make lockdown more bearable, such as puppies and speakers.

Elsewhere across the world, Russia celebrates Victory Day as lockdown leaves Moscow deserted. Russia’s capital resembled a ghost town on this Victory Day, with traditional military parades and lavish celebrations postponed until 24th June. President Lukashenko of neighbouring Belarus has dismissed concerns about Covid-19 as mass “psychosis” and recommended that citizens enjoy a traditional sauna or drink vodka “to poison the virus.” Thousands attend the Belarus Victory Day parade.

France plans to reopen its schools tomorrow, May 11th, while most of its neighbouring countries continue their closures. Some say that it is premature, but teachers are becoming concerned that closures will prove to be to be catastrophic for an entire generation. There are fears that when it comes to education, the pandemic will prove to be an incubator for inequalities?

Elsewhere in France, strict restrictions continue, such as social distancing preparations at Paris Gare du Nord, where new restrictive markings have been installed to help commuters stick to the rules.

If there is a spotlight on how the pandemic might be controlled then it might well shine on South Korea. Although President Moon Jae-in was urging calm after a 29 year old man triggered an outbreak following visiting three nightclubs in the Itaewon district of Seoul the country has maintained a good record so far when it comes to controlling the spread of the virus. Comparing South Korea to the UK, it’s 256 deaths set against 31,855, or put another way 5 deaths per million population compared to 475.

It’s the difference between a country that knows what it’s doing compared to one that is stumbling around in the dark – it is that shocking.

To be fair, South Korea’s greater success in responding to the novel coronavirus has arisen from its ability to apply lessons learned during previous outbreaks, especially the country’s MERS coronavirus outbreak in 2015, which resulted in 186 cases and 38 deaths.

The country’s legislature created the legal foundation for a comprehensive strategy for contact tracing—whereby anyone who has interacted with an infected person is traced and placed in quarantine. Amendments explicitly authorized health authorities to request patients’ transaction history from credit card companies and location data from mobile phone carriers and to release the reconstructed movements in the form of anonymous “travel logs” so people could learn the times and places where they might have been exposed.

Those learned lessons were put to the test when an early rise in cases that threatened to spiral out of control. Hundreds were reported each day, peaking at 909 cases on February 29 with most associated with a religious sect in the city of Daegu. The strategy also managed to snuff out several subsequent coronavirus clusters at churches, computer gaming cafes, and a call centre.

This rigorous approach to testing, tracing and isolating, along with widespread acceptance of state data collection that invades patient privacy more than would be accepted in most western democracies – 78 percent of 1,000 poll respondents agreed that human rights protections should be eased to strengthen virus containment efforts. Importance to was collective behaviour. Experience with past outbreaks also meant people were quick to stay at home and wear masks in public even before the government began issuing formal guidelines.

So by April 15, South Korea had the ability to safely hold a national election, in which 29 million people participated. Voters wore masks and gloves; polling centres took everyone’s temperature and separated anyone with a fever.

No cases have been traced to that election.

South Korea also managed to enlist the private sector, and a generally well-advanced biotech sector. Plans were well in place by the end of January and a month later the nation was running more than 10,000 tests daily.

On April 30, South Korea reported just four cases, all of them travellers arriving from abroad, marking the first day with zero local infections in two and a half months. As case numbers have continued to fall, the government has cautiously relaxed its guidelines, while signalling a shift to “everyday quarantine” measures, such as wearing masks and temperature checks at schools.

Officials have started to worry that the success has led to people’s attitudes relaxing, leading complacency and a second wave of infections. The Itaewon outbreak has heightened those fears, but the government has already responded aggressively, tracing and testing thousands of people in a matter of days.

It’s easy to attribute relative success to South Korea being a technologically advanced nation, both in its communications and biotech, but the root lies more in good organisation, rigour and public compliance. Both Vietnam and the Indian state of Kerala curbed Covid-19 on the cheap. They are not technologically advanced, as South Korea is.

But they do have quick and efficient public health systems, strict rules and public compliance.

They succeed where more liberal advanced countries struggle.

Finally, I get this update from the charity Cancer Research:

  • We’re fighting viruses with viruses. In our Cardiff lab, Dr Alan Parker’s team looks at how we can pit one threat against another and use viruses to destroy cancer cells. They realised that the technique they used to help the immune system recognise cancer cells can also be used to train the immune system to recognise and destroy the Covid-19 virus. So now they’re looking into the exciting prospect of whether fighting the virus with another virus could lead to a Covid-19 vaccine.
  • We’re making hundreds of facemasks for NHS workers. One of our scientists, Steve Bagley, normally works with microscopes and X-ray machinery to analyse cancer cells. He’s now repurposed a 3D printer at our Manchester Institute to produce plastic headbands, and he’s set to make as many protective facemasks as he can for NHS frontline staff.
  • We’ve created a Covid-19 testing facility for local hospitals. The Francis Crick Institute has been temporarily transformed into a Covid-19 testing facility to help combat the spread of the infection. We’re using our resources to create a screening platform for patients and healthcare workers. Scientists are keeping the facility running for 24 hours a day, using robots to analyse thousands of samples.

Knowing the seriousness with which we always look at cancer, the degree to which it has had to step back for Covid-19 shows what a serious threat this virus presents.


Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Birmingham Mail, Cancer Research UK, Care2, Clean Technica, CNN, Economist, Euronews, Evening Standard, Guardian, Mirror, National Geographic, NBC News, Newsweek, New York Times, Open Democracy, PA Media, Sky News, Telegraph, Twitter, Vox, Washington Post.

Day Fifty Five: Saturday 9th May 2020

Daily Diary: Street Talk.

The weather forecast says this beautiful warm spell ends today. I take the opportunity to tidy the front garden and trim the hedge. It takes a couple of hours all in, and that includes a conversation with Harry, our Nepalese neighbour three doors to the west and Cathy, who’s next but one the other way. With Harry, it’s about the progress of the virus and our country’s inability to have got a grip on the situation. He’s well up on the story. He had been to Kathmandu in January and said that Covid-19 was virtually nonexistent there. Most countries appear to be more ahead of the game than we are. Most seemed to have been able to lock down, shut everything down. In Britain we pfaffed around, prevaricated and didn’t have a grip at all.
With Cathy it was more about yesterday’s celebration. The street round the corner had a street party. It all started sensibly enough, with people staying in their front gardens, raising a glass and cheering VE Day, but then it sank into rampant disorder. I heard it while I was writing. It was far too loud to have been one or even two families. Children shrieking, men shouting, dogs barking to Glenn Miller and his forties contemporaries. It was a bit loud, but live and let live – far be it for me to become one in a growing army of coronasnitchers. Cathy, on the other hand, did go and take a look.

“It started alright,” said Cathy. “Folks drinking in their front gardens. But as they got pissed all of that just broke down. Out there in the middle street they were clowning around, hugging – even group hugging. There were even two blokes who were play-wrestling.”

There were people on TV news reports dancing the conga.

“You just wait,” Cathy said. “There’ll be a spike a couple of weeks from now.”

Looking out at the common and seeing a group of teenagers – seven in all – hanging about and flirting. No masks. Cathy could well be right.

One thing’s for sure. With our atrocious death-from-covid figures and our devil-may-care attitude – at least from some – it’s hard to be proud to be British.

The Bigger Picture: Addicted To A Bloody Good Story

We’re a species addicted to stories, of storytellers and addicted listeners. Without a story each of our days becomes a punctuated nihilistic experience. We need a narrative. Perhaps moreso than truth itself, because truth needs analysis and understanding. Narratives on the other hand are pre-digested.

Junk food for the mind.

Easy to digest.

And as we become increasingly polished in our capacity to communicate it’s not just that stories become universally disseminated but they also become more believable, particularly to those who believe, rightly so, that the machinery of government is more on the side of the wealthy and powerful, who have much greater ease of access to decision-makers and lawmakers, than it is on theirs.

That makes the government a dark villain and in a culture that often tries to actualise comic strip fantasy worlds such as the Marvel Universe and blends fantasy with reality in Facebook’s metaverse, dark villains do what dark villains do – dark villainy. Think of something bad and you can expect your dark villain to be doing it.

That’s not to say that governments don’t behave darkly at times. History’s pretty unequivocal in letting us know they do. But there’s nuance that’s lost when narratives create dark villains, simply to make the story better.

What we can so easily fail to realise is that in the jungle of our internet-driven twenty first century culture, stories compete with each other, memes in a process of natural selection. The truest don’t necessarily survive any more than a male bird of paradise’s tail demonstrates its fitness to fly.

So a lie, a beautiful lie, a fantastic lie can prevail over a less exotic, less interesting truth.

The pandemic’s rich tapestry of complex bioscience and even more complex human psychology in the face of mortal fear has the capacity to draw all sorts of narratives, the most notable recent story going viral across the internet being ‘Plandemic.’

‘Plandemic’ creates an alternative world view of the wicked and powerful conspiring to control others through their fears, promoting misinformation about vaccines, the laboratory origins of the virus, hospital profits, hydroxychloroquine, and face masks.

Jonathan Swift, author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and a shrewd observer of human nature, wrote over three hundred years ago:

“Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…”

We might fool ourselves into thinking we are more sophisticated nowadays by rebranding it as social psychology but at its core human nature hardly changes over time.

Mark Twain is credited with rephrasing the view:

“A lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on.”

In the era of the internet and instant mass communication, the truth can barely manage to put on a sock.

The truth is that the pandemic brings with it extremes of anxiety and uncertainty. That includes scientists, doctors, national leaders and others we ordinarily look to for answers. There are unknowns, even the unknown unknowns, as former US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld, once said. Uncertainty is uncomfortable. People want answers. Conspiracy theories can be comforting, and if they are shaped into a professional and persuasively crafted narrative using those conventions people already associate with factual documentaries, they can reassure.

But false narratives colliding with real events creates a fog.

And fog disorientates.

Which President Trump exploits as he gambles on reopening America.

“You can’t ask a virus for a truce,” tweeted Jeremy Konyndyk in response, a key player in the US response to Ebola in 2014, wrote on Twitter. Trump, he added, was “surrendering to the virus rather than fighting it”.

Nevertheless, with the divine wisdom that only comes to those appointed by the gods to lead the rest of us, mere mortals that we are, Trump announces that Covid-19 will disappear without a vaccine, despite his more earthly and scientifically grounded adviser Anthony Fauci saying the opposite.

Do not contradict those with wisdom handed down by the gods. They can be vengeful.

As Rick Bright, immunologist, vaccine researcher, and public health official found out, when he was removed from a key advisory post in retaliation for whistleblowing its handling of the pandemic so far, not least the obsession with the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine. The Office of Special Counsel believes the White House whistleblower, Rick Bright, was likely retaliated against by the Trump administration, his lawyers said in a statement on Friday, and the agency recommended that Bright be allowed to resume his previous job duties while his whistleblower complaint is investigated.

And do not question their ability to rise above the viral terror consuming lesser beings.

Asked why President Trump didn’t wear a mask while honouring World War II veterans in their 90s – just a day after one of his aides tested positive for Covid-19 – press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “They made the choice to come here.”

There seems to be a connection between leaders who believe they have a special destiny gifted by the gods and their failure to engage with the stark ultra-reality Covid-19 brings. It’s easy to imagine British PM Boris Johnson having such a view of his destiny, a combination of once telling his sister he wanted to be “World King” and a grounding in classical literature – one of his party pieces is to recite passages from the Iliad in ancient Greek.

Perhaps those who believe that their dream of destiny led to their success are the rare exception in the same way that lottery winners believe that they were fated to win a fortune. Delusions confirmed by the reality of the world they stumbled into. For the rest of us such delusions fade in the mismatch.

Sometimes I think that Boris Johnson does have a destiny, but in the way that so many Greek myths and legends have it’s a destiny with a twist. That he reaches the pinnacle of his worldly ambitions, only to discover that he is utterly unsuitable for the role. Like Midas turning his beloved daughter to gold.

And that unsuitability reveals itself (this time) with the world reacting to Britain’s ‘incomprehensible’ response to Covid-19, its botched testing and care home crisis. As Britain this week recorded the highest death rate in Europe – and the second highest in the world after the US – an incredulous foreign press described the situation using colourful invective: it is a ‘shambles,’ a ‘nightmare,’ reflecting ‘negligence,’ ‘complacency’ and ‘stupidity.’

In Greece the left wing daily Ethnos described the Prime Minister as “more deadly than the coronavirus,” and warned of the perils that “incompetent leaders,” such as Mr Johnson bring when “at the helm at a time of such emergency.”

While in Australia The Sydney Morning Herald, the country’s oldest newspaper, ran a feature headed, “Biggest failure in a generation: Where did Britain go wrong?” that described the UK response as a “series of deadly mistakes and miscalculations.”

And even in America, arguablythe only country that is seen to have blundered more than Britain, but that’s not stopped its critics, with CNN asking, “Where did it go wrong for the UK with coronavirus.”

It’s not as if there wasn’t prior warning that we were unprepared for a pandemic. The analysis, codenamed Cygnus, was based on a 2016 simulation of a flu pandemic involving all levels of national, regional and local government, police and other organisations.

One of Boris Johnson’s major offers to the country was to replace a regional purpose as a member state of the European Union with ‘Global Britain’ following Brexit. What’s actually happened is that the Brexit journey has stirred up the rise of isolationism in the Conservative party he leads. Britain is starting to look like a very lonely little country. The British are about to discover that ‘splendid isolation’ the Victorians once celebrated is less glorious when the solitude is not chosen as an instrument of power, but is imposed by the world’s indifference.

But even isolation can’t be managed as the country’s borders remain open to an encroaching pandemic. Shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandi, accuses the Government of mixed messages over arrivals and the border staff union demands clarity on quarantine plans.

The country’s a covid-sieve!

With some passing thanks to Edward Lear:

And everyone said, who saw them go.

“Oh won’t they soon be upset, you know!

For the sky is dark and the voyage long,

And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong

In a sieve to sail so fast!”

Far and few, few and far,

Are the lands where the Jumbled Brits live;

With vaguest hope and without half a clue,

They were all at sea in a sieve.

Part of the solution is identifying who’s infected with Covid-19, and it is a process that demands more rigour than the UK government is either willing or able to muster. First of all it needs to worry through a number of questions.

Dr. Angela Caliendo, Secretary for the IDSA Board of Directors and Executive Vice Chair of the Department of Medicine at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, told CNN about antibody tests:

“We don’t have enough information about the performance of these antibody tests to know ideally how to use them. We need to understand if the test is accurate and you have antibodies what does that mean? Does it mean you’re protected from future infection? We don’t know that. We don’t know if this means you are no longer infectious.”

The porn industry has a lot to teach us about safety in the Covid-19 era. Lessons have been learned from surviving HIV, along with the experience of coping with STDs. “You’ll have to keep testing, maybe every ten days. We need simpler tests that people can just do at home,” said epidemiologist Elizabeth Halloran, who envisions a low-cost ’10 pack’ of tests for home use. “We can’t just sit around for 18 months waiting for a vaccine. We have to find a way out without pharmaceuticals and that’s repeat testing, taking people out of circulation, and then contact-tracing, so it’s an interesting analogy.”

Testing has got to be central to the long haul, along with social distancing measures. Vaccination programmes are many months ahead, even with the speed of their development, and only when vaccinations became worldwide. It took decades for the world to eradicate smallpox, and it wasn’t just a matter of supply, logistics and overcoming vaccine hesitancy, world unity mattered just as much.

As if to add to the challenge, in the U.S. routine vaccination against childhood diseases has appeared to have declined dramatically in March and April.

Meanwhile, the backlog

What’s next? Crunch time for labs. People who have been able to manage their non-covid medical problems over the past few months will eventually come back to the hospital, for the elective surgeries they may have to be postponed. When they do, that will strain hospital labs.

“The clinical labs are going to get really busy again,” Doctor Caliendo said. “And they won’t have as many resources to devote to Covid-19 when surgery opens up and we get back to what we call our previous normal.”

Some other medical stories about the pandemic:

  • Covid-19 takes a disproportionate toll on Sweden’s immigrant community, with five per cent of cases, yet only one per cent of the population.
  • Covid in your eyes: the risk is higher due to the strength of the strain. Researchers based in Hong Kong say that Covid-19 infection via the eyes is a greater risk than before because it is a stronger strain.
  • While Gilead Sciences, manufacturer of remdesivir, is targeted by hackers linked to Iran.

In the meantime, covid creates havoc in the world economic system. It’s estimated the pandemic could cost UK banks £25 billion, while in the US the unemployment rate hit 14.7 per cent and over twenty million jobs were lost in April. Devastation not seen since the Great Depression.

Worldwide, it spells the beginning of deglobalisation. Covid-19 exposes the weaknesses of what has been a growing dependency on international supply chains for decades. In a pandemic even the most basic – especially the most basic – of medical supplies is an existential need and Western nations have found themselves being too reliant on other distant countries, especially China, with whom distrust and friction has been growing. Production security is growing more important than efficiency.

Yet some global traders are doing well. Amazon has received a $13 million order from the US government. It’s probably the biggest Amazon haul of all time as Uncle Sam snaps up a bumper order of thermometers, ready for lockdown to end.

There are even benefits the new reality brings to the little guy, like you or me. “Book now, decide later,” is the next big trend in travel. Thanks to new flexible cancellation policies, there’s never been a better time to bag a holiday bargain on the beach.

If you’re willing to chance it.

Foremost in our minds is a desire for lockdown to end. Not just so that we can bag that holiday on the beach, but also that there are looming challenges in the post-covid world. How the pandemic will end remains unclear. We are sure that vaccines will play a critical part, but developments are still in their infancy. Will it simply go, once everyone is vaccinated? Will herd immunity be achieved? Will it simply just go away and leave us alone?

Who knows, but what is for sure is that  war, terrorism, poverty, inequality, flooding, heatwaves and epic conflagrations lie in our future. The pandemic might seem to be all-consuming, but it isn’t everything, and the decisions we make in the coming weeks and months are critical.

So far, the world’s food system has so far weathered the challenge of Covid-19. But things could still go awry.

We don’t know the path we’ll walk down, or even the reasons why we’ll choose it. Or if selfishness will prevail over wisdom, good sense and survival.

Climate advisers in UK must invest in the green economy post- pandemic. We cannot go back to the way things were. Once the pandemic passes, the money earmarked for economic recovery must help to lower emissions too.

When it comes to beyond the watershed, the green shoots are already appearing.

World cities are becoming bike-first. First Paris, then Milan, and now London. Temporary bike routes are springing up in record time to meet demand as Europeans return to work. It’s good news that city leaders want to make them permanent.

The next phase of lockdown is becoming clearer. The British Government has indicated it will reopen garden centres, encourage communities to use bikes and potentially quarantine foreign visitors for 14 days. Plans to reopen schools on June 1st are less likely in England and not happening at all in Wales, as unions challenge their safety and demand key tests.

Worldwide,China is happy to fill the leadership vacuum left by the US. In the global jostling amid the coronavirus crisis, Beijing is extending its influence while US President Trump continues to squander America’s leadership role. The pandemic could start the beginning of a new Chinese era.

It is a conflict of hegemonies between China and America.

With the World Health Organisation caught in the middle, barely up to the challenge, not so much due to its own shortcomings, but its powerlessness to intervene in the clash of the behemoths. It is the most important authority in the global battle against the coronavirus. But doubts about the WHO’s leadership are growing, and many wonder if Director Tedros up to the task?

Across the world the stories continue:

  • Countries across Europe are marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi regime’s surrender as best they can, while most of the Old Continent remains under lockdown.
  • Bill Gates donated more than Australia, Norway and Spain. When it comes to funding vaccines and treatments for Covid-19. If the Gates Foundation were a country it would be rated 7th, putting a lot of nations to shame.
  • Melinda Gates slams the Trump administration response to Covid-19. “It’s chaos,” Melinda Gates said, the “50 home-grown solutions” that have been cropping up across the nation’s states “just shouldn’t be.” Giving an example of what she believes to be an effective approach in fighting the virus, she attended  Giving an example of what she believes to be an effective approach in fighting the virus, she alluded to Chancellor Merkel’s leadership in Germany, noting that a strong national approach, and one based in science, is allowing the country to slowly start to reopen now. “That’s the leadership we should expect as citizens in this country, and we’re not getting,” she said.
  • The pandemic is the chance to revamp India’s pharmaceutical industry. Companies could switch from primarily making generics to producing higher margin licensed drugs.
  • Ireland raised $3 million for Native Americans hit by Covid-19. In 1847, various Native Americans, including the Choctaw people, donated $190 (equivalent to $5,000 today) to Ireland as the country was suffering from the Great Famine or Hunger, during which one million died. Now thousands of Irish are repaying the favour as Covid-19 hits the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
  • “We are invisible,” say Greek artists as they struggle for state aid amid the pandemic.
  • Brazil is deploying troops to protect the Amazon during the pandemic. Deforestation surged by 51 per cent in Brazil between January and March as environmental regulations have been loosened and forest fires have spread.
  • A 97 year old Russian World War II veteran is hoping to replicate the fundraising prowess achieved in the UK by Captain Tom Moore and assist in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in her country. Zinaida Korneva said she was spurred into action after watching a video of Tom Moore who raised nearly £33 million for charity last month by walking 100 laps around his garden in the lead-up to his 100th birthday. Instead of walking, Korneva has launched a You Tube channel with videos in which she recaps her trials as a Red Army soldier in the Stalingrad region.

Finally, Forbes reports eight under-18 young trailblazers who have stepped up during the pandemic.

  • Oscar Koivisto: building a grocery delivery robot.
  • Eric Kim: making masks for the hearing impaired.
  • Lionel Billingsley: innovating ventilator design with robotics know-how.
  • Andrew Wong: 3-D printing face shields.
  • Rafael Velasquez: coaching basketball virtually.
  • Erin and Aidan Finn: tutoring students pro-bono.
  • Quinn Callander: making masks more comfortable.
  • Tieekay Kowalewski: building phone mounts for hands-free telehealth.

It’s a message that the post-pandemic world will belong to the young, who are as innovative and energetic as the young always have been. It is their minds in particular that are being shaped by the maelstrom of current events and it is from their world view that the paradigm shifts taking us all into a new and different future will take place.

It is easy to view this through rose-tinted glasses. There are many in the old guard – the likes of Trump, Xi, Putin, Johnson and many more who will do all they can to preserve an old order formed before the first SARS-CoV-2 took on a human immune system.

And won.


Associated Press, Der Spiegel, Economist, Euronews, Evening Standard, Forbes, France 24, Global Citizen, Guardian, Huffington Post, iNews, New York Times, Reuters, STAT, Washington Post, Wikipedia, Yahoo Finance.

Day Fifty Four: Friday 8th May 2020

Daily Diary: A Nice Bone.

It’s a hot day. The app on my phone tells me it’s 23 degrees centigrade out there, but it feels warmer than that. There is a light breeze and much of the air is thermic. I can tell that simply by looking out at the common. When a wind blows the tops of the trees sway and their leaves sway like vegetation on a stream bed. When it’s thermic the leaves dance right the way through the tree. A chattering sort of dance. When I think about the number of times I’ve sat on hillsides in almost still air and seen that chatter move towards me. If there’s a cornfield or long grass you can see the patterns. The best pilots launch when the less well initiated feel nothing and wonder why they’re sitting there. They fly out into the invisible tube of rising air above the patterns and chatter-dancing on the ground and start to circle like human buzzards, rising in helices with the air itself, sometimes towards growing cumulus clouds, sometimes not.

And it’s days like this, seeing the leaves chattering, feeling the warm breeze that comes and goes in lazy cycles that I want to be back in the air again. It’s a sentiment I’ve both heard and read from fellow pilots, and they in turn reflect a wider view of wanting to break the confines of our collective house arrest and be out there. Which is also a worry because the virus has not yet run its course. ‘Out there’ still contains the unseen danger that we only know about as we watch the grisly total of infections and deaths.

My friend Colin McGinn summed up the sentiment with a parachute analogy:

“Oh great! The parachute has slowed our rate of descent so let’s undo our harness clips!”

Weeds are growing and need strimming back. The hedge at the front needs cutting pretty desperately. Now that dear Peggy has passed on I have to ask her daughter Claire. She okays

Claire then said, “I’ve a bone to pick with you.”

I could feel my stomach sink. OMG – what have I done?

“It’s a nice bone,” she said.

I’m a bit relieved, albeit somewhat mystified.

“You know that bottle of wine you dropped off after my mum’s funeral?”

“Don’t tell me – it’s the one you gave us for Christmas,”

Claire laughed.

“Was it?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“No. It’s that I’ve always been a white wine drinker,”

We’ve been neighbours for nigh-on thirty years. Was this a detail I should have remembered?

Claire continued.

“But there was no other wine in the house, so I tried a glass…..”


“And I really liked it. So I’ve been discovering more red wines ever since – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Malbec. I’ve developed a real interest in the different tastes and characters.”

“So it was a nice bone?”

“Yes it was.”

She said, raising a glass of Merlot to me.

I can’t let this diary entry pass without mentioning that this is VE Day’s 75th anniversary. But Covid-19 has muted the whole event. We are among the worst affected countries in Europe and our morbidity stats make us look like a country that didn’t get its act together. The jingoism of only a few months ago seems very deflated now. The leaders who promised us a golden post-Brexit future show themselves to be very second-rate and Boris Johnson’s bluster is seen very much for what it is. We’re a country whose restaurants threw their zero-hours contract staff out into the streets without a lifeline when the going got tough. Many were EU expats and it made news across the world.

It’s important not to forget your history. But there is a wide gulf between remembrance and celebrating. Personally, I think 75 years – a whole lifetime for many – is enough for the latter.

Postscript: The conservatory doors are open to the garden and somewhere out there someone’s playing ‘In the Mood’ by Glenn Miller, and it does sound like some people are celebrating. What exactly? Perhaps the myth of a lost kingdom, and it almost certainly bears no resemblance to a reality a long, long time ago.

The Bigger Picture: Virus Bait.

So far, 31,241 people in Britain have died from Covid-19. That’s 625 more than yesterday. This is an alarming figure.

The Liverpool Echo tries to explain why the current British death toll may well be the highest in Europe. Some of the reasons given relate to the British population, such as its high age profile, it’s high level of urbanisation – 84 per cent of UK citizens live in towns and cities – and the density of that urban population, along with the fact that the UK has the highest obesity rate in Europe, according to a study by the OECD in 2017.

In a sense, this what the bait looked like. This is how the virus found Britain as a particularly promising breeding ground.

Uncomfortable within these awful stats is the further revelation that black people are four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people in England and Wales, as a new ONS study on mortality records found.

However, matters have been made a lot worse through mismanagement by the British Government. Whether it comes down to PM Johnson’s complacency and indolence in the face of a serious threat to biosecurity or distracted by his Brexit priorities is likely to come out in a future public inquiry, but that is not going to be any time soon. Steps were taken too late, testing was too slow and even abandoned for a while at one stage, and most puzzling, airports stayed open. While many countries closed their airports and ports, or introduced strict quarantine rules for those who arrive, the UK has done neither of these things. It is estimated that 15,000 people are still arriving by plane every day, even though the country has been in lockdown for six weeks. Before the pandemic, more than 100,000 were arriving at Heathrow alone, and experts believe Covid-19 believe Covid-19 reached the UK before Chinese authorities were even acknowledging that it would spread between people.

It is as if the Government is being held captive by its own rhetoric.

Home Secretary Priti Patel wrote in the Sun newspaper on 31st January this year:

“I am proud to be part of a Government delivering what they want — Getting Brexit Done and moving forward for Britain. Now the opportunities are endless. We will take back control of our borders, laws and trade. We will set our own rules and make our own deals. We will put the interests of the British people first.”

And that single-mindedness meant sight that PM Johnson and his cabinet lost sight of the priorities that came with being national leaders. The first priority being the security of the nation. In this case its biosecurity as the UK faces the biggest public health crisis since 1918. It was the kind of misplaced state lunacy you’d be likely to attribute to the former Soviet Union, that maintaining an ideology was a primary goal, against which other sacrifices had to be made.

So it’s the middle of a pandemic, a deadly disease that the PM himself was hospitalised with, and the Government still sees fit to be posturing over leaving the European Union, refusing to extend the transition period beyond the end of this year and continuing to insist it will walk away from trade negotiations if an agreement is not reached by the end of June.

I saw this on a BBC ministerial briefing today and thought:

“This is madness!”

Boris Johnson is accused of mixed messaging amid speculation over easing lockdown restrictions, as UK prepares for socially distanced VE Day celebrations.

There’s no doubt that lifting lockdown is a highly risky activity and the relationship between a chancing PM and a pandemic is a theme that runs through the UK’s experience of Covid-19 and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

“Few want to acknowledge it, but these first phases of reopening are big experiments meant to test the unknown,” Max Fisher, a reporter on the New York Times said. “It’s a dangerous game and it’s worth being clear-eyed about the risks we are all taking.”

It’s not just Max Fisher. When the UK lockdown is relaxed, health experts say it is inevitable that there will be another spike in Covid-19. Currently. The NHS meanwhile, still doesn’t have enough PPE for NHS staff to protect themselves and other patients for the disease. This should be redefined before the situation is allowed to worsen.

Nevertheless, Boris Johnson tells his cabinet, “We are not going to do anything that risks a second peak. We will advance with maximum caution in order to protect the NHS and save lives.”


“Don’t go sunbathing this weekend,” Number 10 tells us all, as PM reiterates his message of maximum caution on exiting lockdown.

Nicola Sturgeon warns the people of Scotland that an early easing would be a catastrophic mistake.

While First Minister, Arlene Foster, warns Northern Ireland’s populace that there will be “nuanced” changes to lockdown, but nothing more, NI First Minister.

The role of schools as hubs for the spread of Covid-19, and the risk to staff in the building is becoming more apparent. The NASUWT teachers union signalled that it didn’t want schools in England to return before September, citing safety fears for its staff.

It’s a complex issue as the stresses of families confined 24/7 become apparent and evidence of child abuse emerges in a number of countries as one of many unseen harms from shutting down schools.

But schools are among the most crowded places where people gather.

And the novel coronavirus spreads where many gather indoors.

As it does in prisons. As Covid-19 is exposes the health crisis emerging in them. In Britain, fears rise for prisoners being kept in a disease trap.

Hardship in its various forms lies ahead. The Bank of England suggests that the economy could contract by 14 per cent as the Covid-19 pandemic plays out throughout the country. Those working in the gig economy are predicted to face long term gloom. It is a stark reminder of quite how much is at stake in these decisions. Unemployment is predicted to rise to 9 per cent, with many families on the brink of destitution, while many other families grieve the loss of loved ones to this virus. The levers that the government can pull to alleviate the strain on the economy are also in many cases, those that create the biggest risk around transmission rates.

In the United States, which has the highest number of cases in the world, At least 25,000 new Covid-19 cases are identified almost daily, the number of those testing positive for the virus expanding daily by two to four per cent. A high plateau of new cases augurs more spread. For all the talk about a second wave of the virus, one consideration is often lost, the country is still in the throes of the first wave of the pandemic.

In the east coast New York area, three in five people know someone who has had the virus. But it’s not just there. In smaller cities, such as Orem, Utah, with a population of 97,000 where dozens of people are infected at a large family party, and Gainesville, Georgia, a city of around 43,000, known for its poultry processing plants has seen an explosion cases and deaths this month.

The virus is even having a crushing effect as it spreads into small town America. Travel restrictions led to an exodus from city hotspots, but few rigorous and timely screenings have meant the announcement of restrictions serve to spread the disease. Essential businesses with extra sanitation measures and PPE for employees like Walmart still become coronavirus hotbeds.

Larry Fink, CEO of Black Rock, tells a New York Times journalist that the worst is yet to come. The Covid-19 pandemic has already cost corporate America dearly and more pain is in store. As the luxury department store, Neiman Marcus, established in 1907, files for bankruptcy, deep in debt. There is something darkly Darwinian about how the virus culls unfit businesses, even if they are top-market.

For most in the United States it most certainly isn’t top-market. More kids are going hungry. States are reopening without a declining number of Covid-19 cases. And parents across the land disagree about who’s doing home-schooling.

Expect a “portrait of devastation,” Neil Irwin of The New York Times writes. In the worst month of the last recession, March 2009, the U.S. lost 800,000 jobs. Analysts’ estimate for April is 22 million. “It’s hard to even fathom what we’re going to learn, or what kinds of words can capture the human pain beneath the eye-popping numbers.”

If the forecasters are right, a decade’s worth of job growth will be erased in a month.

This is to an already existing deep inequality and widespread poverty. More than 40% of American mothers with children under the age of 12 say that they have experienced food insecurity since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, a dramatic rise that demonstrates how far-reaching the effects of the outbreaks are.

Total meltdown is a real possibility.

Even for a right wing Trumpian government that found an existential need to struggle mightily to provide immediate support to Americans who need it. But it’s happening clumsily, with stimulus payments to American families held up for weeks and small business loan funding has trickling through a bottleneck, while hundreds of millions go to Trump’s friends and large companies.

It’s a depressing phenomenon of the pandemic that while the poorest pay dearly, the wealthy prosper more than ever before.

So while Democrats are seeking to raise benefits as research shows a rise in food insecurity without modern precedent, Republicans have balked out at a long term expansion of the programme.

A deep divide has emerged over the prospect of more federal aid to state and local governments. House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi has suggested that states will need another trillion USD to cover budget shortfalls, while Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has proposed allowing states to go bankrupt, rather than sending more aid.

The madness of it all is that with all these pressing needs it has taken less than two months for the Covid-19 pandemic to become the latest battle in the Culture Wars.

In this case it’s Republican-Democrat tribalism.

Whatever the leaders and influencers of one side might say, the other side takes a contrarian position. Masks, treatments, even whether the pandemic exists at all.

While thousand upon thousand die in a kind of virtual no-man’s land.

Covid-19 prompts regulation rollbacks, and may have lasting effects for healthcare. Particularly notable is the emergence of telemedicine. In fact, the pandemic will recast America’s healthcare industrial complex. There will be winners and losers.

So far 64 rollbacks have happened under the Trump administration, and a further 34 are in progress. For the most part they do not serve the wider public well, Among the areas where rules have been loosened are vehicle pollution, power plant emissions, safety, such as the braking systems on trains hauling flammable liquids, the dumping of coal mining debris in streams, regulation of chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide linked to disabilities in children and the protection of species endangered by climate change.

Trump is more than keen to get the economy moving again and his administration rejected CDC guide for reopening restaurants and public places. However, he has U-turned on plans to disband his Covid-19 Task Force, after he was accused of handing out a ‘death sentence’ to many Americans over his decision to reopen the economy and effectively end all public health measures to contain the virus.

“Will some people be affected very badly? Yes,” Trump said on Tuesday. “But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”

About the White House Task Force he added, “I had no idea how popular the Task Force was.”


Because it’s popular?

And I see a nation plunging down a rabbit hole.

You know, the sort Lewis Carroll once wrote about.

While the politics is at times depressing the cloud’s silver lining has been science. So much has been learned about Covid-19 so rapidly. Since January, the number of publications has been doubling every fortnight, reaching 1,363 in the past week alone, covering everything from the genetics of the virus that caused the disease to computer models of its spread and the scope for vaccines and treatments.

It’s a testament to human ingenuity when humanity is faced with a crisis.

  • Japan approves remdesivir for use in severe Covid-19 cases.
  • Physicians around the country criticised the federal government for the uneven and opaque way it is distributing its supply of remdesivir.
  • Amazon is sharing its staff’s expertise with scientists across the country – and digging into its deep pockets to fund a smattering of Covid-19 studies.
  • Researchers at University College London have discovered almost 200 recurrent genetic mutations to the virus that causes Covid-19. Their findings offer clues as to how the novel coronavirus, known as the SARS-CoV-2, is adapting as it spreads from one person to another. They could also help scientists better target drugs and vaccines to the parts of the virus that are more stable over time.
  • Hoping llamas will become Covid-19 heroes. Ghent University, Belgium, study. Antibodies from Winter, a four year old llama with great eyelashes, have neutralised the coronavirus and other infections in lab experiments.
  • Scientists and industry are dashing to make more ventilators. New designs could be assembled by DIY enthusiasts.
  • Twenty-five people in a test study in Chicago have been fitted with small, waterproof, postage stamp-sized flexible devices on their throats to track symptoms and monitor progress of the illness. Most participants who’ve tested positive for the virus are over the age of 50, but some higher risk younger healthcare workers are also wearing the ‘patches’ as a means of early detection. The device can be worn 24/7, from hospital to home, and provides medical staff with vital real-time data as it continuously measures and interprets coughing intensity, respiratory sounds, heart rate and fever. Plans are in the works to programme future devices to also measure blood oxygenation level.

For most people swab testing continues.

  • Today the FDA granted its first time ever emergency use authorisation for CRISPR technology. Sherlock Biosciences, funded by some of the pioneers of CRISPR, is using it as a rapid Covid-19 diagnostic test. The beauty of a CRISPR-based system is that it can be used to detect covid and many other diseases by a simpler, easier to use and cheaper lateral flow test that does not need sending off to labs for processing. It’s the beginning of a major step in diagnosis.
  • This is not to be confused with antibody testing, which is the next big hurdle for containing the Covid-19 pandemic. It can help us to work out who’s already been infected, and who is susceptible to the disease. For some it’s a means of working out when herd immunity can be achieved within a population, as was tried in Northern Italy, in the hope of getting people back to work after lockdown, but it’s a dangerously flawed premise as it’s an unknown that infection by Covid-19 will necessarily shield sufferers from future infections. 
  • Some 86,853 people were treated for the virus on Wednesday, up on previous days but still the fourth day running that Matt Hancock’s 100,000 a day has not been met.
  • Two thirds of Britons plan to download the NHS Covid-19 app. However, most people would feel more comfortable with a decentralised contact tracing system and there is talk that Britain may ditch its NHS contact-tracing app for the Apple and Google model. It’s part of a pattern where some countries are using apps and their data networks to keep tabs on the pandemic and also, in the process, their citizens.

So for now we’re stuck in the new reality that the virus has foisted upon us, and that reality differs widely between different people:

For those in the front line it’s a harsh experience. The International Council of Nurses (ICN) reports that at least 90,000 healthcare workers have been infected by Covid-19 and more than 260 nurses have lost their lives during the pandemic, while warning that the numbers could be much higher. The group is calling upon governments to systematically collect the data and hand it over to the WHO.

Travellers through some British airports will be made to wear masks and gloves in a new rule announced by one of the UK’s biggest airport groups. The masks and gloves will be supplied to travellers at Manchester, London, Stanstead and East Midlands airports and the new rules are effective immediately.

An experienced nurse working at a nursing home outside Seattle, part of a billionaire-owned chain describes the contained horror she finds herself in. “We are the landlocked cruise ships,” she tells a Forbes reporter. Another nurse in Massachusetts describes her predicament as being on a sinking ship.

Confined to home, lockdown cooking can be a solace for some, and experts say that cooking can be good for our mental health. Those cooking for stir-crazy, frazzled families have a different take on this.

To put an end to the stir craziness that to a greater or lesser degree has affected all of us, the Government comes up with the idea of the social bubble. It’s a bit like a family and friends phone contract, only to do with making disease control more tolerable as lockdown eases. In America social bubbles are called pods. A bit like a group of killer whales, only less deadly.

While casual sex is out. Companionship is in. Lockdowns are forcing singles to embrace emotional intimacy, the beautifully handwritten letters replaced by social media. But still, a step towards more romantic times.

But some cheat. Worse than that, some cheat and get caught. The BBC programme ‘Have I Got News For You’ poked fun at Professor Niall Ferguson’s fall from grace, from a prominent member of SAGE to a tabloid sex scandal figure. “Professor Lockdown to Professor Trousersdown,” came the quip. It didn’t help that it wasn’t a simple love-tryst between two singletons as his lover, Antonia Staats is 38 and married with two children. Her podcast included, according to Ian Hislop, “The real challenge of lockdown is the relationship between my husband and I.” With some unintended irony, I guess.

While those keeping to the rules stray more and more into the metaverse of social media, and all the strange memes lurking there. The latest is, “Nature is healing. Humans are the virus.” I can see what the point is, but I would have thought the pandemic has hit humanity hard enough without feeling the need to beat ourselves up with self-inflicted blows.

And, as if to remind ourselves that Nature is not that benign, more than half of pest-control professionals have reported an increase in rat activity.

Facebook will reportedly allow employees to work from home until the end of 2020. The giant tech company is not beyond reproach as 36 European Facebook pages have been found to be ‘super-spreaders’ of Covid-19 misinformation to large audiences. Combined, these accounts reach 13,223,446 users.

In the moral maze the pandemic is building for us a question looms as we depend more and more on deliveries. Are we paying for the risk in getting our goods to be taken on by others?

In the world of paragliding I get my first sign of preparing for the lifting of lockdown’s strict regulations. It’s from ‘Happy Flyer’ Phil Ettinger of the Southern Club to pilots new to the sport. They’re called “red ribbons” because for the first 10-15 hours’ airtime they have a red ribbon attached to their harness or wing, so more experienced pilots can be aware and give more room in a busy sky. Or ‘red ribs’ as he messages here:

“Ok, red ribs and all who might need help on the first flyable day in the future after the lockdown and confirmation from the club that flying can take place. I will be doing the red ribs day on the first day, even if it’s midweek. This will be advertised like I do usually on all platforms the night before, as I have just finished an online committee meeting and as things stand, once the Government loosens the rules on lockdown, then we get news from the CAA and the BHPA, we will go, go, go, and as a club we will be pushing the BHPA for this information, so as not to waste a single day. But be under no illusion that it will be busy on the hill and I will, along with many club coaches and higher qualified members, be watching the flying, more observant of the safety of all pilots, and will be marshalling more. There might be an airhorn if needed, so please use the red ribs club and get advice, so you can help the situation that might arise if the numbers on the hill are large or the air gets ‘silly season’ …… so watch this space …… things will happen fast when it does ….. and questions will be answered.”

There must be all sorts of special considerations in many ways of life, most of which will pass us by.

Meanwhile, worldwide:

  • Africa is woefully ill-equipped to cope with Covid-19. People cannot stay away from work if they have no money.
  • It is the largest economy in the world stuck in full-blown Covid-19 lockdown. India hasn’t reached its peak and its economy is in turmoil.
  • America versus China: A relationship long burdened by rivalry and suspicion has fallen into outright hostility. Secretary Pompeo backtracks on the Wuhan lab theory, but the damage of distrust and recrimination has been done.
  • Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief thinks that the EU should take a more federalised approach to its healthcare policies. “Co-ordination can be a way, stockpiling resources at European level can be another way. It doesn’t make any sense that each country has its own stock.”
  • A mental health hotline helped citizens of Wuhan living under lockdown. Night after night Du Mingjun was the person receiving their calls.
  • Drive-in prayer ceremonies are being held in Iran amid the country’s Covid-19 outbreak.

Finally, big events break the monotony of lockdown. I get this public notice from Royal Borough of Greenwich Public Service:

“Tomorrow, Friday 8th May will mark 75 years since Victory in Europe (VE) Day, the end of the second world war in Europe. While social-distancing measures are still in place we can’t go around with a face to face VE Day events this weekend and residents should refrain from having street parties or gathering with people who are not in the same household. However, you can still mark this historic occasion from the safety of your own home!

If you are planning to pay tribute, please ensure you follow the latest government VE Day advice.”

A link to a website is given.

I have a sneaking suspicion that those intending to celebrate won’t necessarily be following it.

Especially those eager for any excuse for a knees-up.

Sources: BBC, Change dot org, Economist, Euronews, European Movement, Forbes, Future Majority, Guardian, Huffington Post, Independent, iNews, Liverpool Echo, New Statesman, New York Times, News Guard, PA Media, Politico, Royal Borough of Greenwich, STAT, Southern Hang Gliding Club

Day Fifty Three: Thursday 7th May 2020

Nothing Grows Forever

Way back in the 1970s I read the Club of Rome report. I still have it on my bookshelf, yellowed and well-thumbed. It stated the obvious – that indefinite growth could not occur in a finite world. I was biology trained, with a particular interest in ecology, and I became a biology teacher. I think that ever since I was bought a cheap Japanese microscope for my tenth birthday I’ve been a biologist at heart, and that means understanding the basic shapes and patterns that accompany all living processes.

One of these key underlying patterns is the sigmoid, or s-shaped, graph. Lots of processes in biology follow the sigmoid curve, not least of all, growth. We, for example, do not grow indefinitely, and it’s not much of an insight to realise that most other things don’t either.

So it was rational to suppose that human population growth could not be indefinite, so long as we didn’t populate other worlds, and that was a long way off. Not only that, but our intermediary with ecology, economics, wouldn’t endure meaningful indefinite growth either. Sure, there would be bubbles, but they were momentary and would ultimately burst. When it came to meaningful growth, stuff would stop it – there’s be too many of us, we’d overconsume resources or get poisoned by our collective waste, in the same way yeast does in a fermentation jar.

But there we were as a species, behaving as if continued growth was inevitable. Capitalism needs an ever-increasing GDP. Fail to grow that GDP of yours and you’re in trouble.

Nothing can grow forever.

So the paradigm of an ever-growing GDP is fundamentally flawed.

In the 1970s, and for decades after that, we didn’t want to know how the sigmoid would flatten, and as a result policymakers haven’t really planned for it. It’s a bit like planning for your own death – dealing with the inconceivable. We just went on, making money with various degrees of success, some of the more successful getting richer and richer. In the 1980s greed became a virtue, because it generated wealth …… generated GDP. No one was going to give up on that one easily.

We needed to look at our own history to realise that those who were accumulating surpluses in the very uneven sharing out of resources were not going to give up their surplus acquisitions unless they had to. Like when it’s legislated that they must, or when life becomes intolerable, like it does in revolutions, when they don’t.

So we carried on. Economically sleepwalking towards disaster. People in the know knew about the ultimate inevitability of a pandemic, but policymakers did not register. We were in denial.

But the sigmoid was going to flatten.

It had to.

That’s natural law.

We thought that something more related to climate change would flatten it. Maybe when you could only get around Manhattan by canoe or had to wear waders to take part in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras we’d kinda do something then, and well, the market would sort that out, wouldn’t it?

Rather like 9/11, we were caught off-guard. Blindsided. Woken up from our somnambulations.

And it’s a shame, because we think we’re smart. We think we can stop the worst from happening.

However, the sad fact is, like most of our fellow living creatures on God’s Earth, we learn from trial and error.

And that’s how a paradigm shift has happened when a simple virus entered the human population.

Above, soft cumulus clouds float in the bluest of skies. I stop for a moment to read them. They’ve stopped growing. They’ve reached that mid-afternoon equilibrium where growth and decay are in balance. Decay will win. By evening they will have dissipated. I know this. I’ve been watching clouds for years.

I miss flying!

Rather a Light in Darkness, Than a Light in Fog

The novel coronavirus spread swiftly around the world from late 2019, and like a cuckoo in the nest has crowded out non-covid healthcare and drug development, redirecting research away from many labs in a crisis that has left some scientists scrambling to save their work, and left others grieving the loss of experiments they had dedicated months or even years to carrying out. Many are grappling with an overwhelming sense of uncertainty about how they’ll continue with their work.

By contrast, demand for knowledge about the virus has resulted in scientific research being released in a torrent, much of it unreviewed, as pre-publications, such is the rush.

The UK has been hit particularly hard. It began with a complacent and swaggering PM, eager to message about British exceptionalism with the boosterism that has become his trademark. His speech in the Royal Naval College in Greenwich on February 3rd was the first time he had mentioned the coronavirus in public:

“Global growth is itself anaemic and the decline in global poverty is beginning to slow. When barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational, to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government, somewhere, that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange.”

Not surrendering to the virus became central to Britain Unchained and an undercurrent to the many troublingly irrational decisions the PM would make throughout the duration of Covid-19’s UK presence. But that’s another story.

Or to be precise, many other stories.

With borders open, an all-pervasive lack of urgency, sporting events taking place with crowds in the thousands, Britain had that air of 1939 of eerie calm while storm clouds billowed on the horizon. It would not be long before they broke in all their fury, leaving the UK with the highest death toll from Covid-19 in Europe, with 30,076 people recorded dying from the disease. The actual total figure of direct and indirect deaths could be as high as 54,000, according to a former ONS statistician.

It was plain to see what had happened in Italy. For one of the world’s greatest air transport hubs, still with open borders, it was rational to see it was coming our way. But Johnson is still in denial. So when Sir David Spiegelhalter, a leading statistician, wrote in the Guardian a caveat about the variation of methodologies in gathering covid stats in different countries, Johnson uses that in a Trumpian twist to say that international comparisons should not be made at all.

Asked by Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer why the UK’s growing death figures, which today passed 30,000, were so grim compared to other countries, the PM said:

“In answer to his question, I would echo what we have heard from Professor David Spiegelhalter and others: at this stage I do not think that the international comparisons and the data are yet there to draw the conclusions that we want.”

It was a sleight of hand, a deflection away from the neglect the Government had shown to observe what had happened elsewhere and amend plans accordingly.

Sir David Spiegelhalter saw it as such, that Johnson had misinterpreted his article and asked But tonight, Sir David said the PM had misinterpreted his article, and asked him and his colleagues to stop.

He wrote on Twitter :

“Polite request to PM and others: please stop using my Guardian article to claim we cannot make any international comparisons yet. I refer only to detailed league tables-of course we should now use other countries to try and learn why our numbers are high.”

Where Brexit meets Covid-19 a Lewis Carroll reality emerges, syllogism rules and confusion results.

So a promise by the PM to reach a testing target of 200,000 by the end of May becomes clarified by his spokesman as referring to ‘capacity,’ not actual test, and Johnson adds to the confusion by saying it had been easier to build up testing capacity “on the way out” than it was as the epidemic took off. There had been “particular difficulties” at the time, he added, without exactly specifying what they were.

The Tory MP, Brandon Lewis adds to the Looking Glass world by telling us that the Government was right not to enforce airport screening, without exactly specifying why.

A shipment of 400,000 protective gowns from Turkey, procured at great expense to the taxpayer, are deemed unusable.

While a Labour MP has claimed she was sacked from her job as a temporary carer amid the pandemic after speaking out about PPE shortages. Nadia Whittome, the UK’s youngest MP, returned to her former role at Lark Hill retirement village, which is run by ExtraCare, to help relieve the strain on the care services.

And Neil Ferguson, the lead author of the study that prompted the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown has resigned from SAGE, the Government’s top science advisory team after breaking lockdown rules at least twice to meet a lover, and risking undermining the ‘stay at home’ message.

The only thing that keeps the lapsed professor out of the Looking Glass analogy is I don’t think Lewis Carroll wrote any adult stuff.

But he did have characters whose line of reasoning shot off at a tangent to pastures new.

We, of course, have Boris Johnson musing about the post-pandemic world.

“This should be a golden age for cycling,” he enthuses as he floats an alternative to mass transit commuting.

But there are moments when I think that the Looking Glass world that I find myself in, along with millions, if not billions of others, is an inevitability. It’s like being lost in the fog – the first thing that happens is disorientation, that in itself can lead to muddled thinking and poor decision-making. No one knows exactly how the pandemic will run its course. This is not the lost world of the Spanish Flu, where viruses were barely known about, even in the medical community, and air travel constituted a noisy hop from Croydon to Paris in a cold, canvas-covered flying machine for the intrepid few who could afford it. This is a very different world indeed, with different dynamics, and there is no spoiler alert for what the final chapter holds.

News filters through. From Pfizer and Moderna in the States, and AstraZeneca in the UK. A vaccine is on its way. It’s hope, but unlike a light in the darkness it’s more like a light in the fog. Some like Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Centre for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy, are worried people aren’t preparing for the possibility of an autumn wave of infections, which some experts fear will be bigger than what we’ve seen so far, simply because they expect a vaccine will be at hand. Mounting promises on Covid-19 vaccines are fuelling false expectations.

Osterholm went on to warn that the public will need clearer communications about realistic time lines to Covid-19 vaccine access. When vaccines do start to become available, demand will be enormous and supply will be minimal.

“It’s going to be like filling Lake Superior with a garden hose at first,” he added. “Let’s just be honest, whichever country gets the vaccine first … is going to both be in the driver’s seat and a very difficult spot.”

“Eight billion people are going to want this vaccine overnight when it becomes available.”

In the meantime, without a vaccine or other preventive medication, all that can be done is to mitigate the worst outcomes.

The pharmaceutical company, Gilead announces steps to widen global access to remdesivir, particularly addressing immediate needs in India. The world watches. Gilead has a history of price-gouging drugs, for example bringing out a hepatitis C drug that cost $1,000 a pill, and has found itself in a protracted and messy legal battle with the U.S. government over patents, and priced HIV drugs so high it gave rise to an international social movement of AIDS activists, for whom Gilead has represented a corporate villain like no other.

The famous playwright and AIDS activist, Larry Kramer, now 84 but still unreconciled. In an email to the American health news website, STAT, he said, “Gilead has always been selfish, greedy, tricky pigs. I have always hated them.”

Little wonder, then, that a Washington Gilead lobbyist said that with remdesivir, Gilead has “a perfect opportunity to show our value — and not come across like greedy bastards.”

Arguably, the best Covid-19 treatment to date and the world at its feet, does Gilead want to be seen as being as wealthy as Croesus, or the saviour of humanity? The world watches, mindful of the Midas touch.

It will be a recurring theme for a number of big pharma companies as the pandemic runs its course.

Less high profile, but equally important treatments continue to widen the gap between infection and deaths. Giving blood thinners to severely ill Covid-19 patients is gaining ground while trials begin for convalescent plasma, a treatment used a hundred years ago in the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Big Tobacco gets criticised for ‘coronavirus publicity stunt’ after donating ventilators. Philip Morris International, the world’s largest multinational tobacco company, has been accused of a “shameful publicity stunt” by a leading campaigner after it donated ventilators to the Greek government as coronavirus infections mount in the country.

Perhaps it’s an act of conscience, as evidence suggests that smokers are more likely to suffer a severe form of the disease than non-smokers?

Then again, perhaps not.

Public debt has shot up all over the world, like a collective immune reaction. Exactly what this means in terms of economic growth is unclear, but rather like any patient kicking up an immune response it’s not going to feel good. The Bank of England has warned of an economic hit close to thirty per cent by the summer, as it left interest rates at a historic low of 0.1 per cent after recent emergency action. The Bank said it expects GDP to fall by around three per cent in the first three months of 2020 and then plunge by a further 25 per cent in the second quarter, but like all other reactions to the pandemic there’s a lot of uncertainty. The twenty seven countries of the European Union have a collective budget, along with recovery plans to ensure a safe and healthy future for all. Billions of euros of public monies will be invested to restart Europe’s economy as countries emerge from the pandemic.

So much for the richer nations, but in the developing world things are much more precarious. Development in these countries depends to a large degree on microfinance lenders and Covid-19 has become an existential threat, even though in a post-pandemic world, the poor will need them more than ever.

And China, eager to be the first out of the pandemic, has its airlines flying again. It’s a competitive world and there’s the fear that they could threaten the world’s sickly legacy carriers on international routes.

China too has the first cohort of children returning to school in Wuhan, where the first case of Covid-19 was reported late last year. Students in grade 12 and 9 in schools in Hubei province were allowed to return to class on Wednesday to study for upcoming exams in the summer.

Like the resurgent airlines this is a sign of bullish confidence and ascendency in contrast to an uncertain and fragile West. In Britain the teacher’s union, NASUWT, warns that teachers are being “put at risk unnecessarily” as schools prepare for reopening. The anxiety is the same in France as plans to reopen schools are rebuked as being “untenable and unrealistic.” Some French schools will reopen from May 11th in a decision that many mayors in the Paris region have criticised.

In America there’s yet another blow to university enrolment and income, as the Trump administration looks to impose new restrictions on overseas students who want to work in the US after graduation. One in five students is reconsidering plans over concerns of the pandemic.

While across the EU graduates struggle. On the cusp of entering the world of work, uncertainty is hanging over young people’s employment opportunities. Prospects for getting a good traineeship or a short-term contract – the starting point for the majority of graduates – are slim. Before the pandemic hit, the outlook was already gloomy. The average rate for youth unemployment stood at 15 per cent. Now it can only get gloomier.

Without regenerating a well-educated, highly productive workforce entire economies will enter a ‘long covid’ for years to come.

So getting out of lockdown is critically important for national prosperity. The WHO warn that the risk of sliding back into Covid-19 lockdown is ‘very real’ without a careful, staged lift approach.

PM Boris Johnson says measures to ease lockdown will begin next Monday, following updating  the public on Sunday, because the measures would begin the next day. The “stay at home” message expected to be ditched.

So have the five tests for lifting lockdown been met? Here’s a reminder:

  1. The NHS is able to cope and can provide sufficient critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK.
  2. There’s a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate from coronavirus – we have moved beyond the peak.
  3. There’s reliable data from SAGE showing the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels.
  4. The Government is confident that the range of operational challenges including testing capacity and PPE are in hand with supply able to meet future demand.
  5. And confident also that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelm the NHS.

It is true that deaths are past their peak and declining daily but they’re still high, averaging 549 daily over the last week. Cases are hardly declining – at about five thousand daily – but the level of testing is still inadequate for a virus that is becoming endemic, and as for not risking a second spike of infections, in the short term it might be so. It’s a gamble that PM Johnson is making on the basis of early signs.

As an aside, a Scottish survey reported in iNews comes up with novel ways of returning to normal life, from 10 mph speed limits to legalising cannabis. Other suggestions included reopening McDonald’s restaurants to improve the nation’s mental health.

Chancellor Merkel is more cautious, saying Germany’s reopening will have an “emergency brake” in case covid spikes. As an early sign the Bundesliga is cleared to return this month. Measures announced by chancellor Angela Merkel will allow top level football to return behind closed doors in the second half of May.

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern says her country is “halfway down Everest,” as she plans big easing of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Rome’s transport network comes back to life. Facemasks, temperature checks, socially distanced seating and a little less busy than in pre-pandemic days. But the hum of activity and tinny announcements over station speakers give the comforting illusion of a returning normality.

But it’s not for all. Over-70s and vulnerable groups will still need to self-isolate when the UK rules ease. Without a vaccine, shielding is really the only effective tool we have to protect vulnerable groups during this uncertain time.

For them the ‘New Reality’ continues, with all its shifts from what seems like a comfortable world, in the way we look at the Edwardian era that was blown away in August 1914.

Here are some stories from this New Reality:

  • A nurse in Maryland, US, describes how doctors have been instructed not to enter patients’ rooms unless they must as a way to minimize their exposure to the virus that causes Covid-19 while nurses go from one room to the next, medicating, bathing, turning, and comforting their patients without changing their uncomfortable personal protective equipment, since supplies are limited. This work can take hours. It is not uncommon for nurses to go all day without drinking water or eating because that would mean removing our protective gear.
  • Similarly, the comedian Rhod Gilbert, whose series about attempting other people’s ‘real jobs,’ as he puts it, Work Experience, shows that caring is a serious business. It’s perhaps the best half-hour programme he’s ever made, while UK charities urge the Government to better protect under pressure carers. More than 100 organisations, unions and think tanks have published an open letter, urging politicians across the UK to act.
  • Many, however, can escape the high risks of the frontline and the pandemic has not only sped up a revolution in home working, leaving offices around the world empty, but also brought people to question the necessity of the Monday to Friday nine to five in the office. It’s one of the covid paradigm shifts.
  • And that refocusing on the home has caused indoor air pollution to soar as Britons take to their kitchens in lockdown. The average person is exposed to nineteen per cent more particulate pollution now households spend an extra hour a day cooking.
  • Would you really trust Mark Zuckerberg to be your new babysitter? Maybe not in the flesh, but by proxy, it seems so. When Facebook Messenger Kids first came out, it was thought of as controversial for a big tech platform to target a children’s audience. Now, Messenger Kids is helping children stay in touch during quarantine.
  • iNews reporter Rosie Hopegood finds herself caught out mid-move from London to New York and finds herself stuck in an Airbnb. It’s been a revelation. “I’ve spent the whole of lockdown in an Airbnb,” she writes. “It’s made me realise I don’t need so much stuff and that neighbours matter.”
  • Some caught out in transit are not fortunate enough to philosophise about their plight, not least the EU nationals left homeless and hungry in London’s lockdown. “They are living hand to mouth because they were fired straightaway and were not put on unpaid leave or furloughed.
  • Others take advantage of the situation for malign ends. There is ‘clear evidence’ that cyber-criminals are targeting healthcare organisations tackling Covid-19. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that hostile states and criminal gangs are exploiting the coronavirus crisis for fraud and espionage.
  • It’s not just for monetary gain either. A 53 year-old Colorado man planning armed protest against his state’s coronavirus restrictions was arrested by federal agents for allegedly possessing four pipe bombs. The man, Bradley Bunn, repeatedly popped up on law enforcement radar after ‘angry and aggressive’ social media posts.

While worldwide:

  • China declares the whole country ‘at low risk’ after its Covid-19 outbreak.
  • Women demand a voice in Italy, where the virus response has been dominated by men.
  • In America, Trump says the White House’s Covid-19 Task Force will wind down. His son in law, Jared Kushner tried to address a looming supply shortage with volunteers from the private sector. More than 1,000 people have died each day for over a month. Meat is growing more scarce. And for the first time in its history, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments via telephone and allowing live streaming of its audio. In another sign of change, Judge Clarence Thomas asked a question for the first time since March 2019 on Monday.
  • Tanzania’s president has suspended its head of national health laboratory amid a growing row that it is suppressing the number of deaths from Covid-19. John Magufuli claimed tests have been sabotaged after having a goat test positive at the lab. Opposition leaders have accused him of a cover-up.
  • Three Russian doctors working to treat Covid-19 patients have mysteriously fallen out of windows in recent weeks, underscoring the country’s struggling healthcare system and leading to suspicions of foul play. On April 24th, Natalya Lebedeva, the chief of emergency medical services at a training base for Russian cosmonauts, fell out of a window at the hospital where she was being treated for a Covid-19 infection and died. Yelena Nepomnyaschya, the top doctor at a hospital in Siberia, fell out of a window during a conference call at her hospital and died on May 1st after a week in intensive care. The next day Alexander Shulopov fell from a second floor window at the hospital where he worked and had been receiving treatment for Covid-19. He remains in a serious condition with a fractured skull.
  • Patients have been turned away from dozens of hospitals, even though Japan, with fewer than 15,000 cases, has relatively few Covid-19 patients. It also has more hospital beds per head of population than any other country in the world: twice as many as France and almost five times as many as the United States. Japan has drawn close to the limit of its health capacity in recent weeks, forcing it to declare a state of emergency. The Covid-19 outbreak has exposed long-standing structural problems caused by bureaucratic inflexibility and a plethora of small hospitals. “We have a lot of beds, but a limited number equipped for critical care,” said Shigeru Omi, one of the doctors leading Japan’s fight against Covid-19 in a recent interview with the Financial Times. Japan has approximately 6,000 intensive care beds, about the same number per head as the UK, but only a quarter of the US.

More locally I receive two public service notices:

The first is from PCSO Kirsty Brown, Glyndon Ward. We often see her walking the rounds which includes our common. It addresses locally one of the more widespread lockdown concerns:

If you suffer from domestic abuse it may have become harder to cope with during lockdown. Don’t suffer in silence – you are not alone. These are the numbers, if you need to use them. Stay safe.

The second is from the UK Government:

Local recycling centres are starting to open again. But they will be very busy to start with. So don’t go straightaway unless you need to. Keep rubbish at home, if it is safe to do so, or find other ways to get rid of it responsibly. Whatever you do, don’t dump it – you could be fined or prosecuted.

I’m sure there’s an excuse to visit the local recycling centre, just down the hill from here. I know – sad but true!

Finally, the background to the currently much vaunted mobile phone based track and trace systems is a shady one, with issues centred on refugees, who are dehumanised all too often on their long journey to a hopefully better life. Monitoring that’s being pitched to fight Covid-19 was tested on refugees. The pandemic has given a boost to controversial data-driven initiative to track population movements.

To date, in Italy, social media monitoring companies have been scouring Instagram to see who’s breaking the nationwide lockdown. In Israel, the government has made plans to “sift through geolocation data” collected by the Shin Bet intelligence agency and text people who have been in contact with an infected person. And in the UK, the government has asked mobile operators to share phone users’ aggregate location data to “help to predict broadly how the virus might move”.

This is just the most visible tip of a rapidly evolving industry combining the exploitation of data from the internet and mobile phones and the increasing number of sensors embedded on Earth and in space. Data scientists are intrigued by the new possibilities for behavioural prediction that such data offers.

The refugee crisis of 2015 was a stimulus for tech companies and research consortiums to develop projects using new data sources to predict movements of migrants into Europe. These ranged from broad efforts to extract intelligence from public social media profiles by hand, to more complex automated manipulation of big data sets through image recognition and machine learning.

The European Asylum Support Office (EASO), had fallen foul of the European data protection watchdog, the EDPS, for searching social media content from would-be migrants. The EASO had been using the data to flag “shifts in asylum and migration routes, smuggling offers and the discourse among social media community users on key issues – flights, human trafficking and asylum systems/processes”. The search covered a broad range of languages.

In shutting down the EASO’s social media monitoring project, the watchdog cited numerous concerns about process, the impact on fundamental rights and the lack of a legal basis for the work.

“This processing operation concerns a vast number of social media users,” the EDPS pointed out. Because EASO’s reports are read by border security forces, there was a significant risk that data shared by asylum seekers to help others travel safely to Europe could instead be unfairly used against them without their knowledge.

Social media monitoring “poses high risks to individuals’ rights and freedoms,” the regulator concluded in an assessment it delivered last November. “It involves the use of personal data in a way that goes beyond their initial purpose, their initial context of publication and in ways that individuals could not reasonably anticipate. This may have a chilling effect on people’s ability and willingness to express themselves and form relationships freely.”

But the genie was out of the bottle, and the arrival of Covid-19 meant that people-tracking could in principle be applied to tracking the spread of the virus. All that was needed was identifying whether people were infectious or not. It was tempting to those in government, especially technophiles like the UK government’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, already well-versed in the opportunities presented by big data from the 2016 Brexit campaign.

Human rights advocates worry about the longer term effects of such efforts, however. “Right now, we’re seeing states around the world roll out powerful new surveillance measures and strike up hasty partnerships with tech companies,” Anna Bacciarelli, a technology researcher at Amnesty International, told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. “While states must act to protect people in this pandemic, it is vital that we ensure that invasive surveillance measures do not become normalised and permanent, beyond their emergency status.”

Tracking covid opened the door for repressive states to tighten their grip. In Moscow use of the tracking app was made mandatory during the lockdowns last month when most Muscovites were required to stay indoors. Vladimir Putin signed laws introducing criminal penalties, including up to seven years imprisonment, for quarantine violations that led to others being infected. Moscow also implemented government issued QR codes that were made mandatory. It was not disclosed what information the codes contain but they must be shown to police when requested. The dubious behavioral interpretations recorded by the social monitoring tracking application led to the mistaken fining of hundreds of people in Moscow.

A number of European countries have gone for a decentralised system, in conjunction with Apple and Google, relying on Bluetooth between phones in close proximity, with much greater privacy protection, but this too ran into difficulties with false positives and false negatives. Bluetooth can even connect phones through walls, through which, of course viruses can’t travel – enough said.

Personally, I’ve always thought that the allure of high tech gadgetry clouded clear thinking on the matter and, as many others are warning, more creative methods of surveillance and prediction are not necessarily answering the right question.

“The single largest determinant of Covid-19 mortality is healthcare system capacity,” said Sean McDonald, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, who studied the use of phone data in the west African Ebola outbreak of 2014-5. “But governments are focusing on the pandemic as a problem of people management rather than a problem of building response capacity. More broadly, there is nowhere near enough proof that the science or math underlying the technologies being deployed meaningfully contribute to controlling the virus at all.”

The cost of a not especially successful test, track and isolate system in the UK will turn out costing £37 billion in the fullness of time, about a third of the cost of the entire NHS. Corruption and pocket-lining by the chumocracy might account for a lot of this scandalously enormous amount of money, but muddled thinking will have played a significant part.

But all of that is yet to come.

Sources: Associated Press, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Business Insider, Economist, Euronews, Evening Standard, Forbes, France 24, Gilead News, Guardian, Huffington Post, Independent, iNews, LBC News, Mirror, New Statesman, New York Times, netdoctor, Nextdoor, Ozy, PA Media, ResearchLive,  Reuters, Sky News, STAT, Wikipedia.   

Day Fifty Two: Wednesday 6th May 2020

Daily Diary: We’ll Fly Again, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When.

In a horticultural disaster, the local grey squirrel semi-affectionately known as Sid Snot digs up the two avocado stones, leaving them to roll about the patio slabs rather than grow in the good earth. We have a love-hate relationship with this pesky beastie. We love him because we’re all supposed to love God’s creatures, with the particular instruction from above that if they are furry, all the more so. And he is a pretty handsome, dapper fellow. We hate him because he’s a destructive arsewipe of a mammal who undoes all botanical aspirations we’ve put love and time into, in acts that appear to be nothing more than wanton vandalism.

But enough of furry Sid! Last night’s Zoom meeting actually worked, and I felt much more comfortable. Where I felt a little self-conscious was made up for by others much more in the know, and although I didn’t go into the meeting with no agenda other than to figure out how a group of seven people would work together online we did come up with ideas for a club meeting. Gary was going on about the VE Day celebration this Friday, showing how adept he was with Zoom by having Vera Lynn in the background was met by Martin – a German – reminding us about Brits and The War.

“You did well,” I reassured him, resurrecting an old Monty Python joke. “You were runners up, after all.”

Personally, I think it’s about time we buried it in the depths of history, but hey, banter is banter. I told Gary it was all getting a bit Dad’s Army – which was set on the south coast of England, which also happens to be where much of our paragliding takes place.

But it worked, and we’re going for a meeting on Friday the 15th. This time, I’m sure, people will be less forgiving and I’ll have to be much more structured.

The most prominent question is when will we open our flying sites again? I’ll have that in the meeting. The British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (BHPA) left it very much to individual clubs to close sites, but I fear that there will be an uncontrollable chain reaction once sites start opening again. I think we’ll have to wait until other outdoor activities become allowed. Matt Pepper has flown in Austria. They’ve taken the step of putting the decision to local jurisdictions, and Austria – or at least the part that Matt’s in – has been open to paragliding for a couple of days. France, Steve U posts, is about to lift flying restrictions. I think when that happens the pressure will be on here in the UK. Andy McNichol said that there had been instances of people taking crafty flights, but it’s not with approval from clubs or even the police. But it’s something as current chairman I have to be conscious of. Hospital admissions for Covid-19 are still too high, in my opinion. I think when the daily number of deaths is a matter of tens rather than hundreds it will become safer. I’ve got to think, “What if…..?”, even if others don’t. But there will equally be – and it is beginning to happen – a pressure for some sort of normality to occur, and in our leisure lives that means how we fill our time. In a sport where there are clear risks it’s something that needs thinking through.

Judith rang today. She’s my younger sister by three years. It was partly in response to sending out the picture of our dad looking pretty cool, posing on the back of a Chevrolet truck carrying a portee anti-tank gun. We have a great long chat. Mike, her husband, has had major surgery to deal with cancer of the throat. He’s now unable to swallow and has got to be safeguarded from the virus. An infection could be deadly. But he’s keeping well and the lovely weather in their beautiful enclosed garden has kept up his spirits, but it much be hard for both of them. Their son, my nephew, Jonathan is a cardiac technician, so he’s been in the thick of it up at Jimmy’s (St James’ Hospital) in Leeds. There are worries if your ‘child’ is frontline. Jonathan lives in the attached granny-flat annex they built for Mikes mum, a lovely lady, now sadly passed. So they’re nextdoor neighbours but have to keep well apart. Three of Jonathan’s colleagues have recently tested positive, so Judith is understandably fearful for him. She describes a mixture of pride and anxiety, and I think of the countless mums and dads across the country who must be sharing very similar, deeply conflicted emotions.

The virus, in turn, separates him from his partner, Georgia, and the conversation about whether she should come around “for just a night” between son and mother has taken place on a few occasions, with Judith strongly discouraging him. All it takes is a chink in our behaviour, a moment’s weakness, for Covid-19 to wreak its chaos. If a government scientific adviser on SAGE, Niall Ferguson, allegedly the architect of lockdown, can fall foul for an evening with someone he loves, then anyone can.

Georgia, in turn, is housebound because her son, Enan, told his school he was feeling unwell. The moment he got home it was a miracle! Enan mysteriously made a lightning recovery! But his mum was committed to stay at home to care for him when she could have been at work.

“Oh what tangled webs we’ve seen,

When people have to quarantine.”

Judith and I come up with the idea of a family Zoom, Can it be done?

I’ll ask my big sis Corrie.

It could be a whole lot of fun!

The Bigger Picture: Doing It Right, Doing It Wrong!

If I’ve learned anything from this pandemic it’s not to be overly optimistic about those powerful people running nations getting it right. That somehow better natures easily prevail when the fate of billions of people hangs in the balance. It’s something I find hard to come to terms with. I’m left feeling that even if we were invaded by aliens, some world leaders would take the aliens’ side, however ghastly they looked and acted, just to get one over on their neighbours.

And in a sense something very similar to that has happened with Covid-19. So we have the WHO saying the US hasn’t given it evidence to support its ‘speculative’ claim that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan laboratory.

The pandemic was an opportunity for global collaboration.

Giving peace a chance.

And nobody took it.

On March 23rd, the same day that lockdown began in the UK, and it was becoming increasingly clear that Covid-19 was securing a grip on the whole world, Antόnio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, issued a call for a global ceasefire.

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he declared.

It was a call echoed by Pope Francis and others to secure a respite for those countries and regions so weakened by violence and conflict that they would be especially vulnerable to the pandemic.

In response, by early April, fighters in 12 countries, including Colombia, the Philippines and Colombia had answered Mr Guterres’s call and downed weapons, at least temporarily, and for the moment hope prevailed. Could the coronavirus cloud have a silver lining?

All it needed was a swift and decisive resolution was needed to back the secretary-general’s words. instead there has been silence.

And a window of opportunity closed.

The reason could have come straight from the pen of Jonathan Swift. In drafting a ceasefire resolution, a process marshalled by France, wording was agreed relatively quickly on some robust clauses demanding a full 90-day pause in hostilities in conflict-ridden countries.

But the Trump administration, accusing the WHO of mishandling the crisis, and in particular of colluding with the government in Beijing to cover up China’s role in spreading the virus in the first place, do not want the WHO even mentioned in the preamble to the resolution. The Chinese insist that the organisation must be named.

So like Doctor Seuss’s North and South-going Zaxes, the world’s two greatest superpowers faced each other off.

“Never budge! That’s my rule.

Never budge in the least!

Not an inch to the west!

Not an inch to the east!

I’ll stay here, not budging!

I can and I will

If it makes you and me

and the whole world stand still!”

But the world doesn’t stand still, and in the vacuum conflicts resumed as the world’s most powerful bickered.

Many of the conflict-ridden countries that could benefit most have some of the weakest health-care systems in the world and so are the least prepared to combat the coronavirus.

For now, tragically, an opportunity has been squandered.

So it goes.

The deficit of humanity from those in power doesn’t just exist in conflicts, or between squabbling nation states. It also pervades the fabric within those states themselves, as CNN reports:

“Advocates for independent news media used Sunday’s World Press Freedom Day to call attention to what’s called “coronavirus crackdown.” Journalists in numerous countries have been harassed, threatened and arrested while trying to cover the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International, which track down such incidents. “From the earliest days of the pandemic – when Chinese authorities censored media reports and punished whistleblowers, journalists around the world have been risking their lives, freedom and jobs to share potentially lifesaving information with the public.” Amnesty’s director of law and policy, Ashfaq Khalifa said. Another advocacy group, the International Press Institute said it had registered “162 press freedom violations related to Covid-19 coverage over the past two and a half months.”

Antόnio Guterres also added that the world’s one billion people living with disabilities are among the hardest hit by the pandemic and called for them to have equal access to the prevention and treatment of Covid-19.

It’s a wish, a hope, a fine principle, and there would be few who would disagree. But with a UN based on good will and a desire for altruism, no doubt many will simply be denied such a fundamental right.

In the context of the UN, with all the power of my local ramblers association, the question persists: How can we prevent a pandemic like Covid-19 from happening again?

For sure, vaccination programmes, strong health systems and international collaboration are crucial to reducing the rise of epidemics. But also is the immediate and effective action by our leaders and policymakers.

Timo Ehrig and Nicolai J. Foss write in Quillette:

Former World Bank president Jim Yong Kim argued that “no one in the field of infectious diseases or public health can say they are surprised about a pandemic.” And yet, the Covid-19 outbreak did take most policymakers very much by surprise. From their perspective, the situation was one still characterised by the kind of radical uncertainty highlighted by economists such as Frank Knight and George Shackle: Policymakers were simply unable to assess the possible consequences of action and inaction, and this has made cost-benefit analyses of alternative (probabilistically assessed) outcomes impossible. One thing was, however, clear: The consequences of a runaway pandemic could be disastrous. In such a situation, the precautionary principle tends to apply. As a prominent member of the Danish parliament told us in mid-March, “This is a natural disaster in slow motion. We basically know nothing. The only rational thing is to shut down entirely.”

For those like Bill and Melinda Gates, who have been warning about the imminence of a global pandemic (there was even a Netflix documentary series on that very topic released by these guys in the autumn of 2019) it was increasingly like the boy who cried wolf.

And pandemics had been wargamed by the British and American governments, but the lessons were shelved and forgotten about.

“They were about flu,” we were told.

That’s a bit like saying it was a different species of tree leaf on the tracks, or the wrong kind of snow that’s paralysed the railways.

The heuristics of dealing with an emerging known unknown situations with the capacity to cause great suffering and harm are not that hard to figure, but they have to be in place in advance of the event.

  1. Observe the advancing threat: Covid-19 had appeared in China at the end of 2019. By February 2020 it had broken out in northern Italy. It was self-evident that in countries like Britain and the US with transport hubs and open borders, it was simply a matter of time, and the amount of time was going to be short.
  2. Take drastic short term measures: Such as closing borders and locking down. From the get-go this should be anticipatory, precautionary and limited to a short period, say two weeks and must go hand in hand with a fully committed effort to adjust policy responses as more and better data become available, and countries move from situations of radical uncertainty to situations of informed risk.
  3. Ask the right questions in the right way: Communicate a preliminary set of questions that need to be answered. Be cautious not to create common emotions of panic with inflammatory or alarmist comparisons, and in the UK, with its sensationalist tabloid press, have a communications strategy to avoid a predictable torrent of hyperbole. If news is an information diet, then there are elements of the press prone to gross overindulgence.
  4. Manage the transition from an emergency mode of policymaking to committed contingency planning: In particular, the emergency mode should be discontinued once remaining uncertainties are comparable to other sources of uncertainty. Of course, Covid-19 could mutate and/or create unknown harmful effects. But similar uncertainties apply, for instance, to new technologies, especially in this case in the biomedical field.
  5. Build a holistic picture of the wider situation: Balance the long-term measures designed to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 with the need to address other related sources of hardship and suffering that these measures may unintentionally exacerbate, for example deaths as consequences of loneliness, untreated other illnesses, unemployment and so on.

New Zealand got it right and pretty much followed this playbook.

The UK didn’t.

Its covid death toll above 32,000 is now the highest in Europe and it’s shameful that one of the wealthiest countries in the world has been brought to its knees by an incompetent response to a national crisis. An under-resourced NHS managed to pull off a miracle of treatment while the common sense of British citizens prevailed. They not only abided by lockdown rules but initiated themselves voluntarily while their government prevaricated. 

Along with this shocking statistic, the pandemic has exposed the level of health inequality in the UK, with double the rate of deaths in poor areas compared to wealthy ones.

In terms of the first four steps, such was the concern about the outbreak in Lombardy that on 31st January 2020, the Italian Council of Ministers appointed Angelo Borrelli, head of the Civil Protection, as Special Commissioner for the COVID-19 emergency. PM Boris Johnson has already skipped two Cobra meetings, and will skip three more before he attends his first on 2nd March. And drastic short term measures were not put in place until the start of lockdown three weeks later on March 23rd.

By that time at least 20,000 people infected with Covid-19 had arrived in UK before lockdown, amid a lack of restrictions. Today, James Brokenshire, minister for security. has just defended the decision not to close UK borders in a bid to stop the virus spreading across the country, saying that the move would be kept “under review,” He was probed on the decision after the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance said most of the Covid-19 strains being spread across the UK in March came from people returning from France and Italy.

Boris Johnson started engaging with the crisis of a country under threat from a deadly virus at the start of March. It was unclear whether the government had asked any questions at all, and for all the noise, bluster and boosterism from Johnson none had been communicated to the wider public.

And as for asking the right questions in the right way, Johnson reassured the British public on prime time TV by telling them he had met a number of Covid-19 patients and had shaken hands with every one of them.

As for the next step, contingency planning depended on test, track and trace within the community, that the government abandoned on March 12th, Minister for security, James Brokenshire, speaking for the Government, said there was a “shift in expert advice,” without qualifying what exactly that meant. And asked about the falling numbers in tests undertaken, with the Government failing to hit its 100,000 daily target for the third day in a row on Monday, he said that capacity is there but demand will vary.

It was if the Government had stumbled at every hurdle.

This was more than incompetence borne by ignorance. It was incompetence arising from an agenda. The same agenda that brought the Johnson government into power with an eighty seat majority – the unstoppable juggernaut of Brexit, with a momentum all of its own.

From the start, the UK government’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been clouded by the ideology of Brexit and isolationism. They’ve refused to take part in the EU ventilator scheme, and they’ve ignored international advice on testing and lockdown. At the moment, Boris Johnson’s plan is not to extend the Brexit transition period beyond 31st December this year. This would be a disaster – walking away from Europe, with barely any time to negotiate a deal, just when we need to be working together. It would also mean losing access to vital European medical schemes.

But Brexit was hard-wired into thinking at the heart of government, with Michael Gove telling a Lords committee that the UK is prepared to accept potentially huge extra costs for businesses exporting to the EU as a price worth paying for taking full control of laws from Brussels.

There are reports of talk within Tory circles is that any cost from Brexit will be irrelevant compared to the upheaval caused by coronavirus. No one will notice which bit of the hardship was caused by leaving the single market, and Johnson will be tempted at least to smuggle the economic pain of Brexit inside the bigger pain of Covid-19.

Dealing with a scourge as rapid and ruthless as Covid-19 needed one hundred per cent focus on the problem, where every day was critical. But Johnson’s notoriety throughout his entire career in both journalism and politics for late deadlines and last-minute responses aside, there simply wasn’t the motivation to give the problem that level of focus as it could well be a cloud with a silver lining.

A man’s character is his destiny, claimed the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclites.

It is nigh-on certain that Boris Johnson, with his Classics degree from Oxford, and a well-documented sense of his own place in history, knows the saying well, but can’t stop himself from indulging his weaknesses.

About such ironies were Greek tragedies written.

Boris Johnson knows that too.

If an adherence to the Brexit agenda proved to be the Achilles’ heel in the British Covid-19 response then the extremes of political partisanship, widened considerably under the Trump administration is proving to be America’s. Dealing with the pandemic has demanded big government, an anathema to Republicans. Despite the rising tide of Covid-19 there are still fourteen states, including Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, who have not expanded Medicaid, leaving the less well-off having to choose between healthcare and putting food on the table.   

Senate lawmakers are returning to Washington to begin work on the next round of stimulus legislation and the issue of corporate liability is suddenly front and centre, as businesses weigh the risks of opening, including Covid-19 lawsuits from customers and employees, against the cost of remaining closed. Nancy Pelosi pushes pandemic aid package as Republicans exercise caution.

Former New Jersey governor, Republican Chris Christie, is the latest politician who says Americans should go back to work, despite high Covid-19 deaths, contrasting with a poll finding that Americans are deeply wary of reopening.

Trump takes sides with the Republicans and the White House is already talking about ending its Covid-19 Task Force, set up on January 29th to monitor, prevent, contain, and mitigate the spread” of the virus. That talk caused alarm to the director of BARDA, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, as a result of which he filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging that the Trump administration ignored his early warnings about the COVID-19 pandemic and objecting to treatments advocated by administration, and the Department of Health and Human Services prioritised contracts based on political favouritism, nepotism and cronyism.

For the thin-skinned president, who recently complained that he was being treated worse than Lincoln, the criticism was too much and Bright was removed from his post and effectively demoted to a more junior position in the National Institute of Health.

Trump personifies the polarisation in American society, and the voices on both sides are becoming ever more harsh and shrill as Covid-19 spreads from sea to shining sea and God Bless America becomes Devil Take Her.

During the 1984 election campaign for his second term in office, Ronald Reagan declared it was “Morning in America,” with a political ad depicting Americans across the country heading to work as the sun rose over the picket-fenced suburbs and farms – a positive, prosperous nation under President Reagan’s wise governance. By contrast, yesterday, the Lincoln Project, a political action group supported by Republicans who are critical of Mr Trump, released a new ad, “Morning in America,” that depicts a broken country with shuttered factories, abandoned homes and tens of thousands of deaths from the Covid-19 outbreak. A sombre narrative ticks off the economic and public health devastation of the coronavirus – “a deadly virus Trump ignored.”

The virus doesn’t only aggravate divisions – it also creates new ones, as its pervasive presence invades everyday lives.

In Alabama, a woman called the police on a group teenagers, doing what teens do – messing about outside a bowling alley. In Utah, officials closed tattoo parlours and salons after fielding more than 500 complaints. And in Wisconsin, a doctor was suspended from work after attending a packed rally without a mask. Call it virus-snitching: a growing number of frustrated Americans are calling the authorities on people they believe are flouting social distancing guidelines.

Back in Britain one of the key areas Brexit distractions that had an impact was test and trace, where the optics were playing a much larger part than problem-solving. If you’re having difficulties solving a problem, putting energy into keeping up appearances that you really are making progress and burying the reality as best you can becomes more important than the consequences of being open about it. And if the problem is that once you have neglected to address the problem of an invading pandemic at the outset, then catching it once it had become to all intents and purposes endemic in the population is impossible.

The UK Government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance says that the UK failed to ramp up Covid-19 testing quickly enough and extra testing at the start of the outbreak would have been beneficial. Referring to a more successful testing regime in Singapore, the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer calls for 50,000 Covid-19 tracers, and much as though the high tech appeal of the NHS app might be, it will not be able to do the heavy lifting for tracking the spread of the virus.

In the absence of a catch-all treatment – all treatments so far have alleviated symptoms of severe Covid-19, rather than stopping the virus from getting a hold – or a vaccine, and with the frustrations and economic consequences of lockdowns, reaching out for test and trace is like clutching at straws, and the straws in Britain are elusive and evasive.

Each new test coming on to the market raises hope.

And when scientists announce that a new CRISPR test for Covid-19 could be a simple and cheap at-home diagnostic, it reassures us all a little during these times of darkness, even if we don’t understand what CRISPR means.

However, many antibody tests, used to determine whether people have been exposed to Covid-19, have yielded unreliable results. In America, in response, the FDA said on Monday it was giving companies that sell the tests 10 days to prove their products work or pull them off the market.

Abbott Labs has been among the most reliable of test manufacturers and announced its success in shipping Covid-19 tests around the US.

They’ve shipped 1.4 million tests.

The US population is around 330 million.

It gives some idea of the scale of the challenge.

The race for a Covid-19 has definitely begun. Today there are two announcements.

Scientists at Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases in Italy, in collaboration with the biotech firms Takis and Rottapharm, have claimed they have a vaccine candidate that can neutralise coronavirus within human cells.

Meanwhile the US pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, along with German company BioNTech, has launched its first US human trial of multiple Covid-19 vaccine candidates.

Pfizer will catch the imagination and the market in the months ahead. People won’t be talking about Takis, but it will be there, with a number of other Biotech firms, developing vaccines on a slow burn.

But catching the imagination are human challenge trials, and hundreds of young, healthy volunteers from a number of countries have come forward. These are people who are prepared to be infected with the virus alongside being vaccinated. Human challenge trials speed up the development of a vaccine, but the ethics behind having ‘human guinea pigs’ are challenging.

Most of us are passengers, carried by the tide of a disease spreading through the population, withdrawing and self-isolating to stay out of harm’s way. But there are some who want to play their part in conquering the disease, and without being medics or scientists this is something they can do. It’s an opportunity for service, purpose and even self-sacrifice. Perhaps, as many sociological studies have indicated, there is something about being human that seeks and highly values having purpose and meaning in life, rising above financial and other material rewards, besides costs and expenses.

That hundreds of volunteers have come forward is one of the quieter revelations of the pandemic, and it’s one of hope.

A less quiet revelation is about black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, acronym BAME and effectively describing the non-white element of the population.

The statistics are both inescapable and alarming. Taking excess deaths as an indicator they are:

  • 1.5 times higher than expected for the Indian population,
  • 2.8 times higher for the Pakistani population,
  • 3 times higher in Bangladeshis.
  • 4.3 times higher for the Black African population,
  • 2.5 times for the Black Caribbean population,
  • 7.3 times higher for Black Other Background individuals.
  • 1.6 times higher for the Mixed Any Other Background population.

Covid-19 has exposed a level of inequality in Britain so stark as to create this gross disparity in mortality. There are five main reasons why BAME communities are disproportionately affected:

The first is that BAME communities are disproportionately urban, Specifically, they tend to live in Britain’s larger cities, such as London, Birmingham and Manchester – often within populous urban wards. Contagion rates are high in these areas, in part because it’s easier for a contagion to spread in a big city than in the country’s more sparsely populated and predominantly white countryside.

Second: BAME groups in the UK tend to have more aggravating health conditions, known as comorbidities, e.g. type 2 diabetes and hypertension/circulatory problems.

Third: Immigrant populations are more likely to contain more than two generations under one roof.

Fourth: Getting public health information to citizens is much more challenging in the case of first generation BAME who have limited English abilities.

Fifth: BAME workers make up a disproportionate share of NHS medical staff. A fifth of nurses and midwives are from BAME backgrounds. The same is true when it comes to social care, transport and many other jobs which involve being in close proximity with the wider public.

Some recognition comes with the first rehabilitation hospital for Covid-19 patients, in Surrey, being named after Mary Seacole, as a result of the petition plus media interest and the alarming rate of Covid-19 among BAME staff for working for the NHS.

And as if to confirm that social disadvantage is a major factor in Covid-19 outcomes, traveller communities are also buckling from the pandemic’s impact.

An end to social disadvantage now appears further away than ever, as the pandemic eats away at countries’ economic well-being. The problem’s worldwide, with global remittances are projected to decline sharply by about 20 per cent in 2020 due to the economic crisis induced by the Covid-19 pandemic and shutdown. The projected fall, which would be the sharpest decline in recent history, is largely due to a fall in wages and employment of migrant workers, who tend to be more vulnerable to loss of employment and wages during an economic crisis in a host country. Remittances to low and middle income countries (LMICs) are projected to fall by 19.7 per cent to $445 billion, representing a loss of a crucial financing lifeline for many vulnerable households.

The increased personal difficulties are exacerbated by charities losing millions because of Covid-19. International development organisations like Oxfam are in desperate need of help as their work tackling poverty around the world has come under threat. In Britain there is some emergency funding released by chancellor Rishi Sunak, but a number of MPs warn that it goes nowhere near helping charities on the brink of collapse. Charities that support domestic abuse and slavery victims in lockdown receive £76 million. The housing minister said the funds will go to charities that are supporting vulnerable people ‘trapped in a nightmare’ during the pandemic.

Rishi Sunak is no exception to financial intervention. It runs against his monetarist instincts – having launched a furlough scheme he plans to wind it down in July – but the reality is that politicians across America and Europe are scrambling to help firms, some more successfully than others. In America, the US Treasury will borrow a record $3 trillion this quarter, as stimulus spending soars.

Whole industries are on their knees. Virgin Atlantic announced plans to cut 3,150 jobs and its operation of Gatwick, while Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary slams Lufthansa and Air France as “state aid junkies,” angry about the uncompetitive practices when it comes to Germany and France’s national carriers.

It’s been a bad year for cruise ships, the hotspots of several Covid-19 outbreaks as well. Norwegian Cruise Line stock recently dropped 20 per cent.

Covid-19 is also having a devastating effect on the film business as box offices worldwide face losing billions and stoppages have left thousands in mostly a freelance industry without work. Big budget films, like the latest Bond movie, or Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, have been pushed back, throwing the release schedule, a fundamental tool that serves the film industry, into total disarray. Many films intended for the big screen end up being streamed for smaller screens by Netflix and Amazon Prime.

In American supermarkets the consequences of outbreaks in meat processing plants results in meat rationing. Costco, for example, has limited sales of fresh meat in response to potential meat shortages stemming from virus outbreaks among slaughterhouse workers. Each customer can buy only three fresh beef, pork or poultry products. Kroger, the country’s biggest supermarket chain, has also limited meat purchases in some states.

But there are green shoots. International coffee chain, Starbucks, announced on Tuesday that 85 per cent of its US stores will be open by the end of the week, with ‘responsible’ tactics that focus on take-out.

And Britain’s billion dollar Babylon Health app set to launch for millions of New Yorkers.

On the British political front, the Government seriously considers a ‘traffic light’ approach to managing the Covid-19 risk as the way to ease lockdown, while SAGE – The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – has published details of the documents it uses to produce its advice. Professor Niall Ferguson has to quit after a lockdown break linked to an extramarital affair, Boris Johnson struggles his through a Commons select committee grilling and Nadine Dorries, the first MP to fall ill with Covid-19,  is promoted to minister of state in the department of health.

On the wider world stage, Covid-19 puts an end to the ‘golden decade’ of relations with Beijing that PM David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne hoped for only a few years ago. For a while the Conservative government, in power since 2010, didn’t find it too difficult to turn a blind eye to the plight of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and China, but the deaths of more than 20,000 British citizens and the crippling damage inflicted on our economy make it harder to overlook China’s behaviour now.

Covid-19 has been like a flash of lightning at night. The Chinese government’s mishandling of the outbreak has unveiled its authoritarian nature, just as the subsequent ‘wolf-warrior’ offensive by Chinese diplomats has uncovered its malicious character. That dream that China would become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the global economy and the broader international order has evaporated. Maybe it was delusional, but the world seems like a more insecure place.

The international trade secretary, Liz Truss, will open up much-hyped trade talks with the US today via video link. She’s expressed her hope that a new deal would help the economy bounce back from the Covid-19 crisis, but the Government’s objectives for the deal point to the modest economic gain of 0.16 per cent of GDP over 15 years. Small returns compared to the severing of many trade ties with the EU.

In all, the country and indeed the world feel less hopeful.

  • EU leaders host a summit on Wednesday with their six Balkan counterparts whose praise for Chinese and Russian support during the coronavirus crisis has ruffled feathers in the bloc. The EU says it has not been given enough credit for the 3.3 billion euros (£2.9 billion) it is providing, which officials said outweigh medical supplies. Beijing and Moscow sent to Serbia sent to Serbia and Bosnia in the early phase of the pandemic.
  • In Italy hairdressers get angry as they remain under lockdown.
  • In Portugal 600 union activists gather for May Day in Lisbon. Hundreds rallied for workers’ rights while respecting social distancing limits applied to them.
  • While in Mexico, as cases of coronavirus grow, cases of Corona beer suffer too. Mexico’s beloved brand shares its name now with a pandemic, and it’s hurting business.
  • Newly-confines cases of Covid-19 appear to be accelerating in Russia. Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, thinks health authorities are underestimating the overall number of those hit by the disease. Medical equipment is severely lacking in hospitals, especially those outside big cities. Some facilities have fewer than five respirators.
  • France’s political leaders have praised the work of caregivers – saying without them many more lives would have been lost. Some health services say the recognition comes after weeks of battling shortages of PPE and uncertain working conditions.
  • And a painfully poignant story from Spain, as the virus recently killed the couple Alfonso Ariza and Cesarea Andres almost simultaneously, after 56 years of living together. They were among the thousands who have died of the disease in retirement homes across Europe. Their daughter, Almadena and her sisters say they had spent days trying to get news of their ailing parents. Finally, they got a communication from the nursing home that both would be sedated. The couple died alone, without their family by their sides.

I don’t know how many tragic tales like that of Alfonso Ariza and Cesarea Andres, but we know that the only other attendant human beings will be healthcare workers. In our collective psyche they personify the pandemic. The military expression “on the frontline” has taken a grip, although they are saving lives, not taking them, but the parallel of being so much in harm’s way holds strong. It captures our imagination, our hearts, and when we wish to contribute to dealing with the pandemic, it’s healthcare workers that first come to mind.

So Nike is donating Nike is donating more than 32,000 pairs of shoes to healthcare workers, specifically designed for long shifts that are hard on the feet.

And Queen and Adam Lambert do ‘their bit’ for healthcare workers by singing, “You are the Champions,” teaming up to release a new version of the 1970s hit to honour those on the frontline. Proceeds will go to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund.

For most of us, our reality shift is more banal. Cooking at home has for some become meditative and stress-relieving, with mundane activities such as folding eggs and sifting flour can bringing light relief. There’s even advice about how to still enjoy cooking and eating when the virus has robbed you of your sense of smell and taste, forgetting of course that a drastic loss of appetite is also a symptom!

But time on hand has led to many reconsidering their diet. The popularity of alternative meat has skyrocketed, with sales about doubling for top brands since lockdown began. A desire for sustainable and healthy food has been compounded by meat facility closures and supply chain disruption. Those who have shifted their grocery habits from visiting supermarkets to at-home deliveries are finding themselves thinking and planning more, finding the benefit of not experiencing those impulsive moments of weakness as the trolley tours the aisles.

Our behaviour is changing,

This is the psychopandemic running alongside the medical one.

It’s for real and we’re still trying to make sense of it.

Some of it is surprising: Many politicians, especially libertarians such as Johnson and Trump had convinced themselves and tried to convince others that there would be widespread resistance to lockdowns, but it turns out that even in those countries subscribing to individualism that the vast majority of people are happy to stick to social distancing. One behavioural scientist suggests that it’s because people are ‘freezing’ in response to Covid-19. Whatever the truth in that conclusion happens to be, the fact is that the pandemic is up-ending our understanding of behavioural psychology, especially in relation to public health.

Some of it is revealing:  Of the challenges healthcare workers are facing, as crisis counsellors find themselves as the “paramedics of mental health,” waging a wrenching battle on the Covid-19 front lines.

Some of it is alarming: As American behavioural scientists research why people bring guns to Covid-19 protests they find that it hinges on one thing – fear.

Finally I receive an e-mail from the Toyota garage in Kent, where I take my car for servicing:

We hope you are keeping safe. We know you are due a service/MOT soon, but with Covid-19 restrictions there will be a delay before we can see you. We would like to reassure you that late servicing due to the covid restrictions will not affect your warranty. In addition, the Government has granted a six month extension to their MOT because of the pandemic. Don’t worry – once we’re able to look after your car we’ll contact you. Thank you for your patience and we look forward to seeing you again soon.

I’m hardly driving at all these days.

Nevertheless, I’m reminded of a keynote speech I once attended, by the film director David Puttnam, where he revealed that Toyota tested every single component of their cars to destruction six thousand times.

So reassuring. That’s why Toyotas are so reliable – good news at the moment if the garage aren’t around to fix things.

But David Puttnam then asked us:

“How many times is a development in education tested?”

That wasn’t reassuring at all!


Another Europe, Associated Press, Beadles Toyota, British Medical Journal, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (Oxford University),, CNN Business, Economist, Euronews, Evening Standard, Forbes, Future Majority, Global Citizen, Guardian, Huffington Post, Independent, iNews, New Statesman, New York Times, newscabal, Open Democracy, PA Media, Quillette, Reuters, STAT, Telegraph, The Zax by Dr Seuss, Times, Washington Post, World Bank

Day Fifty One: Tuesday 5th May 2020

Daily Diary: Three Mysteries.

Everyone’s talking about the blue skies. It’s as if Gaia is trying to tell us something and for once , because we’ve stopped our hurrying, scurrying lives, we’ve paused long enough to listen.

Well, some of us anyway.

There seems to be a big divide between key workers and the rest of us. There are, of course, homeworkers, and we’ve all learned a lot more about networking online. But the key workers are run off their feet, as if they’re trying to make up for everyone else, who are a lot more sedentary.

Phil came round to collect the birthday surprises for his wife, Heather, who’s turning forty. They had to cancel a special weekend break in York, and as a result Phil, between hectic shifts, is preparing surprises for the big day.

The presents are put in the small lobby by the front door – the airlock, we call it – for Phil to collect, but nevertheless we open the front door and have a chat, with Phil, well ventilated in the sunny breeze and Vicky and I behind the front door. Phil’s dressed in a yellow cycling kit and certainly looks fit in it, as if he’s just won an étage in the Tour de France. He cycles to and from work, whether it’s the ambulance station some days, or the call centre at Waterloo at others. Today has been a Waterloo day. He reports that people are already drifting back to their old ways, with the roads in and out of town almost as busy as they were before lockdown. There’s no doubt that the great mass-quarantine has worked, but there’s no doubt also that among some a restlessness is appearing. Politicians on the right are going on about ‘freedom,’ a meme caught from America.

It’s a strange kind of freedom that puts at risk the freedom of others, by the confinement of disease, death – traditionally the ultimate loss of freedom – or the longer term disabilities covid has visited upon many who knocked at death’s door, then thanks to all the medics who keep the ICUs working, have recovered in part.

Perhaps it is that we humans are restless creatures, sharing in common with practically all our primate cousins the need, it seems, to fidget and disrupt. Perhaps it is that edginess that’s got us this far in evolution and without doubt it will be a major factor in what happens next.

I guess we chat across the airlock for twenty minutes or so. We update each other with what we know so far. Phil from direct personal experience, me from my daily research, and Vicky, who has watched more news than I have. We talk about the origins of the virus. It’s pretty much a given that it originated in China, but exactly how, where and when remains a mystery, Many governments have made mistakes, including our own, and China is no exception. It’s becoming increasingly clear that China’s secretiveness, whether because it’s a totalitarian state, or whether, as some suggest, it wanted to make sure it got first dibs on what was needed to contain the outbreak, or was utterly paranoid about frightening its huge population, or maybe a mix of all three, remains to be established, remains to be established, but China’s secrecy doesn’t help. Quite the opposite, as, championed by Donald Trump, it simply feeds conspiracy theories, an entire crop of which currently abound.

But along with that comes the second mystery. When exactly did it escape from China? There’s a news report that Covid-19 might have appeared in France as early as December 27th 2019, four days before the Chinese authorities reported the outbreak to the WHO. Then Vicky mentioned Kath, her stepmother, who was rushed to hospital with very Covid-19 like symptoms at the end of January. Phil mentioned that his boss had gone down with a mysterious coronavirus-like disease around the same time.

With so many silent carriers and with an asymptomatic early stage to the disease it is feasible that it travelled, especially with the absurd laxness at airports like Heathrow. A study in Germany showed that the number of infections were ten times what was originally thought, a quarter with no symptoms whatsoever. It is possible.

We say bye to Phil, who then sets off home to Eltham with another, more benign mystery in his backpack, on his final leg of the Tour de Greenwich.

And there’s another mystery. Little by little, the portee anti-tank gun on its snub-nosed CMP Chevrolet is taking shape. There are plans for the chassis, which I had to stretch and cab, but none for the portee back of the truck. My only source is a collection of World War II photos. As I dig my way through, trying to make sense of all the details I come across a photo of a convoy of three portee guns parked in a North African street – it could be Tripoli, Benghazi or even Tobruk. I look at the nearest truck. There, wearing an overcoat, woolly hat and driving goggles perched on his forehead is someone I’ve seen in other, unrelated old photos.

Someone I have seen in RL……

It’s my dad!

The Bigger Picture: The Blind Firefighters

Today is both Hand Hygiene Day and International Day of the Midwife. Both have a relevance to Covid-19 as it becomes one of the biggest killers of 2020. So far this year its global toll exceeds that of breast cancer or malaria.

It’s the dominant global event, even overshadowing, for the time being at least, the greater existential threat to humanity of climate change. Global leaders and international donors gathered today in an online planning conference led by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The initial plan was to raise at least 7.5 billion euros in order to accelerate and scale up the development of a Covid-19 vaccine and guarantee equal distribution of the treatment. The initiative, called the Coronavirus Global Response has so far collected 7.4 billion euros. Each euro, or dollar, will be channelled through global health organisations such as CEPI, GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, the Global Fund and Unitaid.

The pandemic is a global crisis.

Global for some, that is. The British Government still remains wrapped up in its insular Brexit project. There are many calling for a two year Brexit transition extension due to the coronavirus crisis, including the Scottish Nationalist Party. The EU would accept the delay, and it would give more time for planning, with issues like the Northern Ireland Protocol and logistics at all the UK’s borders, the commonsense request falls on tin ears. Instead, talks are to commence on what we’re being told is an ‘ambitious’ post-Brexit trade deal, that will ultimately prove to be a Quixotic quest.

While Nigel Farage, xenophobe agitator, and the Prophet Isaiah of Brexit, is visited by police over ‘breaking lockdown,’ by travelling to Dover to report on migrants.

Brexit’s tunnel vision meant a failure to plan for other contingencies, driven to the margins as ‘getting Brexit done’ was the mantra designed to capture the voting public’s imagination. As a result, poor planning left the UK without enough PPE, leading to procurement problems and contradictory guidance and leaving frontline staff fearful and suspicious.

But Brexit is too easy an excuse for an underlying complacency. America too found itself on the back foot, caught out by events. As states run short of masks and other PPE, tests, ventilators and drugs, they have been largely sourcing their much-needed resources on their own. This free-for-all has prompted unnecessary stockpiling and the uneven distribution of resources based on purchasing power instead of patient need. In tandem, the federal government has been amassing its own supply.

While the public jitters about Covid-19 results in the availability of masks in French supermarkets sparking suspicions about a shortage. Had they, people wondered, been stockpiling for this event?

Back in Britain other frontline workers are feeling that all the public’s attention is being monopolised by those in health and, to a lesser extent, social care. An ad-hoc pecking order appears. Perhaps supermarket staff come next, along with bus and train drivers. So some start to feel that they are overlooked, and at a time when shortages are still an issue and the virus a genuine and frightening concern, there are those who see themselves at the bottom of the list, not least Royal Mail staff having to continue their duties without PPE for Covid-19, and I sign an online petition in support of their cause.

It’s becoming clear that to a lesser or greater extent, PPE is going to play a part in all of our lives, if only getting into the habit of wearing facemasks.

Public use of face masks is “inevitable,” Labour leader, Keir Starmer endorses that view.

One of the pandemic’s mysteries is why information was in Government ministers’ hands, along with those of other senior politicians in the West, for so long. It’s reasonable to suppose that it was possible for ministers to be “fully aware” that China had covered up the magnitude of the coronavirus outbreak, according to intelligence sources.

A senior, former M16 official said the intelligence agencies knew what was “really happening” in China and passed that on to Government ministers, while an intelligence dossier, seen by an Australian newspaper, was shared among the Five Eyes security alliance – US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – and accused China of covering up the severity of the outbreak from early December 2019.

It is understandable, even if it cannot be condoned, that a totalitarian state that has authoritarian control over its population, will try to save face and buy time when faced with a potential epidemic. They did as much in the SARS outbreak of 2002. Early in the epidemic, the Chinese government discouraged its press from reporting on SARS, delayed reporting to WHO, and initially did not provide information to Chinese outside Guangdong province, where the disease is believed to have originated. A WHO team that travelled to Beijing was not allowed to visit Guangdong province for several weeks, resulting in international criticism.

According to a new report by the Department of Homeland Security, seen by the Associated Press, on this occasion China covered up the severity of Covid-19 and delayed telling the WHO in order to input more medical supplies to respond to it.

What’s less easy to understand with hindsight is why western governments buried what they knew at the time.

It is likely that Covid-19 reached Western Europe, possibly even the US, before China told the WHO about “a cluster of pneumonia cases” in Wuhan on December 31st. For example a French hospital which had retested old samples from pneumonia patients discovered it had treated a man as early as December 27th. This date is significant, as it is nearly a month before the French government confined its first cases.

But of course it would have been possible not to have understood that the cause of the male patient’s pneumonia was a novel coronavirus, because from the hospital’s point of view it was an as yet unknown disease, even among respiratory medics.

The only reasonable conclusion is that any reports from the intelligence community, particularly the five eyes, were not treated sufficiently seriously. To all intents and purposes SARS and MERS gained such small toeholds in the West, so along with China’s underplaying of the Covid-19 outbreak, the senior politicians and their officials had downplayed the threat.

Now the cat was out of the bag it had led to bitter exchanges during a time of growing geopolitical tensions. The US ramps up its criticism of China, with US President, Donald Trump, alleging Beijing might have deliberately chosen not to stop Covid-19, while his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has claimed that there is a “significant amount of evidence” to prove that the novel coronavirus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan. The WHO, however, says it has no proof of such ‘speculative’ claims.

But the damage has been done, and it will, for now at least mean that the origin of the virus – wild animal or laboratory, benign biomedical virology or malicious agent – and patient zero will remain unknown.

In some respects you could say that twenty first humanity has failed at first base.

So now it spreads – an invisible conflagration across humankind.

Russia hits new daily Covid-19 record, as hospitals struggle to cope. Russia registered a record increase in Covid-19 cases on Sunday. But some say official data is still underestimating.

In the US, the Trump administration is privately projecting 3,000 Covid-19 – nearly double by June 1st. even as it presses states to open.

While the North West overtakes London for numbers of Covid-19 cases.

Deutsche Welle reports, a new study out of Germany has suggested that the Covid-19 infection rate could be much higher than initially thought. Some 1.8 million people could be infected nationwide, a quarter of them without symptoms. The number of Covid-19 infections in Germany could be ten times higher than currently thought, researchers from the University of Bonn have concluded in the final edition of the much-discussed Heinsberg Report, which took a closer look at the effects of Covid-19 on a small community in Germany.

What strikes me about this stage of the pandemic is its complexity, its many facets and the limited way we understand it. It challenges those notions that we really are in charge and have a handle on things. Most of the time we humans find ourselves muddling our way through, learning as we go along and figuring out how we’re going to deal with it.

We’re still installing the instruments in the control panel.

Rising in importance as an important reference, certainly in the UK and Western Europe is the R-Number, or R-value, which indicates  the rate of the spread of Covid-19, using the reproduction number. The number indicates how many people one person with the virus can infect. For instance, if the rate is equal to 1, it means that one person is infecting, on average, one other person.

And as such references are used in TV briefings and the media a previously bypassed statistical indicator becomes common parlance as it enters mass consciousness.

We’re still learning about the ecology of the virus and its relationship with ourselves as our niches overlap. That air pollution can make Covid-19 more deadly is “entirely plausible,” according to England’s CMO, or that the virus is able to live in water for a few days, potentially even a few weeks, with a reassuring caveat that just because a virus can survive in water doesn’t mean it’s present in large enough concentrations to infect us.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 hammers our capacity to manage all the other threats to human health. It has become the all-demanding cuckoo in the nest. In the US, routine cancer screenings have plummeted during the pandemic. Appointments for screening for cancers of the cervix, colon and breast were down between 86 and 94 per cent in March, compared to average values for the three years before the first US Covid-19 case was confirmed.

The picture elsewhere is no different. I receive a desperate plea for crowdfunding in my e-mail in-tray:

Covid-19 blocked seven year old Danny’s plans for life-saving cancer treatment. Please help.

Like so many others, I will come to lose a relative to cancer before the pandemic ends, left wondering whether it played a part, knowing it would be too insensitive to ask.

If not taking the threat of Covid-19 seriously early enough and if, as seems the case, China’s late declaration that it had an outbreak that could lead to an epidemic and possibly a pandemic, then it is possible that in a highly interconnected world the virus could have already escaped undetected before the end of 2019. A combination of virulence, asymptomatic transmission and the absence of a testing system as gatekeeper could have resulted in the seeds of possible future outbreaks already been sown. I now know of three anecdotal cases from people I’ve spoken to, dating back to the end of January 2020, of covid-like cases with severe breathing difficulties leading to hospitalisation and intensive care.

They could have been severe cases of seasonal flu, but the fact of the matter is we don’t know.

At first, it looked like the UK Government knew what it was doing, even though by the end of January the PM had skipped two Cobra meetings to deal with an emerging problem. When Britons arrived back home from Hubei Province in China on January 31st 2020 they were tested and quarantined.  It was a good look, even though in the background anyone entering Great Britain from anywhere else came in unchecked, and the first domestic cases, a York University student and a relative, were recorded on the same day. They had come from Wuhan.

However cases were also reported in Thailand, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Germany, US, France, Vietnam, UAE, Canada, Italy, Russia, Cambodia, Finland, India, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Spain and Sweden, and if these, as the German research suggested, were the tip of the iceberg the problem could be ten times larger than what the reported cases indicated.

Without a vaccine or effective cure all that was left was an effective systematic testing regime, so that people who had been infected could be isolated and those they had come into contact with could be traced. However, on 12th March 2020, the Government abandons mass testing and contact tracing, a practice that was achieving a level of success in other countries such as Germany and South Korea.

By the time the Government resume mass testing of those with symptoms at the end of April, the virus has been able to spread through the population for weeks unseen, and until lockdown occurs on March 23rd, unchecked and uncontrolled.

If the pandemic can be compared to a forest fire, then the firefighters have been trying to contain it blindfolded. The British public are fearful of the virus and have a lack of confidence in the Government’s ability to deal with it. People are still dying in their hundreds daily – 674 in the last 24 hours.

To regain the confidence of the anxious public, the Government set itself a target of 100,000 tests per day that would be achieved by the end of last week.  On Friday, the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that the Government had exceeded its target with 122,000 daily tests. However, it soon became clear that more than 40,000 tests had not been processed. A test somewhere in the Royal Mail counted as a test done, and the practice of counting those swabs simply posted out, but not returned, was questioned by some.

But in the main, many media figures touted these figures without criticism. We were being gaslighted yet again by a cynical government more predisposed to controlling the narrative, regardless of the reality. The numbers game was set to create a perception that things were being done, while there are still serious shortcomings, like getting protective equipment to all frontline workers and making sure that those in care homes are safe, and that at this point, at over thirty thousand and still rising, the UK has the most deaths of any country in Europe.

Deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van Tam added that, “there is another lab opening next week,” which suggests another 20,000 a day capacity on top. That would give the UK a capacity to conduct nearly a million tests a week. Getting that testing rate up is obviously crucial to Hancock’s ‘test, track, trace’ policy – known to some insiders as TTT. The other key planks of the strategy are the NHS smartphone app, due to go live on the Isle of Wight on Tuesday, as well as the 18,000 human contact tracers needed to roll out the scheme nationwide.

The app holds a certain appeal, that perhaps the modern ubiquitous smartphone can come to the rescue. What’s more, a number of other countries, such as Austria, Australia, Greece, Israel already have systems in place. Even Cyprus has an app called COVTRACER, which allows people who test positive with the novel coronavirus to share this information with the public health authorities. It is then possible to trace anyone who may have been in close proximity to the infection. So far, use of the app is entirely voluntary.

There are conversations within the EU, which spurs Britain to have her own app. It’s a symptom of Brexitmania that still stalks the corridors of power. Developed by NHSX, the digital wing of the national health service, it has been trumpeted as being the way the Government is using the very latest in technology, without recourse to other countries’  developments.

And it will be a centralised system, dovetailing into the country’s digital health service. There are a number of people and organisations, who have concerns about such a centralised system, including Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, who has said the Government should look at decentralised app models, where contact tracing stays on the user’s device. The organisation’s concerns are that “the Government might be planning to route private data through a central database, opening the door to pervasive state surveillance and privacy infringement, with potentially discriminating effects,” was put to the health secretary.

Mr Hancock responded, “That’s completely wrong.”

In the eponymous words of Mandy Rice Davis, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

But in testing itself progress is being made as Pharmaceutical giant Roche receives an Emergency Use Authorisation from the FDA for its new Covid-19 antibody tests and in Costa Rica automation to massively expands the country’s testing capabilities, making it lead the field in Central America and dogs are being trained by the emergency services in Corsica to try to detect people who may be infected. Firefighters in Ajaccio are using sweat samples from Covid-19 patients who have agreed to be part of the trial.

With each small development the relationship between people and the pandemic shifts subtly. It will be this, as well as the traditional responses to a plague that will ultimately end the pandemic. It will fade like a threatening spectre, in part through pure attrition. In part by being drowned out by other stories, especially with the shadow of climate change already growing stronger, like the coming winter in George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones,’ eventually becoming a subplot in an epic saga.

Among those developments are drugs whose actions can be explained by science. There are two in particular, remdesivir which acts as a substitute for Adenine and creates flawed RNA in replication and actemra, which blocks the cellular receptors for a cytokine called interleukin-6. Step by step, the worst effects of Covid-19 are being mitigated, and although Google and the aerospace industry are partnering together to produce more ventilators, it’s the growth of medication rather than mechanical intervention that’s increasingly saving lives.

Gilead Sciences announced that it would be donating its entire stockpile of potential Covid-19 treatment, remdesivir to the US government.

And science-based treatments do not end there, as Melbourne-based biotech company, Mesoblast, announced earlier this week that it’s begun enrolling 300 patients for a randomised, controlled study of its stem cell therapy, remestemcel-L in the treatment of Covid-19 patients experiencing acute respiratory distress syndrome. Over 20 hospitals will participate in the study, which is expected to last 3-4 months.

While progress with vaccines continues.

The US government is getting its vaccine supplies ready in anticipation of a working cure. Two separate orders signed off on 1st May 2020, total $110 million and specified needles and syringes ‘for a Covid-19 mass vaccination campaign.’ One $27.5 million order went to Colorado-based Marathon Medical, the other $83.7 million to Texan business Retractable Technologies. The orders were placed by the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). The orders came as a raft of different vaccines are under development and testing. The US government has backed a handful, including a $450 million deal with Johnson & Johnson arm Janssen Pharmaceutical for its Covid-19 cure. The vaccine could be ready by early 2021.

But the pandemic is not just the greatest medical event in living memory. It is also the largest single social and economic event since the end of World War 2 seventy five years ago. 

Here are some stories about the current economic state of play:

  • In Britain, the government gets something right. Chancellor Rishi Sunak revealed that UK businesses have applied for 6.3 million workers to be furloughed since the start of lockdown, making more than half (53 per cent) of all adults are now paid by the state.
  • Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte has apologised to thousands of furloughed Italian workers who are yet to receive state aid as compensation for economic paralysis. The government had promised to pay over two million workers their wages, after imposing a national lockdown on 9th March. But the payment scheme appears to have overloaded Italy’s bureaucratic mechanisms.
  • In France, workers in Lyon are unhappy. “We feel used,” they say. With few supplies and fewer customers, many businesses have been moving in slow motion for the past seven weeks. Firms have had to reduce staff to comply with social distancing measures, forcing the remaining employees to work longer and increase their exposure to the virus.
  • Millions of Chinese students brace themselves for joblessness. As it surveys an economy ravaged by disease, the leadership’s biggest worry is unemployment. In February, the jobless rate jumped to 6.2 per cent, the highest ever. In March it fell slightly to 5.9 per cent a businesses reopened. But official figures mask the scale of the problem. Urban unemployment could reach 10 per cent this year, reckons the Economist Intelligence Unit. And that does not include the millions of migrants who sat out the epidemic in their ancestral villages. Many of them have no jobs to return to in the cities.
  • Remote working is encouraging a culture of so-called E-Presenteeism, according to a new survey, leading employers to feel overworked and overwhelmed. Four in five HR managers think working from home has encouraged E-Presenteeism, meaning employees feel they should be online and present as much as possible.
  • In America, the virus threatens a meat industry that is too concentrated. Healthy animals are being killed and buried for want of slaughterhouse workers.
  • The impact of Covid-19 on the movie industry is far-reaching at the production end, with gathering large teams together in a variety of locations virtually impossible, closed cinemas and cancelled film festivals. Films once destined for the cinema are now being released on the small screen through online distributors like Netflix and Amazon.
  • Air travel poses a ‘big challenge,’ says health secretary Matt Hancock. A euphemism, if ever there was one.
  • Most of us would like a summer holiday this year. But for some countries it’s more than a wish. A dearth of holidaymakers could be ruinous. Tourism accounts for about 25 per cent of GDP in Greece, where the economy is only just beginning to recover from a devastating financial crisis. And about half of Croatia’s 20 million annual visitors arrive in July and August, with tourism there responsible for at least a fifth of its economic output.
  • In York a one way system on the city’s most famous street is hoped will save tourism after lockdown. There are calls now to make twenty other narrow medieval alleyways one way.
  • Covid economic weirding: On the US stockmarket it’s been a strange economic slump. The bear seems to have been an unusually short-lived member of its species. Although economic data have continued to deteriorate, share prices have staged a remarkable recovery. April was Standard and Poor 500’s best month since January 1987. Having bottomed at 2,237 on March 23rd, it rallied by 27 per cent by May 1st. Technically, that has put shares back into the bull market, even though they have yet to regain their pre-pandemic losses.
  • The most notable winner is new billionaire Stéphane Bancel, the CEO of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna, which was the first company to begin human trials of a Covid-19 vaccine on March 16th in Seattle. When the WHO declared a pandemic, Bancel’s net worth was some $720 million. Since then, Moderna’s stock has rallied more than 103 per cent, lifting his fortune to an estimated $1.5 billion.
  • While today’s American loser is clothing retailer J. Crew, filing for bankruptcy due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, assurances are made that stores will reopen after lockdown.

“After Lockdown” is beginning to sound more and more like “When This Bloody War is Over,” and I’m surprised there isn’t a fine Methodist tune and two or three verses to go along with it.

“When this lousy lockdown’s over,

No more hideaway for me.

No more worry about covid.

Oh how happy I will be……”

Or something like that!

Tentatively – with baby-steps – it’s beginning to happen. Healthy over-70s are set to be released from strict Covid-19 measures. Health secretary Matt Hancock says he’s “absolutely open” about Premier League football returning next month, while a group of 36 Tory MPs urge bishops to allow funerals in churches.

England’s CMO suggests that the UK may have passed two of the five tests to exit lockdown. He said the risk of a second wave was under close review and new cases need to fall further before the UK enters the second phase.

Not everyone in the UK is at ease with lockdown easing plans “that could put workers at risk,” as the Government prepares to reveal its plans to reopen the economy. News leaks suggest workers facing staggered start times, more homeworking and ‘health passports.’

PM Johnson said today, still cautious from his own experience said, “The worst thing we could do now is ease up too soon.”

It’s a caution that will fade over the coming months.

Further afield:

The booziest part of Australia is planning to reopen pubs this month. Businesses have been asked to prepare Covid-19 safety plans beginning today, ahead of several types of venues reopening in the Northern Territory on May 15th, including the pubs, restaurants and cafés.

America increasingly shows a divided attitude to lockdown and its lifting. Why the difference? Some of it is only natural. Conservatives tend to be less densely populated and conservatives are often uncomfortable with government directives. But the growing partisan divide also reflects a fundamentally different view of the virus between the leaders of the two parties. Republicans are focused on the economic damage of a prolonged shutdown. Many Democrats, on the other hand, continue to see the virus as a dire threat. They believe that opening up now – without the availability of tests that President Trump has long been promising – will needlessly cost lives. The bottom line is that the country is about to enter a new phase of the virus, with a near-national lockdown giving way to more regional variation.

While the South African consensus is that it seems risky to be lifting lockdown on the numbers they have.

In the meantime it’s lockdown that determines everyday reality:

  • Consumer and disability rights groups have called on the government urgently improve the coordination of food deliveries for vulnerable people, warning that thousands are not getting the help they need during the pandemic.
  • Covid Care in London looks like any other budget hotel, with a bland corporate frontage and rows of small square windows. But its 80 rooms have been transformed by an NHS homeless outreach team and Médecins Sans Frontières, who provide ten nurses, into the UK’s only treatment centre for rough sleepers with coronavirus. So far nearly 40 homeless people have been treated, with more expected in the coming weeks as the facility starts to take homeless patients with Covid-19 directly from A&E departments in London. There are an estimated 11,000 rough sleepers in England. More than 5,400 rough sleepers known to councils have been offered accommodation since March but there are still more than 35,000 homeless people living in hostels across the UK. Forthcoming UCL modelling indicates that more than one-third of the hostel and street homeless population could get Covid-19 without intensive infection controls. This could lead to 4,000 hospital admissions and 364 deaths by August.
  • As part of a worldwide concern about the safety of travelling, Hong Kong International Airport is conducting a trial of procedures and facilities to eliminate viruses and bacteria on individuals and airport surfaces.

Although children are far less likely to suffer from the extreme effects of Covid-19 (a 70 year-old is over 3,000 times the risk of dying from the virus as a 12 year old), they are particularly vulnerable in other ways, the loss of schooling, the damage to mental health, and now an increase in online grooming, as parents in the UK are urged by the police to be vigilant as nearly 100 children are targeted.

Even more vulnerable – perhaps the most vulnerable – are unaccompanied refugee children, and across the whole of Europe their plight becomes even worse during the pandemic. Already there has been a constant risk of abuse as they get drawn into undocumented labour and even sexual services, and the fragility of the whole unauthorised migration ecosystem as a result of Covid-19 has simply served to make matters worse.

Yet on the bright side, there are many examples of children helping others in lockdown. From charity to cheer, the national outpouring of altruistic acts from youngsters has been heartening. Kids have been sewing face masks, 3D printing face visors for the NHS, setting up crowdfunding for PPE, raising spirits through streaming exercise videos and so much more.

There is hope.

Forbes magazine tells the story of Dr Afok-Manin:

“Decades ago, Dr Afok-Manin watched her mom, a single mother and immigrant from Ghana, transform their Los Angeles home into a makeshift care and learning centre. Her mother has since passed away from cervical cancer – one of the reasons why Afok-Manin wanted to be a doctor in the first place. But her mother’s spirit lives on in her daughter, who’s playing her own part to give back to the community during the pandemic by creating myCovidMD, a free testing and telehealth services platform. That platform prioritises residents in underserved communities who are affected by the pandemic. A much-needed service, considering Covid-19 has been disproportionately affecting black and brown communities across the US, in part because of lack of healthcare services.”

While I could not resist the headline in my “The i” newsfeed.

“Until Covid-19 lockdown I never knew my sister was a doomsday prepper.”

I was expecting bunkers and Armageddon. Instead I read an article about the practicalities of being prepared.

It reminds me, as I work my way through each day’s newsfeeds to dig a little deeper than headlines.

I think, in this era of three word slogans, it’s good advice for us all.


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