Sunday 5th April 2020

Daily Diary: All Locked Down And Nowhere To Go.

The doorbell rang and Vicky tells me not to answer it.

“It’s the post!” I respond. “I’m expecting a parcel.”

“You mustn’t open the door to anyone,” she tells me.

“Don’t worry. I won’t!”

I run downstairs in my dressing gown. It is the postman, delivering on a Sunday. The package was being tracked and I expected it two days ago. But these are coronatimes. The front door is glazed and leads into a small lobby that I have just finished improving, but that’s another story. The postie and I have a conversation made up entirely of mime. He points downwards to tell me he’s left the package on the front path.

Thumbs up!

Big smile!

Thank you!

I get myself a paper tissue and pick the package up as if it’s this week’s delivery of a package from Porton Down. I take it indoors and put it down on an improvised mat of kitchen paper. It’s one of those grey plastic-wrapped packages you get a lot of nowadays. I dowse some tissue with methylated spirit and wipe the package down. Then I wash my hands – twenty seconds, as advised and now totally in the habit of doing. Before I unload the dishwasher – twenty seconds. Before touching food – twenty seconds. After a wee – twenty seconds. I remember my paramedic friend Phil’s advice, “Wash your hands as if you’ve just cleared dog mess out of the garden and now you are about to prepare breakfast for the kids. There should be no doubt at all that your hands are squeaky clean – that’s the golden rule.”

Back to the biohazard box. I cut through the grey outer membrane and find a cellophane heat-sealed box inside and cut into that too.

Wash hands!

Wash scissors!

It’s OCD for survival and I’m doing just great. Everything outside MUST be dirty. Everything inside MIGHT be dirty. I normal times we’re all just a bunch of mucky pups. Cleanliness is next to godliness – unless you want to meet your maker sooner than you’d previously figured. We normally think nothing of throwing all sorts of crap at our immune systems and we know the consequences are insignificant.

“You’ve got to eat a pound of dirt before you die,” Nana, my grandmother used to say in her unforgettable Dutch accent.

She lived to a hundred and two.

Mind you, remembering hearing her wailing like a banshee during her nightmares, I reckon the Grim Reaper gave her a miss and waited until she’d quietened down a bit.

So under normal circumstances moving around, hugging, kissing, shouting, singing, talking and just getting up close and personal didn’t harm too much. But with coronavirus the consequences can be dire.

My nephew in Silicon Valley, California posts on Facebook that his best friend, only in his forties, has succumbed to Covid-19 and died. In California. Land of milk and honey, one of the most affluent parts of the planet and the coronavirus can take you.

Sobering thought.

So, isolation it is. Mass house arrest on a beautiful, sunny April day. Most people, and certainly everyone I’ve seen on the common is being sensible, but there are still those – a minority – flouting the rules. News features about two teams playing basketball in a Birmingham park and a barbeque on Brighton beach. A debate is emerging between those who want to stall the virus as much as possible and those who fear the negative consequences of the lockdown – people alone in small apartments, or trapped in abusive relationships or people unable to return to work even though they’ve had the disease and it appears they are immune.

The question of the day comes from Andrew Marr on BBC.

“How do we come out of it?” he asks.

The Bigger Picture: Up, Down, And Where We’re At

All stories have their ups and downs.

This is an up.

Sir Keir Starmer, the new leader of the Labour Party vows to ‘engage constructively’ with the Government to deal with the coronavirus. Although PM Johnson has been in isolation and has suffered a fever with Covid-19 he is reported as being in good spirits and he invites opposition leaders to Downing Street to ‘work together’ on the coronavirus emergency, saying he would invite all leaders of Britain’s opposition parties to a briefing next week with the country’s chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser.

But it will turn out to be a short-lived political honeymoon.

The Government is out of its depth.

That’s a down.

Minister for the Cabinet, Michael Gove, reassures the British public that hundreds of ventilators are being manufactured daily. The NHS should have 18,000 ventilators, but they probably won’t be ready in time for the Covid-19 peak. Daily announcements about progress with ventilators is at its peak. It is something, anything, for the Government to announce to put icing over the mess of a cake that lies underneath, like a ‘Bake-Off’ culinary trick. It has the ring of a Soviet politician making triumphant announcements about record numbers of ball-bearings. Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture it’s unsettling.

Four thousand prisoners are released to avoid pressure on healthcare systems. Normally there would be mass hysteria in the tabloid press about the threat to public safety with so many wrong’uns being set loose on the rest of us. As it is, fear of the virus means it barely makes the news.

The Queen is to urge the nation to show strength in the face of the Covid-19 challenge. Still for many an up. The damage that will come to the people’s perception of the royal family when they watch series four of the Netflix drama, ‘The Crown’ is still four months away. 

There are other ways of seeing ‘up.’ Tory MP and Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg’s investment firm Somerset Capital Management stands to make a financial killing out of the turmoil caused by the coronavirus crisis by investing in businesses hit by falling share values. SCM says investors have a “once in a generation” chance of “super normal returns”. Although Mr Rees-Mogg stood down as a director of SCM to become Leader of the House of Commons he is still believed to have at least a 15% stake in the company.

SCM said it was focusing on clients’ long-term security, so while millions are facing serious financial hardship – a down – SCM managers are buying into businesses where valuations have tumbled, but should bounce back, yielding gains of up to five hundred per cent.

It came as the UK death toll rose by a record 708 – including a boy aged five, thirteen residents dying of Covid-19 in a Glasgow care home and the trade union Unite announced five of its members, London bus drivers, had also died from Covid-19

Definite downs.

The Government will not be rolling out antibody tests to the UK. Antibody tests do have their uses but they only reveal that someone has had the disease, not whether they are currently infected or whether they are infectious to others. Ideas like going back to work depending on someone having the right antibodies, which has been suggested in Italy and might be the case at some point in the UK, sound attractive but don’t fit into a wider strategy where who has the virus is a higher public health priority.

There is also some confusion between antibody and antigen tests, not just by the general public but by some politicians too. Boris Johnson called antibody tests a “game changer,” for example. They aren’t.

If having the disease confers immunity to future infection then it does have some use that a particular individual can be exposed to what would be a risk for others. But that’s an unknown, in part because the disease has not been around long enough, or has been sufficiently studied in that respect because of that lack of time. Science is not magic, Science needs a body of evidence, and amassing that body of evidence requires time.

At this point in time, we don’t even have a reliable means of counting the dead, the most obvious source of evidence available. If you can’t count the numbers properly it’s almost impossible to come to any conclusions of value.

Gin and gout, I was always told: garbage in – garbage out. The first principle of data science.

Every day we get one big figure for deaths occurring in the UK, which is presented as the latest toll. However, NHS England figures, which currently make up the bulk of UK deaths, refer to the day on which the death was reported, not the actual date of death, which can be days, even weeks, beforehand, so we don’t know how many deaths have taken place on any particular day, and where the death rate is rising the error is most likely to be an undercount.

But if the UK is partially sighted about the number of people dying it is totally blind to the number of infections. Only one third of infected people flying into the UK have been traced and systems for testing are not up to the most basic needs beyond hospital admissions.

The Royal College of Physicians found that only 31 per cent of doctors displaying symptoms of the virus can get hold of test swabs. Almost nine in 10 said they could not access a test for a member of their household with Covid-19 symptoms, while one in 10 reported being unable to procure swabs for patients who meet the testing criteria.

The survey of more than 2,500 members also showed that 22 per cent of the respondents did not have access to adequate protective equipment – one doctor claimed separately that NHS staff are forced to re-use masks and hold their breath due to lack of PPE during the coronavirus crisis.

A third of those surveyed suspected they had the virus.

So why does the UK find itself incapable of meeting the demands the pandemic has placed upon the population? Ever since the mid-1980s British universities were up there in the lead, alongside the US and Germany when it came to the biotech field of polymerase chain reactions (PCR). It was PCR that was the foundation of genetic fingerprinting that revolutionised forensics and paternity testing, pioneered in Britain. With science parks around many universities and countless startups in this field it would have seemed a ‘given’ that the United Kingdom would have been well-set to meet the challenge.

The problem seems to be that not enough is done to nurture some of these innovative startups and medium-sized companies into home-grown giants, part of a wider failure to invest in UK-based manufacturing industry that now goes back decades. It’s easier to make a fortune in the City than it ever is making anything, and globally orientated City has no special loyalties to home-grown concerns.

It’s little surprise, therefore, that beyond a certain level of success the companies tend to migrate to the US where venture capital and buyers are in more ready supply. Solexa, for example, a genetic sequencing company spun out of Cambridge, was acquired by Illumina in the US for about $650m in 2007 and is now worth about $40bn.

And whereas Germany can count on a hundred test labs and the manufacturing muscle of Roche, one of the world’s largest diagnostics companies, along with Qiagen, a major supplier of genetic testing kits, which are being used to diagnose Covid-19, to achieve its current level of more than 50,000 tests a day, the UK had had to start building from a lower base while scrambling around the world marketplace amid stiff competition for what it could get.

It would be unfair to portray the UK as being alone in struggling to meet demand. France has carried out even fewer tests than the UK, and Spain tried to bridge supply chain issues by buying millions of test kits from China that later had to be withdrawn after giving flawed results.

The years spent centralising testing labs by the NHS also has made the logistics of testing additionally difficult. Countries like Germany and Italy have more distributed lab testing systems. There are arguments for economies of scale, clinical robustness and guarantees of more standardised diagnostic procedures that make sense in non-covid times.

But this is a pandemic and the centralised approach is slower and more cumbersome.

That’s a down.

Once this nightmare is over, will Government learn from this or return to its former complacent ways?

It is the nation’s biosecurity, after all.

It turns out we don’t have much of a grasp of biosecurity in western nations.

“Not one single country on the planet has been prepared, fully prepared for this kind of crisis. No one.”

So spoke the man at the heart of the EU’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton.

Fair play, it could have been a number of political leaders saying much the same.

Only it just isn’t so.

Released in October 2019, The Global Health Security (GHS) Index was the most comprehensive global study on pandemic preparedness to date. It was a collaboration between the John Hopkins University, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and the Nuclear Health Initiative (NTI). It was two years in the making and placed the US and the UK first and second respectively in a global ranking of countries’ pandemic preparedness.

Even more impressively, Britain led the world in its reported ability to respond rapidly and halt the spread of devastating diseases.

The GHS Index couldn’t have got it more wrong. It was a total blind spot, that despite all the other assets, success in managing the pandemic before a vaccine appeared came down to how people behaved, both leaders and their citizens, Systems, however good they appeared on paper, simply didn’t work if people behaved outside the frameworks that had been set, if they didn’t follow the rules, or didn’t have faith in their leaders.

So the lackadaisical approach of British PM Boris Johnson, taking a month to apply any strict measures, along with leaving the country’s borders totally porous and unchecked, set in train all that followed. It’s easier to bale out a boat when the water’s ankle-deep than when it’s up to the gunwales. That wasn’t taken into account when the GHS Index was published.

Nor were President Trump’s erratic actions.

“Johns Hopkins, highly respected, … they did a study, comprehensive, the countries best and worst prepared for an epidemic,” Trump announced in a White House press conference on 26th February. “And the United States, we’re rated Number One!”

The message: nothing to worry about here.

If only!

In both cases leaders were unafraid and ultimately many – too many – of their followers modelled their behaviour accordingly.

By contrast, according to a recent YouGov poll, Vietnam exhibits the highest level of COVID-19 fear; 89 per cent of the Vietnamese population are “very” or “somewhat” concerned they will contract the disease. 95 per cent of Vietnamese people think their government is handling the pandemic “very” or “somewhat” well. Despite a population of 95 million and a close proximity to the source of the outbreak, the country has yet to report a single COVID-19 death.

In Europe, Germany’s death rate is low, even though it wasn’t a top-runner in the GHS Index. It was helped by the low average age of those infected at 49, compared to 62 in Italy and France, but pre-emptive action from the start, a large number of ICU beds (three and a half times the number in the UK), mass testing and tracking, along with robust public healthcare all contributed not only to dealing with the disease but also in winning public confidence.

“Maybe our biggest strength in Germany,” said Professor Kräusslich, a professor of virology at Heidelberg University, “is the rational decision-making at the highest level of government combined with the trust the government enjoys in the population.”

For now, at least.

If the Germans are modelling their behaviour on the rational decision-making of Angela Merkel, the New Zealanders on the cautious common sense of Jacinda Ardern then it seems that some Brits at least are modelling a casualness in the face of catastrophe on Boris Johnson. He’s begged people to stay at home during lockdown, but London’s parks become alarmingly crowded. The many bodies strewn across the well managed grassy lawns are not casualties but young Londoners basking in the spring sunshine.

Men play basketball in Erdington Park in Birmingham and two people in Brighton have a court summons following their beach barbeque. More besides.

A casual laissez-faire manner from those in charge turns into something more anxious, even panicky as health secretary threatens to ban outdoor exercise if Brits continue to defy the coronavirus lockdown.

A tiny minority behave in a truly bizarre way. A 20-year-old man has been arrested for allegedly wiping his saliva on products at a Bridport supermarket.

And it’s found that that sometimes-all-consuming behaviour, sex, can contribute to the spreading of coronavirus, even though not directly as it is a respiratory virus. Sex buddies are discouraged. Long term relationships depend on the infection status of the partner.

Sometimes celebrities have tried to act as role models. Sometimes successfully within the bubble of their audiences. American singer Pink has revealed she contracted coronavirus as she donated a million dollars to emergency funds and blasted Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis, telling her 7.7m followers on Instagram:

“It is an absolute travesty and failure of our government to not make testing more widely accessible. This illness is serious and real. People need to know that the illness affects the young and old, healthy and unhealthy, rich and poor, and we must make testing free and more widely accessible to protect our children, our families, our friends and our communities. These next two weeks are crucial: please stay home. Please. Stay. Home.”

The latest Covid-19-related death toll in America, according to John Hopkins University, is 7,151 and there have been more than 278,000 cases.

The pandemic even affects how entire countries behave towards each other as international tensions rise. Germany and France accuse the United States of facemask piracy, intercepting then buying up supplies from China while it is in transit through Thailand and bringing a whole new outlook on “America First.” Europe struggles to find a joint approach to the coronavirus catastrophe, both in terms of who gets what in financial support and the sudden appearance of border controls across the Schengen area.

And conspiracy theories start to circulate social media about how the whole horror show started in China, going as far as dramatic claims that research laboratory staff in Wuhan ‘got infected after being sprayed with blood,’ stoking up already widespread anti-Chinese sentiments in the west, Trump’s America in particular.

While the ups, downs and where we’re ats of everyday life carry on, including.

And finally, there’s a bizarre note on Nextdoor:

“Hi. Can anyone recommend a good family entertainment hotel that’s near waterparks, zoos etc. in Spain?”

I don’t know where that’s at!

3 thoughts on “Sunday 5th April 2020

    • Thank you Jenny. It’s been written because I feel that the story needed to be on the record and I wanted to contrast the modest personal experience, much about dodging the virus as anything else as with each day’s news, as best I could ‘trawl’ it. I chose a predominantly essay format because I’d have to give the story some thought. I intend to see the story through for each of the three lockdowns. I hope it continues to be useful.


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