Day Thirty Eight: Wednesday 22nd April 2020

Daily Diary: The Postman Rings Twice

Another blue sky day, not as windy as yesterday but I’ve seen very little of it. It’s been a strange, disrupted day where nothing goes quite to plan and everything runs late.

The postman arrives and rings twice. He has two packages, along with a Private Eye magazine and a letter from BUPA. We do the usual gesturing through the glass pane of the front door and I retreat to put on a pair of gloves before I get to the front door. They’re in the conservatory at the back. Just as I reach them the doorbell rings again. I rush back, donning my yellow Marigolds as I go along.

“Your post! It’s down here!” the postman calls out.

“I know! I was getting my gloves,” I reply.

“Your what?”

“My gloves!” I wave my Marigolds. Jazz hands shouldn’t look like this.

“Ah! I was worried they’d get nicked,” he said.

“That’s okay. Thanks again.”

And he went on his way. It’s now totally permissible to be eccentrically OCD. OCD is good. OCD is wise. OCD prevents you from winning a Darwin Award.

I take the post, including the third item – a green package the postie had put on the ground next to the front door – and put it on the table in the conservatory, spraying it with a mist of bleach and leave to dry, connecting double door to the rest of the house, conservatory windows open, so the whole place doesn’t whiff of an Olympic swimming pool.

 It’s obvious what’s in the green package. It’s my resupply of socks from M&S. For some reason I seem to be wearing my way through socks like they’re about to go out of fashion. Vicky says it’s because I don’t wear slippers. I’m old enough now to wear slippers and a cardigan without ridicule, but I don’t, so I guess the socks take a hammering.

Item four, on the other hand, is a box. And a mystery. I’ve ordered quite a few things that could come in a box this size. It could be the rooting powder, or a supply of seeds, or the LED lightbulbs for the conservatory lights. It turns out to be none of the above. Among the expanded polystyrene sausage shapes that look like anaemic Wotsits (they’re probably not cheesy either) there are three tubes of Beroccas.

I believe in the efficacy of the Vitamin B group, since so many of the substances contained within it are coenzymes, and some are coenzymes that facilitate respiratory pathways in cells. It’s like keeping your mobile phone fully charged to know that your cytochrome chain is going to be fully functional. But don’t let me distract you with all of this – it’s probably my very own personal unresearched belief in the magic of Vitamin B, and it’s probably just as quirky and oddball as other people’s weird health beliefs. Each to their own myths and fables, I say. If the heir to the throne can believe in homeopathy, I can believe in the potency of Vitamin B. At least I can argue the scientific basis for my delusions!

Then there’s the email I have to send to the flying club about fears that some enthusiasts making the rest of us look like complete irresponsible twats during lockdown. It’s preaching to the largely converted about the crass inadvisability of taking out your giant paraglider wing and floating it over your head with varying degrees of success in wide open spaces, advertising your foolishness to the world at large. I hope it works.

Also under lockdown I haven’t caught up with many of the members about their personal best medals. So how to get them out to them without costing the club an arm and a leg? I finally decide to print the post-paid labels online. It’s important. They represent some real achievements. At the top end there’s a medal going out for a 200km flight from Wiltshire to the Wash and several hours’ duration. No motor – just understanding the air, working it well and having the endurance of an Olympic athlete. Something like that shouldn’t be sitting in a box in my room.

Finally, the plan to hold the next club meeting on Zoom, something about which I have more than a little trepidation. At this stage I am very much a novice and it all seems so big and daunting. I’ll have a committee meeting first and we can test it out among a small group used to being mutually supportive. Here’s hoping!

All of this, plus Keir Starmer’s first PMQs in a semi-virtual parliament have set me back and I’ve still got the day’s news reports to do. Not only that, but Vicky’s taken a shine to the conservatory for her writing, so today I have to get this done elsewhere.

I suppose it is fair to share. Bags it tomorrow!

Oh, there’s the shopping list as well.

Busy times!

The Bigger Picture: What An Unholy, Haphazard, Disorganised Mess!

As the tyres on the undercarriage of the first of three heavy military transports with a desperately awaited cargo of medical gowns – shortly to be found to be useless – hit the asphalt with an ear-piercing screech Boris Johnson prepares to return to work with phone calls to President Trump and the Queen. We don’t know who he rang first.

The saga of the Turkish gowns has been running for a few days now, fed oxygen by the hype from government minister Robert Jenrick. It’s reported that they will constitute enough to be a three day supply for the NHS. But it’s dramatic, with side stories about customs issues and Anglo-Turkish diplomacy, and it’s a distraction from the haphazard and disorganised mess the Government finds itself in, as Dominic Raab, deputising for Boris Johnson is facing questions over the slow response to the Covid-19 outbreak that’s got the UK to this sorry point.

Ex-prime minister Tony Blair says he sympathises with Boris Johnson but adds there can’t be a void in decision making and suggests that the whole of the Government needs to be reordered in order to tackle the crisis, and said that mass testing is of vital importance.

Testing has to be reliable too.

In much the same way you’d need a parachute to be.

Some NHS workers have received letters asking them to be retested for Covid-19 following concerns that previous tests were faulty. Health minister Helen Whately told Sky News that early tests were evaluated and found to be “not effective enough.” Following that euphemism Ms Whately reveals that a total of 61 NHS staff are known to have died after becoming infected with the virus. In other words some of the staff could have returned to work while infected.

Helen Whately defended the Government’s efforts to acquire PPE for health and care workers. She said the Government had been contacted by more than 8,000 potential suppliers and that ministers are concentrating on those with established supply chains. It sounds as though the Government is spoilt for choice, but a year later it will emerge Government used an exclusive WhatsApp group, creating a VIP ‘fast track’ for Tory donors and cronies of those in power.

The defence became that it was a moment of crisis and following ‘needs-must’ the Government was doing “whatever it takes.”

The problem is that it doesn’t add up. Ministers were forced to defend the disclosure that millions of pieces of equipment, including respirators and masks had been shipped from British warehouses to Spain, Italy and Germany. It looks like half a million boxes of visors ready for the NHS could be exported.

It’s an Unholy, Haphazard, Disorganised Mess. The sort of muddle and mayhem that comic operettas and music hall acts mocked the government of the day in the nineteenth century, but the daily death toll makes it all unfunny. The Government misses out on 16 million face masks for the NHS in four weeks. Local government minister Simon Clarke said that the current “guidance does not support wearing face masks in public” and that supplies to NHS workers were the current priority. NHS chiefs have expressed concerns that supplies to frontline staff could be jeopardised if people are advised to wear masks.

The muddle and mayhem is even used as an excuse as health minister Helen Whately also reiterates the Government’s line that its failure to join a Brussels-led PPE procurement scheme was not politically motivated, as had been claimed by Simon Stevens the top civil servant at the Foreign Office.

“It’s very frustrating,” she says. “It appears that there was a communications error, an email that went astray and that meant we didn’t participate in a scheme that’s running.”

Brussels immediately contradicts the Government line insisting that Britain had “ample opportunity” to take part in EU joint procurement exercises for protective gear and medical equipment to tackle coronavirus.

Meanwhile social care groups are struggling to secure enough PPE on the open market. Plans to allow them to access the NHS supply chain had left them in a dire situation, with all PPE due to run out within days.

And predatory Brexiteer-run hedge funds are betting against firms that make vital PPE for doctors and nurses, despite pleas for them to stop.

Writer Philip Pullman says that ministers should face charges if PPE supplies were delayed ‘for political reasons.’

Unlike the sinister Magisterium in ‘His Dark Materials’ this Government lacks any depth of order.

But like the Magisterium they are untouchable.

America discovers it has been hosting the virus for over three weeks longer than had first been thought. Santa Clara County, California, officials said two people had died at home on February 6th and 17th. Previously, the first reported American death from the virus was on February 29th in Kirkland, Washington. That the virus could have been stealthily spreading through the population is unsettling.

The idea that it was imported from elsewhere to a country where many enjoy its isolationism breeds xenophobia and Americans take an even more negative view of China, especially if they are older and vote Republican. This is reflected in the US state of Missouri suing the Chinese government over its handling of Covid-19 as Beijing calls for solidarity and less “finger pointing” during the pandemic.

President Trump taps into that isolationism and says he’ll sign an executive order to temporarily halt immigration to the US as the covid outbreak continues to spread.

Referring to the coronavirus, or “the Invisible Enemy”, as well as “the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens”, Trump tweeted that he will “be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”

He whips up outrage, especially from Democrats and immigration lawyers, slamming him for ‘xenophobic scapegoating,’ but it’s the politics of division he feeds off and thrives on.

But Trump is right in one respect. Covid-19 is “the Invisible Enemy,” made even more so by the  shortage of tests. Contact tracing of any kind is impossible to carry out on a large enough scale. A comprehensive contact-tracing programme would mean performing 2.5 million tests a day, according to one estimate, but national daily testing capacity has plateaued at about 145,000. The bottom line is that any testing strategy has to be part of a much broader and coordinated public health effort, and public health in the US has its fractures. State governors have said a shortage of tests was among the a barrier to lifting restrictions, in some cases rejecting the Trump administration’s claim that the supply was adequate.

Meanwhile governors are finding covid costly. States are already draining their unemployment funds, meaning they might need a future federal bailout. Georgia is taking aggressive steps to reopen the economy and some businesses could be open as early as Friday.

In six months’ time Georgia will have the sixth highest number of Covid-19 cases and the tenth highest death rate in the United States.

You can’t get rid of covid with magical thinking.

That’s supernatural.

A virus is natural.

Unlike Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia, the Bank of England chief Andrew Bailey understands that there is no ‘either the economy or the virus’ and he warns against early easing of lockdown. Pandemic economics is hard to understand. We know that the pandemic has hit countries hard, we know that huge debts are being created by governments to steer the citizens through the storm. But the indexes, alarming as they are, are not as disastrous as many feared. The ONS report that rate of the Consumer Price Index inflation decreased by 0.2 per cent to 1.5 per cent in March.

Hedge funds have performed well amid the world’s economic uncertainty.

Cynics say that’s because they have the option to bet against losers.

Some lose because of corporate weakness, especially among airlines, as they find themselves with too little to secure funds before they succumb to the coronavirus. The collapse of Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd after the briefest of fights, for example.

And while we’re with Virgin, some lose because no one easily forgets acts of meanness. Richard Branson sued the NHS when Virgin Healthcare lost out on an £82 million contract. When Nigel Lawson once said the NHS was the closest thing the English had to a religion, he might have said it with disdain and despair, but never a truer word has been said. You might as pickpocket the Pope in St Peter’s, or spray-can a caricature of the Prophet on a wall in Riyadh as disrespect the NHS in Blighty. We might not subscribe to the “not the done thing” mentality  any more – except when it comes to our National Health Service, that is.

I personally felt that it was mean-spirited at the time, and now, seeking a government bailout for his ailing airline, Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard is having his comeuppance.

Some lose temporarily. Online fashion retailer Boohoo suffered a marked fall in March sales as the coronavirus crisis deepened. But, being an online retailer, it recovered as customers got over the shock of markedly changed circumstances. In two months’ time Boohoo’s share price would reach an all-time high.

Sadly, for many high street retail stores losing becomes permanent as the shift to online speeds up.

In fact, there seems to be no end of losers as stocks plunge and oil prices continue to drop.

And those insuring such ventures lose too. Hiscox faces up to £142 million payments over covid claims.

In the pain of loss many businesses recoil, like rock pool sea anemones touched. A reflex action of withdrawal as finance leaders with scary balance sheets for costs to cut, are considering reducing the need for office space by permanently shifting to a position of employees to working remotely.

There will, in time, be some return to the office, but much will never be quite the same again for the world of work as well as the property market.

But it’s when ordinary people become losers that the pandemic is particularly cruel in ways that stretch far beyond its immediate effect. Time and again it reveals human unfairnesses. Big airlines and travel firms are denying refunds, despite the fact that it is illegal to do so. Working on a business model that one punter’s booking was actually funding someone else’s holiday, that the travel industry was eternally in debt to the future, when bookings dried up there was no one to pay up when holidays could not be provided.

In other walks of life you could go to prison for paying returns that were actually the ‘believed investments’ of others. But here it was, going on in plain sight, and at the very least the public were providing interest-free loans.

Then there are those who fall between the cracks of Covid-19 rescue plans. “I’m terrified of what the future holds. I have no income.” This is the story of the three million workers who can’t access Government support. “My dreams are shattered. All the Government needs to do is change the scheme to allow me and all the others affected to access it.”

For the most part they don’t.

Deaths in England have hit a 20 year high. The UK ONS reported 18,500 deaths in the week up to 10th April, about 8,000 more than usual for this time of year. New analysis also reveals that as many as 41,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK, not 17,337, as the Government reports. From now on the official figure will be those who died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, and that 24,000 death discrepancy, including home deaths early in the pandemic, will always be there.

Structural under-reporting, if you like. We are, after all, according to Dr Pangloss, in the best of all possible worlds. So certain politicians would have us believe.

In France, scientists warn that the current level of infection won’t be enough to prevent a second wave. It’s true for Britain and most other countries too.

Where people are in close confinement the virus spreads particularly aggressively. Thirty three more members of an Italian registered cruise ship, the Costa Atlantica, docked in southern Japan have tested positive, a day after the first case on the ship was reported. There were no passengers on board and a crew of over 600. While prisons worldwide risk becoming incubators of Covid-19. Governments have few ideas about how to stop it. Even freeing inmates carries big risks.

Where a country does reach the recovery stage, there’s a sinister long reach as China finds many of its early patients are unable to shed Covid-19.

Back in Britain we’re nowhere near that, although lingering after effects are already being noticed.

Where Britain is at is like the height of the Blitz.

There are gestures of national spirit. Stephen Hawking’s ventilator has been donated to the NHS to help treat Covid-19 patients at a hospital in Cambridge.

“It’s like building Spitfires,” an enthusiastic journalist describes the work of Formula 1 engineers scratch-building ventilators and helping to battle Covid-19. VentilatorChallengeUK is a consortium of fifteen engineering and medical companies collaborating to scale up the production of two existing ventilators, the Penlon ESO 2 Emergency Ventilator device and the Smiths paraPAC Plus™.

It’s a much publicised venture and produces over thirteen thousand ventilators for the NHS, before the project is folded up and the engineers return to their core business seven weeks from now.

It was an achievement in collaboration, logistics and production. By September Britain will have a stockpile of 30,000 ventilators. 2,150 were used by the NHS.

More than the laudable work by highly skilled professionals, it has to be said that it also was an achievement of public relations. When VentilatorChallengeUK did end Michael Gove exaggerated the number of ventilators made. By a thousand.

The reality is that simultaneous with wartime assembly triumphs new analysis is coming out in medical journals revealing the need for less reliance on ventilators to treat Covid-19 patients. Invasive ventilation involving intubation carries its own risks and there is a growing recognition that some Covid-19 patients, even those with severe disease as shown by the extent of lung infection, can be safely treated with simple nose prongs or face masks. What really matters is access to oxygen.

Treatment drugs still remain a problem. Much of it involves repurposing existing medicines. Not always with success. In a small, randomised control study, researchers in China find that the HIV drug Kaletra and influenza drug Arbidol have no effect on patients with mild to moderately severe Covid-19 infections.

The ongoing debate about hydroxychloroquine continues.

In a retrospective study which has not been peer-reviewed, doctors examined patient outcomes for US military veterans with Covid-19 who were given hydroxychloroquine and compared them to patients who did not receive that treatment; the researchers concluded that there was no overall benefit – and there were more deaths when treated with hydroxychloroquine alone.

It’s his rejection of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 that results in Rick Bright, Director of BARDA, the US agency for vaccine development leaving his role suddenly. It’s read as disloyalty to the president. Trump has repeatedly promoted hydroxychloroquine as a therapeutic treatment for coronavirus, touting its possible effects at White House briefings as recently as April 13th.

Asked to weigh in on Bright’s departure at today’s press briefing, the president went into denial worthy of Saint Peter when Jesus was in a rough spot.

“I’ve never heard of him. When did this happen?” Trump asked, then added, “I never heard of him. Guy says he was pushed out of a job, maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t.”

Worse than that, Trump’s enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine lands a number of his followers in a very bad place. It’s an ingredient of a number of domestic products and the US CDC finds there has been a rise in accidental poisonings with cleaners and disinfectants linked to the pandemic.

The only real ray of light – and it’s a faint glimmer at the moment is that day by day we are beginning to hear news about vaccine development. The leader of a team of British scientists seeking to develop a Covid-19 vaccine has said he is “very confident” one will be found. Professor Robin Shattock from Imperial College’s Department of Infectious Diseases, said Covid-19 is a less difficult target than diseases like HIV and influenza. Furthermore, Covid-19 vaccine testing is to start this week in the UK.

It’s exciting. A real achievement, and even though we should be cautious in our optimism there are early signs there might be a way out of the mess we find ourselves in.

News of our new reality:

Is cruel to care home residents: At least 70 residents of a nursing home in New Jersey have died from Covid-19, among more than 7,000 deaths at nursing homes across the country.

One of the most shocking aspects of France’s coronavirus crisis has been the number of deaths in retirement homes. Anelise Borges visited the Hector Mandel nursing home on the outskirts of Paris – a part of a collective of sites that houses 1,150 people. It took weeks for them to get protective masks and they are still short of protective gowns and oxygen concentrators – a device that removes nitrogen from the air and produces oxygen-enriched gas for patients to inhale.

Is dismissive of the departed: Not even the funeral business is finding the pandemic profitable. Funerals are now almost entirely no-frills.

Is doubly harsh on the vulnerable: “It made me realise he needs help.” Living with addicted loved ones in lockdown. Supporting a loved one with an addiction is difficult at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.

Is skewing our world view: More than 50 per cent of US political ads on TV are about the coronavirus, the first time that a majority of ads were focused on the outbreak, according to Advertising Analytics.

Is encouraging our reading habits: The worldwide lockdowns mean e-book sales have increased. But many book lovers say reading a tablet doesn’t compare to feeling the turning of the pages of an actual book. And now readers in Rome can breathe a sigh of relief as bookstores across Italy are open for business once more.

Brings out the best in some celebrities: Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, George Stephanopoulos: covid-recovered celebrities donating plasma for a cure. The One World: Together at Home online concert raised over £100 million in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Creates new rituals of respect: Hospital staff lined the streets to pay their respects to ‘devoted’ orthopaedic surgeon who died after testing positive for Covid-19. Sadiq Elhewsh, 58, a father of four who had worked for St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospital NHS Trust in Merseyside for 17 years, died at Whiston Hospital, a spokesman for the health trust said.

But sadly, respect is not universal. The pandemic breeds a whole new clutch of crimes:

  • A 21 year old man who claimed to have Covid-19, spat at police while being arrested for a domestic assault after assaulting a woman in her home and damaging the property has been jailed.
  • Adverts promoting intravenous drips that claimed to boost immunity to Covid-19 have been banned by the UK Advertising Standards Authority.
  • A recruitment firm tricked a number of nurses, then sent them to the pandemic front lines.
  • The British National Cyber Security Centre announced on Monday that it had taken down more than 2,000 scams in a single month. The swindles included: 471 stores selling fraudulent coronavirus related items, 555 websites trying to launch malware on visitors, 200 phishing sites seeking personal information such as passwords or credit card details, and 832 “advance-fee frauds” where victims are duped into handing over a “set-up” payment in the belief they’ll get a large sum in return.
  • The American Food and Drug Administration has warned that some businesses are making false claims about their products, resulting in deeply flawed tests.

In more vulnerable parts of the world calamities are colliding. The United Nations warns that the world is on the brink of a ‘hunger pandemic.’

The UN children’s agency has called for an extra £73 million to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa region. UNICEF says conflicts and wars have led to the highest number of children in need of assistance in the world. The agency estimates nearly 25 million children are suffering, many of whom are refugees or are internally displaced.

Around the world:

  • Lockdown eased as Netherlands and France plan to reopen primary schools.
  • China has no new deaths from Covid-19 but registered 30 new cases, 23 brought from abroad.
  • Ecuador prepares to reactivate its economy after Covid-19 quarantine.
  • With most of the continent on lockdown it’s still business as usual in Belarus. President Lukashenko has advised drinking more vodka, while the country’s top flight football league is the only one still playing in Europe. Testing, however, remains limited and the approach being adopted in Minsk has created divisions.
  • The Pope, on the eve of a summit, urges a fractured EU to find unity over Covid-19.

It will be a different world after the pandemic. Already, some are making their predictions about how our lives will change. This is from Forbes:

  • Healthcare for all will become more universally accepted.
  • Supply chains will become more local than global.
  • Unemployment benefit won’t be seen as ‘just for the lazy.’
  • We will shop, work and play more online.
  • The bias towards home will increase dramatically.
  • The digital divide will become a chasm.
  • Loss of trust will take some time to recover.
  • Insurance will become more centre stage.

Finally, I’m encouraged to take part in the Million Claps appeal to support our NHS in my newsfeed. It simply tells me:

Texting ‘CLAP’ to 70507 will result in a £5 donation to NHS charities.

So I do.

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