Day Fifty: Monday 4th May 2020

Daily Diary: The Times They Are A-Changin’

After an unsettling experience at Ian’s party the Zoom test with Emily goes well and I’m more reassured. It’s interesting that there’s a kind of generational takeover. An email from John Morris, paragliding friend and club secretary summed it up when he wrote:

“We are also keeping our heads down and so far, so good. We have a very neighbourly road, so the community spirit helps. Our girls and their families make us behave ourselves too!”

I’m minded of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” when he sings:

“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land,

And don’t criticise what you don’t understand.

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.

Your old road is rapidly aging.

Please get out of the new if you can’t lend your hand,

For the times they are a-changin’.”

So much of the lyrics to Dylan’s legendary song hold. The last verse goes:

“The line it is drawn, the course it is cast.

The slow one now will later be fast,

As the present now will later be past,

The order is rapidly fadin’,

And the first one now will later be last,

For the times they are a-changin’”

It was the anthem that brought the boomers into the limelight. That made the boomers masters of the zeitgeist. With all the hopes, ideals, along with more than a little laid-back swagger and a better world ahead.

But we fucked up. Like every generation since the dawn of history, we boomers fucked up. We get full marks for not blowing ourselves up in a nuclear conflagration. We don’t get any marks for the self-indulgent and wanton destruction our generation put into play. Where single-use plastic has so permeated the ecosphere that we will be able to date this short era since 1970  by the presence of plastic residues in fossils and mortal remains.

So ended the reign of the boomers, who in their drug-nurtured idealism dreamed of a better world, but were too greedy, too indolent and too selfish to bring it about. They came in, it seems, with the bang of rebellion in the 1960s and went out on a hospital bed, customised for intensive care, with barely a whimper.

So it was interesting talking to John Morris this morning. In a similar state. Told by our children to keep out of harm’s way. Lovingly. Caringly. A generation that hasn’t really deserved it being loved by the generation it let down. Badly. The last vestiges of the mindset boomers created, in a naïve sense of fairness, mutated into the self-serving ideas and actions of the libertarians, who still hold that their individual freedom is worth the suffering of others.

John was an emergency medicine consultant before he retired – an expert in critical care management. But now, like Vicky and I, John and his wife Chrissie are retired and keeping their heads below the parapet – under instructions.

As John said, he still finds the whole situation surreal. Like a bad dream, that were you to pinch yourself, would go away.

But it’s not a bad dream. It’s real, and things don’t work that way.

Outside, the wind blows, the plants grow. Inside they do too and the first foliage leaves are appearing on the geranium seedlings, telling me there is life, there is hope.

The Bigger Picture: The Loss of Normality

Three and a half million. That’s the number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus worldwide. Almost quarter of a million have died from Covid-19. It is a global catastrophe, requiring global action and EU leaders have pledged to raise billions of euros towards the global fight against the virus.

From its origin in China it has spread like a wildfire, embers creating new epicentres, spreading along the corridors of human activity and interaction, and because of the random manner in which embers may travel, settle and start new blazes the perplexing situation has emerged where some places have the virus running rife, while others remain largely unscathed.

So Covid-19 has killed so many people in Iran that the country has resorted to mass burials, but in neighbouring Iraq, the body count is fewer than a hundred. The Dominican Republic has reported 7,600 cases. Across the border, sharing the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, Haiti has recorded only 85.

There are already hundreds of studies underway around the world looking into how demographics, pre-existing conditions and genetics might affect the wide variation in impact.

New Zealand records no new Covid-19 cases for the first time since March. In Kabul, Afghanistan, a third of 500 people randomly rested were found to have the virus.

Russia on Sunday reported more than 10,600 new cases of the novel coronavirus, its biggest single day jump since the pandemic began. The increase marked Russia’s fourth consecutive single day increase, and pushed the country to seventh in the world, with 134,687 recorded cases and a death toll 0f 1,280. Russia’s Ministry of Defence also confirmed that members of the Russian military, including cadets, pupils and civilian specialists accounted for at least three thousand cases.

But the country with a world-beating level of disinformation might have worse figures still. Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow said that as many as two per cent – 250,000 – of the capital’s population was likely to be infected, substantially more than the 135,000 cases officially reported nationwide.

Where the virus has struck, the cliché, “things will never be the same again” is proving to be true. The same kind of optimistic mentality that tells people that wars will be over by Christmas hopes for a break from the nightmare by September.  

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that that’s not so.

Come September everything will not actually start going back to normal.

We see all around us new social customs, distancing practices and mandates, and we are becoming aware that this will be common globally.

I remember seeing face masks being worn by many in the streets of Kathmandu only three years ago, thinking it odd and somehow un-western. Now Eurostar is telling its passengers they much wear face masks from today on its trains and at its stations.

No mask, no travel


Nevertheless, human ingenuity tries to work its way around restrictions. Partygoers dance the night away under lockdown, thanks to ‘car disco.’ Despite strict social distancing guidelines currently in place in Germany, people in the town of Schüttorf managed to party the night away on Friday as they attended a disco from the safety of their cars.

But day to day life suffers in ways that don’t first come to mind.

Amanda Pinto QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council told the Commons Justice Committee that a barrister-wide survey of the possible impact to their practices of the Covid-19 shutdown was “shocking.” She said, “The results are frankly, shocking – 56 per cent of all barristers cannot survive six months in practice. That takes us from the date of this survey to October of this year. 69 per cent of publicly funded barristers cannot survive six months. And almost 75 per cent of young barristers – those in practice for less than seven years – will not survive six months.

Our heroes of the moment are our healthcare workers. There is an outpouring of appreciation, from army generals recommending they receive bonuses, to fashion designers making scrubs more stylish. An anonymous donor in California has gifted a local hospital one million US dollars, designating that the funds go directly to staff, from floor cleaners to nurses. Another, John Heffer, seeing the difference a phone charger made to his father, stranded in hospital with a drained mobile. So he launched GoFundMe to buy chargers for hospitals across the US.

Most offerings of gratitude come in the form of unsolicited donations of food, to such an extent that it leads NHS staff to plea, “Give it to the local food bank.” The pandemic has sparked an outpouring of support for NHS workers.

They, however, ask for public empathy, not sympathy, in the job they have to do.

The toll on families is great. There are now countless stories of heartrending experiences. One family, 2,500 miles apart, faced excruciating decisions as their matriarch, Carmen Evelina Turo, fought the virus on a ventilator in a hospital on Long Island. They gathered online and in the ICU to prepare for the end, a common situation many families are facing themselves. One of the cruelties of the virus is the way it sweeps through homes. Across the country, reports are surfacing of long-term couples dying of Covid-19 in quick succession, redoubling the pain for those left behind.

There are stories too of quiet heroism of care workers, who forego their personal life for the well-being of their residents. It happens in a number of care homes. One such case tells that for 47 days and nights staff and residents of the Vilanova care home on the outskirts of the east-central city of Lyon waited out the storm together, while the illness killed more than 9,000 in other care homes in France.

It has consequences too. Eager as they are to get the country ‘back to work,’ the government finds it hard in the face of getting office workers back into the office. Recommendations like no hot-desking, shared pens and staggered start times, along with firms not having to enforce two metres social distancing as long as they can show they are keeping staff safe, are insufficient a lure.

The workplace is being rethought.

Although working from home might not be as environmentally friendly as first thought. Scientists warn that homeworking can actually push up emissions, especially if some people travel to work a few times a week.

But at the moment lockdown looks good for emissions, that are predicted to fall nearly 8 per cent – the largest decrease ever.

Other portents of a greener future may or may not be the result of the pandemic, but they become part of a momentary environmental new consciousness nevertheless. The brown bear appears in north east Spain for the “first time in 150 years,” while the white tailed eagle, UK’s largest bird of prey returns to English skies for the first time in 240 years.

But they are momentary reliefs from an era that will be remembered more for its darkness. More stories emerge of domestic violence under lockdown, this time from the Ukraine, where women and children are experiencing domestic violence during the quarantine.

And lockdown corrodes our history, our heritage, as smugglers in the Middle East and North Africa are taking advantage of the situation to pillage archaeological sites and sell their ‘finds’ on the online black market. With security focused on public safety, museums and archaeological sites are more vulnerable than ever.

It makes ‘Love Island’ being postponed until 2021 seem pretty trivial.

So pressures to lift the lockdown grow daily.  Government lockdown is coming under sustained criticism for a number of senior Conservative backbenchers worried about freedoms and the economy, including Steve Baker, Sir Graham Brady, Sir Charles Walker and Robert Courts, although the prospect of getting it wrong and allowing the virus to resurge is grim. Even PM Boris Johnson  is displaying caution, insisting that ending the lockdown early would be the “worst thing we could do.”

As long as lockdown endures UK unity also appears to be under threat as Scotland sends different messages. UK Government insiders are increasingly frustrated with Nicola Sturgeon’s messaging, which often upstages announcements from Westminster.

But PM Boris Johnson still wants to project his image of the great leader in a time of crisis.

“We are passing through the peak,” he declares, as he reminds the nation of the five tests that need to be met before the UK can follow its “road map” and move on to the next phase of the “virus battle-plan.”

Johnson’s taken to using such neo-Churchillian rhetoric, as if somehow this is all our finest hour. It takes some stretching of the imagination to believe it is. In fact there are still fears that deaths in care homes may be increasing and PPE levels are still not being met.

So what are those five tests?

  1. The NHS has the capacity to provide critical care right across the UK: Hospitals have not been overwhelmed by patients so far in the pandemic, and in some places have been aided by the opening of the new NHS Nightingales. There are 3,190 spare critical care beds in the health service, and that in most parts of the country the number of people in hospital with coronavirus is beginning to fall. This test, therefore, appears to have been met.
  2. A sustained and consistent fall in daily deaths from coronavirus: The high point of weekly average daily deaths was 851 on April 13th. Today, that figure is 555. There is a slow steady decline, and there are some suggestions that deaths in care homes may still be increasing. It seems that we’re moving towards meeting this test, but more data is needed.
  3. The rate of infection decreased to manageable levels across the board: The “R” value, or infection rate, is now thought to be somewhere between 0.5 and one, meaning that each person infected with the virus passes it on to fewer than one other person. It is likely this test has been met across the board, but the Government will be extremely anxious to ensure the rate of infection does not rise again.
  4. Operational challenges including testing and PPE are in hand, with supply able to meet future demand: Testing is struggling to pass the 100,000 a day target, but getting there. However, despite the distribution of more than a billion items of PPE, concerns over shortages remain, particularly among care home staff. Given the global spread of the disease, operational challenges in sourcing PPE may continue for some time. So far, this test does not appear to have been met.
  5. Confidence that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections: This means that to “avoid disaster” the fifth test was that nothing the Government does lifts the R value above one. For the coming two months this will seem to be a possibility, but in the longer term meeting this test becomes unachievable with the policies and their changes that the Government adopts.

There is a clamour for a return to normality. For work and for all our everyday lives. But it’s going to be hard to achieve. Ofsted chief, Amanda Spielman says children should return to school “as soon as possible,” but qualifies her statement, admitting it was up to health experts to determine exactly when it was safe to send kids back into classrooms.

Britain is not alone in her desire to lift lockdown.

Belgium is starting its first phase of ending lockdown. Businesses can resume economic activities, but teleworking is strongly encouraged. People who must go back to work will have to follow strict rules such as wearing face masks. Public transport is open but only recommended for people who don’t have an alternative and outside peak hours. Face masks are mandatory for people older than 12, as soon as they enter a station. More generally, face masks are recommended where it is difficult to keep 1.5 meters distance from others. Walks and physical activities … in the open air which do not involve physical contact are allowed, although social-distancing rules still apply to people who do not live under the same roof. After carrying out these activities, the return home is obligatory. It is still forbidden to settle in a park to sunbathe or have a picnic. Private and public activities of a cultural, social, festive, folklore, sporting and recreational nature are prohibited.

Belgians are now able to “see a second friend or family member, always the same, under certain conditions,” Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès tweeted on Sunday. “We will have to resume our social life very gradually, although of course I wish it were different,” she said. Places of worship remain open, provided that social-distancing measures are respected, but most religious ceremonies cannot take place — with some exceptions. Funerals can be held as long as no more than 15 people attend them and social distancing is respected, while weddings can only be attended by the spouses themselves, their witnesses and the minister.

Shops that sell certain fabrics will be able to open to customers — a week ahead of all other shops — aimed at making it easier for Belgians to adhere to the mandatory mask-wearing on public transport.

While Greece has been gradually lifting its restrictive measures after a 42 day lockdown. As of Monday, many Greeks no longer need an SMS or carry a self-written permit to justify being outdoors.

And in Italy, lockdown measures will have eased from today, with travel between regions to visit family and takeaway services at cafés and restaurants allowed. Schools, hairdressers and gyms will remain shut, however, and masks will be compulsory in public.

In America, Donald Trump has insisted it is safe for individual states to reopen their shops, parks and beaches, so long as the public “stay away a certain amount.” The president’s comments come amid growing protest at the extension of lockdown in Democrat-controlled state capitals. Nearly half the US will reopen in some form from the beginning of this week. About a dozen states tentatively returned to public life on Friday, the first mass reopening of businesses since the pandemic brought America to a standstill six weeks ago.

India’s lockdown has been extended until 17th May, but some relaxations apply from today. Most travel remains banned and schools, restaurants, bars, shopping malls, cinemas and places of worship are closed. The country has relaxed some lockdown restrictions even as the pace of infection has slightly accelerated. On Monday, some economic activities resumed after a near total five week halt. Normal life, albeit with masks, social distancing and stringent hygiene standards have started to return in low risk areas while constraints on movement and work have continued elsewhere in the country. India has about 42,500 cases, 11,706 recoveries and 1,373 deaths, and has tested more than a million samples on Monday. But at 78 tests per million, India is among those countries testing the lowest fraction of the population. And experts warn that the virus has yet to peak.

Japan, with around 15,000 infections and more than 500 deaths, is expected to extend its state of emergency this week, although some restrictions on economic activity could be relaxed and bars reopened.

If the British Government has muddled its way through the medical and social aspects of the pandemic, where it does have some success is with the financial package, with furlough, loans and grants. Today on Nextdoor I receive two messages. The first is from the chancellor, Rishi Sunak: 

Last month I announced Bounce Back Loans. Today they open for business. Borrow between £2,000 and £50,000. Easy 7 Question form to fill. Interest-free for the first year. Repay over 6 years, 2.5 per cent interest. No early penalty.

The second is a Government Public Service announcement:

If Covid-19 is affecting your business you may be eligible for a grant. Small businesses in your area are receiving grants of £10,000 or £25,000 to help deal with the impact of the coronavirus. These grants do not need to be paid back. If you think your business may be eligible, get back in touch with your local authority and supply your payment details.

The UK’s arrangements seem much simpler than across the pond in the US, as the New York Times reports:

Requirements for using federal coronavirus loans are so complicated and confusing, some small businesses fear using the money altogether. Many of the small businesses that did receive loans through the Paycheck Protection Program are sitting on the money, insecure about whether or how to spend it. “I don’t accidentally want to commit bank fraud,” said Jodie Burns, who owns Blazing Fresh Donuts in Guildford, Connecticut. Under the rules, for example, business owners have eight weeks from the day they receive the cash to spend it in order to have the loan forgiven. That is made increasingly difficult when many states are still under strict stay at home orders.

But the UK’s tendency towards financial pragmatism goes out of the window when it comes to the ‘B-word.’ Calls for an extension to the Brexit transition in the light of Covid-19 are completely ignored by the Government – what turns out to be an act of pure folly. Part of the problem is the obsession about a trade deal. Talks on a post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and US will kick off with a conference call between Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, and her US counterpart, Robert Lighthizer tomorrow. Both parties are insisting that the pandemic will not disrupt preparations for an accord.

But actually it does.

Trade negotiations become a Quixotic quest, for something that never quite comes about, even though the lost trade with the EU dwarves any gains from a transatlantic deal.

But the Government fears letting Brexit go. It is a creature spawned by identity politics, so much so it has infiltrated ministers perceptions and priorities.

Not least the PM himself.

It’s almost viral.

It’s not just the virus. It’s the far-reaching knock-on effects it’s having on other areas of healthcare:

  • Tens of thousands of heart and stroke patients risk their lives by avoiding hospital Covid-19. It’s an effect that’s having a dramatic impact on a number of people that are now presenting at A&E with life-threatening symptoms.
  • There’s the chilling reality for some such as myself of cancer patients being kept awake during operations to protect them from Covid-19. Hospitals have increased the use of ‘awake’ surgery, which avoids the need for general anaesthetic and intubation – to encourage patients to undergo life-saving treatment. Having experienced the weird effects of a spinal block and being totally befogged by Midazolam, I can see myself being so out of it as not to give a monkey’s, but the very thought leaves me uncomfortable!  

There’s also a Covid-19 related mystery. In 1961 Tomisaku Kawasaki reported a condition whose symptoms were a rash and a fever in a four year old child and later went on to publish a paper about similar cases. It became known as Kawasaki disease. It was rare and mysterious, infecting young children, boys more than girls, and of South East Asian origins in particular. The condition has been known to inflame different parts of the body, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs, and to cause such symptoms as vomiting, diarrhoea, neck pain and rash.

Now, a small number children who have had the Covid-19 virus are expressing Kawasaki disease-like symptoms, in a disorder called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). Fortunately MIS-C is rare, albeit deeply troubling. The fact that Kawasaki disease long predates Covid-19 has led physicians and scientists to refer to MIC-C as Kawasaki syndrome.

Despite the troubled road in developing test, track and trace in the UK the Government still tries to put a positive spin on the situation. The latest is to call upon twenty first century tech. Transport secretary, Grant Shapps has described smartphone apps for treating the spread of Covid-19 as “the best possible way to help the NHS” as part of a pilot programme begins in England. The NHSX app is being trialled on the Isle of Wight this week as part of the Government’s test, track and trace strategy and will be central to its efforts in slowing the spread of the virus.

While much is made in the press of British scientists unveil a 99.8 per cent accurate Covid-19 antibody test. The tests are useful in checking whether someone has had the disease (or several months from now, also been vaccinated) but cannot tell if they currently have the disease.

When it comes to treatment British scientists working for Synairgen, a university spin-off firm, founded in 2003 by three University of Southampton professors, have started testing an experimental Covid-19 drug, which they hope will significantly improve the health of coronavirus patients. The treatment, known as SNG-001, has been shown to stimulate an immune response in the lungs of patients with asthma and chronic lung disease during trials. The procedure uses the naturally occurring protein called interferon-beta which our bodies naturally produce when we get a viral infection.

Synairgen have allowed BBC Panorama to make a programme about their drugs trial. It’s hoped that the treatment will help Covid-19 patients and prevent the most severe cases from requiring intensive care and ventilators.

While the prize still remains the vaccine. The race to develop it is compressing years into months and is an endeavour that has been compared to the Space Race of the late nineteen fifties and early sixties. Researchers have found themselves having to navigate safety issues, commercial challenges and geopolitical tensions. Seven of the roughly 90 vaccine projects being pursued have reached the stage of clinical trials, moving ahead at unheard-of speeds, but uncertainty remains over effectiveness, how quickly a vaccine could be made available to billions of people worldwide, and whether the rush will sacrifice safety.

Finally a message appears in my Nextdoor inbox:

Welcome to the group! Need connection with other self-isolating men during these depressing times? We share our thoughts and feelings, fears and pressures, whatever buttons are pressed and whatever comes up is welcome. We relieve pressure by speaking it out, listening and being heard. It’s not a process party! Let’s support each other towards conscious isolation, sharing our tensions and taking the edge off these turbulent times.

It’s not particularly aimed at me, but it is a reminder that despite the phenomenal increase we all have these days in online connectivity, loneliness is still an issue on a large scale and it takes a pandemic to bring it to the surface.


Best for Britain, Euronews, Evening Standard, Financial Times, Forbes, Fox News,, Guardian, iNews, Mail, Mirror, New Statesman, New York Times, Nextdoor,, Sky News, Stanford Medical (Scope), Telegraph, Time, Wikipedia.

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