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