Day Fifty Six: Sunday 10th May 2020

Daily Diary: Cracks Start Appearing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things move on.

The Bigger Picture: Your Country Needs Lerts.

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

A meme before the concept was coined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It stinks.

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

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

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

From America there are four disconnected news stories today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No cases have been traced to that election.

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

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

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

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

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

They succeed where more liberal advanced countries struggle.

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

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

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


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

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