On the eve of the announcement of the most substantial relaxation of lock down so far

More on covid pandemic 2020

On the eve of the announcement of the most substantial relaxation of lock down so far

Later on today, Tuesday 23rd June, the Buffoon will be making an announcement (as usual most of it being leaked to the media so it will be preceded by a day of useless and meaningless speculation) of more places being able to open in England during the first week end of July – Scotland, wales and Northern Ireland will continue to do their own thing.’

As is normal in these circumstances wild ideas will be floated only to be debunked at the time of the official announcement. One such is that people will be expected to ‘sign in’ if they go to a pub or a restaurant. If that were to be introduced expect the Buffoon’s name and address appearing in countless locations throughout the country.

One of the other topics which will be discussed to death in the coming days, as more and more businesses start to re-open, as more school children start to go back to classes and as more people are generally on the streets, is the efficacy – or otherwise – of wearing some sort of face covering.

This is being promoted as an easy way to control the virus but even those who are most keep on getting us all masked up accept that to be effective then it has to be done correctly. That is, it’s not just a case of putting a scarf around your face and pretending to be a bank robber in the wild west.

Doing it properly means; not touching your face, taking them off carefully and considering how they should either be stored (if reusable) or disposed of (if the one off sort), how, and at what temperature, they should be cleaned (if reusable), the process of hand cleaning when removing the covering, and many other ‘recommendations’ that will no doubt be presented in the coming days.

But what those scientists and politicians who want to enforce this upon the general population have failed to do is look at how people, so far, have acted when wearing masks. And there are many occasions where they could have learnt a lot – those demonstrations that have taken place internationally in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement.

In those demonstrations people haven’t followed any of the recommendations above. They come on and off as the discomfort level increases, they are constantly touched as people move them to be more comfortable or to speak to others, they are hanging around people’s necks. All guaranteed to spread the virus and not reduce contamination.

And in the photo/video of the teachers and schoolchildren in Wokingham, following the stabbings in Reading over the weekend, who were holding a two minutes silence at the school entrance on Monday 22nd June very few were wearing masks – and don’t talk about ‘social distancing’.

Two metres or one – or something in between

Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health, Edinburgh University, Radio 4, World at One, 11th June;

Q. When will it be safe to reduce interactions to one metre?

‘From a public health perspective to provide as much protection as we can we should stay at 2 metres. However, that is not the only consideration.

There’s a lot of discussion about this as if it were scientifically exact … but that’ not the case. It’s also due to the things like, what’s the indoor environment like, how long are you in contact within that distance, etc.

The other consideration which is equally important is how do you get sectors of the economy up and running again because job losses and economic impacts also have health consequences … therefore it would be open to reduction in certain circumstances.’

Q. Is there a level of infection which you think it would be right for the government to reduce the distance?

‘Everybody is looking for precise numbers but the Government’s right, infection rates are still high in England. We still have 39,000 cases per week so that’s a higher level than other countries where they relaxed the lock down. It’s better to remain cautious but as we look forward in the coming weeks certain premises, if they have got all the other public health measures in place, for example staff wearing masks, good ventilation, good hygiene standards, there may be room to reduce that slightly, particularly down to one and a half metres. There’s a number of studies that show distance provides a good level of protection.’

Q. Only one and a half?

‘That’s what I’ve seen from the studies. There’s more support for one and a half than one definitely. But let’s bear in mind countries here take a different approach on this so it has to be a package of measures.

If we are going to reduce it to one metre let’s make sure we have clear guidance for businesses on the other public health measures that are going to be in place. For certain environments we need to be giving much clearer emphasis on mask or face covering wearing. Obviously more and more evidence from different countries is going to make a real difference as we go forward.’

Q. Can you say what the difference is between one and two metres?

‘Essentially, if you have 100 people in a room, if you have less than a metre the rate of infection would be 13 people under certain conditions. If you have more than a metre, especially one and half metres, this reduces significantly down to three people. If you have two metres or more it reduces down to one person. So there’s a 50% reduction in risk potentially between one and two metres.’

Q. After the two metre message has been stressed for so long is it now difficult to change it to one metre?

‘We’re in a very confusing period for the public. It will be difficult to change and people will also lack trust in the advice of it suddenly shifts. People who are very cautious will be deeply uncomfortable being in indoor environments where that distance is reduced. But the consequences of a very deep recession are just as important. At the end of the day it’s going to be a political decision.’

Q. Are you happy in the way the decisions have been taken by the Government so far?

‘No. [Laughs. Yet another scientist laughs at Government activity.] The communication has been poor and the guidance has been confusing.

Many thing went wrong from testing to PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], to lack of capacity for contact tracing. We are beginning to move in the right direction which is good news.’

Robert Wallace, Professor of Sociology, Nottingham Trent University, Radio 4, Today programme, 11th June;

‘I think it’s a question of relative risk …. You’re moving from a tiny risk at two metres to a very small risk at one metre. And you have to set that against all the other harms that are being done by the economic devastation that is reeked by the two metre rule, and the deaths that will be attributable to the lock down and to the social and economic disruption which this is causing.’

Children going back to school – or not

As always, matters are less complicated for the more wealthy. Most, if not all, private schools have already said they intend to open in September.

James Wilding, Academic Principal, Claires Court Independent School, Maidenhead, Radio 4, World at One, 16th June;

Q. Will you open fully in September?

‘There’s no reason why we shouldn’t do. … We’ve been able to demonstrate throughout … that we are able to continue successfully … [with children] suitably being taught and separated appropriately from the adults teaching them.’

Q. Do you have the luxury of having a lot of space?

‘We’re on three sites, we have got room but we don’t have acres of land. The particular point is .. a class size of fifteen. My school has its entire enterprise based around class sizes of that number. So we have, essentially, always ran our school of class size of the recommended level the Government is saying.

I sympathise hugely with my State sector colleagues that they have class sizes with 30 children. But we don’t. So we are able to manage the suitable separation in the rooms we would normally use.’

Q. What should head teachers do for September?

‘September is sufficiently far away that we can make our plans in a continuous way for timetables, for appropriate arrival back at school. Also we can have our boys and girls at school where they need to be.

It’s not just children of ‘hard to reach’ families that need to be at school, all children need to be at school. It’s their childhood that they have at school, not just their learning.’

Devi Shridhar, Chair Global Public Health, Edinburgh University and advisor to the Scottish Government, Radio 4, World at One, 16th June;

‘The risks to children on a population level are quite small. Most children have no or very mild symptoms and so the concern has to be around parents, who they [the children] go home to [such as] grandparents as well as teachers.

In Scotland cases have come down considerably to the point that the past week it’s been most days 20 to 30 confirmed daily new cases which is a good position to be in going into another month before schools open.’

Q. If numbers are low enough what should happen on 11th August [when Scottish schools are due to re-open for the 2020-2021 academic year]?

‘Ideally, and this is the hope that we can eliminate the virus, so we have no new cases or one or two, and if this was the case then actually Scotland would be in a position to just open schools normally.

I’m thinking of [the example] of the Faroe Islands, Iceland, New Zealand, but I think it’s more likely to be in a position to that of Denmark and Norway where you have to have some sort of precautions in place, you have a low number of community cases and you need to keep in place certain measures but you can slowly release them as you see, and become more and more confident, that you have transmission under control.

And it’s not going to be a case of going back exactly as it was last time. There needs to be thinking around hand washing facilities, assemblies, for example, are not going to be possible, how you get parents and teachers and children to and from school and the role of face coverings if they’re going to be on public transport.’

Q. You haven’t mentioned social distancing and that’s what limits how schools will be able to open [in England]. Are you suggesting that social distancing should just go?

‘It’s not just as easy as that. It depends upon communities. If there was a local area in Scotland that had no cases I would say that social distancing is currently not necessary. Especially among kids. We have seen that social distancing has been a cost free exercise. There’s more concern around teachers, their distancing.

What we have noticed is that it is teacher to teacher transmission that is likely to set off chains of infections. We see much more limited evidence of children to adult transmission.’

Q. Whatever the rates of infection is it a failure not to get children back to school in August or September?

‘We definitely have to find a way to get children back. Kids will have been out … for six months. It’s a heavy price to pay. So the imperative is children. It comes above shops, pubs and gatherings, which are all so important to the economy. Kids don’t have a voice, don’t have a strong lobby, they don’t vote so sometimes we forget about their interests and that they do need to get back into school and we need to figure out a way to prioritise those settings and make things safe enough that there is confidence among parents and teachers to engage and participate fully.’

Anna Ekström, Swedish Education Minister, on the Swedish experience where schools have remained open during all of the pandemic, Radio 4, World at One, 16th June;

‘We have concluded that children have not been a driving force in the pandemic and, moreover, the staff within the school and pre-school system which have remained open, they have been found to not to have been diagnosed with covid-19 to a greater extent than those in other professions. Also we have big public support for keeping schools and pre-schools open and also, of course, the support of the teachers’ unions.’

Q. One of the fears here is that the staff might be at risk but you are saying that staff are no more at risk if schools return?

‘That is what our public agency has found. …The fact that we had schools open so far hasn’t led to a higher degree of infection among the staff.’

Q. Have the teaching unions always been on side?

‘Both of them have been on side always but I would like to add that they have, of course, being unions, they are critical when it comes to conditions and the terms of employment and they have been critical on lots of things but the fact that we kept schools open has not been part of the criticism.’

Q. What is the social distancing within schools?

‘That’s a difficult part. Our school building are clearly not built for a pandemic. We have used the WHO [World Health Organisation] recommendation. That is, keeping a distance between children in the classrooms, making sure that the canteens are not too crowded, making sure that lots of teaching is conducted outdoors.’

Q. Have you kept the one metre distance in schools?

‘Honestly I can say that schools aren’t built for this. The children are not always the best at keeping their distance and this is an area we had lots of discussions, all the time.

The handling of the schools in this pandemic has never been reaching an easy decision. It has been about weighing one kind of risk against another kind of risk. I am constantly aware of the risk if infection but I’m also constantly aware of the risk of keeping schools closed because that is a concrete link for all children.’

1,500 paediatricians have signed a letter to the Buffoon asking that the opening of schools be made a priority. Dr. Max Davie, Consultant Community Paediatrician, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Colleges’ Officer for Health Promotion, Radio 4, World at One, 18th June;

‘We are very concerned about the continued absence of children from school, particularly disadvantaged children. One of the big focuses of our work … has been on inequalities and we can only see a prolonged absence from school widening inequalities, both academic but also health inequalities across physical and mental health, with any disadvantaged child suffering disproportionately.’

Q. Are the risks now greater of not going to school that going to school?

‘For some children that’s true. I work sometimes in child protection … and we have a lot of children that being at home with parents who aren’t coping or who have issues of their own, is becoming more and more stressful and difficult and dangerous and we’re having some very difficult cases coming through where things have broken down. Schools really are a bulwark for a lot of very vulnerable families. They provide so much holding things together as well as, of course, the conduits for things such as vaccinations and a lot of mental health work that goes into children. … All this then happens through schools and losing that really just takes away a cornerstone of the whole system at a local level.’

Q. But schools are still open for vulnerable children as well as those of key workers?

‘They are but it all depends on how you define vulnerable children. So, if a child has vulnerability such as a diagnosis of ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] … they are not necessarily being offered a place because the definition of vulnerable is often quite a bit more narrow than perhaps would be ideal. Children are getting an input but they need to get the full input that the school does a fantastic job of providing.’

Q. Can you give an example of the kind of things you are seeing?

‘It’s difficult to talk about individual cases but I would say three things.

One is families with children with really significant special needs who are not perhaps at the threshold where they would be getting a school place. When you are struggling with their behaviour with three months in, confined to a small flat, often in an urban area … it must be becoming very difficult and tempers are getting frayed … and children are less safe.

The second area is where you have families with very significant mental health issues in the parents. They are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with children and therefore things happen in such situations that can be harmful to the children and then we have to step in. It’s much better if we can support children before that happens.

If you’re not seeing them, they are not in contact with professionals, then we don’t know what’s happening in the home and that’s very worrying.’

Q. Are you calling on the Government to open schools now?

‘What we’re really calling for is a plan. When I speak to teachers what they want is a plan. They don’t know what’s happening next week or next month. They just don’t know what’s going to happen. What we want is a coherent and sensible plan to get children back into school as soon as possible.’

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England;

[Tthere is a] ‘dangerous threat’ [to children’s rights as reduced access to education was being allowed to become] ‘the default’. ‘You have to come up with the level of intervention, such as the Nightingale hospitals, such as the job retention scheme. … There’s no reason why we can’t do that for children.’

The contact tracing app saga continues

James Bethell, an hereditary peer and a junior minster in the House of Lords (currently involved with the introduction, or perhaps not, of the NHS tracing app) said, on 17th June, that the much lauded application was not a priority for the Government at the moment [for that read its not working and they don’t know how to get it up and running] claiming that the pilot on the Isle of Wight had shown that people preferred to be contacted by a human being. He further said the app was unlikely to be ready ‘before the winter’.

Michael Veale, lecturer in Digital Rights and Regulation at University College London and part of the team that developed the app now being used in Germany and Switzerland, among other countries, Radio 4, World at One, 18th June;

Q. Have other countries found that people prefer human contact rather than technology?

‘Other countries have seen manual contact tracing and app contact tracing as going hand in hand. The concern that many countries, and this is also the same with the UK Government, have with calling people on the basis of an app result is that you encourage phishing, with calls from people pretending to be from ‘test and trace’ and trying to get people to pay for a test, or something like that, and it’s very difficult to verify. It’s always going to be a concern in these situations.’

Q. When you look at the UK results this morning where there is a 25% gap is an app needed to fill that gap?

‘The app is really useful in that area but we don’t have the data to say who that 25% of people are. The app is particularly useful when you are near somebody on a bus or train, for example, who you might not know the name of and so they may not be caught by a manual tracing process.

But if the 25% of people who don’t respond to manual contact tracing are the same 25% who don’t install an app then that might not be such a useful development.’

Q. The Government is talking about some concerns with their own app. Is it just being put on hold?

‘It sounds like it. Many countries have developed their own app, simultaneously or even before the UK. …

It’s now been the case that Germany launched theirs on Monday and 6.5 million people in Germany downloaded it in 24 hours. Italy has had theirs launched for a couple of weeks. Denmark launched theirs today. So we’ve really seen a great amount of development and take up but the UK has chosen an app which isn’t compatible with these countries’ apps. And that raises questions for holiday makers in particular.’

Q. If you went into another country couldn’t you download their app?

‘The challenge is where would you get tested? You need the app to work when you’re at home so that when you encounter tourists you can register them when you go on holiday. But when you get tested when you get home you need your tests result to propagate alerts to those people in whatever country you have visited. So it’s important the same app that works fluidly across borders.

The European Commission has been developing inter-operability guidelines which make all these apps work together very neatly. The UK’s version is simply not compatible with this.’

Q. So what should the UK be doing now?

‘The UK has never had a unified app. NHSX has always been NHS England. Northern Ireland has stated they would wish to focus more on the Republic and not use the English app. I think the UK should simply take some of the open source code from the many countries who have deployed these apps already and consider rolling it out in the UK.

That would be the sensible approach to make it work across borders with a system we see is working elsewhere.’

Q. So the NHS could do that, as could other nations?

‘Yes, … it’s totally within their ability to do that and we’ve heard they’ve been scoping and developing this idea of a decentralised app on the back burner.

You may find that countries start to impose quarantine on people who come in without an app in a different way from the people who come in with an app and that might really effect holiday makers who wish to go abroad and also in the economy more widely.’

Q. Is that being talked about in Germany?

‘Yes, Germany … specifically called out the role of this app on holiday. They haven’t announced any policy on it yet but I know these discussions are occurring at European level … those countries who are looking to make their apps inter-operable with each other.

This is not just Europe. Japan also has a decentralised application so it’s really going this far with inter-operability.’

And then the British position altered on that same day with yet another Government ‘U-turn’. These are now coming thick and fast. This followed confusion, to say the least, amongst Cabinet Ministers – they can’t even get their stories right let alone manage the country through a pandemic.

Before the ‘U-turn’ there were doubts being cast that the NHSX, go-it-alone app was doomed from the start.

As the figures are now showing that the Government is far from delivering a ‘world-beating’ contact and trace programme the numbers aren’t being made public in the way we have become used to. The reason from this can be shown by the effectiveness of the contact tracing in its first days – which may (or may not) be improving.

Free school meals during summer holiday

The fact that this became an issue last week says a lot about British society and the Government the people had chosen to ‘lead’ them. The Government for not realising that after throwing billions into ‘doing whatever it takes’ to defeat the virus they were willing to take a stand on a move that would cost very little in the overall scheme of things. Once the Buffoon and his minions had taken a stand there were even people in his own Party talking out against it.

The fact that it was a over-paid footballer who took the lead in a campaign to reverse the decision suggests that British people have lost the plot when it comes to defending their own interests. Where were the organisations of organised labour (i.e., the Trade Unions) in all this? They were noticeable by their absence. If they said nothing as they were disgusted that a rich society such as is Britain needs to have so many of its children needing to get assistance merely to eat well that would be one thing – but I fear they are also caught up in the capitalist trap that ‘the poor will always be with us’.

For that is the great obscenity about free school meals – as has been stated here when the issue has come up since the UK lock down began in March. The fact that children need these free meals (or vouchers when out of school) shouldn’t be treated as an example of a fair society it merely demonstrates the opposite. It should be considered as a matter of disgrace that such a situation has been allowed to develop – as it is with the Food Banks.

Figures published before the pandemic indicate that there are (roughly) 1,661,000 children claiming free school meals in the four constituent parts of the the United Kingdom. That was an average of about 15% of the school population nationwide – but, obviously, some areas would be higher. At the beginning of 2020 that was the highest rate it had been since 2014, indicating that the effects of short-term and zero-hour contracts (which have been on the rise in recent years) are some of the factors pushing these numbers higher. With the loss of jobs (which are mainly those with lower pay) and the chaos caused in the last three months that figure is certainly considerably higher now.

One of the side effects of the pandemic is that statistics (which used to send most people to sleep or were dismissed as ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’) have become sexy now, are more in the public domain with statisticians more prepared to place their findings in front of a populace who might be interested in knowing what the numbers say about British society. And as the debate about free schools meals was filling the headlines for a couple of days figures were published which clearly showed that the north-south divide is still living and well in Britain – with all the areas with the highest take up of free school meals being in the north.

This ‘debate’ takes place a few months after the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission (in a survey published towards the end of January) found that there were 600,000 more children living in poverty in Britain at the beginning of 2020 than there were in 2012. If it was bad in January it will only be worse in June.

When did the virus first appear?

Although there are too many vested interests involved to get a clear answer to this question – as well as the desire to look for a scapegoat and apportion blame – it’s interesting that speculation is rife about the actual start of the pandemic. If it was around in August 2019 why wasn’t it picked up by other countries much earlier? Surely the earlier it was a round the more difficult it will be for those who wish to push all the blame for the world’s woes onto the Chinese Government?

The privatisation of contact tracing

This is a strange one. One of the biggest financial institutions in the country had such faith in the Government’s ‘world-beating’ contact tracing programme that they introduced one just for their workers. Don’t know how that will fit in with any national plans. If nothing else there will be duplication of effort and a very fractured tracing system.

Covid and gender inequality

The list of those who are having to endure the adverse effects of the reactions to the pandemic gets longer. Statistics are already showing that the impact upon women in the work place will be worse post pandemic than it was before the March lock down.

A medical opinion of the Buffoon’s response to covid-19

…. isn’t favourable. Even more, the worse response in a generation.

The story of lack of preparedness of PPE

… doesn’t go away. The scandal is not new but as time goes by more damning evidence arises about how the Government didn’t prepare for a potential pandemic – even though they were encouraged to do so.

Lack of resources cost thousands of lives

…. in care homes. Again, not a surprise but this issue is not going to go away quietly.

Spend, spend, spend

never mind that those few industries that still exist in Britain are using the opportunity of the pandemic to shed thousands and thousands of jobs – the way out of the economic crisis is in the hands of the consumers. The Buffoon, on the eve of the opening of ‘non-essential’ shops in England, called upon the British public to ‘shop with confidence’. Consumer spending (and the consequential increase in personal debt) was rising until just before the pandemic caused the lock down and had kept the economy going for a number of years. But this was building upon sand and is unlikely to be able to pull the country out of its downward trajectory.

How’s the Buffoon doing within his own Party?

It seems the Buffoon is even disappointing his own side. That will come to nothing. All he has to say is that if they keep quiet they can take advantage of the gravy train for the next five years. A Tory with principles is an oxymoron.

How crucial is an effective ‘contact tracing system’ to end the lock down?

The problem here is that if we wait until the system is doing what it’s supposed to do Hell would have frozen over. It could also be the case here that the scientists are covering their backs in case the relaxing of the lock down causes ‘spikes’ or even a ‘second wave’. The problem here is that although there have been localised outbreaks in a number of countries that have started to return to some aspect of normality is that cases of covid-19 might have risen – but the news on the deaths has been sparse. Don’t even know if there have been any – the most vulnerable in society being allowed to be killed off in the first wave (at least here in Britain).

How many have died of the virus worldwide?

This is a question the answer to which we will have to wait years. There are so many variables and so many interests that want to be protected that it’s doubtful the true number will be any more than an estimation. What people do with that knowledge is another matter. Will populations throughout the world hold their leaders to account for what they have, and have not, done in response to the pandemic? Lots of discussion about this – nothing concrete so far.

Quote of the week

‘We have spent tens of billions, not millions, billions, wrapping our arms around the vulnerable.’

Grant Shaps, Transport Minister on 16th June.

This was just repeating the almost exactly the same words of the Buffoon the day before. A phrase that probably being tested to see what the response would be. If you lived in a care home those arms were more like those of Death itself.

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