Fri 30 Apr 2021: The Dave in its Natural Environment

I went to the pub yesterday! Nature is healing!

It was rather chilly, and we’re still only allowed to sit outside, but even so the place was busy. Busier than you would expect on a normal Thursday night. After over a year of house arrest people are taking every opportunity they can to socialise, and pubs’ beer gardens are generally booked out a week in advance still. Public transport is quieter than normal, but not by much, but unlike a few months ago practically everyone is wearing a mask on the bus. In the pub, obviously, there are no masks, and very little effort to do any more than the absolute minimum legal requirement of physical distancing.

Theatre box offices are re-opening and I’ve booked for a show at the White Bear pub-theatre, one of my favourite venues, in May. Cinemas will be re-opening at about the same time, and indoor pubbing, so then things really will be almost back to normal.

There’s good news from the food bank that I’ve been volunteering for over the last year – the number of people needing our services has been falling steadily and is now at the point where as of next week we’ll be back to opening just one day a week, like in the Before Times, with most clients coming to pick up their own supplies instead of volunteers doing deliveries. This is almost entirely down to people going back to work. Data from my employer (I work in the recruitment industry) shows that more jobs are being advertised now in most industry sectors, and most importantly that the number of applicants per job is falling, showing that far fewer people are looking for work.

Finally, I’m now fully vaccinated. I had my second dose several weeks earlier than expected so that seems to be going very well.

Wed 17 Mar 2021: Anniversary

I’ve not written anything here for a while, because not much has been happening. We’re still stuck in exactly the same dreary limbo as we have been for ages, and the anniversary of what everyone thought would be a brief bout of weirdness came and went without me noticing. It was the first week of March last year when everyone at work was told that we should prepare for a brief period of working at home; it was Thursday the 12th when we were told to not come back into the office until further notice. I spent most of the 13th out buying office equipment (if you did the same don’t forget to claim it on your taxes!) and was back to work – at home – by Monday the 16th.

There was some minor excitement a few weeks ago when I got a text message saying that they’d finished vaccinating all the old codgers and so it was now my turn. The link in the message looking terribly spammy so I was deeply suspicious, but there was enough personal information on the site that it was probably legit, and it didn’t suspiciously ask for any more PI. My phone received the message at about noon, I noticed it an hour later, booked my appointment for another 1h50 later, and was in and out within five minutes. Pretty damned efficient! I didn’t get any side-effects except some slight bruising on my arm. Whether that means that I have an awesome, strong, manly immune system that fights off alien invaders without breaking a sweat, or it means that I have a weak pathetic immune system that didn’t even notice the vaccine and so I am doomed – I have no idea. Ho hum. Part two in another coupla months time.

The government did lay out an “irreversible” “one way road” to normality, but I find it hard to believe them. I don’t believe that things will be back to normal in June as they claim, nor do I believe that things are irreversible. Frankly they have a track record of paying too much attention to medical opinions (and desires) for it to be irreversible, and “irreversible” goes against their latest soundbite of being driven by “data, not dates”. So far the only change has been that people can now meet one other person in places like public parks. That’s not a significant enough change to have any effect on me, especially considering that it’s still chilly out. The important one is that – unless things change – beer gardens re-open in three and a bit weeks. I’ve got a Thing on my phone with the all-important countdown!

Tue 19 Jan 2021: Priorities

Most people, myself included, are irritated and just tired of these restrictions, and while the general spirit of the restrictions is being mostly stuck to people are cutting corners whenever they feel like it. And so they should. The restrictions on our liberties were sold to us initially as just for a few weeks, and almost universally accepted. Those few weeks became months, again almost universally accepted, and then things began to slowly go back to normal. The reimposition of harsh restrictions grates, for two main reasons. First, while we could accept this sort of rushed legislation without proper parliamentary oversight for a short period, it wasn’t short. Parliament hasn’t ever had a proper debate going through the pros and the cons of the biggest restriction in our civil liberties that I can think of. That is just un-British. Second, and I’m sorry to keep banging on about it, the evidentiary basis has not been clearly laid out in public. Everyone knows that the schools were massive plague pits, but it took the government four months to cotton on. Everyone knows that pubs and restaurants put a great deal of effort and resources into opening safely, but that was all wasted because the government flailed around at random. Everyone knows this because it’s what we can see and experience ourselves. We might know different if only the government bothered to tell us. But they haven’t. They are not ruling by informed consent, they are ruling by diktat. That is un-British.

But on to more immediate matters, and my headline.

Cressida Dick, the head honcho of the Metropolitan Police is today “baffled” why her staff aren’t getting priority for vaccinations. The vaccine priorities are one of the very few areas where the government has explained things well. Various groups of people are going to get their shots in an order that tackles the most vulnerable first, thus having the most impact first, thus letting us get out of this shitshow quicker. Police officers are young and fit compared to those who are now being vaccinated, and at far lower risk of consuming medical resources if infected, therefore they are not a priority. She’s not the only one demanding to be treated all special like. I’ve seen demands that train drivers be prioritised even though they spend much of their working day in the cab, a metal box sealed off from the general public. Electricians, plumbers and gas fitters, because they sometimes have to go into peoples’ homes to work. Shop staff. Maybe IT staff like me should be prioritised, because without IT none of those people can do their jobs!

In reality I think that the government has not only communicated this well, they’ve got the job priority list right. The priority list is almost exclusively the old and the ill without regard for occupation. The exceptions where your job matters are workers in care homes (because the most vulnerable have a great deal of exposure to them) and medical staff (because they are exposed to a large number of plague carriers and because they are a resource that everyone who does get sick will need to consume). Only once everyone over 50 has been vaccinated will any other occupational priorities be considered. If then the priority is to get back to normal as quickly as possible – and it should be – then the top of the priority list would presumably be something like teachers and shop, bar and restaurant staff – ie those who most come into contact with other households. The rozzers would be waaaay down the list.

If someone could read this out to the obviously illiterate Ms Dick I would be grateful. Please let me know if she needs a version that only uses shorter words.

Tue 15 Dec 2020: A Stopped Clock is Right Twice a Day

Again, without any clear explanation of the reasoning behind the restrictions, the government is making another of their long series of what looks like random authoritarian guesses in their attempt to clamp down on the plague. They have not seen fit to share with anyone their evidence that theatres and pubs are significant venues for transmission and that closing them will do any good, but closed they are to be.

I am not a great fan of Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. The mayor has no significant powers except over transport, and he screwed that up from before his first day in office with his promise of not raising fares (which wasn’t even true – it didn’t apply to season tickets, his fan boys carefully ignore his original promises on this point and only look at the later watered down version of the promise) which means that even in normal times when there wasn’t a catastrophic fall in income caused by the pestilence there would have been a fall of over 10% in real terms over four years. But in an example of a stopped clock being right at least occasionally, Khan has urged schools to close. It is obvious to anyone with eyes to see that the charts of infection rate started going up in September, when children went back to school, and accelerated further in October when older children went to their universities. Absent any compelling data to the contrary (and the government certainly hasn’t given any) then schools and universities must be closed, and the pubs, theatres, and other businesses that have put so much effort and money into being able to operate safely, and which have been operating safely, should be allowed to open.

Sun 29 Nov 2020: consistency is a four letter word

Remember the halcyon days of October? When the government had the sensible idea of a few different well-defined levels of restrictions? The details were arbitrary and they never told us what the reasoning was behind them, but then … they just randomly changed their tiny little minds after a couple of weeks, getting rid of those different levels and just confining everyone to house arrest for a month. It actually looks like those three different levels, despite only lasting a couple of weeks, were working. The pestilence prevalence was levelling off before we were all locked up. Well, as of the middle of next week we’re back to three levels, but they’re completely different from previously, and one of them might as well not exist, as it only applies to 30 people who smell of fish out of a population of 56 million.

The three new tiers again have no actual basis in reality that has been shared with the population – pubs were doing perfectly OK a couple of months ago with serving beer to people who weren’t having meals, those people were sitting at tables in their little groups, but now, apparently, we have to have meals in pubs (if pubs are allowed to open at all), and can only be served beer while eating, lest we run up to random strangers and start licking them or something. I’m beginning to wonder if the restrictions are being informed more by the sort of Puritanism that we thought we’d successfully kicked out to the Colonies in the 17th century than by actual facts.

You may wonder why I’m going on so much about pubs. There are indeed plenty of other businesses that are being needlessly fucked over just as much. But the pub is, and has been, at the heart of English culture for a very long time. It is where you meet friends of friends and random strangers who become friends, and expand your social circle; it is where sports clubs are formed and where they bond after their game; it is the venue for all kinds of other civil society, ranging from your local chess club to union meetings and political party meetings to art lessons to where the GPs meet to discuss local healthcare. Pubs fulfil the social functions that the state church used to, before the state church became the shambling corpse that it now is. And pubs are being killed, deliberately, by bastards.

Tue 3 Nov 2020: Lockdown 2: Revenge Of The Son Of Lockdown: The Sequel

I’m disappointed that the government is going to push us all back into staying at home as of Thursday this week and not allow people to have a life. Just when businesses were breathing a huge sigh of relief and beginning to get back to profitable trading, when theatres and the like were beginning to re-open having spent large sums on re-configuring their premises and on rehearsals … they’re being forced to close again, and for no good reason that I can see. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there is no evidence that has been shown to the public that they are the cause of the current resurgence of the lurgi. The pesky pestilence came roaring back when the schools opened and especially when undergraduates went to universities. Those are where the problem obviously lies. Those are what need dealing with. Or if the government is privy to information to the contrary they should share it. Absent that public information we have to assume that they are choosing to inflict misery on normal people, and to hammer what would be some of our sources of pleasure once this is all over, for reasons other than plague prevention. Perhaps that reason is that they have information showing how important it is to keep schools and universities open and that they just can’t be operated safely (I made some suggestions a couple of weeks ago) but again, they’re not sharing that information so that the rest of us can see that they are correct.

I fear that without the media, opposition parties and refusenik Conservatives pointing out the government’s apparent error they’ll get away with it. Alas, the Labour party is too busy being self-congratulatory and saying “you’re just doing what we said you should do weeks ago”, scoring points while being just as wrong as the government. I’m afraid that the government won’t be made to change tack in parliament, nor will the people make their voices heard.

But it’s not all gloom. There is also some good news coming from Liverpool, where regular fast city-wide testing is supposedly going to be piloted.

That news story touches on some of the problems. First, the false positive rate of about 0.1% means that if you are tested every two weeks for six months then about one in thirty people will get at least one false positive at some point during that period. And if the false positive rate is as high as 1% then it’s one in three. That is said to be high enough that the risk of having to isolate and not work for a fortnight will put people off being tested. There are two obvious mitigations. First, if someone tests positive using the fancy new one hour tests, quickly re-test them to make sure. Again assuming a 0.1% false positive rate, the chance of any one person failing that double test at least once in the period goes from 1 in 30 to 1 in 30,000. That sort of re-testing already being done in professional sports that are regularly testing players. Second, the Chancellor has already shown that he’s willing to fling money at people who can’t work because of the lurgi in some circumstances. This is just another such circumstance.

There was also, in an earlier version of that article, mention of people not taking the time off work to get tested. Not sure why that’s a problem given that part of the plan is to have testing in workplaces. Obviously any workplace that refuses to allow testing should just be shut down until they change their mind, just like you would shut down a business that flouted public health regs in other ways such as a rat-infested kitchen. And for smaller workplaces (the vast majority, and where most people work) mobile testing stations that can, for example, park on a street and have people pop into all the shops to take samples, would do the trick.

What the article doesn’t seem to talk about, however, is the false negative rate of these new tests. Where false positives incorrectly say “this person has the lurgi, burn everything he has touched in cleansing fire”, false negatives incorrectly say “this person is disease free, you may lick his weeping disease-ridden sores with impunity”. Turns out that the false negative rate could be as high as 1 in 3, missing a third of infected people. I don’t know if this is a problem though. If you take two thirds of infected people out of circulation at any one time, that would seem to have a huge effect.

Sat 17 Oct 2020: high risk, and a proposal

London is now a “high risk” area.

I’m glad that the government has finally created a list of standard restrictions that will be applied in different areas depending on local risk levels derived from local infection rates. Unfortunately, in doing so they haven’t allayed any concerns about the restrictions being arbitrary. The regional hodge-podge we had before was clearly arbitrary and the new system is certainly simpler. However, the new restrictions still have the look of the arbitrary about them while at least being easier to understand.

In particular the ban on pubs staying open after 10pm appears to be a case of “something must be done; this is something; therefore it must be done” and to have no evidence behind it of any kind. The government have repeatedly said that there is an evidential base for it, but refused to share what that evidence is. Therefore we can only assume that the evidence is, at best, very fucking weak, and at worst a lie.

I think that these tiered standard restrictions came in too late, as well as being just plain wrong. Too late, in that they should have been standardised right from the start, when the first local restrictions were imposed in Leicester. Just plain wrong in that as well as the clear lack of evidence for at least some of the restrictions, there is also a clear lack of desire to target the actual causes and again, the government really just wants to be seen to be doing something.

Things were chuntering along fairly calmly from the end of June to the end of August. And then the schools went back, with minimal precautions, and in what must have come as a shock to absolutely no-one, cases started going up markedly; then at the beginning of October universities went back and lo, there was a massive bout of Freshers’ Flu.

Closing the pubs an hour early ain’t gonna do a damned thing when schools and universities are the real cause. Closing gyms and preventing people from seeing their friends will only have minimal effect when schools being vile plague-pits is the real cause. And people know this. The new restrictions on pub opening hours and other businesses will be adhered to because owners don’t want to get shut down, but people will not obey the rule about not seeing their friends. They put up with it back in April when it seemed sensible, but nowadays they know that it’s not tackling the current problem, they know it’s a stupid rule, and they won’t put up with it. I certainly don’t intend to obey it very well.

What should be done now is schools should teach in smaller groups, extending their day to do so, and also teaching on Saturdays. The teaching unions won’t like it, of course, but the government should quite clearly call them out on it, stating that they want to spread disease through the community. Yes, this will mean some extra hours in lessons for teachers. Teachers can be helped out by cutting back their hours outside of useful lessons. No extracurricular clubs, no field trips, no PE, no RE, no PSHE. Less homework for pupils and so less marking. No marking of older pupils’ homework, instead hand out answer sheets the next day so pupils can mark their own work and know what to ask questions about. Sure, some kids will just not do it, and harm their own education, if their parents allow that. I am indifferent to their plight, protecting society is more important. And if the teachers go on strike – great! The children won’t be able to go to school and spread pestilence between their families!

Universities should just close their accommodation for undergraduates if, as appears to be the case, they can’t house them safely. Teach those who want it remotely online. For courses that require lab time, only admit local students, and it may be possible for them to safely do their labs. Defer entry for the rest. In my experience a large number of students would be well served by having a year out of school before more studying anyway.

Wed 7 Oct 2020: crazy mountain man

before

It seems like such a small insignificant thing, but I’d not had a beard trim since January. It’s something I normally get done three or four times a year, as without it I start to look like the sort of crazy mountain man who wears animal skins, lives in a cave, and shouts incomprehensibly at visitors. For a good long while barbers were just not allowed to open, and then after they reopened they were only allowed to do hair cuts. Having gone nine months without a trim it was long, and scraggly, and turning into a bit of a pain in the arse. It caught the wind, it made wearing a mask even more awkward than a beard normally does, and worst of all as the cold season sets in, it was impossible to have soup without making a terrible mess.

after

So today I had a good four inches off and feel much better for my beauty treatment.

Wed 23 Sep 2020: still carrying on

This time the government’s changes to the plague restrictions have changed, a teensy tiny bit, but the changes are minimal.

Encouraging office workers to work at home? Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. The government guidance here has changed, but the effect on peoples’ lives will be minimal as very few people have gone back into offices anyway.

Table service only in restaurants and pubs? Hardly any change for restaurants, a minor change for pubs (some were already doing it). That pubs have to close at 10 is a bit of an imposition.

Mandatory face coverings in taxis is certainly a new restriction, but not a new practice. They’ve been compulsory in taxis in London for ages, and people not masking up in taxis elsewhere are the loony fringe. Compulsory masks for staff in customer facing jobs is a new restriction, but again not an onerous one, and plenty of those people have already been masking up for ages.

Weddings are being limited to only 15 guests instead of 30, but that will affect very few people. Weddings aren’t exactly something people do frequently.

Adult indoor sports being limited to groups of six … errm, what sports would those be? A volleyball team is six people, there’s five a side football, and I can’t think of any other widely played indoor team sports, most indoor sports are played by individuals or pairs.

So really, for most people, the only change is that the pub will close one pint earlier. For the oiks who were already flouting the rules and guidelines the fines they are liable to have gone up. It’s all really a big ball of nothing.

Fri 18 Sep 2020: second theatre

Almost exactly a month after my first theatre trip of the Plague Times last month, which was an outdoor performance, I went to my first indoor performance!

before the show

Theatres have actually been allowed to open for a while, but most have remained closed because after being shut for so long they need time to rehearse – both the actors and the technical crew – and time to adapt their spaces to be plague-safe. For big shows in yer typical Victorian or Edwardian theatre that can take months. One man shows, however, are much cheaper (important with smaller audiences!), much less complex to put on, and the modern Bridge Theatre is a very flexible space. It was designed right from the start to be supremely adaptable. It can be a “normal” modern proscenium theatre, or configured with a thrust stage like for this performance, or for “in the round” performances with seated members of the audience in the galleries and groundlings mixing with the performers. And in that last configuration, segments of the floor can be raised and lowered on demand to form small stages, stairs, all kinds of settings. All of this means that they could easily take out ¾ of the seats to force customers to keep their distance from each other. Corridors and other circulating areas are also built on a modern scale to get people in and out as quickly as possible so there were none of the bottlenecks and crowding that you get in the vomitoria of older buildings.

The show was An Evening With An Immigrant, part of their season of twelve one-man shows, and I’ve got tickets for two more in the season next month. Inua Ellams is a playwright and poet who writes a lot about his childhood in Nigeria and his loooong journey to being finally allowed to live in the UK, beset by bureaucratic incompetence and petty cruelties, some of which is still ongoing. At one point I thought that he would lose at least some of the audience with a political rant, but I should have known better, London’s theatre goers are thoroughly liberal. He may get a rather different reception if he tours the show unchanged to some of the more backward countries of the Union, such as England.