Fri 29 May 2020: good news and localism

A while back I wrote about how busy the food bank I was working at was, and how this was a measure of poverty and should alarm us all. Well, in the month since there has been some very good news.

The last week or two have been quite a bit quieter, to the extent that after next week we’re cutting back our service from six days a week to three. At the peak we were helping around 210 households, up from around 40 in normal times. We’re now down to 120-ish. That will be made up of (approximately):

  • Those we were helping in normal times;
  • A few who are ill or are isolating because they think they might be ill;
  • People in the most vulnerable demographic who are still isolating in case they become ill;
  • The newly unemployed and under-employed.

We’re also no longer delivering all our food parcels, instead asking those who can to come and pick them up in person. That’s partly because it’s now safer for them to do that, but also because some of our volunteers are no longer blessed with copious free time – they’re going back to work – so we have a labour shortage.

Infection rates in London are now very low, far lower than in the rest of the country, so the group of people who are ill (or think they might be) is obviously going to be quite small. The group of vulnerable people still isolated will be relatively large, consisting mostly of elderly people, and will be fairly static or may be shrinking slightly as their family and friends are more able to help them. But the biggest change will be the number of people who are going back to work and so no longer have to suffer the indignity of asking for help. Another measure of that is the higher traffic levels on the streets. It’s no longer eerily quiet, and when I’m out and about doing food bank deliveries there are actually a few traffic jams! I never thought I’d be glad to be stuck in a traffic jam!

The infection rate being so low in London – half that of England as a whole – means that we need to start having regional variations in the various disease-related restrictions. London and the Midlands (the best two areas) can liberalise more than Yorkshire (which is now the filthiest plague-pit) while still keeping on top of things and so, importantly, can get back to generating wealth and paying taxes.

Mon 25 May 2020: postal indigestion

For approaching two years I’ve been a member of Postcrossing, an online community that exchanges postcards with random strangers. I normally sent one or two a month, but while I’ve been stuck at home with no theatres and cinemas to go to I’ve been sending one a week or sometimes more. For a while they appeared to be disappearing into a void, taking weeks to arrive at their destinations, but suddenly this month things seem to have got unstuck and the post is flowing. I’ve so far had six get to their recipients and received 10 myself. To me this indicates that after some postal indigestion (air freight routes were buggered, and some countries are still not exchanging post even now) things are getting back to normal, and the post offices are working through the backlog.

On Postcrossing’s online forums some people are saying that they’re cutting back on their postcards because they’re not sure whether they’ll arrive. I’ve always been of the opposite persuasion. Whenever I receive a postcard from one of my random strangers it’s a little moment of joy to hear about someone else’s life, and right now we need as many moments of joy as we can get. So I’ve been busy posting away. I just wrote one that’s going to go on its way to Canada tomorrow, joining six others that are en route.

Here are some of my favourites from the last two years.

Novosibirsk, Russia

Fri 22 May 2020: pub beer is best beer

None of my local pubs are doing take-aways, but one of my favourite pubs is. This afternoon I drove to the Crown and Anchor to get more cider. I also got some Camden Hell lager, because it’s a nice hot day and nice hot days poke my monkey brain into doing things like that. I got home an hour ago, and have drunk most of the lager already. This high consumption rate is clear evidence that beer bought in a pub tastes better than beer bought online.

Unfortunately a belly full of lager has made me forget what cider it was that I bought.

Tue 19 May 2020: bad news for the market, good news for me

Following up from my previous post about the congestion charge making Borough Market less of a practical place to shop, I have good news! My normal food n cider pusher, Middle Farm down in Sussex, has re-opened! Fuel for the hundred mile round trip costs about the same as the congestion charge would, and the produce is cheaper.

So congratulations to the government and Sadiq Khan, you kept me off the central London roads, but I drove ten times as far, burned twice as many dead dinosaurs, and didn’t spend a single penny at any London businesses.

Normally at this point I’d point out that it’s only cheaper if your time is worthless, like I do every time some cretin tries to be clever and show how cheaply you can fly from Manchester to Liverpool via Zanzibar instead of going by train. But right now, I really do have little else to do with my time.

Sat 16 May 2020: joined-up thinking

Transport for London have announced that the Congestion Charge is to come back into effect starting on Monday. On the one hand they’re trying to price people out of cars and onto public transport because it makes better use of limited road space (well, out of some cars, apparently electric cars don’t take up space or cause congestion) and on the other we’re being encouraged to drive and not use public transport because public transport is currently a plague pit. Brilliant joined up thinking there. The reintroduction of the congestion charge without an effective public transport system makes shopping at Borough Market a lot less practical as it effectively increases all their prices – which were already high – to me by about 15%.

Thu 14 May 2020: normal shopping is witchcraft

The chancellor has extended the “furlough” scheme until October, although with modifications. Currently I can’t work at all for my employer, even if they’ve got enough that needs doing for me to work part-time. That is apparently going to change. There will also be changes in how much the government contributes to the scheme vs how much employers contribute. In my case I doubt that would make much difference, as the government contributes 80% but only up to a maximum of £2,500 per month, so in reality they’re only contributing 50% of my salary, and my employer none at all. The government scheme would have to taper off a lot for me to notice in my pay packet. Lucky me.

It seems like online shopping is getting back to normal. A couple of days ago I went to Ocado’s site, more in hope than expectation, expecting to be told to bugger off as they were too busy. But no! The site is back to almost normal, and I could place an order for delivery today. The only differences are that a lot of the own-brand stuff was out of stock so I had to buy expensive branded clones of a few things instead, and that the delivery driver arrived over an hour early. I have no idea how they’ve managed this, as they’re still presumably prioritising vulnerable customers like for the past several weeks, and given their distribution infrastructure I don’t see how they can have increased their capacity that much in such a short time. I can only assume it’s witchcraft.

Mind you, having re-discovered the delights of a tourist-free Borough Market I intend to keep shopping there for as long as it’s practical – I went there again this morning – so my Ocado shopping will be less than normal for a while yet.

Tue 5 May 2020: ill-informed speculation

My lovely employers originally “furloughed” me (and I still think that’s a ghastly word) until the end of May, as that was how long the government’s “job retention scheme” ran for. It has since been extended until the end of June, although I hope that if the economic shutdown starts to lift before then my job will pop back into existence earlier – I know that some jobs have already started to come back to life.

The news is also full of stories about the government withdrawing the scheme. That probably won’t happen before the end of June but I would expect it to start after that. And so it should. While the government is subsidising people like me to not work, it is running up a large debt that will have to be paid back, either in the form of higher taxes or reduced expenditure. Both are politically difficult for the current Conservative government, but it would also be wrong to not do so and just pass the debt on to the next generation. So I wonder if they might turn the post-June scheme into something like student loans, which are in reality an opt-in tax on high-earning graduates. Even though a high-earning furlough tax would mean higher taxes for me I would support that – I’m a well off chap who has benefited from the scheme, so the burden of paying for it should fall disproportionately on my shoulders.

Of course, if that does happen I shall do some prudent tax-planning and immediately start looking for a new job. I’ve already taken an effective 50% pay cut for approaching three months, I’m disinclined to incur tax liabilities that will effectively cut my future earnings on top of that. And that is exactly what the government will want to happen as the economy opens back up – they will want those who can work to, well, work. The furlough scheme was always only a short-term measure to prevent a huge depression as people like me immediately stopped all discretionary spending.

Fri 1 May 2020: virtual pub quiz

Many weeks ago I talked about running a virtual pub quiz. It finally happened this evening! I decided to inflict it on the virtual caff, and I think it went pretty well. I had 20 questions, which with bonuses for extra answers and stuff came to a maximum of 25 points, with rounds of five questions on the subjects of drinks, the arts, science and technology, and sport. The winner got 19 points out of 25, and the person in last place had 8½ so I think I struck the right balance between accessibility and obscurity.

I’m going to re-use the questions, along with an extra round on rugby league, for Super League Pod listeners next week.