‘IF you’re not confused, you haven’t been paying attention’ (Tom Peters, rough paraphrase

There are, quite suddenly, increasing numbers of new cases of coronavirus in the UK, the R number is now 1–1.2, and a member of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) warns that the UK is ‘on the edge of losing control’ of Covid-19, although Michael Gove disagrees. England now has new restrictions in place, limiting gatherings to six, presented as a simplification intended to ‘reduce confusion’.

 And confusion there certainly has been. When lockdown began on 23 March, the ‘rules’ were pretty clear, but with the Cummings effect in May, and as restrictions started to ease in June, it all became a bit too much for the average concentration span. We now also have local lockdowns, each with its own features. Bolton’s lockdown restrictions have had four different iterations in the course of twelve days.

The Health Foundation report following an Ipsos MORI poll in July revealed that only 46% of the public were clear about how many people they could meet, with 32% not clear on guidance about self-isolation. Interestingly, 62% believed that other people were not following the guidance on who, and how many others, they could meet. They concluded there was clear correlation generally between guidance the public believed was unclear, and guidance the public believed other people were not following.

This unprecedented (for most of the living) pandemic has been a universal challenge, though hopefully informed by regular government exercises, e.g. Exercise Cygnus, 2016. The disregard for its predictions, the delayed response to the viral outbreak, and the subsequent multiple changes of mind spell incompetence, hence confusion. Curious to know how many U-turns there have been, I discovered both the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian listed eleven, with slight variations.

Confusion can provide really useful scapegoats. We have been told repeatedly that we might be asymptomatic yet have the virus. So it makes sense for the whole ‘A’ family in London to get tested when ‘A’ junior has a persistent cough (though they may have to go to the Isle of Wight). Matt Hancock blames the public for the shortage of tests, claiming a quarter of those coming forward for checks were ineligible because they were asymptomatic (btw, fyi – NHS test and trace is really Serco test and trace).

‘A’ junior’s older sibling may have been impacted by education ministers’ lack of homework which created a lot of confusion over exam results, exposed privilege (no algorithm for small groups), and caused a good deal of anxiety, demonstrated on Any Questions by an eighteen-year-old’s declaration to schools minister Nick Gibb that he had ‘ruined her life’.

If the ‘A’ family wanted a summer holiday abroad they may have carefully chosen their destination only to find a few days into their trip that quarantine on return was suddenly a requirement after all. They may also have found that a speedy return to avoid missing the beginning of term involved inflated air fares as well as a shortened holiday. Just don’t go to Greece; or if you do, make sure you’ve read the right list of exemptions for your part of the UK, and that you know all the alternative names for your Greek island.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson appears confused about the responsibility he took on when he signed the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. I feel another blog coming on.

Further reading: https://www.health.org.uk/publications/reports/public-perceptions-of-health-and-social-care-in-light-of-covid-19-july-2020

Penny Merrett, Sheffield

THIS week in Glasgow, it’s basically May all over again. Numbers of cases are back on the rise (as everywhere) and we’re now at the end of a two-week local lockdown (but if no one had told me I wouldn’t have had a clue). We’ve now also got Protect-Scot, the tracing app for your phone (downloaded by 600 000 people in one day, well done everyone) but only if you have an iPhone that’s operating at iOS 13 or an Android at 6.0. If you don’t have a smart phone, then what?

Nicola Sturgeon suggests that you won’t be left off the system, although who knows how that actually works (confusing). But if you have symptoms in Glasgow you’ve got to maybe go to Inverness or Aberdeen or somewhere really far away to get tested, while infecting everyone on the Megabus or train (if you can afford the £40+ round trip) on your way there (very confusing and alienating).

The economy has opened back up at any cost. I can go to the pub (as is my ‘patriotic duty’ according to Boris Johnson), to a restaurant (thank you, Rishi!) and to work. I can go on holiday and travel anywhere I like (sometimes involving a two-week government-enforced, pretty much unmonitored quarantine when I arrive and/or return), but I can’t go into my friend’s house (incredibly confusing). And now according to Matt Hancock, I, the selfish and hedonistic 20-something, am to blame for this recent spike in cases for going to my friends’ houses and having parties (don’t worry, I haven’t).

Just to check whether I am to blame or not, I took the BBC’s ‘Coronavirus in Scotland quiz: how well do you know the restrictions?’ (great fun, would recommend – I’m joking) and scored a 6/10 so maybe this is all my fault. Note here that this is the same BBC that has decided to remove Sturgeon’s daily briefings from their broadcasting. What do I do if I don’t have a smart phone, don’t have Internet access, but do have a TV? I’ll be … (all together now!)… confused!

Oh and talking about being disconnected and disenfranchised, Glasgow city council has recently announced the closure for the foreseeable future of three libraries in Glasgow’s Southside that just so happen to form a neat triangle around Govanhill, which I have mentioned in a previous blog, an area home to a large population of migrant and Roma people. So that’s no more access to Internet, language resources, literature and safe indoors space for thousands of people (let alone the unsure future of the library workers’ employment).

Anyway, returning to the BBC’s very helpful test, I have learned that I can also get my eyebrows done and go for a swim in a public pool, but I can’t hug my grandchildren unless they’re under 11 or if I’ve decided that they’re part of my extended household because ‘An extended household can meet indoors and not social distance from each other – so hugs would be allowed.’

It’s as clear as mud. What if I, the young person, decide that all those new pals that I’ve just made at university during Fresher’s Week are now my extended household? What if I, the younger person, decide all the pals I’ve just been hanging out with in the playground at school are my extended household? I know it doesn’t sound right but it also kind of does, doesn’t it?

As Liam Young points out in an article for Novara this week, if the government had listened to the teachers’ unions’ warnings about re-opening schools and if they were paying even the slightest bit of attention to the mystical correlation between universities opening back up and the massive increase in cases in 19–21-year-olds (you could also look to the US for similar statistics) then we wouldn’t be in this situation. Quite rightly, Young states, ‘The government is blaming young people for its own negligence.’

However, Matt Hancock’s solution is to carry on blaming the young people, and the public at large, for the strain they’re putting on their perfectly ‘built from scratch’ system. Despite months of encouraging us to get tests even if we’re in doubt about our symptoms, he u-turns (unsurprisingly), when asked why the aforementioned test booking system clearly isn’t working, stating that there has been an ‘increase in demand for tests from people who aren’t eligible.’ Nothing changes here though. Over the past few months we can see that the Tories’ favourite game is a ping-pong between changing their minds, blaming the public, breaking the law, changing their minds again, repeat ad infinitum, which leads to us blaming each other for a plethora of problems that, at root, aren’t our fault.

We’re confused because of blatant inconsistencies in completely arbitrary figure-quoting given in response to questions criticising anything the Tories ever do. We’re confused because the Tories seem incapable of answering even the most simple of questions. We’re confused because, for the most part, we’re not confused, they are.

Further reading:

Nicola Sturgeon, https://twitter.com/NicolaSturgeon/status/1304166823605268487/photo/1

Boris Johnson Wants to Blame Young People for Coronavirus. He Has Nobody to Blame but Himself, Liam Young, 10th Sept, https://novaramedia.com/2020/09/10/boris-johnson-wants-to-blame-young-people-for-coronavirus-he-has-nobody-to-blame-but-himself/

Coronavirus in Scotland Quiz: How well do you know the restrictions?’, BBC, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-53475584

Petition to Save Glasgow’s Closed Libraries, https://www.change.org/p/glasgow-city-council-glasgow-life-reconsider-library-closures

Caitlin Merrett King, Glasgow

SINCE September 2018 I have been conducting the Chorale Internationale de Capestang – a grand name for a group of people who come together to sing, socialise and enjoy doing both. At 65 I am one of the youngest.

It used to be ‘normal’ that on a Monday afternoon we would start singing at 15:45, break for a drink at 16:45 and then sing on till 18:00 when some would go home and some would go to the bar. We would give concerts in local places across the year, but the main focus was on rehearsals – singing and enjoying ourselves.

We stopped rehearsals ‘for a couple of weeks’ back in March when a number of members said they were a bit worried by the spread of this new, unknown virus. A couple of days later the government put the entire country in lockdown and the choir has not met since.

Now we are thinking, ‘when will we sing together again?’ Current restrictions mean that the largest group size allowed is ten people – and there are 40 of us. And we are supposed to keep a distance of two metres and wear masks – both of which the committee feel rules out choir practice. And we are all in the vulnerable group of people, age wise, as well as some of us having medical conditions of various sorts or being married to people with conditions.

I have just surveyed the choir to find out under what conditions people would be prepared to meet again, given that the committee has decided nothing is at all possible before the New Year. We can see ourselves meeting and singing once we are allowed to stand together (I metre or 2 metres apart) without masks – but is that ever going to be achievable?

We know what the old ‘normal’ was, but we have no idea what the ‘new normal’ is going to be when it comes to amateur choirs of a certain age. And whatever guidance we are given today, it is probably going to change tomorrow as the virus spreads in new ways or as new information and treatments are discovered. The only thing that is certain now, it seems, is that nothing is certain and that everything is subject to change.

Was it always this way but we didn’t notice? Has it always been that things are fundamentally uncertain and open to change, but we have not been living as if they are? As I sit here, I can think of numerous things that last year I would have thought would be continuous and predictable but, if I think a year ahead, now seem uncertain and maybe will not happen. How do we plan and how much does the ‘normal’ human being need/require predictability to lead a stable life?

I have always been of the opinion that a bit of stress is a good thing in my life – I have never aimed for a stress-free life as I think life would lose all its impulse. However, a little bit of ‘normal’ – old or new – sounds like a good thing at the moment.

Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude

MY brother asks a good question: how did we live before the pandemic? I think the answer is that at best we behaved responsibly towards ourselves and others, but without undue fear while acknowledging that all life is risky. At some stage I unknowingly contracted tuberculosis and have a scarred right lung to prove it. This probably happened in the 1980s when life in South Africa could be very hazardous.

We used to get onto aircraft without much thought, fully knowing that they were flying germ factories. Every time I was on an intercontinental flight I subsequently had flu and sometimes it could take a couple of months to shrug off. We knew full well that people transmitted disease, but led full and normal lives nonetheless and took our chances.

Now we live in a state of statistical tyranny: the dreaded R factor may be the difference between a relatively normal existence and various levels of lockdown that could mean financial ruin. But if nothing else, the pandemic has involved a master class in statistical method. How are they collected; how are they defined; how current are they; and what the hell do they actually mean?

It’s very clear that they are often highly inaccurate. In South Africa the number of deaths is so under-reported that we have been advised to double the figure of 15 000. It’s not only in deep rural areas that people die at home and are buried outside the official system. Britain revised its Covid-19 death figure drastically downwards when it was discovered that it included sufferers who had died of other causes. How accurate are death certificates at the best of times?

And how reliable are thermometers? If you visit the right places you can have your temperature taken half a dozen times in a day and it will show considerable variation. Some of the figures are ludicrous at the lower levels; so how accurate are they at the higher? Schools have to test everyone’s temperatures three times a day, but this data is generally ignored – possibly because you can have Covid-19 without any sign of fever. Of course, the bureaucrats are delighted.

So much for figures. We still have no definite idea exactly where the Wuhan virus came from since transparency is hardly a hallmark of the Chinese Communist Party. Why has the expected avalanche of deaths not happened in South Africa given that lockdown has largely been a figment of the government’s imagination? Indeed, the pandemic is notable more for epic corruption than mass deaths which are relatively modest so far compared with those from TB and HIV/Aids in the past. No one knows why.

Following a memorable session before the seemingly endless Zondo Commission on State Capture, one recalcitrant witness said, ‘I can’t remember what I know’. (This was the genius who couldn’t remember his wedding date.) It’s become a humorous catch phrase, much repeated on the radio; but in the case of Covid-19 could well be adapted to ‘We don’t know what we know’. That’s what makes the future so confusing and uncertain – and worrying.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg