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I just want to put some of this down for posterity - i.e. to remind myself in future, of what was obvious at the time.
"Shut the damn pubs," I've been thinking to myself for weeks. Saying it to friends too. Back in August, I think, the scientific advisors Chris Whitty and Graham Medley floated the idea that the pubs should shut in September to allow the schools and universities to come back with some level of reassurance, some help to restrict the spread of the virus. The idea didn't seem to catch on. It wasn't debated much in the media. Now, with the benefit of hindsight it's clear that the start of term would have been the IDEAL moment to put the pubs (and some other similar parts of that sector) into an autumn furlough. It would clearly need a furlough or some other financial support.
The public messaging would have been clear - a straightforward cutoff that we can all understand. "You've had your summer in the beer gardens, now let's get the kids back to school". Much much easier to manage publicly.
The current 10pm shutting of pubs and restaurants struck me as a useless compromise. People will have already been boozing, hanging around with strangers indoors. It's looking, at the moment, like it actually may be doing more harm than good, with people gathering in streets, supermarkets, homes. That's more than I'd expected. I wonder if people are making the most of their time before the expected imposition of even tougher restrictions.
The second wave of covid was clearly blooming BEFORE the schools and universities went back into their term. Given the time-lag in detection, and the fact that the wave was picking up approx 2 weeks beforehand anyway, it must have kicked off about a month before. It seems likely that one cause is people coming back from foreign holidays: a fairly high chance of bringing novel infections in. But maybe it's also just the gradual relaxation - of rules and of attitudes - that did it.
The union, UCU, was right. They had more insight than I did - I wasn't particularly committed as to whether universities should be trying to restart their academic year on-campus.
(And we could see the financial problem facing universities: if they didn't offer some kind of "on-campus teaching and socialising" promise, the students might not come at all, which puts the universities into a massive financial loss. That could be handled by the big well-endowed universities, but for many of the more normal universities - like the one I work at - there's no big money pot in the background giving them strategic flexibility, they live on the balance of incoming and outgoing, and a bank loan facility to allow strategic investment.)
But the union UCU spoke forcefully, saying that the teaching term should not go back on campus until it was clear how to do it safely. I did not foresee this horrible situation of students in accommodation lockdown and big discussions about whether to let them leave for Christmas. The union's position was the right one.
Should students get some money back? They've paid "normal" fees and are not getting a normal education. Well: the first thing to say is that university staff have been moving heaven and earth this summer to create, very rapidly, a seismic shift in how they do their teaching, making it possible to do blended or online as necessary, often completely reworking their courses. It's not me that moved heaven and earth - it's the lecturers and support staff, especially those teaching the big first-year courses. They are knackered. So. The "cost of education" has definitely not decreased. Frankly, students this year have received, unknowingly, hundreds of hours of added free labour from university staff busting a gut to get things in place. If the outcome is thought to be not good enough - because as we all know, it's the social, group-learning and extra-curricular side the students will be missing out on - then yes, it's worth compensating. I'm afraid it should be government-backed compensation, since the cost of teaching hasn't decreased, it's more like a furlough of students' in-person experience. So how about a per-university scheme that pairs lockdowns/go-homes with student compensation.
It beggars belief that the government was saying, in late August, "Now is the time" to go back physically to work, in offices and workplaces. They were doing this, as was obvious, mere weeks before the schools went back. Why not wait and make sure the schools get back OK? Why not let individuals and businesses make up their own minds? Sure, there are economic costs to staying remote, staying in furlough, etc. But the most reasonable way to go seems to lay off the government messaging for a moment - allow our collective intelligence to work out how to work sensibly and safely in the new era. Not to coerce people back into unsafe conditions. Not to give some bosses (and I have a couple of my friends' bosses in mind) the backing to force people back into face-to-face work that they personally feel unsafe doing.
I'm having problems focusing on my work. It's very difficult to avoid distractions.
One big distraction is something called the World Wide Web... well in my job the most difficult distraction is actually work email - there are lots of different things that distract attention by email. Email is great but it can so easily mean you have no focussed time at all.
I went on a time management course and realised that I should save at least one or two hours per day away from email. I've heard many times, people recommending "No email before noon" or suchlike. I can't imagine being able to go as far as that and also manage meetings etc, but at least I can defend some portion of time.
The problem is not just deciding to stay away from distractions. It's forcing yourself to do it.
I've found one way that helps me: forcing my laptop to be disconnected from the internet between 7am and 9am. It's not much - I mean, many people don't even consider work emails before 9am, though my daily pattern is a bit non-standard. Starting the day this way does help me focus, and make sure I've achieved at least one bit of thoughtful work most days.
Here's how I do it on my linux laptop. I couldn't find any reliable guides for it - I thought there'd be an easy command of some sort. But here's my way:
I tried a few options before this one, including commands that were supposed to auto-run whenever my laptop opened (to check the time and decide whether or not to enable wifi), but there were various problems getting that working, partly because there's a small delay in the "normal" wifi manager connecting, so it's hard to synchronise with that.
In the end I went for a rather brute-force approach: I used "cron" to ensure that once per minute, for every minute between 7am and 9am on a weekday, the "nmcli" command turns off my laptop's networking. Then at 9am it turns it on.
If you don't know cron or crontab, look it up, it's a really common way on linux to schedule commands.
# sudo crontab -e # seems to need to be in sudo. Not sure why! Probably env vars. 0 9 * * 1-5 /usr/bin/nmcli networking on * 7-8 * * 1-5 /usr/bin/nmcli networking off
You can see there's a "networking on" command and a "networking off" nmcli command. The numbers at the start of the line specify the day and time - for example "1-5" means Monday to Friday. And " 7-8" means to turn the networking off whenever the hour is 7 or 8, and whenever the minute is anything ("").
This method might seem a bit stupid (why not just turn wifi off once, rather than every 60 seconds?) but actually works very reliably, and has some handy side-effects. It is technically possible for the user (me) to turn wifi back on, and in practice there's often a temptation to do this. Sometimes there's even a good reason! But even if you do, cron will simply come along approx half a minute later and turn it off, meaning that the "rabbit hole" temptation of "oh I'll just check that one thing online" can't lead you off and away from your quiet time.
This flavour combination was fabulous - the hot deep flavour of muhammara (from Turkey/Syria, so I'm told) and the herby zesty za'atar (ours is from Palestine) make a great complement to the classic taste of grilled aubergine. We're not from the Levant so don't take this as authentic, but this is evocative and quite easy.
Muhammara is a fiery dip, and mixing it with mascarpone (or similar) in a ratio os 1:2 gets the heat just right for this, in our opinion, though you may wish to tweak it! Serves 2 hungry eaters, takes about 30 minutes (aside from making the pizza dough, which is optional to do it yourself).
Heat your oven to 200 C.
Put the pizza base out onto a lightly-floured baking tray. Mix the muhammara and mascarpone together, and spread this evenly over the pizza base, leaving the edges clear like you normally do with pizza.
Slice the aubergine in half down the middle, then slice thinly to make semicircle slices (about 3mm thick). In a bowl, toss the aubergine slices with 1 tbsp of the olive oil. Then lay them out nicely on the pizza, to make a scallop pattern - don't just pile them on, you want each aubergine piece exposed equally to the heat. You'll cover almost the whole pizza.
Sprinkle the za'atar evenly over the aubergine pieces, then drizzle the remaining olive oil evenly over the top. Put it in the oven for about 20 minutes, until it's looking lovely.
Chop the tomatoes into little quarters. Take the pizza out of the oven, and dot the tomato pieces all over, then also sprinkle the parsley over. Leave the pizza for a minute before eating! It's too hot, and also it's good for the tomatoes to take up some of the heat.
Snapchat lets people share little photos and videos with each other, mostly used to tell the story of their day. Snapchat also created a map where you can click around the world and drop in on anonymous little slices of life. Try it - it's an odd but absorbing thing.
There's one thing I noticed that I really don't understand. People posting funny comments, or snaps of the cocktail they've ordered, or just things they notice in the street - sure, I get it. The thing I don't get is... Why are hundreds and hundreds (at least) of people posting videos of the very boring road ahead of them as they drive?
Here are some I saw locally, in London:
And here are some from around the world:
These are NOT snaps of high-speed driving, or showing off about the car. (Not even doing something daft on a motorway.) They're NOT snaps while held at a red light or in a traffic queue. They're NOT about something funny/interesting outside the window, and usually no-one is talking, let alone talking to camera. There may be some music playing but it doesn't seem particularly about sharing music.
They are incredibly mundane. The driver is going along, driving with one hand, and basically showing us the road as they see it. It's boring. We can see the steering wheel and the backs of some other cars. It might be partly possible to work out what road they're on, but they're not seemingly doing it to share their exact location.
What I'm fascinated to understand is: WHY are they doing it?
Like I said - they are NOT showing off about speed, or car ownership, or friends, or jokes. Their mates are probably not impressed, or even interested, and don't seem to be commenting back and forth on each others' rides. Why bother?
(And, of course, why do something that's certainly illegal (in the UK as well as elsewhere), and known to be dangerous - and before you ask, yes I'm certain that it's the driver filming these, not a passenger (there are some passenger snaps, but many fewer; e.g. some taxi rides). But the moral outrage can come later. The primary thing I'm wondering is WHY BOTHER?
Now I'm well aware that people post all kinds of random shizzle on Snapchat - you can see it right there - and they're not all meant to be amazing. Snaps are often part of a "story", a collage of your day, and I guess these videos are part of the story perhaps of someone's night out. But why include all the boring bits? (These videos are not short - often multiple snaps in a sequence.)
One possibility is: Snapchat incentivises people to post many snaps, or to post frequently. It could alternatively be slightly more innocently that people develop a "habit" of posting snaps, but it seems odd to me they'd post pointless snaps without any incentive. Wouldn't they instead prefer to look at snaps, or post verbal callouts, or suchlike?
Can anyone enlighten me? What makes people post snaps like these?
Back when I first tried alcohol-free beer, I only knew of one from Sainsbury's (not bad) and Becks Blue (meh) - little did we know that by 2020, there would be so many that it's hard to keep track of them all! There are many good ones but also a few to avoid. I'm shocked to report that not only have we tasted over 70 alcohol-free beers, but also... a whopping twenty-two of them are so nice that I'd enthusiastically recommend them to all of you.
van de Streek "Playground IPA" - a delightful IPA, that beat some of our other faves in a blindfold taste test. It's got a lovely clear taste and mouthfeel, and the balanced but detailed flavour you want. You need to seek this one out!
Big Drop "Lil IPL" - a fabulous low-alcohol "India Pale Lager", a perfect match of late-hopped tang with lagery Helles notes. Big Drop is a UK brewery that only makes alcohol-free beers - they have many good ones but this (a collaboration with Salt Beer) is flipping delightful. You should also try other IPAs and lagers from Big Drop, perhaps easier to find than this one.
Hambleton "Point Five" - a very lovely piney scent and taste, and this one from a Yorkshire brewery has a slightly different flavour than some of the bigger names in alcohol-free (brewed differently? maybe), so is a great one to try.
Brand "Brand IPA 0.0%" - lovely IPA with a hint of sourness. And it's 0.0! This is by far the best 0.0% IPA we've encountered. There are quite a few 0.0% lagers, and 0.5% IPAs, but if you like hops and zeroes, this is our tip for you.
Infinite Session "Pale ale" - a very nice balanced pale ale indeed, this one from London, and possibly the best British pale we've had. The other beers from Infinite Session are also pretty good, but the Pale Ale is the one that hits the nail on the head.
Maisel "Maisel's Weisse" - a superb alcohol-free wheat beer, with a classic Bavarian taste. Slightly more lively and refreshing that the one by Rothaus, but both are great. I really like the classic Bavarian-style wheat beers so I've tested a few, and the Maisel's is definitely the best.
Nirvana "Hoppy Pale Ale" - this has a very clear crisp taste, light and with a good citrussy hop flavour at the end. I wasn't expecting much since I dislike the other beers from Nirvana, but this one's definitely recommendable - refreshing, and slightly different to some others I've had.
Brewdog "Hazy AF" - this is a lovely juicy IPA, with a clear nice citra/citrus dry flavour to finish. Brewdog are well-known for their Nanny State alcohol-free IPA, available for many years now, and they've also come out with "Punk AF". Yvonne and I differ on which of the Brewdog brews are the best - frankly they're all good. For me the hazy is the one I'd most like more of.
Lervig "No Worries Grapefruit" - a great grapefruit-infused IPA from Norway. The grapefruit juice dominates the flavour, but its gentle sourness fits perfectly with the gently bitterness from the late hopping. Extremely well-balanced and satisfying. (See also: Konx by Omnipollo, very similar and almost as good.)
van de Streek "Non-Bock" - a really very nice brown ale. Nicely balanced, no complaints. The Dutch brewery van de Streek have done it again! There aren't many "wintry" beers in the alcohol-free line-up, so this is notable.
San Miguel "San Miguel 0.0%" - an alcohol-free version of the well-known Spanish/Filipino lager. The flavour is good, it's refreshing, and a nice balanced aftertaste. Definitely one of the best I've had from a trad big brewery! (See also the Stella Artois 0.0% - that's also pretty darn good from a big brewer.)
Big Drop & Fyne "Jam Session raspberry gose" - a very interesting raspberry drink with floral/nutty flavours in the background.
Leffe "Leffe Blonde 0.0%" - nice full Belgian flavour, but seemed to us overly sweet. A very good Belgian zero-percent beer. It's not perfect, but, yet again, this one makes the list because it's good to have an alkofrei version of a very classic beer.
Greene King "Old Speckled Hen low-alcohol" - great to have a classic British dark bitter as a decent low-alcohol. This one's nice tasting and well-balanced, though I find it quite drying, so didn't want to stick with it for a full session.
Our other top picks are:
This was a great dish making a centrepiece of the cauliflower with Indian spicing. I made it up based on something that looked nice on Masterchef. A notable non-cauliflower-lover gave it top marks so I'm sure you'll love it too.
Serves 2, takes about 50 minutes, plus extra time at the start to marinate.
For the rice:
For the cauliflower:
For the carrot:
First, marinate the cauliflower. You can do this way in advance, e.g. 2 hours - but give it at least half an hour if you can. Mix the coconut oil, vegetable oil and all the dry spices. Chop the cauliflower into four big quarters - remember, you want these to come out whole at the end of the process, try to cut them so they'll stay entire. Now marinate the cauliflower in the oil and spice mix, turning it a few times to try and get all the surfaces flavoured.
When there's about 40 minutes until service, turn on the oven to 180 C. Oil a baking tray or baking tin and pop it in the oven to pre-heat.
Now start off your rice. Wash it in a sieve or suchlike, washing it until the water runs clear, then leave it to soak in fresh cold water for 10--20 minutes. Make sure all the bits you need for the rice are ready.
Take the baking tray out of the oven - be careful of the hot oil - and lay the cauliflower pieces flat-side down into the hot oil. Return to the oven. They'll cook for about 30 minutes, and halfway through you'll want to turn them so that "the other" flat side is down in the oil.
Drain your rice and put it in a pan that has a tight-fitting lid (it's handy to oil the pan a little, in advance). Add all the other ingredients to the rice pot, as well as 2/3 mugful of cold water (or less, if you're using coconut milk - 1/3 mugful?). Bring this to the boil, stir, then turn the heat down to the lowest it can possibly go and put the lid on. You now need to leave this un-disturbed for 20 minutes for the rice to absorb. Meanwhile you can get on with the carrots.
Slice the carrots into very thin coins and put them in a pan with a little oil and 100ml water. Bring to the boil, salt, and cook vigorously for about 12-15 minutes until soft.
Drain the carrots. If you've still got the bowl in which you marinaded the cauliflower, you can pop the carrots in there to pick up any leftover spice. If not, don't worry. Put the carrots and coriander, together with a dash of water (e.g. from cooking the carrots) and a dash of oil, all into a blender and blend to a smooth puree. Check seasoning, add a bit more salt if needed.
To serve: with a big spoon, scoop the rice out to make a mound. Take the puree and spread it over the plate next to the rice. Take the cauliflower pieces from the oven and place them on top of the puree.
It's official! Vegan ice-cream is now good.
Don't believe me? I don't mind, that means more for me :) But if you want my credentials: I'm not even a vegan and I think these ice-creams are great.
It's summer. There's a problem. You want ice cream, but the dairy industry produces masses of CO2, making the world hotter. Dammit, a vicious circle. Never fear! Try these amazing ice creams:
Jude's vegan vanilla - it is LOVELY and creamy, with the decandent vanilla bean taste you want.
Oatly strawberry - lovely pink strawberry flavour.
Ben & Jerrys "Coconutty Carameld" - a weird but great combination, the coconut against the caramel -- the type of thing B&J are known for.
ROAR "Coconut mango passion fruit oat cookie" -- what a crazy flavour. This tropical ice cream has really fresh flavours of mango and passionfruit both coming through boldly. I'm not really sure why it has oat flakes in it, but the overall effect is an over-the-top tropical cocktail. -- Oh and I also really like their "hemp seed chocolate brownie" ice cream, which is a straightforward great chocolatey one.
These companies all do other flavours too (for vegan chocolate ice cream, Oatly's is also good). But if you've not tried vegan ice cream before you might not know where to start, so here's your executive summary.
The UK's response to Covid-19 is a national tragedy. It's not just a case of "bad luck": we had approx 2 weeks extra time than Italy in coming up with our response, and yet we somehow managed to achieve a higher number of Covid deaths, and even, a higher number of Covid deaths-per-million.
For me, it's the deaths-per-million that is the number to care about, since it adjusts for the big differences in numbers you would get simply from a country being large or small. For a long time we were tracking along with the same rates as France and the Netherlands, both countries that "got the virus" at about the same time as us. Then our stats pulled away, now being twice the (normalised) fatality rate as those countries. Twice.
You can also measure "excess deaths" which helps account for deaths not necessarily labelled as "covid deaths". As of May 15th, the FT lists us as having 59,500 excess deaths (+65%), versus Italy's 46,700 (+47%) and Spain's 43,500 (+62%). (Update: the FT has an article on 28th May analysing our higher death rate in more detail.)
The minor differences in how each country reports their data are insignificant here. They can't possibly explain away this tragedy. We had two extra weeks to get our preparations in place. And there are plenty of reasons the UK should have been one of the best-prepared countries in the world. This BMJ editorial gives a good overview of the UK's public health failures in handling the coronavirus. There were (probably) mistakes in the scientific advice, and these are mentioned in the article. But don't let that misguide you - there were big, very big errors of judgment at the political level too. And it is the government which has the responsibility for getting us through crises like this. Our numbers should not have been anywhere near as bad as Italy's or Spain's.
Politicians are dedicated experts at pinning the blame on anyone but themselves, though. The UK government are already trumpeting loudly the defence that they're "following the science", and surely they will use that defence when the public inquiry comes.
So. Putting aside many of the other uncertainties - if they were indeed following the science, then:
Why did Boris Johnson not turn up to any of the early Cobra meetings about Covid, to find out what the science was? (January, February - he missed all 5 of the Cobra Covid meetings, finally turning up to chair one on March 2nd.)
Why did Boris Johnson give a speech on 3rd Feb in which he enthusiastically promoted an idea of the UK as a small plucky country that would refuse to close its borders, all in service of the ideal of free trade?
Why were Dominic Cummings and other political advisors, able to be present at some SAGE meetings despite the strong risk of affecting the political neutrality (real or perceived) of the scientific advice?
Why did the government, at any time between 2016 and 2020, not make preparations in response to the critical warnings from the 2016 Exercise Cygnus (pandemic preparedness exercise)?
Why, when scientists advised that the public should not shake hands, did Boris Johnson announce gleefully that he had been shaking hands with everyone when he visited a hospital ward with Covid patients (March 3rd)?
Why did the UK government advise the public not to go to pubs, while also not mandating that pubs should close? (March 16th) (Anecdotally: I walked past a couple of pubs, and saw them packed full with people, presumably grabbing a last chance before any potential closure. The closure eventually happened on March 20th.)
Why were incoming flights still broadly permitted, without testing, even from highly-infected parts of the world, as late as April 16th?
Why did the UK Government claim in May that they had "brought in the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown", when there was no lockdown in care homes until the general lockdown? (There was non-mandatory guidance, on 13th March.)
Why did the UK Government redefine its "covid tests completed" statistic to include tests posted out to people, even if not returned or processed - creating obscurity about the true number of tests completed and thus the covid incidence rates? (The Chair of the UK Statistics Authority sent a strongly-worded rebuke to the UK Government (2nd June) about its test data reporting.)
Why, when the government introduced its "alert levels", did it clearly state that alert level 4 would mean restrictions remain in place (May 11th), but then later (the first week of June) eased lockdown restrictions while also keeping the alert level at 4?
Why, instead of maintaining clear public messaging about the safety rules, did 10 Downing Street and many cabinet ministers choose to leap to the defence of special advisor Dominic Cummings when he was revealed to have broken the guidance and potentially the law? (The government could perfectly well have declined to comment, citing it as a personal matter. I find it deeply troubling that they instead chose to risk the public trust in their messaging by linking it to Cummings' chosen behaviour.)
None of these are "science led" actions, even considering the differences in advice from different scientific advisors. I'm nervous that the scientists involved, who are presumably much less experienced at media and spin than the politicians, may end up scapegoated for mistakes and ambiguities which we can see in retrospect. One of the scariest implications of that would be the big disincentive for scientists to get involved with giving their expert advice to the UK government in future.
If you are involved in science: beware of framing your conversations around flaws/gaps in the scientists' advice - even though that can be an interesting discussion (particularly because it's more concrete than discussing politicians' ideologies). As the list above shows, the people in charge made lots of concrete statements and decisions that deserve clear scrutiny. Similarly, there's no point blaming politicians nor scientists for innocent mistakes. Instead, focus on clear deliberate actions such as listed above. So much of the UK's response was shaped strongly by political ideology and political allegiances. We need to investigate these.