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28 things I learned in February 2021

1: Lego streets have become worse for pedestrians and cyclists over the years, not least as cars and roads have widened at the expense of footpaths. But things are looking up.


2: I have long believed that TV detector vans were essentially distractors for more basic modes of TV detection such as looking through windows, but I was wrong: they had proper kit in them which could detect TVs and support applications for search warrants.


3: It might be time for those who peer review papers for publication to rebel.


4: One of the fundamental principles in outbreak management, and in incident management, is having clear lines of accountability. If I’m managing a multiagency outbreak, I have a little spiel on the topic that I give at the start of each incident management meeting, accountability for decisions is clearly documented in minutes and a section on “legal considerations” appears on every agenda for good measure.

And yet, when it comes to the national response, “we have not been able to identify who [in the Department of Health and Social Care] was accountable for major decisions, particularly where PPE is concerned.”


5: I walked past this van and thought: “What on earth is futsal?”

I inevitably ended up perusing the Wikipedia entry, and—having got a few paragraphs down—GCSE Spanish lessons, which often seemed to mention futsal, came flooding back.


6: There’s a line in Shuggie Bain about the smell of static electricity from TV screens, something I haven’t thought about in years. It reminded me of the unique power of olfactory memories.


7: Denis Norden, presenter of It’ll Be Alright on the Night, was the person who came up with the title Auntie’s Bloomers for the rival BBC show.


8: “The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.” It’s a few years since I read Kalanithi’s book; this blog post reminded me of the emotional experience.


9: Some people are making their own homemade covid vaccines. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it is a curious reminder of the full range of human responses to the offer of vaccines, from outright refusal to desperate home-brewing.


10: With knowledge of the treacherous frozen slush to come, it’s sometimes difficult to feel positive about snow. Yet there is something particularly beautiful about a fresh fall, and especially about the wintery quality of light it brings.


11: “A No 10 spokesman said: ‘Going on holiday is currently illegal.’”

There are moments when a simple sentence can just tip over into crystallising a bunch of feelings into something more like thoughts, and this Government line has proven to be one of those for me.

By nature, I’m quite libertarian: I don’t really like forcing anyone to do anything. This is quite an unusual proclivity in my specialty of health protection, but one which is shared (to a greater or lesser extent) by most of my immediate colleagues. I think better results are generally achieved through persuasion than through force, though of course a public health emergency like a pandemic is always going to require a multifaceted approach.

A little over a year ago, I was nothing short of astonished when returnees from China were (to all intents and purposes) forced to quarantine at Arrowe Park hospital: I remember suggesting in conversation with colleagues that this would turn out to be a “resignation issue” for the Secretary of State. Of course, I said, we should offer people supported quarantine. Of course, we should ask all returnees to quarantine at home at the very least. But of course we can’t force people. I was wrong.

So much has happened since then, much of it to my mind ethically questionable: do we really have informed consent from all care home residents for routine covid swabbing? If not, is it really in the best interests of each individual? Are we really sure we haven’t slipped into making “best interests” decisions on behalf of populations rather than individuals?—a slippery slope indeed.

We all now live under a level of legal restriction unprecedented in modern times, perhaps concordant with an unprecedented emergency. More than a hundred thousand people have died.

And yet: there is still something which sits discomfortingly about governments using on-the-hoof extreme restrictions as opposed to established ‘emergency’ approaches such as the Civil Contingencies Act. This is even more true in an era of populism and governments who have a history of riding roughshod over constitutional convention and legal limits on executive power.

Will we really find it simple to put the genie back in the bottle?


12: I know I’ve said it already, but would you look at the quality of the light?!


13: Both this podcast episode and this book make, in passing, a very clear argument about emissions being by far the most important ecological consideration of our times, and both, in passing, unflatteringly compare with the impact of most recycling. I’m really pleased to see clear communication on this, instead of a plethora of actions referred to as ‘sustainable this’ or ‘green that’ in a way that treats every action as roughly equal. I was also pleased to see that carbon offsetting, which I do all the time, is more effective than I imagined it to be!


14: When standing before the 1777 marble statue of Armand-Thomas Hue at the Frick Collection in New York, “try as you might, you absolutely will not be able to meet his eyes. I wonder if this was Jean-Antoine Houdon’s subtle aim, as it ultimately says more about his subject and is almost more of an artistic accomplishment than what he managed with Madame His—and also because it’s what most of us spend our lives actually doing.”


15: There are tens of roads named “Bow Street” in the UK, but it seems that the BBC considers the best way of writing about a Bow Street in Wales is through reference to one of the Bow Streets in London. It’s not hard to see why coverage like this is often judged to be inappropriately London-centric.


16: Copying and pasting between Apple devices is built-in.


17: Richard Smith reckons there have been 20 re-organisations of the NHS since 1999… and he ought to know. I haven’t even tried to keep count.


18: Energy efficiency ratings for household appliances are changing.


19: On hope so much depends.


20: The Government has broken the law again.


21: How Daft Punk’s robot outfits were made.


22: Daft Punk have split. 😱


23: Spectacularly failing to learn a lesson from promising a Christmas easing of restrictions a month in advance, the Government has chosen to make itself a hostage to fortune once again by promising an easing of restrictions even more than a month in advance.


24: “Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes for both.”


25: “It will pass. All the epidemics of the past have passed. Nobody is yet clear about the effect this will have on our lives, how disruptive it will be, how much it will cost each of us. Perhaps we will review some assumptions about the free market: even the most strenuous defenders of the total freedom of the market today cry out: “The State should help us! In times of difficulty, it becomes clear that collaborating is better than competing. My secret hope is that this will be our conclusion from the current crisis. Problems are best solved together. Humankind can survive only if we work together.”


26: “Nothing can deceive like a document.”


27: Pigs can play computer games.


28: Brexit means Brexit “Your parcel is delayed due to a Brexit related disruption. We are adjusting delivery plans as quickly as possible.”

This post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned.

31 things I learned in January 2021

1: The chai tea latte from Starbucks isn’t too bad.


2: I’ve found a new affection for Instagram: I left last year, but have drifted back over the Christmas period.


3: People used to wonder where birds went in winter.


4: It is, in fact, possible for the Government to announce a lockdown and publish the associated guidance simultaneously. Small successes are worth celebrating, especially 42 weeks after the Prime Minister said his Government would turn the tide on covid in 12 weeks and “send coronavirus packing”.


5: “I’m completely fed up. He just can’t lead and this can’t go on.”


6: I learned about the Dogger Bank wind farm.


7: I’ve never really thought about the ethics of architecture before, but there are some interesting and current questions in the field. Is it okay to design spaces for prolonged solitary confinement? Is it okay to design airports in the age of climate change? Is it okay to design waiting rooms when more humane technological solutions exist?


8: It’s instructive to look at how Tony Blair, who now pops up from time to time to offer the Government advice on pandemic management, reflected on his own management of a potential pandemic in his ‘risible’ autobiography:

During the run up to the election, we nearly had a vast panic over the approaching ‘flu pandemic’. There is a whole PhD thesis to be written about the ‘pandemics’ which never arise. In this case, the WHO had issued a report claiming there would be 500,000-700,000 deaths across the world. The old First World War flu statistics were rolled out, everyone went into general panic and any particular cases drew astonishing headlines of impending doom. Anyone who caught a cold thought they were part of a worldwide disaster.

I’m afraid I tried to do the minimum we could we the minimum expenditure. I understood the risk, but it just didn’t seem to me that the ‘pan-panic’ was quite justified. And in those situations, everyone is so risk-averse that, unless you take care, you end up spending a fortune to thwart a crisis that never actually materialises.

However, the reaction of the system is perfectly understandable. The first time you don’t bother is the time when the wolf is actually in the village, so you have to steer a path, taking precautions and be ready to ramp it up if it looks like this time it’s really happening. But oh, the endless meetings and hype of it all!

Is doing the bare minimum really that different to the current Government’s initial approach? Isn’t the lesson of history that we should hit potential pandemics hard and early? Or, has been quipped, is the real lesson from history that we never learn from history?


9: Publishers often tell readers that ebooks are the future; but when they want they books reviewed in the hallowed pages of The TLS, they still send hardbacks.


10: More than a month on, I’ve still not seen a better briefing on covid vaccines than Rupert Beale’s.


11: “Act like you’ve got covid” means “cycle seven miles from home”. That’s a round of charades I’m not winning.


12: “Everything will be confiscated—welcome to the Brexit, sir. I’m sorry.” Truckers’ butties have become headline news.


13: 2021 is a census year: with most students working online, it strikes me that University towns might be about to discover that they have smaller than expected official populations, which could cause trouble for the next decade.


14: In professional work, I’m a stickler for keeping writing concise. Only yesterday, I moaned to colleagues that a draft internal guideline had more than doubled in length with very little additional useful content, but a whole lot more waffle. We all know the Mark Twain quip that “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”, but it wasn’t until I read this article by former Court of Appeal judge Robin Jacob that I considered that work pressures might result in baggier writing. I’m sure this is true for my own work too; I’d just never connected the two before.


15: One of the challenges with trying to use the law to control an outbreak is that the law often comes to define the limits of the response. For example, laws requiring self-isolation will necessarily tightly define those who are required to self-isolate (say, people with known identified contact with an infectious person). However, there may be very good reasons for asking people outside of that group to self-isolate (say, people likely to have had contact with an infectious person, but without certainty). If systems are then built solely around requiring isolation, with the necessary barriers around it to prevent those who should not be required to isolate from being contacted, then it can become very practically difficult to ask people to isolate, even though this may be a key control measure in a given outbreak.

For example, if an app were to be built to allow people to ‘check in’ to venues, it would be difficult to conclusively prove that any two people in that venue had been in close contact, and it may therefore be legally challenging to require them to self-isolate. However, if ten people have been in the same venue at the same time and nine of them were infectious, it would be perfectly reasonable to ask the tenth to self-isolate on the basis that they may well be at high risk of contracting the disease.

If the app is built only to meet the needs only of the legislation and not of broader public health management of complex situations, it may turn out to be considerably less good than just keeping a written log of customer details to which judgement can be applied.


16: “St Uncumber: A medieval saint to whom people, especially women, used to pray to relieve them of their spouses. She was a Portuguese princess who didn’t want to get married. Her father found her a husband. She prayed to become unattractive and her prayer was answered. She grew a beard, which naturally put off the suitor. Her father had her crucified as a result. She’s depicted in King Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey, with long hair and a full beard.”


17: The Aston Villa football team is based in Aaron, near Birmingham. I have spent the last 35 years thinking it was a London-based team. My knowledge of football (and English geography) really is woeful.


18: “The only ‘world-beating’ element in our lives is the virus, and we’d benefit from a discourse that came clean about it.”


19: Matt Hancock, proponent of the Government’s “act like you’ve got covid” guidance—an act which includes playing rugby in a park—is self-isolating now that he’s a contact of someone who had covid. It’s an odd state of affairs when “acting like you’ve got covid” includes being out in public and in close contact with others, while acting like you are a contact of a covid case means self-isolating.


20: J R Pole once said that every president makes his predecessor look good. Today, we hope that’s not true.


21: “Works of art were until the early twentieth century typically displayed in ‘period rooms’ furnished to match the era of their creation.”


22: More than I ever wanted to know about those little built-in battery testers that always used to appear on AAs, but seem to have disappeared.


23: “One morning in 2002, while walking his daughter to school, forensic psychiatrist Dr Richard Taylor ran into an ex-patient, who waved to him cheerily. Years earlier, the man, a talented musician, had beaten his father to death during a psychotic episode, then set fire to his body before sticking a meat thermometer into his stomach (‘To see if he was done’). Taylor had assessed him in custody. He was ‘incredibly disturbed and violent’, he says. But having undergone years of treatment, the man had been freed under close supervision. ‘Who was that, Daddy?’ asked Taylor’s five-year-old daughter, as they walked on. ‘Oh, just someone I used to work with,’ he told her.” (from The Week magazine)


24: The commonest cause of fire in UK hospitals is arson, at least according to the fire safety mandatory training which has been frustrating Wendy this afternoon.


25: Marie Curie, the only scientist ever to have won Nobel Prizes in two different sciences, “was married in a civil ceremony wearing a dark blue outfit that she subsequently adapted and wore for years as a lab coat.”


26: 315 days after we were told that keeping the number of covid deaths “below 20,000” would be “a good outcome”, the number of deaths has passed 100,000: almost a third more than the number of British civilians who died in the First and Second World Wars combined. The UK now has a higher coronavirus death rate per million people than any other country.


27: Sometimes, something I read makes me feel regretful through association with and on behalf of medical colleagues who I’ve never met. It’s a strange feeling. This is one of those times:

Every medical staff member we met along the way has asked my wife how she’s doing, not just once but on every occasion they’ve crossed paths with her. She’s spent a lot of time telling them she’s fine. None of them ever did get around to asking me the same question.

I am being OK; I want to make that clear. I think that, by now, I’m getting it down pat. But am I OK?

Not yet.


28: “We have throughout followed scientific advice and done everything we can to minimise disease and suffering throughout the country.” Of course “we” did.


29: It’s a year since we set up our Incident Co-ordination Centre for ‘Wuhan novel coronavirus’ response at work, and I’ve learned that—as in life—some years in health protection can be substantially more challenging than others.


30: “Despite his own serious brush with the virus, Boris Johnson never approached it with the appropriate humility. He never mustered that consistency of purpose that was, among other things, a precondition for clear public messaging. He never sought to bring in from the cold rivals, such as former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who publicly engaged with the detailed dilemmas in a way he did not. Nor did he fully transcend his instinctive individualism, and summon a spirit of truly shared endeavour in the face of a shared threat. He continued to take a truculent stance to the likes of the teaching unions, who governments find difficult in ordinary times, but whom a creative leader could have turned into partners in this rare moment of national crisis. The requisite command and resolve was not there—and Britain is counting the cost in lives.”


31: Many of the organisations involved in the covid response are corporate members of the Plain English Campaign. Avoiding jargon is a key part of good communication in incident response. Yet my inbox is now full of emails talking about “two-week sprints”, “playbooks”, “taskforces”, “canvases” and more besides. Management-speak seems to have taken over to an alarming extent. I despair.

This post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned.

31 things I learned in December 2020

1: The national lockdown unlocks tomorrow, so the time feels right for another deeply ill-advised prediction with potential to make me look like an idiot when you read this next year.

Here in Tier 3 country, the “great unlock” means that non-essential retail is to re-open. That is, people are going to be able to take public transport into their nearest city centre or shopping centre, and spend spend spend in poorly ventilated indoor spaces where the main control measures are stickers on floors. Indeed, Councils are planning to string up their regular Christmas lights to really draw in the crowds. This seems to be because it is assumed that the transmission risk associated with retail remains consistent even during winter weather and with Christmas crowds, which seems deeply unlikely to me.

On top of that, the Government is lifting lockdown at a point where the country is still seeing more than 14,000 new covid cases per day, which means we have a large pool of people ready to act as sources of infection: the 14,000 only counts confirmed infection, there will be many additional people each day with undetected infection because they are asymptomatic or choose not to be tested.

It’s hard to see any outcome other than case numbers bouncing up rapidly over the next three weeks: and with case numbers getting towards / as high as / even higher than the numbers immediately before the latest lockdown, it’s hard to see how the planned lifting of restrictions over Christmas can possibly go ahead… but it’s also impossible to see how, politically, this is something on which the Government can reverse ferret.

Even without the lockdown and tiering decisions, the Government boxing themselves into a decision a month ahead of time looks crazy to me: it may have been more prudent to announce conditional principles backed up by work with retailers and the travel sector to guarantee refunds for cancelled travel plans if the relaxation can’t proceed.

Though, perhaps with a larger dose of optimism than realism, Wendy’s Christmas flights to Northern Ireland are already booked.


2: From this book, I learned that it was only in 1938 that an Act of Parliament required every local authority to provide a fire service. If you’d asked me to guess, I’d probably have said it became a requirement after the Great Fire of London, putting me about three centuries out


3: Instagram has had a big impact on the design of luxury watches.


4: One can now take music grade exams, up to grade five, in DJing.


5: “Today’s Conservative Party has evolved into a nasty party, which has given us a government of inexperienced and incompetent ministers at a time when the coronavirus pandemic increases the necessity for strong and able leadership.”


6: “Johnson often compares himself to Pericles on the grounds that they both enjoy good speeches, democratic engagement, big infrastructure and fame. But Pericles built the Parthenon, not the Emirates Cable Car.”


7: The first autopsy in the New World occurred in 1533 “when the Catholic Church ordered an autopsy on the conjoined infant twins Joana and Melchiora, who had died eight days after birth. The goal was to determine if the children shared a soul; the priest baptized them both separately as a matter of precaution as he was not sure whether they represented two bodies and two souls or only one.” The conclusion? Two.


8: The vaccination programme has begun.


9: “In the pandemic we hear figures every day of the numbers of death, but death, if not denied, is unfamiliar. Even in these days of the pandemic death is not much in our everyday lives, and when it does come it is largely hidden. We rarely see people dying; we don’t see corpses. In contrast, in 19th century England death was present almost every day. It was dreaded and feared but utterly familiar.”


10: I never previously realised that octopuses are so interesting. And they have beaks!


11: The Prime Minister who, a year ago, offered the electorate an “absolute guarantee” of securing a trade deal with the European Union by the end of 2020 says it is “very, very likely” that he will break his promise. Even if we ignore the bluster and accept that it’s pretty likely that a deal will be done in the end, it’s hard not to see this posturing as deeply damaging to trust in politics.


12: Dominic Cummings is a joke.


13: How to escape from Titanic.


14: It didn’t have to be this bad.


15: I’ve never before clocked the (obvious) fact that bone china isn’t vegan or vegetarian friendly. I wonder if there’s a vegan crockery alternative to William Edwards for First Class passengers on British Airways?


16: On my rainy walk to work this morning, a group of 12- or 13-year-old boys ran past me with their teachers (or perhaps coaches) riding bikes alongside. As the stragglers slowed to a walk, one of the faster kids aggressively shouted, “Come on you lazy bastards, get moving!” Something about this scene jarred with me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what.

I think it may be something to do with rarely hearing this sort of hectoring in everyday life. Had I been one of the stragglers at that age—quite likely, if I hadn’t found an excuse to get out of running in the first place—this would have been the least effective strategy to get me moving faster, and perhaps the most likely to make me roll my eyes and snigger.

It also made me wonder whose behaviour the shouty child was modelling. Perhaps it’s a sports thing. I’ve chaired three outbreak control team meetings for elite sports teams in the past week, and I don’t think I’ve felt as culturally out of my depth since working at the Department of Health around Glyndebourne time.


17: If you asked me to name words that typically follow “agile” then “lighthouse” would not previously have featured among my answers. Yet the phrase “agile lighthouse” has been crowbarred into my vocabulary by people involved in the covid response who seem to speak a different version of English to me, and searching online reveals that it is genuine management speak.


18: It’s hard to disagree with Dominic Cummings’s assessment that “Issues of existential importance are largely ignored and our political systems incentivise politicians to focus more on Twitter and gossip-column stories about their dogs.”

It’s equally hard to ignore the profound pathos of that statement given that less than a year ago, he was hubristically describing the Government as having “a significant majority and little need to worry about short-term unpopularity.”

Cummings is possibly the only man in Britain who needed to spend time in Government to appreciate that people who dedicated their lives to winning regular public popularity contests are people who dislike being disliked—and Alexander “Boris” de Pfeffel Johnson dislikes it more than most. It’s hard to conceive a more fundamental misjudgement of character than assuming this Prime Minister to be one who wouldn’t worry about short-term unpopularity in pursuit of more noble goals.


19: With the number of new confirmed covid-19 cases in the UK each day now similar to that at the introduction of the November lockdown, the planned lifting of restrictions over Christmas is cancelled. But, please guv’, it’s nothing to do with the Government’s decision-making, it’s all to do with a new variant of the virus.


20: In quite possibly the most bizarre bit of Government messaging to date, the Secretary of State for Health is urging everyone to “act like they have the virus” while imploring them to continue attending school, workplaces (if they can’t work remotely), take outdoor exercise in public spaces, visit essential retailers, and more besides—all of which are not allowed nor remotely sensible for people who have covid. Marr really ought to have asked, “Would you be sitting here in my studio if you had the virus?”


21: Napoleon, it is claimed, “directed Bourrienne to leave all letters unopened for three weeks, and then observed with satisfaction how large a part of the correspondence had thus disposed of itself and no longer required an answer.”


22: “The government has consistently throughout this year been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures with regards to coronavirus.” I’m not sure to which curve the Home Secretary refers; presumably not the curve which, to date, shows that more than twice as many UK residents have died of or with covid-19 than voted for her at the last election.


23: There are seven kinds of gift… or maybe more.


24: “In the 1960s, NASA went to huge expense to contain possible pathogens from the Moon” but the measures were so disastrously poor that the effort would have had little effect. This is a great story: particular highlights are the choice to base control measures on spread of Yersinia pestis and that “NASA’s plans stipulated that quarantine at the LRL could be broken in the event of a medical emergency. Ironically, if a lunar microbe made an astronaut really sick, that astronaut would be removed from quarantine.”


25: “Even on the darkest nights there is hope in the new dawn.”


26: I’m currently really enjoying The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The novel (at least as far as I’ve read) has vignettes from Cyril Avery’s life aged 7, 14, 21 and so on, every seven years. This has made Wendy and me reflect on how this structure would reflect our own lives: both of us have collected five vignettes so far; each vignette would see us living in a different house, each at a different school or workplace. We’d both have few recurring characters outside family—though we’ve been together for the most recent three vignettes of each other’s stories.


27: “If you tell Facebook not to collect location information from your iPhone, then it doesn’t, right? Wrong.” The fact that Facebook collects oodles of data on users is hardly news, but now and again, something like this pops up and it feels so egregious that it almost lends credibility to the conspiracy theorists.


28: There’s a direct line of succession from the Acorn processor in the BBC Micro which sat in the corner at school to the ARM (Acorn RISC Machine) processor in the iPhone I’m typing this on.


29: The iOS Reminders app has got much more fully featured since I last used it (around iOS 5).


30: A Government which claims to be keen on parliamentary sovereignty is ramming legislation through without time for proper parliamentary scrutiny and then shutting the doors on the House of Commons for an extra week. Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition is supporting the Government in implementing legislation it disagrees with, because it is unable to figure out a better approach. And in the world of 2020, all of this feels like par for the (lamentable) course.


31: At the stroke of 11pm, the Government’s actions stripped me of more freedoms and opportunities than at any other moment in my life so far.

Instead of having free pick of the job market across 28 countries, I’m limited to one. Instead of having the automatic right to live in any of 28 countries, I’m limited to one. No longer can I travel at will or whim across Europe; and no longer will I be guaranteed a lack of roaming charges.

Brexit is regrettable for much bigger reasons than those that affect me directly—not least friends born in other EU countries who have dedicated their lives to the NHS now being made to feel like second-class citizens (if even ‘citizens’ at all)—but when Government rhetoric is all about victory and celebration, it feels like tonight’s a night for self-indulgent melancholy.

This post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned.




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