Consequences of COVID-19 PPE surplus

Following an overwhelming response from national businesses and sympathetic nations across the globe, Britain now has a huge surplus of PPE (personal protection equipment) and testing kits. This is a complete turnaround from the situation only a week ago. Embarrassed politicians are now having to explain why and find a fair way to redistribute them to parts of the world where they are still desperately needed. Gowns and masks are already being sold illegally on the “blue market”, as the new practice is called, with organised crime netting millions in the process. Health officials are also worried that NHS trusts and care homes are being duped by websites offering fake testing kits at a quarter the normal price. Some of these have been found to be just repackaged pregnancy testing kits. The government issued a statement today stating that “the cost to the economy of using these kits would dwarf the amount saved and cause untold misery to a significant proportion of the population. There is no shortage of the genuine kits and any authorities found using them [the fake kits] will incur severe penalties”.

Now that NHS and other care staff are properly protected and able to get on with their jobs with little or no fear of infection, a huge avalanche of patient data and other documentation is poised to engulf the depleted army of statisticians and pundits remaining after COVID-19 has run its course. China has sent a crack team of statisticians from Wuhan, the original source of the virus, to help with data collection and analysis. President Trump has taken a dim view of this, tweeting that “Letting these people loose on this is the same security threat as having Huawei provide 5G networking. Don’t do it.” Boris Johnson has yet to comment.

According to the chief scientific adviser “Big data on the pandemic are likely to rot in the fields unless means can be found for storing and analysing the sheer volume of data this outbreak has created while it is still fresh”. Experts at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva have offered use of their facilities while the physics programme remains on hold. The LHC produces and processes approximately 15 petabytes of data per year; that is the equivalent of one photograph (2 MB) per year per person on the planet, roughly the same rate as the pandemic.

Without the ability to analyse the data and the policies and procedures developed to deal with the pandemic there is no chance of understanding how the virus behaves and how to combat it, what decisions were good or bad and who was to blame. So, in cooperation with Oxbridge University’s department of virology (nothing to do with virility) we are starting a new peer-to-peer computing project, similar to SETI@home (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) called COVID-19@home . This project will utilise the massive computing power distributed across the nation and connected by fast and superfast broadband internet to analyse data from healthcare sources and correlate it with historical data from tracing apps.

Some important facts about statistics

There are two kinds of people in the world: scientists and people like you and me. These two types of people see the world very differently. Here are two examples from the COVID-19 outbreak.

The graph. This is what a graph looks like to a scientist (remember we include statisticians here because they understand numbers, whereas politicians do not).

Interesting graph showing mortality rates from COVID-19 in different countries

And this is what it looks like to you and me (remember, we include politicians here because they are no different from you and me, even though they still refer to us as “the people” and themselves as “the government” or “the opposition”). What we see is some nice colours and shapes.

Graph showing things going up and coming down again

Charts & diagrams. Here is what a bar chart looks like to a scientist:

Fascinating horizontal bar chart showing frequency of symptoms of COVID-19

And this is what a complicated diagram looks like to us with lots of information in it:

Lots of facts sorted by colour and size

Westminster. Big Ben repairs completion still uncertain

Horologists are working around the clock to ensure that the world’s most iconic timepiece and in particular its eponymous great bell are working in time for the next official opening of parliament in 2021. Contractors acknowledged being late and over budget and were told by the Westminster Clerk of Works, Ben Little, that the “clock is ticking”, an unfortunate turn of phrase seized upon by the media who were quick to point out that “the clock is very much not ticking”.

This soon deteriorated into a tsunami of silly questions and jokes which the wretched Clerk was totally unprepared for. The Daily Express asked if this was a “wind up”, the Mail on Sunday suggested that management should have been more “hands on”. A Sun reporter called him a “two-faced bell end” who had “dropped a major clanger and should be strung up”. Another reporter said it was “time to ring in the changes” and “expel the bats from the Westminster belfry”. Mr Little provided scant cause for comfort, as he was unable to confirm whether or not the work would be finished on time.

Some facts about Big Ben [courtesy of Wikipedia]

Big Ben is the nickname for the Great Bell of the striking clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London and is usually extended to refer to both the clock and the clock tower. The official name of the tower in which Big Ben is located was originally the Clock Tower, but it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II.

The tower was designed by Augustus Pugin in a neo-Gothic style. When completed in 1859, its clock was the largest and most accurate four-faced striking and chiming clock in the world.

On 21 August 2017, a four-year schedule of renovation works began on the tower, which are to include the addition of a lift. There are also plans to re-glaze and repaint the clock dials. With a few exceptions, such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday, the bells are to be silent until the work is completed in 2021.

The Case for Rebuilding the Berlin Wall

Why swap a vintage Lada for a cheap BMW? Why build a McDonalds in an improvement area? Why tear down a perfectly good wall? These fascinating questions and their answers give us a glimpse into the enigmatic nature of the Berliner. From dictators and despots through presidents and pastries, history has shown the Berliner to be a determined, if ill-defined force in the battle against conservatism, mediocrity and restraint. Why, after only a few minutes in that heady atmosphere of downtown Kurfürstendamm, was I overwhelmed by the urge to buy a pair of leopardskin platform shoes? Berlin is a city of extremes. Agony and ecstasy cuddle one another in an uneasy alliance born of adversity. The exquisite ecstasy of my purchase was finely balanced against the extreme agony of my feet. Those of you who know what that means may be indulging in a little Schadenfreude right now. Well, fuck you!!

As is the custom on my travels, my first night was spent “re-orientating”. This involves writing the name of the hotel on the soles of my feet and spraying an area in front of the main entrance. I was reassured to see that the neighbourhood, flush with upmarket shops and restaurants, had an elegant sufficiency of luxury goods on offer. Opposite the hotel, nestling between two boutiques, is a darkly glowing erotic bar, with “rooms upstairs” (so I’m told) . Round the corner, just past the railway bridge at Savigny Platz, is a fully-fledged brothel stocked with beauties from the Eastern Block (or so the barman tells me). Well, you may be asking, why, with an empty trolley in the supermarket of love, did I not treat myself to a microwave dinner? You see, with two perfectly good porn channels beamed directly into my hotel room (so the brochure says), it simply wasn’t necessary.

Berlin and I go back a long way. In 1987 we both had walls to be proud of. Neither the British Met Office nor the German Government was able to predict the orgy of destruction that was to follow over the next two years. Ever since then, I have been incubating a growing guilt for spending the insurance money on fancy clothes and wild parties. In its own way, Germany has trodden the same path. It has spent over £20 billion on a massive urban regeneration programme in this city alone. This money has been squandered on infrastructure, buildings and business and community development schemes. Like the perimeter of my garden, it is unlikely that the Berlin wall will be rebuilt in the foreseeable future. Years of painstaking work by an impoverished communist government and kilometres of priceless graffiti were raised to the ground in a matter of days in the name of freedom and unification. Hundreds of soldiers and guard dogs lost their jobs overnight as wall fever gripped the nation, dazzling East Berliners in the glaring excesses of the West. Fortunately, the sections of the wall are numbered, so in theory at least, it could be reconstructed if the political will is there. Not so with my sad pile of bricks back home, cruelly mocking me with their triumphant anarchy. We’ll see.

Enough of the wall per se. One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was to explore the differences between Berlin now and as it was when I was last there in 1987; that is Berlin with and without the wall. Apart from superficial differences, like seeing lots of East Germans in the shopping malls, a distinct lack of Ladas and the construction of new government buildings to house the parliament when it finally moves here, the most noticeable change has been the weather. Last time I was here, temperatures were in the thirties and the place was awash with bronzed, half-naked bodies (wholly naked in some places), iced coffee was being drunk like it was going out of fashion (which it was) and air-conditioning was a non-negotiable right.

Now I look out of my hotel room across a bleak snowscape, the Siberian winds howling across the yawning gap that used to be the wall. Traffic is at a standstill. Drifts build up in doorways and between cars. Those hardy enough to be out tramp silently through the heaving whiteness, buried deep inside layers of rubber, leather and PVC. No-one in their right mind could ascribe this sea change to mere chance or a winter/summer thing. No, it is a direct consequence of removing the wall at a critical point where two weather systems meet. It is imperative that the wall be put back as soon as possible, before Berlin becomes just another frozen penal colony on the fringes of civilisation.