Fandango’s One Word Challenge (12 October 2020)

Did you know that, in chemistry, another name for Sulphuric Acid is Oil of Vitriol?

Sulphuric Acid is a nasty substance, very corrosive. Its main use is in the manufacture of fertilizer.

for Fandango’s One Word Challenge (FOWC), vitriol.

Coming Out

I don’t pretend that this will be a particularly interesting post, but I just wanted to get these ideas down on paper somewhere. I’m sorry for boring you, but it’s what I’ve been thinking about. Please just skip if not your cup of tea.


The map I use to look at my COVID numbers is quite finely-grained. It splits the UK into about 7,000 zones. The zones vary in physical size, seem to be driven more by population. I estimate that London has about 1,000 of these zones, real examples include South Hampstead or Central Westminster. What we might think of as a “suburb” generally splits into 2 or 3 of these zones.

Out in the countryside, where I am, my zone covers this village and the next. A far bigger area than Westminster or Hampstead.

I’m obviously talking about the UK, but there’s nothing really stopping other countries applying this too. My friend in Australia says he knows COVID data to the postcode level, people in the US say they know at the county level. The point is, it’s quite finely-grained.

On my map, each of these areas has a number of cases, confirmed within the last week. They fuzz up the numbers when they are very low, just because there might be 1 or 2 residual cases, presumably because those few cases are not statistically significant. But 100 cases in that zone, we’d see it!

I don’t think that’s a bad start, but I would sooner see a count of the number of active cases. We can calculate rates just by looking at how these numbers vary over time. I think there is currently an issue that somebody who tested positive eight days ago, who might still be infectious, drops off the official numbers. And I wouldn’t fuzz-out any data, because the agency’s role should be collation and presentation, not interpretation.

And, how do we decide when a case is no longer infectious? On that, I’d take advice.

My idea starts with that kind of granularity. By all means, disseminate these numbers, but I would just use two headline colours to describe one of these zones – “Red” and “Green”.

I see a Green zone would be no COVID cases. Or, very few. There would probably need to be a time element in there, too, like “no cases for the last 4 weeks”. Again, I’d take advice on the exact length of time.

Also, to qualify as being Green, all of the zone’s immediate neighbours should also be Green. Just because it is inevitable that people will travel at least to the next zone.

Inside a Green Zone, shops and businesses open as usual. People can move about their green zone. Masks (and distancing) are optional – neither is necessary if the place is virus-free. If people want to travel, that is up to them, but if they travel into a Red Zone, they should mask up.

A Red Zone, on the other hand, is one where there are COVID cases. Or, has a Red neighbour. Again, because people will move about.

Inside a Red Zone, the advice is to discourage mixing. This might mean people staying home, and some shops and businesses closing their doors, if they cannot operate without mixing.

And, because the goal is to discourage mixing altogether, any rules like “no more than 6” or “no more than 10” go out of the window. Same household only. Quite a grim scene, something looking like March more than September. Travel outside of the zone should be minimised and any excursion to any destination, Red or Green, requires a mask.

It’s a pity, pitting people’s mental health against their physical health, but physical health wins out, because of the “infectious” aspect. If someone might have COVID, even though it might help their mental health if they can see other people, they cannot be allowed to spread it. Put in those terms, it becomes a no-brainer. With some things, we just have to say “tough”.

In terms of whether a zone is Red or Green, I’d see those values being calculated daily (numbers are already recorded daily in the UK), everywhere. It’s not as if we require a human to make a decision – it is simply applying a formula, can be recalculated in seconds. A zone is Green or Red because of…. some definite criteria, not somebody’s judgement. And, it is possible for a Green Zone to become Red, as well as the other way around. End dates? Are really for the virus to decide. Right now, a reasonable end date seems “forever”.

There are a million more details to iron out, but those are my top-level thoughts.

First among those details, we need to be sure that the numbers which drive these decisions are as accurate as possible. So, that means lots of testing. Test enough, and we could even scale this down to the Red/Green Household level.

Second, we’re again telling businesses that they must close, telling people to stay home from work, so there are financial implications. I don’t think that locking down automatically means dire financial consequences, as we are all in the same boat. If everybody loses a billion dollars, nobody really loses anything. The difference is that a nation’s approach will dictate the speed at which it comes out of this and gets its economy back on track. And that speed *will* make a difference.

Third, it seems clear to me that, whatever plans we have, we have very little enforcement, at least in the UK. The police were a prime target during austerity. It is far too late this time around, but we should be asking ourselves whether we want enforcement in the future. That might be a pandemic, or it might be something else. And if the answer is “yes”, shouldn’t we be doing something about it? Another pandemic? No way? Well, how many once-in-a-lifetime events have we seen in recent memory?