Raging Bull

I tend to follow quite a few blogs, just on the basis that once my appetite is whetted, I’ll think “I’ll just follow then for a short while and see how I like them”.

As it happened, today I was reading a died-in-the wool advocate of a particular political persuasion. They wrote political posts, which I don’t mind because I myself am interested in current affairs. But anybody who is dyed-in-the-wool anything, I’m wary of, because it usually means they’re not prepared to see faults in their own side. I find that if you’re going to look at things objectively, you generally have to be pretty-much independent.

The last straw came this morning when they targetted a politician from the other side, and the first thing they did was to criticise their spelling. And, I just sat there, thinking “would they criticise me for that, too?” With only one usable hand, they wouldn’t believe the gymnastics I need to perform when I write a post. They would not believe the dumb-ass mistakes I make when I first put something down onto paper. They wouldn’t believe the amount of proof-reading that goes on, because the stroke left me with dodgy eyes, too, and typos are embarrassing. Yet there are are still typos in there. They wouldn’t believe that I usually publish my posts privately first, so I can listen to them one last time before I make them public, to make sure they “sound” right. And that nobody else sees each post until about the 12th version.

Ah, well, one less blog to follow…

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?

Viewing Habits

I think I’m going to have to stop watching what was my favourite news programme.

I started watching the show tonight, as normal, and the main stories are virus-related. The focus tonight was on universities – in the UK they are just about to start up again, several of them are able to implement their own testing (they have their own labs, after all), and several of them have already detected virus outbreaks. Some universities are implementing a “no going out” policy, else they will kick you out. I’m not sure how that would work because universities have no jurisdiction over day-to-day life.

Anyway, a UK tradition is Freshers’ Week. Basically, a week of socialising for new students. Every university has one. When I was at mine, I was not sober for a week.

This year, of course, this is all curtailed.

And they interview a new student. “It’s not fair”, she complains, “we don’t get a Freshers’ Week like they did in other years”.

And I’m sitting here, just thinking: “Fair? For fuck’s sake, it’s not fair that people out there are dying because of this, let alone you being unable to have a piss-up”.

So, my BP goes up a notch.

A few minutes later, they talk to some other students, about this out-of-bounds rule. The two students are studying for Master’s degrees, rather than standard degrees. So, they’re not sure whether the rule applies to them.

Another FFS moment, I’m afraid. They clearly have no idea that these rules are put in place to discourage people from meeting other people. Of course you’re fucking included!

I don’t need to be watching these idiots. What’s on the other side?

Update #3 – Am I being Unreasonable?

Hot on the heels of my earlier update, I was looking to find the info from other sources. I want to share this link far and wide:

https://www.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=47574f7a6e454dc6a42c5f6912ed7076

This only has information for England, I’m afraid. But:

  • The page displays a map. The map allows you to zoom in and out, and move around. A bit like Google.
  • You can also type in your post code. It needs to be the full postcode. AB1 2CD. That will take you to your location on the map.
  • In the top-left corner, there is also an icon, “go to my current location”, if your device supports it.
  • Left-click on the map. A little box pops up.
  • The box contains the location’s MSOA. I had no idea what that is. Middle Super Output Area, apparently. Some kind on unitary authority which I have never heard of, in all my 50-odd years. Looks like it is roughly equivalent to the “wards” we have at election time. So quite detailed. My MSOA covers mine and the next village, better focussed that I thought I could achieve.
  • The other thing this box tells you is the number of confirmed cases this last week. Exactly what I wanted to know. They update the map daily, and so “the last week” just rolls and rolls.

I guess the first thing I need to do is to follow this map, and see whether it agrees with the numbers I trust. The source is the UK Government, same source as my other info, so I’m hopeful. At the same time, I’m aware that the entire UK had 1,000 new cases yesterday. That’s a lot of cases.

If the map is good, however, the prognosis looks good outside of London and Birmingham – our biggest cities. My little area is showing zero cases this last week. Most areas are showing zero.

My main aim of this was to find local data, and I believe I have found that now. Although the hospital have been no help whatever, I’m just gonna drop the FoI request. They could have saved me a lot of time by pointing me here, but I have the result I was looking for.

Update #2: Am I Being Unreasonable?

I’m aware this is becoming a chain, so I’ll try to keep this short. No responses in six weeks, then two within a day!

As a very brief recap, I have asked for information such as the number of COVID tests, number of positives, performed by my local hospital. They will not disclose these numbers.

The first response, Tuesday afternoon, I posted about below. I replied immediately (words to the effect) that I did not believe that they did not keep numbers. Partly, this reply was for legal reasons – the FoI Law here requires that my next step was to complain to the hospital itself about the decision, and to ask them to reconsider.

To my surprise, I received another message first thing Wednesday morning. It seemed they did have the information I was looking for (of course they did), but they hinted they had a problem with the timeline that I specified.

I had requested regular updates, nominally weekly, starting asap, until our government declares an end to the pandemic in the UK. Other agencies now release data weekly, so I didn’t think this was unreasonable.

I rather think that they were expecting firm start and end dates, you know, give me the data between 1st August and 31st August. But how can I specify a firm date? How do I know when this will end? At the very end of their response, they seemed to acknowledge that I was requesting a commitment to publish ongoing information, and I can’t help thinking that this is their problem.

So Wednesday morning I fired off a non-legal message. I just wanted to establish whether they would be prepared to release any information as a one-off. To be clear on whether their problem was actually in the ongoing updates of the numbers. I offered to work with them.

I am awaiting their response. It’s entirely likely I will not get one, but I have to give them the chance to respond.

Next Steps

I’ll approach the information agency. I’ve jumped through all the necessary hoops now, so can approach them directly. They say they can adjudicate, although it wouldn’t surprise me if they had no teeth.

I have to be prepared, though, for the FoI agency to side with the hospital. The act seems to be aimed at publication of one-off information, whereas I’m looking for regular updates.

The other option is that I could be a real pain in the ass, and submit a bunch of fresh requests, one per week. It seems daft to submit a cluster of these things, where just one should do, but these things are only emails, after all.

This is so much harder than it needs to be.