Photo courtesy of Stanley Ndua

Even as lockdown measures are eased around the world this week, good news stories can seem a little hard to come by, perhaps because easing lockdown gives a lot of people a sense of unease, or at least those of us watching the numbers carefully. But we promised we’d start bringing in a little good news dammit, so that we will. And what could be better than a selection of feelgood audio-visual nonsense, that includes the mayor of Queenstown doing a bungee jump whilst yelling: “Woohoo! Queenstown!”? Seriously, beat that.

Listen to the audio version of this week’s blog.

The World

Remembering ze Stasi

The international shit-show extraordinaire that has been the race to produce a privacy preserving contact tracing app rages on.

Everything connected by a central point? Or everything interconnected without an obvious central point? It’s all interconnected man…

Any party, regardless of motivations, holding extensive records of everyone’s social interaction rings alarm bells for anyone who lived in (or near) East Germany in the late 20th century. 

The Germans have recently transitioned from a centralized approach (backing the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing standard, or PEPP-PT as the kids are calling it) to a decentralized approach; what does this mean?  

Centralized approach: pseudonymized data is gathered and processed on a government server (i.e. there is a remote, central, server with all of the data on it), bearing in mind this data is about where you’ve been and who you’ve been physically near.

Decentralized approach: ‘ephemeral IDs’ are only uploaded for matching in the event of a user’s confirmed diagnosis i.e. data primarily lives at the edges of the networks, on the phones – where it is created – and much of the process for determining a virus-transmission risk is performed on people’s phones. (NB: there is still the use of a ‘relay server’ to broadcast cryptographically obscured IDs for infected folks, since a node (phone) in the network won’t necessarily be able to contact another phone, or know who that phone is). 

Are the UK and France, the only two countries in Europe still pursuing the centralized approach, going to manage to not be in breach of their own privacy laws? This concern naturally provides a very strong motivation to not release the code for public scrutiny, as they have not. While also providing plenty of runway to blame big tech companies for frustrating their goals. 

In a blog post on the UK’s National Cyber Security Center (you know, your UK favourite gov cyber security blog) from May 4th one can find a little straw-clutching right from the outset as the sub-header reads ‘how this […] will help us fight the coronavirus while protecting your privacy and security [so far so good] (and not draining your phone battery)’… I’m not sure my phone battery’s longevity is top priority for me right now. 

Beside the centralized/decentralized distinction there is another choice about who decides who is sick. The doctors and HCPs with the tests, or the better-than-expert general members of the British public. Seriously though, there’s a trade off between turnaround times for results from tests & allowing those who (might) have the virus to warn those they’ve been in contact with ASAP. 

Another rather fundamental concern here eruditely observed by The Economist is that mobile-internet subscriptions aren’t quite universal; the % of the population in Europe with mobile internet is below 80%. 

This piece from the Electronic Frontier Foundation laying out questions and answers regarding Apple and Google’s COVID-19 Exposure Notification API is worth reading. However, if you’re too busy, the TL;DR is:

“Proximity tracking apps might be, at most, a small part of a larger public health response to COVID-19.” 

Should we trust google and apple? Apple, maybe – their business model is pretty reliable (in the same way slaves and conflict minerals are reliable). Google, on the other hand, made android phones cheaper to subsidize data collection efforts, so probably not. They’re to some extent piggy-backing on Apple’s perceived legitimacy here. 

Do we trust the government to sensibly manage a database of location and contact records? The UK NHSX team can’t even maintain an email correspondence with TechCrunch where they all appear to know what’s going on… so that isn’t exactly confidence inspiring.

Just to reiterate a point we made last week – none of this means we should hold off on hiring physical people (remember the whole mass unemployment thing?) to do contact tracing the old fashioned, and still very effective, way; speaking to people and their contacts via phone or carrier pigeon or whatever reliable means of communication you choose. (For the record, the UK has so far managed to employ 1,500 of their targeted 18,000, although presumably the government maths involves counting those who haven’t been hired yet but could be and those who’ve been hired more than once, meaning we’ve smashed our target…)

Trousers-down Lockdown

As lockdown rumbles on, the Dutch bring us a demonstration that they’re just a bunch of laid-back really cool guys. Singletons have been given advice by The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) that it might be a good idea to stave off the ‘ole corona-lonelys by finding themselves a ‘seksbuddy’, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a slight change of policy following a backlash from many Dutch who recognise the importance to emotional wellbeing: “not having sex is not an option” (try telling that to those of us in the UK isolating at our parents’ place, it very much is).

Landslide Victory

We wrote a couple of weeks ago about the upcoming Polish election, with which the incumbent president was pushing ahead, despite it being labelled “impossible” because he feared he would find it trickier to win if it were to be delayed.Well the election went ahead… sort of. It recorded a record low turnout, coming in at 0%. The election was never cancelled, but none of the polling stations opened and postal voting wasn’t available, rendering voting rather tricky.

The US

Drop it like it’s Feverish

Do all reptiles lay eggs? Well, if swiftly liquidating your assets in anticipation of a big panic can in any way, shape or form be compared to shitting a golden egg, then yes Richard Burr lays eggs. 

The Senator Richard Burr (hopefully soon to be the late Senator… as in, no longer a Senator, but still alive and slivering just fine) has recently had his cell phone seized by the FBI after selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of shares in public companies on the basis of information which was not yet public circa February 2020. 

Insider trading is illegal – and one thing, morally and functionally. Going above and beyond one’s privileged information for one’s own financial gain should hopefully go down in history as, Lowering The Burr; e.g. One Lowers the Burr by selling a significant quantity of shares in anticipation of a market crash, before actually downplaying the severity of the whole thing to the public. 

Médecins Dans Frontières

Médecins Sans Frontières establish emergency field hospitals in places where the apparatus of the state has totally failed. Often bleak wartorn places where humanity has lost the capacity for peaceful coexistence or otherwise been pushed to the edge of survival. 

New Mexico has the shameful accolade of now being internationally recognized as such a place, by an NGO no less – not some shameful political organisation (though who would really be surprised by the GOP flinging shit at Doctors Without Borders? ‘We need borders to keep the brown people out!’ Ok Mr.Pence, sit down, comb your Jesus-doll’s hair and imagine some gays suffering for their sins). 

Until recently MSF did not have a presence in the world’s richest country. Now they do, to protect Native American tribes suffering disproportionately from COVID19. The United States collectively owns a deeply tragic circumstance here, the severity of which can possibly only be done justice by considering the narrative arc of European influence on the American indigenous. One of geologically significant death and destruction wrought by foreign diseases, business interests and seemingly perpetually anachronistic moral standards. 

You Can Musk Your Own Way

Not content with stock market manipulation, and setting his child up for a life of bullying, Elon Musk is doubling down on being a colossal dick. Musk has unilaterally decided to reopen his tesla factory in northern California, against a county order closing workplaces. It seems though that it was largely a theatrical effort, as the local health body had already cow-towed to his demands and agreed a plan for Tesla to reopen with certain health measures in place, but Musk wanted to make a little noise. Some have suggested it’s a PR stunt (alongside his threats to move production to Texas) to gain a following with the more rural-American (and perhaps libertarian) target market he’s seeking for the Tesla Cybertruck.

The UK

A Very Private Emergency

Accusations have been emerging throughout the pandemic of the government using the emergency to transfer healthcare responsibilities to the private sector. This is a tricky act to balance, on the one hand it would be foolish not to utilise private sector capability to make up shortfalls, but on the one would surely take caution in how and to whom contracts are awarded. But, as was demonstrated so expertly by disgraced (but not enough) former transport secretary Failing Grayling’s ferry contracts, this government could not be accused of taking an abundance of caution in handing out huge pots of money.

The accountancy firm Deloitte has been handed responsibility for seizing procurement from local trusts and centralising efforts; the same Deloitte who have cocked up testing results, oh and were just convicted for fraud (see WJH 2nd May and 25th April). They’re also being paid to handle the admin for our ‘Lighthouse Labs’; I’m all in favour of second chances, but giving Deloitte two chances to lose test results seems like a level of forgiveness Jesus Christ himself would have baulked at.

Fellow bean-counters KPMG were awarded the contract to set up the Nightingale hospital in London; that’s the same KPMG who were convicted in the US in 2019 of stealing information regarding upcoming audits of their clients in order to doctor their records. 

Capita (an outsourcing firm of dubious definition) have responsibility for vetting and onboarding returning NHS staff. That’s the same Capita who took so long to vet disability benefit claimants that some of them literally died because they didn’t receive any money, before the Civil Service bailed them out.

You’ll be relieved to hear then that our national pandemic PPE stockpile has been organised by Movianto who are unrelated to all the above. Less reassuringly, the stockpile was held until recently in a 1950s warehouse on the outskirts of Liverpool, with no mains electricity, which was built partly from asbestos. Drivers collecting goods from their new warehouse have told of ‘chaos’, waiting hours to collect the wrong shipments, and inaccessible supplies due to blocked aisles. When the army arrived to take over they allegedly had to reorganise the warehouse before distribution could start.

All these contracts have been awarded under a set of special pandemic rules which suspends the usual controls on procurement. It’s unclear what, if any, sunset clauses have been included.

Newton under the Money Tree

Here’s a crazy idea: what if increasing government debt to GDP ratio during times of total shithousery wasn’t a bad thing? We learnt pretty hard in the UK that attempting to balance the books *before* your economy has actually recovered doesn’t work all that well (remember austerity, that ended a few months ago, 12 years after the GFC?), and massively drags out your recovery, whilst amplifying inequality and driving excess deaths. One might also posit that under-funding your health service during this time could later trip you up somehow…

Reassuringly, chancellor Rishi Sunak has been scrumping money from the magic money orchard with great enthusiasm, leading me to believe that his total lack of experience is causing him to actually listen to people who may know what they’re talking about. It will be interesting though to see how long the Conservatives can go balls-to-the-wall with policies that could be said to resemble socialism (*the back-benchers shudder*) before the purse-strings snap shut.

We enjoyed this article from the emeritus professor of economics at Merton College, Oxford (i.e. someone who may know what they’re talking about) explaining the dangers of media fixation with the deficit.

Check Yourself

Those glorious, sun-dappled days as we ran carefree through the wheat fields of Brexit wrangling seem so distant now. But some may remember in the distant, distant past, when our glorious PM insisted that despite the fact that Northern Ireland would effectively remain part of the European single-market to avoid a hard border with Eire, there would be simply no need to have a hard border between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland. If any businesses faced paperwork, they should call him, Johnson said, and he would “direct them to throw that form in the bin”.

Well I hope he has a comfortable headset to avoid occupational health getting worried about shoulder cramps, because he’s going to spend a lot of time on the phone. The government finally admitted this week (in private) that goods will be funneled through three ports in Northern Ireland and undergo custom checks, which will effectively form a hard border.

Presumably more staff will be needed on top of the extra 50,000 currently being recruited to deal with post-brexit border paperwork. The Brexiteers will have won then, because it’ll be so much more efficient than the 55,000 that make up the entire EU staff. We’re 5,000 better off. Ha. Take that Jean-Claude Van Juncker.

Bringing a Johnson to a Knife Fight

It took me a while to realise that this wasn’t part of a peculiar, lucid pandemic dream (which are apparently a thing now), but it’s true: the Conservative leaning (leaning to the degree that they’re horizontal) newspaper The Telegraph bloody love labour leader Keir Starmer. Like they really can’t get enough of him. Not only did they splash an article he wrote for them, they fawned over how he “took Boris Johnson apart like a Duplo set”.

The thing is, they’re absolutely right. Nobody, even the leaniest of the right-leaning papers can deny that Starmer is crushing it. His verbal jousting isn’t based on blustering latin phrases as Johnson’s is, it’s precise, surgical, cutting and utterly ruthless, like someone who had a successful career as a barrister, which he did. 

Faced with him Johnson is visibly outclassed. He quivers and murmurs and stutters ineffectually like a six year-old rapscallion caught with his pants down pissing on a war memorial by the headmaster and made to explain himself in front of the school assembly.A particular highlight this week was the letter Starmer sent to Johnson after the PM had accused Starmer of misquoting him (ballsy considering Starmer had the quote in front of him), inviting Johnson back to the commons to correct the record.

Thanks for reading! We’ll be back next week, get in touch with the authors Will Marshall and Alistair Simmonds on Twitter and let us know what you did and didn’t like.

Success! You're on the list.