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Speed Read – Testing non-testing times

Every week the Friday Speed Read spends longer on this byline than can be justified by either its importance or quality. On the plus side, I’ve just learnt that “byline” is not hyphenated so that’s something.

So how are we going to do this then? As I see it, we’ve got three options:

Press Option 1 for a realistic assessment of a worsening situation, possibly accompanied by a tabloid-esque headline like “The resurgence”.

Press Option 2 for a typically meandering, domestic anecdote that involves me tiling my kitchen floor or planting tulip bulbs in the warm autumn sunshine in a shameless attempt to postpone discussing the only issue that has actually mattered this week (and outside of this house at least, this issue isn’t the progress made on the kitchen project).

Press Option 3 for the lexical equivalent of the old “Hey! What’s that over there? It’s June Cotton on a space hopper” diversion technique in order to force the conversation away to different topics altogether. This week’s example would be the report that scientists have discovered phosphine gas in the clouds gathered above Venus which COULD indicate that life, of a sort, could exist, in the atmosphere: tiny, bacterial refugees from a world that may have once teemed with life. Or it might not. You know how it goes with these stories.

Please make your selection on your keypads now . . .

Okay, sorry to shatter our imaginative world here but the keypad thing isn’t going to work and even it did then I’d still be choosing Option 1, even though we’d all prefer that I didn’t.  I wasn’t in the Speed Read chair last week so my last column was two weeks ago and I wrote it in a state of something that felt a lot like happiness. The sun was shining; I was back in the office; I was sharing socially-distanced jokes with some of my colleagues. It felt really great. It felt we were still on the upward incline that had begun around June, stepping slowly towards whatever the world was going to be like post Covid-19. Some of this positivity was a simple unwillingness to engage with facts – even a fortnight ago several areas of the country were already living under renewed restrictions; some of it was due to the psychological challenge of accepting that having lived through the dark days of April and June, that there’d be a chance we’d have to do it all again, with all the Zoom calls, sourdough, constant worry and separation from many of those we loved. Some of it was just because it was Friday.

Two weeks later and things feel significantly different. Now, I’m not going to get all maudlin on you (although I am a fan of the world ‘maudlin”) but we have to accept the fact that after a welcome period of abatement, Coronavirus is on the rise again in the UK. A huge swathe of the North East was placed into ‘local lockdown” this week with more areas to inevitably to follow. It’s important, I think, to differentiate this form of lockdown from the ‘bolt your front door and go out as little as possible’ restrictions earlier in the year; this time schools, shops, pubs, restaurants and some offices are still open, but the mixing of households is forbidden. So once again, spare a thought for those who live alone or, worse perhaps, are trapped in unhappy or abusive relationships.

Only the most optimistic (and badly informed) thought that we were nearing the end of the pandemic but it’s undeniably tough to steel ourselves for more restrictions, more worry, when none of us have properly recovered from the first time around. This challenge is of course compounded by the fact that the means to keep us out of a full second lockdown, the means to retain some semblance of normality is currently failing. And then some.

You know there’s a problem when this government, famed for its grinning, delusional optimism (“we’ll be back to normal by Christmas”; “our tracing app is going to the best in the world”; “we’re going to be testing 10 million people a day by teatime”) admits that the current Covid-19 testing system in the UK simply isn’t working. Even usually reliable allies in the press were spitting in rage at the shambles: “Why are they still failing the test?” asked The Daily Mail’s front page on Wednesday. The answer is both simple and complicated. This is the most challenging time in national healthcare since the Second World War; testing capacity can’t yet keep up with increasing demand and a logistical framework that seems to think it’s okay to send people in Surrey for a Covid test in Inverness is one that’s clearly malfunctioning. The simple answer is that the government wasn’t ready for a coronavirus resurgence. It wasn’t even close. And this week we saw the consequences of this unpreparedness writ large. And you have to fear that things are going to get worse before they improve.

Alright. That’s enough of that for now. Let’s cheer ourselves up with a Brexit update. Only joking but before we move on I must acknowledge that Ed Milliband’s performance in the Commons on Monday (Labour leader Keir Starmer was isolating following a potential family Covid case). This was objectively one of the best substitute appearances since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the final of the Champion’s League in 1999. Even if you didn’t agree with him and my goodness, Boris Johnson disagreed with him on an epic, eye-rolling, huffing/puffing scale, this was an absolute belter of parliamentary speech. Not that it stopped a Conservative victory on amends to the Withdrawal Agreement which “break international law in a specific and limited way.” I’m saying nothing.

Let’s use up the remainder of the word count on some somewhat lighter issues. The promising trial of the “Oxford” vaccine is back on after a brief suspension to investigate some potentially problematic side-effects; this is one of nine potential vaccines in large scale trials across the world and while no one is getting over-excited there’s been a shift in the scientific discourse around a Covid-19 vaccine recently with much more talk of “when” rather than “if”. I remain optimistic. Theatres are reopening, albeit with massively reduced capacity, but this feels like a positive step; there’s some great television upcoming this autumn including the two reliable stalwarts of Strictly and Bake Off and, for the moment at least, the sun continues to shine. And that’s not much I know but it’ something.

Finally, spare a thought for German football team SG Ripdorf/Molzen II which fielded only seven players against rivals SV Holdenstedt II due to worries about Coronavirus infection and to maintain social distancing on the pitch. And then lost 37-0. There’s probably some sort of uplifting allegory to be read into this story but it’s Friday and I’m tired so I can’t find one. Please do email me if you’re more successful in this regard. Let’s end with a song. If ever there was a song genetically engineered to appeal to middle-aged 90s throwbacks like myself then a collaboration between Damon Albarn and Robert Smith would probably be the definitive example of the genre. Fortunately, that song now exists and even more fortunately it’s ace.

Listen here.

Enjoy your weekend.

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