Today’s view from ‘perfectly primed’ Isolation Row…


Uist dressed in its Sunday best here, I think. Taken a few minutes after low tide this afternoon at about 3:50.

The temperature looks about 20ºC warmer than it actually was – and, at about 10ºC, it was about twice as warm as it felt like given a fairly stiff east north-east wind. Brr!

Western Isles and CV-19

Today’s The Guardian featured as part of its regular coverage on Covid-19 a piece on how the Western Isles (Eileanan Siar) were ‘Perfectly primed to tackle coronavirus’.

The facts are fairly clear and indisputable – that there have only been six cases thus far and no new ones for the last 13 days; and that a recent death was, despite the initial suspicion, not actually due to the virus. Of course, in the absence of regular, systematic testing, this is only as far as we know and we don’t know how many cases have gone undetected or, indeed, which of our citizens may now have valuable antibodies. Nevertheless, the level of the lockdown – the airports are shut except for emergencies and CalMac is only bringing in essential (local) travellers and food: perhaps the one case when I might agree with the free movement of goods but not people – is clearly doing its job of keeping the virus out. So far.

The problem with the piece is the somewhat snide opening reference to islanders being experts at survival as a result of isolation, at somehow being able to greet shutdown with a stoic, habituated resilience. Yes, we don’t have to ride the tube to get to work and neither do we live in overcrowded environments where unknown other people’s hygiene represents a cause for concern and which accounts for the high incidence of cases in large urban areas.

On the other hand, it is a little galling to see the transport issues which we regularly experience now being heralded as some sort of virtue.

To see these islands as isolated is to adopt the same outside-in perspective that historian David Gange criticised in his work last year on the Frayed Atlantic Edge – this is a dislocated perspective in which the lives of people living here can freely be pushed to the margins of concern, dismissed, trivialised and otherwise patronised in ways that will be all too familiar to many of us. It is in such a context that ‘trials’ of easing the lockdown first in these islands is a word that many fellow residents will – rightly – see as one that is loaded, and not only with carelessness. Seeing the virtues of isolation as a result of transportation difficulties is exactly the sort of luxury, outside-in perspective that Gange described so accurately. And if people cannot get in, neither can we get out.

In spite of this, the reason that residents have co-operated so readily in the lockdown is, of course, the age profile, coupled with the extensive family support networks that are characteristic of many islanders’ lives: hearth and home, and family. The age profile of the Western Isles is sharply higher than that of the rest of Scotland – according to the 2011 census, nearly 30% of citizens here are aged 60 or over, compared to 22% across Scotland; while the median age is 47 for women and 44 for men, compared to 42 and 40 respectively elsewhere across the country. As the St. Andrews research has predicted, were the virus to arrive here and gain a foothold, it would take a terrible toll on the existing population. Not only that, but there is also the fragility of our future: when the Western Isles Council – the Comhairle – is already planning for a population loss of 14% by 2041, compared to a growth of 5.3% across Scotland as a whole, taking us down to 23,000 people over the next twenty years, any loss of population ahead of time jeopardises both essential stability and indeed the sustainability of human life on these islands. The dangers presented by the virus present – in actual reality – a case of our survival.

The note in the current edition of Am Pàipear, the newspaper for Uist and Benbecula, hits exactly the right note in speaking to the continued resilience of islanders – but to warn, at the same time, that we will only beat this by working as a team. Am Pàipear doesn’t really have an online presence but you can get a sense of the Editor’s expression of the nightmare, which we share with everyone else, via the paper’s Twitter feed. There might be few known cases here – and none known in Uist – but, just like anywhere else, restaurants and cafes are shut, centres are closed, summer festivals are cancelled, jobs are threatened and we are all wary of our neighbours. The virus affects our day-to-day activities just as much as if we were living in the centre of Glasgow, or of London.

Islanders might well be familiar with isolation as a result of the iniquities of parts of our existence – weather and ferry cancellations among them – but that doesn’t mean that it comes any easier to us, or does not already bring its own troubles to fragile personalities in terms of the full range of tough social problems, including addictions and abuse which are present here, too. Neither does it mean that we have any inbuilt advantages in dealing with isolation, and neither do we have any particular lessons to offer anyone else in overcoming it. We might be lucky here, so far, in having little direct experience of Covid-19 but we are affected by the lockdown just as much as anyone else.

Care and its opposite

Like many others, I’ve been appalled at the UK government’s reaction to the covid-19 crisis, watching on in horror as a rotating combination of the incompetent, the over-promoted, the keen but under-prepared and the downright nasty take centre stage at the daily Downing Street car-crash briefings. The lack of surprise that this is the case, given the Brexit ultras that are in charge, does not subtract from the horror of the show.

The gap between competence and need in terms of public policy is rarely more evident in the aspect of the crisis over social care, i.e. care provided outside the NHS. Care workers have always been at the frontline of the advance of the virus, both more exposed to it as a result of needing to travel to work and unable to observe social distancing rules while doing their jobs, as well as potentially playing a key role in the spreading of the virus. Yet this week we learn that people have been transferred into care homes, including from hospitals, without being tested as regards whether they have been exposed to the virus; and that social care providers are still among the desperately forgotten when it comes to PPE and, crucially, what little testing is being done. Giving out badges is indeed not enough in days like these.

In both cases, this is entirely symptomatic of a situation in which the image of a care sector that is ‘well prepared’ for the crisis is the product of presentation, news management and spin rather than on-the-ground reality. It is also reflective of the fact of casual racism towards black and minority ethnic people being more likely to catch, and die, from the virus not because of some or other genetic factor but because they are more likely to be key public service deliverers, both in a care context and in a public transport one, and because our policy-making process remains substantially indifferent to their needs.

The other reason why this situation has been allowed to go on is because it reflects the herd immunity policy that marked the early days of the UK government’s approach and which still does, albeit now by stealth – and which also accounts for the planned indifference to social care providers: herd immunity requires the young and the resilient to catch the disease and build resistance to it, and care workers are found often among this part of the population. The outcome of such a policy – social care workers, and indeed the BAME population, being expendable and the more numerous deaths of elderly people which result being regarded as collateral damage – represents a truly abhorrent government at work. Make no mistake, the government and its policy advisers who are exploiting the confounding lack of intelligence among UK government ministers see the deaths of substantial parts of the population as mere by-products in its eugenics project.

As some journalists have spotted, there is a link between Brexit warriors and those who are trolling on Covid-19 in the name of liberty and personal freedom and agitating for the earliest possible end to the lockdown. That link lies in ending the demand for carers, many of whom come from overseas – and including from central and eastern Europe – and who have managed to find work in the care sector as the result of free movement of labour. Ending free movement causes evident problems for such sectors – except, of course, where a virus happens to come along and, where unchecked as a result of the application of ‘herd immunity’ policies, reduces the labour requirement as a result of the decline in the elderly population.

The policy outcomes of ending free movement lie most evidently in public perception in terms of raising wages – though the impact of free movement on wages, even in ‘semi-skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ areas was always marginal – about a penny off the hourly rate, according to the NIESR research. The bigger, but less well-understood, desire to end free movement lies in the argument that it is low productivity that is holding the UK back as a global leader in innovation and technological development. Only by ending free movement and thus the source of labour for low-productive sectors, so the theory runs, will productivity gains accrue to the economy: confronted with shortages of labour, employers will be required to automate tasks thus raising productivity and establishing technological advantage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this doesn’t actually turn out to be the case: research into robot automation in manufacturing highlights the key role for public policy – in terms of national strategies, taxation policies, availability of subsidies, etc – in explaining the incidence of robotisation after relative wages are controlled for. The answer – as always – lies in a more sophisticated analysis of the problem than can be supplied by simple demand-and-supply economics alone. And, unsurprisingly, strong public leadership on this issue isn’t exactly , going on the record of neoliberalism over the last forty years, listed among the UK’s strengths.

Regardless of the semantics at today’s political lobby briefing about whether the UK would accept a extension of the transition period (@13.12) [and now confirmed that it won’t] or whether, in the circumstances, the EU, with its mind on other priorities, is simply tired of the whole process and no longer cares either way, the issue remains that the UK’s response to Covid-19 remains intrinsically tied to its policy on Brexit. That’s not a surprise since the adviser himself – now apparently back at work after ending a period of self-isolation – is one and the same. Back to business, indeed.

When all this is over, there does need to be a public inquiry into the government’s actions in response to covid-19; specifically its indifference to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of UK citizens in the pursuit of a dogmatic policy supported by a minority of enthusiasts the goal of which becomes ever smaller in the light of the major health and social care concerns that now face us. Further than that, however, the reckoning (I’m increasingly of the view that there is a Billy Bragg quote for everything!) that we need to have as a nation needs to take stock of the need to do things differently and expressly that the politics we espouse must be better focused. Neoliberalism has long had its day; but, if anything good can come out of the current existential crisis, a revitalised democracy, green economics and policies that put the achievement of people’s potential first must be in the driving seat.

[Edit: 19/04. Interested to see the Sunday Times‘s Insight team has produced a story today documenting the mis-steps of the government in addressing the virus (£) in February. It’s behind a Murdoch paywall, so I haven’t read it, but I’ve read enough reportage on it to understand something of the negligence it raises. The question remains one of whether that negligence was simply lazy, careless incompetence or whether something more malevolent was at work. Both at the same time are, of course, entirely possible outcomes given the different personalities involved.]

Brew Day – Black IPA

Brew Day was Saturday, as it turned out. I was hoping to fit this in earlier during the week – but dienst ist dienst und schnaps ist schnaps and, well, work has continued to keep me fairly occupied these last few days. (Unless, of course, dienst ist schnaps – though that’s a different blog post entirely!)

This brewuk kit (once again accepting orders, BTW, though the Black IPA seems to have disappeared, amidst a general run on kit stocks across all UK suppliers) closely follows a recipe in Greg’s own Home Brew Beer and it was good to have a bit more technical information from that about the malt bill and also the contents of the individual hop packets in the kit. (Incidentally, the idea that lockdown is turning us all into a nation of home brewers is, I think, a most wonderful thing.) Brew day went pretty well, albeit not without a few alarms, and 4.5 litres of Black IPA are now fermenting happily away in my demijohn, airlock bubbling nicely and a bit of krausen already building up after only about 18 hours in the fermenter:


(Now tucked away nicely under the office desk where it’s quite a bit darker but, nevertheless, precisely the right fermenting temperature. Incidentally, I love the way the demijohn reflects back the rest of the office (including your photographer/blogger) in a kind of ‘fish eye’ style and makes it look cavernous!)

The use of real (dried) hops in this kit was a nice touch, rather than the pellets I’ve used before, while the 1.3kgs of malt made me realise that I’m gonna need a bigger sieve (a second, smaller one was (quite) quickly pressed into action but I still needed to drain the wort, and then sparge it, in batches. Brewing in a bag is probably a good idea – also from the point of view of keeping back some of the trub which you can see settling out at the bottom of the demijohn: going to need to be very careful there when the time comes to getting the demijohn to the bottling line.

Also, it would be a really good idea to measure the original gravity – the starting point for working out the beer’s eventual ABV – after topping up the wort to the batch size with more liquor – I achieved, on my measure, 1.074 which is waaay above the 1.054 I expected according to the recipe and this made me wonder how I’d managed to get such a potentially super-strong beer until I realised that there was a timing issue involved. The books really ought to make that point a bit better. I did seem to lose a lot more wort from this brew than previous attempts during the boil so, in technical terms, the efficiency of this brew was pretty low – I was considerably under before adding more liquor to the demijohn, even accounting for spillages as a result of trying to keep out as much foreign matter as possible. It’s a really good idea to keep a pre-boiled kettle of water at pitching temperature close to hand. And then measure the OG.

Next stage will be to add some dry hops on Wednesday – though adding them through the neck of the demijohn (I have no second fermenter) without introducing oxygen into the liquor is going to be a challenge although the lightweight nature of hops means I probably shouldn’t worry too much. And, I can’t get them out once in, which is also a bit of a concern.

Worry and stress is probably not the natural state of a home brewer. We’re a fairly laid-back bunch and, where we’re not, we need to learn to be, chiefly by remembering the core principles involved about why you do what you have to do – which is where your original research comes in. But some degree of, well, anxiety is probably inevitable where the potential for things to go seriously, catastrophically wrong – even in a process that is entirely straightforward – is sizable on top of a time commitment which is pretty substantial. My brew day took me, for one reason or another, from about half two in the afternoon to about eight in the evening during which time not a lot else can be done, when you’re not being called upon directly, than simply watching over the pot(s). Still, it’s all good learning and experience for the grander things that are planned 🙂