Saturday, November 27, 2021

Coronavirus 58 Omicron

"I would always prefer that we take decisive action now and have to scale back if Omicron turns out not to be serious, than that we under-react and it turns out Omicron is as bad as feared. Act early and act decisively. We should have learned this by now." Tweeted by Kit Yates, who knows about this sort of stuff.

This is the 58th blog in my series on Coronavirus. The first was written on the 7th of February 2020 and began with this line:

When it was first suggested that UK nationals should be flown out of Wuhan, I remarked that it might be better if all international flights were grounded.

Had my suggestion then, and my further suggestions over the next 20 months, been acted upon there would never have been a pandemic and millions of lives would not have been lost. Such was Cassandra's fate.

This looks like another moment when humanity generally, and the UK Government in particular, get things wrong again. The new variant, B.1.1.529, renamed Omicron, was identified in South Africa, where it appears to have spread rapidly. There is a diligent programme of sequencing in South Africa, unlike some other African countries where such facilities are lacking, so we don't know for sure where the mutation originated, or even where its prevalence is greatest.

Several countries have, gradually and piecemeal, introduced flight bans from South Africa and various other African countries. This has been too little and too late to stop the spread of Omicron, though any reduction in travel will help to slow that spread.

This is a good moment to remind ourselves of the basic imperatives of infection control. Stop travel, particularly any travel without strict and effective quarantine. Test, track and trace to identify all cases. Isolate all cases providing sufficient support to make that isolation effective. The reproduction number will then remain well below R=1 and the infection outbreak will, inevitably, disappear. There is no need for a pandemic to ever happen. A pandemic is the avoidable failure of good governance.

Even after catastrophic errors, such as have occurred, and have led to millions of avoidable deaths, it is never too late to do the right thing and introduce a zero-covid policy. Indeed, it is the only way in which the disease will be overcome. In an ideal situation, 'lockdown' would mean that nobody met anybody outside their own household for two two reproduction cycle times of the virus, maybe about six weeks. Of course, some people need to meet; food distribution, electricity generation, water and sewage, health care and other vital services need to keep going. But that amount of contact is compatible with keeping R<1 if an effective find and isolate system operates. The disease will be eliminated in short order.

What the world needs to do now is to stock up with the essentials for survival and then stay at home for the rest of 2021. Then we will all be able to get on with our lives, devoting 2022 to addressing that other existential crisis, global heating.

Tragically, I don't think this advice will be adopted, the pandemic will continue to ruin millions of lives and the planet will continue to heat up, eventually ruining billions of lives.

Thursday, November 25, 2021


In May 2018 I curated an art exhibition entitled 'Across the Seas' in which works by two dozen artists, dealing with human migration, were exhibited. The online catalogue shows it all. Among the works was The List, by Banu Cennetoglu, comprising 48 sheets of paper on which were printed the names of 33,293 people who had died trying to reach Europe. You can download it here.

In a quiet moment, I noticed there was just one woman in the gallery, standing in front of The List, quietly weeping, tears on her cheek.

Yesterday we saw the crocodile tears of our Prime Minister and his Home Secretary as they sought to blame the French and the so-called 'criminal gangs' of 'people smugglers'. Anything but admit that the deaths in the English Channel that afternoon were the direct result of their policy.

The blood of these desperate men, women and children, are on our politicians' hands. But not on their hands alone. Blame, responsibility, culpability, is shared by every citizen who has supported Mr Johnson and Ms Patel, their Conservative Party and the UK Government. And more than that, blame, responsibility and culpability must be shared by every citizen who has supported policies of immigration control, even the very concept of borders as barriers to human movement.

The solution to the immediate crisis in the Channel is obvious: give would-be migrants train and ferry tickets. Human lives come first and then we can work out what to do with them.

The UK could be the world's ethical leader rather than a pariah, shaming other countries into action. As it is, we are shamed, having taken far fewer migrants than most of our European neighbours, never mind poorer countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. We could open our borders and welcome the stranger. 

The coming decades are going to see migration forced by climate change on a scale that has not yet entered the consciousness of most people. From North Africa, across the Middle East and through much of South Asia, a vast swathe of land will become effectively uninhabitable within the lifetimes of today's children. The British Isles, its climate tempered by ocean currents, will remain a green and pleasant land.

We need to get used to a very different world. We need, today, to choose between life or genocide.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Nuclear Theddlethorpe 06

I attended one of RWM's events at Theddlethorpe Village Hall a couple of weeks ago and had a long discussion with their geologist and chief policy adviser. A couple of things struck me.

As I've explained in previous blogs, the key reason why Theddlethorpe does does not work as a location for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for nuclear waste is the likely presence of fossil carbon resources, gas, oil and coal, in the rocks underlying the prospective site. A future civilisation may seek to exploit these resources and inadvertently breach the integrity of the GDF. Nowhere in the poster and video displays on show could I find reference to this key issue. It was as if RWM did not want the public to know about this problem.

In my discussion with the RWM geologist I was alarmed to hear that in his view this would not be a problem because such resources could be accessed by drilling sideways under a GDF without disturbing it. He apparently did not appreciate that a future civilisation might not know of the existence of the GDF. He had completely missed the point that was fundamental to the siting of a GDF.

Another point that surprised me was to learn that their preferred target geological horizon was Oxford Clay rather than the deeper and thicker Mercia Mudstone Group. They are going for the shallowest (and cheapest) possible location, ignoring the greater security offered by deeper geology.

Another surprise turned up yesterday with the release, following a freedom of information request, of the daily pay-rate for the 'Independent' chairperson of the 'Working Group' set up by Lincolnshire County Council and RWM. Jon Collins is expected to work for two days per week and be paid...

£1000 per day

That's a lot of public money to be spent chairing a group of people talking about something that is never going to happen. We used to think corruption was what happened in Nigeria.

Here are the details:

Ref: FOI 3795
Thank you for your information request received on 25 October for the following:

Details of how much the Independent Chair of the Theddlethorpe Working Group is paid and how that amount is broken down, whether per meeting or if it’s paid as a lump sum.
I have treated your request under the Freedom of Information Act. I confirm that RWM holds the information you have requested and this is provided below.

The Independent Chair of the Theddlethorpe Working Group is paid a day rate of £1,000. The amount paid depends on the number of days worked which is estimated at 2 days per week.
Information Commissioner's Office
Wycliffe House
Water Lane
Cheshire SK9 5AF

Friday, November 12, 2021

COP26 In a Cave

A man was injured in a cave and needed to be carried out on a stretcher by a long and tortuous route. The caving clubs far and wide sent delegates to the rescue. Some cave experts continued their work on cave studies.

On the misty hillside a convention of cavers assembled to negotiate how each club would play their part, declaring the importance of the rescue and announcing their Caving Club Determined Contributions (CCDCs). A Finance Committee was set up to agree who would pay for ropes, torches, hard-hats, wet-suits and the stretcher.

They argued long into the night, some claiming they were too poor to contribute and it was not their fault that the accident had happened. There was discussion on timetables; just how quickly should the casualty be carried, some arguing that it would be better to wait till summer when water levels were lower.

On the Friday, children left their schools and gathered at the cave-mouth demanding that the rescue starts immediately, while caving club leaders congratulated each other on their plan to send a packed-lunch down to the victim.

Meanwhile, a man in the pub, declared that the accident was a hoax, the alleged victim had actually found a different path out of the cave and gone home. Somebody in America spread a rumour that caves did not exist but were an imaginary creation by makers of torches and hard-hats.

Picture source

Friday, November 05, 2021

Killing Whales was a Bad Move

The thing is that we killed most of the big Blue Whales. Blue whales eat krill and then whale poo provides fertiliser for the phytoplankton, which photosynthesise, taking carbon from out of the atmosphere. But since we killed the whales there's no fertiliser for the phytoplankton that the krill eat. When the few krill that do live, die of old age instead of being eaten by whales, they just drop to the bottom of the ocean, removing nutrients out of reach of the phytoplankton. So then there's less carbon sequestration and then there's less food for the krill. So there's less krill. That means there's less food for the few whales that we didn't manage to kill, so they don't thrive. So there's less whale poo, which means there's less nutrient recycling for the phytoplankton so there's less carbon sequestration and less food for the krill and so less food for the whales which means.... hang on... I think we've been here before. This is just going round in ever diminishing circles. Except for the carbon dioxide in the air above the ocean, which keeps increasing, that causes global heating and the carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean that causes ocean acidification. That's bad for sea-life that needs a high pH, such as phytoplankton. And we know what happens when the phytoplankton don't do well; it's just one thing on top of another.

We really shouldn't have killed the whales. Bad move.

Gaia Vince and her interviewees do a better job of explaining all this in this week's episode of Inside Science on Radio 4.

Sir David King, former UK Chief Scientist and general good bloke, is on the case.
Here's the latest news.

The plan is to add some fertiliser to the ocean, particularly the iron that phytoplankton are short of, what with living in the ocean instead of soil on land where there's plenty of iron.  The phytoplankton will grow better, sequestering carbon dioxide and so slowing global warming and ocean acidification and the krill will thrive because there's phytoplankton to eat again and then the whales will thrive because there's krill to eat and the the whales will do their poos and recycle the nutrients to the phytoplankton and... well you can guess the rest.

We really ought to support Sir David King and his friends at the Climate Crisis Advisory Group. They are coming up with answers.

Here's a picture of a Blue Whale and here's some things to know.

This is a painting of Sir David King, when he was looking sad, perhaps thinking about the whales.

Monday, November 01, 2021

Biscathorpe Eight Years On

Over eight years ago I wrote this piece on my blog, the first of many about oil and Biscathorpe: How to Make Money from Fracking

In it I described how one could make money out of not finding oil but convincing people that you would find oil in the future. Egdon's executives and employees have managed to do just that for eight years at Biscathorpe, a particularly idyllic hamlet in the Lincolnshire Wolds.

Today, with a majority of seven to four and two abstentions, the planning committee of Lincolnshire County Council refused a planning application from Egdon Resources to drill another well. They had already drilled one earlier but it had not struck oil. The first full day of COP26 was an auspicious day to hold this planning meeting, but whether this was what changed the minds of some councillors, or whether it was the opposition of the local MP, or an article in The Times, or the petition they had just received from their electorate, or the tireless campaigning of so many people over recent years, we cannot know. Perhaps some of them have actually realised that the black stuff needs to be kept in the ground. When all the people with money to invest realise that the oil industry will lead to their assets being stranded, and hence worthless, then the industry will collapse and the planet can breathe a little sigh of relief. And when all the people with money to spend on stuff that the oil industry has produced, realise that we must stop burning fossil carbon, then we will once again have a planet worth breathing on. But for tonight, we can celebrate a small victory. Well done all who made this possible.