Archive for Coronavirus

Phase Four Postponed

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on August 5, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday the Irish government decided to postpone the last phase of its (already revised) Roadmap for Reopening and also make mandatory the wearing of face masks in shops. Phase Four was supposed to start on August 10th and was to include, among other things, the opening of pubs.

The reason for not proceeding with Phase Four is obvious when you look at yesterday’s  new cases graph:

(I keep updating the data here.

Note that the graph is logarithmic on the y-axes so the number of new cases is not large (currently averaging about 45 per day), but the trend is concerning; last week’s average was about 18. Most of the new cases are aged under 45 which perhaps accounts at least partly for the fact that the death curve is not rising: younger people are at lower risk of developing serious problems. The pattern of increasing infections but decreasing mortality figures is quite widespread across Europe, actually.

The recent cases in Ireland are occurring in clusters in particular locations. Of the 45 cases reported yesterday, for example, 33 were in County Kildare most of them at a single factory in Kildare itself (which has now been shut).

There has also been an increase in community transmission, though, which is perhaps even more dangerous than individual outbreaks.

It seems to me that pausing the planned relaxation of restrictions is a sensible thing to do at this stage. To open pubs now – which many continue to argue for – would in my view be extremely foolhardy.

I’m not sure what all this means for the new academic year which is due to start in September nor even the repeat examination period which are due to start next week but if cases continue to increase at their current rate it will severely impact our ability to return to on-campus activities.



Excess Deaths due to Coronavirus: Compare and Contrast

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , , on July 3, 2020 by telescoper

I saw an interesting news item this morning about excess deaths registered in Ireland between 11th March and 16th June, the period that brackets the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the official numbers, 1709 deaths occurred during that time of people who had tested positive for the Coronavirus. During the same period, however,  about about 1100-1200 deaths were registered in excess of the average mortality figures.
One interpretation of this discrepancy is that many of those counted as Covid-19 cases actually died of other causes. Consistent with that interpretation is the fact that over 60% of those deaths were people in care homes, many of whom may have had chronic illness.

Taking 1150 as an estimate of the excess deaths caused by Covid-19 the mortality per million in Ireland drops from 352 to about 237. It must be noted that this figure is still much higher than similar-sized countries such as Denmark and Norway.

The contrast with the United Kingdom is stark. A recent analysis of excess deaths there suggests about 69,000 people have lost their lives directly or indirectly due to Covid-19, which is about 57% higher than the official figure of around 44,000. Taking 69,000 instead of 44,000, the United Kingdom’s mortality rate increases from 647 per million to over a thousand.

I haven’t really been following the reporting in the United Kingdom very closely, because I don’t live there anymore, but the data on new cases found by testing is hopelessly confusing. This, together, with the apparent under-reporting of deaths, may be the reason behind the lax adherence to public health measures over the other side of the Irish Sea.

There is also the fact that daily Covid-19 briefings here in Ireland are led by medical experts, with the politicians taking a back seat (and often not involved at all). These are much more likely to be trusted than politicians, especially those involved in the current Tory government.

And so to Phase Three..

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education with tags , , , , on June 29, 2020 by telescoper

Well, Phase Three of the Great Reopening happened has started on schedule. As I walked to campus this morning I saw long queues in the street outside every barber’s shop in Maynooth. I decided to wait a few days before trying to get my long overdue haircut. It’s been over three months now.

Maynooth has quite a lot of barber’s shops for a town of its size. It also has quite a lot of nice restaurants. I noticed this evening that quite a few will be opening this week for sit-down meals rather than takeaway. I wish them well, but I think I’ll be sticking with the takeaways for a while longer.

When I got into the office to start work on the risk assessment I’m supposed to complete so staff can return to work, there was quite a lot of activity in the Science Building, including signs of various kinds being put up.

Some of the signs are bisexual bilingual:

All this reminded me of some lines from the Leonard Cohen song Anthem:

We asked for signs. The signs were sent


Signs for all to see.

The arrows will be put on the floor at regular intervals to enforce a one-way system around the building to allow people to circulate without bumping into each other.

I’m also expecting to be issued with tape to be used to mark some of the machines in our computer laboratory out of use, to keep users from sitting too close. I was going to remove the chairs but I don’t have anywhere to out them and we’ll probably – hopefully – need them back sometime!

I started work on the risk assessment but didn’t get it finished. I should be able to complete it tomorrow. Then it needs to be approved. Only after that will staff be able to begin routinely working in the Department. Until then, working from home continues.

Before Phase Three..

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on June 28, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow (on Monday 29th June) Ireland will enter Phase Three of its (accelerated) Roadmap for Reopening after the Covid-19 restrictions.

The Coronavirus situation here remains relatively stable, with new cases steady at a low level:

This is not the case for the rest of the world, however. Yesterday two grim milestones were passed: 10,000,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide and 500,000 deaths:

Much of the recent numerical growth of the pandemic is associated with North and South America. Brazil is particularly badly affected as are some of the United States. I don’t need to comment on the quality of the political leadership involved.

I am very nervous about the situation in the United Kingdom too, where I feel the reopening is being rushed. Poor leadership is partly responsible for the continuing high levels of infection there too.

Anyway, back to Phase Three in Ireland. Yesterday I bought a copy of the Irish Times and found this booklet inside:

The emphasis is on the fact that despite the low levels in Ireland Covid-19 has not gone away and we all have to be prepared to take special precautions for the foreseeable future. I would be amazed if there wasn’t another flare-up here at some point, actually, it’s just a question of when. And those optimistic about the delivery of a vaccine in the near future, I’ll remind you that there isn’t yet a vaccine for any form of Coronavirus let alone the novel form responsible for Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2).

Anyway, on Friday I attended a virtual Question and Answer session with the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan, about the plans for reopening campus over the Summer and into the new academic year. It is clear that lots will have to be done before staff can return fully and even then it won’t be anything like “normal”.

Incidentally the issue of face masks came up and there was some discussion about their effectiveness. Not being a medical expert I don’t really know about that, but I think one of the important things about masks in a work environment is that their visibility means that they work as a signal to remind people to be aware of Covid-19. I have discarded my home-made face masks and bought a box of proper ones and I intend to wear them whenever I am in a work setting in which anyone else is present.

On Friday evening I finally received (relatively) detailed instructions on how the return to work process will work. The Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University is still basically in Phase 1 while the university working group has been assembling this guidance. It will probably be several more weeks before we can get people back to work because there are many things still to be done: including the installation of hand sanitizers, one-way systems, screens, and new signage.

Another thing that came up during the President’s Q&A was the question of vacations for staff. Fortunately I had muted both my audio and video feeds for this as I laughed out loud. What with organising the return to work, overseeing repeat exams, recruiting a sabbatical replacement, planning teaching for next year, rewriting my own lectures for the “new normal”, etc etc, and (hopefully) moving into a new house, I can’t see any prospect of any summer holiday this year at all!

Anti-Malarial Memories

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2020 by telescoper

All this business about Donald Trump recommending the drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 reminded me of my first trip to India in the 1990s. I hadn’t travelled very much outside Europe before that and was quite nervous, so I bought a couple of books about travelling in India. Among other things, they both recommended taking precautions against Malaria.

I made an appointment with my GP, who asked exactly where I was going and, after consulting a book, he wrote out two prescriptions, for the drugs paludrine and chloroquine. I was to start taking them a week before travelling and continue for two weekd after returning. The paludrine came in small tablets to be taken every day; chloroquine was in a much bigger tablet taken once a week. The brand name for the latter was Avloclor. I have good reason to remember it.

The paludrine was no trouble but the chloroquine was horrible. For one thing it tasted so foul that even with a huge amount of water it was difficult to prevent unpleasant sensations as it went down. Worse, it has a long list of side effects, the mildest of which include nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, upset stomach, stomach pain, rash, itching, and hair loss. More serious symptoms include heart problems, blurred vision, and suicidal thoughts. The list of warnings that came with the tablets was so long that I started to wonder how bad Malaria can be…

I’m told that anti-Malarial drugs are notoriously unpleasant, especially those given to soldiers stationed in theme tropics who presumably get the cheapest sort.

I didn’t experience any of the more serious issues, thank goodness, but I had a selection from the former list, plus a sprinkling of mouth ulcers. I knew these were caused by the chloroquine as I always got them the day after I took the tablet: they went away after a day or two but came back when I took the next week’s dose. Presumably I just couldn’t down the tablet quickly enough to avoid some of it affecting my mouth.

I was in India for about six weeks and was plagued by this for the whole time. I really enjoyed the spicy food while I was there, but found it quite difficult for a couple of days each week.

Now although chloroquine is related to hydroxychloroquine it isn’t quite the same thing. I gather, however, it does have similar side effects. As far as I’m aware there is no evidence that either of these drugs is effective against Covid-19 so in my opinion you would have to be crackers to run the risk of seriously unpleasant or even worse consequences for no therapeutic gain.

Dream Time

Posted in Art, Biographical, Covid-19, Mental Health with tags , , , , , , on May 13, 2020 by telescoper

The Dream (Salvador Dali, 1931)

I know I’m not alone during this strange and unsettling Coronavirus period in having extraordinarily vivid dreams almost every night.

I’m grateful for two things related to this. One is that I’m sleeping much better than usual, with not a trace of the insomnia I’ve experienced in the past during times of stress. The other is that these dreams are very far from being nightmares. Most of them are benign, and some are laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The other day, for example, I had a dream in which Nigel Farage returned from his recent trip to Dover in search of migrants publicity to find his house filled with asylum seekers singing the theme from The Dambusters. There was also a cameo appearance by Nigella Lawson in that dream but I forget the context.

I’ve written about dreams a few times before (e.g. here) and don’t intend to repeat myself here. It does seem to me however that dreams are probably a byproduct of the unconscious brain’s processing of notable recent events and this activity is heightened because the current times are filled with unfamiliar experiences.

I know some people are having far worse nocturnal experiences than me, and I don’t really understand why I’m having a relatively easy ride when my past history suggests I’d be prime candidate for cracking up. Perhaps I’ve had enough practice at dealing with anxiety in the past (not always very satisfactorily)? Perhaps the sense of detachment I’ve experienced over the past few weeks is part of some sort of defence mechanism I’ve acquired?

Anyway, don’t have nightmares!

The Riddle of the Leaving Certificate

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 3, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve been studying the ‘Roadmap‘ outlining the gradual relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions that, all being well. will begin on May 18th. There are five phases of this process, each lasting three weeks. At any point the process can be stopped or reversed if the data suggest things are going wrong.

It’s quite consistent with how I imagined it might work when I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago:

As a physicist I see the change being rather like an adiabatic process, carried out in quasi-static fashion, in a series of reversible steps…

Some measure of social distancing will remain even after the completion of all five phases, and will probably stay in place until a vaccine for Covid-19 is available.

I first noted this in Phase 1:

Which suggests that some staff may be allowed onto campus. At my University (Maynooth), however, teaching will have finished by May 8th. By May 18th the exam period will have started but it is not obvious that the above can be interpreted as allowing staff into their offices to mark examinations and project assessments. Speaking for myself I would find that useful. I suppose we will find out fairly soon what it means.

On the whole the Roadmap seems to me quite reasonable. It is rather broadbrush in character, which is understandable, though that does mean many details need to be worked out. There is however one very surprising omission which leads to a serious contradiction and is causing considerable confusion.

According to the Roadmap, Irish schools will not reopen until Phase Five, which commences on August 10th, just in time for the start of the 2020/2021 academic year.

On the other hand it has already been announced that the School Leaving Certificate examinations (which start in June in a normal year) would commence on July 29th. Moreover the Education Minister has previously indicated that these examinations would only happen after two weeks of classroom teaching for students who have been having only remote teaching during the Lockdown.

If schools are not to reopen until August 10th then it is not possible for the Leaving Certificate to start on July 29th. Even if the classroom teaching bit is scrapped there won’t be anywhere for students to sit the examinations!

There’s no mention of the Leaving Certificate in the Roadmap which suggests that the Government hasn’t thought it through yet. It seems to me virtually certain that a u-turn is coming up and the Leaving Certificate is going to be cancelled after all. Students will probably welcome this outcome but I’m not sure what it would mean for this year’s University admissions!

On the other hand I am informed by a reliable source that the Government is adamant that the Leaving Certificate will go ahead on 29th July as planned. The question is how?

The 5km Limit

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 2, 2020 by telescoper

Since the Covid-19 restrictions were imposed over a month ago I’ve been confined to within a 2km radius of my home.

Yesterday, however, the Taioseach Leo Varadkar announced that is being relaxed to a 5km limit. Eager to see what thrilling new horizons would unfold as a result of this announcement I checked on a phone app and found this:

Great. So now I can visit a little bit of Leixlip, a little bit of Celbridge, or an even smaller bit of Kilcock.

I can barely contain my excitement.

The Bandana Face Mask

Posted in Covid-19, Education with tags , , , on April 22, 2020 by telescoper

There is quite a controversy these days about whether or not to wear a face mask in public to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. The way you should think of this is not to protect yourself but to protect others from being infected by you. On the other hand there is a shortage of proper medical face masks which no sensible person would want to exacerbate.

Yesterday I saw this little video on YouTube that shows how to make a mask from a bandana and two elastic bands:

The instructions are so simple that I even managed to make one myself, though it’s not as neat as the one in the video.

The thing about all the folding is that it puts several layers in between your nose/mouth and the outside world. It’s important to use quite large elastic bands too, otherwise it will pull on your ears.

It’s quite comfortable so from now on I think I will wear one whenever it seems appropriate. The only disadvantage I’ve found so far is that it results in the audio quality on my video lectures being somewhat degraded…

Death in the UK

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , , on April 22, 2020 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist the temptation to do a short post drawing attention to an article in the Financial Times that points out that, based on an analysis of data from the Office of National Statistics, the number of Covid-19 related deaths in the UK is probably around 41,000 which is more than twice the official figure. Unusually for the FT the article is not behind a paywall so I recommend you read it.

Here you can see a couple of figures from the FT piece:

There are three main reasons why the official figures are misleading, namely that Covid-19 deaths reported each day by the UK authorities exclude:

Your reminder that the Covid-19 deaths reported each day by the UK authorities exclude:

  1. those who died of Covid-19 without ever being tested;
  2. those who died of Covid-19 who were tested but whose result was a false negative;
  3. those who died of Covid-19 outside hospitals whether they were tested or not.

Whenever I have pointed this out on Twitter (which I have done several times) I have attracted comments to the effect of “So what? Every country does the same” which is untrue. Several other countries (both large and small), including Ireland, include deaths outside hospital. Not all countries have such a shambolic policy on testing either, so not all countries leave people to die alone in their own homes without being tested. And, above all, not all countries have a Government consisting entirely of people whose incompetence is surpassed only by their dishonesty.

I’m not saying that it’s easy to communicate reliable data during a rapidly evolving pandemic. The Irish authorities are struggling to keep their figures accurate and up to date. The result is that the information available to the public is sometimes a bit confusing.

For example, a couple of days ago there was a significant upward spike in the reported deaths (red curve, about a factor two increase):

Whether this is an artefact of counting having been delayed over the weekend or a real increase, I don’t know. In any case the deaths reported each day did not necessarily occur in the previous 24 hours and may have been several days earlier. This makes the plot difficult to interpret

What I am saying is that the UK government could easily be more honest about the Covid-19 situation in the UK if it wanted to. Given that the shambles is of its own creation, and that lying is a way of life for its Ministers, it has no incentive to do anything other than obfuscate.