Glued to their blooming PlayStations

Look, there’s a serious point in all of this, namely that the “nanny-state”, a lack of decent funding and the constant threat of petty litigation have forced local councils to prevent Britain’s children from… well… “being children” anymore.

But fewer, smaller, safer, more expensive playgrounds mean more obese kids and a sorry decline in “those fascinating crusty objects” – scabs – as Boris Johnson laments, brilliantly describing the consequences of growing up in a scabophobic society.

First the outer edges would harden, leaving a raw red patch still faintly weeping in the middle. Then the whole thing dries into a miraculous integument, as firm and knobbly as the edges of a bit of cheese on toast.

You could tap it. You could stealthily probe its edges, with the connoisseurship of the man from Del Monte, to see if it was ready. Then one day it would all be gone, and we saw the skin underneath, pink and new and whole.

The scab experience was a brilliant lesson in biology, and it is in some ways sad that our children these days seem so scab-free. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not calling for more of them to have accidents.

I am not positively advocating that we encourage our children to fall out of trees or get whanged off roundabouts moving at 200 rpm. But the scabophobic measures we have taken to protect our children have had consequences we could not have intended.

While Boris is trying to score political points (and why not? – after all, that is his job) he’s certainly correct that we (we being parents, society) mollycoddle our children far too much these days – and the fact that that behaviour is having disastrous effects on them and therefore, by inference, on us.

I’m right behind him on this one.

And while political upheaval is upheaving all around me here in South Africa, it’s so refreshing to read his very entertaining (yet actually quite serious) analysis which somehow accurately ties the lack of damaged kneecaps in young children with the decline in basic common sense and the decay in the moral fibre of society my homeland.

What Sky News has missed

It’s strange how things happen. Only a couple of days ago, we were enjoying the story of simple country folk together, going about their er… “business” without a care in the world. And now, suddenly, the role of the British vet is seen in a whole different light (actually, thank goodness) as an outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease (FMD) in Surrey, UK is investigated.

As a microbiologist, this case is particularly interesting to me. I’ve always had a bit of a personal interest in epidemiology (the study of the spread of disease) and the detective work that goes with it, since reading the story of the Broad Street pump. I guess I’m just a frustrated forensic scientist, deep down. With a love of bacteria.

The FMD outbreak in 2001 was devastating for the British farming industry and cost the livelihoods of many hundreds of farmers. Over 7 million animals were culled and the total cost of the episode was in excess of £8bn. Behind those easily reported figures though, the true human cost remained largely hidden. It was a very a big effect for a very small virus (about 0.0000001mm in size).

So I guess in a way it’s understandable that, so far, the rolling news stories have all been about the human side of the story. That’s the way that British news has been heading for some time now – demonstrated admirably by the hopelessly overblown Madeleine McCann case. After all, there’s nothing that reels in the viewers like a distraught farmer, crying in front of the baying newsmen; the pride of his life – his thoroughbred bull who he describes as being “like a pet” – shot in front of him, along with the rest of his herd of 100 cattle.


But for me, what makes this whole sorry scene even worse is that this outbreak appears to have begun at a research laboratory site nearby to the (so far) two affected farms. That it seems to be down to poor laboratory practice makes me even more angry for the poor farmers and even more incredulous that the news teams in the area appear to have missed what I think is the bigger story here.

The virus that causes FMD is one of the picornaviridae, called Aphthovirus. Because of the lack of any cure for the disease, the lightning quick transmission and the low numbers of viral particles needed to cause infection, aphthoviruses are classified as a Containment Level 4 pathogens by the Department for Enviornment,Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Just to put you in the picture – and I could list the others, but I think that one will do – essentially that’s the same classification as the Ebola virus.
Step forward Dustin Hoffman in a spacesuit. Or something.


Now, I’m not suggesting for a minute that the research facilities at Pirbright have Ebola on site. That would be silly. But there is something utterly terrifying about a pathogen “escaping” from a CL4 facility. That simply cannot be allowed to happen. It’s the stuff of hideously paranoid paperbacks, of low budget films, of conspiracy theorists wildest dreams. And now – in all probability – it’s reality.

Why have Sky News missed this so far? As I said – this is the stuff of movies – surely right up their street?
I think that maybe they just haven’t realised the “Ebola link” yet. So once again they wheel out Prof Hugh Pennington (he and I have history – grr) and his eyebrows and he says… well… nothing of interest. No big surprise there. Literally.
So, Sky et al, if you’re reading this:

Here is the news.
A virus as dangerous as Ebola has escaped from a laboratory just outside London.
Stop interviewing crying farmers and get on with some real journalism.

Much obliged.

Weather woes

While the weather here in Cape Town has been pretty miserable of late – a succession of cold fronts bringing wind, rain, more wind and more rain to the peninsular, life is no better in the UK.
Of course, it’s summer there, so they’d be expecting rain. Add that to the fact that Wimbledon starts today and it was the Glastonbury festival this weekend and you could have predicted precipitation.
That said, I don’t think many people expected it quite as bad as it was.
For example, check out this picture snipped from the BBC News website earlier today:


Bassey: grounded

That’s right. The weather in the UK is so bloody awful right now that they had to ground Dame Shirley Bassey. Apparently, there were worries that she would drift away like a giant zepplin. Extra cable had to be brought in from Poland to tether her securely to terra firma.


“This unprecedented action was taken due to the inclement conditions,” said a spokesperson for the singer, “Usually, we allow her to fly throughout the summer, before locking her away in a hanger near Cardiff for the winter months. But we had no choice but to ground her due to the heavy rain and strong winds. We hope to have her flying again before the end of the month.”