Recently my mother paid me one of her quintessential “compli-sults”: a lashing of praise that somehow leaves a bruise. I’m moving flat, and mentioned that my poor organisational skills were sure to wreak havoc with the process.
“Stop putting yourself down, you’re the best at sorting things when you need to be – it’s why I call you in a crisis,” she said. “It’s just the basic, obvious stuff you can’t handle.”
She has a point: I’m writing this column mere days from moving into an unfurnished flat, despite having zero possessions, and the one time I headed out to buy secondhand furniture, I came home with nothing but a single, ornate, old gold spoon.
For a while, I thought the mental block I have around life admin was something to do with an innate lack of focus, that without a deadline or something urgent was too easily distracted. But then I discovered “decision fatigue”.
In psychology, decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decision-making after a protracted period of it. Simply put, if we are forced to continuously make decisions, we’ll make worse ones as we go. After a day in our modern world, where we are bombarded by choice – choose what to watch between 1,000 channels; choose which of the 20 juices you want at the supermarket; choose what app to open when you look at your phone – it is understandable that an innocent woman might enter a shop for a bed and emerge with an Edwardian jelly spoon.
I feel vindicated. But sadly, one cannot sleep on vindication alone, so I expect more shopping – and fatigue in every sense – is on the horizon. Still, at least I can now eat my dessert in style.
In September, the NHS Covid-19 app was launched, supporting NHS Test and Trace in England and NHS Wales Test, Trace and Protect, aiming to slow the spread of Covid-19 by alerting people to virus levels in their area, and when they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive.
Here, Dr Sarah Jarvis MBE, Dr Amir Khan, and professor of pathogen dynamics Christophe Fraser, answer frequently asked questions about the safety, effectiveness and purpose of the app.
Who is the app for and who will it help? Dr Amir Khan: The app is for anyone in England and Wales over 16 who has a smartphone, and can download from Google or Apple. If you have a smartphone, you should download this app. The reason why is that we need everyone to get on board with this idea of controlling the spread of the virus – the best way to do that is knowing where the outbreaks are and knowing when someone who has tested positive might have been in your vicinity. Then getting as many people to isolate as possible.
When will the app contact you? Dr Sarah Jarvis: The app alerts you if you have been in close contact with somebody who has tested positive for coronavirus, but it is only people who have been in close contact with someone for 15 minutes or more. If you walk past someone on the street who has tested positive, then you are not going to pick it up.
Will it alert me if there is Covid-19 in my town? SJ: If you put in only half your postcode it will alert you to the risk of coronavirus in your area. I have had this app for a month and used this function the other day. The alert told me the risk had risen from low to medium. This is important for you to know; for instance, it might make you rethink what you do in terms of you visiting, socialising and going out and about.
If I get an alert, am I breaking the law by going out, or is it more, ‘Stay at home so I don’t infect granny’? Prof Christophe Fraser: The app only advises and cannot force you. You don’t want to go out because you don’t want to infect vulnerable people. We all have loved ones with other illnesses that make them even more susceptible to really bad outcomes from Covid. Among some younger people, it’s much rarer but there are some bad outcomes. Of course, it’s very difficult to quarantine and it can be hugely disruptive and, therefore, it’s really important that the UK government supports people through payments. And it’s really important that employers are absolutely told in no uncertain terms that this is a way we will protect ourselves. We can see the current situation is alarming. Cases of coronavirus have been going up for weeks now, hospitalisation and deaths are following not far behind.
Will the app help to prevent a future lockdown? CF: That’s what we’re trying to do. The more we can participate with the Test and Trace, the more we can stay in well-ventilated areas, wear face coverings, wear masks and wash hands, the less likely we are to end up in lockdown. So there’s a social pact, we all have people in our social networks who are a bit more vulnerable and who we’re worried about. You don’t need to look at the national numbers, you can just think if you, your friends and your colleagues use the app you’ve got an early warning system: here comes the virus.
What do I do if I get an alert to say I’ve been in close contact with someone with coronavirus? SJ: If you receive an alert, the app will advise you to self-isolate. If you then develop symptoms, and test positive, the app will anonymously notify anyone you’ve been in contact with.
What are the benefits of this contact-tracing solution over previous methods? AK: It’s beneficial because you don’t have to ring anyone, you don’t have to go online and search for anything – once you’ve downloaded it, it’s there on your phone. It’s so much more than just contact tracing. It helps alleviate some of your concerns – eg, it has a symptom checker so if you’re worried that you may be having coronavirus symptoms and you don’t want to ring 119 to get a free coronavirus test, or face a queue of other people doing the same thing at a test centre, you can put your symptoms into the app and it will tell you whether there’s a chance you have coronavirus and you need a test. It will automatically direct you to a test-booking website. It’s really user friendly.
SJ: I was highly critical of the previous app, but all my questions and concerns have been addressed. That is why I agreed to be a spokesperson for Test and Trace.
What would you say to people who don’t think it will make a difference, or who are worried about their data privacy? AK: When I was told I was going to be able to have a look at this around three days before the public, I was nervous about downloading it on my phone because I was worried about data privacy. I was also worried that in the past the old versions had not been working, so I must admit I thought: “Is this just not going to go anywhere?” Lots of people have similar concerns. However, the app protects privacy as it uses Apple and Google’s proven Bluetooth technology, designed so that nobody will know who or where you are. App users are anonymous and the app cannot be used to track your location for law enforcement, or to monitor self-isolation and social distancing. The only personal information it requires is the first half of your postcode, not even the second half, that’s it. The more people who download it, the more effective it will be. I completely understand, there’s been a number of false starts and some people may have lost their faith, but we have got to get behind the app for it to work.
And is my data completely safe? Will it be sold to advertisers? CF: The data about contacts are entirely private, you have complete control over them, you can turn on and off contact tracing. That’s private information that stays on your phone. No data leaves your phone.
What about my phone battery? AK: It works by Bluetooth technology on your phone. I was worried that it would drain my battery because I am always on the phone talking to people, but it doesn’t.
What would you say to people who say we can’t do this indefinitely and life needs to return to normal? CF: Life isn’t going to get back to normal if 20% of the population have to continue shielding. The way to get back to as normal as possible is to control the virus. There are 44 vaccines in human trials, five of them in phase three. Phase three is a large trial where you’ve already established the safety of the vaccine and that it elicits an immune response, so it’s really when you vaccinate very large numbers of people to look really closely at the safety of different groups. Let’s not get pessimistic about vaccines. We will have vaccines that work. But it’s a difficult time. Lockdown is incredibly painful. Quarantine and isolation when you test positive or are contact traced is really difficult, but hold on and keep the epidemic down so that we spend a larger proportion of our time being able to get on with life – it’s not indefinite.
Anything to add? AK: People are worried that they have received a message on their phone alerting them to a possible infection and then it seems to disappear. [These “phantom alerts” are a default privacy notification from either Apple or Google. If you receive one, but do not need to take any action, you will now be sent a follow-up message from the app making this clear.]
This advertiser content was paid for by the UK government. All together (NHS app) is a government-backed initiative tasked with informing the UK about the Covid-19 pandemic. For more information, visit: gov.uk/coronavirus
If you’re thinking that now is the time to finally come good on that new year’s resolution to start baking your own bread, this loaf, which can be on the table in little more than an hour, is the one to start with, especially if you’re hoping to enlist the help of young children in making it. Popular throughout Ireland, soda bread’s soft and crumbly crumb is great warm from the oven, but it also makes unbeatable toast.
Prep 10 min Cook 50 min Makes 1 loaf
450g coarse wholemeal flour, plus a little extra to dust 50g rolled oats (optional, see step 3) 1 tsp salt 1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda 1 tbsp treacle 1 tbsp honey 450ml buttermilk (see step 2) 1 tbsp butter, to finish
1 The clue is in the name
As the name suggests, soda bread relies on bicarbonate of soda, rather than yeast, as a raising agent, which is why it’s so quick to make – it gets to work as soon as it comes into contact with an acid, and the reaction between the two creates bubbles of gas that expand in the heat of the oven, causing your bread to rise.
2 The acid test
This acid traditionally comes in the form of buttermilk, but if you can’t find that (though it is widely available in supermarkets), use the same amount of milk soured with a tablespoon of lemon juice or even vinegar; the effect will be the same, though the flavour will vary, especially with vinegar. You could even use plain yoghurt instead, though in that case I’d recommend thinning it down with a splash of milk or water first.
3 Mix the dry ingredients
Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6 and put a lightly greased baking tray in there to heat up. Put the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir to combine. If you don’t have oats, replace them with 50g flour; and if you want to use white flour instead, or a combination, feel free (see step 8).
4 Add the buttermilk and sweeteners
Stir the treacle and honey into the buttermilk until well mixed (it will probably stick to the bottom of the jug at first, so make sure you incorporate those bits, too), then make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients.
Pour the buttermilk mixture into the well and use your hands to stir it into the flour. Mix until you have a soft, sticky dough.
5 Mould the loaf
Lightly flour a work surface, then tip out the dough and shape it into a rough round (alternatively, you could use a greased loaf tin, if you prefer). Take the hot baking tray out of the oven, put the loaf on it, then use a sharp knife to cut a deep cross (see step 9) in the top to speed up the baking time.
6 Bake the loaf
Put the tray in the oven and bake for between 50 minutes to an hour, keeping an eye on it towards the end of the cooking time: it’s done when the crust is hard and golden, and the bread sounds fairly hollow when tapped on the base. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small pan or in the microwave.
7 Brush with melted butter
Take the bread out of the oven and immediately brush with the melted butter.
Leave to cool a little (soda bread is pretty indigestible while it’s still hot), then cut into slices and tuck in, preferably with copious amounts of butter. Note that this bread doesn’t keep as well as yeasted bread, though it is very good toasted.
If you’re using another type of flour, you may need to reduce the amount of liquid, because wholemeal flour absorbs more than white flour; and if you find the loaf is hard to shape, simply add a little more flour to the dough mix. Ring the changes by adding dried fruit, olives, caramelised onions, crumbled cheese, seeds or chopped woody herbs such as rosemary.
9 The sign of the cross
As well as helping it bake faster, the cross cut into the top of the loaf is also said to bless it against evil forces, or to let out the devil, depending on who you listen to. I was taught to prick each corner, too, to let the fairies out, though whether or not you choose to do so probably depends on your attitude to eating fairies.