Lives in the Balance

Updated: Jul 5, 2020

We've got a set of digital scales in our kitchen these days. You know, the ones with the LCD display that says 'Err' when you ask it how much pasta you've measured out because you've plonked it down on top of a cookery book and it isn't actually level. They're such a pain! The batteries are always going flat and, because they're the weird ones that look like 10p pieces, you can't get hold of replacements that easily. Plus, the letters that show whether you're measuring in ounces (oz), milligrams (mg) or millilitres (ml) are so small I can hardly read them.

My grandma - with whom you will remember I went shopping in the 1970s - had a much more reliable device. A cast-iron set of kitchen scales with loads of little weights; the sort they used to have in the sweet shop to measure out your half a pound of licquorice allsorts. She ate too many, got diabetes, and died but that's another story.

There was a huge 4lb weight which you could equally well have propped the door open with, a 2lb weight which I took great pleasure in balancing with a new, unopened bag of flour (Grandma did a lot of baking), a 1lb weight, a half-pound weight and loads of tiny little things that ranged in size from what looked like a large bath plug to a Pontefract cake - they were 100% licquorice, too, and she liked them as well. Too many of them, as it turned out.

A keen mathematician, I would select the required weights for each ingredient Grandma called out. Seven ounces of sultanas? That's a bath plug (4 oz), a Pontefract cake (2 oz), and something about the size of a Trebor's Refresher (1 oz). Half a pound of treacle? No, I'm getting confused, That's in the nursery rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel.

Today, all the talk is about containing r (the reproductive value) below one. r = 1 is the magic point at which the tide turns and the spread of the virus is dissipated over time. If r > 1 then we're heading for another wave, although, unlike surfers, this isn't what we want. r was about 3.0 when we went into lockdown, hence the huge rise in cases immediately afterward.

Think about managing r as a balancing act, in much the same way as when you're baking and you'll see where this is heading. The allowances the government makes that are likely to raise r go on the 'lift' side, and the 'lockdown' restrictions go on the 'lock' side. What's the 'weight' of 'close all the non-essential shops and stop people driving to Barnard Castle when half-blind'? That's probably a good 4 lb weight on the 'lock' side. What about 'open the pubs, send everyone back to school, open the beaches without any nearby facilities, and abolish the 2 metre rule'? That's four hefty 4 lb doorstops on the 'lift' side. Oh dear, I've broken the scales.

It's a very difficult balancing act. We won't be able to go to the football and meet up at the pub, and send out children back to school and go to rock concerts and hang out at the beach. We are going to have to choose between these bits of the old normal for now. Which is it to be?

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