The pandemic news from Britain

So you think you’re bored? An astrophysicist in Australia dealt with coronavirus isolation by trying to build a gizmo that would warn people when they started to touch their faces. He used four powerful neodymium magnets–and no, I never heard of them either but you can buy them online for any price between £4 and £2,000. I’m not sure what range his fell into.

I know: Australia isn’t in Britain. It’s too good a story to pass up. And no, this is not an April Fool’s joke. 

He wasn’t working in his area of expertise, but he figured that if he wore magnets on his wrists and made a necklace out of something else, it would buzz when the two got too close.

Nice try. It buzzed until the two got close together, basically nagging until you were driven to touch your face. So he gave up on that, but he still had those magnets.

“After scrapping that idea, I was still a bit bored, playing with the magnets. It’s the same logic as clipping pegs to your ears – I clipped them to my earlobes and then clipped them to my nostril and things went downhill pretty quickly when I clipped the magnets to my other nostril.”

What he’d done was clip one inside and one outside each nostril, and all was well until he took the outside ones off and the two inside clipped themselves together. When he went to get them off, they would fit past the ridge at the bottom of his nose. So he turned to Lord Google, who told him that an eleven-year-old had had the same problem and that the solution was to use more magnets, from the outside, to counteract the pull of the ones inside.

Do not believe everything Lord Google tells you. Even if you’re an astrophysicist. Lord G. does not have your best interests at heart. The magnets did indeed pull and he lost his grip on them and now had four magnets up his nose instead of two. So he tried to use a pliers, but “every time I brought the pliers close to my nose, my entire nose would shift towards the pliers and then the pliers would stick to the magnet. It was a little bit painful at this point.”

He ended up in the hospital where his partner works and they sprayed an anesthetic into his nose and pulled out three magnets, at which point the fourth one dropped down his throat. He was lucky enough to cough it out. If he’d swallowed it, apparently, he’d have been in real trouble.

He’s sworn never to play with magnets again.


In the meantime, how’s the UK coping with the virus? Well, it turns out that in 2018 it published a biological security strategy addressing the threat of pandemics. And then ignored it. As a former science advisor to the government, Ian Boyd, put it, “Getting sufficient resource just to write a decent biosecurity strategy was tough. Getting resource to properly underpin implementation of what it said was impossible.” 

Which is one reason that when the government heard a pandemic was coming, it put magnets up its nose. 

To be entirely fair, it’s been putting metaphorical magnets up its nose for years now, cutting money from the National Health Service on every week that started with Monday (or Sunday, depending on your calendar) until the service was barely handling ordinary problems.

The government tested the NHS a while back to see if it was ready to handle an epidemic. It wasn’t. So what did they do? Buried the findings. 

And three years ago the Department of Health got medical advice saying it should stock up on protective equipment for NHS and social care staff to prepare for a flu epidemic. But an economic assessment showed that it would cost actual money, so they didn’t do it.

Doctors and nurses are being asked to come out of retirement during the current crisis, and younger doctors are being asked to increase their hours or work on the front lines, but a doctors organization says many are hesitant because they would not be eligible for death-in-service benefits, “leaving their families in financial difficulty” if they died as a result. 

As I write this, our prime minister, health secretary, and chief medical officer all have Covid-19. So does the prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings. But Larry the Cat, who lives and works at Number 10 Downing Street, is immune and he’s prepared to step in as soon as everyone admits that he’s needed. 

He was originally brought into government to take charge of pest control, but you know what cats are like: They study everything everyone does. 

People, he’s ready for this. 


A lot of ink has been spilled over why Britain didn’t go in with the European Union on a bulk buying deal for ventilators and other medical equipment to help deal with the epidemic. First we were told it was because Britain isn’t part of the EU. Then it turned out that Britain was eligible. So last week we were told it was because the government missed the deadline by accident–it didn’t get the email. But Britain had representatives at four or more meetings where the plan was discussed, and there were phone calls about it.

The cabinet hasn’t commented yet but watch this space. They’re going to blame Larry.


Farm organizations and farm labor recruitment agencies say that between Brexit and the virus, Britain is short something like 80,000 agricultural workers. They’re calling for a land army to help with the harvest. It’s too early to say how well it’ll work.


Who’s at the highest risk of exposure to the virus? Low-paid women. They cluster in social care, nursing, and pharmacy jobs–jobs with high exposure to lots of people. They make up 2.5 million of the 3.2 million highest risk workers. So we’re all in it together, but some of us are in it a lot deeper than others, and with a lot less protection.


People whose health puts them most at risk from the virus have been contact by the government and advised to stay in for twelve weeks. And food parcels are being delivered to at least some of them–something I know not just from the papers but because friends received one and were also put in touch with a neighbor who’s able to shop for them. It’s impressive, but there are still huge gaps. People who have to depend on supermarket deliveries haven’t been able to set them up–there just aren’t enough slots. And sorting out who needs them and who wants them but doesn’t completely need badly? That’s not going well.


Emergency legislation had given the police the power to

Um. Do something about slowing the spread of Covid-19, but no one’s sure what, and police forces across the country interpreted their new powers in new and interesting ways. 

One force dyed a lagoon black to keep visitors away. Another insisted people could only have an hour’s exercise a day, and a third issued a summons to a family for shopping for non-essential items. A fourth used a drone to film dog walkers and a fifth told a shop to stop selling Easter eggs.

Part of the problem is that there’s a gap between what the legislation says and comments from our notoriously loose-lipped prime minister, who said (before he got sick himself) that people should only exercise once a day. Another part of the problem is that the legislation was rushed through, without much time for thought. 

Senior police commanders are trying to bring some kind of sense to this mayhem. Expect the Easter egg ban to be lifted any day now. I glanced at a summary of the legislation. Easter eggs aren’t mentioned. 


The government has announced a program to get the homeless–called rough sleepers here–off the streets and into hotel rooms, which aren’t being used anyway, or into empty apartment buildings. As long as they’re on the streets, they can’t self-isolate, and until you address that you can’t control the virus. 

It’s funny how an insoluble problem becomes soluble once the solvers have an interest in doing something about it.

I admit, I was impressed. But the problem is money. Homelessness groups say cities aren’t getting enough of it to implement the program. And they need to provide not just a place with a roof but also food, medical care, and support people if it’s going to work.

At one estimate, 4,200 homeless people were found shelter in a couple of weeks, but thousands are still on the streets and food is hard to come by. Among them are people whose immigration status doesn’t allow them any recourse to public funds because of a Home Office policy that also keeps them from working. No one wants to find them shelter because there’s no money for it.


To do a decent job reporting on this, I should include the plans to keep people paid, at least partially, and not evicted from their homes, but they’re complicated enough that I sank. The self-employed are in one category. The employed-employed are in another. The self-employed who haven’t been self-employed long enough aren’t in either category. Renters are in a different category from homeowners. 


And now a non-pandemic bonus to reward you for having gotten this far with precious little to laugh at: Researchers are working on a program that can read brain activity and turn it into speech. 

It works by learning what happens in the brain as people speak, and to build it they had a group of people read the same set of sentences over and over. It started by spitting out nonsense and compared that to what it should have read, and gradually it got so good that it turned “those musicians harmonize marvelously” into “the spinach was a famous singer.”

I love this program. It’s going to write my next post for me. 

130 thoughts on “The pandemic news from Britain

  1. I began with the closing gem.Admittedly, i am not a polymath and these days am fluent in only one language.But even mixing bits of several languages I couldn’t come up with any spinach being or having been a famous singer.

    And the rest is too depressing…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. On an upbeat note I was cheered by the news from the Holford (Somerset) Parish Council that was organizing shopping for everyone – together with a list of items from which to choose (many tea varieties.) Seems like useful work for a Parish Council.

    And then of course there are the Goats of Llandudno.

    But you are right. Thank goodness for Sir Larry. He is a stable force in government – a calming voice in times of distress.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “Researchers are working on a program that can read brain activity and turn it into speech.” Funny coincidence… my husband was just telling us this at dinner last night.

    Omg about the astrophysicist and the magnets!!

    While living in Canada, I once had to bring one of our toddlers three hours away, to an ER unit in a specialized children’s hospital (that’s where the local doc had sent me – the local hospital not having this specialized unit), just to have two goon-like nurses straightjacket my little 25-pounder, and, with a simple pair of tweezers, pull out a tiny bit of sponge he’d put up there. (#CouldaDoneThatAtHome… and would’ve saved at least $100 in transport, not to mention exposure to tons of random sick-germs… but anyway.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • You coulda done it at home, but–. Well, the best way to explain why the nurse could do it and you couldn’t is to explain that there’s a large category of objects that can only be opened if you really believe that (a) you can open them and (b) you won’t break them in the process. That’s why it takes someone who’d put a tweezer up a toddler’s nose before to do the job.

      Toddler’s, however, are expected to do stuff like that. Astrophysicists? Not so much so.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yep, that’s what I thought, and why I took him to the doctor… and thankfully we didn’t contract anything at the hospital, nor spread his sniffles to the other patients/visitors, since I wore him in a sling on my back the entire three hour wait… rather than let him play with the toys (ridiculously, imho) on offer in the waiting room.

        (Ah, parenthood. Thems ‘re the best of times, and the worst of times… but little so far, compared to current times. ;))

        Agreed on astrophysicists, but I guess we all have our moments. 😅😆

        Liked by 2 people

    • If I ever figure out what (not to mention where) three and fourpence is, I will.

      As for very intelligent people, I wouldn’t say they’re any shorter on common sense than anyone else, but I would say they’re no richer in it. You can be very smart and still be very stupid.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry, I realised after I said it that it might be outside your frame of reference. It goes back, I think, to WW2 and is an apocryphal story emphasising the importance of clear communication. By the time ‘send reinforcements, we’re going to advance’ had been relayed by many messengers it became ‘send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance.’ Shillings and pence, UK currency pre-decimalisation in 1971.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for making me laugh! How are you holding up? The UK (or you USA for that matter) don’t seem very accomodating at the moment. Comparing the health systems to the wealth of those countries makes your mind boggle.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We’re okay so far, personally. I will say this much: Britain’s way ahead of the US as far as response goes, but honestly, what a mess. I was listening to an interview with a German someone or other about the German response and the British one and he kept saying the difference was planning. Germany planned ahead. Britain stuck magnets in its nose and talked about Brexit.

      Liked by 2 people

        • I hate to judge people by their hairstyles (in 6 weeks, everyone who didn’t start with long hair will be beyond judging others), but political developments in recent years are convincing me that maybe I should.

          You stay safe yourself.

          Liked by 2 people

            • Four weeks from now, I don’t want anyone listening to my haircut. My partner just told me she’d found instructions on how to trim someone’s hair. I’ll only do hers if she promises total forgiveness afterwards. Then I’ll ask her to put a bowl on top of my head and trim off everything that isn’t covered.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Ha ha, I’m trying to picture this … I’ve been cutting my hair since uni (and somehow am still as broke as then…) it’s really not that hard. You can do it! Just get a decent pair of scissors, no mashine thingies (better safe than sorry)

                Liked by 1 person

              • I did my own hair when I was–I guess in my teens. But it was curly then and covered a lot of bad moves. When it turned gray, it also turned straight, which is less forgiving.

                Oh, what the hell, it’s hair. It’ll grow.

                Liked by 1 person

  5. We officially don’t have a government here in Ireland – we had an election on Feb 8th in which 3 parties each got less than a quarter of the votes, the rest being shared between an assortment of extreme lefties, greens and independents. So the old government is dealing with the crisis whilst they decide which 3 groups can form a new one. Despite that we seem to be doing better than the UK or the USA. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
    I’m looking forward to the post composed by the AI that reads your brain. I doubt it will be as good as the ones you produce unaided.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’m happy enough to have a government, but I wish it was one that was willing to govern. Instead we landed ourselves with a bunch of idiots who think government is the problem–just when what we fuckin’ need leaders who are willing to plan (I refer you to Germany) and lead. And spend money on things that benefit the nation, not their friends.

        Sorry–I kinda lost my sense of humor there.

        Liked by 2 people

        • No apology necessary. [“These times” require us to have elite gymnast level skills at balancing the kind of sanity where we stay in touch with reality and the kind where we neither freak out all the time nor withdraw into catatonia. Having a sense of humor to lose would already qualify you for the Summer Olympics. If we were going to have those.]

          Liked by 1 person

          • It’s been–well, it’s been an odd and difficult day. I feel like my sense of humor is operating more or less on its own in a lot of my responses to people, and I’ve been watching it like a spectator. Stay well.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. The magnet story amused me a lot when I read it, the best thing was in his account he claims he partner took him to hospital so everyone could laugh at him :-D and on the hospital report it states that the patient denies further magnets :-D

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you, Ellen, both for starting off my day with a hearty laugh (the astrophysicist and his magnets) and for helping me realize that I don’t live in the only country that has totally and royally screwed this up. I swear the inmates in both our countries have broken out of the asylum and are running our governments now. (Wish I could recall the name of the movie where that actually was the plot; about thirty years ago, or more). Take care, stay well, stay home.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh God! I’m still laughing about the magnets and I’m really sorry but I couldn’t get any further than that!! That’s made me snort and the problem is my husband is on a call to some General somewhere and giving me filthy looks! Fantastic post! Katie

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Ellen pleaase be careful you don’t run afoul of our majesty’s twitter feed. He will proclaim both you and Larry the Cat nasty. And despite great self risk leap ( now that is a bad visual especially if the hairdo gets mal-adjusted ) to Boris’s defense. And on that note I need to go. I have to get ready for today’s Covid-19/Twilight Zone episode where He Who Should Never Been Elected tells us what a great job he is doing and what a great relationship he has with all of the governors. That is unless certain governors happen to be ungrateful snakes that day.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Rough sleepers is a new term for me – I actually prefer it to homeless, I think. I am amazed at how Britain is apparently handling the pandemic with the same random stupidity we are using here in the colonies. Jesus Christ. We are killing ourselves in both countries – but not softly – as Roberta Flack sang about. We will go out with a great deal of noise.
    Yesterday I cut my own hair. I’m not sure why. It has been driving me crazy for days, and I looked in the mirror and said to myself, your grandfather was a barber…surely you inherited some ability to cut hair.
    Pretty came home from babysitting our granddaughter, took one look at me and said, you look nice. I like that sweater.
    When I asked her what she thought about my hair, she gasped and said, you have a mullett.
    I couldn’t reach behind me, I said.
    No magnets yet, but this is how one American is trying to cope.
    Stay safe and keep us posted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If the haircut wasn’t the first thing she said, you did well. I’m impressed. I’ll scan my hair to you if you’ll cut it.

      I think the dumbfuckery over here isn’t as bad as the dumbfuckery you’re living with, but it’s still unforgivable.

      Stay well. Stay short haired.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Some people aren’t meant to be trusted with that sort of power. I’m one of them. It’s the same with plumbing. When Ida and I first bought our house, way back in god knows what century, I decided I was a big tough homeowner now and I’d fix a small leak in the toilet.

          One kitchen ceiling and a busted seal later, I realized it was cheaper to pay a plumber.

          Liked by 2 people

  11. Some of the medical experts here in America are saying everyone should wear a scarf or something similar to cover their mouth and nose when out and around other people. A person can have the virus and be spreading it around for up to two weeks without knowing it. That is how most if it is transmitted.

    Or you could just not exhale until you got back into your house or car. But that could impose other difficulties. So I would go with the scarf.

    Not much new to say about that. Death toll keeps rising. Emory University put out a model saying should peak here in three weeks.

    Everyone follow the guidelines.

    Ninety nine per cent or more of us will get through this.

    Have a good week.


    Liked by 1 person

  12. So regretting the move from England back to U.S. lo those many years ago. It no longer hurts that after everything…paddling the Atlantic, learning star-gazing for directions, and counting sharks… he left me for a better, faster, improved shipping-crate packer…and oars woman. I’m so over that. What really, really hurts is that at least you have Larry to make national decisions. Agent Orange can’t find an animal to adopt or foster. The White House pantry is bare of any kind of four-footed canned food or kibble. (I may have to rethink that four-footed statement.) Question: Could we borrow Larry? Just for one news briefing? I promise….just the one briefing…there’s biscuits afterward in the Rose Garden…? I’ll throw in extra fruit cake and face masks. Bribery works…I’m told…

    Liked by 1 person

    • In my experience, cats will accept bribes, but they won’t do a thing in return that they didn’t plan to do. So I’m guessing that no, he won’t go with you.

      I’m really sorry about that.


    • I haven’t either, but we have a bit of spinach still growing from last summer and I’m listening to it more carefully now. I’m sure you’re right about the helmets. I wonder how many we can score.

      You take care as well.


  13. This certainly brings home the fact that The Former Colonies are not so separated from The Mother Country after all.

    If Larry the Cat is in charge of Pest Control, he should be able to take over very smoothly. Unfortunately we over here would require a Saber-tooth Tiger – hopefully the DNA labs are working on this.

    As an animal advocate, I did appreciate your slogan about “Test Kits.” Tis the season for that too.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Britain and the pandemic reminds me of something I’ve read several times about Prince Philip saying after he dies he would like to come back as a deadly virus to help solve the overpopulation problem. I don’t know if he actually said it but if he did it’s kind of ironic that Prince Charles has COVID-19. Thanks so much for linking up with me at my #UnlimitedMonthlyLinkParty 11, open April 1 to 26. All entries shared on social media if share buttons installed. I’d like to invite you to check out my other current link parties too!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. The most British thing I heard was the story of the neighbours who had never spoken to each other putting a sign in the window to ask what the cat was called and getting the answer Walter. I wonder if they will go back to the correct amount of social distancing once the pandemic is over.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Forgive me if I sound bitter, but we lost a friend the other day, and with a marginally competent government it might well not have happened. I can’t say his death was completely avoidable, but I can say that it might have been. Those of us who survive will see where it goes. Those we lose will not.

      Thanks for the link. I’m sure a good number of people are struggling with home schooling.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Ellen, this article amuses and saddens me. At least I feel better about what’s happening here in the colonies, I think. Interesting that the issue of “money” keeps coming up isn’t it? And I especially appreciate your point about problems getting solved when there there’s something in it for the solvers. Like not dying maybe? Let’s just hope Larry the Cat stays healthy, maybe he will emigrate to America and help us. We love cats.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. That’s why I don’t eat spinach. I wouldn’t want to rob the world of a marvelous singer.

    You said “legislation was rushed through, without much time for thought.” as if, if they took more time for thought, it would help. From what I see of the thinking these folks do, more doesn’t necessarily lead to better. The target for their thoughts always seems to be themselves, the next election, the money they need, etc. more just leads to more. Maybe we could hook them up to the gizzmo and let it speak for them.

    Liked by 1 person

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