The pandemic update from Britain: visors, volunteers, and outsourcing

The ongoing saga of why the British government can’t provide protective equipment for health and care workers just keeps getting stranger. The government’s said all along that the problem is about distribution, not supply. Did anyone believe them? Why would we? Truth’s a scarce commodity lately. It turns out, though, that in a strange way they were telling the truth. 

It all starts with the outsourcing of the British stockpile of  emergency equipment. 

Outsourcing? That’s when the government pays the lowest bidder to do work it used to do itself because, um, it’ll be more efficient that way. And cheaper. And even if it turns out to be neither of those things, by the time that happens no one’s watching anymore and it fits with the political orthodoxy of the moment so it’s all good. That means we have private companies deciding who’s eligible for government benefits, a company with no ships got a contract for post-Brexit shipping, and a private company is managing the nation’s stock of essential emergency equipment. 

A store in Launceston, Cornwall, has set out a table offering free fabric to anyone making protective gear. Someone in our village is sewing masks to sell at the local shop as a fundraiser for the Air Ambulance.  She ran out of elastic yesterday and offered a free mask to anyone who’d give her some. I think she ignored the woman who offered to cut up her underwear.

Which brings us back to our tale:

In three years, that stockpile’s been in three different warehouses. The company in charge of it has just been sold. There’s also a lawsuit involved, along with a landlord who’s threatening to lock the warehouse gates, with the stockpile on the inside and the need for it on the outside. The cars of warehouse workers were searched one day as they left work and I wish I knew the story behind that but I don’t.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock swears the government’s rising to the challenge and–um, something, but don’t worry about it, it’s all going to be fine. 

The Department of Health and Social Care explained why it would all be fine even if it wasn’t yet by saying, “We’ve had to create a whole new logistics network, essentially from scratch.”

That was on April 12. So far they’ve invented the wheel part of the logistics network. Any day now, they’ll work out how to get the wheel on a truck. Then they’ll drive that much-needed equipment where it’s needed.

As soon as they locate a map. And invent a driver. They’re working on the DNA even as I type.


While that was going on, the government made a deal to buy protective gear from a company in Turkey. Planes were sent. Or one was sent and others were on standby The press was called: Look! Protective gear! Eighty-three tones of it! Aren’t we clever? See how we take care of our frontline health workers? It’ll be here on Sunday.

Then the aforesaid Sunday came and the gear didn’t. 

Either someone hadn’t gotten export approvals in Turkey (which the people in charge of that deny) or something else had gone wrong. One theory is that the company that was supposed to supply it overpromised.

On the 22nd–that was the Wednesday after the Sunday in question–a planeload arrived. According to one guess, it carried ten percent of the order.



I still haven’t seen an explanation of why the protective gear can’t be made domestically. In 2010 (the most recent year I can find statistics for) £1.5 billion worth of clothing and accessories were made in the U.K. I can’t break out the accessories from that to give you a number for clothing alone, but basically a lot of cloth is involved in this, with all the machinery and skills that involves. And then there are all those people sitting home with pinking shears and sewing machines, pitching in locally, or ready to. They can’t make ventilators, but scrubs? For anyone who can sew, scrubs are easy.

Could local efforts be scaled up with government support? You bet your dining room curtains they could.

Surgical gowns need to be “made from either impermeable material or a water-resistant, tightly woven fabric,” so we can’t all cut up our old sheets and make them, but if the garment industry and the people at home who sew are provided with the fabric, it could be done. They may not turn out everything that’s needed, but right now anything would help. 


Semi-relevant comment: “People at home who sew” is an awkward thing to call anyone, but if you’re at all at ease with English you’ll understand why sewers doesn’t work. Seamstresses is gender-specific and so not necessarily accurate. In a tweet, the linguist Lynne Murphy (@lynneguist) mentioned the word sewists, which turns out to be something some people actually call themselves, but I don’t think I can manage it so I’ll just leave a gap in the language and fill it with awkward phrases.


With that out of the way, let’s check in on a few volunteer efforts. In Somerset, 700 people are making scrubs and wash bags. They’ve set up a warehouse in a driving school and driving school staff do the deliveries. Local people are donating the fabric. That translates to, Keep an eye on those curtains if they matter to you at all.

In Bedfordshire, a design and technology teacher and a group of volunteers are making visors, with a group called Discover Islam providing funding for the materials and bringing lunch. So far, they’ve made 7,500.

In Kent, a school has been working with the fire brigade, making 20,000 visors. And two brothers in Wrexham, who are eleven and thirteen, started using a 3D printer they got for Christmas to make protective visors for people working in care homes. That sparked thirty volunteers to start working at a school, using donated and crowdfunded printers. They can make two hundred visors a day and hope to shift to an injection-molding process that will turn out eight thousand a day.

One injection-molding machine was donated by a company, Toolmakers Ltd., and the other was donated by the North Wales Freemasons. Who, I’m sure, had one sitting around in the basement, waiting to come out of mothballs.

The brothers are still turning out visors on their home printer.


As for the protective gear available in hospitals, it isn’t designed to fit women. On one unit, half the women failed the fit test, meaning they can’t work with the most infectious cases without putting their lives at risk. The only men who fail the fit test are either very small or refuse to shave their beards.

Since eight out of ten (or three out of four, depending on your source, and possibly on how you define your sample and whether you round the numbers up or down)–

Let’s start that again: Since most of the people working in healthcare are women, it only makes sense that the equipment is designed for men.

The problem was raised as long ago as 2016. The people in charge stuffed their fingers in their ears and sang, “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.”

We are all very, very happy.


Poison control centers in the US report an increased number of calls from people asking about disinfectants–presumably whether to drink them, inject them, or do both at once while gargling bleach and juggling fire. 

A Fox News article reports that the New York Poison Control center saw thirty cases of exposure to bleach and other cleaners in eighteen hours after Trump suggested that they might cure coronavirus. In a similar period last year, they saw thirteen cases.

Trump is now claiming that when he recommended disinfectants he was being sarcastic, and I recently saw a tweet saying that only a liberal would be stupid enough to drink bleach and liberals are the reasons that products have safety warnings.

My friends, satire is dead. 


In Italy, even a Covid-19-impaired sense of smell can catch whiffs of lawsuits related to pandemic deaths. Prosecutors are looking at heavy clusters of deaths to see whether people in authority are responsible. Lawyers are advertising to the bereaved. 

One group of people took to Facebook, first just to bear witness to their losses, but the group quickly turned to gathering evidence for a lawsuit–not against healthcare workers but against “those in leadership positions.” 

“We do not want financial compensation,” Luca Fusco, who started the Facebook group, said. “Our main objective is to have justice from a criminal perspective, so if someone is responsible, we want them to be charged and brought to trial.”

While we’re talking about lawsuits, the state of Missouri has filed a lawsuit against China for economic damages caused by the virus–presumably because China screwed up and the U.S. has handled it so effectively. And an Italian ski resort is suing China’s health ministry.

When all else fails, sue someone. Once upon a time, in a very different world that we all used to live in, I’d have said, “Suing someone? It’s the American way,” but I don’t think I get to make that joke anymore.


A drug that looked promising as a treatment for Covid-19, Remdesivir, has failed a double blind test and the trial was stopped early because of the side effects. It was used in China in uncontrolled–for which read, desperate–trials and seemed to help. The drug’s manufacturer says it may be useful in patients who are not as ill as those in the trial. 

I think I hear a hint of desperation in that, caused the sight of money disappearing out the window, but I’m ready to admit (a) that I’m getting more cynical every day and (b) that they could well know something real about this.

Remdesivir was originally developed to treat Ebola.


Speaking of privatization–which we’re not anymore, but we were not long ago–a privately run coronavirus test center has managed not to send any test results to some people and to send the wrong test results to other people. 

It’s a drive-through center in–I don’t make this stuff up–Chessington World of Adventures. It’s being run by Boots (a drug store chain, or in British, a pharmacy chain), Serco (an outsourcing company), and Deloitte (which is basically an auditing company and I have no idea why they’re photo-bombing the operation).

They’ve all covered themselves with glory. 

A government lab doing diagnostic tests isn’t doing great work either. Because the country has had trouble getting reagents and assorted chemicals (unnamed, mercifully, otherwise I’d have to spell them), they’ve had to rely on substandard ones and may have missed some infections.

And the government turns out to have ignored offers from leading scientific institutions to help with testing. Along with a businessman’s offer to produce 450 visors a day, which sounds like it’s one of many.

The Cabinet Office said it’s “incredibly grateful for over 8,000 offers of support from suppliers as part of the national effort to ensure appropriate PPE is reaching the front line.

“We are working rapidly to get through these offers, ensuring they meet the safety and quality standards that our NHS and social care workers need, and prioritising offers of larger volumes.”

It has, it says, engaged with over 1,000 companies and is working with 159 potential UK manufacturers.

So that’s going well.


A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the government bought some 3.5 million antibody test kits, which were supposed to test whether people have been exposed to Covid-19 and might therefore be immune. If, of course, having had the virus turns out to confer immunity, which no one’s sure of yet.

The best of the tests are only seventy percent accurate. The worst? They’re fifty percent accurate. Given that only two answers are possible, yes and no, that means you could do as well by flipping a coin. 

Sorry, I tried to come up with a better image but couldn’t get a 50/50 chance out of throwing socks at the washing machine or letting the dogs loose in the back yard.

The government’s trying to get its money back. And I’m trying to get back my lost youth.

Not my lost innocence. Innocence is overrated. Or mine was, anyway.


South Korea is being looked as a country that might show us how to get out of this mess. It brought the rate of infection down from some 900 daily to dozens and then into the single digits, all without going into lockdown. How? By testing. It set up hundreds of free testing centers–drive through, walk through, mobile. (Not in a World of Adventures park as far as I know. They may not understand what an adventure we’re all having over here.) Then it traced the contacts of people who tested positive and alerted them. 

To avoid pointing a finger at infectious people, they’ve anonymized the alerts. 

Although they didn’t institute a lockdown, they did convince people to distance themselves and urged companies to allow employees to work from home, and they placed some restrictions on public places, schools, and religious services. 

They’re worried about a second wave when those are relaxed, so we can’t say they’ve solved the problem yet. 


What are all the lockdowns going to do to the world’s economies? The short answer is that we’re going to be in deep shit. Different types and amounts of shit in different countries, of course, but nobody’s likely to come out of this smelling good.. The International Monetary Fund says the world’s facing the worst depression since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Some experts are predicting famines in the poorest countries

I know. You come here to have a good laugh. Don’t I just know how to have fun?


We need one feel-good story. A former paratrooper who was walking the entire British coast, with his dog, to raise money for an armed forces charity was offered refuge on an uninhabited Shetland island for the duration of the lockdown. He was given the key to a former shepherd’s hut–no electricity, no running water–and coal, water, and food are dropped off every couple of weeks, weather allowing. In between, He forages, fishes, collects driftwood, and keeps a three-week supply of dog food on hand.

He had been homeless after he left the forces, struggling with anxiety and depression, and started his walk with £10 in his pocket when he faced homelessness a second time, starting out .

Since he’s been on the island, he said, “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

86 thoughts on “The pandemic update from Britain: visors, volunteers, and outsourcing

  1. Amazingly, even Greece has been better organised lately than England… Regarding the masks, my cleaning woman has made 40 and distributed them, for free. NOTE: we couldn’t get elastic, so we used shoelaces, widely available at the supermarket.(Sadly, I’m rubbish at sewing. I do, however, make and distribute cakes and cookies, for which some people curse me instead of thanking me, in view of their diets.) Regarding the supplies in the UK, in one of the instances I seem to recall they were waiting for a flight to arrive while the government hadn’t placed the order yet…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I didn’t read about that particular order, but it sounds about right. They’ve raised incompetence to the level of an art form.

      I’ve been hesitant to bake for people for fear of breathing on their goodies while I’m bagging them up. I’ve done it once or twice, but with real misgivings. Maybe once I get my mask. What sort of precautions do you take?

      Liked by 2 people

      • We live on a farm in France at the moment, and I haven’t been out for a month! The local village shops are super organised and deliver. I have Lyme disease so I have to be careful, so my husband does the few necessary chores, wearing a mask sewn by our cleaning lady, who’s a wiz at sewing and has made over 40, and distributed them to everyone! We can’t complain, we have access to fresh air and walks with the dogs. But the future is worrying. My main gripe is that one of my sons is in Greece with his family, we haven’t seen them since Xmas, and I’m afraid it’s going to be many more months before we can travel.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m glad you’re someplace safe. We are also–well, safety’s relative these days, and maybe always was, so relatively safe. But I can’t help thinking, “This can’t go on forever,” and I don’t see most countries finding a safe way out. Some countries aren’t even looking for one.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. You will be happy to know that we are restarting our economies and liberating our states at the same time. You will also be cheered on by the fact that we are doing the most testing. How that ties with the highest infection rate is something of a quandary. And our doctors and nurses are not rejoicing over the prospect of additional business. We won’t even bring up the subject of insufficient PPE. Thankfully we have not run out of paper bags. That is where we store the old used PPE for a week before we re-use it for another week. The germs magically fall of in the bag when removing said PPE. And a slight twist of the wrist is said to help in the falling off process. Please be so good as to not mention the paper bags get in the way of the ultraviolet light. Carry on hopefully with out becoming carrion or road kill on the covid highway.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. The words ‘piss up’ and brewery’ not to speak of ‘whelk stall’ come to mind when considering Britain’s response to the problem.
    Yes, the privatisation of essential services was a poor idea to start with and has shown proof that the claims that private businesses work better than the state is so much claptrap.
    The management structure of the NHS likewise…overpaid ignoramuses who could not manage to extract themselves from a paper bag.
    Were I to have any power in Britain I would be ordering a supply of lamp posts and rope….pour encourager les autres.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Ellen…I, too, am trying to recover my lost youth and totally agree that innocence is overrated. As for the competence (and lack of leadership) of many world governments at the moment, wouldn’t it be nice if we could clone Angela Merkel?!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Some good news us that new cases peaked in the UK and trending down since then. Hope that will continue. Now going down as fast as we would like to see. Also new cases have been dropping in New York city, but that is in America.

    Social distancing and wearing face coverings seems to be the most important factor. And tracing contacts.

    Don’t think we can predict what will happen next.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree: I don’t think anyone know what’ll happen next. Small elements, yes, but overall? We’re in uncharted territory. And the only think I’d add to your list of what seems to help is testing. It really does seem to matter.

      I really hope, as the number go down (and let’s hope they continue), that we don’t come out of lockdown too quickly and undo the everything.


  6. Saw an editorial cartoon today pointing out the ingesting bleach is the most cogent alternative to Obama Care the Trump Admin has so far offered. The ONLY one, in fact.
    Here in Ohio our Republican governor is releasing info on gradually reopening businesses in the state (NOT starting with tattoo and massage parlors). Predictably he is catching hell from other GOP governors and minions because he isn’t doing everything all at once, per the party line.

    I decided even before Covid that The Leader of The Free World was Angela Merkel. But the NZ premier can be next in line. Followed by Pelosi, Harris and Klobuchar.

    Truly discouraging times. Good for the vet isolated in the Scottish Isles And good for you for being worth reading !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mary. I’m happy to be described that way. And now that you mention it, you’re right about the bleach–or the editorial cartoon is. What crazy times we’re living through.


      • Ah ! The above is the post I lost twice – so it DID get through. (The longer the comment the more likely it is ti disappear). I also neglected to mention that Elizabeth Warren should be on the list. ( I”m sure many more I am not aware of.)

        There are campaign signs appearing that say “Any functioning adult – 2020 !”

        Liked by 1 person

        • It did, but the two you mentioned losing did disappear somewhere. Sometimes I get multiple versions of a comment people seem to have lost. It’s a mystery–one of many.

          I could live with a campaign sign like that. Happily.


  7. Saw an editorial cartoon today pointing out the ingesting bleach is the most cogent alternative to Obama Care the Trump Admin has so far offered. The ONLY one, in fact.
    Here in Ohio our Republican governor is releasing info on gradually reopening businesses in the state (NOT starting with tattoo and massage parlors). Predictably he is catching hell from other GOP governors and minions because he isn’t doing everything all at once, per the party line.

    I decided even before Covid that The Leader of The Free World was Angela Merkel. But the NZ premier can be next in line. Followed by Pelosi, Harris and Klobuchar.

    Truly discouraging times. Good for the vet isolated in the Scottish Isles And good for you for being worth reading !

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Please if you discover how to get back your lost youth, do post about it. I need that ASAP.
    Meanwhile, back in the USA Pretty and I received a letter from the President himself today on The White House stationery with a return address, however, of the Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service in Austin, Texas. Only a fool wouldn’t open a letter from the IRS. I am no fool.
    The purpose of the letter was to tell us we could thank him mostly (plus Congress a little bit) for a one-time check we received two weeks ago which would count as “fast and direct economic assistance to you.” I was reassured that his top priority was my “health and safety.” And thrilled to hear we have his commitment to making sure we have the support we need to get through this time.
    I’m not quite sure about his commitment for support when he recommends we shoot up Lysol to get rid of the coronavirus. Woe is me. I am undone.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. The damn internet has now eaten two of my comments so I hope this one goes through. Please keep letting us know all idiocy is not exclusive to The Former Colonies !

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not, although it changes form and color as it crossed the Atlantic. It’s not as crazy here, if we’re going into competition. There are elements that make sense, such as trying to support people who aren’t working, even if they’re incompetently done.


  10. We will need to reexamine how much of out manufacturing process we should allow to be outsourced. Of course, the people who will be entrusted with that examination are the ones that let the situation develop. I’m not holding out much hope. If and when we put this virus in the rearview mirror, we will pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Blame the virus on the Chinese, and tax the poor in order to restore the abundance of the wealthy.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I think you just laid out the descriptors for almost every government globally, although some of them are now redeeming themselves. ( have high hopes for ours – which is something I didn’t think I would be saying at the beginning) but that lot you’ve got there are raising paradoxical idiocy to new lows.
    I’d take that island – with the internet. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I admit, the island would be safe as long as you’re careful about the grocery deliveries, but I couldn’t do it. I’m anything but outgoing, but being on my own for that long? I’d be a gibbering idiot by the next time the boat made its trip.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. As far as I know (by which I mean a thorough friend of mine read a book and told me) all safety equipment standards in this country were designed to fit tall men. Many safety devices such as seatbelts are pretty dangerous to the generally shorter woman… I speak as a 5’4.5″ person who’s car seatbelt would decapitate her in an emergency stop situation…
    I had a point…oh yes, taking this into consideration, it doesn’t surprise me that PPE is designed to fit men. :-(
    On saying that, I have a massive head so I’t be ok, however this helps noone as I don’t need PPE I just need to stay at home…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m trying not to despair, but I fear the reckoning will not be pretty, when it comes, as it will. There are already signs of infighting (i.e., unattributable briefings against each other) at the highest levels of government, as well as between different branches of the public and civil services, never mind the public backlash when the full details of what didn’t happen in January/February, and why, come out.

    And then there’s the knotty question of how we’re going to replenish that “magic money tree” the government suddenly discovered after all these years of insisting it didn’t exist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I strongly suspect it won’t be by replenishing it in the one sensible way I can think of, which is taxing those who can best afford it.

      I’ve been reading about Tory back-bench pressure to end the lockdown asap, which would throw everything that’s been done out the window. It sounds like the center of that is the 1922 Committee–Johnson’s old power base, if I understand the relationship correctly.

      Do you think people really will listen when all the dirt comes out after the fact? Or will it horrify only the people who were already paying attention?


  14. Ellen, thank goodness the end has an happy paratrooper in a seemingly better way. A dog for company can be even better than people. Or a cat. Anyway, an animal. So, the world continues to backfire. Some companies trying to step up, and flounder. Some countries doing better than others. Your post puts whimsy in the reading, otherwise it would be a downer and skimmed through. You know how to get the word out. Don’t stop! 📚🎶 Christine

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks Ellen I enjoy reading about what’s going on across the Atlantic, makes me feel better about what’s going on here. The media tends to make countries other than their own look like they are coping much better or much worse, but I suspect the truth is we’re all doing the best we can, considering how much we don’t know. I hope we are at least learning something useful for the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is, I agree, an element of muddling through in a situation we don’t fully understand, but Britain could be doing much better–this government couldn’t organize is good at getting elected but that’s the limit of it’s skills. It’s doing a terrible job of governing. The US? A few states seem to be working in reasonable ways, but nationally? It’s insane.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I like so many of your points. I’m in the US, and both countries have capabilities. (Hopefully you have better leadership?) Asking volunteers to sew is silly. (I am not to knock the useful volunteer efforts) The government needs to say to capable companies and suppliers, (not intermediaries) We will pay you to supply/sew/create millions of tests and Hospital grade protective gear, and etc, and you can staff up as needed to do so, we can streamline real supply chains (not etsy), etc. Hoping for donations from companies, etc. is inefficient and will drag out the process. Which is what is happening. Sigh.

    I imagine girl scout troops calling the local hospital to say where do I drop off the 500 masks I made, and my heart aches. That is not a supply chain, and the hospital worker who answers the phone probably can’t get a test. What a train wreck.

    It’s better than nothing, so go sewists! (I love your pointing out the language deficiencies here.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re absolutely right. The volunteer efforts are touching, but they’re a monument to governmental incompetence. Over here they’re incompetent but not on the scale that Trump is setting.


  17. Hello Ellen, thanks for the news roundup, I don’t read or watch the news anymore (for a long time now, but especially now). Your post has reminded me why I stopped. I love your style of writing, thank you. :-)


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