The pandemic update from Britain: swans, spike, and Scunthorpe

The BBC has commissioned TV shows (or maybe that’s one show–we’ll find out eventually) that will, they say, be “a powerful snapshot” of lockdown Britain. One of them is a version of Swan Lake performed in the dancers’ bathtubs and showers.

The director? He directed it from his toilet seat. Sitting there, he said, kept him conscious of the limits the dancers were working with. 

“It’s been like hanging a picture blindfolded,” he said, “a mile away.”

Stay tuned, kids. It should be a one-of-a-kind moment in British culture.


Irrelevant photo: a stone age monument.

With all the flap around Dominic Cummings, why hadn’t he trended on Twitter? Because his name causes anti-porn filters to wake from their slumber and block–well, something. Possibly the tweets themselves, more likely the mass of them trending. How would I know? I’m 107 years old and even typing this much woke my anti-tech filters from their slumbers so they could block me from understanding the story. 

I do understand this much: The spam filters have driven people to all sorts of creative mis-spellings of his last name.

The problem of accidental, automated censorship is called the Scunthorpe problem. Scunthorpe is a real place, and that’s its real name. If you’re not a spam filter or a ten-year-old, it’s an inoffensive one, pronounced SCUNNthorp. 

The challenge of figuring out what to block and what not to block is also real. It’s right up there with trying to find pictures of seventeen animals hidden in the picture of a tree. Find the naughty words; don’t find the not-naughty words.

Oops. You got it wrong. Return to Scunthorpe and start over. 


In the period that starts on the week that ended on March 20 (that’s a convoluted way to tell time, but I didn’t invent it), the U.K. has the highest excess death rate of any country with reliable statistics: 891 per million.

The highest what? 

Excess deaths: the ones that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. They matter because not all coronavirus deaths are counted as coronavirus deaths. In many countries–possibly in all; how would I know?–how they’re counted depends on what goes on the person’s death certificate, which is decided by a scattering of doctors who may make very different decisions for all sorts of reasons. 

And in the absence of testing, who’s to say who died of the virus and who didn’t?

Excess deaths also matter because people die in a pandemic of things that wouldn’t have killed them if life had been what we so airily think of as normal. So the person who has a heart attack and decides they’d be better off at home than in an overloaded hospital with a high infection rate? Or who calls an ambulance that doesn’t get there for hours? The person whose cancer surgery was postponed because the surgeons didn’t have surgical gowns and couldn’t operate safely?

They all end up as excess deaths, indirectly attributable to the virus.

The data comes from nineteen countries.


A study in France finds that even mild Covid-19 cases leave 98% of people with protective antibodies. That’s the good news. The bad news is that 2% of the population is left out and that no one knows how long it will last. At this point, they’ve seen it lasting a month.


South Korea’s second pandemic spike is inching upward, and Jeong Eu-kyeong, the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they may have to re-impose social distancing. 

“We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures,” she said, “but there’s a limit to such efforts.” 

A lockdown has been reimposed in Seoul.


England’s test and trace system launched on Thursday, to the blatt of off-key trumpets and the curses of employees who couldn’t log on. It was supposed to be fully operational by this coming Monday, but Monday has been postponed till late June. Don’t fret. Every month has a solid handful of Mondays.

One contact tracer said they’d been told on Wednesday that the system would start on June 1, not Thursday, and added that there was no vetting or quality control over who was being hired. The tracers are a mix of medical professionals, people who’ve worked in call centers, students working a summer job, and I have no idea who else. They work from a script.

A doctor working as a team leader isn’t optimistic. 

“It’s difficult when you see people breaking rules,” he said. “Everyone is confused what the message is.”

The app that’s supposed to make all this work seamlessly is, um, being tweaked. I don’t think that’s classic British understatement. It’s classic governmental mumblespeak. They did a limited trial on it, discovered problems, and took it into the back of the workshop, where they’re pounding on it with sledgehammers.

Local governments, apparently, feel just as well prepared as the contact tracers, with an unnamed someone accusing the NHS and Department of Health of “control freakery.”

A lot of people are speaking out on this as unnamed someones or by first name only. 

Public health experts say they were sidelined during March and April, as the tracing campaign was being put together, and only involved in May after a behind-the-scenes campaign. 

England–not Britain this time; the overlap and divisions can make a person dizzy–has a network of contact tracers who work with TB and sexually transmitted diseases and could have shifted to the pandemic months ago. Contact tracing interviews, they say, take tact and experience, and they sound skeptical about the effectiveness of people who were hired by the truckload, trained briefly and online, and turned loose to work with a system that–. Well, one person who was supposed to use it said, “I have not been given any details of who to call if I have problems, only an email address…which largely goes unanswered.”

But this will make it safe for us all to emerge from lockdown and we’ll all be just fine, folks. And we don’t have to wait until the tracing system works. We can just go ahead on the promise.

The plan is that when testing identifies local hotspots, local governments, health people, and all the area’s chickens will work together and do something.

What will they do? It’s hard to say, because local authorities don’t have power to close down schools or workplaces, and chickens don’t even have the power to decide when to brood their eggs and when to let the humans do whatever it is they do with them.

Is anyone else feeling a bit chickenish?


On Friday morning I promise you something unrelated to the virus.

48 thoughts on “The pandemic update from Britain: swans, spike, and Scunthorpe

  1. It strikes me that this bug has given state procurement agencies carte blanche to hand out contracts willy nllly……never mind if the stuff doesn’t work, it was all in a good cause – safeguarding the public – and the mates get their hands on the moolah.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mmm hmm. And because it’s a crisis, they don’t have to have competitive bids. Because, gee, someone might die if we get this wrong.

      Oh, you say we got it wrong? Well, we were in a hurry. Sorry for your loss.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. We’re having a soft open of public parks and a few businesses tomorrow. I doubt my behavior will change much. I could maybe change for a vaccine…but it will be interesting to see whether the brave (or desperate to get out) souls who go with it come down with Covid in any large numbers. I hope not. What decisions we need to make.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know. After all this time, I’m having trouble remembering that the threat’s real. I know it is, but on that irrational level where so many of our decisions get made, it’s beautiful outside, I haven’t gotten sick yet, and I don’t see any bears lurking in the hedges, so it must be okay, right?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I applied to be chickenish but those in charge told me I couldn’t work from home. All in all Great Britain, England, and the British Isles (or is it Britany?) have this thing much better understood than us trapped in the Looney Bin. At least Boris isn’t fighting Twitter by using Twitter.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t deal well with technology. Don’t dowmliad apps. Don’t trust them. And didn’t try to understand the problem as my head began to hurt.

    Censorship is tough to enforce. I grew up in the fifties with the Hollywood movie code which was enforced. That is now long gone. Current forms should be gone just the same.

    If you graduate first in your college class you can’t post the name of the honorary title they give you,

    I could have sworn the s was silent snd the t was in the first syllable,

    Look forward to a non virus post. Not much change here. The Georgia governor extended the shelter in place restrictions for people over sixty five and those with medical conditions from June 12 to July 12.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Here, they’d been delivering food to the extremely vulnerable–people with compromised immune systems, etc. And yesterday they cut a few categories of people from the list, announcing the change by text message. We have some friends who depend on the deliveries–they are very genuinely vulnerable–and they haven’t been cut but I can imagine what that would be like for them. They’re in a city, so they don’t have the closeness of a village where there would be other people they could turn to.

      I wish our countries were handling this with just a trace of the competence New Zealand’s shown.

      I don’t think the bad-word filters will object to any of that.


      • After I commented I saw in the local news that over 60 per cent of the deaths in Georgia are from nursing homes. I saw death notices if two old friends ages 80 and 84 this week. They were probably in that group.
        Both were in nursing with health problems homes.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. And in the absence of testing, who’s to say who died of the virus and who didn’t?
    This is the case in many countries, including Serbia. Most patients with a heart problem have recently died of a ‘cardiac arrest.’ So much for the statistics.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Lordy, Ellen. I’m feeling very chickenish right now. It’s mind numbing to figure out how systems work to determine when lockdowns are over. In the US, state governors do their own thing, maybe keep lockdown, maybe open up in stages, maybe not. People protest (shoulder to shoulder in groups). Maybe herd immunity would work. People have to get protective antibodies so the virus can’t spread. Again, whatever you post gets read with your humor mixed in. Thanks! 😊 Christine

    Liked by 1 person

    • Herd immunity only works if immunity lasts long enough, which can’t be known yet but given the way other coronaviruses mutate is doubtful. And it depends on a fair number of people dying along the way. If the protesters want to volunteer for that, let them, but unfortunately they won’t keep their little virii to themselves–they’ll spread it to other people as they go.

      I think Britain’s coming out of lockdown–well, not exactly too soon but too incompetently. If the testing and tracing were in place and well organized, I think we could manage this and not have the number of infections spike again, but I’m not hopeful.

      The most hopeful approach I’ve seen (other than betting on vaccinations or treatments) is reducing the spread so that it eventually dies out. I wish we were doing that. I don’t think we are.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ellen, most of the herd immunity informations ends with: It isn’t the answer to stopping the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Once a vaccine is developed for this virus, establishing herd immunity is one way to help protect people in the community who are vulnerable, or have low functioning immune systems. Sources sited for this were reputable. Vaccine is the key word. Herd immunity is a long way off. We need 70% of the population to be immune to have herd protection. We have to slow the spread — physical distancing for an extended period, maybe a year or longer, and other home and public safety measures. I’ve been distancing from other people for years–germs hide everywhere. It’s a wonder I never got skin issues from washing hands or Purell use. It’s just good practice to stay safe year round from any virus. 📚Christine

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I imagine people from Scunthorpe would pronounce it ‘Sconthorpe’ though…and as for Mr Cummings, I think he’s got off lightly as Boris obviously needs him and won’t answer any more questions about the whole incident.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oops. I should know better than to provide pronunciations without checking. It all just seemed so inevitable. Thanks for the reminder.

      I don’t think Johnson would have a clue what to do without Cummings whispering in his ear. He’d be terrified to face the job without him.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Did you see on the 5pm update when one journalist asked the scientific advisor if following Mr Cummings’ breach of lock-down rules, whether the nation is now more likely to follow suit? Boris stopped him from answering it!

        Liked by 2 people

        • I didn’t, but I read about it. He really is trying to cut off the conversation. One of the other things I’ve read is that when the police tell people they’re congregating too closely, they start hearing about Cummings. It’s inevitable.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. I live in Florida. Here, our Republican governor is getting ready to open everything up due to our surprisingly low rates of death to COVID-19. And in spite of a weird spike in deaths due to pneumonia. Smells fishy, doesn’t it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I read a reply up there a ways where you said that all the BS makes it difficult to recall the severity of the initial problem. Very true. Masks? No masks? I am reliving the 70s in length but with considerably less hair. All the side issues. Hello, people are dying here. Yesterday I had, scheduled long ago, minor elective surgery. The wait turned it into not so minor. Nothing deadly, but still. But there I was knocking on the potentially excess dead door. My favorite observation on this came from an elderly black woman. She was asked after watching video of scofflaws crowding on top of each In a park ostensibly in protest of closed barbershops, and in support of a woman who opened hers in rebellion, eventually erupt in ‘who’s turf is this’ gunfire…
    “Can’t nobody, in anything they be doing, seem capable of deciding which is more important – your life or your lifestyle?”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Boy, does she ever hit the nail on the head. And of course, it’s not just their lives–it’s other people’s. How many lives are they willing to risk for their haircuts? (Reminder before they answer: theirs could be one of them.)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Try resubscribing and see if that fixes it. If you start getting it twice, unfollow once. If it doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll see what I can do–which will probably be not much, since I’m basically clueless but I will try.


  10. Over here one of the big conspiracy theories is that ALL deaths are being called as due tothe virus, hereby greatly exaggerating the actual death toll. That is one of the milder piles of B***S*** being spread.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read some nutburger’s blog the other day–just to see what the argument was–that claimed there is no virus. What’s getting people sick is 5G.

      Where do you even start?


  11. Sigh. Woe is me. I am undone.
    I see nothing good coming from any of these tests.
    I had blood work done for a regular followup with my family doctor last week. Yesterday a young woman from the doc’s office called me with apparently excellent news that I was negative for the coronavirus. No info, just you are negative. Wow, does she know me that well?

    Liked by 2 people

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