Are clothes essential in a pandemic? It’s the news from Britain

In a protest over the Welsh government’s ban on stores selling nonessential goods during the current lockdown, Chris Noden turned up at a supermarket in nothing but his undies and tried to shop while his wife followed along behind and recorded everything on her phone. A store employee kept him from going in, and as soon as Noden got him to admit that clothing was essential, he decided he’d made his point and left.

“I understand they have to control crowds in shops,” he said later, “but if someone really needs something or an item, what is it to stop them? They are actually blocking these aisles off with sweets, chocolate, bottles of vodka, whisky, lager, they are blocking it off with all nonessential items, essentially. I don’t know what is essential or not, it is a bit mad, like.”

What he’s talking about is that supermarkets blocked off areas selling nonessentials.

It’s true that he does seem to get stuck on a thought and repeat it, but he managed to make his point all the same. It’s also true that he didn’t just wear his undies. He also wore shoes, socks, a mask, and a tattoo. 

The essentials, essentially.

My thanks to Ocean Bream. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have missed this and what a tragedy that would’ve been.


Irrelevant photo: If I remember right, this is a thistle. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, on October 29, British papers reported that nearly 100,000 people a day were catching Covid in England. That’s based on a study by Imperial College London, which also estimated that the rate of infection was doubling every nine days. That takes us close to the peak of infections last spring, although the death rate for people who have severe Covid is down from last spring, probably because a lot’s been learned about how to treat it.

Every age group in every region shows growth in the number of cases. In London, the R rate–the number of people each infected person passes the disease on to–was 3. The Southeast, Southwest, and East have an R rate above 2. On a national average, it’s grown from 1.15 to 1.56.

Regional lockdowns in the north may have slowed the spread, although they don’t seem to have stopped it. The government is frantically trying to avoid a national lockdown.


But it’s all going to be okay, because the government has plans to do a Covid test on 10% of England’s population every week, using tests based on saliva, which are easier to manage than the current ones and give a result in thirty minutes. The plan is ambitious, headline-grabbing, and badly thought out. In other words, pretty much what anybody who watches this government would expect. 

The idea is that local directors of public health will “be eligible to receive” tests “equivalent to” 10% of their population. Which is a roundabout way of saying that’s how many tests they’ll get, but with a small escape clause in case someone needs to wriggle through the definitions of equivalency and eligibility. A properly motivated politician could emerge from that snarl rumpled and stained but still claiming victory.

In a moment of heroic bad planning, the project was launched without anyone talking to the local governments and health officials whose cooperation it depends on. 

What will the program expect of them? The head of the test and trace program, Dido Harding, said local authorities will “be responsible for site selection and deployment of [lateral flow] testing in line with their priorities.”

Lateral flow? Oh, come on, you know that. It’s what happens when things flow laterally, which is to say sideways.  

Did that help? 

I thought it would.

But it’s even better than that, since we’re translating. Things will flow not just sideways but also in a line with their priorities, which we can assume run sideways.

Whose priorities? I’m not entirely sure. Local governments’, probably, and they’ll get to choose their priorities by picking Option A or Option A. That way it’ll be their fault if Option 3 turns out to have been the obvious choice. Honestly, anyone would’ve been able to see it.

And no, I didn’t add that “[lateral flow]” business. That was some desperate reporter trying to condense a document full of waffle and bureaucro-speak.

So are local people wild about the program? Not demonstrably.

An anonymous director of public health said, “There is no point in testing large numbers of the population unless you do something with the results. We really, really want to improve testing and tracing, but once again this is the wrong way to go about it.”

Another public health official–a senior one, whatever that may mean, and also  anonymous–said, “We don’t know who does the contact tracing or how the workforce [to carry out the tests] is resourced. [That means paid for–and this is my addition.] We are trying to work out how this fits with the test-and-trace strategy with PCR testing and how any positive results are followed up and people are isolated.”

PCR testing is the kind that’s currently being done–the slower, more invasive kind of test.

And yet another anonymous senior public health official said, “They have come to us with a proposal that is poorly thought through. It is not clear what the cost is or the amount of work involved and there is nothing about contact tracing.”

As for the existing test and trace system, it might just meet its target of testing 500,000 people a day by the end of the month, but it’s done it by getting the results back to people more slowly than promised–sometimes at half speed–and bungling the tracing element. One in five people who test positive and are referred to the tracing side of the system are never heard of again. They’re abducted by flying saucers and held out of range of cell phones–or if you’re British inflected, mobile phones, whose name only promises that you can move them around, not that they’ll work where you so foolishly brought them. 

Are those lost people isolated while they’re there so they can’t pass on the virus? That’s the thing: We don’t know. But if you will get yourself abducted by flying saucers, you can’t blame Dido Harding for it, can you?

It’s also possible that the system’s missing more than one in five people. It depends when you wandered into the movie. Another article says less than 60% are reached, so that would be two out of five. 

I think. 

Oh, never mind the specifics. It’s all just a lovely, poetic way of saying the program’s a mess.

One article I found included an example of the kind of snafu that happens in the vicinity of the test and trace system: a small war over who’d pay for a portable toilet at a mobile testing station. The central government (I’m reasonably sure that would be the test and trace program itself) refused. Because they’re test and trace, after all, not test and toilet. That left two local entities playing hot-potato with it for days. In the meantime, the station couldn’t be set up, because no matter how little you pay people, and even if you put them on zero-hours contracts, they will want to pee eventually. 


However hot that potato was, though, it’s a small one. Here’s a considerably larger one:

After advertising for people with a health or science degree (or an equivalent something or other) to work with experienced clinicians  in the English test and trace system, Serco–a private contractor–instead upgraded a bunch of people who were already working there, people with no relevant degrees or experience and who were working for minimum wage. That’s £6.45 an hour if you’re between 18 and 20 and £8.72 if you’re over 25.

You may have noticed that some years are missing there. That’s okay. Most of the callers are in the 18 to 20 group.

The job as originally advertised–the one the minimum-wage folks got moved into–was supposed to pay between £16.97 and £27.15 an hour. The people who got moved into the job are still working for minimum wage. 

That’s called upskilling. It’s not called up-paying. 

We can’t exactly say they weren’t trained. They got four hours of power-point training, an online conversation, a quiz, some e-learning modules (doesn’t that phrase send a thrill down your spine?), and some new call scripts. 

“It’s been an absolute shitshow,” one highly anonymous caller told a reporter. The callers are talking to people who’ve lost family members. People who cry. People who are in pieces. And the callers’ training manual says things like, “If somebody’s upset, be patient.” 

It leaves some of the callers themselves in pieces. They’re young. They have no training to help them deal with this. They’re in over their heads and they know it. 

I can’t imagine the system’s working any better for the people they call.

Somewhere in between advertising the higher pay level and giving the job to people at the lower one, the Department of Health and Social Care made a decision to split the job in two. The first set of callers would make the initial calls and then “qualified health professionals” would follow up. 

But Mr, Ms, of Mx Anonymous says, “There is no other call by a trained clinician.” The callers read out a list of symptoms, refer anyone who needs medical advice to 111, the Covid hotline, and only if they decide that there’s an immediate risk do they pass calls to a clinical lead. 

So this is, on average, a 20-year-old being asked to decide if there’s an immediate risk. No disrespect to 20-year-olds–I was one myself once–but you don’t have a lot of life experience to draw from at that age.  

Have I mentioned that the test and trace service is privatized? And that to date it’s cost £12 billion–more than the entire budget for general practice. More than the NHS capital budget for buildings and equipment.   

Which is one reason that a group of doctors have called for the money to be diverted to local primary care, local NHS labs, and local public health services. Local, local, and local. 

I’m not expecting anyone to listen to them.


And so we don’t end on a completely sour note, Taiwan has marked 200 days without a domestically transmitted Covid case.

Its success is due mostly to reacting early and sanely: establishing coordination between government departments; emphasizing the use of masks; quarantining new arrivals. It didn’t hurt that both the strategy and communications with the public were led by experts.

It’s a radical concept, but it just might work.

59 thoughts on “Are clothes essential in a pandemic? It’s the news from Britain

  1. The one word in this that stands out for me is ‘shitshow.’ I think they should put those 20 year olds in charge: it couldn’t be any worse than a government of cretins whose priorities are to line their mates’ pockets and blame everyone else but themselves when, inevitably, it all goes wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. While doing a double-take on the l-less name of Dido, I wish her well in establishing New Carthage in Britain. As for the poor minimally video-educated 20-year-olds, my heart goes out to them. As a baby social worker on my first placement I was allocated 60 cases, including a young boy who’d been marked for immediate follow up by the Children’s Hospital 12 months earlier. Please reassure me that there are places reserved in Hell for these bureaucratic monsters. (Sorry, got a bit seriousy there.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are, absolutely, but since it seemed efficient to put seasoned bureaucrats in charge of organizing the reservations, so they may find they have to wait for their places. The anticipation, I’m sure, will add to the experience.

      Dear Ol’ Dido, by the way, come to her reservation at the top of the bureaucracy by way of a mobile phone company (where she fucked up completely, although I’m damned if I remember the details), rather than any bureaucracy. God forbid, though, that they should put someone with a public health background in charge of all that.

      Yeah, the temptation to get serious about this overwhelms me too from time to time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am curious, why are they blocking the shelves? What may be deemed as non-essential to one person, may be completely essential to another. Does that mean they are blocking the alcohol aisles as well? And the chips and cookie aisles – so what exactly are you allowed to buy? Is the tea and coffee aisle blocked? All of this boggles my mind, and I applaud the guy in his undies for making a statement!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think they blocked off any edibles, and as far as I know they didn’t block off alcohol. That’d be one surefire way to spark a rebellion. But supermarkets (at least the bigger ones) sell everything from sheets to sweaters, and since stores dedicated to housewares and clothing couldn’t stay open, someone decided it would only be fair to keep supermarkets from stealing their business. It’s one of those things that makes sense until you try to put it into practice (I could imagine being presented with the idea and thinking it was fair), at which point it promptly falls apart.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Call me cynical, but I do wonder what happens to all these swabs after they’ve been tested for covid. Seems an easy way for a government to sneakily gather its citizens’ details for a secret DNA database. (As a writer-in-training, I am seeing conspiracy theories everywhere at present.) ;-)

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m pretty cynical, but I doubt anyone’s well organized enough for this–and I’m not convinced anyone cares. They’re barely managing to test the damn things and then report back. Saving them, testing them for DNA, and logging it would be a lot of extra work and cut into profits, which is (who me, cynical?) what it’s all about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m as cynical as the next blogger, and more so than many, but lots of leaks come from the test and trace program and not one has so much as hinted that this is going on. This fear, I think, is spun out of thin air. Let’s focus on the problems we know it has rather than finding ones we have no evidence of.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Really ? The head of the Test and Trace program is named Dido ? Are you sure that’s the correct spelling ? Your explanation of how she got the job, of course, means that the job of White House Communications Director was already taken,

    And the 10% tested each week – is that the same 10% each week over and over, or will it be rotated so that all of the population would be tested after 10 weeks.

    The call center people seem to at least be trying, as opposed to over here where they only want us to switch utility services. (A counselor I know went to her first day on the screening end at a crisis center on 9-11-2001, speaking of a baptism by fire.)

    Cynicism as opposed to tears – of rage and frustration – I guess. Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In NY back in March- June before things started opening up, alcohol was essential. I think it more had to do with the tax money the state of New York gets from the sales of it. Sales went up significantly as the state changed the rules to people could order alcohol to go from restaurants. Restaurants are not held responsible now if someone drinks and drives. Big grocery stores that sell everything- Walmart and Target were essential businesses. They were allowed to sell everything. Staples- an office supply/ computer store was allowed to stay open as many were working from home. Best Buy- a store that sells computers/ printers/ etc. choose to only do order via internet. I think they shot themselves in the foot by doing that. Do not think they are doing well as a chain right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tax money! Of course. What was I thinking when I didn’t think of that? And cigarettes.

      Because I’m retired, it didn’t occur to me to wonder if the office supply stores stayed open here during the last lockdown. It turns out, though, that we’re going back into lockdown but the schools and universities will stay open, leaving a gap you could drive a herd of Covid-infected mastodons through.

      Liked by 1 person

      • They say here they follow the science. They say the kids don’t get it like the adults and claim they don’t spread it. Our schools that are open have strict measures in place. Most parents choose fully remote. On Monday and Tuesday group A attends school. On Thursday and Friday group B attends school. Special education students go A and B days. New students to the US attend school on a Wednesday while everyone else is remote. Meanwhile schools everywhere have had staff and student cases. They shut down the class for 2 weeks the child was in and all the kids on the bus also have to quarantine for 2 weeks.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Test, trace and toilet – the three T’s of a successful pandemic management program. What could be simpler?
    Well, let’s see. Maybe blaming doctors for driving up Covid death stats in the colonies because they get paid an extra $2,000 for listing Covid as the cause of death on death certificates. Brilliant. A perfect explanation for more than 230,000 (and counting) lives lost to the grim coronavirus reaper, according to the Covid Commander in Chief as part of his closing arguments for re-election this past week.
    Have mercy on us all if that crazed man wins an election for anything other than least popular on a prison tv show.
    Truly, have mercy.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I lady on the checkout said that the ban on onon-essential goods meant that people were in the shop for much less time. Indeed I managed to get in and out and do my shopping in about 10 minutes (I regard any time spent food shopping as time i will never get back). So although I wasn’t impressed with the ban at first I can see the point of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is all just a big mess! I recently had the chance to meet a blogger friend of mine for the first time as her and her husband were traveling thru my state. We decided to have supper together and it was wonderful. Yes, we wore our masks to get into the restaurant but of course we had to take them off to have our meal and no, we were not six feet apart at the table. A wonderful time was had by the four of us, including my husband. Will we do it again? Yes, we will!! Both myself and my blogger friend are immunocompromised but we wanted to meet and we want to live our lives without fear, so we did just that. Back in July, my husband and I went on a week long vacation out of state, had a great time. Last month we traveled out of state again and spent four days with our grandbabies. We can’t let this virus prevent us from living our lives then we have no life to live. Thanks so much for linking up with me at my #UnlimitedMonthlyLinkParty 18, open until November 26.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My goal is to get both myself and my partner through this alive, and that means we’re being cautious. We’ve lost one friend to it already. Someone else we know has what they’re calling long Covid–debilitating symptoms that persist for months, possibly for a lifetime, although no one knows yet. No one–absolutely no one, including younger people–knows what card they’ll pull out of the coronavirus deck if they get infected. We are living our lives, but there are a lot of thing we’re not willing to risk our lives and health for–or other people’s.

      Stay well. And thanks for all the work you put into the linkups.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We have been staying safe too since this all began as my husband has not missed a day of work. We keep our bodies, vehicles, and house clean. Have always had a stocked supply of bleach, disinfectant spray, and hand sanitizer even before the virus. We know people who have supposedly died from it and we do believe it’s real. We’ve also had family members who got it and survived…but how much longer do we go on with this?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Like a lot of people, I wish I knew the answer to that. A vaccine, unfortunately, is only likely to be a partial solution, protecting some as yet unknown proportion of the people who take it, possibly leaving the remainder better able to fight it off. Any number of treatments are in the works and sound promising, including one that could inhibit the virus’s ability to invade host cells. (I’ve pasted a link below.) But not every drug that looks promising in the lab works out in the real world. I’m hopeful. And impatient. And patient. And occasionally despairing. And deeply, quietly furious at the political leaders who bungled this so badly, because it could have been contained early on if they’d listened to public health experts.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’d be afraid to take the vaccine, I don’t even take the annual flu shot. Full of too many toxins for me. And how on earth can they make a vaccine so quickly when they don’t even know that much about the virus? World depopulation might be their agenda!!!

            Liked by 1 person

            • We have no evidence of that–absolutely zero–and I’ll hold out for evidence before I jump to massive conclusions. And we have a great deal of evidence that it’s not their agenda. They’re testing the vaccines widely, and depopulating their test group would show. The data will be available to other scientists (and probably to members of the public who can follow it; this isn’t secretive work).

              How is it possible when so little is known about the virus? A lot is known and a lot still isn’t. The virus has been identified, as is the way it enters the body’s cells. Its DNA and RNA are known (and the newer forms of vaccine are working with them). How it manages to attack the body in such a range of ways is still being explored, and so are the ways it spreads. So there’s a lot of work left to be done, but there’s also enough to work with.

              The fastest vaccines are approaching the problem of making a vaccine in a new way. I’d love to explain it, but I don’t trust my grasp of it. Those vaccines taking a new approach, though, are the ones that are coming along fastest. Several slower ones are using the tried and true methodology. The speed, I think, testifies to what can be done when the world’s committed to solving a problem. Something similar happens during wartime–scientific developments suddenly move at high speed. Many Covid treatments are being worked on as well. Some will be useful and some, inevitably, won’t be.


              • I’m not going to debate you about this but we have absolutely no evidence of anything good coming from the global elite. Period!

                Liked by 1 person

              • Believe me, Dee, I am no defender of the global elite. I do, however, have a great respect for science and a suspicion of unsubstantiated accusations and claims. Especially in these difficult times, it’s crucial that we base our opinions and actions on evidence.

                Pest that I am, though, I’m going to need a definition of global elite, because I think it’s starting to be thrown around as a way to dismiss people we don’t like, while not including people who are very much part of it but who we happen to agree with.

                Credit to you for engaging with me on a subject where we disagree. I respect that as well.


  10. That’s really funny, you told the underwear protestor story so much better than any news outlet did. They ought to give you a job! I laughed even though I’d read it before. Also, my goodness, the caller story in the test and trace system is absolute shambles. That’s horrific. Sounds like a mental-health version of when they sent 5 and 6 year olds to work in factories during Victorian times and those poor kids had their limbs chopped off and whatnot. Who’s shoddy idea was that!? And why aren’t they being held accountable?! After imposing another national lockdown on the UK, Boris Johnson was criticised by… some high up member of parliament whose name currently escapes me… who said that Boris had ‘given in’ to scientific experts. If that doesn’t speak volumes about the state of how the government is handling things, I don’t know what does.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Given in to the scientific experts? Why, the coward, to let them bully him like that! I hadn’t heard that quote but it really does sum it up, doesn’t it? And speaking of things I hadn’t done, I hadn’t thought of the parallel to child labor, but I do see your point there. The idea, I’m sure, was the contractors’. I’m not sure if the contract went to one company or several–I suspect several–but Serco, at least, has a long history of shoddy work and low-paid employees.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I really love this piece. It pulls together many of the week’s most appalling pieces of news in an engaging way. The Serco story made me want to weep when I read it and this was swiftly followed by a short spell of raging at the moon.
    I despair of this country, its government and their apologists. . I don’t know how to change things apart from continually attacking them wherever possible.
    Your articles highlight the ridiculous and cheer me up no end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I can do that for you, I count it a week well spent. I don’t know how we change this government but I do know that nothing goes on forever. I figure if we do whatever we can think of it, we might just hit on something that’ll start a small ripple.


  12. Essentials? 🤔 A Frog politico demanded that the state pay for masks as they became compulsory. A right honourable MP, facing bench, said: “Clothes are compulsory on the street, shall people go naked?”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Will the local government choose the 10% randomly or is there a plan to only test those actually at risk? That system is confusing, but doesn’t sound anywhere near as stupid as the President purposely getting people together at superspreader events.

    Liked by 1 person

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