The pandemic news from Britain: A few success stories and some screwups

Europe doesn’t have many Covid success stories, but Finland’s isn’t bad. Its infection rate is the lowest in the European Union (that’s based on a spot check of two weeks that started at the end of October and sloshed over into early November, leaving only a few hard-to-remove stains). It’s infection rate is also five times below the EU average. It was the only EU country whose rate went down in that period.

It responded to the pandemic with an early lockdown, an app, and testing and tracing–things many countries have done but I’m going out on a limb and assuming that they did all of the above competently. It’s odd, but that does make a difference. 

That’s not a comment on how countries like, say, Germany and Wherever Else handled it, because I haven’t been following them. It’s a comment on Britain.

Finland is the only country I know of where 23% of people in a survey said the lockdown had actually improved their lives. Maybe it’s the only country where anybody thought that was a reasonable question.

Nelli Hankonen, an associate professor of social psychology at Helsinki University, said, “In Finnish culture we are not that highly sociable.” So maybe the lockdown took some pressure off people. They could stop trying.

The economy also took less of a hit than most EU economies, with a 6.4% drop compared with 14%. To quote the good prof again, “The economy is structured so that it’s not necessary for a large proportion of the Finnish workforce to be in the workplace.”


Screamingly irrelevant photo: Strawberry leaves after a frost. We haven’t had a serious frost yet. This is from last year.

Japan also contained the virus effectively, and a study looked at phone data to see how much people in Tokyo moved around. “We found that 1 week into the state of emergency, human mobility reduced by 50%, which led to a 70% drop in social contacts.”

The government declared a state of emergency in April and asked businesses to close and people to work from home. It also restricted travel, but Japanese law doesn’t allow for a mandatory lockdown.

One of the study’s co-authors said, “With a noncompulsory and nonpharmaceutical intervention, Tokyo had to rely on citizens’ cooperation. Our study shows they cooperated by limiting their movement and contact, subsequently limiting infections,” 


What’s happening with the mass testing that England’s banking on? In a real-world trial in early October, the quick-turnaround test at the heart of the strategy, the Opti-Gene test, missed more than 50% of positive cases. That was, I think, compared to the test that’s been in use for some time now.

Local leaders in cities where the test’s scheduled to be used asked for clinical validity data and didn’t get it, but the Department of Health and Social Care said the test was validated in three other trials. 

Somehow, though, it didn’t make the data public.

The tests have cost £323 million.


Denmark has discovered that Covid jumped to farmed mink (the country raises a lot of mink for fur; who knew mink was still a thing?), and from them back to some 200 humans. 

That may or may not pose a danger. Viruses do mutate, but so far Covid’s mutations haven’t been significant. The fear is that in jumping to a different species, it may have been forced to pick up more significant mutations, which could, in turn, affect how well vaccines work. Or make it more–

Nah, let’s not even think about that.

So far, there’s no evidence that any of that has happened, and vaccines are fairly easy to tweak–once, of course, we have one or more. The flu vaccine’s tweaked every year in response to educated guesses about the strain of flu that will be circulating. 

People in one affected area of Denmark, northern Jutland, are being urged to stay home to control the spread of the virus variant. And if you think that’s tough, it’s been harder on the mink: 17 million of them are being killed.


A few comments I’ve gotten convince me that I should say this: I pour a lot of words onto the virtual page about the many things wrong in Britain’s handling of the virus, and even so I barely touch the surface. But for everything that’s been screwed up, at least Britain hasn’t thrown up its hands and let the virus run wild and there’ve been some efforts to support people who’ve lost their incomes. It’s not enough, it’s not being handled well, people are facing eviction, and food banks are swamped while massive amounts of money are poured into outsourcing companies that make a hash of whatever job they’re given, but in contrast to the way the U.S. has handled the pandemic–

Okay, that’s not a demanding point of comparison, but Britain is at least acknowledging the danger and doing something. I do want to acknowledge that.


A year or two  back, an artist created a spoof of some painfully cheery, squeakily white, fifties-era (I think) British kids’ books, the Ladybird series, and she’s just published one about lockdown. By way of a review, I’ll quote one page: 

“We are shopping for emergency supplies.

“‘There is no Lemongrass!’ says Mummy.

“‘Oh dear!’ says John.

“‘I’m starting to understand what life was like in World War II,’ says Mummy.”


After the business secretary, Alok Sharma, was exposed to Covid he soldiered on and held meetings with foreign dignitaries anyway, creating a (very minor) scandal. Now it turns out that when he got home he met with (gasp, wheeze) Prince Charles. 

As far as I can tell from the papers, everyone involved seems to have dodged the bullet, but exposing Prince Charles did create a bigger scandal in the press than exposing foreign dignitaries. Because the thing about foreign dignitaries is that they’re foreign. And none of them were (slight pause while I try to assemble some small pretense of respect) royal. 

The funny thing about viruses, though, is that they don’t give a rip who people’s ancestors were. If it’s true, as the proverb says, that a cat may look at a king, it’s also true that a virus will be as happy infecting a prince’s cells as yours or mine.


A woman with the main Covid systems was trying to get Covid tests sent for herself and her partner but was told they’d have to go to a test site because their identities couldn’t be verified. They have no car and were responsible enough not to take public transportation when they might be infectious, so they ended up going to a walk-in site 90 minutes away.

The reason she couldn’t get the tests sent, it turns out, is that she didn’t have much of a credit history, and the assumption is that people will order multiple home kits. And do what with them? No idea. You can’t process them without a lab, so I doubt they’re worth much on the street.

The woman was on the electoral roll and had a bank account and utility bills in her name, so she could prove her existence in the world, but not in the specified way.

Anna Miller, from Doctors of the World, questioned whether setting this limitation solved a problem that didn’t exist, and in the process locked out people with minimal credit history, “people whose financial situations tend to be organised by other people in a family”–young adults, the elderly, and women, not to mention people with low incomes.


The government has backed down in the face of Marcus Rashford, a twenty-something football player, over a million signatures on a petition, and many individuals and businesses: It has agreed to provide low-income kids in England–the ones who’d normally get free school lunches–with lunches over the Christmas holiday

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have already committed to do this. Only England was digging its heels in, and over the last holiday, called half term (don’t ask),it left them lunchless. At a time when so many people’s incomes have disappeared and people are turning to food shelves in large numbers, small businesses filled the gap in endless, often touching, ways, some out of their own pockets and some with the help of customer contributions. 

They’ve shamed the government into doing the right thing. 

51 thoughts on “The pandemic news from Britain: A few success stories and some screwups

  1. That U-turn on school meals quietly slipped out when the media might not have space for it after the other big stories of the preceding day.
    Blonde, stupid hair and no second thoughts about throwing anybody under a bus, no matter how loyal they have been. I wonder what happens to that sort of ‘politician’?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Those Ladybird spoofs are very funny. Have you read ‘The Husband’? I think the first page went something like…’This is John. He loves sausages and beer.’ I’ve got several of the books in my caravan – the kids love them.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “In Finnish culture we are not that highly sociable.”

    I believe it was a Finn who said a Finnish introvert will look at their shoes when talking to you – and a Finnish extrovert is one who looks at *your* shoes.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. That woman who didn’t have enough of a credit history baffled me. I don’t remember being asked for anything to identify myself when I got a COVID test. Maybe a national insurance number? I can’t even remember. But I do know that I don’t have a credit history at all – as I have never been in debt nor owned a credit card and i don’t even have a student loan. That was confusing. I wonder how many others have been struggling to get a test due to a vague credit history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t that a perfect piece of dialog? And the craziness is that on one level we’ve got people worrying about the absence of lemongrass and on the other people turning to food shelves.



      • Ellen, let me introduce you to the delights of Overheard In Waitrose . I became hooked with the post ‘But darling, I thought we already had a wine thermometer.”
        As for lemongrass, IMHO this is one the rare complete con jobs in otherwise excellent Asian cuisine but I know I’m in a minority. An ingredient that is also known as barbed wire grass and that cockroaches refuse to eat? As that tantrum thrower used to say ‘you cannot be serious’.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you for brightening my (gray) morning. My partner used to run a private competition for the best overheard comment of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. One year it went to a couple:

          Her: “Your problem is, you don’t take yourself seriously enough.”

          Him (from inside a gorilla suit): “I do take myself seriously.”


  5. I don’t think many countries have handled this well, but, to be fair, it’s not a situation that anyone’s ever had to deal with before, and things keep changing so quickly that it’s hard for the authorities to keep up with it. At least support is being provided here for people whose livelihoods are being affected – although, unfortunately, that isn’t going to be enough to save some businesses.

    It’s a no-win situation. I personally don’t think lockdown can work whilst schools are open, but I accept that kids’ education has suffered enough already, and I am so sorry for kids who are due to take public exams next year and are having their chances damaged, so I don’t know what the answer is. I’m also extremely sorry for all the pub and cafe owners, and hairdresser and beauticians, who’ve spent a fortune on Covid safety measures and have now been closed down again. As the Dutch PM said, we’re all doing our best, but the virus is doing better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like the Dutch quote, but as far as Britain goes, I do think we could do better. Vast amounts of money are being poured down the drain, going to well-connected companies and individuals to do work incompetently that could be done better by the NHS, public health people, etc. But I agree with you about schools. I don’t see how lockdown can work when they’re open and I do see the damage that happens when they’re closed. They could, at a minimum, have had the lockdown coincide with the school holidays–that was an opportunity missed. Estonia, I read, has done a very good job of giving kids the things they need to study at home–everything from internet access to actual lessons. But they went into this heavily networked, so they had a jump start.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The story of Mummy, John and the lemongrass reminded me of how very middle class I feel every time I do the online order with Tesco. Not that I buy lemongrass. I’d have no clue what to do with it. I did buy marsala this week, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Here in the US, i see people walking around without masks, massive parties being held – people don’t listen, or they may listen but don’t comply because it “violates their rights”. I work in the medical field, Ear Nose and Throat, and I have been exposed multiple times, because I am about an inch away from the patien’s face, when checking their ears, but I wear the right equipment and wash my hands so many times a day, they are cracked and bleeding. I am so horrified by how selfish and idiotic people are during these times. But I am dumbfounded by the way Pelosi and all her cronies are still fighting over the stimulus package – and decide to go on their scheduled month long vacation while everyone else is struggling. Three of our family members in Mississippi are COVID + and one of them is really sick, and on home oxygen. Winter is coming, and I fear it! Oh, and don’t they use Lemongrass in Pho?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I expect they do, but making pho’s outside my range, I’m afraid. It’s one of life’s absurdities that something that’s perfectly down-to-earth in one culture becomes another culture’s overpriced luxury item.

      I think it was one of the early twentieth-century Supreme Court justices who said, “My rights end where the other fellow’s nose begins.” Which, I think, speaks powerfully to all this business about the individual’s right not to wear a mask. Sure, don’t wear one, but only if you can refrain from breathing out around other people.

      There is, I think, a lot out there to be afraid of. Stay well, and my best wishes for your family.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The President-Elect will appoint a 12-member task force tomorrow to try to implement his plans for defeating the Covid virus in the US. Surprisingly there will be actual scientists on his list – I know, such a novel idea. I’m not sure how this will function in a transition that for now is considered a work of fiction by the current Covid Chief who thinks we have put that problem behind us.
    At least, Britain is trying. And Finland sounds like a place where we all should be except that they don’t want us.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It’ll still be 70+ days before the Inauguration, so our gummint is still incapable of being shamed into anything, If we can just hold our collective breath…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I rather like Vietnam as a success story: 1212 cases, 35 deaths, positive GDP growth for the year, borders China who is their largest trading partner. I heard in a movie once that poor people are tough; maybe that’s stupidly false. But the, let me call it Lemongrass fragility, of so many people in developed nations disturbs me.
    Is the government’s response a reflection of BoJo and party in power, or is this the usual level of government waste and questionable decision-making? I’ve lost so much respect for the place; I thought it was better than this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve only lived here for 14 years, so I don’t have decades of observation to call on, but I do know that ever since the Conservatives took power (after Tony Blair and then, briefly, Gordon Brown) they’ve been on a project to diminish the size of government and to privatize everything available–although in fairness, Tony Blair began the process of privatization in some ways. It’s ended up being a spectacularly inefficient and expensive process. Irony isn’t dead and probably never will be. The simplification of the NHS has complicated it beyond words, made it less efficient, and starved it of money. A project to unify benefits for people who can’t work was a spectacular mess that deprived people of benefits and paid them less than before. And so on. It’s the NHS story that I’ve followed most closely, but basically they tore up what seems to have been a workable support system for the vulnerable.

      So it’s not just Johnson, but he is a kind of happy-go-lucky aristocrat who makes a virtue of his incompetence. I wouldn’t write the country off–there’s so much to like, and my writing does focus on what’s wrong. In part because it infuriates me and in part, frankly, because you can’t make fun of the good stuff. I DO NOT GIVE A BALANCED PICTURE.

      Liked by 1 person

        • And thank you for noticing it.

          I’m in an odd position here. I really do love this country, and there’s so much to admire. And I write as if I thought I was living at the bottom of a barrel. If we change governments–which surely we will eventually–I’m going to have to rethink my existence.

          Liked by 1 person

  11. I remember being shocked to learn that someone who’d lived with what I’d considered to be a grown-up and responsible fiscal attitude was regarded as a poor risk due to the absence of history in the form of credit cards & debt. Utterly bonkers! I was also mildly shocked when the most fiscally prudent of my friends recently took out a loan to buy a new car, but her shrug seemed to express an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” viewpoint. I’d long looked upon her as a role model, so the disappointment was greater than the shock in all honesty.

    I’m also struggling with a burning desire to move to Scandinavia – although the idea of learning the language does strike fear into my heart. Even the cold isn’t putting me off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • After 40 years in Minnesota, I’d definitely be put off by the cold, although I think Minnesota’s colder than most of Scandinavia. The thing about that kind of cold is that it causes physical pain. It’s awful.

      The whole credit history thing really is nuts. You don’t play the game? You don’t exist.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Crazy thing is that as part of becoming more fiscally responsible, I’m not playing the game any longer, but worry that I need to find some way to keep a foot in the game. I’d like to think that, at my age it doesn’t matter, but suspect that’s not the case. It’s a real PITA.

        Himself kept assuring me that Scandinavian cold isn’t what I fear it is. I don’t like the sound of that Minnesotan cold at all :(

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I read a study that people in London had been better at socially distancing over the summer which was probbaly why the current rates are lower than the north of England. Nothing to do with herd immunity then. Congratulations on the election of your new president & vice-president btw the world breathes a sigh of relief. We just hope that the Orange one doesnt do too much damage between now and January 2021.

    Liked by 1 person

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