Birds, bills, booze, and the virus: It’s the (old) news from Britain

In early March, with northern Italy beset by the corona virus, a winery in Castelvetro had a problem with one of its valves and ended up sending lambrusco into the kitchen sinks and showers (and, presumably, bathtubs) of twenty neighboring houses. The leak lasted three hours–long enough for the neighbors to bottle a fair bit of wine. 

No one’s demonstrated that it cured the virus, but it did keep twenty families occupied and happy for a while.

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The British papers reported a rush in the U.S. to buy guns and ammunition in the face of the corona virus. “Why?” people here asked, since American gun culture’s a foreign language to them. “You can’t shoot the bug.”

As the interpreter of all things American, I had to explain: “It’s to protect their toilet paper.”

Irrelevant photo: Crocuses. They’re not afraid of the corona virus.

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I knew the Covid-19 epidemic was serious when I heard that EastEnders–that essential BBC soap opera–had suspended filming. I’d have thought the world was ending, but they making box sets of dramas available to get people through their isolation. They’re also using local radio stations to coordinate volunteers offering to help the elderly–and I hope other vulnerable people, but that’s not what the new story I read said.

Two notes before I move on: 1) The definition of elderly is “older than me,” even though they seem to have mistakenly asked me to stay out of everyone’s way so I don’t get sick. 2) I am not now watching nor have I ever watched EastEnders.

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This next story starts with a man getting a bill from a utility company he doesn’t have an account with, Scottish Power. He figures it’s a scam and ignores it. 

He gets calls from the same company. He complains to them about it. He gets referred to the complaints line. 

The complaints line tells him they can’t help because he doesn’t have an account with the company.

He writes the chief exec and gets a letter back assuring him they’ll restore his account to a dual-fuel tariff and thanking him for accepting a phone call he’d never gotten.

He continues to get calls from the company. 

He makes a complaint to the Energy Ombudsman, who (or maybe that’s which) tells him they (or possibly he or she) can’t help because he hasn’t exhausted Scottish Power’s complaints process. 

He gets a newspaper’s consumer column involved, but they can’t manage to get through to the company’s press office. The phone numbers they call aren’t answered, the email addresses are dead ends, and the contact people aren’t contacts. Or, quite possibly, people. In the past, when the paper’s gotten other complaints about the company, the best it’s been able to do is roll the stories together and make them public, hoping to embarrass the company. 

The man blocks the company’s number while he’s at work so at least he can get some work done. 

Last I heard, nothing’s been resolved.

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Meanwhile, a driver paid an Irish toll electronically. Then she or he–let’s call him or her them for the sake of my sanity–got a letter from Euro Parking Collection saying the payment was overdue. 

The driver sent a screenshot of their bank statement to prove it was paid.

They got a letter asking for more details and sent them.

Silence.

They looked at the website to make sure it had been resolved and ended up resubmitting everything they’d already sent and got a letter back saying the payment couldn’t be traced.

They called and got an automated message that convinced them the company doesn’t respond to calls. They called some more and got someone who said the company would look into it.

Silence.

They called again. It would be looked into.

They got a letter from a debt collection agency. The toll had now gone from £5.52 to £88.43. 

They contacted the company that administers the toll system and got an email asking for the information they’d already sent twice. When they sent a reply, they were told the sender’s mailbox was full.

When the same newspaper column got in touch, the information still couldn’t be located but the company did at least cancel the payment. 

The columnist had almost as hard a time getting through as the civilian.

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While we’re on the subject of driving, new British cars are cranking out 7% more carbon dioxide than older ones, even though they meet the new emissions standards and have all the cleaner-air bells and whistles. 

How come? They’re bigger and they’re heavier. 

And yes, that includes hybrids. 

Excuse me for a minute while I go slit my wrists.

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Judith Niemi, from Minnesota, sent me this: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior reports that “house sparrows [still generally by non-birders called ‘English sparrows’] have even learned to open automatic doors to grocery stores, cafes, and other sources of food by hovering in front of the electric eye sensors.” 

Judith adds, “The book does not explicitly say that none of the new world sparrows have caught on to this trick; I’m pretty sure it’s just those scrappy, street-smart birds whose lineage has been perfecting various dodges in London streets for centuries. Distracting people with their lechery, perhaps, while their chums picked pockets? Incidentally, since being imported to these shores the species has evolved to be more variable, and often bigger. Just as aggressive. There’s a metaphor in there.”

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Somehow or other, this story follows from that, although I can’t explain why: In Yorkshire, a pig set fire to its pen. How? Well, first it swallowed a pedometer that another pig was wearing. Then it digested it and–with apologies to those of tender sensibilities–it shit it out, as both humans and pigs will do with the things they swallow. Copper from the battery “reacted with” dry hay and started a blaze. 

Why was the other pig wearing a pedometer? To prove that it was–or presumably they were–free range. 

How did the battery start a fire? It was a lithium-ion battery–the same kind that’s been known to spontaneously combust in cell phones and such.

Why did the pig eat the pedometer? That’s harder to answer. My best guess is jealousy. You know how it is. Why didn’t I get the pedometer?

Was anyone hurt? No. Four pig pens burned but the pigs were fine and headline writers had a wonderful time, writing about pigs pooping pedometer, firefighters saving the bacon, and calories being burned. 

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The fashion house Hugo Boss has a history of taking smaller businesses and charities to court for using the name Boss, so a comedian formerly known as Joe Lycett went to court to change his name to Hugo Boss. In a tweet, he explained the background and wrote, “All future statements from me are not from Joe Lycett but Hugo Boss. Enjoy.”

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A newly published British Medical Journal survey from 2016 reports the MPs–that’s Members of Parliament–are more likely to binge drink than the general public is. Binge drinking is defined at six or more units of alcohol at a session.

MP Dan Poulter commented, “It is extraordinary that there are so many bars in parliament where alcohol is available at almost every hour of the day.

“This is not the case in other parliaments elsewhere in the world and is certainly not the case in other workplaces, where drinking alcohol is not acceptable during working hours.”

To illustrate the impact, the Guardian told a tale from 1983, when a junior employment minister, Alan Clark, gave a speech while drunk enough to throw entire pages without reading them. Why not? As far as he could figure out, they made no sense anyway. An opposition MP “asked me what the last paragraph meant,” he wrote. “How the hell did I know?” 

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And bringing together the tales of the pig and the MP, a plane headed for Iceland made an emergency landing in Edinburgh when a man got drunk enough that he tried to eat his phone. Or at least, he chewed on it hard enough to damage the battery, which fell out and started smouldering on the seat. A flight attendant threw water on it and put it out. 

The passenger was also abusive to other passengers, flight attendants, and the police who came to arrest him when they landed. 

He may be free-ranging again by now. He may even have an ankle bracelet to prove it. But that’s speculation.

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In the late Victorian era, before mass car ownership, London traffic moved at about 12 miles an hour. In 2018, in Westminster and the City (two parts of London), it moved at 8 miles an hour.

I call that progress.

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

Protective gear and flaming vicars: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

What’s happening with the coronavirus in Britain? Funny you should ask, because I was just about to answer that.

Let’s start with the Church of England, which had a hiccup when it went over to virtual services: A vicar set his arm on fire when he leaned forward at the end of his service and brushed against a candle flame. He had enough of a sense of humor to post the evidence online. It includes him saying, “Oh, dear, I’ve just caught fire.”

Which isn’t what I’d say if I’d just caught fire, but that’s the least of many reasons I’m not a minister.

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Semi-relevant photo: What could be cheerier than a bare, windblown tree in the midst of a pandemic? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Cornwall, where I live, is trying to stop the flow of people from (presumably) London, coming down here on the theory that it’s safer. Or nicer. Or something-er. Or that pandemic is another word for holiday (or vacation, if you speak American). Some of them, inevitably, have brought the virus with them. One Londoner–or so a reasonably reliable rumor has it–was told to self-isolate and decided to do it in his lovely second home, in Cornwall. He proceeded to self-isolate in an assortment of local cafes, spreading the bug all over the town he loved so well.

Thanks, guy. Rest assured that we love you almost as toxically. 

But that’s not the only problem people bring when they come down here to ride this out. Cornwall’s infrastructure is already overstretched during a normal summer, when reasonably healthy visitors pour in. Hell, it’s overstretched during the winter, when they’re nowhere around. Years of tightening the national budget in order to shrink the government have starved local services, which are dependent on central government. That’s a long story and we’ll skip over it. The point is that a tide of people, some percentage of whom about to get seriously sick, is more than it can cope with. 

The county council, Public Health Cornwall, and the tourist board have urged people to stay away. That’s the tourist board telling people to say away.

I doubt anyone’s listening, but they can say they tried.

The manager of a shop in Penzance is worried about incomers buying out her stock. She’s put some toilet paper in the back to sell to local people. If the lack of health services doesn’t scare the tourists off, the lack of toilet paper might.

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A man who’d just arrived on the Isle of Man–yes, I do know how that sounds; I didn’t name the place–was arrested because the island had just imposed a two-week self-isolation period on new arrivals, whether or not they showed symptoms of the virus, and he hadn’t self-isolated. 

It turned out he was homeless and–well, yes, this is part of the definition–had no place to self-isolate. Or sleep. He faced a £10,000 fine and a three-month jail sentence. 

In a startling moment of sanity, the government decided not to prosecute. He’s been found some sort of accommodation, although I have no idea what sort.

Britain’s considering legislation that would let immigration officials put new arrivals in “appropriate isolation facilities.” 

Horse, guys. Barn door. 

But just to prove that the country’s taking this seriously, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace has been canceled. It doesn’t get any more serious than that.

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Undertakers are so short on protective gear that they’re being told to make masks out of plastic trash bags, towels, and incontinence pads when they deal with suspected coronavirus cases. 

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A couple of musicians spent some time playing outside people’s homes in London to cheer them up while they’re stuck there. You’ll find a video here.

You can also find a video of people using a basket and rope to shop from their balcony.

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Self-isolation, by the way, is a ridiculous phrase. I apologize for using it, but these things are as contagious as the damn virus that spawned it.

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The U.K. chancellor–he’s the guy with the budget–has promised employees who can’t work because of the pandemic 80% of their wages, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month, although I don’t think anyone’s seen any money from it yet. But the self-employed and the mythically self-employed–the gig workers and people on zero-hours contracts–were offered only a fast track to £94.25 a week in what’s called universal credit. Let’s not go into why it’s called that. What you need to know is that it’s a whole shitload less money.

You needed me to point that out, right?

The Independent Workers Union is mounting a lawsuit on the grounds of discrimination. I’m rooting for them.

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In the U.S., two senators, Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler, attended a briefing about how serious covid-19 was. This was in January–the same day that Trump tweeted, “It will all work out well,” with the it being the virus.

What did they do? Sound the alarm on how unprepared the country was? They’re Republicans. If they’d spoken up it would have had some power. Well, no, they didn’t. In fact, Burr wrote on FoxNews.com that the country was well prepared. 

What they did was sell a whole lot of stocks before their prices crashed. 

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As for me, the virus has driven to the extreme measure of acknowledging that I am an actual human being, with a life outside this blog. So here’s a personal note, which I wouldn’t usually include: Ida and I are fine. 

Our next-door-neighbor has what they’re pretty sure is just his usual winter flu, but they’re staying in for two weeks (with two small kids; I call that heroic) just to be on the safe side. We’ve done the same, since Ida has something involving a bad cough. No fever on either side of the fence, but we’re all being cautious. It feels a little crazy, but we’re gambling with other people’s lives and that has a way of focusing your attention. 

Or it should, anyway.

All the same, I’m finding it hard, since we’re trying to avoid things we can’t see, hear, or smell, not to either descend into paranoia (ack! I just touched a solid object! I’m gonna die!) or else decide they’re not real anyway and start licking doorknobs. 

As we all would in normal times.

I’m finding it easier to protect other people from whatever the hell Ida has (which for reasons I can’t explain, I don’t seem to have) than I did to protect us from what people around us might have. Maybe protecting other people is more finite. Maybe I’m just more used to it. 

A few days ago, Ida put in an online request for prescription cough syrup and that must’ve sent up a red flag at the doctors’ office, because someone called to ask why she needed it and how she was. The woman who called advised us to stay out of people’s way for two weeks, which we’d already begun to do. The government’s bungled this in more ways that I can count (mind you, it doesn’t take much to go outside of my mathematical range), but the people on the front lines are being amazing. 

Our village has been good about rallying around. It helps to be someplace where the scale is small and so many of us know each other. One of the essential services that threatened to fall apart was the group of volunteers who make sure people are able to pick up their prescriptions. That would normally be handled by a village store, but ours closed some time ago. All the volunteers except one were either over 70 or vulnerable in some other way or else had a partner who was. We put a notice up on the village Facebook site and younger volunteers have come forward, in spite of jobs and kids and all the commitments that go with not being retired. 

We’ve had several offers from friends and neighbors who are going grocery shopping to pick up whatever we need–assuming they can find it. Already, friends have brought groceries–fresh fruit, milk, onions, broccoli, stuff. Apples are hard to find, although a friend left us some yesterday. 

Why apples? 

Why not apples. Sometimes, I’m told, one store will have been emptied out and another will be fairly well stocked. It all leaves me with a sense of limits. Will the stores run out of cat food? Did I get enough peanut butter? Why didn’t I buy more frozen vegetables and potatoes before it all got serious, since we could see it coming? 

Because I didn’t want to hoard, that’s why. But I did want to stock up. Where’s the balancing point between hoarding and stocking up? (Answer: You hoard; I stock up.) 

How often can I cut the spinach I planted last spring, which is still growing, before it decides that I’ve asked too much of it? 

Am I using too much water?

Water isn’t one of the things we’re running short of, but for me, at least, an awareness of limits breeds an awareness of limits. We’re entering a new era here and I suspect I’m feeling its first vibrations. I hope life will go back to normal at some point, but I’m not convinced it will.

But enough about me. Wishing you and yours all the best. Be careful, be lucky, help others, and stay well.