Small changes in the world of pandemic Britain

How is our world changing with the onset of the pandemic? Well, the International Football Association, which sets the rules for international competition, has added a new offense: deliberately coughing at another player. The referee gets to decide what’s deliberate and what’s close enough to be offense-worthy, and the player who’s on the wrong side of the decision can be sent off the field.

If you’re American, you should understand that football is soccer but that coughing is still coughing.

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A company in Taiwan has developed a robot that can swab noses to test for the coronavirus. It sounds silly, but it’s one of those jobs that puts health care workers at risk. And you might as well admit it: You’ve always wished automation would swab your nose for you. 

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Vaguely relevant photo: Fast Eddie, who can’t be bothered opening doors. He has people who do that for him.

When Britain was still in lockdown, adults went from watching an average of 34 minutes a day of streaming services in April 2019 to an average of 71 minutes a day in April 2020. Those are the Netflix-type shows that you pay for. But that’s nothing. They also went from watching 4 hours and 53 minutes of TV and online video a day to 6 hours and 25 minutes. 

If I understand this correctly, that’s 6 hours and 25 minutes of TV shows, online pornography, and videos clips of cats opening doors and performing brain surgery. Per day. 

Who says lockdown is destroying our cultural life?

Okay, I only know about the cats because I sneak a peek now and then. You can also find videos of bears sitting in blow-up wading pools or canoodling with cats.

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How are we, as a nation, doing for money? About a third of Britain’s biggest companies have cut their top execs’ salaries in the face of the pandemic. 

Impressed? Don’t be. Top execs make as much or more from bonuses and share schemes as they do from their salaries.

What kind of money are we talking about? The head of Ocado–a grocery delivery outfit–made £58.7 million in 2018-2019–1,935 times the median salary of a full-time UK worker. To put that another way, it would take the average worker eight years to earn what he earns in a day. If that doesn’t add up, don’t blame me. I stole the statistic. See the link above if you want to argue. Or argue with me, but don’t expect a decent opponent. I’m a word person.

I don’t know if Ocado cut his pay–probably not, since food delivery businesses have been making out like (excuse the language) bandits–but I can’t see where he’d have a whole lot of trouble getting by if they did.

Back in the real world, there’s a ban at the moment on landlords evicting tenants who’ve fallen behind on their rent, but when the ban ends (as it’s scheduled to) they’ll owe a huge whackin’ amount of rent and no one who makes the decisions is talking, at least in public, about how they’ll to pay it off.

And a quarter of all adults are struggling with what’s being called food insecurity. That’s not exactly hunger. It’s hunger and being susceptible to hunger and to malnutrition. Almost a quarter have eaten less so they can feed their kids. 

In case anyone’s in danger of forgetting.

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Like the rest of the world, we live in the shadow of the disease–some of us more immediately and some of us less so.

My partner and I got tested for Covid-19 yesterday. Not because we have symptoms but because a friend whose husband died of the virus really, really wanted us to. And because every country should be testing asymptomatic people on a mass scale. It’s the only way to identify clueless carriers, and until we do that they’ll keep spreading the virus. 

I was reluctant. To work, testing has to be on a mass scale and we’re only two people. We could test negative and be exposed tomorrow, so what does a test tell us, really? And the British government isn’t doing mass asymptomatic testing. It’s pushing testing for people with symptoms. But, as our friend reminded me, I didn’t have any overwhelming amount of respect for the way the government’s handling the pandemic, so why did I suddenly want to respect their decision on this? 

We signed up.

So here’s the report on testing: The website where you book the test got stuck in a loop when Ida signed up, repeatedly asking for her date of birth, so that she wasn’t just born again but again and again and again. But it did eventually let us schedule the tests.

Okay, Ida booked both tests while I sat on the couch and kibbitzed.

The system only wanted my date of birth once. 

The testing was well organized. We found a variety of ways to screw up, but the people who worked there were patient and got us through it. Then we came home to go online and register the tests, because if you don’t, you don’t get your results and the whole thing’s pointless. 

Ida couldn’t get past the screen that asked for her post code. It didn’t believe her. Or it didn’t like her neighborhood.  

Whatever. She gave up and called the phone number that the form gave as a backup option.

I got past the post code with no problem. We live in the same house but my half is in a better neighborhood than hers. I was getting all ready to feel  smug when I realized that the page the form had sent us to exists to book a test, not to register a test you just took. 

When do you want to book your test? it asks. 

Two hours ago, please. 

I picked up the phone and called.

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I can’t leave you without a word or six about the government’s world-beating test and trace system. Because contact tracing is–or at least needs to be–a part of our lives these days.

Some of the people who’ve been hired as contact tracers still report–as they have from the beginning–having nothing to do. They’re supposed to call people who’ve tested positive, ask who they’ve been around, and then call them. And talk to them all about quarantining themselves. 

Some contact tracers report only making a handful of calls a month, including the ones to nonexistent numbers. Team leaders are keeping them busy with quizzes and offering prizes for the most calls made. 

One company subcontracting from the outsourcing giant Serco had 471 agents and made 135 calls in two days. That includes calls to wrong numbers, calls to voicemail, and multiple calls to a single person. The tales go on, but you get the drift. 

In early July, the system was reported to cost £10 billion.

That’s in addition to the contract tracing app that failed. That cost £11.8 billion

Tea, coffee, and shareholders: It’s the news from Britain

Let’s talk about something other than the pandemic, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

The shareholders of Tesco, a British supermarket chain, objected by 67% to whatever’s left to paying its outgoing chief exec an extra £1.7 on top of the £6.42 million he was already scheduled to get. And while we’re at it, to paying an extra £900,000 to the finance director. 

To which Tesco said, “They didn’t really mean that.”  

That’s a paraphrase. What they actually said was, “Recent engagement on our remuneration report with a number of our larger shareholders” told them that shareholders are actually just fine with it.

That one marginally comprehensible phrase was wrapped in enough extra verbiage that I had to borrow the neighbors’ an hedge trimmer to cut it loose.

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Irrelevant photo: Somebody else’s flowers. I have no idea what they are.

A Spanish law that was passed to keep Canary Island separatists from flying their flags on public buildings ended up blocking the town of Villanueva de Algaidas from flying a rainbow flag to mark Pride Month. Town officials put up a rainbow flag, the police got three complaints (or possibly one complaint from three people), and down the flag had to go.

What happened next? Residents filled the town with rainbow flags. Hundreds of people flew them from windows, from balconies, from anything they had access to. The instigators–sorry, the organizers–are hoping to do the same next year.

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A German post office closed down because a suspicious package smelled so bad that six people were taken to the hospital and others became nauseous and were evacuated.

The place promptly filled with police and firefighters who cleared sixty people from the building and looked for some sort of dangerous gas.

The cause turned turned out to be a four durians from Thailand. 

The durian is a fruit, and one of those things people either love or hate. It’s been compared to cheesecake. It’s also been compared to dirty feet and to rotting onions. In parts of Asia, it’s banned from public transportation. Some hotels won’t allow it on the premises.

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After I moved to Britain, I learned that Britain and the U.S. have a special relationship.

Sorry, make that the special relationship. It’s something that almost no one in the U.S. knows about it, but mention it in Britain and 93.6% of resident humans will know what you mean.

And 47.3% of statistics are made up on the spot.

That doesn’t have much to do with the following story, but it needed some sort of introduction.

Michelle from North Carolina posted a TikTok video that involved making tea by mixing milk, powdered lemonade, spices, sugar, Tang (that’s an orange-colored drink mix), and a teabag, then microwaving the whole mess.

Did the microwave die of embarrassment? It did not. It stuck around long enough for her to try making “British tea,” which (as far as I can figure out without actually going to TikTok myself) involved cold water, a tea bag (possibly the same one, but possibly not; what do I know?) and that same microwave. 

The internet went nuts–or at least the British segment of it did. Eventually Britain’s ambassador to Washington posted a video of in which three branches of the armed forces appeared separately and demonstrated how to make a cup of tea. 

Take that, Americans.

They didn’t. The U.S. ambassador to London responded with a video demonstrating how to make a cup of coffee. He dumped a spoonful of instant coffee in a mug, poured milk in, and put water in a kettle. 

“Have a nice day,” he said.

The British think all Americans say “have a nice day” at the end of every encounter. They’re probably right, but they’ve started saying it themselves.

A source at the Italian embassy has said, unofficially, “What [the ambassador] made was American coffee. And I stress: American coffee.”

Michelle from North Carolina turns out to live in Britain. She’s having a great time, thanks and has 5 million TikTok likes. You can trade those for money at the concession stand on your way out.

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As I’m sure you know, Britain’s leaving the E.U., and that means we have to do all sorts of things for ourselves that the E.U had been doing for us, including find satellites to bounce our navigation system signals off of. (I know: a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with. Aren’t I just daring? Don’t you just hold your breath at the audacity of it all?) 

So Britain bought a 20% stake in OneWeb, to the tune of something like £500 million. The problem? OneWeb doesn’t run the kind of satellite network navigation systems need. 

According to Bleddyn Bower, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester, “What happened is that the very talented lobbyists at OneWeb have convinced the government that we can completely redesign some of the satellites to piggyback a navigation payload on it. It’s bolting an unproven technology onto a mega-constellation that’s designed to do something else.” 

All existing navigation use satellites in medium orbit. OneWeb’s are in low orbit.

The original plan was for the UK to build its own satellite system, to the tune of about £4 billion. That was put on hold just before the feasibility study was due to be published, by which time the cost had gone up to £5 billion. 

Giles Thorne, a research analyst, said, “Let’s give the government the benefit of the doubt. . . . It is probably quicker and cheaper to smash the square peg of OneWeb into the round hole of a Galileo replacement than to do it from scratch.”

But he also said, “This situation is nonsensical to me.”

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy in the U.S. in March. Which has nothing to do with anything.

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Okay, one pandemic story: A barista in San Diego, California, asked a customer to wear a face mask. Instead, the customer cursed at him, threatened to call the cops, took a photo, and posted it to Facebook.

“Meet Lenen from Starbucks who refused to serve me cause I’m not wearing a mask. Next time I will wait for cops and bring a medical exemption,” she wrote.

His name isn’t Lenen. It’s Lenin Gutierrez. 

The move backfired. Her post is full of comments that range from reasoned arguments to abuse to my favorite explanation of why you wear a mask: “You know what’s really uncomfortable? Pants. But I still wear them in public. Not for me. For others.” 

In American, pants aren’t underwear. They’re overwear: trousers. In British, they’re underwear.

Okay, one more comment on her post: “Covid-19 sent you a friend request.”

Then someone–not anyone who knew Gutierrez–set up a GoFundMe page, asking people to leave Gutierrez a tip for standing up to the customer. He hoped to raise $1,000 and ended up raising $80,000 in less than a week.  When I checked at the end of June, it was close to $100,000.

“I don’t know how to truly vocalize how grateful and blessed I feel with this opportunity everyone has given me,” Gutierrez said. 

He plans to use some of the money to pursue his dream, which is to become a dancer, and to donate some of it to organizations in San Diego.