The pandemic update from Britain: protective gear, black holes, and dead rats

Some days the government gives me so much to make fun of that it’s just embarrassing.

Not so many days ago that we’ve forgotten about it yet, the government announced with great fanfare and many imaginary trumpets that it was buying protective equipment from Turkey to make up for the shortfall it had created. 

Okay, they didn’t say it that way. It was something about the shortfall that mysteriously created itself in spite of our government working day and night to procure the best equipment that our heroic frontline staff needs.

Anyway, a shipment was on its way. Along with a few more notes from the trumpets. 

After mysterious delays, the shipment limped into the airport and turned out to be less than a tenth of what they fanfare’d. 

Now the story’s worse than that: The 400,000 surgical gowns that did arrive are unusable. Or possibly most of them are unusable. I’ve heard the story both ways from different news outlets, probably because the trumpets are interfering with reception.

Either way, the gowns would expose the users to infection.

Stop, people. It’s not Christmas. I have more than enough to work with. 

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Irrelevant photo: A gerbera daisy.

Speaking of protective gear, Robert Jenrick, the housing, community, and local government secretary offered an explanation of why we’re having so much trouble getting protective gear where it’s needed: “Supply . . . in some areas is in short supply.”

Once you understand that, you can be more sympathetic.

Apologies for a messy link here. The quote’s in there, but you’ll have to dig around a bit.

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Forgive me for recycling something I already put on Twitter, but our cat, Fast Eddie, brought dead rats home for two nights running, and he has me worried: If this keeps up, who’s going to run the country?

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Now, about that tracing app that People Who Know These Things say may not work: Here’s the problem–or here’s the part of the problem I understand. The app relies on a kind of herd immunity. Not the kind that, if enough people die of Covid-19 and enough people get it but don’t die, will protect the people who did neither. This is virtual herd immunity. It relies on some minimum number of Android users in an area signing up for the app. If they don’t, it won’t work. 

The root of the problem is that Android phones aren’t allowed to stay connected to Bluetooth for long once they’re minimized. Basically, they hang up. Once that happens, the phone won’t register contact with an app on a nearby phone. So if one of the people carrying those phones is infected or needs to be told that the other person is? Even if when they passed each other they fell into each other’s arms and kissed with 46 minutes worth of passion, the apps on their phones would ignore each other. 

The only way to keep the app awake on an Android is for its owner to pass by a whole bunch of other Android owners who are all using the app. If that happens, their phones will chastely brush electronic feelers and the app will send the information to a central database.

Australia tried something similar in its app and now says the app “progressively deteriorated.”

The UK government is now “open” to the possibility of ditching the app and using a different one.

No, I don’t know how much that detours cost either.

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Astronomers have found a black hole a thousand light years from Earth. That’s close if you’re an astronomer. It’s in (or “among,” and I haven’t figured out what the difference is in this context) the beautifully named HR 6819 system.

What’s that got to do with the pandemic? The black hole is where all the missed targets are being shipped. And the missing protective gear? It’s there too. That’s why supply has been in short supply in undersupplied locations.

A new shipment of bad news has been launched in its general direction but will probably miss by a few dozen light years.

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I’m always a day or three behind the actual news here. It’s one of the many reasons I recommend reading actual newspapers. The real ones (as opposed to the bottom feeders) are better at this than I am. Even when they’re not funny.

Stay well, everyone. Even when it starts to feel delusional to hide from something invisible, remember that it’s real.

The pandemic update from Britain: testing, protective gear, and condom sales

Britain’s still in lockdown, but the government–after a good bit of pushing–has announced that it’s preparing an exit strategy.

That’s not pushing from people who want the freedom to infect their neighbors and loved ones but from people who accept that lockdown’s necessary but want to end it in some way that doesn’t undo the progress. Along, predictably, with pushing from business people who get to sleep at night by counting money disappearing over the fence instead of sheep.  

Stay tuned. We’re told we’ve passed the peak of the epidemic. Stay tuned on that too. I hope it’s true.

Testing & Protective Gear

Britain’s been frantically trying to test more people because the government set an arbitrary goal for itself and doesn’t want to look like the kind of government that can’t meet its own arbitrary goals. Also (and I can’t help thinking it’s their secondary concern, but then I’m getting more cynical by the minute) because testing’s necessary if we’re ever going to get the virus under control. 

Irrelevant photo: begonia

The government is managing to perform more tests. It may even meet its goal. But the testing’s a shambles. To get a test, people are having to drive all over hell and gone and wait in a long line of cars only for some of them to be told that the tests have run out and then (by the computer) that they can’t rebook because they were just tested. (Yes, that seems to have happened to at least one someone.)

A statement from NHS Providers, the organization of National Health Service hospitals, says, “NHS trust leaders…feel they are on the end of a series of frequent tactical announcements extending the testing criteria to new groups with no visibility on any longer term strategy, and are being expected at the drop of a hat to accommodate these changes with no advance notice of planning.”

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Britain had a chance to buy 50,000 home testing kits from a company in the U.S. but wrote back to say, “Ho, hum, boring boring boring. Not interested.”

The test is less invasive than and at least as accurate as what it’s using now, and it allows people to test themselves at home instead of booking an appointment, driving, waiting, being told they’ve run out of test kits, and all the rest of that joy. And all that sounds good, but the home testing kits didn’t come with a side of fries, so why bother?

And as long as the right number of tests get performed–or at least logged–it’s all good.

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British coroners have been told not to look at systemic failures to provide protective gear when they consider deaths among NHS workers. They can consider human failure, though. So basically, they can blame the individual but not the system. 

And they wonder why people break windows.

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Britain isn’t the only country struggling to get protective gear to frontline staff. German doctors have posed naked to draw attention to how vulnerable the lack of protective equipment has left them.  

But Britain is probably the only country that, in order to boost the amount of protective equipment it can boast about providing, counts each glove separately instead of counting them in pairs. It also counted body bags, paper towels, and cleaning equipment as protective gear.

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A British textile factory belonging to the department store chain John Lewis has at long last been contracted to make 8,000 clinical gowns, but other textile firms say they’re desperate to help and can’t get the government to respond.

See breaking windows, above.

Other Triumphs in the Supply Chain

A batch of 250 ventilators that were bought from China on April 4 have turned out to be unusable and possibly dangerous. They supplied a variable level of oxygen and the oxygen connection base was marked “non-EU.” Technical staff spent days trying to make them work and couldn’t.

They also had a fabric case that made them hard to clean and were designed for ambulances, not hospitals.

Other than that, they were great, though.

They cost somewhere between £1,000 and £2,500 each. I’m not sure why there’s a range of prices but if you’re in the market for a few hundred, you’ll want to hold out for the lower price.

Light Relief and Good News

Three London roommates missed their commute so much that they recreated it in their shower and posted it on TikTok. 

Yeah, go on, follow the link. 

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Captain Tom Moore, the 99-year-old (now 100-year-old) who raised £33 million for the NHS by walking laps around his garden, supported by his walker, received 125,000 birthday cards. By now it’s probably more. The post office was overwhelmed and his grandson’s school offered to open and display them. 

They found £60,000 inside the cards.

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This probably won’t surprise you, but condom sales are down since the lockdown started. 

‘Nuff said. 

Drug Dealing

Not long ago (time’s adrift in lockdown, or at least I am, so let’s keep it vague) I wrote that a test of remdesivir had been abandoned because it wasn’t helping and the side effects (liver and kidney problems) were too damaging. But the preliminary results of a different test show more promise: It cut recovery time from 15 days to 11 and the death rate in the group on remdesivir was 8% compared with 11.6% in the control group.

The full data from the trial hasn’t been released and it’s not a knockout blow in any case, so I wouldn’t set off any fireworks yet, but the drug hasn’t been ruled out.

More Light Relief and Good News

A 7-year-old, dressed as a tricertops, has been riding his toy tractor to deliver food to neighbors. Who could fail to be nourished?

I’d love to give you a link for that but you’ll just have to take my word and say “Awww,” because he looked very cute. It was on the evening news and all Lord Google wanted to talk about when I looked for a picture of the kid was a 65-million-year-old triceratops skull that was found somewhere or other and isn’t going to deliver lunch to anyone. 

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A couple of companies have come together to refurbish bikes that have been abandoned at train stations so they can be donated to key workers. 

No, I don’t know why anyone would abandon a bike at a train station, but some 20 are left behind every month. And they’re lonely. So this is good news for everyone. 

Religion and the Coronavirus

Germany’s government and religious groups are trying to work out safety guidelines for religious services as the lockdown there eases, and one sticking point is how to handle singing, which is not only an important part of many services but a great way to spread the virus. You know all that business about projecting your voice? When you do it, you also project tiny droplets of spit, and riding on them, if you happen to be harboring the virus, are even tinier little viral warriors, looking for new humans to assault, all of them yelling some viral version of “Yee ha!” but they’re so small that you can’t hear them.

I don’t think any controlled studies of this have been done yet, but I can offer you an impressive bit of anecdotal evidence from one Protestant cathedral in Berlin: 59 out of 78 choir members became infected.

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Many evangelical churches in the U.S. have pushed their members to keep on showing up to services, and they’re logging–this may not surprise you–a high incidence of coronavirus. And hinting that there might be some sort of cosmic justice, that includes their ministers. 

The All-Important R Number

Germany, having slowed the spread of the virus, is warning about the danger of a second wave in the summer or fall. It all has to do with the R number.

You know: the R number. 

Okay, I didn’t know the R number either. It sounds like one of those things from algebra class that helped make high school such a misery, but it’s not. Or if it is, I’m damned if I’ll admit it.

The R number measures how many people an infected person passes the bug on to–in other words, the reproduction rate of the virus. Without controls, an infected person passes it on to two or three people. The German R number is now below one. That means it’s spreading, but slowly. 

If it stays below one, the theory goes, the virus will eventually fizzle out. Anything above one and it will grow exponentially: I give it to, let’s say, one and a quarter people (c’mon–we’re dealing with averages here), they all give it to one and quarter people, and those people all and so forth, and before you know what’s hit you, a lot of people are sick.

German researchers recommend using this time while the spread has been slowed down to massively expand testing capacities and contact tracing.

A German coronavirus expert writes that “to achieve herd immunity we need 60-70% of the population to carry antibodies to the virus. The results of antibody tests suggest that in Europe and the U.S. in general, we are in the low single digits, but the tests are not reliable.” 

A second wave of infections, he says, can’t be contained only by humans handling the contact tracing. Electronic contract tracing will be needed.

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The British R number right about now is estimated to be somewhere between 0.6 and 0.9. Keep your eye on that word estimated.

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A study from Imperial College London and Ipsos Mori will follow 100,000 people to see if transmission rates are low enough to come out of lockdown safely. The participants will be given home test kits to see if they’re currently infected, then tested again in four to six weeks, or when it loooks like lockdown restrictions are ready to be relaxed. 

The International Grab Bag

As of April 28, Hong Kong had had just four Covid-19 deaths and 811 recoveries.

Worldwide, there had been 220,000 known deaths and 957,000 recoveries. When you look at those numbers, though, remember that not all coronavirus deaths are officially attributed to the virus. In Britain, for example people who died of Covid-19 in care homes are only now being added to the list of pandemic deaths. It’s a small victory for sanity and reliable statistics, although I’m not sure how much practical difference it makes. I’ve been trying to find out if deaths in the community are being counted and I’m still not sure. 

That still leaves the problem of deciding who’s a coronavirus death when testing isn’t available. To a large extent, it’s up the doctor who signs the death certificate, which could easily lead to undercounting.

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In the U.S., the number of known coronavirus deaths is now larger than the total number of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. If you feel the need for a statistic, 58,220 died in the war

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Brazil’s response to the virus has been in a category of its own. It’s had 50,000 deaths. When reporters asked its president, Jair Bolsonaro, about the death rate having reached 474 in a day, he said, “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do about it? I’m a Messiah, but I don’t do a miracle

Only he said it in Portuguese, so you’ll find varying translations.

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Meanwhile, China is trying to contain a new outbreak in a northeastern province, Heilongjiang. 

Money and the Virus

The British government, in its wisdom, has rejected a call to bar companies that use offshore tax havens from receiving bailouts and support packages resulting from the pandemic. 

It was a silly idea anyway. I mean, just because they avoid taxes, why should that keep them from getting taxpayer support?

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I’ve gone on longer than I meant to, even after booting out a lot of news. I’m going to try posting shorter updates more often and see how that works. In the meantime, stay well. It’s crazy out there. 

The pandemic update from Britain: visors, volunteers, and outsourcing

The ongoing saga of why the British government can’t provide protective equipment for health and care workers just keeps getting stranger. The government’s said all along that the problem is about distribution, not supply. Did anyone believe them? Why would we? Truth’s a scarce commodity lately. It turns out, though, that in a strange way they were telling the truth. 

It all starts with the outsourcing of the British stockpile of  emergency equipment. 

Outsourcing? That’s when the government pays the lowest bidder to do work it used to do itself because, um, it’ll be more efficient that way. And cheaper. And even if it turns out to be neither of those things, by the time that happens no one’s watching anymore and it fits with the political orthodoxy of the moment so it’s all good. That means we have private companies deciding who’s eligible for government benefits, a company with no ships got a contract for post-Brexit shipping, and a private company is managing the nation’s stock of essential emergency equipment. 

A store in Launceston, Cornwall, has set out a table offering free fabric to anyone making protective gear. Someone in our village is sewing masks to sell at the local shop as a fundraiser for the Air Ambulance.  She ran out of elastic yesterday and offered a free mask to anyone who’d give her some. I think she ignored the woman who offered to cut up her underwear.

Which brings us back to our tale:

In three years, that stockpile’s been in three different warehouses. The company in charge of it has just been sold. There’s also a lawsuit involved, along with a landlord who’s threatening to lock the warehouse gates, with the stockpile on the inside and the need for it on the outside. The cars of warehouse workers were searched one day as they left work and I wish I knew the story behind that but I don’t.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock swears the government’s rising to the challenge and–um, something, but don’t worry about it, it’s all going to be fine. 

The Department of Health and Social Care explained why it would all be fine even if it wasn’t yet by saying, “We’ve had to create a whole new logistics network, essentially from scratch.”

That was on April 12. So far they’ve invented the wheel part of the logistics network. Any day now, they’ll work out how to get the wheel on a truck. Then they’ll drive that much-needed equipment where it’s needed.

As soon as they locate a map. And invent a driver. They’re working on the DNA even as I type.

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While that was going on, the government made a deal to buy protective gear from a company in Turkey. Planes were sent. Or one was sent and others were on standby The press was called: Look! Protective gear! Eighty-three tones of it! Aren’t we clever? See how we take care of our frontline health workers? It’ll be here on Sunday.

Then the aforesaid Sunday came and the gear didn’t. 

Either someone hadn’t gotten export approvals in Turkey (which the people in charge of that deny) or something else had gone wrong. One theory is that the company that was supposed to supply it overpromised.

On the 22nd–that was the Wednesday after the Sunday in question–a planeload arrived. According to one guess, it carried ten percent of the order.

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I still haven’t seen an explanation of why the protective gear can’t be made domestically. In 2010 (the most recent year I can find statistics for) £1.5 billion worth of clothing and accessories were made in the U.K. I can’t break out the accessories from that to give you a number for clothing alone, but basically a lot of cloth is involved in this, with all the machinery and skills that involves. And then there are all those people sitting home with pinking shears and sewing machines, pitching in locally, or ready to. They can’t make ventilators, but scrubs? For anyone who can sew, scrubs are easy.

Could local efforts be scaled up with government support? You bet your dining room curtains they could.

Surgical gowns need to be “made from either impermeable material or a water-resistant, tightly woven fabric,” so we can’t all cut up our old sheets and make them, but if the garment industry and the people at home who sew are provided with the fabric, it could be done. They may not turn out everything that’s needed, but right now anything would help. 

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Semi-relevant comment: “People at home who sew” is an awkward thing to call anyone, but if you’re at all at ease with English you’ll understand why sewers doesn’t work. Seamstresses is gender-specific and so not necessarily accurate. In a tweet, the linguist Lynne Murphy (@lynneguist) mentioned the word sewists, which turns out to be something some people actually call themselves, but I don’t think I can manage it so I’ll just leave a gap in the language and fill it with awkward phrases.

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With that out of the way, let’s check in on a few volunteer efforts. In Somerset, 700 people are making scrubs and wash bags. They’ve set up a warehouse in a driving school and driving school staff do the deliveries. Local people are donating the fabric. That translates to, Keep an eye on those curtains if they matter to you at all.

In Bedfordshire, a design and technology teacher and a group of volunteers are making visors, with a group called Discover Islam providing funding for the materials and bringing lunch. So far, they’ve made 7,500.

In Kent, a school has been working with the fire brigade, making 20,000 visors. And two brothers in Wrexham, who are eleven and thirteen, started using a 3D printer they got for Christmas to make protective visors for people working in care homes. That sparked thirty volunteers to start working at a school, using donated and crowdfunded printers. They can make two hundred visors a day and hope to shift to an injection-molding process that will turn out eight thousand a day.

One injection-molding machine was donated by a company, Toolmakers Ltd., and the other was donated by the North Wales Freemasons. Who, I’m sure, had one sitting around in the basement, waiting to come out of mothballs.

The brothers are still turning out visors on their home printer.

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As for the protective gear available in hospitals, it isn’t designed to fit women. On one unit, half the women failed the fit test, meaning they can’t work with the most infectious cases without putting their lives at risk. The only men who fail the fit test are either very small or refuse to shave their beards.

Since eight out of ten (or three out of four, depending on your source, and possibly on how you define your sample and whether you round the numbers up or down)–

Let’s start that again: Since most of the people working in healthcare are women, it only makes sense that the equipment is designed for men.

The problem was raised as long ago as 2016. The people in charge stuffed their fingers in their ears and sang, “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.”

We are all very, very happy.

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Poison control centers in the US report an increased number of calls from people asking about disinfectants–presumably whether to drink them, inject them, or do both at once while gargling bleach and juggling fire. 

A Fox News article reports that the New York Poison Control center saw thirty cases of exposure to bleach and other cleaners in eighteen hours after Trump suggested that they might cure coronavirus. In a similar period last year, they saw thirteen cases.

Trump is now claiming that when he recommended disinfectants he was being sarcastic, and I recently saw a tweet saying that only a liberal would be stupid enough to drink bleach and liberals are the reasons that products have safety warnings.

My friends, satire is dead. 

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In Italy, even a Covid-19-impaired sense of smell can catch whiffs of lawsuits related to pandemic deaths. Prosecutors are looking at heavy clusters of deaths to see whether people in authority are responsible. Lawyers are advertising to the bereaved. 

One group of people took to Facebook, first just to bear witness to their losses, but the group quickly turned to gathering evidence for a lawsuit–not against healthcare workers but against “those in leadership positions.” 

“We do not want financial compensation,” Luca Fusco, who started the Facebook group, said. “Our main objective is to have justice from a criminal perspective, so if someone is responsible, we want them to be charged and brought to trial.”

While we’re talking about lawsuits, the state of Missouri has filed a lawsuit against China for economic damages caused by the virus–presumably because China screwed up and the U.S. has handled it so effectively. And an Italian ski resort is suing China’s health ministry.

When all else fails, sue someone. Once upon a time, in a very different world that we all used to live in, I’d have said, “Suing someone? It’s the American way,” but I don’t think I get to make that joke anymore.

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A drug that looked promising as a treatment for Covid-19, Remdesivir, has failed a double blind test and the trial was stopped early because of the side effects. It was used in China in uncontrolled–for which read, desperate–trials and seemed to help. The drug’s manufacturer says it may be useful in patients who are not as ill as those in the trial. 

I think I hear a hint of desperation in that, caused the sight of money disappearing out the window, but I’m ready to admit (a) that I’m getting more cynical every day and (b) that they could well know something real about this.

Remdesivir was originally developed to treat Ebola.

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Speaking of privatization–which we’re not anymore, but we were not long ago–a privately run coronavirus test center has managed not to send any test results to some people and to send the wrong test results to other people. 

It’s a drive-through center in–I don’t make this stuff up–Chessington World of Adventures. It’s being run by Boots (a drug store chain, or in British, a pharmacy chain), Serco (an outsourcing company), and Deloitte (which is basically an auditing company and I have no idea why they’re photo-bombing the operation).

They’ve all covered themselves with glory. 

A government lab doing diagnostic tests isn’t doing great work either. Because the country has had trouble getting reagents and assorted chemicals (unnamed, mercifully, otherwise I’d have to spell them), they’ve had to rely on substandard ones and may have missed some infections.

And the government turns out to have ignored offers from leading scientific institutions to help with testing. Along with a businessman’s offer to produce 450 visors a day, which sounds like it’s one of many.

The Cabinet Office said it’s “incredibly grateful for over 8,000 offers of support from suppliers as part of the national effort to ensure appropriate PPE is reaching the front line.

“We are working rapidly to get through these offers, ensuring they meet the safety and quality standards that our NHS and social care workers need, and prioritising offers of larger volumes.”

It has, it says, engaged with over 1,000 companies and is working with 159 potential UK manufacturers.

So that’s going well.

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A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the government bought some 3.5 million antibody test kits, which were supposed to test whether people have been exposed to Covid-19 and might therefore be immune. If, of course, having had the virus turns out to confer immunity, which no one’s sure of yet.

The best of the tests are only seventy percent accurate. The worst? They’re fifty percent accurate. Given that only two answers are possible, yes and no, that means you could do as well by flipping a coin. 

Sorry, I tried to come up with a better image but couldn’t get a 50/50 chance out of throwing socks at the washing machine or letting the dogs loose in the back yard.

The government’s trying to get its money back. And I’m trying to get back my lost youth.

Not my lost innocence. Innocence is overrated. Or mine was, anyway.

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South Korea is being looked as a country that might show us how to get out of this mess. It brought the rate of infection down from some 900 daily to dozens and then into the single digits, all without going into lockdown. How? By testing. It set up hundreds of free testing centers–drive through, walk through, mobile. (Not in a World of Adventures park as far as I know. They may not understand what an adventure we’re all having over here.) Then it traced the contacts of people who tested positive and alerted them. 

To avoid pointing a finger at infectious people, they’ve anonymized the alerts. 

Although they didn’t institute a lockdown, they did convince people to distance themselves and urged companies to allow employees to work from home, and they placed some restrictions on public places, schools, and religious services. 

They’re worried about a second wave when those are relaxed, so we can’t say they’ve solved the problem yet. 

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What are all the lockdowns going to do to the world’s economies? The short answer is that we’re going to be in deep shit. Different types and amounts of shit in different countries, of course, but nobody’s likely to come out of this smelling good.. The International Monetary Fund says the world’s facing the worst depression since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Some experts are predicting famines in the poorest countries

I know. You come here to have a good laugh. Don’t I just know how to have fun?

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We need one feel-good story. A former paratrooper who was walking the entire British coast, with his dog, to raise money for an armed forces charity was offered refuge on an uninhabited Shetland island for the duration of the lockdown. He was given the key to a former shepherd’s hut–no electricity, no running water–and coal, water, and food are dropped off every couple of weeks, weather allowing. In between, He forages, fishes, collects driftwood, and keeps a three-week supply of dog food on hand.

He had been homeless after he left the forces, struggling with anxiety and depression, and started his walk with £10 in his pocket when he faced homelessness a second time, starting out .

Since he’s been on the island, he said, “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

The pandemic news from Britain: no guns and no protests, but not much protective gear

Britain’s pandemic lockdown has been extended, and no one’s out waving guns and flags and demanding the right to exchange germs on the open market. Instead, the lockdown’s widely supported, although I’ve seen reports that a few people, mostly young and assuming themselves to be immune, have used coughing and spitting as a way to attack  health workers, police, and random civilians. Or pretend to attack them, since I believe their claims that they’re infected as much as I believe their claim to have brains.

My best guess is that this isn’t widespread, but it has a huge resonance. It’s now illegal, but only if you catch them.

Why is the lockdown accepted better here than in the U.S.? For one thing, although British politics are crazy, they’re not as crazy as American politics, and it’s a different breed of craziness. The underlying assumption that the pandemic has brought out is that we’re all connected and everyone is in it together. 

If you pay attention, you’ll notice that some people are in it a whole lot deeper, but that’s not–yet–the dominant note of the national conversation. It’s mostly just cranks like me pointing it out.

It helps that there have been some efforts to support people who are out of work. People who’ve been furloughed from their jobs are promised 80 percent of their pay up to £2,500 per month. None of that money–as I understand it–has reached people yet, but it is in the works.

Some people will fall through the cracks, though: They were hired too late; they weren’t furloughed from their jobs but canned. The system’s chaotic and patchy, but it’s better than leaving everyone to rob stores or understand why they should’ve been donating to food banks back when they could’ve afforded to.

If you’re self-isolating because of the virus, you’re eligible for sick pay.

For the self-employed, everything’s messier, and self-employment is something any number of people were pushed into rather than chose. Delivery companies in particular are known for using the mythically self-employed, although the conditions they work under don’t read like a description of self-employment–or of a decent job.

A mortgage holiday’s been announced. Renters, though–. 

Yeah. Renters don’t get a break. One group of tenants wrote their landlord to ask for reduced rent and were told that they were saving so much on the lunches they weren’t buying and the holidays there weren’t going on that they didn’t need a break. They hadn’t lost a penny.

Which came as a surprise to the tenants, who had a whole ‘nothing impression of their financial situation, but what do they know?

Some tax breaks have been announced.

Businesses have been promised loans, although they’re being channeled through banks and only a small percentage of them have been approved. And, of course, they’re loans. They’ll have to be paid back. 

Richard Branson, the UK’s seventh richest person (£4.7 billion at last call), has promised to mortgage his private island to help get his Virgin Group through the pandemic. He’s also, incidentally, trying to get a £500 million government loan.

Denmark and Poland have refused  to bail out companies registered in offshore tax havens. They’re not in Britain, I know, but it strikes me as worth mentioning anyway. And while we’re crossing borders–or things that soon will be borders–the European Union has banned executive bonuses, dividends, and share buybacks for any company that gets state aid to get through this mess. 

I’d love to do a decent roundup of what support’s promised to who, what’s actually been received, who’s been left out, and how well or badly it’s working, but I haven’t been able to find my way through the maze. What I do know is that some people are getting help and some people aren’t. And most of the ones who aren’t getting help don’t have £4.7 billion under the mattress. Or a private island to mortgage.

Almost a quarter of all British families have taken a financial hit. More than a fifth are struggling to pay their bills. Prices on basic food, toilet paper, and sanitary goods are up 4.4 percent. Or more. Or possibly less. The picture’s changing too fast for the numbers to be accurate for more than three minutes at a time. And I’d love to give you a link for that but the article’s behind a paywall. 

Some of the homeless have been housed, but if you’re both homeless and a migrant, and if the migrant category you fall into doesn’t allow you to have recourse to public funds, you’re shit out of luck: No one’s going to pay the local government to house you, and so local governments aren’t going to house you. 

Some thirty homeless people–both native-born and refugees–are sleeping in Heathrow Airport. One said the airport staff have been kind to them. 

The government’s announced a program to get laptops or tablets to some of the most disadvantaged students while schools are closed, along with broadband, so they don’t fall behind in school. I don’t know when that’s supposed to happen, but I know two kids who don’t have them. 

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Lots of official programs are bringing together volunteers and people who need help, and so are a lot of unofficial ones. All of them remind us that without each other we’re all lost.

I’m the reluctant recipient of some of that help. I’m 73. Ida–my partner–is 80. It’s a mystery how we got that old. We didn’t start out that way. We stay out of supermarkets–it’s just too hard to control the exposure–although the smaller local stores are manageable. Younger neighbors have picked things up for us when they shop. It wasn’t easy to accept at first, and then somehow it was. 

I’m grateful–and I really, really want to do my own shopping. 

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Crime’s down in several predictable categories. With so many people stuck at home, houses aren’t getting broken into much. With so few people out in public, muggings are down, along with all the other crimes that concentrate in busy public spaces. 

Football hooliganism? That’s out, since there’s no football. 

What’s football hooliganism? As far as I can figure out, it’s a particularly British thing involving disorderly and sometimes violent behavior at football matches. For some people, getting into a fight seems to be the point of the game.

I wanted to include categories of crime that have gone up, but the Department of Silver Linings vetoed it. Sorry. Everything’s great. Don’t worry.

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Worldwide, a quarter of a billion people face starvation unless the world gets its act together and sends food. 

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In Launceston, Cornwall, a fabric shop set a table outside the door, with a sign telling people to help themselves if they’re making protective equipment.

See? I told you everything was okay.

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Medical people and social workers still can’t get protective gear, and the government’s still saying it’s on the way. The government’s only been in touch with 1,000 out of the 8,000 relevant manufacturers in the country and is working with just 159. Many say they’ve offered to provide certified equipment quickly and have been ignored. It’s being sold abroad. What else are they supposed to do with it?

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Half of all care workers make less than the living wage. I haven’t found any statistics on what all the delivery drivers and food and farm and store workers are paid. They used to be called low-skilled. Now suddenly they’re being described as essential. 

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Something in the neighborhood of 700 fake sites are sucking in people who want to set up subscriptions to Netflix and Disney Plus.

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Folding@home is using donated time on home computers to figure out the workings of the Covid-19 virus and identify drugs that could attack it. Combined, the computers are six times more powerful than the fastest supercomputer. They can perform 1 followed by 18 zeros operations per second. That’s called an exaflop–a quintillion floating operations per second.

Don’t say you didn’t learn anything here. And don’t ask me what a floating operation is. 

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A flower farm in Somerset is donating its flowers for funerals, key workers, a nearby hospital, and a nursing home. The flowers “keep on growing,” the farm’s managing director said. They don’t know “we’re in lockdown.” 

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Parliament will meet semi-virtually: 120 MPs will use a video link and no more than 50 will be physically present.

No more than 50 are physically present most of the time anyway. A fair number of debates take place in a nearly empty chamber, with MPs rushing in to vote when bells ring. They’re like Pavlov’s dogs, looking for food to appear in their troughs. But the new system will keep them out of the hallways and lobbies as well as the chamber.

That chamber business makes it sound like you wandered into a movie you won’t want to tell your friends about, doesn’t it?

The problem with the videolink is that MPs who are low on the food chain used to count on buttonholing more important people in the lobbies and corridors. That’ll be hard to recreate. And the time-honored bizarrity of bobbing–alternately standing up and sitting down to get the Speaker’s attention–won’t be possible. Neither will the noisy heckling that MPs indulge in. 

That could only be an improvement.

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In Muthill, in Perth and Kinross, two women have turned a retired red phone box into a food bank, inviting people to take what they need. The stock ranges from canned goods to chocolate, from fresh fruit and vegetables to jigsaw puzzles–which I admit aren’t edible but can keep you sane in crazy times.

It’s on a give what you can, take what you need basis. 

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A couple in Westhoughton, in Greater Manchester, have taken to running through town in what the British call fancy dress–in other words, in costume–to keep people amused. Click the link to see them dressed as a dinosaur and a cavewoman. 

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In New Zealand (which is not in Britain but don’t worry about it), rats are enjoying the lockdown. Pest control was categorized as non-essential–a particularly problematic decision in a country whose ecosystem didn’t evolve in the presence of rats. They threaten any number of native species. 

If there’s a positive side to the story, it’s that people who’d normally be out hunting deer are now hunting local rats. 

The deer have asked me to pass on their thanks.

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New Zealand went into lockdown earlier than most countries and has had only 13 deaths and not many more than 1,000 confirmed cases. Its prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, took a 20% pay cut in solidarity with the country’s workforce.  

So when comic Laura Daniel was in a TV competition and had to make an iconic New Zealand cake, she baked a tribute to Ardern by creating her face in cake. It was so bad that it went viral and Ardern took the time to send her a couple of emojis. I’m not sure what emo- the -jis are supposed to represent, but hey, who cares? The prime minister she admires texted her.

What did Daniel learn from the experience? “Don’t bake your heroes.” 

I’d add that, if you’re going to lose a competition, lose spectacularly. She’d never have gotten as much publicity if she’d won.

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A British citizen repatriated from New Zealand last week reported landing in Heathrow and finding no health checks and no Covid-19 testing. 

“All arrivals in New Zealand are quarantined in hotels for 14 days at the government’s expense,” he wrote.

Which might be vaguely related to how few cases the country has.

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The Taneytown, MD, the police department posted the following on Facebook: “Please remember to put pants on before leaving the house to check your mailbox. You know who you are. This is your final warning.”

 

And just so speakers of British and British-influenced English are clear on this: In American, pants are trousers, not underwear.

My thanks to cat9984 for letting me know about this important story. 

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Back in Britain, people may be buying–or trying to buy–more flour, yeast, and toilet paper than usual (not, we hope, all for the same recipe), but they’re buying less makeup.

Is anyone surprised?

They’re also buying more alcohol but less toothpaste and fewer toothbrushes. The kindest explanation for that business with the toothbrushes and toothpaste is that people stockpiled earlier. The other possibility is that everyone’s keeping six feet away anyhow.

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At least 100 health and care workers in Britain have died of coronavirus.

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The Medical Defense Union has called for emergency legislation to protect medical practitioners and the National Health Service against negligence claims during the pandemic. Many doctors are being asked to work outside of their areas of expertise. Others have been called out of retirement. Medical students have been thrown in at the deep end of the pool slightly before they finished their training. 

If they don’t get immunity to lawsuits, the NHS could be liable for any claims against them, because the government has promised to cover any lawsuits. 

Some US states have emergency legislation protecting them from civil liability for “any acts or omissions undertaken in good faith.”

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Horrifyingly, in the US, federal agencies have been seizing shipments of protective gear ordered and paid for by states and health organizations in what is effectively a blockade–the kind of thing a country might mount against an enemy state. The Intelligencer writes, “We don’t know where these supplies are going. We don’t know on what grounds they are being seized, or threatened with seizure.”

The Intelligencer isn’t a publication I know, but its article relies heavily on reporting from the New England Journal of Medicine, and you don’t much more respectable than that.  

Again, from the Intelligencer

This is not just the federal government telling states they are on their own, as it has done repeatedly over the last few weeks . . . [which is] itself a moral outrage . . . because, in many cases, states are legally barred from deficit spending, which means in times of crisis . . . they are functionally unable to respond at all. In such situations, the federal government is designed to serve as a backstop, but over and over again throughout this crisis, the White House has said states will get little to no help — that they are entirely on their own. (The federal medical stockpile isn’t meant for the states, as Jared Kushner has said, as though the country is anything more than its states.)”

The federal government is also bidding against the states, driving the prices up, sometimes until they’re ten times higher.

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And because we need some good news after that, the Minneapolis StarTribune ran some fine photos of chalk art in the Twin Cities area. I don’t know if they’re from before the recent snowstorm or after it, but I lived there long enough to testify that it wasn’t during it. It’s worth a look.

Sorry this has been so long. The hardest part is deciding what to leave out.

Pandemic news from Britain: conspiracies, opera, and where the flour went

Unemployed air crews have opened a first class lounge in several hospitals so they can give National Health Service staff a break. One of the organizers, Dave Fielding, says the crews offer tea, coffee, snacks, and “fifteen to twenty minutes of escape from the decisions they have to take everyday, because coronavirus has increased the pressure on them so much.” 

In spite of what the lounges called–and to everyone’s credit–they’re open to doctors, nurses, and support staff equally.

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The conspiracy theory du jour links Covid-19 to 5G masts. At least 20 masts have been attacked in the UK since the crisis started, including one serving a hospital. 

As far as I’ve been able to figure out without doing a deep dive into this particular swamp, the idea is that Wuhan was the first place 5G technology was tried, it weakened people’s immune systems, and that boosted the virulence of the common cold, creating Covid-19.

The fact-checking site FullFact reports that Wuhan seems to have been one of the early cities where 5G was rolled out, but not the only one. There’s no evidence that 5G has any effect on the immune system. It’s carried by radio waves, which are non-ionising–in other words, unlike x-rays and UV rays, they don’t affect our DNA. And Covid-19 isn’t a variant on the common cold anyway. 

Other than that, though, the theory’s solid.

You don’t have to dive very deep before you find claims about a link between 5G and mind control. I found them while I was looking for something else, but my mind was being controlled by outside forces and I didn’t click the link although I so wanted to. 

According to newspaper stories, if you dive deeper than I did you’ll find claims that the Jews are behind it all. The far right, apparently, just hates 5G–and, of course, Jews. 

Which brings me to what I want to know about all these Jewish conspiracies: How come no one ever lets me in on them? I’m Jewish. I can keep a secret. And who’d listen to me if I did tell?

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South Korea has reported that a group of people who recovered from Covid-19 later tested positive again. Some had no symptoms, others got sick. It’s not clear if they were reinfected or if the virus stayed active in their systems, but either way it raises troubling questions about immunity. And a vaccine.

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A hospital in Wales is injecting blood plasma from patients who recovered from the virus into patients who are struggling with it. It’s the first trial. If you don’t hear any more about it, assume it didn’t work. 

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One of the mysteries of these Covid months is where all the flour went

The answer is that it didn’t go anywhere. It’s still out there, but it’s not on your supermarket shelves. With so many people stuck at home, the retail demand for flour almost doubled (that’s in the four weeks before March 22 in case you care). The problem is that suppliers can’t move easily from selling it in bulk to selling it in small bags. That involves production lines and machinery and packaging. And, inevitably, money. If you want a tankerful of the stuff, you can probably arrange for a truck to pull up in front of your house. The problem’s going to be storage. 

It’s also easily available in bags, but we’re talking about the kind of bags that weigh 16 kilos or more. In pounds, that’s 16 x 2.2, which equals more than your back’s going to be happy with since it comes in an awkwardly shaped, and possibly floppy, package. Flour mills may not be quite as happy to send a truck out with a single bag, and it won’t amuse your neighbors for nearly as long as a tanker.

Have I mentioned that flour’s flammable? Or not just flammable: explosive. If you decide you need that tankerful, do be careful. I don’t have so many readers that I can afford to lose any.

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A doctor who changed careers and became an opera singer has returned to medicine to help out during the crisis. (What the hell–who’s staging operas these days anyway?) In quieter moments, he sings to the staff–through a mask. A co-worker filmed him

He’s a tenor. And only drawn to careers that take years of training.

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Have I mentioned lately that humans are a difficult species? So who-all’s getting blamed for Covid-19? In China, African students and expatriates are getting tested repeatedly–not to mention evicted and turned away by food stores because they’re assumed to be carrying the virus. 

Incidents of online, off line, and presidential blaming of Asians who just might be Chinese are too numerous to count in both the UK and the US–and for all I know elsewhere.

In India, Hindu extremist groups blame Muslims. 

And of course there are 5G masts, Jews, and the Chinese government–a natural alliance if there ever was one. 

As long as we have someone to blame, we can face anything.

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I wrote last week about Britain’s shortage of protective gear for medical and social care workers, and of course you memorize every word I write. It’s the shortage that lovely and creative volunteers are moving mountains to make up for. The shortage that’s helping spread the disease, especially to health and care workers and the people they treat.

That shortage. 

It turns out that Britain had three chances to buy masks, gowns, and gloves in bulk. But it would have meant buying them along with the European Union, so the government didn’t do it. Because, hey we’re leaving the EU. And what really matters, after all?

Brexit. That’s what matters.

Or possibly it was because they forgot to read the email. Or because the dog ate their homework.

And, what the hell, as long as I’ve depressed us all, I’ll toss this in: Some hospitals are so short on equipment that they’ve stopped using the usual way of checking staff members’ masks to see if they fit safely. It involves a chemical spray and they’re having trouble getting hold of it.

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We’re going to skip lightly over some pandemic stories because they’re either too heartbreaking or too frustrating, but I do want to mention a few very briefly. The one about the Home Office refusing to take unaccompanied child refugees from the Greek camps, which are overcrowded, undersanitized, and disasters in the making. The one about foreign doctors living in Britain who aren’t allowed to work here because the General Medical Council is too busy doing whatever it’s doing to register them. One particular group were at the final stage of accreditation when their final exams were canceled. Because, of course, of the virus.

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After Boris Johnson recovered from the coronavirus and left the hospital, he had high praise for the NHS, mentioning two nurses by name. He didn’t mention that he voted against listing a long-standing cap that had kept nurses’ pay from going up.  

One of the nurses he mentioned is from New Zealand and the other from Portugal. Anyone from the EU working in Britain pays £400 for the privilege. For every member of the family. Per year. After Brexit, that’s due to go up to £625. I believe that’s the amount non-EU workers pay, but I haven’t verified that. 

But hey, we are grateful to them. What, they want better pay too?

Britain has a shortage of 40,000 nurses. 

None of those figures are connected in any way.

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Britain’s on track to test 100,000 people a day for Covid-19 by the end of the month. The fact that halfway through the month we were only testing 18,000 a day has no bearing on anything. 

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Sorry–we’re getting a bit grim here. Let’s lighten things up. A ninety-nine-year-old World War II veteran decided to raise £1,000 for the NHS–the National Health Service–by walking laps around his back garden, which is what Americans would call a yard, but a yard in Britain is someplace junky, so he was in a garden. Last I checked, he’d raised £3 million. He uses a walker and is doing ten laps a day.

Britain does have a national religion: It’s the NHS.

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In London, a couple of actors staged the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet from their  windows. A neighbor played the sax, flute, and cymbals. Probably not all at the same time. 

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Someone who was missing his regular pub quiz set one up on Facebook and accidentally made it public. Again, it was a fundraiser for the NHS. The next thing he knew 30,000 people had signed up. 

It’s become a regular thing, with 150,000 people involved, and it’s raised £93,000.

Pub quizzes? No, I don’t understand them either. They’re a British thing and people here just love them. Or people who aren’t me do.

The pandemic news from Britain: cats, profiteers, rule-breakers, and the Dunkirk spirit

People in Belper, Derbyshire, are dealing with Covid-19 isolation by going to the window or doorstep at 6:30 every evening and mooing. The instigator, Jasper Ward, said he figured it would last a day or two but after six weeks folks are still crazed enough to think this is a great idea.

My thanks to Autolycus for pointing me in the direction of this important information. My life would be poorer without it. And so would yours.

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In Hong Kong, the zoo’s giant pandas are coping with coronavirus isolation by mating for the first time. Pandas aren’t thrilled about mating in captivity, and artificial insemination doesn’t have a great track record, so zookeepers are delighted, even though the last time I checked it wasn’t clear whether a little pandalet was on the way.

We can assume the pandas are happy as well.

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Britain’s Tesco supermarket chain is also making the best of things. It got a £585 million tax break from the government in emergency coronavirus support (I’m not sure why since food stores seem to be doing very well, thank you, but what do I know?). Then it announced that it would pay out £635 million in dividends to its shareholders–a total of £900 million for the year.

Tesco’s chair, John Allan, said it was the right thing to do.

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Cats and their people were in a frenzy for a day or three over bungled advice to keep all cats indoors during the pandemic. A tiger in the Bronx Zoo had caught the disease from a keeper, leading the world to realize that cats and ferrets (but not dogs) are susceptible.

So the British Veterinary Association (apparently–there seems to be a lot of confusion involved in all this) advised people to keep their cats in.

All cats. All the time.

The website got so many hits that it crashed. Just to be on the safe side, our cat, Fast Eddie, spent the night outside. He knew which side of the window he wanted to be on if it closed forever and he knew that enough other cats were on the internet to keep that website crashed.

The next day, our veterinarian’s office sent an email saying they don’t recommend keeping all cats in and cats are not suspected of transmitting the disease to humans, although they could transmit it to other cats.

Eddie came back inside. It was time for breakfast anyway.

Daniel Kuritzkes, head of infectious diseases at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said the information that’s available does support “the recommendation that people who are with COVID-19 should be distancing themselves, not only from other household members but also from their household pets, so as not to transmit the virus to their pets, particularly to cats or other felines.”

That’s good news for cats–and for the government, because it had made no moves to keep its prime ministerial cat, Larry, indoors. Even when the prime minister and some good portion of his cabinet came down with the virus, Larry strolled around outside Number 10 Downing Street as imperturbably as only a cat can.

No, I wouldn’t want to be in charge of telling him he couldn’t go out, but if Eddie’s expected to stay in while Larry’s out for a stroll–well, I don’t want to be in charge of that conversation either.

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Speaking of creatures who don’t want to stay in, the housing secretary, Rober Jenrick, got caught driving to his parents’ house after he’d made public appearances telling everyone else to save lives by staying home. It was okay, though, because he was bringing them food and medicine–something at least one newspaper reports that community members were already doing.

That was worth a couple of days of flapping before it was forgotten. It’s not like the thing with the cats, after all.

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The prime minister himself is now out of the hospital and recovering not where he lives, above Number 10, where Larry has been doing his frustrated best to advise him, but at Chequers, the grace and favor country residence that prime ministers get to pretend is theirs for as long as they can stay in office.

Sorry about that “residence” bit, but when a building’s expensive enough you end up using words like that. It’s all the fault of real estate agents–called simply estate agents in Britain, possibly because the British don’t believe they’re real.

He’s at Chequers because he’s the prime minister, and because his government’s been telling everyone not to travel to their second homes.

It will, I’m sure, surprise you to hear this, but not everyone in Britain actually has a second home. Or a first one.

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But we were talking about cats. They’re more interesting than prime ministers and they have fur..

Veterinarians, veterinary nurses, and veterinary dentists have been recruited to help out in hospitals to help alleviate the shortage of medical personnel. Their training will include the suggestion that they not offer patients their hand to sniff.

Across the land, cats breathed a sigh of relief.

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In Shetland, the hospital’s communications officer, Carol Campbell, posted a note on social media that staff were running out of scrubs–the clothing they wear and change out and wash endlessly to prevent cross-contamination. Across the island, volunteers broke out their sewing machines, found patterns, and started cutting up every piece of cloth that wasn’t currently on somebody’s body. Hospital staff have been running around wearing floral patterns, cartoon characters, and the giant faces of the band One Direction.

Other groups around the country are doing similar work, but without, as far as I can establish from the safety of my couch, the nifty graphics because the hospitals they’re giving them to are holding out for regulation colors. One group has a GoFundMe page, Helping Dress Medics, to raise money for fabric. That effort was started, appropriately enough, by the costume designer for His Dark Materials, Dulcie Scott, and involves costume makers from the film and theater world.

But the larger story isn’t all Dunkirk spirit and lovely people with pinking shears. Hospitals are running out of protective gear of all sorts. A group of nurses made do with bin bags. All later tested positive for the virus. Government ministers say it’s a distribution problem. Everything will be arriving tomorrow.

Okay, but it’ll be there over the weekend.

Or possibly next week.

After a where’s-the-home-secretary campaign on social media (which may or may not have affected anything but did make me aware of her disappearance), Priti Patel finally took center stage at the daily Covid-19 briefing and said, “I’m sorry if people feel that there have been failings. I will be very, very clear about that.”

So that’s very, very clear. Especially the “if” and the “feel” part.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, “There’s enough PPE to go around, but only if it’s used in line with our guidance.”

In other words, stop playing football with the stuff, you reckless idiots.

The British Medical Association says supplies are at dangerously low levels around the country and lives are at risk.

Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, a doctor who went on Facebook pleading with the prime minister to provide protective equipment for front line staff and to ensure that healthcare workers get tested for the virus, has died of Covid-19.

I’m having a hard time being funny all of a sudden. I heard his son interviewed on the radio. He asked people to remember his father’s name.

Refugee doctors whose accreditation comes from other countries are asking to be fast tracked so they can help alleviate of the shortage of doctors and nurses. The British accreditation process, they say, is long, difficult, and expensive. RefuAid says it has gathered copies of the qualifications of 230 doctors, which come from their home countries

The health secretary said he’d discuss the proposal. He didn’t say who he’d discuss it with.

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On a cheerier note, the Faroe Islands, with a population of 61,000, haven’t yet had a single death from the virus and have only one person hospitalized with it. They’re getting ready to reopen schools.

What did they do right? They listened to a veterinary scientist, Debes Christiansen, who warned them that the virus was coming.

Christiansen’s lab is set up to test salmon for viral infections, but he bought the supplies he’d need to test humans and 10% of the population has now been tested. The contacts of people who tested positive were traced and quarantined. Christiansen said it was easy to adapt his lab and to get hold of the materials he needed. He could, he said, use a wider range of suppliers than hospitals could.

No, I don’t understand that last bit either, but he could do a thousand tests a day if they were needed.

So why is the UK having such trouble testing people? See that bit neither of us understood about the range of suppliers. It probably means something along the lines of “We have regulations and we’re not going to abandon them just because people are dying.”

Or possibly not. I’m in the dark and making guesses at where the door is.

An opposition MP praised not just Christiansen but also the government for setting up a drive-in testing facility and quarantine facilities at an airport hotel.

The Faroes, in case this is useful information, are a self-governing territory of Denmark.

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And finally, the spacecraft BepiColombo made its closest approach to Earth on April 10, took a good look at the mess we’re in, and headed off to Venus. Can’t say I blame it.

Stay safe, be careful, and try not to let it make you crazy. We’re hiding from things we can’t see. It’s easy for that to tip a person over the edge.