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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”