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.”


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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?


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 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. 


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. 


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.


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


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.


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?


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. 


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


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. 


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.” 


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.


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. 


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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


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.”


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.


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.