On Thursday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared in front of reporters without a mask and encountered with the police the "massive success" of the country in reducing the death toll from COVID-19.
The explanation of the "massive success" landed with a hollow bang. Hours later, the Johnson government ordered the surprise ban in northern England to curb the tops in and around the Greater Manchester area. More than 4 million citizens have been banned from holding meetings with neighbors. It comes as the UK economy plunges into what is likely to be the worst recession in 300 years.
The country is still on high alert. With more than 46,000 deaths, the UK has suffered a disproportionate number of deaths compared to neighboring countries. The UK statistics agency has confirmed that in England alone, the largest number of deaths was due to a European nation. As of July 31, the UK ranked third worldwide after John Hopkins' mortality analysis, both per capita and absolute deaths – only behind the US and Brazil. Not a good company.
It shouldn't be that way. Johnson himself repeatedly claimed that the UK was better prepared than most of the others in the early weeks of the pandemic, citing the beloved National Health Service and the world's leading medical research institutions as a call to rest.
It turned out to be misleading. From scientists to healthcare workers to regular Britons, the overwhelming conclusion today is that the country has indeed got into a pandemic. It is not difficult to see how. The population was burned out and divided by the Brexit. The government was almost certainly distracted, cocky and underprepared.
An ambulance crosses Westminster Bridge on March 25, 2020 in London, England. Alex Davidson – Getty Images
"As we all know, the 2020 UK history event should be Brexit," said Tae-Yeoun Keum, an expert on political thought and symbolism at Oxford University.
She added that history teachers of future generations could one day learn the lessons from Britain's pandemic by finding that it was led by a government with a purpose and little else – to get Britain out of the European Union.
"Not," she said, "to deal with a unique global pandemic."
"Wash our hands and sing happy birthday."
The turning point in the management of the pandemic in the UK occurred in early March.
When the virus devoured Europe, the number of cases increased in the UK. The government's approach, however, quickly deviates from the rest of the region. The prime minister and his advisers took moderate measures to stop the virus. Deep down, they seemed to fear that the British public would not tolerate the restrictive blocking measures in continental Europe.
The government briefly flirted with the "herd immunity" approach and then gave it up. Meanwhile, Johnson delayed the announcement of a blackout plan, although the numbers rose.
It was companies, the public, and even famous British institutions such as the Premier Football League and the royal family, that preceded government advice: cancel events and send students and staff home before being asked to do so.
The country finally buckled and was closed on March 24th. The result: the economy remained closed longer than most other European countries. Until then, the damage was done.
A sign in the window of a Lush store in Liverpool offers a free hand washing service before the UK is closed in late March. Peter Byrne – PA Pictures / Getty Images
"I felt the UK didn't take it seriously as a country when the numbers were low," said David Gilani, an assistant at Middlesex University's Student Experience Office, which was closed ahead of government decisions. "Of course, as soon as the numbers were higher, we took it more seriously – but at that point it was too late."
While other European countries hurried to enforce increasingly stringent barriers, he said, "The UK just washed our hands and sang Happy Birthday."
Neil Ferguson, a government scientific advisor who also heads the Infectious Outbreak Modeling Group at Imperial University, admitted that blocking the country a week earlier could have halved the death toll. Nevertheless, he ultimately defended the government's actions.
"It turned out to be far from the best"
When the death toll rose in April, there was a new problem: could the country's national health care system really cope with a wave of COVID 19 cases after years of funding cuts?
It quickly became apparent that front line medical workers were struggling with a fatal lack of protective equipment. In addition, extensive tests were far behind schedule in the beginning. By April, Health Minister Matt Hancock, facing a test record lagging rival nations, blamed a small diagnostics industry for the record in Britain and promised to build one "on a large scale".
NHS officials hold a wreath as part of a silent protest against the lack of protective equipment in hospitals just outside the Prime Minister's residence in London during the weekly clap for our carers applause for the NHS and key staff on May 28th. 2020. Wiktor Szymanowicz – Barcroft Media / Getty Images
In the meantime, the number of viruses disproportionately affected the country's key workers, from healthcare workers to transit drivers to Black and Asian Brits. A government study found, for example, that black men die from COVID-19 more than four times more than white men, mainly due to socio-economic factors.
The missteps were greater for a government that had lost its reputation with the British people due to a year-long Brexit negotiation that had done so little.
The United Kingdom has long been proud of the world's best class of public institutions, says David Edgerton, historian and author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A History of the 20th Century. But these institutions have "by far not turned out to be the best, and that is very important politically," he says. "It's going to be a pretty general crisis in the British state."
"Boris is brilliant at distracting the country"
The low point came on March 27th. At that time, the British government was informing the public that Johnson had tested positive for coronavirus. He was put in intensive care in a London hospital, and the prime minister was largely out of sight for a month.
Johnson's illness left a gaping power vacuum at the head of the government – since Britain has no deputy prime minister, daily press conferences between cabinet members alternated with little clarity as to who actually had the last word in the government.
While the disease aroused public sympathy for the prime minister, his absence revealed a leadership gap in his own cabinet. It also became clear how much the country relied on Johnson's great talents: humor and a penchant for grandiose, patriotic symbolism to speak to the hearts of the public – while glossing over every detail of an emergency plan.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a statement outside 10 Downing Street in London on April 27 when he returned to work after the coronavirus recovery. Stefan Rousseau – PA pictures via Getty Images
Much of this approach is summarized in Johnson's unique communication style: casual, catchy, detailed and often dismissive. He often expresses the concerns of his critics – whether over Brexit negotiations or the pandemic – as overreactions. In the run-up to the closure, he often reformulated the call to smooth the curve to squeeze the sombrero. It was a joke that stood out amid the updates to the increasing death toll.
"Boris is brilliant at distracting the country," said Emily Foyle, a senior nurse in the south west of England. "Joking, illuminating, redirecting – that's his political strategy."
"I don't know what" staying alert "means."
After resuming public life after his recovery, he set out to find out how the country would emerge from the closure.
This led to a much mocked television speech to switch the country from the clear “stay at home” policy to the “stay vigilant” command.
Johnson has often used buzzwords, including when he switched to a majority government in December to get the catchy promise "Get Brexit Done". But this time the news confused.
Government billboards advise the public to stay alert for the symptoms of COVID-19 on June 2, 2020 in Birmingham, England. Photo credit: Mike Kemp – In images via Getty Images. Mike Kemp – In Pictures / Getty Images
"I don't know what" staying vigilant "means," replied Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, adding that she had learned about the changes in the newspapers. Sturgeon ordered the Scots to ignore Johnson and continue to stay at home. Like Wales and Northern Ireland, Scotland chose its own pace, showing that Johnson often spoke only for England during the staggered reopening.
Although regional divisions have followed almost every country during the pandemic, these divisions in Britain exist between nations with their own identities – and reflect the way the Brexit vote split the country into different visions for the future: England to Example voted for leaving the EU. Scotland agreed to stay.
When the Johnson government decided on details, it was too detailed. The UK's reopening plan, for example, led to a comedic confusion: from the rules for individual viewing of family members to restrictions on loud conversations in pubs.
Meanwhile, Johnson's appeal to the wisdom of "British common sense" was a defining issue, says Keum from Oxford, as was often mentioned in connection with the Brexit.
"The story of the Brexit campaign was in many ways a story of the British state of emergency on the one hand and a story of confirming the mythical worldviews of the world on the other," she says.
"Both stories have somehow reappeared in the government's pandemic response. Only this time the ideas that inform the government's response about what people want to hear seem to have been misjudged."
A "trial of the nation"
Raj Bhopal, emeritus professor of public health at Edinburgh University, weighed the UK's response to the pandemic in mid-June and found that the retrospectoscope "is a wonderful tool – but it was never invented".
In a pandemic, the review is always 8:20 p.m. and no government on earth has emerged perfectly from a crisis that often has not made good – only bad – decisions.
Giving up in retrospect would be a dangerous exercise, however, as countries have the prospect of social distancing and barriers that will take months or even years, making learning from past decisions a crucial exercise.
And although there are statistical differences in the way countries collect data, Johnson has consistently misrepresented the country's high death toll as a statistical misunderstanding and, despite evidence to the contrary, flogged a message of patriotic “success”. Efforts stem from a reluctance to compromise or to honestly coordinate with the British public, which became all too well known in the years of the Brexit purgatory when an insecure and highly divided public tried to find its way a clearer political future.
A clinical staff member wears personal protective equipment (PPE) while she is caring for a patient at the Royal Papworth Hospital intensive care unit in Cambridge on May 5, 2020. NEIL HALL – POOL / AFP / Getty Images
It is a worrying picture that affects not only public trust and security, but also the strength of the bond between the Union of Nations at the heart of Britain – and the country's greater reputation in the world.
"I think it has made very clear the shortcomings of the British state, the British government, the welfare state and the ability to rationally debate the elite," said Edgerton. "It really shows the reality of Britain's place in the world. After Brexit and COVID-19, no informed person, no semi-informed person, could say that Britain is one of the leading countries in the world."
The present moment is ripe for a "trial of the nation," he warned. "It's wake-up time."
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