Skip to Content
Weekend
Edition

Best of the news
from abroad
Every
Saturday

Arriving at
6:00 AM

March 21 2020
Back to the issue
British prime minister Boris Johnson tries to explain the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak at a March 12 news conference.

By Monday night, the world was in lockdown. The governors of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut had closed casinos, gyms, and movie theaters. The E.U. stood at the brink of banning all non-essential travel. French president Macron used Twitter to declare a guerre sanitaire with the virus, mobilizing 100,000 police officers to enforce travel and social restrictions on the population. Chinese trucks are drenching the streets with disinfectant. In India, the quarantined are being stamped with indelible ink to better identify them.

But in Britain? Not so much.

So far, the U.K.’s response to the coronavirus has been muddled at best and catastrophic at worst. Two weeks ago, when the rest of the world was starting to shut down infrastructure, we were still holding concerts and parties and sporting events. While the World Health Organization underlined the importance of mass testing, we essentially put a stop to it, telling anyone with symptoms to simply stay at home and only seek medical advice after a week.

While the W.H.O. underlined the importance of mass testing, we essentially put a stop to it.

We became global outliers, zigging as every other nation zagged. Quarantining everyone would be a mistake, we were told, because that would simply cause a more virulent second wave the moment everyone went outside again. Better to let the virus do its thing in a controlled way, we were told. If 60 percent of us become infected, then herd immunity will kick in and we’ll all end up safe. Except the coronavirus has a fatality rate of at least one percent. There are 66.4 million people in the U.K. A paper published by Imperial College revealed what could happen if the virus were left unchecked. Not only would the health system find itself terminally overloaded, but half a million people would die, many in just a few months. For reference, that isn’t far off the number of people the U.K. loses to everything combined in a full year. Or, as Boris Johnson put it, “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” No wonder people have started to refer to the U.K. as the “control group.”

This is not a great time to have Boris Johnson as a prime minister. A figure who swept into power on a wave of populist, get-Brexit-done, people-are-tired-of-experts, happy-days-are-here-again sentiment, his premiership was supposed to be easy and breezy and fun. He was meant to be the ringmaster for a new surge of Britain-goes-it-alone exceptionalism. And now he finds himself saddled with the biggest peacetime crisis in a century. His response to the coronavirus has been criticized at every turn—by scientists, by the W.H.O., by the self-employed who suddenly find themselves without income or sick pay, by anyone seeking any sort of clarity in a difficult time. “It’s been a case of how not to communicate during an outbreak,” a public-health specialist told The Atlantic this week.

“Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

Every possible turn has been botched to some degree. Plans to isolate the over-70s were announced not by Johnson but by a political journalist working from a government source. When Johnson’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, unveiled a vital new step in the government’s coronavirus plan, he did it with a newspaper column that came hidden behind a paywall. Thanks to rumors that London would be shut down and sealed off, the country spent half of Thursday in a state of alarm; an official statement denying them came too late to prevent panic. An emergency like this needs clarity and transparency. Boris Johnson, famously, is a man who won’t even tell anyone how many children he has. The signs aren’t promising.

Thankfully, the “Let them all catch it and we’ll figure it out” nature of Johnson’s initial strategy has morphed into something a little more traditional. On Monday, Johnson committed himself to delivering daily updates on the state of the virus, and, in fairness, he spends much of these deferring to medical scientists. But, still, his big policy moves appear confused and ill thought out.

He recommended that everyone keep six feet from each other, but then kept schools open. He told people to stay away from bars and theaters, but didn’t go as far as ordering them to shut, a move quickly criticized for its apparent appeasement of the insurance industry. Even when he’s following world protocol, he is two steps behind both public opinion and the rest of the world.

An emergency like this needs clarity and transparency. Boris Johnson, famously, is a man who won’t even tell anyone how many children he has.

You get the feeling that we’ve finally reached the exact point where Johnson’s shambolic charm goes limp. His rise to power, right from his journalist days, has been marked by a tendency to claim a snappy one-liner and repeat it so incessantly that it enters the lexicon. And yet, here, his Borisisms—such as his insistence on saying “Squash the sombrero” rather than “Flatten the curve”—are being met with wall-to-wall eye-rolling. It’s like living through the moment when a hyperactive child at a party flicks from endearing to annoying. Suddenly everyone can see through his shtick.

And then, to make matters worse, there is still Brexit to consider. The U.K.’s exit from Europe remains in a transition period, during which the country follows E.U. regulations. This is scheduled to end in December, and June is the latest that the U.K. can ask for an extension. With everyone preoccupied by more pressing concerns, an extension would be the most sensible course of action.

His insistence on saying “Squash the sombrero” rather than “Flatten the curve.”

But it would also be political suicide for Johnson, a man who has built his whole reputation on repeating “Get Brexit done” like a hammer-damaged Teddy Ruxpin. This also extends to the coronavirus. All 27 health ministers within the E.U.—plus Switzerland—are now pooling their resources with daily videoconferences. The U.K., because it is pathologically disinclined to back down, ever, has refused to participate. With every passing day, with every scrap of breaking news, it’s hard not to feel more and more alone. If nothing else, Johnson has to take some responsibility for that.

The one crumb of comfort among all this mess is that, as flawed as Boris Johnson is, at least he isn’t Donald Trump. Johnson hasn’t yet denounced the pandemic as a hoax. He hasn’t initiated any drastic last-minute travel bans that may have only helped to spread infection. He hasn’t gone out of his way to publicly deflect blame. He hasn’t attempted to poach an international vaccine for the exclusive use of his own country. Boris Johnson is in way over his head here, but at least someone out there is making a worse fist of it. At least the U.K. can rest assured that the second-drunkest guy in the room is driving us home. That’s something, right?

Stuart Heritage is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL based in Kent, U.K.

Back to the issue