Between COVID-19 and Brexit

22 June 2020, 00:01

Britain has had a bad pandemic. Not only has the country registered the highest number of deaths from corvid-19 of any in Europe; but the unity and resilience that marked the start of lockdown in March, has after 10 weeks fractured into recriminations, confusion and deep unpopularity for the government and Boris Johnson, the embattled prime minister.

   The virus arrived relatively late in Britain. It was only after Italy, the epicentre of infection in Europe, had seen thousands of cases that Britain began to record the first handful of deaths. Most were of elderly people who also suffered other health problems. This, and also the government’s determination not to upset daily life too much, led to a fatal complacency. For three weeks the official advice, said to be based on the recommendations of the chief medical officer and the government’s scientific adviser, was to wash hands regularly and avoid crowds. The aim, it was said, was to “flatten the curve” of the infection graph, so that the National Health Service (NHS) was not overwhelmed. Schools continued to function. Shops and pubs were open. Several big sporting events went ahead. There was no lockdown.

   Suddenly, in mid-March, it became clear that the advice was wrong. Cases and deaths were rising fast – especially in London. Thousands of people were exposed to infection every day, especially on the crowded London Underground and other public transport. Another group of scientists calculated that up to 250,000 people could die if more drastic measures were not taken immediately. That was unacceptable and the government switched course. A total lockdown was ordered on 24th March. All shops, schools, bars, and offices were closed. Parliament was suspended. Everyone was encouraged to work from home. Travel, except for key workers, was banned. And no exceptions were made – even for elderly and frightened people living alone.

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At first, the government won strong support for its measures. Boris Johnson gave regular press conferences, and appeared determined and decisive. The Labour party, which had just elected Keir Starmer, a new and more moderate leader to replace Jeremy Corbin, gave qualified support and said it would help to build national unity. The government, helped by the army, took over the biggest exhibition centre in London and in only 10 days converted it into a gigantic hospital, capable of holding up to 4,000 corona virus patients – an achievement comparable to the rapid building of a new hospital by the Chinese in Wuhan. Other huge new temporary hospitals were made ready in the main cities in Britain. British engineering firms also were able to switch production to manufacture dozens of medical ventilators, which were in dangerously short supply. It looked as though the state-run NHS would be able to cope.

  Britain also responded swiftly to the huge number of people losing their jobs and their income. Rishi Sunak, the young and charismatic finance minister, announced that the government would pay 80 per cent of the wages of all those send on temporary leave from their jobs, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month. Other provisions were announced, including the accommodation of all homeless people in hotels, the paying of special allowances for helpers and key workers, the virtual nationalisation of all public transport (including the railways), the suspension of mortgage payments and other government bills, new help for local councils and huge guaranteed bank loans to help those losing their jobs to survive. That made Sunak extremely popular – though it has cost the country billions and billions of pounds in new debt and looks likely to lead to the biggest economic recession Britain has ever seen.

   But gradually things began to go wrong. The number of cases began to rise fast. The government also abandoned the policy of testing all people suspected of having the virus – partly because it said this would not help the NHS and partly because the numbers were becoming too large and there were no test facilities available in Britain. The immediate crisis was a shortage of protective equipment, including masks and gowns, for the nurses and doctors treating corona patients. A number of doctors and nurses died – and despite repeated assurances by the government, enough protective clothing was available. Imports from China and from Turkey were found to be useless, as the kit did not give proper protection. It was also revealed that Britain had ignored an invitation from the European Union to take part in joint production of proper medical supplies – probably because the pro-Brexit government had no wish to be involved in any continuing co-operation with the EU.

  The number of infections rose swiftly, and Johnson himself became seriously ill. He was rushed to an intensive care unit of a nearby hospital, and his situation was so bad that arrangements were made to announce his death. No one was designated as a stand-in prime minister, and so the government drifted, unable to make proper decisions without any formal leader. People began to ask questions about Britain’s failure to react fast enough to the virus and its record of not spending enough over many years to allow the health service to function properly. It emerged also that there was a growing crisis in Britain’s care homes. Thousands of elderly people were dying because no special measure were taken to isolate care homes or provide protective equipment for the staff.

  Johnson eventually returned to work – but by now criticism was growing of his indecisive leadership, of the failure to provide enough testing facilities and of Britain’s poor record compared to Germany and other countries where the virus had been dealt with more swiftly and was under more control. There was also astonishment when it was said that Britain was still determined to go ahead with a Brexit deal by the end of this year, even though most negotiations had been suspended. Most commentators said that British industry, severely impacted by the virus, would be unable to cope with the shock of a failure to reach a new trade deal with the EU in time and a refusal by Johnson to extend the deadline.

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The government has begun to relax some of the lockdown measures, partly in response to the gradual decline in infections and deaths, and partly because it was clear that public patience was beginning to crack. There were more and more cases of people breaking the lockdown rules, of confrontations with the police and of disunity among the four nations of the UK – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The three other regional governments refused to follow the guidelines laid down by London and there were noisy disagreements with Johnson’s leadership.

  Just as it was announced that schools would partially reopen in June, that larger gatherings of households would be permitted and that many shops would be allowed to open again, Johnson faced the biggest crisis of his leadership with the news that his powerful senior political aide had himself broken the lockdown rules. Dominic Cummings, a combative and polarising figure who is seen as indispensable to Johnson, secretly drove to his parents’ house in Durham, 400 kilometres from London, with his sick wife because he was worried that his young child would not be cared for. This was clearly against the rules. Even worse, Cummings was also seen on a drive to a beauty spot 80 kilometres away. There was uproar. Newspapers talked of “one rule for the rich and one for the poor.” Bishops, members of parliament and the general public called for his resignation. He flatly refused and Johnson defended him. But the damage done to the government’s credibility has been enormous. Few people now trust the new plan to test everyone and force anyone with symptoms to reveal the names and addresses of all known contacts so that they can be isolated. And as Britain struggles to avoid a second wave of infection, the government’s unpopularity – even among several Conservative members of parliament – has ruined Johnson’s hopes of leading the country back to health. 

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