The UK has often appeared out of step with the rest of Europe during the coronavirus crisis. Back in early February, prime minister Boris Johnson was breezily telling his compatriots to stay “confident and calm” in the face of a potential global pandemic. Just over two weeks later, Italy appealed for help as COVID-19 overloaded hospitals in Lombardy prior to implementing an unprecedented national lockdown. The UK eventually followed suit, albeit as the last major European country to do so, with the exception of Sweden, which decided not to lockdown. Ever since, Europeans have detected an ideological strain in Westminster’s public health response (UK health policy is a devolved matter so the UK’s nations each have their own say).
Whatever the explanation behind the delay in implementing a lockdown, it is clear that easing these restrictions is an equally fraught process. The delicate balancing act between protecting lives and helping the economy recover is a common challenge across Europe. What is particularly apparent from a comparative perspective is not only that the UK has been especially badly hit, but that it has chosen to forge its own path.
Johnson’s government spurned the opportunity to use the EU joint procurement facility to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) in the early days of the crisis. By contrast, 12 countries signed up to the scheme. Norway rushed to join in March but was too late to participate in the first tender. The British alternative was to try to tap the nation’s innovation potential by promoting new ventilator manufacturing, with disappointing results.
Another UK specificity is the somewhat idiosyncratic policy on facial coverings. The use of masks largely became the norm in Europe during lockdown and the subsequent phases of easing. In the UK, covering one’s face is compulsory only when taking public transport or when in a hospital.
Boris the world beater?
One aspect of the UK response stands out in particular when seen from abroad – Johnson’s performance, both in terms of rhetoric and actual policy. The delay in pursuing a lockdown is widely attributed to Johnson’s initial desire to pursue a reckless herd immunity strategy. When he first announced a plan for easing the lockdown measures European commentators were puzzled by the timing and fuzziness of the proposals.
Whether at home or abroad, the buck thus stops with Johnson. His penchant for peppering his speeches about UK policy with the qualifier “world-beating” has prompted a critical reaction from many quarters. It also does not help to have a seemingly loose grasp of how other countries have tackled the virus. Just this week, Labour leader Keir Starmer corrected the prime minister’s claim that no country to date has developed a successful contact tracing app. In an exchange retweeted by the German health minister, Starmer pointed out that the recently launched German app already has 12 million downloads.
The connection between words and deeds matters a great deal when it comes to trust in government. Johnson said so himself in an infamous quote during the EU referendum campaign. He labelled David Cameron’s failure to cut migration, despite repeated policy promises to that effect, as “corrosive of public trust”. Johnson’s COVID-19 policy runs precisely the same risk of being all talk – especially after proclaiming he was taking direct control of strategy.
Yet schadenfreude is not the order of the day amongst the UK’s neighbours and allies. The amount and accuracy of global data on pandemic infections and deaths make it risky to draw comparative lessons at this point. However, the pandemic has already highlighted the interconnectedness of European citizens and societies.
Take the source of UK infections. Many might imagine – given that the pandemic began in Wuhan province – that Chinese travellers helped spread the disease in the UK. In reality, the outbreak was fuelled by travel from Europe, notably Spain, France and Italy.
But as Europe’s internal borders reopen, the UK again seems to be going it alone. The 14-day quarantine rule introduced on June 8 for incoming visitors was a unilateral British move. To spur the tourist industry, the European Commission has launched a website and accompanying app to provide up-to-date information on rules for visitors in various countries. The UK has not sought to join this scheme.
These small acts of unilateralism are trivial in the context of the fight against COVID-19. Much more consequential is the question of the UK’s future relationship with the EU in the area of health security. The omens do not look good as the UK has not put forward draft proposals in this area of the current UK-EU negotiations.
After a haphazard initial response to COVID-19, the EU has announced significant legislative and financial measures to promote public health sovereignty. These notably include joint procurement of medical equipment and stockpiling of PPE. European countries – many participants in these schemes are not EU members – are thus increasingly pooling their resources, whereas the UK is opting out.
This is a bold wager even by Johnson’s standards. If the UK becomes the sick man of Europe, his career will be over and the post-Brexit Global Britain brand might be tarnished forever.