Life

Europeans Tell Us What They Think of Britain's Shambolic Coronavirus Response

"From France, it seemed like a clown contest. Boris Johnson still boasted in early March about shaking hands with sick people."
28 May 2020, 8:30am
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Britain has the worst coronavirus death toll in Europe. While figures released this week by the Office for National Statistics show that cases have been falling, the UK still suffers one of the highest daily death tolls in the world, with 4.49 deaths per million people per day. More than 37,000 Brits have now died from COVID-19, according to Public Health England. This is more than Italy (32,955), France (28,530), Spain (27,117) and Germany (8,349) respectively.

Which is to say: Britain fucked it.

After ignoring the World Health Organisation's declaration of a global emergency at the end of January, the government downplayed the coronavirus threat. As The Times reported, Boris Johnson missed five Cobra meetings, and calls to order protective equipment and warnings from scientists were ignored. In March, the government finally took action. The strategy seemed to be herd immunity: shield the elderly and vulnerable, and allow around 60 percent of the younger, healthy population to contract coronavirus. Of course, we all know how that turned out.

The announcement of a strict lockdown – a complete reversal of the previous plan – followed on the 23rd of March, far too late, according to many critics. After that, things got worse. Testing kits were promised and never arrived, and medical staff are still struggling to access PPE. In Germany, by comparison, widespread testing for the virus began in early 2020, as well as the implementation of swift social distancing rules. Germany is now into the second phase of easing its lockdown after a steady drop in coronavirus transmission rates since April.

Meanwhile, in London, the Prime Minister's top advisor flouted his government's own lockdown rules to go on a four-hour road trip and somehow still hasn't been fired.

Every country in the world is battling coronavirus – a disease that has no regard for borders, and spread to each continent within a matter of months. Many other political leaders have made their own grave errors of judgment (looking at you, America), but Britain’s response does seem particularly bad relative to most, and comes directly after the ongoing fiasco of Brexit. What do our European neighbours make of yet another political embarrassment from Britain? I asked some VICE editors from around Europe to find out.

Lisa McMinn of VICE DE, based in Berlin, feels sorry for us. "Some Conservatives made you leave the EU, your Prime Minister is not only a guy with crazy hair, but also crazy thoughts, and now corona hits you and your NHS," she says. "I'm very thankful to live in Germany right now. I was never a big fan of Angela Merkel, but she brings stability, and you can't wish for more during such a crisis."

The German Chancellor has been praised for her leadership during the crisis, including her "calm and insightful" explanations of coronavirus infection rates. Unlike Johnson, her approval ratings are up since the start of the pandemic.

In the Netherlands, like Britain, mass testing did not take place early on in the pandemic. Instead, the government opted for an "intelligent lockdown". Esther de Roosthen of VICE Benelux, based in Amsterdam, explains: "Besides quickly acknowledging the dangers of the threat, the phased approach made sure that we could learn from our mistakes and adapt. As our death rates have been going down, it now allows us to slowly loosen things up again: bars, restaurants, cinemas and more will be available for small crowds again soon."

In comparison to the phased lockdown approach, de Roosthen is confused by Britain’s changing lockdown rules (it's worth noting that the Netherlands' Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, did not visit his dying mother earlier this month because he was following his government’s lockdown restrictions).

"I thought it was quite strange that Johnson was so indifferent about the virus at first," says de Roosthen. "He got COVID himself and the country went under this strict lockdown. His decisions in this crisis sound so impulsive – like the news about all those people being packed in the metro going to work. Those things should be thought through, so that people with low incomes aren't exposed in that way."

Paul Douard of VICE France is also critical of Johnson. However, he has a less diplomatic take on the Prime Minister's actions during the pandemic. "I wondered for a long time if Boris Johnson was organising a contest with Donald Trump, whose goal was to go as long as possible without doing anything against COVID-19," he says. "From France, it seemed like a clown contest. Boris Johnson still boasted in early March about shaking hands with sick people and skipping five crisis meetings. This whole 'I'm above it all' thing doesn't work here at all."

Douard adds that "France is not without blame" in its response to the pandemic, and that protective masks are still hard to access. The number of daily deaths is also fluctuating. Still, he can’t believe that Brits are putting up with this government’s behaviour. "Believe me, it takes less for the French to destroy everything in the streets," he says.

Ana Iris Simón of VICE Spain has similar criticisms of Johnson’s leadership, but sees it as a reflection of British society. "When coronavirus arrived in Europe and it took weeks for Boris Johnson's government to react and confine the English population, he was heavily criticised in Spain," she says. "We talked about 'social Darwinism' and not protecting the most vulnerable. We even talked about the difference between the Mediterranean countries and how, for us, citizenship and community are supposedly the most important thing – compared to other countries like the United Kingdom or the Netherlands."

However, Simón acknowledges that her country has still suffered one of the highest death tolls in Europe. Prime Minister Sánchez plans to extend the current state of emergency until July, as thousands of Spanish health workers have lost their lives. "We have been completely locked down for two months" says Simón. "So right now, with this data and this experience, it is complicated to judge who has done well and who has done badly, and what was and is the correct strategy."

Another country with a high number of fatalities is Italy. The epicentre of the pandemic in Europe just a few weeks ago, it only recently began to loosen its lockdown. VICE Italy's Giacomo Stefanini thinks Britain should have learned from their mistakes. "'Stay home, unless you have to work' is, in my opinion, a criminal standpoint," he says. “It’s what made my home region of Lombardy the worst hit region in the whole world in the early phase of the pandemic in Europe. I understand it may be idealistic to expect a modern Western nation to put the wealth of its economic system aside and actually save human lives. But still.”

Indeed, hospitals in northern Italy saw a surge of 10,000 coronavirus cases in just three weeks in March, overwhelming intensive care units and leading to a shortage of staff and ventilators. Stefanini wasn’t the only Italian to look on, aghast, at Britain’s coronavirus response and wonder why our government failed to heed Italy’s warnings.

Stefanini adds: “Don’t get me wrong, I think being British Prime Minister is one of the hardest jobs in the world right now. It would be tough even if the position was held by a balanced, intelligent individual.”

A balanced, intelligent individual guiding Britain through the pandemic with rational thinking and a clear plan to safeguard people’s health, livelihoods and the economy? Imagine that.

@phoebejanehurst

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