The U.K. has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls on earth. What happened?

On Thursday, British prime minister Boris Johnson made a maskless appearance in front of reporters, elbow-bumping with police officers while touting the country’s “massive success” in reducing the death toll of COVID-19.

The “massive success” declaration landed with a hollow thud. Hours later, the Johnson government ordered the surprise lockdown in the North of England to curb spikes in and around the Greater Manchester area. More than 4 million citizens were banned from holding indoor gatherings with neighbors. It comes as the British economy has plunged into what is expected to be the worst recession in 300 years.

The country is still on high alert. With more than 46,000 dead, the U.K. has so far endured a disproportionately high death toll compared to neighboring countries. The U.K.’s own statistics body has confirmed that England alone had the highest numbers of excess deaths of any European nation. Meanwhile, as of July 31, the John Hopkins’ Mortality Analyses puts the U.K. at third in the world in both per-capita, and absolute deaths—where it trails only the U.S. and Brazil. Not good company.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Johnson himself repeatedly claimed throughout the early weeks of the pandemic that the U.K. was better prepared than most, citing the beloved National Health Service and world-leading medical research institutions as calls for calm.

It proved misleading. From scientists to health care workers to regular Britons, the overwhelming conclusion today is that the country effectively sleepwalked into a pandemic. It’s not hard to see how. The populace was burnt out and divided by Brexit. The government too was almost certainly distracted, overconfident, and underprepared.

An Ambulance crosses Westminster Bridge on March 25, 2020 in London, England.
Alex Davidson—Getty Images

“As we all know, the history-making event of 2020 for the U.K. was supposed to be Brexit,” says Tae-Yeoun Keum, an expert in political thought and symbolism at Oxford University.

But, she added, the history teachers of future generations may one day teach the lessons of pandemic-era Britain by noting that it was being run by a government with a singular purpose and little else—to get the U.K. out of the European Union.

“Not,” she said, “for the purposes of handling a once-in-a-century global pandemic.”

“Washing our hands and singing Happy Birthday.”

The turning point in the U.K.’s management of the pandemic occurred in early March.

As the virus engulfed Europe, cases began to rise in the U.K. But the government’s approach quickly diverged from the rest of the region. The prime minister and his advisors opted for moderate measures to halt the virus. Deep down, they appeared to fear the British public wouldn’t tolerate the restrictive lockdown measures being enforced in continental Europe.

The government briefly flirted with the “herd immunity” approach, then abandoned it. Johnson, meanwhile, delayed announcing a lockdown plan even as numbers rose.

It was companies, the public, and even iconic British institutions like the Premier Football League and the Royal Family that stepped out ahead of government advice: cancelling events and sending students and employees home before they were ordered to do so.

The country eventually buckled, and went into lockdown on March 24. The result: the economy stayed shut for longer than most other European countries. But by then the damage was done.

A sign in the window of a Lush store in Liverpool offers a free hand wash service ahead of the U.K.’s late March lockdown.
Peter Byrne—PA Images/Getty Images

“I felt like, as a country, the U.K. wasn’t taking it seriously when the numbers were low,” says David Gilani, an employee in the student experience office at London’s Middlesex University, which closed down ahead of government orders. “Obviously once the numbers were higher, we were taking it more seriously—but by that point, it was too late.”

While other European countries were rushing to enforce stricter and stricter lockdowns, he says, “the U.K. was just washing our hands and singing Happy Birthday.”

Sure enough, Neil Ferguson, a scientific advisor to the government who also leads the infectious outbreak modeling group at Imperial University, admitted that locking the country down one week earlier could have cut the death toll by half. Still, he ultimately defended the government’s actions.

‘It turned out to not be the best by a long shot’

Once the death toll soared in April, there was a new concern: could the country’s national health care system, after enduring years of funding cuts, truly cope with a wave of COVID-19 cases?

It was quickly revealed frontline medical workers were doing battle with a fatal shortage of protective equipment. Adding to the problem, wide-scale testing at the start was way behind schedule. By April, health secretary Matt Hancock, facing a testing record that trailed rival nations, blamed the U.K.’s record on a small diagnostics industry, and pledged to build one “at scale.” 

NHS staff holds a wreath as a part of a silent protest over shortages of protective equipment in hospitals outside the gates of the prime minister’s residence in London during the weekly ‘Clap for our Carers’ applause for the NHS and key workers, on May 28, 2020.
Wiktor Szymanowicz—Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the toll of the virus was hitting the country’s essential workers, from healthcare workers to transit drivers, as well as Black and Asian Britons, disproportionately hard. A government study found that Black men, for example, were more than four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white men, largely due to socio-economic factors.

The missteps loomed larger for a government that had lost its standing with the British people over a Brexit negotiation that had spun on for years and accomplished so little.

The U.K. has long prided itself on the world-beating class of its public institutions, says David Edgerton, a historian and author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A 20th Century History. But those institutions have “turned out not to be the best by a long shot, and that’s very politically significant,” he says. “It is turning into a pretty general crisis of the British state.”

“Boris is brilliant at distracting the country”

The low point came on March 27. That’s when the British government informed the public that Johnson had tested positive for coronavirus. He was rushed into intensive care at a London hospital, and for a month, the prime minister was largely out of public sight.

Johnson’s illness left a gaping power vacuum at the top of the government—because Britain does not have a deputy prime minister, the daily press conferences rotated between the cabinet members, with little clarity about who in government actually had the final word.

While the illness rallied public sympathy around the prime minister, his absence exposed a leadership void in his own cabinet. It also made clear how much the country had become reliant on Johnson’s great talents: using humor, and a preference for grandiose, patriotic symbolism, to speak to the hearts of the public—while glossing over any real detail of an emergency plan.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street in London on April 27, as he returned to work after recovering from coronavirus.
Stefan Rousseau—PA Images via Getty Images

Much of that approach is wrapped up in Johnson’s singular communication style: casual, catchy, loose on the details, and often dismissive. He frequently frames his critics’ concerns—whether over Brexit negotiations, or the pandemic—as over-reactions. Throughout the lead-up to the lockdown, for example, he frequently re-framed the call to “flatten the curve” as an effort to “squash the sombrero.” It was a jarring joke that stood out amid updates on rising death tolls.

“Boris is brilliant at kind of distracting the country,” says Emily Foyle, a senior critical care nurse in England’s southwest. “To make jokes, make light of things, redirect things—that’s his political strategy.”

“I don’t know what ‘stay alert’ means”

After resuming public life after his recovery, Johnson set out to map out how the country would emerge from lockdown.

That resulted in a much-mocked televised address to switch the country from the clear directive of “stay at home” to the commandment “stay alert.”

Johnson has frequently employed catchphrases, including when he swung to a majority government in December on the catchy pledge to “Get Brexit Done.” But this time, the message confounded.

Government advertisement boards advise the public to “stay alert” to the symptoms of COVID-19 in Birmingham, England on June 2, 2020. Credit: Mike Kemp—In Pictures via Getty Images.
Mike Kemp—In PIctures/Getty Images

“I don’t know what ‘stay alert’ means,” retorted Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, adding that she had learned of the change from the newspapers. Sturgeon ordered Scots to ignore Johnson, and continue to stay home. Like Wales and Northern Ireland, Scotland chose to set its own pace, revealing that throughout the staggered reopening, Johnson frequently spoke for England alone. 

Though regional divisions have dogged nearly every country during the pandemic, those divisions in the U.K. exist between nations with their own distinct identities—and echo the ways the Brexit vote had carved up the country into differing visions for the futures: England, for example, voted to leave the EU. Scotland voted to stay. 

When Johnson’s government did opt for detail, it was too detailed. The U.K.’s reopening plan, for example, produced darkly comedic levels of confusion: from the rules for seeing family members one at a time, to restrictions on loud conversations in pubs.

Throughout, Johnson’s appeal to the wisdom of “British common sense” was a defining theme, Oxford’s Keum says, in a way that was frequently evoked in relation to Brexit.

“The story advanced by the Brexit campaign has in many ways been a story of British exceptionalism on the one hand, and a story of validating the world views of the mythical everyman on the other,” she says. 

“Both these stories have resurfaced in some form in the government’s pandemic response. Only this time, the ideas informing the government’s response about what people want to hear appears to have been misjudged.”

An “audit of the nation”

Weighing the U.K.’s response to the pandemic back in mid-June, Raj Bhopal, an emeritus professor of public health at Edinburgh University, noted that the retrospectoscope is “a wonderful instrument—but it was never invented.”

In a pandemic, hindsight is always 20:20, and no government on earth has come off perfectly from a crisis that has frequently presented no good choices—only bad ones.

But to abandon hindsight entirely would be a dangerous exercise, as countries face the prospect of social distancing measures and lockdowns that will last for months, even years, making learning from past choices a crucial exercise. 

And though statistical differences do exist in how countries collect data, Johnson has consistently misrepresented the country’s high death toll as a statistical misunderstanding, flogging a message of patriotic “success” despite evidence to the contrary. The efforts harken back to an unwillingness to compromise, or to level honestly with the British public, that has become all-too-familiar in the years of Brexit-era purgatory, as an uncertain and badly divided public has attempted to feel its way towards a clearer political future.

A member of the clinical staff wears personal protective equipment (PPE) as she cares for a patient at the Intensive Care unit at Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, on May 5, 2020.

It’s a worrying picture that has implications not just for public trust and safety, but for the strength of the bond between the union of nations at Britain’s core—and for the country’s larger standing in the world.

“I think it’s made very clear the deficiencies of the British state, the British administration, the welfare state, the capacity for the rational political discourse of the elite,” said Edgerton. “It really shows the reality of Britain’s place in the world. After both Brexit and COVID-19, no informed person, no semi-informed person, could maintain that Britain is one of the leading countries in the world.”

The current moment is ripe for an “audit of the nation,” he warned. “It’s wake up time.”

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