Coronavirus: Britain on the brink

Britain’s Brexiteer government may be relearning the value of expertise – if only slowly.  

Senior Policy Fellow
Kuhlmann / MSC CC BY

Events in Britain are now moving very fast. Only eight days ago, the finance minister unveiled an annual budget promising hundreds of billions for infrastructure investment – and £12 billion for the coronavirus crisis. Less than a week later, all that was consigned to history. The government made a new “whatever it takes” financial package available, with hundreds of billions in loans and guarantees made available to help businesses large and small weather the immediate crisis, and mortgage holidays for homeowners. Two days ago, it was the turn of renters to be reassured that evictions for non-payment will be suspended – and schools were told to close from the weekend. And yesterday, there was widespread speculation that London (Britain’s Lombardy, it seems) will soon be properly locked down.

In times of crisis, everyone wants to believe that the government is on top of the situation, as far as is humanly possible. And the government is working hard to project that image. Boris Johnson, invisible during recent floods, is now doing daily press conferences flanked by the country’s top medics (“Boris and the boffins”, as the show is termed). A government of Brexiteers that so disdained “experts” has rediscovered their value; every move (and every delay), we are assured, is governed by “the science”. Also rediscovered is the value of public service broadcasting, with tacit suspension of the government’s vendetta against the BBC.

There is a widespread sense that Boris Johnson is not quite levelling with Britons

But it would take a prime minister with greater personal credibility than Johnson to dispel the widespread sense that he is not quite levelling with Britons. Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar told our neighbours “this is the calm before the storm”; there has been no such candour here. Yet those with contacts in the health service hear that hospitals are being quietly emptied of existing patients, “ready or not” – and that the working assumption is that the inadequate number of intensive care beds will not be available to those aged over 70. Nationally, we have been slower than European neighbours in moving up the escalatory ladder of counter-measures – it is hard not to sense relative unpreparedness. Major efforts are now being made to increase the supply of testing kits and ventilators; frontline medical staff, many still without proper protective kit, are being assured that it is in the pipeline. But a national health system that has been underfunded during a decade of austerity (and is short of 50,000 nurses) is not looking like a picture of resilience.

Another issue on which the government looks behind the curve is the fate of Britain’s almost five million “self-employed” – everyone from taxi drivers to workers in the burgeoning gig economy. If they have to self-isolate, they will not even qualify for the paltry £94 a week of sick pay that their employed peers will receive. In a society in which one-quarter of adults have no savings, and new applicants for unemployment benefits have to wait five weeks for a first payment, the government needs to move rapidly to the sort of direct payments already being introduced in some Scandinavian countries, and even, it seems, in the United States.

Of course, this is an unprecedented crisis; it is all too easy to be critical; and governments cannot do everything at once. But the current refusal to accept that we must now seek an extension to the Brexit transition period is a reminder that we are governed by hard Brexiteers, who up to this point have shown no great sympathy for, or even understanding of, the less privileged in our unequal society. So the hope must be that, whatever else comes out of this crisis, we will see a rediscovery of the value of community and solidarity – and an acceptance that the last decade’s strategy of repairing the national finances at the expense of public spending and the poor, while cutting the taxes of the well-to-do, has gone too far.

At the local level, it is certainly encouraging to see community initiatives springing up to support the elderly and vulnerable. This is only what you would expect in a society that prides itself on its tradition of “all pulling together” (see the second world war, passim). Less admirable has been the bizarre panic buying of toilet paper. But at least a sense of humour persists: the new front cover of the satirical magazine Private Eye splashes “48 Sheets of Toilet Paper Free With This Issue!”

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow