The UK is easing lockdown not because it is safe, but because it can’t face failing to keep up with the neighbours.
Why Open Up Now?
Much of Europe is easing lockdown. Spain has started opening up regions where the virus is now under control. In Italy more than 4million people went back to work last week. In Germany, football might even restart soon.
“UK has old infrastructure, a troubled economy, and has not invested properly in healthcare for a decade”
Of course the UK is in no position to do the same. Hundreds are still dying every day, the virus remains widespread, and virologists have said easing restrictions will lead to more deaths again.
Yet bizarrely the UK is easing restriction anyway – opening up beaches, beauty spots, workplaces and so on. The reason for this is that the public broadly expects the UK to keep up with successful countries and the Government was too cowardly to choose one of two options to protect lockdown and save lives.
Option One: Take The Blame
Government’s first option was to admit it has failed to contain the virus as well as other governments, and thus the UK is not safe to end lockdown yet.
“The UK is nowadays closer in wealth (GDP Per Capita) to Puerto Rico than it is to Holand”
That would take courage. Government started lockdown too late and repeatedly ignored the need for life-saving practices (like isolating sick care home patients) until the press attacked it on such issues. Hence the UK already has the highest official Covid death toll, the highest excess death rate in Europe, and still has higher deaths per day too.
Unsurprisingly, however, the government did not decide to admit it has failed.
Option Two: Admit National Weakness
The second choice was to blame the country, not the government. The UK has old infrastructure, a troubled economy, and has not invested properly in healthcare for a decade – or care homes for even longer. The country’s broader instruments of government, and it’s relative wealth, have also been diminishing over the years.
Unfortunately the government would have been taking a risk to admit these reasons for failure because the Prime Minister’s career is built riding waves of jingoism – playing to the public’s misguided national self impression. So admitting the country is miles behind its neighbours on such things would prove dangerous with his own fans and MPs.
The UK is Like Puerto Rico
Let me help you understand the misguided nature of the British sense of self.
The UK is closer in wealth (GDP Per Capita) to Puerto Rico than it is to Holand, Sweden, Austria or Denmark (and basically all of Northern Europe). By coincidence, Puerto Rico is poorer than the UK by the same % as the UK is poorer than Germany.
“The present government is made up of people who rode that inflated national self-impression to power”
Yet when Coronavirus hit the national consciousness, newspapers reported that Germany had more ICU and ventilator capacity than the UK, without ever mentioning Puerto Rico’s. Likewise the inability of the UK to test people for Covid was compared to much richer Germany’s extensive testing, not much poorer Puerto Rico’s.
Why This Matters
The British don’t think ourselves as a much diminished nation more akin to Puerto Rico than Holland and so on. Just as importantly, we are a North European nation – so even as the poorest North European nation, we look to Northern Europe as our peers and equivalents.
“We don’t have to be as good as other countries, in order to convince ourselves we are.”
The present government is made up of people who rode that inflated national self-impression to power. Remember, they sell the idea that the 28th* (and falling) wealthiest nation can lead the world, and that the UK can be an equal partner even to the USA on trade and diplomacy – despite the UK being smaller and poorer than the USA by the same margin that Portugal is smaller and poorer than the UK.
Surrendering to Fantasy
The Covid response from government has been steeped in this fantasy version of Britain from the start. Early on the Prime Minister talked of the UK being THE country to lead world trade by letting the disease wash over us (killing hundreds of thousands). Downing Street sought British brands to reinvent the wheel (sorry, I mean ventilators) rather than just buy ones that worked. When the UK death toll set new records, the government even lied that Brits werethe best counters of the dead in the world.
“Fortunately, government does appear to know that this is a disastrous decision it is implementing.”
The worst example of playing to this national self-identity, however, was when the Prime Minister declared our loss of tens of thousands of loved ones a “success” the world would look to, even as the world looked down at the UK wondering how it was still failing so badly.
Cowardice and Myopia
This is the context behind looking at Italy, Spain and Germany slowly opening up, overlooking their superior success at controlling coronavirus, and simply assuming we should open up like them.
We simply can’t process that we might not be able to match them because we are in some form proving inferior to them at something.
The government has therefore launched an easing of lockdown without establishing test-trace capabilities, without containing the virus, and without a plan beyond vague graphics. In effect, it knows we don’t have to be as good as other countries, in order to convince ourselves we are.
Ambiguity Might Save Us
Fortunately, government does appear to know that this is a disastrous decision it is implementing. So it has done it seemingly deliberately badly. The slogans are ambiguous, confusing and unclear. The plan itself is vague to say the least. The messaging from Ministers has been contradictory.
This may encourage millions of people to ignore the easing of lockdown and stay home. I’ve spoken to businesses and workers who intend to ignore the reopening because they simply don’t trust the government and know it is not yet safe for customers or clients.
That reality among some, may yet save the country from the worst our fantasies can do to us.
*GDP Per Capita Data – World Bank