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Covid-19: The British response

opinionCovid-19: The British response

Nearly a million people have applied for government support in the period since most workers were asked to stay at home.  

LONDON: Countries across the globe are being challenged as rarely before by the Covid-19 pandemic. The United Kingdom may lay claim to being one of the world’s oldest democracies, but it is undergoing some difficult debates about the delicate balance between social measures deployed to prevent the spread of the virus, and the rights of the individual. As the death toll increases, it is also becoming clear that the economic cost of the restrictions placed on commercial life will be shattering—nearly a million people, for example, have applied for government support in the period since most workers were asked to stay at home.
How different things looked just a few months ago, when Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party enjoyed a decisive electoral victory. Whilst the challenge of delivering Brexit and an outward facing Britain remained, the limpet-like resistance of those who refused to accept the 2016 EU membership referendum result had been washed away. For many, Johnson’s biggest challenge was maintaining the new electoral coalition he had developed, ranging through groups as diverse as the suburban middle classes, former Labour voters in working class areas of Wales, the north of England and the midlands, and British Indians uncomfortable with a Labour party that was seen as overly sympathetic to Islamists.
Whilst a different ideological creature to Donald Trump, Boris Johnson provokes a similar, emotional reaction within his opponents. At times during this crisis, the Prime Minister has appeared conscious of the refusal of a section of the electorate to accept his premiership. He has preferred to lead with a concentration on scientific evidence, and the need to protect the National Health Service. Before being taken ill himself with the virus, Johnson often appeared next to the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. At times the weight of responsibility has been present—the jokes and boyish enthusiasm, which endeared the Prime Minister to so many, and were his greatest asset in political campaigning, have been absent. In contrast, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has looked a bigger political beast with each outing, receiving plaudits for taking decisive action to try to protect an economy in its weakest position since the dark days of the Second World War.
Liberal democracies are uncomfortable fighting wars or terrorists. Across Europe, Covid-19 is having as great an effect. The strategy of social distancing—in effect asking people to remain in their homes wherever possible—has uprooted the personal and economic relationships we all profit from. Flashpoints soon emerged—deadly prison riots in Italy, with similar disturbances in France. Scenes of panic buying in British supermarkets were followed by fake news footage from the 2011 London riots began circulating on community WhatsApp groups, as if it were of contemporary events. On 23 March there was an attempt to start a riot in the Southmead area of Bristol, with food delivery vans burnt out.
Such events provide a huge challenge to the authorities, and in particular, the police. In areas of high population density, the presence of large numbers of people confined to small places, and with restricted access to many of the distractions that normally alleviate the pressures of daily life, ensures the problem of maintaining social order exists. Given new powers to close non-essential businesses, detain anyone they consider to be infectious, and restrict public movement and gatherings, UK police forces are operating in a completely different environment to anything serving officers have known before. The burden upon them, in terms of working hours and the need to update their understanding of new guidelines and laws, is significant. And perhaps not surprisingly, they have at times either got it wrong, or made decisions that are deeply controversial.
On 26 March, Derbyshire police used drones to monitor a small number of ramblers and dog walkers in the Peak District, an extremely rural area of green fields and hilltops. None of them seemed to be breaking guidance on social distancing, but their journeys to the countryside by car were judged “unnecessary”. The dissemination of a police video on social media, highlighting the individuals concerned, was followed by the same police force using black dye to dirty the water at a Buxton beauty spot famed for its transparent water. This was apparently necessary to deter visitors.
Nor are the famous and powerful exempt from such meddling. Stephen Kinnock MP and his wife, the former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt travelled from south Wales to London to congratulate Kinnock’s father, the Labour politician Neil Kinnock, on his 78th birthday. They observed social distancing rules, did not embrace, and posted an image of themselves sitting some distance apart in Neil Kinnock’s front garden. South Wales police responded vociferously, tweeting a public condemnation of Stephen Kinnock’s actions, leading to renewed debate as to where our personal freedoms stand in this crisis. Here, that most British, and perhaps most undefinable of qualities, common sense, appeared to be lacking.
In times of war, and during the fight against terrorism, a recurring debate is whether we can fight to maintain our values and our way of life, whilst at the same time reducing or even curtailing some of those freedoms. The struggle against Covid-19 evokes all of those debates, but unlike the Second World War, does not concern a foreign enemy like the Nazis. More recent conflicts, with the Irish Republican Army or Islamist terrorists, have been fought against fringe elements within minority communities. Today, the enemy is not only unseen, but is being countered by a government response which asks us all to surrender economic and personal freedoms that have existed for generations. These restrictions hit at our core—the work we do, and the family lives we cherish. It may be some time yet before we see Boris Johnson laughing and joking again.

Dr Paul Stott is a Research Fellow in the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society in London. He tweets @MrPaulStott
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