‘Complacent’ UK draws global criticism for Covid-19 response

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British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in central London on March 29, 2017. British Prime Minister Theresa May will formally launch Brexit today after signing the letter to begin the country's departure from the European Union. / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL

Opinion writers from Italy to Australia attack ‘stupidity’ and label Boris Johnson incompetent

Jon Henley and Guardian correspondents

From Italy to Australia, critics have accused a “complacent” British government of “massively underestimating” the gravity of the coronavirus crisis after the UK reported the highest death toll in Europe.

While Rai Uno, the Italian state broadcaster’s flagship channel, gave prominent play to the news that Britain had recorded “more than 32,000 deaths, the highest total in Europe exceeding even Italy”, the Corriere della Serra daily went a good way further.

The situation in the UK was “like a nightmare from which you cannot awake, but in which you landed because of your own fault or stupidity”, the influential liberal-conservative paper said, adding that Britain seemed “a prisoner of itself”.

The country that was “the most reluctant in Europe to impose a lockdown has become the most cautious to start reopening”, with public opinion frightened of the consequences and Boris Johnson eager to avoid breaking Italy’s “sad record”.

Experts have warned against direct international comparisons of Covid-19 death tolls, saying different counting methods and many other factors make such exercises unreliable and it may take months if not years to draw firm conclusions.

However, Beppe Severgnini, an opinion writer on Corriere della Sera, said it seemed clear Britain had “lost the advantage that fate and Italy gave it – for example, the first two weeks of the outbreak in Italy when it was obvious the virus was spreading”.

The British government “did not pay enough attention to what was happening here, while Germany responded very well”, Severgnini said. “The two great British virtues – understatement and grace under fire – have turned out to not be a blessing.”

He said the UK was served neither by “a very weak cabinet” nor Johnson’s character: “He’s not Trump, though there is something similar in their approaches, but in this kind of challenge you need to really work hard on details. He’s not a details person.”

Beyond Italy – where the Covid-19 death toll, which does not include suspected cases, is just over 29,000 – German commentators were also critical. Britain has emerged as Europe’s “problem child” of the Covid-19 crisis, the DPA news agency’s London correspondent Christoph Meyer wrote.

“Only a few weeks ago, Britain had the reputation of a country in which the coronavirus was only spreading cautiously,” Meyer wrote in an opinion piece published in several newspapers in Germany and Austria.

“Politicians were already slapping each other on their backs and praising the health system, which was better prepared for the pandemic than any other country in the world. But that has quickly revealed itself to be a fallacy … There are now many signs that the government in London massively underestimated the pandemic.”

In a piece this week drawing on the British prime minister’s frequent deployment of classical allusions, the London correspondent of Spain’s left-leaning El País queried suggestions that the prime minister was some latter-day Odysseus.

“The conservative press tries to present Johnson as a man of reborn wisdom”, whose experience of Covid-19 had led him to “lash himself to the mast to resist the siren calls” of those demanding the lockdown be lifted soon, wrote Rafa de Miguel.

“In fact, it’s far from clear whether such determination is the fruit of careful calculation – or the result of simply closing one’s eyes when there’s no other option.”

Officials in Greece, which has been widely praised for its handling of the pandemic, have watched London’s handling of the crisis with disbelief, with epidemiologists also criticising the UK government’s initial embrace of a “herd immunity” policy.

The progressive daily Ethnos described Johnson as “more dangerous than coronavirus”, saying one of the crisis’s greatest tragedies was that “incompetent leaders” such as Johnson and Donald Trump were “at the helm at a time of such emergency”.

Before changing tack, Johnson “had gone out and essentially asked Britons … to accept death”, wrote the columnist Giorgos Skafidas.

Irish commentators also expressed dismay at the UK’s record. “Ministers of slim talent have bumbled through daily briefings and now big business-Conservative donors are impatient to reverse a shutdown so contrary to Brexiteer dreams,” Fionnuala O’Connor wrote in the broadly nationalist Irish News.

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Outside Europe, criticism has been strongest in Australia and New Zealand, both of which imposed strict, early lockdowns and have contained their outbreaks. Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, said no country that had pursued herd immunity had achieved it, describing the strategy as a “death sentence”.

David Hunter, an Australian-educated professor of epidemiology and medicine at Oxford University, told the conservative Sydney Morning Herald the British response was “not a model to follow. It has one of the worst epidemics in Europe and the world … Some aspects of the response have almost certainly contributed to the high mortality”.

Hunter particularly criticised the British decision – in contrast to Australia and New Zealand – not to close its borders early. Mike Rann, a former Australian high commissioner to Britain, told the paper Britain had “handled the earliest stages negligently”, lamenting “a shambles of mixed messaging, poor organisation and a complacent attitude that what was happening in Italy wouldn’t happen here”.

A UK government spokesperson said: “This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided by the best scientific advice.

“The government has been working day and night to battle coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed to protect our NHS and save lives. Herd immunity has never been a policy or goal.”

Additional reporting by Angela Giuffrida, Philip Oltermann, Sam Jones, Helena Smith and Rory Carroll

 

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