Boris Johnson thought he could handle Brexit and believed British exceptionalism would protect the country from the coronavirus. He was wrong on both counts.
By Jörg Schindler in London
It was shortly before 10 p.m. on the evening of Jan. 31, 2020, when an unusually statesmanlike Boris Johnson addressed his countrymen by video. Outside, on the dark brick façade of 10 Downing Street, a huge countdown clock had just begun ticking. In Whitehall, the government buildings were illuminated in the national colors.
Thousands of people had gathered on Parliament Square carrying beer bottles and waving flags to celebrate what many were calling “Independence Day.” Just one hour later – midnight on the European continent – a dream would come true for which half of the country had been excitedly waiting for three-and-a-half years. But despite the celebratory atmosphere, the mood in the government quarter was surprisingly aggressive.
“Tonight, we are leaving the European Union,” Johnson said to all those watching from home. It is, he continued, an “astonishing moment of hope,” the moment when “the curtain goes up on a new act in our great national drama.”
What Johnson didn’t say, and what the Brexit partiers on the streets weren’t particularly worried about: Just hours before, officials in the northern England city of York had registered the first proven case in the United Kingdom of the novel coronavirus, which had been causing so much tumult in Asia. Two Chinese citizens, one of them a university student in York, had tested positive.
That was the beginning of what has turned out to be the most important British drama of 2020. And it got its start in a nondescript apartment complex some 340 kilometers northeast of London in a flat costing around 69 euros per night. That is where the two students lived.
Making the Pandemic Worse
Today, three-quarters of a year after the party outside 10 Downing Street, not many in Britain are in a celebratory mood. No other country in Europe has seen as many deaths (in absolute terms) from COVID-19 and no other developed country has been hit as hard economically. And the economic troubles will get worse once the UK, following a year-long transition period, finally completes its separation from the EU at the end of this year– whether the discordant negotiating teams from London and Brussels are able to complete a free-trade deal or not. Such a deal must be completed by mid-November so that enough time remains for the 27 EU member states to ratify it by the end of the year.
If the negotiators are successful, the first months of 2021 will be bad. If they aren’t, they’ll be worse.
Brexit and corona: After almost four-and-a-half years of tension and worry, Britain is tired. The two crises are not obviously connected, but they are actually linked to a far greater degree than the leaders in London would like to admit. And there are numerous indications that the suffering experienced by the British isn’t just the result of events beyond their control. Indeed, the two crises have been accentuated by the same source of incompetence: 10 Downing Street. Even worse, it has seemed on several occasions that Brexit has made the pandemic even worse than it might otherwise have been.
The history of the deadly dual crisis began in October 2016 with Operation Cygnus, a three-day exercise organized by the National Health Service (NHS) to see how well prepared the country was for a possible epidemic. For years, according to the 2008 National Risk Register, the government has believed that a pandemic posed the greatest risk to domestic peace in the country, greater even than the oft-evoked danger from (Islamist) terrorism.
The results of Operation Cygnus were not encouraging, with the simulated battle against the imagined flu pandemic ending in disaster. It showed those in positions of responsibility acting lost and frequently changing course, the hospitals lacking protective equipment for staff and ventilators for patients, and infection numbers rising rapidly. The conclusion of the exercise was that the UK was not prepared “to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic.”
The findings had the potential to alarm the public in addition to sensitizing them to the risk. But the people of Britain learned essentially nothing about the exercise, with all of the expert recommendations disappearing into the government’s desk drawer.
No Matter What the Price
After all, they had other challenges to deal with at the time. Just four months had passed since the Brexit referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron had resigned, and his successor Theresa May was trying to find order in the chaos. Nobody had seriously thought that the British would actually vote to leave the European Union and the government was completely unprepared for the massive task that it now faced.
May hectically restructured the government, establishing a Department for Exiting the European Union and staffing it with hundreds of officials reassigned from other ministries, including from the Department of Health. The government’s entire focus was redirected toward Brexit and everything else found itself short of attention, people and money. “Every government can only cope with a single large crisis at once,” says a Tory parliamentarian today. “Ours was Brexit.”
In July 2019, after an exhausted May was shown the door, Boris Johnson took over. Even many conservatives considered Johnson to be an egomaniacal lightweight, but they felt that with his boisterous optimism, he was best equipped to push through Brexit and lead the Tories to yet another election victory. No matter what the price.
And Johnson delivered. Yet when filling his cabinet posts, he showed little interest in competence, instead prioritizing their devotion to the gospel of Brexit. He tapped Dominic Cummings, mastermind of the pro-Brexit campaign, as his chief adviser and had him launch a vendetta against the allegedly pro-EU civil service. He sidelined numerous experienced Tories and had some of them thrown out of the party. He sided with conservative Brexit hardliners and self-proclaimed freedom fighters who wanted nothing more to do with the EU.
Furthermore, as one of his first moves in office, Johnson eliminated the subcommittee responsible for pandemic response within the National Security Council. In the eyes of the prime minister, the greatest threat facing the nation at this point in time was EU sympathists both within and outside his party.
Then winter arrived. The news from the Chinese city of Wuhan came at a bad time for Johnson. He had just won an election and wasn’t far from the formal completion of Brexit. The “Global Britain” that he had promised the country seemed to be within reach. The world, he promised, was waiting for an unleashed UK – and suddenly the narrative shifted to constraints, cutbacks and closed borders.
“Beyond What Is Medically Rational”
It was the exact opposite of the Brexit dream he had conjured, and Johnson didn’t shy away from saying as much. In a speech in Greenwich on Feb. 3, he gushed about the unlimited possibilities for the “independent actor” Britain would become and said the “bizarre autarkic rhetoric” about barriers going up due to the coronavirus “goes beyond what is medically rational.”
A short time later, on Feb. 14, he began a 12-day “working holiday” with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds at the country estate of Chevening in Kent. He interrupted the escape for a gala event of the Tory party, for which a tennis match with the prime minister had been auctioned off for 60,000 pounds. But he elected to skip a meeting of Cobra, the crisis team focused on the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, between the end of January and the end of February, Johnson ended up staying away from all five Cobra meetings.
Still, in late February, he proclaimed that battling the pandemic was his government’s top priority. But that didn’t prevent him from announcing to the public that he had just visited a hospital with no protection and shaken hands “with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.”
Finally, on March 7, two days before Italy would announce a countrywide lockdown, Johnson and his fiancé went to a rugby match in Twickenham Stadium – along with 80,000 others. Images from that visit show the prime minister eagerly shaking hands with the players.
“Boris Johnson was so fixated on Brexit that he ignored all the warnings,” Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the medical journal The Lancet told DER SPIEGEL. The result, he says, was that pretty much all of February passed by – a month used by other European countries to prepare – with very little happening in the UK. “We didn’t increase our testing capacity, instead doing exactly the opposite. We were told that testing wasn’t important. We didn’t procure enough personal protective equipment. We didn’t adequately prepare the NHS. We didn’t protect our care homes, leading to a lot of people dying there. We failed at all levels.” There is, says Horton, “no reasonable excuse.”
Johnson seemed to only come to his senses in the middle of March, at a time when more and more EU countries were implementing lockdowns and other measures and when case numbers in the UK rose into the four figures for the first time. Yet to the surprise of his European neighbors and the World Health Organization, Johnson again chose a unique path. Johnson’s top scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said the government wouldn’t attempt to stop the spread of the virus. “Our aim,” he said, “is to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease.”
A lockdown also wasn’t under consideration for the time being, said Johnson, adding that he considered it an “inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub.” They were the words of a man who views freedom, particularly his own, as the absolute priority. Years previously, Johnson had identified the fictitious mayor of Amity in “Jaws” as an idol of his. In one scene of the Hollywood blockbuster, the mayor insists on keeping the beaches open despite the massive great white patrolling the waters off the coast. “As you can see, it’s a beautiful day. The beaches are opened, and people are having a wonderful time.”
In this first phase of the pandemic, in other words, Britain’s fate was in the hands of a man who had always managed to somehow bend reality to his worldview. A man who had made British exceptionalism into the core of his brand. The problem was, however, that the virus couldn’t be eliminated by force of will.
Almost every measure deployed by the British government in this pandemic seems to have been shaped by “a refusal to do the obvious thing,” wrote the Irish author Fintan O’Toole in the New Statesman. The UK, he continued, had had plenty of time to learn from other countries, to copy their successes and avoid their mistakes. “But that would be to admit the one thing that cannot be conceded: that Britain is pretty much like most other countries. The coronavirus had to be seen instead as an opportunity to demonstrate British difference and British greatness.”
An example from mid-April demonstrates the degree to which the desire to prove the UK’s superiority guided the steps taken by the government. At the time, it was revealed that Britain had declined an offer from the EU to jointly purchase masks and protective equipment, which were in short supply across the globe.
When journalists asked about the decision, the government became entangled in contradictions. At one point, it was claimed that the email from Brussels wasn’t received, another time it was said that the mail went to the incorrect recipient. Finally, in late April, a top Foreign Office official let slip that it had been a “political decision.” Hours later, he then retracted that statement and said there had been a “misunderstanding.”
The episode was hardly an outlier. In the months that followed, Johnson would revive the Brexit playbook and repeatedly emphasize his country’s exceptionalism. Britain, he promised, would develop the “best testing program in the world.” To this day, however, he still hasn’t admitted that it doesn’t really work and that the British have even been forced to send tests to Germany and Italy for evaluation.
He also proclaimed that the country’s corona app would be purely British and superior to all others. The end result, though – as he has been careful not to mention – has been a defective app that was produced with significant assistance from Silicon Valley in the U.S. For Boris Johnson, O’Toole writes, “saving lives is not a common human task, it is a competition in which Team Britain must take the gold.”
Ultimately, Boris Johnson has only beat the others in two aspects of this pandemic. He became the first head of government to become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, ahead of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the U.S.
And, by the end of August, when the number of coronavirus infections finally began to (temporarily) fall in the UK as well, an official total of 45,000 people in Britain had died of COVID-19. A short time later, the government would employ a statistical trick to reduce that total by 5,000, but even then, no other country had seen a larger total of coronavirus deaths by the end of the summer.
According to statistical models produced by former government adviser Neil Ferguson, many of those deaths could easily have been prevented – if Johnson had reacted faster and more decisively. An epidemiologist at Imperial College London, Ferguson is certain that if Johnson had ordered the lockdown just four days earlier than he did – on March 23 – “only half as many would have died.”
“If we could repeat history, that would the one decision that we would have to change,” Ferguson told DER SPIEGEL.
Johnson, though, regrets nothing. He says he is “very proud” of his government’s record on coronavirus, he said in June. And once the pandemic began rampantly spreading again in the fall, he started making one empty promise after the other. He also began to increasingly ignore the advice of experts, which he claimed to have meticulously followed for several months. And the rules he and his government imposed grew increasingly confusing and the rationale ever more erratic.
What Johnson either didn’t realize or intentionally ignored: He was gambling away the most important currency that governments have in times of crisis – the trust of their citizens. It evaporated almost completely in the affair surrounding Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief strategist. Whereas the British had spent months practically under house arrest, an infected Cummings drove across the entire country, only to then try to justify his repeated rules violations with outrageous excuses.
An Astounding Army of Enemies
He claimed that he undertook one of the excursions only to test his eyesight and his ability to drive – with his wife and child in the car. Despite the absurdity of the excuse, Johnson kept him on. After all, the prime minister needs Cummings, who is seen as the primary visionary for Britain’s post-Brexit future.
After the scandal, though, even other Conservatives became fed up. According to a recent survey, not even a third of Tories feel that Johnson is doing a good job responding to the corona crisis.
On top of that, Johnson has found himself in a number of conflicts. One of those has saw the prime minister at odds for several weeks with mayors in northern England. Because the government in London didn’t manage to produce a credible exit strategy and denied economic assistance, northern mayors refused to implement strict lockdown measures for millions of people. Ultimately, Johnson forced them to do so.
The Welsh government even threatened to close the border to England in order to keep out people suffering from COVID-19. In Scotland, meanwhile, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has emerged as the complete opposite of Johnson with her consistent and transparent corona strategy. Never before have surveys recorded as much support for Scottish independence as they do at the moment. And rarely has the United Kingdom been as disunited as it is under Boris Johnson’s leadership.
Johnson has even faced several rebellions in the House of Commons from his own party and the House of Lords is also opposed to the Johnson government on key issues. Even conservative media outlets have begun speculating openly about the prime minister’s political death. Indeed, the man about whom his biographers say he wants to be liked by everybody has managed to generate an astounding army of enemies.
And then there is that pesky little issue known as Brexit. London and Brussels have under eight weeks left to produce a treaty governing their future relations once the Brexit transition period comes to an end. A free-trade agreement is within reach, though a treaty text must be ready for ratification by the middle of November at the absolute latest. Yet Johnson is continuing to disrupt the negotiations even at this late date. His problem: With or without a treaty, there will almost certainly be long traffic jams leading into Dover in the first several months of next year, including supply chain interruptions for a number of industries, including for vital medical drugs and supplies.
But Johnson needs a triumph, or at least something he can sell as a triumph. As a result, some in London are seriously considering allowing a no-deal Brexit initially, somehow muddling through the first months of 2021 and then forcing the EU back to the negotiating table in the hopes of receiving better conditions.
The risks would be huge. Right in the middle of winter and likely at the apex of the second corona wave, the prime minister would bet everything on a single card, with an uncertain outcome. Economists and medical experts alike say that doing such a thing would be irresponsible and could result in what Jonathan Portes, an economics professor at King’s College in London, describes as a “perfect storm.” But if there is one thing this year of competing crises has shown us, it’s that Boris Johnson is a gambler.
Even if he is wagering with human lives.