The Sick Man of Europe
By Stuart Millson, moonlighting again
Engulfed by 220,000 Covid-19 infections and with a death toll to date of 32,000 souls, the United Kingdom has, in the current pandemic, truly become the “sick man of Europe” – the evocative phrase used in the 19th-century to describe the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Second only to the United States in its rate of infection and overtaking the former viral epicentres of Italy and Spain, Britain’s ability to deal with the virulent virus now sweeping the world has been, at best, ineffective. Despite the magnificent efforts of the National Health Service – not to mention the work of the British Army in building a temporary hospital in just nine days – our country’s response has been found wanting.
Despite the examples before us of countries such as New Zealand and Taiwan, which had the foresight to immediately close their airports, thereby preventing the circulation of the disease and its possible circulation back to countries not yet infected, the United Kingdom – with the agreement of its scientists and public health officials – allowed its runways to remain open. Only now, a month after the disease was given time to embed itself, has the Government finally decided to apply quarantine rules to airport travellers – a classic example of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted. [Editorial note; travellers quarantined accordingly will be trusted to isolate themselves!]
The British public, meanwhile, has been shocked by the fact that protective equipment for NHS and care staff has been in dangerously short supply – with reports suggesting that the Government failed to plan for a scenario in which this country succumbed to a major health emergency within a short time. One thinks back to the Crimean War; to 1916, when our army in France ran short of shells; and to the years 1939 and 1940, when an air armada was massing across the Channel, while the RAF was equipped with little more than 500 planes. Does Britain never learn from its mistakes? Will we never renounce this delusion that “it-cannot-happen-to-us”?
In the last month, the Government – by dint of its relentless “stay at home” message to the public, has at least succeeded in “slowing” the progress of the Coronavirus. By confining ourselves to our living rooms and our gardens (if we have them) and by shutting shops and offices, the disease – to use a motoring analogy – is now travelling at 30-40 mph, rather than 80. At the outset of the crisis, the UK’s Chief Scientific authority stated that a fatality figure of 20,000 (terrible in itself) would represent, in the scheme of things, a favourable outcome. We have now gone far beyond that figure and continue to edge forward to the “worst-case-scenario” of 40,000 deaths. So it was indeed a surprise when on the evening of the 11th May, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced to the country a confusing watering-down of his earlier instruction to remain at home.
Without briefing the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK Government’s newly-calibrated and supposedly “nuanced” message of “staying alert” when venturing out to garden centres or even to our places of work, has prompted a crisis in the battle against the disease – and in the affairs of the United Kingdom itself. Boris Johnson’s apparently unilateral statement (Scotland’s First Minister reportedly only heard of the change of policy through reading last weekend’s newspapers) has created a situation whereby two thirds of the island of Great Britain is no longer endorsing British Government health policy.
Resolutely and rightly, in the view of this commentator, keeping to the original “stay at home” policy, the devolved governments have arguably exhibited a greater sense of community compared to Whitehall, with its preoccupation with the health of the economy – and most certainly a difference in political expression. For we are now witnessing the birth of a genuinely national, counter-UK impulse, certainly in Wales and Scotland (less so in traditionally Unionist Ulster) – a desire to look after the health and well-being of their citizens – to take on the responsibility for true self-government, having decided that the UK is unfit for the task. Fuelled by Westminster’s failure to consult over Covid-19 – the fragmentation of the United Kingdom seems more real than ever before.
It seems absurd that on a borderless island, two of the constituent nations of the country now have different public health policies from that of their larger neighbour, England – and at a time when we collectively face a scourge that knows no borders. This is not just a failure of communication, but a failure of our political structure and the management of our tottering state. If we escape from this pandemic any time soon, the political class will be compelled not just to undertake a thorough reappraisal of our health and emergency planning, but to address the need for a fair, federal system – for clear-cut responsibilities and powers for all of our constituent nations, including England. The days of edicts from Westminster and the rule of “experts” are over. The landscape has surely changed forever.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of QR