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Keep Calm and Carry On—Right Into a Pandemic

Boris Johnson’s response to the coronavirus has been a disaster. Yet he has never been more popular.

Jack Hill/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

For the past few weeks, it has sometimes felt as if Britain is being governed less by a team of politicians than by a slogan: “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” This mantra, adopted with the nationwide lockdown on March 23 to combat the spread of the coronavirus, is now everywhere—online, on the streets, in the papers. It is repeated by politicians like an incantation, the behavior of an entire society brought under its spell.

Like Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s winning “Get Brexit Done” slogan in the December 2019 election, these words are now imprinted upon society’s subconscious. Now, as then, the message discipline from Conservatives—in stark contrast to the initial, bumbling response to the outbreak—is overseen by Isaac Levido and Ben Guerin, the same strategists who pioneered Johnson’s election win. Their return to Johnson’s team on March 23 was proof that the Conservatives were, once again, in campaign mode. But as the fatal costs of the government’s early response are laid bare, whether the priority of this campaign is saving lives or saving face isn’t always clear.

The criticism aimed at the Conservatives crystallizes in a single question: Britain had a head start on its European neighbors to cope with the crisis—the outbreak arrived on its shores later than in Italy, Spain, Germany, or France—so why is it forecast to be one of the worst-affected countries of the continent?

As of April 21, over 16,000 people have officially died of the coronavirus in the U.K., although new figures released by the Office of National Statistics suggest that the real figure could be as much as 40 percent higher. Even the lower figure is at twice the rate per 100,000 people, for example, as that in Britain’s island companion, Ireland. Critics of that comparison point out that Britain is much more densely populated than Ireland. But that is all the more reason why the British should have acted more quickly. Instead, while large-scale events were being called off by the Irish government in early March, in the U.K. they were going ahead, and even encouraged. Why?

The answer lies in a combination of complacency and carelessness, neatly embodied by the prime minister himself. Indeed, it seemed to befit the government’s cavalier response when, a few days after belatedly announcing a nationwide lockdown, both Johnson and his health secretary, Matt Hancock, tested positive for the virus. But when Johnson’s condition deteriorated—he was sent to hospital on April 5 and then spent three days in intensive care—talk of just deserts was dispelled, and genuine concern across the political divide took its place.

Johnson’s hospitalization was a historic moment, and there was a huge outpouring of emotion, particularly in the right-wing press. “His health is our health,” Allison Pearson, a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and one of Johnson’s most fervent cheerleaders, wrote. “If he can defeat coronavirus, then so can we.” (The Daily Telegraph, where Johnson was recently a columnist, is now dubbed “The Daily Boris” for its unwavering support of the P.M.) But as Johnson recovered, the nation’s condition worsened.

On Friday, April 10, after Johnson had been discharged from intensive care, Britain recorded the highest daily death toll in Europe: 980 lives lost, a figure that didn’t include deaths outside hospital or in nursing homes. “Now that really is a Good Friday,” the front page of The Sun, Britain’s most-read newspaper, declared, celebrating Johnson’s recovery.

Some of the reasons why Britain has fared so badly stretch back years: the current shortage of protective equipment for National Health Service staff and of ventilators, for example, was forecast years ago during pandemic planning sessions. The warnings were left unheeded. Despite the government’s slogan and endless tributes to the NHS, 10 years of Tory austerity have left Britain’s most treasured institution more exposed than protected. At least 100 health workers have died of the coronavirus so far. In some hospitals, staff had to resort to wearing trash bags because they could not access the right clothing.

Other failings, however, have stemmed from remarkable incompetence in crisis management. Britain missed out on joining a European Union scheme to acquire more ventilators, for instance, because, according to the government, emails were being sent to an outdated address.

Britain’s travails with testing, meanwhile, is a story in itself. Despite the instructions from the World Health Organization to “test, test, test” in response to the pandemic, in a recent ranking of 20 countries on testing per population, Britain ranked bottom. On March 18, when 5,779 tests were carried out, Johnson said the government was aiming for 25,000 tests a day. Six days later, Johnson said the government was actually aiming for 250,000 tests a day. He announced the purchase of 3.5 million “game-changer” tests from a company in China. The tests arrived—and none of them worked. 

Matt Hancock now denies 250,000 tests was ever a target: The aim, as ever, he says, is 100,000 a day by the end of the month. On April 21, however, one of Johnson’s aides anonymously briefed The Daily Telegraph and attacked Hancock’s “arbitrary” target. “Hancock’s not had a good crisis,” the anonymous aide said. “The 100,000 figure was Hancock’s idea—but he made that figure up.” There was no mention of Johnson’s 250,000 figure.

And so the circus keeps spinning. At time of writing, Britain is still averaging less than 20,000 tests a day. It’s not clear how an exit strategy can be executed without a significant escalation.

And yet this litany of errors is secondary to the most damning indictment of Johnson: his early, overarching response to the crisis, when precious time was lost. According to a recent exposé on the prime minister in The Sunday Times, Johnson failed to take the pandemic seriously until early March. Between late January and March 2, five Cobra meetings—Britain’s national crisis committee, normally chaired by the prime minister—were held on the coronavirus. Johnson wasn’t present at a single one.

When Johnson was finally roused into action, the government’s approach was still laissez-faire. “One of the theories is that, you know, perhaps you could take it on the chin,” Johnson said in an interview on March 7, days after boasting about how he was still shaking hands with coronavirus patients. Soon, it became clear that this “take it on the chin” theory—officially known as “herd immunity”—was essentially the government’s strategy. The idea, as Johnson explained, was that “you take it all in one go, and allow the disease to move through the population.”

So while neighboring countries introduced “draconian” lockdowns, in Johnson’s words, in Britain, schools, bars, and restaurants remained open, large-scale events went ahead, and the government’s instructions were amiable: Stay at home if you can, and keep washing your hands. It was as if “Keep calm and carry on,” Britain’s stoic, often self-defeating national motto that dates back to the Second World War, had been judged a viable response to the worst health crisis in a generation.

Then, on March 16, a few days after 250,000 people gathered at the  Cheltenham Festival, an annual horse-racing event, Imperial College London scientists published a document that changed the government’s course. According to this study, which also reportedly stirred the U.S. government into more drastic action, the U.K. government’s current approach would result in 250,000 deaths. The government denied, implausibly, that “herd immunity” had ever been part of its strategy. On March 23, in a video address watched by 27 million people, Johnson solemnly announced the nationwide lockdown.

The tone of Johnson’s delivery suggested that now he at least accepted the seriousness of the situation. There were no more jokes about “Operation Last Gasp” (what Johnson had called an initiative to get more ventilators) or “squashing the sombrero” (his version of flattening the curve). But any advantage of time had been lost, along with thousands of lives.

In a different context, in a different country—where the ruling party didn’t possess such a tight grip on national politics, and the majority of the media was not such a fawning accomplice—these failures might be enough to topple a government, or at least put it under sustained pressure. Instead, under Johnson, the Conservatives have rarely looked so ascendant. Johnson’s popularity has rocketed; his party is 20 points ahead in the polls. According a recent survey, public trust in government has gone up. With the Conservative Party already flying high after winning four elections in a row, few believe they will be denied a fifth. That will mean 20 consecutive years in power for the Conservatives—a feat unmatched since the early 1800s.

Around the world, war has been the chosen metaphor for making sense of the pandemic. Despite its shortcomings, it’s apt in certain ways. People’s lives have been turned upside down and, for now, all society’s efforts are geared toward a single goal: staying alive, vanquishing the “invisible enemy.”

In Britain, where mythologized memories of the Second World War are never far from the surface, the enthusiasm for this analogy has been particularly pronounced. Johnson, who has long modeled himself on Britain’s wartime hero, Winston Churchill, and his team have been happy to drum up this wave of national feeling, rallying around the same NHS the Conservatives have long hollowed out.

“Your NHS needs you,” Hancock said on March 24. “We’re making progress in this national battle because the British public formed a human shield around this country’s greatest national asset, our National Health Service,” Johnson declared on Easter Sunday. Amid such rousing, jingoistic rhetoric, which recasts the government’s lackluster strategy as a test of national resolve, the devastating consequences of the crisis—the avoidable deaths, the doctors performing triage in hospitals, the NHS staff risking their lives without proper equipment—start to look like little more than props in a play.