London – Rival soccer teams in Germany’s Bundesliga clash in an empty stadium, Italians meet for socially distant restaurant dining and tourists are visiting the Acropolis again. Things are reopening in Europe.
Not so much in Britain. Here, the lifting of restrictions has been a source of bitter controversy, confusion and nervousness. Britons may be pouring into parks and hitting the roads again, but 46 percent say the recent limited changes to lockdown rules go too far. Just one in 10 says the lifting of restrictions doesn’t go far enough. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have refused to follow England’s reopening plans.
For some Conservatives, the public hesitation is out of all proportion to the risk. "Why, when other European countries are firing up their economies, do we remain the most timorous of all the electorates polled?” lamented the writer and former Tory politician Daniel Hannan. Whether or not he’s sympathetic to that viewpoint, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is more inclined to listen to the public.
It wasn’t obvious that Britain should become one of the most pro-lockdown nations. Like the United States, it was late to see the coronavirus threat as a national emergency, a major reason why the virus spread so fast and at such great human cost. Government advisers initially fretted that citizens wouldn’t accept restrictions and so they looked to avoid a lockdown. Now they worry that they can’t get Britain out of it.
One explanation is fear. So far, more people in the United Kingdom have died of COVID-19 than in any other country except the U.S. The death toll is read out during daily press conferences; newspapers and media websites publish running tallies. Television has been an amplifier too. The stories of grieving family members are part of the evening and late-night news watched by millions each day.
And yet, that doesn’t quite explain it. Britain isn’t the only country that has suffered gravely or whose media reports every detail.
Some members of Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party have argued that the reluctance to leave lockdown owes much to the government’s "whatever it takes” rescue package, which includes paying people most of their wages for staying home. The funds are generous, but they aren’t extravagant and they won’t last forever. Other countries emerging from lockdown have ample social safety nets too, or they’re putting new measures in place. Spain is even launching a monthly basic income scheme for the neediest.
Johnson’s own serious illness was certainly a watershed in the public’s embrace of lockdown measures, as James Johnson, a political adviser and pollster says. "When your leader falls, that does much more to the national psyche than anything else,” he told me. The journalist Matthew d'Ancona, writing when the prime minister was still in the hospital, described the public mood as "a wave of profound empathy, matched by profound anxiety.”
When Boris Johnson was taken to intensive care, it didn’t just remind Britons that COVID-19 could be deadly. It reinforced powerfully his core message that by staying home, Britons were protecting the hallowed National Health Service and saving lives. The prime minister’s message and his own experience had a unifying effect, but also a clarifying one. There appears to be no contest in the British public’s mind when it comes to the trade-off between avoiding a recession and containing the spread of the virus.
After four years of Brexit divisions, the U.K. is conditioned to expecting intergenerational divides (older people tended to vote for Brexit while younger ones wanted to stay in the European Union). But that split hasn’t been apparent during the pandemic. Lockdown support has spanned all age groups, even though retirees are 34 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than working-age Britons.
"There has been a broader social consensus on the short-term public and policy response to the pandemic in Britain than in Donald Trump’s America — and, maybe less predictably, than in Germany too,” Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank has written. Indeed, more respondents in Britain than in Germany, Japan, Sweden or the U.S. said the highest priority after the pandemic should be looking after the most vulnerable.
That social values are the paramount driver of public opinion in Britain should perhaps come as no surprise. Johnson’s Brexiters partly won the 2016 referendum campaign with a spurious claim that leaving the EU would free up money to be invested in the NHS. To many Britons, this current shutdown is an act of solidarity with the health service, while the premature lifting of restrictions is seen as posing a danger to medical workers and the fragile care system.
COVID-19, of course, doesn’t lend itself to a simple "lives versus the economy” choice. There are enormous personal costs to shutting down a society: serious illnesses that go untreated, education foregone and mental illness. The idea of "quality-adjusted life years” — an attempt at working out whether living longer is always such a good thing — may be useful to economists, but it’s not going to change many British minds about lockdown.
Having so closely associated the economic shutdown with protecting the NHS and saving lives, Johnson’s challenge now is to back out of that cul de sac. Perhaps, if the rate of infection and death continues to drop, and if the government’s plans to radically increase testing and introduce contact tracing proves successful, people may have greater confidence about circulating, shopping and traveling. The tapering of the U.K.’s generous furlough scheme, along with the expected spike in unemployment and bankruptcies, will also force Britons to take a harder look at the cost of prolonged closures.
More likely, Johnson will need much better communications and a clearer vision for the future than his government has provided since it sent the country into lockdown. The prime minister will have to find a new Conservative narrative that emphasizes the link between economic growth and the provision of first-rate public services.
First, though, he still has a health crisis to manage. Without adequate testing and contact tracing, most Britons are likely to conclude it’s too early to unlock further.
Based in London, Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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