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How has the United Kingdom responded to the coronavirus storm?

Three questions to Georgina Wright

How has the United Kingdom responded to the coronavirus storm?
 Georgina Wright
Resident Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for International Studies

The United Kingdom has taken a singular approach to deal with the coronavirus crisis. How did the British public experience it? What were the consequences for the government and the National Health Service (NHS)? Georgina Wright, Senior Researcher on the Brexit team at the Institute for Government, answers our questions.

From the outside, the United Kingdom's strategy to fight the coronavirus seemed erratic, especially on the communications front. How did the British perceive and experience this?

That is an excellent question. Initially, the British people probably did not understand the gravity of the situation. The government did not introduce social distancing measures until March 12 – but despite these measures, the Underground, restaurants and pubs remained crowded. It was not until March 23 that the United Kingdom imposed a lockdown, namely two or three weeks after its European neighbours. The four regions also adopted measures that were at times quite different from each other.

Attitudes in the UK began to change once the Prime Minister was admitted to hospital at the start of April. The Queen addressed the nation, reminding them that respecting lockdown rules was each and everyone’s duty. 24 million Britons tuned in to watch the televised address (by contrast, only 7 million had watched her Christmas speech). 

The Queen addressed the nation, reminding them that respecting lockdown rules was each and everyone’s duty. 

"We will meet again" was one of the lines that stood out in her speech – a sentence that her father, as well as Churchill, repeated during the Second World War.

According to subsequent surveys, the United Kingdom became one of the top countries to abide by lockdown measures. Until the Dominic Cummings story, the Prime Minister and his government were still comfortably ahead in the polls.

In France, the crisis has increased distrust towards the executive power. But in the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson remains popular even at the height of the Cummings scandal. How do you explain this?

Let’s not forget the Conservative Party’s performance in the last election in December. Boris Johnson helped secure the Conservative Party an 80-seat majority in Parliament as well as win in former Labour strongholds. 

At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, the Prime Minister was still very popular. But the Cummings affair has dented the government’s reputation. Suddenly, a Prime Minister who always presented himself as a man of the people, elected to serve the people, suddenly finds himself having to back his senior adviser who allegedly circumvented lockdown rules (which he himself had helped to draft). Of course, this episode could well be forgotten by the time of the next election; but until then, the challenge for the Prime Minister will be to try and regain the trust and support of voters. This will be far from easy...

The fiscal measures put forward by the government could also explain citizens’ high levels of trust in the executive branch in the first months of the pandemic. The UK government is expected to spend more than £80 billion (3.7% of annual GDP) over the next eight months to support the labour market. These measures are some of the most generous among developed countries. The Labour Party is also supportive of these actions. But the wage subsidy scheme has a downside for employers, confronting them with a difficult choice: the Chancellor Rishi Sunak recently announced that, from August, employers will start having to contribute some of the wages of furloughed employees. For the self-employed, he announced an extension of the scheme by 3 months, but in the next three months self-employed people will only get 70% of their average profits, not 80%.

The NHS is a pillar of the British social security system, as well as a national pride. How has it weathered this crisis to date? What impact will the virus have on this institution?

Protecting the NHS was one of the main drivers behind the government’s lockdown and post-lockdown measures. As in many countries, the number one priority was to ensure that the healthcare system could cope with a high volume of hospital admissions.

We might see closer cooperation between the Department of Health and the NHS in the future.

It was necessary to completely reassess its system of crisis management. The government was clear: the lockdown will only be lifted when mortality and infection rates have fallen – in order to protect the NHS, and its capacity to respond quickly and efficiently. We might see closer cooperation between the Department of Health and the NHS in the future - as well as ways to streamline recruitment of medical staff from outside of the UK. In 2018, there were 1.9 million people working in the UK health system (doctors, nurses, emergency doctors, but also administration staff): 88% of them were British, 6% from the EU and 6% from outside the EU.

The government has already introduced a new immigration bill - some members of Parliament are calling for it to include fast-track recruitment of healthcare workers. Brexit will see freedom of movement cease at the end of the transition period in December: from January 1 2021, there will no longer be any distinction between immigration from the EU and that of the rest of the world. But before then, Parliament must pass the bill and the government will need to put all the arrangements in place to facilitate its brand new immigration system. It has less than 7 months to do.. 



Copyright: Glyn KIRK / AFP

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