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Don’t let Brexit cloud your judgement of the government’s coronavirus response

Chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance sits alongside chancellor Rishi Sunak and prime minister Boris Johnson at a news conference. (Photo by Matt Dunham / POOL / AFP via Getty Images). - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Remainers have spent four years promoting the spirit of cooperation, supporting and working together. JAMES BALL says the anti-Brexit movement must not lose sight of these principles during the coronavirus outbreak.

You know the world has turned on its head in the space of a few weeks when you realise the UK’s ability to get through the year ahead relies on its public trusting a serial liar – but also think that’s the right decision to make.

Very few writers in this newspaper have had overly generous things to say about Boris Johnson, and this writer doesn’t intend to be the first: Johnson was a blustering and pompous London mayor, a divisive and dishonest campaigner during Brexit, and an ineffectual and chaotic prime minister from his first day in the job.

He is not the man most people reading this would have chosen to be prime minister for a global crisis the scale of which – outside of war – has not been seen for more than a century. But love him or loathe him, he’s the prime minister we have got for it, and there will be no replacing him.

Coronavirus is a potential tragedy beyond our imagination, one which if left unchecked could kill tens or hundreds of millions across the globe. The steps it will take to limit that tragedy are themselves devastating and of a type almost none of us have lived through, and will require intervention from the state on a scale which could easily eventually make the financial bailouts of 2008 look like small change.

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Almost every business will need help to survive, as will every worker, every vulnerable person, our parents, our friends, and our children. There is no clear rulebook guiding this. No-one alive has responded to a pandemic on this scale, and we cannot be sure what will work in the long term versus the short – it will be a long time until the dust settles enough to know any of these things.

Coronavirus is also no-one’s creation. No-one advocated for it, and very few people – certainly at the top of our government or most other major governments – spent their time trying to tell us it was absolutely nothing to worry about. Coronavirus, in other words, couldn’t be less like Brexit.

The temptation and the danger for all of us is to treat it like it is. We are a country bitterly and deeply divided, where – for the past four years – existing cultural and economic cleavages have been folded into one issue which has wrenched us apart, in the everyday, among former friends and relatives, and also on a national level, between old and young, cities and towns, even (for some) working- and middle-class.

Johnson and the team around him in No.10 have been at the forefront of exploiting those divisions for their own advantages – and are now left to reap what they have sown, facing a national crisis which relies on the public to trust the government, to trust the official advice in the media, to trust – oh, the irony – experts, and to turn away from swirling online conspiracies and misinformation.

If it were only them who would be harmed if those institutions failed, then we could dismiss it to karma. But the nature of coronavirus is that our endurance relies on all of us: the old will rely on the young to follow official advice to keep them safe. We will all rely on NHS workers, utility employees, supermarket staff, and millions more.

When people start to face real panic about their jobs, or even their ability to keep their home and feed their family, they will need real help – but also trust in that help – from the government, if society is to remain functional. The stakes could not be higher.

That means that if we say Boris Johnson is trying to kill off the weak, or is acting to protect his mates in the insurance industry, or that he wants millions of unemployed to push down wages – then we’d better be right, and we better have incontrovertible proof. Because even rumours, in this climate, could eventually kill. And, for the record, there is no proof for those statements, because they are not true.

Even lesser rumours that suggest the government is entirely incompetent can do untold harm, if they lead to people on a large scale dismissing government advice. In this area, the incompetence of the No.10 communications operation has, in recent days, undermined a government seemingly at least trying to make evidence-led choices, even if in a deeply imperfect way.

If you believe the breathless reporting of the last week, the government took a radically different strategy than other nations, pursued a plan of ‘herd immunity’, planning to let hundreds of thousands die, U-turned on those plans, and eventually fell roughly into line with other countries after wasting days or weeks.

This misleading narrative is the result of letting information on the government’s strategy for tackling the world’s biggest health crisis since 1918 Spanish Flu be communicated in off-the-record briefings by non-expert Downing Street special advisors, via political lobby journalists more used to covering political rows and looking for scandal, to a polarised public (especially online) ready to believe the very worst.

The reality, so far as we can piece it together, is more mundane and – even if it does still include some serious errors – could even be reassuring: Johnson’s government seems to be trying to follow expert medical opinion on how to handle coronavirus as closely as possible.

Behind the scenes, the UK seems to have been in line with the approach of virtually every other country in terms of its aim: trying to flatten the curve to prevent a flood of seriously ill people exhausting NHS capacity – leading to numerous deaths of people who could have been saved had they had proper medical attention (including people with other conditions who can’t access hospital in a crisis).

A result of that strategy, if it is pursued for long enough, is to generate ‘herd immunity’ – as a side effect of the plan everyone is following, rather than its goal – meaning that if particularly vulnerable people isolate more carefully and for longer than the general population, they can gain some measure of extra protection, even if a vaccine or similar isn’t found.

Most countries agree an immediate, very strict series of quarantine requirements can lead to apparently miraculous results in the short run, but raise huge questions later – even if you get your city, or even your country, coronavirus-free, what happens in a connected world? How do you stop a second peak, even if you delay it weeks or months? If you try a year-long lockdown, can your economy survive it – and will people weather it, if they haven’t seen the consequences of not doing it? These are the some of risks people refer to when they talk of behavioural risks to complying with strict measures.

In off-record and off-camera briefings, experts walked politicians and special advisors through these policy matters to try to guide their decision-making on what steps would be most appropriate, when, to accomplish those goals.

One of those advisors then decided to brief a lobby journalist on the catchy-sounding ‘herd immunity’ bit, which then created a massive fog of public confusion and mistrust. This was then compounded when a team from Imperial College, who had been helping the government with their modelling, updated their mortality and serious illness estimates based on more up-to-date figures from China and Italy – science as it should be practiced – leading to their model suggesting much stricter isolation measures, earlier.

The advice to the government changed, and so the advice from the government changed – but once this got through the political journalism brigade, this was another U-turn.

None of this means the government have done a perfect job – it is absolutely apparent they have not. They have communicated unevenly and through channels likely to amplify misinformation, and to promote heat over light.

Their messaging has not kept up with their actions, and they have had no rationales for what they have done – by suggesting people stay away from pubs, without closing them, and without explaining why, they have left a vacuum suggesting sinister motivations (no prime minister who wished his party to be re-elected ever again would launch a policy visibly leading to the destruction of the UK pub sector).

We need to sceptically hold the government to account, but we need to do it calmly, so that we don’t accidentally undermine public confidence in what at its core may be good advice communicated badly. We also need to try to remember that what government is doing is hard: it is tackling an unprecedented crisis and senior ministers can only make so many decisions in a day. Mistakes – and delays in crucial plans or reassurance – are virtually inevitable.

It may be that action could have been taken quicker, it may be that other approaches would have saved more lives. The truth is we don’t know anything yet and may not for some time, and so should watch, wait, and try to constructively criticise.

For Remainers, the Brexit battles gave us good reasons to be mistrustful and they will not be forgotten. But they should not be re-fought now. Old enmities must be laid aside. In the long campaign ahead against coronavirus, we are all be allies, even if we are sometimes critical ones.

One of the most cynical actions of Brexiteers was to try to mock the principles behind why many on the Remain side liked the idea of the EU: the ideals that we can cooperate, work together, support each other, and be a community. If ever we have needed to live by those – rather than just shout them out – it is now. It’s a whole new world, and we will need to be brave.

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