In the course of the pandemic, it rapidly turned a longtime truism that the UK was faring far worse than the remainder of the developed world. The New York Instances even coined the time period ‘plague island’ again in December 2020 to explain our supposedly pitiable, uniquely disease-addled nation. This meme rapidly unfold to different retailers and throughout social media. Britain, it was stated, was being struck down by the virus for 2 grievous sins. First, for then prime minister Boris Johnson’s allegedly lax perspective to Covid, which led us to lock down solely reluctantly and supposedly far too late. And secondly, for Brexit, as Britain lastly turned unbiased of Brussels in late 2020.
The media narrative went one thing like this: the UK endured the worst Covid dying toll in Europe as a result of our ‘populist’ prime minister wished to ‘let the virus rip’. England could have had three stringent lockdowns, however every got here too late. Then, the federal government took the supposedly reckless resolution to carry most of England’s Covid restrictions in July 2021. Over 1,200 scientists wrote an open letter warning that this ‘harmful and unethical experiment’ of slowly resuming regular life – a month later than deliberate, and 7 months into the vaccine rollout – would endanger your complete world. Letting the plague-stricken gammon of England combine with one another, they argued, would incubate a brand new vaccine-resistant Covid variant.
In the meantime, we have been advised that our resolution to depart the EU in 2016 had helped to seal our grim destiny. Making ready to exit the Single Market and Customs Union, in late 2019 and early 2020, was stated to have distracted ministers and civil servants from getting ready for a pandemic. Headlines warned that Brexit had ‘contaminated’ our Covid response, as UK pandemic coverage was supposedly being formed round British exceptionalism, slightly than ‘following the science’ like our European neighbours. Johnson was even denounced for ‘placing Brexit over respiratory’ when he opted out of the EU’s vaccine-procurement scheme. This, we have been warned, would hamper our capacity to stage a profitable vaccine rollout.
However, because the Monetary Instances not too long ago reminded us, not one of the knowledge backs up this story. ‘As soon as the mud had settled, the UK was in the midst of the pack for pandemic mortality’, wrote knowledge journalist John Burn-Murdoch final week. ‘It was not merely that two years in the past Britain was faring badly after which issues improved: Britain had all the time been faring higher.’
Certainly, a number of datasets now affirm this. For those who have a look at the OECD’s knowledge on extra deaths, the UK is on the decrease finish of the 35 member international locations. In accordance with excess-death knowledge from the World Well being Organisation (WHO), launched final 12 months, when ranked towards the 27 member states of the EU, Brexit Britain comes a really common fifteenth. The UK really had fewer extra deaths than Italy, Spain and even Germany.
So how has the media narrative managed to stray so removed from the details? In some methods, the chatter about ‘plague island’ is just one other expression of elite doom-mongering about Brexit. Virtually each woe that has befallen Britain lately has been blamed on the choice to depart the EU – no matter what the precise proof suggests. It’s maybe no shock that the Covid catastrophe would even be exploited to suit the elites’ fact-lite marketing campaign towards democracy.
In spite of everything, if something, Brexit could have helped Britain’s pandemic efficiency. The newly unbiased UK turned the primary Western nation to approve a Covid-19 vaccine, three weeks forward of the EU. The UK additionally managed to strike procurement offers for vaccines way more rapidly than the EU, resulting in a a lot sooner rollout. In fact, Brexit didn’t assure a profitable vaccination drive, however it a minimum of allowed us to keep away from the EU’s badly botched jabs programme. Sarcastically, it was really the EU that put politics over well being, by establishing a vaccine programme within the first place. The EU will not be usually answerable for well being issues, however Brussels wished to take credit score for bringing an finish to the pandemic.
One other vital flaw within the ‘plague island’ narrative is that lockdown and different Covid restrictions have been merely not the life-saving interventions their proponents made them out to be. As such, Johnson’s critics have been flawed to imagine that England’s ‘late’ lockdowns would mechanically result in record-breaking dying tolls. Worse nonetheless, lockdowns took their very own toll on the well being of the nation and have undoubtedly contributed to extra deaths in the course of the pandemic and past.
To see the folly of lockdown, simply have a look at Sweden, which had no lockdowns in any respect. Swedes have been free to go to bars, eating places, cafés and retailers all through the pandemic. Giant gatherings have been banned, however the Swedish authorities largely relied on trusting its residents to comply with public-health steering, slightly than forcing them to stay indoors with the specter of felony penalties.
Again in 2020, the worldwide response to Sweden’s eminently wise method was shrill and hysterical. This previously average, social-democratic nation was condemned as far proper and ultra-libertarian, for permitting its residents to ‘dwell free and die’. The no-lockdown coverage was preemptively declared a failure and an ethical shame. But the precise knowledge inform a radically totally different story. Sweden has emerged from the pandemic with a few of the lowest extra deaths in Europe.
The distinction with, say, lockdown-happy Germany might hardly be starker. At the beginning of the pandemic, Germany was praised for its mannequin response. In spite of everything, it had locked down sooner than different European international locations in 2020. It solely allowed social life to return in 2021 when a vaccine-passport system was put in place. Masks have been necessary on public transport till February 2023. But now that the pandemic is within the rear view, it’s all too clear that uber-cautious Germany fared far more poorly than no-lockdown Sweden and ‘late’ lockdown Brexit Britain.
Even among the many nations of the UK, the pro-lockdown narrative doesn’t maintain up. Scotland’s restrictions lasted far longer than England’s and have been enforced extra stringently, too. In Wales, supermarkets have been compelled to cordon off aisles promoting non-essential gadgets (together with tampons and youngsters’s books). Welsh pubs, after they have been allowed to reopen, have been banned from promoting alcohol and needed to shut at 6pm. Wales additionally experimented with a brief ‘circuit breaker’ or ‘firebreak’ lockdown in late October and early November 2020, designed to ‘pre-empt’ a surge within the virus. But none of those additional restrictions paid off. Scotland and Wales each suffered from larger extra deaths than England.
All of the discuss of ‘plague island’, it seems, was little greater than cant. As soon as a story had shaped that lockdowns are good and Brexit is unhealthy, any details that questioned these assumptions struggled to get an airing. The professional and media courses, it appears, have been way more occupied with slaying the supposed virus of populism than they have been with establishing the details on the bottom of the pandemic. They noticed how a rising mistrust of specialists and elites had given rise to each Brexit and lockdown scepticism, they usually wished to place a lid on it. We will’t let their disinformation go unchallenged.