The View from the Hill: The UK in the COVID-19 Pandemic


By Kenneth Maxwell

I am quarantined on my hill in Devon.

The British Media had been celebrating the “Dunkirk” spirit.

The British Prime Minister, the old Etonian, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, better know as as “Boris” or “BoJo” is the author of a book on Winston Churchill. He likes to think of himself as a Churchill Resurrected.

He has always wanted to be the prime minister.

Over the past fortnight he has been holding reassuring daily briefings in 10 Downing Street often flanked by the chief medical and the chief scientist officer, on the unfolding coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis over a lecturn emblazoned with the slogan “Save the NHS.”

Yet as Italy became the coronavirus global hot spot and Spain followed and France enacted draconian measures to contain the coronavirus, Britain remained an outlier, safe it seemed in a BREXIT inspired off-shore island, splendidly isolated from Europe and from the World.

In Shakespeare’s words: “This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war.” But on Monday 23 March “Britain Alone” was not enough. Boris Johnson has belatedly decreed a national “stay at home” policy and introduced tough new restrictions on daily life.

It is some irony in a British conservative prime minister is acting now to save the NHS and with it begin a desperate and belated attempt to contain the coronavirus epidemic.

The British National Health Service (NHS) was established after WW2 by the post-war Labour government. Winston Churchill and the Consevative Party had been roundly rejected by the British electorate in the general election of 1945. Churchill has called the election when opinion polls had showed him receiving strong approval. He was basking in the euphoria of victory in Europe. But in the general election in July 1945 the Labour Party under Clement Attlee won an overwhelming victory which was based in large part on their social policy proposals, and in particular on their policies on theIr proposals for public health.

As the leader of “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” (King George VI was then the British Monarch) Winston Churchill and the Conservative party opposed the legislation establishing the the NHS (the Tories voted against it 21 times). The British Medical Association was also ferociously hostile. Churchill, always a man with the ability to mobilize words had called the Labour Party “some form of gestapo.”

Boris Johnson is better known for his florid hair than for his rhetorical skills though he is not far behind Churchill (or Trump) in his capacity to invent and hurl rhetorical insults.

The diligence, persistence, and the passion of the Labour party’s Health Minister, Aneurin Bevan, got a universal free at the point of service national health care system funded by general taxation established throughout the United Kingdom between 1946 and 1948  The NHS has long since become a much beloved and totemic British national institution (though it was scandalously underfunded by conservative led governments over the past decade).

Yet one thing is now absolutely certain. Boris Johnson and the NHS is about to be tested as never before by the Coronavirus epidemic which is about to hit Britain with the force of a hurricane.

And on the scale which has already hit Italy and Spain.

Hence my preemptive quarantine on my hill in Devon.

The Dunkirk “spirit” saw hundred of small boats put out to sea to pluck 340,000 allied soldiers from the sandy beaches of northern France close to the border with Belgium. In 2020 the British are showing a much less than doughty spirit. They are impatiently waiting congregated in huge lines to strip the supermarket shelfs of toilet rolls and pasta.

Although pubs and restaurants were closed down on Friday night, City parks, rural tourist beauty spots and beaches, from Cornwall to Snowdonia, were packed with visitors over the warm spring weekend.

And on Monday the London underground was crowded with jam packed commuters. Few it seems we’re taking any notice of Boris Johnson’s confusing advise to “stay at home” and to “social distance.”

In the face of the impending plague we were for too long much less in the “Age of Dunkirk” than in the epoch of “Phoney War” the eight month period from October 1939 until March 1940 at the start of WW2 when following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, only limited military action took place.

People went on then as they did now behaving as if nothing was happening.

But national health staff were and are still crying out in desperation for wider coronavirus testing and above all for protective equipment (PPE) for the professionals tending to coronavirus victims, and for the desperately needed increased supply of ventilators in the face of chronic shortages.

Eventually and belatedly Boris Johnson got the message and decreed a national shut down on Monday evening 23 March.

”You must stay at home” he said in a national televised address. We are clearly in for difficult days ahead. Many war time restrictions are likely to reappear. We are told that food supplies are not under threat though the impatient and angry crowds outside supermarkets in recent days clearly do not believe it.

Boris Johnson much like President Donald Trump has a mighty deficit of trust to overcome.

His “stay at home” decree brought back memories of the age rationing which persisted in Britain until 1954. I remember going to the “tuck shop” at my boarding school as a ten-year old with my ration coupon a slip I got up once a week for the dry surgery mixture we could buy (sugar was rationed until 1954) as a substitute for “sweets.”

And the mad rush at the British supermarkets to buy toilet paper reminded me of the neatly cut and sting suspended small rectangular cut wads of old newspapers in the school “bogs” (our term for the school’s outside toilets) which we used to wipe our bottoms.

At least this will not be store for the bottoms of today since the Internet has virtually wiped out the age of newsprint.

But be prepared.

From my hilltop in Devon l am anticipating dark days ahead.

This is the first in our occasional series of reactions and reflections on the state and dynamics of the global management of today’s plague.

The featured photo was taken from the following source: