Boris Johnson’s Britain has hardly been a shining star of government responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond having one of the worst death rates in the world, Britain’s economy tanked by more than 20 percent in the second quarter, ushering in its worst recession in recorded economic history. This dismal performance counts as one of the worst in Europe. The prime minister tragically underlined the point by coming down with the novel coronavirus himself just weeks after previously boasting that “I shook hands with everybody” in a hospital that was treating coronavirus patients. He has since fully recovered.
And yet, the experience of living in Britain — a pandemic disaster by global standards — only highlights how uniquely abysmal President Trump’s response has been in the United States. Britain messed up, but at least the government isn’t attacking its own scientists, peddling dangerous drugs, promising the virus will disappear like a miracle, hypothesizing about the benefits of injecting disinfectants, spreading disinformation about objective health statistics, retweeting doctors who claim that demons cause illness or trying to eliminate the health insurance coverage of millions of people during a raging pandemic.
Instead, life is starting to look a bit more normal here in the United Kingom — all without an American-style premature reopening. Masks are finally required in all shops and on public transit, a long overdue measure. Streets in London have regained much of their former bustle. Restaurants are buzzing again — including indoor dining. The government has launched an “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, in which the government pays half your restaurant bill on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August. Pints are being poured in Britain’s pubs, though now you have to fill out a track-and-trace form in exchange for the privilege to drink one.
A sizable minority of office workers have returned to their desks, albeit with more plexiglass in place. When local spikes do occur, as is inevitable, there’s a rapid-response plan in place to localize and neutralize them. Preparations are being made for all schoolchildren to safely return to classrooms, with some public health experts expected to sign off on the move.
The statistics are encouraging, too. The latest seven-day rolling average of deaths has the United Kingdom at around 40 covid-19 deaths per day, or about one death per 1.5 million residents. By contrast, that same statistic for the United States is around 1,150 per day, or roughly one death for every 290,000 residents. That comparison is even more glaring because Britain has the highest current death rate in Europe. Italy, for example, has been averaging only about six deaths per day. Or, to put it bluntly: At the moment, the United States has a covid-19 death rate that is five times worse than the worst country in Europe.
The most likely explanation for these differences is straightforward: Britain implemented a much more serious national lockdown than the United States and stuck with it until the virus was largely under control. Much of the United States — particularly states controlled by Republican governors — reopened prematurely at the president’s urging.
For roughly six weeks from late March until early May, Britons faced strict measures that were enforceable by the police. It was illegal to leave your own home without a reasonable excuse, which for most people meant leaving only for essential supplies or for one form of exercise per day. Visiting another person’s home was prohibited, even if they were a family member. In fact, the biggest Westminster scandal this year occurred when one of Johnson’s top advisers, Dominic Cummings, drove out of London in his own car and then visited a scenic town with his family, violating rules that he helped produce. What was scandalous in the United Kingdom was routine in the United States. The president even held an indoor rally.
When reopening finally took place in Britain, it was gradual, covered by strict guidance, with the government unafraid to reinstate local lockdowns as needed. Crucially, there has been a national approach, ensuring that public health measures are coordinated.
The United States, by contrast, has been plagued by a patchwork approach because of a gaping black hole of national leadership. The state-by-state, county-by-county public health jigsaw in the United States has created unnecessary vulnerabilities. As a case in point, 250,000 motorcyclists are currently gathering in a tiny South Dakota town, even packing themselves together for crowded concerts. Few are wearing masks. They will soon return to their home states, seeding new outbreaks. In Britain, most gatherings of more than 30 people are illegal.
Trump’s favorite lie — that differences in current national pandemic trajectories are due to testing — doesn’t hold up very well with the United Kingdom. Britain has conducted 278 tests for every 1,000 residents. The United States has conducted just over 200 tests for every 1,000 residents.
Britain’s pandemic response was a failure. The British government continues to make serious mistakes, with some scientists still questioning its strategy. But the fact that the United Kingdom is now on a drastically better trajectory than the United States underscores a depressing lesson: Trump’s incompetence and his indifference to mass death was a policy choice. It didn’t have to be this way.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.
Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.
Vaccines: For people under 50, second booster doses are on hold while the Biden administration works to roll out shots specifically targeting the omicron subvariants this fall. Immunizations for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.
Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.
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