British exceptionalism backfires in style as Johnson tests positive for coronavirus

Brexiteer PM now finds himself trapped in Downing Street office, cut off from staff

Boris Johnson earlier this week. The PM delayed introducing containment measures in the UK, while trumpeting a controversial ‘herd immunity’ strategy. Photograph: PA Video/PA Wire

Boris Johnson earlier this week. The PM delayed introducing containment measures in the UK, while trumpeting a controversial ‘herd immunity’ strategy. Photograph: PA Video/PA Wire

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The UK government’s 360-degree turn on coronavirus was metaphorically completed yesterday when prime minister Boris Johnson, his health minster, Matt Hancock, and his chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, revealed they had all tested positive for the virus and would be self-isolating.

Johnson began the month as a Covid-19 sceptic, playing down the threat, telling Britons they should “be going about their business as usual” and even boasting about shaking hands with people at a hospital that was treating coronavirus patients.

His stance was viewed internationally as “confused, dangerous, flippant”, particularly when the pandemic was already out of control in Italy and Spain, killing thousands.

While the rest of Europe went into lockdown, Johnson delayed introducing containment measures in the UK, while trumpeting a controversial “herd immunity” strategy, a policy that went against the received wisdom but ensured minimal disruption to the economy.

That was until a report by researchers at Imperial College in London suggested the strategy would “likely result in hundreds of thousands of deaths” – potentially 250,000 – and completely overwhelm the health system.

While Imperial College has an imperious reputation and has advised the UK government on its response to previous epidemics, including Sars, its report concluded only what other agencies and the World Health Organizaton (WHO) had been saying all along, namely that suppression was the only viable strategy.

U-turn

Since then Johnson has been scrambling to engineer a U-turn, first announcing a complete lockdown on all non-essential activity and then a stay-at-home order, while Hancock has described people who don’t self-isolate as “very selfish”.

The PM now finds himself trapped in an office and study in Downing Street, cut off from staff, unable to receive guests and reduced to having his meals left outside the door. A startling contrast to his gung-ho – “I’m not gonna stop shaking hands” – attitude of three weeks ago.

Another example of British exceptionalism backfiring in grand style, some might say, and a bad omen for Brexit, the UK’s other social-distancing project.

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