WHITCHURCH, England — Britain currently has the highest death toll from Covid-19 in Europe and the third-highest death rate in the world, according to the World Health Organization statistics. The central government in London is being repeatedly criticized for its handling of the crisis, while each of the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has deviated in its approach. Like the United States, the results of this governmental ineptitude have been devastating.
I live in England, I work in Wales, my family lives in Scotland and my partner’s family is in Northern Ireland, so together we are bound by all the varying rules. Trying to navigate the conflicting guidance on the pandemic has been greatly frustrating and confusing.
For example, when restrictions started to ease in May, we could meet with one person outside of our “household” in public outdoor space. Yet most people we wished to visit were part of a bigger household, so if we wanted to see anyone, we could only meet one person at a time. If, however, we just happened to be in a public space and another “household” was also there, we could interact with more than one person at a time if we maintained social distancing.
Similarly, there continue to be different travel restrictions in each region. In Wales there was a “stay local” policy that mandated not traveling further than five miles from your home. I was furloughed from my job as a paralegal shortly after the lockdown was announced in March. When I was unfurloughed for a week in June and needed to travel from England to Wales for work, I did not know what proof would be required for me to travel for a legitimate purpose. I did not get stopped at the border that week, although I know of others who have been stopped at the border of both Wales and Scotland. It is unclear how, or even if, the authorities stopping people verify their reasons for travel.
Being unable to visit our families in Scotland and Northern Ireland has been the hardest aspect of lockdown for us, even after the easing. It has been particularly infuriating that several government officials have publicly flouted these travel restrictions yet have gone unpunished. The mayor of Leicester, a city in mid-England, admitted to breaking lockdown rules to visit his girlfriend; the city of Leicester has now been placed in a local lockdown due to a spike in the number of Covid-19 cases. The top aide to the British prime minister, Dominic Cummings, created public outrage when it was revealed he had also broken lockdown twice, making journeys of 260 and 60 miles on separate occasions. Cummings never apologized for the breach and Boris Johnson still supports him in this stance.
Any hope that Johnson’s own harrowing experience with the virus (he spent three days in intensive care) would guide his hand with caution has been thoroughly extinguished by his leadership since he left the hospital. Britain was slow to take the virus seriously, not introducing quarantine for travelers and not testing enough or providing adequate protective equipment for front-line medical staff.
Under Johnson’s watch, he has boasted of a “world beating” test-and-trace system that independent scientists have labeled “not fit for purpose.” His government has prevented the release of crucial data from Covid-19 rapid-testing sites to the devolved governments and has been slow to provide such information to local councils in England to help them stop the spread of the virus.
Johnson prompted further anger when he suggested on July 6 that care homes, where almost 20,000 people have died from the coronavirus, had not followed government guidelines properly, despite conflicting advice and the homes having to source most of their own personal protective equipment. Johnson’s government is also refusing to honor contracts of student nurses who were recruited to the front lines to help the National Health Service cope with the impact of the virus.
Johnson’s rhetoric throughout the pandemic has been vague and inconsistent, with the sudden switch from the message to “stay at home” to “stay alert” never explained, provoking disapproval from the leaders of the other devolved regions. The Scottish leader, Nicola Sturgeon, stated, “I don’t know what ‘stay alert’ means” and called the phrase “vague and imprecise.”
As of July 4, England has lifted most restrictions, allowing travel and overnight stays as well as reopening the hospitality sector and reducing the social-distancing measure from two meters to “one meter plus” (one meter is approximately 3.3 feet). They have also eased quarantine restrictions on people entering Britain from certain destinations. The reopening of pubs across England on July 4, dubbed “super Saturday,” from 6 A.M. that day led to widespread disruption on the streets with people fighting and engaging in other antisocial behavior.
After that, the chairman of the Police Federation, John Apter, commented that “it was crystal clear that drunk people can’t/won’t socially distance.” Several pubs have had to close again due to staff or customers contracting the virus.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also lifted several restrictions but have different rules than England regarding social distancing, mask requirements, overnight stays with other households and quarantine measures for those entering the country.
Despite Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland having lower infection rates and death tolls from the virus than England, they are all easing restrictions more slowly.
Now I can go to a restaurant, a pub, a cinema, the hairdresser, visit another household, stay overnight elsewhere in England and attend a gathering of up to 30 people outside. I still cannot visit a household of just two people and stay overnight in Scotland. Nor is it clear if we could visit my partner’s family in Northern Ireland, and if we did, what the requirements are for face coverings on public transport. Wales has lifted its “stay local” rule but has followed a similar approach to Scotland, maintaining the two-meter social distancing and not reopening the hospitality or tourism sectors yet.
I worry that England has moved too fast and the fallout will lead to a regression into full lockdown again. I worry that England’s approach is rushed, illogical and dangerous and will continue to prevent my being able to see my family in Scotland. Before the pandemic, the political attitudes of each devolved region in Great Britain seemed to be increasingly polarized; being caught in the middle of these differences amid the pandemic continues to be upsetting and anxiety-provoking.
In the aftermath of Brexit, Scottish calls for independence and the resurgence of tensions in Northern Ireland, will the virus bring the United Kingdom together or further its fracture?
This essay is part of a series of people who work in international affairs or global health relating their experiences during the pandemic from across the globe: Vienna, Chicago, Singapore, Madrid, Beirut, Geneva, Santiago, Chile, Lilongwe, Malawi and Panama City, Panama, and Auxerre, France.
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