The phrase is shocking: “Many families will lose their loved ones.” But the reaction is perhaps even more chilling: we will do nothing. Because this is the line chosen by the government of Boris Johnson: forward as if nothing had happened. Britain separates itself from the rest of Europe: while governments on the continent take increasingly drastic measures, London washes their hands. The fundamental advice against coronavirus is in fact to use soap and water; those who have symptoms are invited to stay home for a week, but otherwise, it’s business as usual. No closures, no emergencies: life in London continues to flow normally (and no one goes around with a mask).
Yet the tone used by Johnson in his speech from Downing Street yesterday was serious and solemn. He admitted that the country is facing the most serious health emergency in a generation and that the real number of infected people may have already reached ten thousand. But he insisted that taking “draconian” measures would not make much difference and could even be counterproductive.
The premier was joined by top British scientific and health experts, who explained that blocking the virus is impossible and that the only strategy is to spread its spread over time, to allow the health system to manage the situation. Indeed, they argued that it is not desirable for anyone to get infected, because the population should develop antibodies to the virus themselves. An approach that has been criticized by many, both at a health and political level: but which the government has continued to defend today.
And many appreciate Johnson’s line: The Times wrote that he is behaving like a statesman, without giving in to populist pressure. And comparisons were made with Churchill – who promised “blood, sweat, and tears” – and with Quinto Fabio Massimo, the Temporeggiatore who exhausted Hannibal. There are even those who evoke the spirit of 1940, with Europe capitulating, the United States isolating itself and Great Britain standing alone. The population is reacting in no particular order. Some events, such as the Book Fair, have been canceled, but the bulk of the events going on. In universities, some teachers do distance learning, but they are individual initiatives: schools and colleges remain open.
Some people have given themselves to stock up on necessities (especially toilet paper, which is scarce in some supermarkets) but there are no empty shelves. It is also a cultural question: the British are proud of their stiff upper lip, the rigid upper lip, that is stoicism (up to indifference) in the face of difficulties, without abandoning themselves to emotional reactions. And another fundamental concept is that of grace under fire, grace under enemy fire: that is, never lose composure. Will all this endure the raging coronavirus? It is early to say. But for now, after political Brexit, Brexit is also being witnessed.