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BARCELONA, Spain — On Monday morning, millions of small children across England piled onto buses and headed back from Christmas holidays for their first day of primary school, a move strongly discouraged by the British government’s own scientific advisory board but heartily encouraged by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who on Sunday told BBC News that despite a surge in cases of a new and more contagious variant of coronavirus that “schools are safe” and that “the risk to kids, to young people, is really very, very, very small.”
Monday evening, however, in what has become his trademark style, Johnson, noting a 30 percent jump in hospitalizations over one week, shut down all schools — for seven weeks at least — imposing a rigid lockdown across England, advising Brits to stay at home and minimize all contact with anyone outside of their household. Laura McInerney, education columnist for the London-based Guardian newspaper summed up the astonishment of many, tweeting “So, to be clear, we just sent 3 million children into primary school FOR ONE DAY, so they could all mix around the virus, and *then* go into lockdown? That's what's actually just happened, right?”
Which is to say drama is afoot far from Georgia and D.C.
The new year in the U.K. is starting out very rocky — with the country battling not one but two variants of the coronavirus that have sent new case numbers quadrupling in a month. The U.K.'s 57,000 cases reported on Monday exceeded the case numbers of Germany, Italy, Spain and France combined; since Christmas Eve, the number of deaths jumped by more than 7,000 to over 76,000, the sixth-highest COVID mortality figure in the world. The true economic consequences of Brexit, the ever-divisive leave-the-European-Union movement that Johnson helped engineer, are still to be felt since the withdrawal officially went into effect on Jan. 1, but the backup of trucks to and from France, when that country closed the borders hoping to keep out the new strain of COVID-19, left many apprehensive of what’s ahead. Some expect food prices to jump by as much as 12 percent.
Even Britain’s rollout of quickly approved vaccines, which had the world cheering the West's first mass immunization program only one month ago, is now drawing cocked eyebrows from American infectious disease specialists such as Dr. Anthony Fauci. There’s been skepticism ever since Johnson’s government began bucking manufacturer instructions to develop a novel program of their own — allowing months rather than the prescribed three or four weeks between the first and second doses as well as a mix and matching of different vaccines. And despite the former London mayor’s populist inclinations, his popularity is plummeting, with merely 37 percent approving of his job performance two weeks ago, before his latest flip-flop.
“I have little faith in the ability of government to sort this out,” said London resident Jo Cadier, who’s tired of Johnson’s vague messaging and constant U-turns about coronavirus restrictions. She fears that the government’s goal of vaccinating 14 million by the middle of February is a pipe dream.
“We need someone to unite us,” says Emma Horridge, who works in the arts in Manchester. During the summer, when the government was actively promoting citizens to patronize restaurants and bars, “I thought, ‘We’re going to pay for this.’”
Amid widespread confusion and frustration, many in Britain believe the country should have been locked down months earlier, when the new, more contagious variant strain, first detected in Britain, began spreading. (It has since been detected in many European countries and several U.S. states.) Now the second variant, from South Africa, is further alarming health officials, with Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, telling BBC radio on Monday that he’s “incredibly worried” about the South African variant, which poses “a very, very significant problem.” Scientists say there’s reason to think that existing vaccines may not offer full protection against the new variant, which thus far has not shown up in the U.S.
Videographer Guillem Valle is chagrined that despite Britain’s skyrocketing COVID numbers, the government isn’t stricter about mask wearing, which is mandated any time one steps out of the house in countries such as France, Italy and Spain. Although Brits are supposed to don face coverings when they step into enclosed spaces, “You can still see people not wearing masks in stores and buses, and on the subway, [and] you don't see anyone telling them off.”
Between the country’s inability to get COVID-19 under control, its breakup with the European Union, and its weak leadership, this is, for some, the U.K.’s darkest moment since World War II. Londoner and independent moviemaker Phil Strongman, like others, fears “Britain has lost its reputation as a serious nation.” The World War II image of “we’re sensible, we’re strong, we do the right thing” is gone, he says. “Maybe it’ll never come back.”
“We’re basically a ruined, divided nation,” says graphic hardware designer John Howson. He’s particularly concerned about a faction of radical supporters of Brexit who brand any questioning of the government as anti-British. “When you can’t question what the government does, that’s getting close to fascism,” he notes.
“I’m really sad we’re out of Europe now,” said Colin Head, who runs an audiovisual business in Kent. He regrets that his daughter won’t have the freedom to move to other parts of Europe to work like his generation did.
And he worries what Brexit will do to the cost of essentials coming in from Europe. Others report that some deliveries from the continent are being canceled, apparently due to new administrative tasks and taxes; already Brexit has already resulted in a cessation of shipments of medical marijuana to the U.K. from Holland.
Meanwhile, at this moment when Britain, to some at least, feels rudderless, Queen Elizabeth II, who will turn 95 in February, appears increasingly irrelevant. On Monday, when news of the lockdown broke, the only mention of the monarch concerned a commemorative coin to be released for her upcoming birthday celebration — along with news that Harry and Meghan were not invited to the bash.
And Britain’s missteps may pose a particular problem for one prominent foreigner: Donald Trump. Rumored to have plans to leave the White House when his term ends to visit his golf course in Scotland, his plans may be thwarted by Scotland’s leader Nicola Sturgeon. “We are not allowing people to come into Scotland without an essential purpose right now,” she told reporters at a press conference in Edinburgh. “And coming to play golf is not what I would consider to be an essential purpose.”
Melissa Rossi is an American journalist based in Western Europe.
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