In Depth

Reaction: world criticises UK as Covid-19 death toll reaches highest in Europe

Britain is first country on the continent to report more than 30,000 coronavirus fatalities

The UK has overtaken Italy as the European nation hardest hit by the Covid-19 coronavirus, fuelling international condemnation of Boris Johnson’s response to the pandemic.

According to latest figures, the UK death stood at 30,150 as of Thursday morning, compared with 29,684 in Italy. Only the US has reported more fatalities linked to the virus, at more than 73,000.

Even before the UK tally topped the Italian total, The Sydney Morning Herald had condemned Downing Street’s handling of the outbreak as the “biggest failure in a generation”.

Mike Rann, a former Australian high commissioner to the UK, told the newspaper that the initial response was a “shambles of mixed messaging, poor organisation and a complacent attitude that what was happening in Italy wouldn’t happen here”.

The New Yorker is equally scathing, accusing the UK authorities of reacting with a “curious mixture of superiority and fatalism” that proved to be “calamitous”.

Despite the UK’s “internationally respected public-health apparatus”, the government “dithered” as the coronavirus crisis unfolded in other parts of Europe, says the news magazine. 

Prior to the implementation of the UK lockdown on 23 March, the virus was “able to circulate more or less freely” during a “directionless” ten-day period when “soccer matches and horse-racing festivals went ahead” and “Johnson joked about shaking people’s hands”.

The result, says The New Yorker, was that “thousands of people became infected and later died”.

Left-wing Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera agrees that in taking too long to act, the UK “lost the advantage that fate and Italy gave it”. 

“The two great British virtues – understatement and grace under fire - have turned out to not be a blessing,” continues the paper, adding that the worsening situation is “like a nightmare from which you cannot awake, but in which you landed because of your own fault or stupidity”.

The Guardian reports that officials in Greece have “watched London’s handling of the crisis with disbelief”, not least over the government’s apparent strategy of pursuing so-called “herd immunity”.

Greek newspaper Ethnos goes so far as to claim that Johnson “essentially asked Britons… to accept death”.

Many critics have pointed to the prime minister’s periods of absence throughout the crisis, with French newspaper Les Echos noting that he “declined to attend five emergency committee meetings and instead enjoyed 12 joyful days of vacation”. 

“Boris Johnson will need all his dynamism as his country plunges further into crisis,” the paper says.

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Closer to home, Irish commentators have expressed dismay at reports that the UK lockdown may be relaxed as early as next week.

“Ministers of slim talent have bumbled through daily briefings and now big-business Conservative donors are impatient to reverse a shutdown so contrary to Brexiteer dreams,” writes Fionnuala O’Connor in The Irish News.

“Boris Johnson needs all his showman’s tricks now to sell the phasing out of a lockdown which was less than effective, at least in part, because of his stubborn libertarianism.”

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