As Britain battles a pandemic, a volunteer spirit stirs

Why We Wrote This

The United Kingdom has been riven by the Brexit debate in recent years, and the coronavirus pandemic has only added a new element of uncertainty. But the country is finding common cause against the virus.

Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
People applaud as the Harland and Wolff shipyard horn sounds in support of the NHS in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on April 9, 2020, while the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues. The horn has not been sounded properly in 20 years and is the loudest siren in Belfast.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent this week in the hospital, raising concerns about political stability amid a pandemic. His is one of 65,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.K. Mr. Johnson’s condition has improved, and that may provide some relief for a country that only recently emerged from years of political turmoil over its exit from the European Union. 

Every Thursday night, U.K. residents on lockdowns emerge from their homes to clap and cheer the doctors and nurses of the National Health Service. That sense of unity was reinforced by a rare public address last Sunday by Queen Elizabeth II that was warmly received by many. 

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of citizens recently volunteered to support the pandemic response, far more than the government had anticipated. That sense of solidarity was referenced by the monarch in language that invoked the sacrifices of World War II. “While we may have still more to endure, better days will return. ... We will meet again,” she said.

Across the United Kingdom, as the COVID-19 crisis has bitten deeper, its citizens have started a new ritual: Emerging from self-isolation every Thursday night at 8 p.m. to clap, cheer, and bang pots and pans to show support for the country’s front-line doctors and nurses.

Each week the crescendo of gratitude has grown louder, sometimes punctuated by the blast of fireworks, filling otherwise becalmed neighborhoods briefly with appreciative noise for those at the tip of the spear, as they battle the spread of the coronavirus.

But as the death toll today hit a single-day U.K. record of 980 – and with the peak death rate still estimated to be two weeks away – the crisis caused by the scale of the pandemic has been compounded here by a new degree of political uncertainty. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to the hospital on Sunday and has spent his days and nights in intensive care fighting the virus, surrounded by the doctors and nurses of the National Health Service.

“They’ve had a tough week,” said Joan, a 60-something Briton, as she banged on a frying pan on her west London porch last night, referring to key workers. “They’re amazing,” she said, as her suburban neighborhood joined in the rallying cry.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The U.K. is not alone in showing newfound public affection for key workers, nor in facing an unprecedented public health emergency that has, in Europe, especially ravaged Italy, Spain, and France. A recent U.K. government appeal for 250,000 volunteers to help the NHS cope yielded an army of 750,000 would-be helpers, precipitating a temporary stop to clear the backlog.

But the pandemic finds the U.K. at a politically precarious moment, as a nation finally emerging from 3 1/2 years of political gridlock over its chaotic departure from the European Union. A December election that gave a decisive victory to Mr. Johnson and the ruling Conservative Party added clarity to a Brexit mandate and was seen by many as a potential first step in healing deep divisions in Britain’s political and social fabric.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
An image of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and quotes from her historic television broadcast commenting on the coronavirus pandemic are displayed on a big screen behind the Eros statue at Piccadilly Circus in London on April 9, 2020.

Acknowledging the impact of the coronavirus on daily lives, Queen Elizabeth II, in a rare address on Sunday, praised the “national spirit” and thanked NHS and care workers, whose “every hour” of hard work “brings us closer to a return to a more normal time.”

Calling on citizens to “remain united and resolute” to overcome the pandemic, she sought to provide comfort. “While we may have still more to endure, better days will return. ... We will meet again,” she said.

“Who’s in charge now?”

Yet within an hour of hearing those words that would resonate widely, Britons learned that Mr. Johnson had been rushed to the hospital, raising the specter of a leadership vacuum that, amid the pandemic, renewed a sense of political uncertainty.

The sense of uncertainty “operates on a number of levels, and they’re all destabilizing,” says Steven Fielding, an expert on British politics and political history at the University of Nottingham.

“The very fact that the prime minister had been taken to hospital was something people genuinely found a bit disturbing,” says Professor Fielding.

“They were concerned about how decisions would be made, and obviously political journalists have been trying to follow, ‘Who’s actually in charge now?’” he says. For others, it was more symbolic: If the prime minister could fall seriously ill, so could everyone.

Mr. Johnson was returned to a normal hospital ward late Thursday after spending three nights in intensive care. His father, Stanley Johnson, told the BBC today how touched he had been by the outpouring of support the family had received, and said his son would need time to fully recover.

Jon Super/AP
A man on a bike takes a photo of a NHS sign printed on a road near the newly setup coronavirus Nightingale Hospital North West in Manchester, England, on April 9, 2020.

The U.K.’s unwritten constitution does not spell out a clear succession process if a prime minister is incapacitated.

Mr. Johnson had already shepherded several key decisions about the national lockdown, and a £350 million financial rescue package that was adopted by lawmakers on March 17. That means, for now, that Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is deputized to act for Mr. Johnson, is unlikely to have to make any critical moves.

Nearly 9,000 people have died from the virus in the U.K., with more than 65,000 confirmed cases.

With the Easter weekend looming, Mr. Raab said Thursday a decision to ease restrictions was at least another week away. He told a press briefing that he had not spoken to Mr. Johnson since he was admitted to the hospital, but that the government has “got this covered.” Mr. Raab said he has “all the authority I need” to make decisions.

Indeed, Mr. Johnson’s temporary incapacitation “is not necessarily a crisis for the British political system,” says Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at King’s College, London, in an analysis for Foreign Policy that tabulates the absences of past prime ministers.

During World War II, for example, Winston Churchill had bouts of pneumonia, and in 1953, an incapacitating stroke, but remained prime minister on both occasions, even as others were deputized to preside.

Austerity budget blues

But severe social inequalities across the U.K., a wealthy country that has pockets of deep deprivation not seen in its European peers, may have lasting, post-crisis impact. 

When Mr. Johnson was shown clapping for health workers last Thursday at the door of 10 Downing Street, for example, social media erupted with charges of hypocrisy, pointing to a decade of Conservative-led austerity budgets that especially pared down the NHS.

Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/AP
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson claps outside 11 Downing Street during a moment of applause for workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic in London on April 2, 2020.

There is a shortage of intensive care beds, and some health care workers have been forced to buy their own protective gear. A survey of nearly 3,500 nurses published Friday found that two-thirds did not feel they had access to sufficient safety equipment. Just under a third had bought their own.

And a Royal College of Nursing study last September that found a shortage of 40,000 nurses in England alone.

“From defunding nurse training to selling off parts of the NHS to private companies, the Tory party in power has hobbled the healthcare system’s ability to deal with the everyday, let alone the exceptional,” wrote one Guardian columnist last week.

That has meant online skepticism of social media campaigns like #PrayForBoris.

Still, citizens have rallied together, evoking the memories of the spirit of community and selfless volunteerism that rose during World War II, which were echoed by the queen.

Revisiting the Blitz spirit 

Yet it remains to be seen how deeply British society might change after the pandemic threat recedes, if World War II is any guide. “I wouldn’t like to say it’s a new kind of spirit,” says Professor Fielding, who has authored several books on Britain’s postwar political history.

Back then, people had discovered purpose and solidarity in a conflict that followed a period that poet W.H. Auden called a “low dishonest decade,” in which those qualities were seen as missing in action.

“People are volunteering to go into bombers to fly over Germany and face almost near-certain death, in order to win this war, on behalf of everybody,” says Mr. Fielding. “They’re literally sacrificing their lives.

“And people said at the time: ‘We’ve now got a new kind of citizenship, which will go forward into the world, after the war.’ It didn’t quite work out like that, so people went back largely to how they had been before,” he says.

“But the crisis did reveal some people’s capacity to think about others, rather than themselves. And, of course, that is quite inspiring.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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