Dispatch

Keep Calm—and Carry On Spreading the Coronavirus

Britain has been exceptionally slow to respond to the pandemic. Trump's decision to omit the U.K. and Ireland from his European travel ban won't help halt the spread of the virus.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a news conference addressing the government's response to the coronavirus outbreak in London on March 12. Simon Dawson-WPA Pool/Getty Images

LONDON—U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to exclude the United Kingdom and Ireland from a European travel ban in response to the COVID-19 virus is being criticized in the face of concerns that London is not doing enough to stop the pandemic. 

In some respects, critics say, the U.K. is doing less than some governments in the European Union. Sources in England’s top soccer league told Foreign Policy that there were no plans to take actions such as banning spectators or suspending matches that other sports leagues across the world have taken.

The U.K.’s exclusion from Trump’s coronavirus travel ban, which he announced Wednesday night, comes amid criticism of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s reaction to the pandemic. U.K. leaders “claim they are following the science. But that is not true. The evidence is clear. We need urgent implementation of social distancing and closure policies,” Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet medical journal, said on Twitter. “The government is playing roulette with the public.”

British authorities denied this. “Our response to #coronavirus follows an evidence-based assessment of what is happening in this country,” the British Department of Health and Social Care responded

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Without apparent evidence, Trump declared that the U.K. and his ally Prime Minister Johnson are “doing a good job.” And to the outrage of EU leaders, who on Thursday condemned Trump’s decision, the U.S. president said that European travelers had “seeded” infection clusters in the United States.

The monthlong travel ban will affect 26 European nations but not two countries that Trump has been friendly with (and also owns properties in): the United Kingdom and Ireland. Trump’s decision is “clearly not based on science,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who helped direct the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis, told Foreign Policy

The U.K. reported March 12 that it has 590 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, which was the largest single day-rise on record. Ireland reported 43 cases. The number of infections in both countries is significantly lower than in other European nations such as Italy, Spain, Germany, and France, which all have more than 2,000 cases. But experts say that just because there have only been a relatively small number of cases in the U.K. and Ireland so far doesn’t make it safer. That fact makes those countries’ omission from the travel restrictions a puzzling gap in Trump’s surprise ban that sparked anger among EU officials.

“The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation,” said European Council President Charles Michel  and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a joint statement. 

The coronavirus can cause respiratory infections, and common symptoms include coughing, fever, and shortness of breath. There are nearly 130,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide and nearly 5,000 reported deaths. The World Health Organization advises regular hand-washing, social distancing, and self-quarantining for those who display symptoms.

Some European nations have taken sharp measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Most drastic is Italy, which has 12,000 cases and has shut down shops nationwide. The Czech Republic on Thursday barred entry of nationals of 15 countries, including the U.K. Also on Thursday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that all schools, colleges, and public facilities would shut down for at least two weeks in response to the pandemic. He said indoor mass gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 500 should be canceled.

As some European countries were announcing travel bans and nationwide school closings, British officials were taking a different course. Johnson said that more people were likely to die in the U.K. and said it was “the worst public health crisis in a generation.” He said the U.K.’s response would be guided by the science and said that sporting events and schools will remain open for now because closing them could do “more harm than good.”

As sports leagues around Europe announced that games that would be played without spectators or outright suspended, a spokeswoman for the Premier League, England’s top soccer league, told Foreign Policy on Thursday morning the organization had no plans to hold matches behind closed doors or cancel fixtures. An official from a top Premier League club told Foreign Policy they would follow the government’s advice.

The dramatic differences in Europe’s response to the coronavirus were on display Wednesday night in the continent’s top athletic competition. At bars, screens showed the French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain host the German club Borussia Dortmund to an empty stadium. At the same time, the English club Liverpool hosted the Spanish team Atlético Madrid to a full stadium. Fans from Madrid marched around Liverpool despite the Spanish capital being a hot spot for the virus. Hours later, the Spanish La Liga that Atlético Madrid plays in was suspended for two weeks. 

One of the few examples of altered social practices came when Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp appeared to scold fans trying to high-five players. “Put your hands away, you fucking idiots,” he appeared to say. 

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch

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