The view from the ground.

Britain Drops Its Go-It-Alone Approach to Coronavirus

Johnson government admits its strategy of allowing the virus to spread and build up immunity was a failure but stops short of mandatory controls.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a press conference about the ongoing situation with the coronavirus outbreak inside No. 10 Downing St. in London on March 17. Matt Dunham - WPA Pool/Getty Images

LONDON—For a few days, Britain stood alone. 

LONDON—For a few days, Britain stood alone. 

While continental Europeans were closing schools and putting soldiers on the streets to enforce strict quarantine rules, the British government’s official advice to its citizens was, essentially, just to keep calm and carry on. Schools, restaurants, theaters, clubs, and sporting venues remained open; only the over-70s and those with flu-like symptoms were advised to stay at home. The low-key British response was driven by a controversial theory embraced by the U.K. government’s top scientists: that the best way to ease the long-term consequences of the coronavirus pandemic was to allow the virus to spread naturally in order to build up the population’s herd immunity.

On Monday night, that theory collided with the facts. A new analysis by immunologists at Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine of the impact of the coronavirus in Italy suggested that up to 30 percent of patients hospitalized with the virus would require intensive care treatment. Those numbers, if repeated in the U.K., would quickly overwhelm Britain’s state-run National Health Service. 

Within hours of the report, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared at a daily briefing at No. 10 Downing St. to reverse the herd immunity policy. Acknowledging that “drastic action” was required, Johnson announced that from now on Britons should try to work from home and voluntarily refrain from unnecessary travel and social contact. 

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

But Johnson’s tone, Britain’s policy, and indeed the reaction of many Britons remained in strong contrast to the rest of Europe—a striking echo of the prime minister’s go-it-alone approach to Brexit earlier in the year. Johnson is now taking an approach closer to that of U.S. President Donald Trump—appealing to the public for voluntary cooperation rather than ordering it—than to that of the European Union.

In contrast, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, warning that his country was “in a state of war” with the coronavirus, announced that citizens would have to register their intention to leave their houses in a nationwide website or face a 38 euro ($42) fine, enforced by 100,000 police officers. Britain has not enforced any mandatory bans on movement or on the opening of bars and places of entertainment. 

Instead, Johnson said that the government was giving “very strong advice that public venues such as theaters should no longer be visited” but added, “I don’t believe it will be necessary to use” enforcement powers. And on the evening of Johnson’s announcement, Twitter filled with images of many Britons cheerfully defying the government’s advice by drinking in pubs and clubs. The following morning, the prime minister’s own father, 79-year-old Stanley Johnson, defiantly told a chat show that “of course I’ll go to a pub if I need to go to a pub.” 

Don't Touch Your Face podcast Listen on Apple podcasts Listen on Spotify

Listen Now: Don't Touch Your Face

A new podcast from Foreign Policy covering all aspects of the coronavirus pandemic

Johnson’s go-it-alone strategy had been under fire for several days from both opposition leaders at home and officials abroad. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn blasted the government for being “complacent” and “well behind the curve” in its handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Singapore’s Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong told journalists Sunday that the “U.K. and Switzerland … have abandoned any measure to contain or restrain the virus.” Several top British doctors had questioned the scientific rationale behind Johnson’s herd immunity policy, urging the government to publish evidence for its refusal to follow the rest of Europe into immediate lockdown. “We have a small window of opportunity to protect our nation, to learn about this new emerging virus and to deal with this unprecedented threat to global health,” wrote Arne Akbar, the president of the British Society for Immunology. On a less rational level, the hashtag #ToryGenocide trended on Twitter, with users accusing Johnson and his Conservative Party of deliberately allowing the sick and the elderly to die.

Government insiders insist that the criticism is unfair and that the Johnson administration has stuck strictly to the advice of the country’s best doctors. 

“Of course at a time like this people are going to blame the government for everything,” said one senior civil servant who sees Johnson on a daily basis but is not authorized to speak on the record. “The truth is, what you [the public] hear is what we hear. … Boris has actually been extremely straight. He’s told the British people that there will be deaths. He’s said that this is an extremely serious crisis and that our priority is to save lives, with the presumption that it’s too late to try to contain the outbreak.” 

He added that the idea that the government has been playing down the crisis is “nonsense … we have been acting on the best science that we have.” Monday night’s U-turn was “an excellent example of how we respond, based on science … when the facts change, our policy changes.” As soon as the working team from Imperial College and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine submitted its new conclusions that the old go-slow approach would not work, “there was no hesitation: we changed the official advice within three hours,” said the source. In a Monday night press conference coordinated with Johnson’s administration, Imperial College epidemiologist Azra Ghani explained that his team had been “expecting herd immunity to build [but] we now realize it’s not possible to cope with that.” The U.K.’s posture has, accordingly, officially shifted from containment to “epidemic suppression … [as] the only viable strategy at the current time,” Ghani told journalists. 

Yet Britain’s response continues to differ markedly from the rest of the continent’s—as well as from many U.S. states and cities that have mandated full lockdowns. As of Tuesday, Britain and Belarus remained the last two countries in Europe where schools have not been closed. And the U.K. has refused to follow the EU’s lead and ban travel from outside Britain. Though many British airlines have announced that they will be cutting capacity by up to 80 percent, airports, cross-channel ferries, and the Channel Tunnel remain open. 

The U.K. government’s key rationale for not piling on mandatory restrictions on movement and social interactions has been the fear that Britons will develop “behavioral fatigue” and resume normal life before the outbreak is contained. The logic is that strict social quarantine is not sustainable for more than a short period and will lead to new outbreaks of the virus as people defy the restrictions. Last week over 200 prominent British scientists challenged the government’s approach in an open letter that questioned whether “enough is known about ‘behavioural fatigue’”—and said, “‘Carrying on as normal’ for as long as possible undercuts [the] urgency” of the anti-coronavirus message. 

Reliance on sometimes-controversial behavioral science theories has long been a hallmark of a group of key U.K. government advisors—many of whom previously worked on the successful Brexit campaign. Dominic Cummings, chief advisor to Johnson and one of the most powerful figures in the administration, has frequently spoken and written about how data science and behavioral modeling are the key to successful campaigning and governance. The British government’s approach to the coronavirus has reflected Cummings’s faith. Last week, Susan Michie, the director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London and a member of the government’s advisory group on COVID-19, confirmed that a key part of the government’s approach was modeled on the so called “COM-B” model. This theory states that behavior change can only be achieved if a population has sufficient “capability, opportunity, and motivation.” 

“Unless you can tick all three of those, the behavior is not going to happen,” Michie told the Guardian. “If a big bunch of the population is not that concerned and you’re asking people to sacrifice quite a lot, it won’t be as effective if those two things are well-matched.” In other words, according to a source who works with Cummings who requested anonymity, “just telling people to obey isn’t going to work.”

Insiders believe that the Johnson-Cummings approach of nudging and persuading people into coronavirus-limiting behaviors will ultimately be more effective than the European stance of banning social interaction and punishing lawbreakers. 

“That sort of government bossiness isn’t going to work with British people,” Cummings’s colleague said. “The end result is the same, but it works much better when people choose to do it.” If the behavior of Johnson’s own family is anything to go by, there may be some truth to that logic. If Britain’s new prime minister eventually succeeds in persuading his own father into respecting nationwide quarantine, he may succeed with the rest of the country, too. 

Owen Matthews is the author of Stalin's Children and is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.