Britain’s reputation for its handling of the coronavirus epidemic has taken another global pasting after newspapers worldwide reported on what they described as confusion and internal divisions that are rapidly creating a crisis as big as Brexit for the UK.
With many diplomats admitting that soft power reputations are being forged or destroyed during the pandemic, the European press in particular is taking time to point out that the UK is experiencing the worst death rate in Europe, revealing a National Health Service that is underfunded and underprepared.
The UK is also being singled out as the country that led on the theory of herd immunity only to backtrack.
One of the UK’s diplomatic strengths has long been its international advocacy for global health, and its poor domestic performance may damage its influence worldwide.
The German newspaper Die Zeit put the UK near the bottom of the league table, writing: “In Great Britain, the infection has spread unchecked longer than it should have. The wave of infections also spread from the hospitals to the old people’s homes, which could also have been avoided. The government is now trying to pretend to the public that it has the situation under control.”
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung acknowledged the UK’s special context: “The prime minister may be credited with having to fight a harder struggle than some other heads of government. Britain (and London in particular) is particularly vulnerable. As a former colonial power and Europe’s air hub, it is in close contact with the world. Many Britons live in metropolitan areas where the virus spreads faster. With the state’s National Health Service, the nation has also given itself a health system that is cumbersome, bureaucratic and has been underfunded for some time.”
It predicted: “Once the nation has returned to normal, more citizens than before may question faith in British exceptionalism. That will not immediately drive them back into the arms of the European Union. But it could at least increase pressure on the Johnson government to prolong trade talks with the EU and not to fail with a gesture of arrogance.”
In Italy, Corriere della Sera pointed to the national divisions within the UK, writing: “The United Kingdom is shattering on phase 2. Last night, in a televised speech to the nation, Boris Johnson announced the progressive – but still slow and gradual – relaxation of the ‘lockdown’: the government’s message goes from ‘stay at home’ to ‘be alert’. However, the other regions of the country do not agree: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will continue to ask their citizens not to leave [home].”
The Spanish newspaper El País reported the UK government’s strategy had generated confusion and anger among citizens, businessmen and the self-employed.
It claimed Johnson had always known how to pitch his speech to the character of the British and tell them what they wanted to hear. “Or at least make them smile. Until now.”
In an editorial, Le Monde, the leading French daily, described Britain’s new slogan as cringeworthy, given the UK had recorded the worst mortality figures in Europe.
Its news report suggested the UK itself was “fading” and added: “Despite Europe’s worst mortality, probably too late entry into confinement and a blatant lack of preparation, the British have so far supported Johnson.”
The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant also challenged the UK performance: “According to many, testing, testing, testing is the motto. That has hardly happened in the UK for weeks, losing sight of the spread of the virus. This gap shows that the British were insufficiently prepared for the pandemic, despite the presence of expertise in this area. The country has been catching up in recent weeks. Much of the harm has already been done.”
The Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet criticised Johnson’s ambiguity while the New York Times said many had been left baffled, adding: “His proposals had run into a barrage of opposition, as critics pointed to gaps and contradictions in a plan that left many pondering basic questions such as when to return to work and how to get there.”
The Wall Street Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch, was more sympathetic, saying the UK faced the same trade-offs as countries worldwide, but warned: “It’s quickly becoming a bigger political challenge for Prime Minister Boris Johnson than Brexit.”
Tom Fletcher, a former British diplomat and a great student of the soft power league table, recently wrote: “This will be a defining period for national identities, as many of us are more attuned to what is happening globally and have more time to absorb it.