The international verdict on Boris Johnson and his zigzag handling of the pandemic has been damning, with responses ranging from bafflement and disbelief to anger writes Helena Wilson in The Guardian
Many consider the prime minister’s initial laissez-faire approach to the crisis, followed by contradictory signals about his government’s strategy, as an inexplicable bout of British exceptionalism.
“Boris Johnson had gone out publicly and essentially asked Britons ... to accept death,” said the Greek newspaper Ethnos. It declared him “more dangerous than coronavirus”.
On Sunday, Singapore’s national development minister, Lawrence Wong, said the UK and Switzerland had “abandoned any measure to contain or restrain the virus”.
The New York Times accused Johnson of sowing confusion. “He has seemed like a leader acting under duress ... playing catch-up to a private sector that had already acted on its own.”
Politicians, scientists and commentators greeted the prime minister’s U-turn on Monday night, when he ordered a UK-wide lockdown, as a belated but welcome decision to join the rest of Europe, and much of the world, in a necessary strategy. The mystery is why it took so long.
Last week Ireland, which shares a land border with the UK, struggled to understand Downing Street’s hesitation. “Boris Johnson is gambling with the health of his citizens,” said the Irish Times.
On Tuesday, after the prime minister’s sudden reversal, one official in Dublin expressed relief. “The Brits were doing their own thing and it looked like we were going to have to live with it. They got there in the end.”
It was a variation of an observation attributed to Winston Churchill about America doing the right thing after exhausting all other options.
Foreign observers had become accustomed to Johnson’s breezy pronouncements on Britain steering its own course during Brexit showdowns last year but they winced at hearing the same tone in the context of a global health emergency.
He appeared at press conferences alongside the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, but instead of reassurance Vallance caused consternation by appearing to endorse the idea of allowing much of the population to become infected to develop “herd immunity”.
Last week the prime minister made an initial concession to physical distancing – a key tactic to slow contagion – by asking people to avoid pubs. But he did not close them and many people, including his own father, Stanley, cheerily said they still planned to go out for a drink. Nevertheless, Johnson expressed confidence such limited measures were working and could “turn the tide” within 12 weeks.
Many outsiders were aghast. The pandemic was out of control in Italy and Spain, killing thousands, and surging across the globe, prompting a scramble to emulate Chinese-style lockdowns.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, reportedly threatened to close France’s border with Britain last Friday if it did not intensify measures.
Others worried about the fate of friends and relatives in Britain. Giorgio Gori, the mayor of Bergamo, the city hardest hit by Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, flew his two daughters out of the UK, deeming them safer at home.
“When I saw what the English government was thinking about this problem, I decided to bring them back, because I think that even if we are at the center of the epidemic, probably they are more secure here than in England, because I don’t understand why the government didn’t decide in time to protect their citizens,” he told Sky News.
Greece, an early adopter of draconian measures, also became alarmed. It has one of the largest overseas student communities in the UK, much of which has been repatriated and ordered into a 14-day quarantine. Athens suspended all flights to Britain on Monday until 15 April.
Right winger cites Johnson
Not everyone lamented the foot-dragging. On Monday, before Johnson’s U-turn, a son of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, defended his father’s much-criticized response to the pandemic by citing Johnson.
Eduardo Bolsonaro tweeted a March 22 video of Johnson encouraging British citizens to use local parks. “Coronavirus is very serious but the country cannot stop,” he said. “The British prime minister advised his people to take exercise in public parks.”