Irish backstop –
As Leo Varadkar announced the shutdown of schools, colleges, childcare facilities and large public gatherings – days after the cancellation of St Patrick’s Day parades around the country – there has been something different altogether going on in the United Kingdom.
It seems not even a pandemic – the first of its kind in living memory – could dissuade 60,000 punters each day from descending on a town in the west of England for the Cheltenham Festival. As Irish and English gathered for the races – observing a long-held rivalry between the two nations on the racetracks – most were unconcerned about the very real threat Covid-19 poses.
The UK government continues to stand in marked contrast to many of its European counterparts in its response
Instead, they packed into the bars and stands like sardines, sharing drinks, handling cash and hugging one another throughout the days festivities – the phrase “social distancing” has no meaning on the Cheltenham grounds. And many revelled in their counter-cultural stance – dismissing the concerns of the media and politicians as hysteria, believing the saga is overblown and Covid-19 akin to a regular flu.
And it would be hard to blame them alone. The UK government continues to stand in marked contrast to many of its European counterparts in its response: on Monday it declared business as usual for the festival as culture secretary Oliver Dowden said there was “no reason” to cancel events despite the three confirmed cases in the area and the revelation that the UK had reached 300 confirmed cases overall. And last night, when offering further advice – that people should self-isolate and avoid the elderly – it consolidated its different approach to the rest of Europe, announcing that schools would remain open.
Plenty of eyebrows were raised on Monday at the news that the races would go ahead – but with the benefit of hindsight the decision seems to occupy the realms of sheer lunacy.
He cannot outmanoeuvre a pandemic with a no-need-to-worry attitude
But Johnson has long been an outlier in politics – uninterested in cowing to mores of Westminster, and certainly not one to fall in line behind his European counterparts. It’s an approach that has served him well over the years. He got his hands on the keys to 10 Downing Street via stern assurances that he wasn’t afraid of a no-deal Brexit; he pushed through his Brexit deal via the unprecedented prorogation of parliament; he kicked out some of his party’s most revered members for daring to defy him; and he laid the foundations to deliver an electoral victory that exceeded the expectations of even the most seasoned superforecasters.
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But as Johnson will learn, winning an election with a catchy slogan, crafting clever workarounds for thwarting an uncompromising parliament and strong-arming grandees out of the Conservatives is something entirely different to mitigating the spread of a virus that is uninterested in his self-belief and his too-clever-by-half adviser Dominic Cummings.
He cannot outmanoeuvre a pandemic with a no-need-to-worry attitude; and the uniquely muscular reign of No 10 cannot stave off this crisis with a cavalier belief that the Conservatives’ majority make it strong enough to do anything.
And while the occupants of No 10 still congratulate themselves for taking the UK out of the EU, or winning an electoral landslide in December, you have to wonder whether it has necessarily occurred to them – as much as it should have – that Covid-19 is not impressed by them breaking through the Red Wall; nor will it respectfully observe the diplomatic choreography Johnson displayed in unlocking the Brexit deal with Leo Varadkar last October; and certainly cares very little about the 368 Tories who sit in the House of Commons.
That Johnson has navigated his way through life curiously impervious to scandal – with an ingrained belief that everything will work out for him in the end – will also do nothing to mitigate the effects of 60,000 racegoers on Thursday standing in close quarters with little interest in implementing the most basic of protections against the virus.
There is something chilling about watching thousands of people file into the racing grounds every morning, against the increasingly febrile global backdrop. People buy more pints as Italy enters into lock down; they pack on to overcrowded trains in the evening as the World Health Organisation declares a pandemic; and thousands of them will travel back to their communities in Ireland still ardent in the belief that the whole thing is simply not that big of a deal.
It becomes harder and harder to avoid the conclusion that the decision to keep the races open, and the obvious divergence in the UK’s approach to the rest of Europe, will not be treated kindly by history.
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