Liberty, it would seem, comes to the British from above. It trickles in as assurances about our “inalienable right to go to the pub,” which the prime minister, Boris Johnson, regretted wrenching away as the COVID-19 pandemic belatedly dawned upon his imagination in March. As Britain faced the coronavirus, a troubling version of itself stared back—a vision in which liberty is disseminated with enduring, supposedly divine, grace. Liberty’s selective graces have allowed the entitled freedom from concern for their fellow citizens, but denied others the rights to basic services. The British public, the “herd,” has endured the highest death toll in Europe.
The Lancet sounded the alarm on 24 January, stressing the need for “vigilant epidemiological control.” However, as the coronavirus ravaged Europe and overran British shores, the government dragged its feet. Johnson quipped to business leaders, even as the virus suffocated the blighted in their death throes, that his response would be codenamed “Operation Last Gasp.” He was soon admitted into an intensive-care unit, after boasting, on 3 March, that he “shook hands with everybody” while visiting a hospital. Naila Kabeer, a professor of gender and development at the London School of Economics, described Johnson’s response as characterised by “a sense of masculinity” in which “admission of danger is seen as a form of weakness.”
It would be easy to characterise Johnson’s flippant apathy and deadly policy lunges as well-intentioned decisiveness gone awry. Perhaps that is by design. However, the pandemic also exposed the structural weakness of Britain’s health system, the result of a very deliberate political project of austerity. A decade of cuts to public services and local authorities has led to Britain experiencing lower life-expectancy increases than other high-income countries.