Almost as soon as the Government began trying to tackle the Coronavirus, it was accused of being an “outlier”.
“Risky strategy makes Britain an outlier in the fight against coronavirus”, began one unflattering article in The Irish Times.
On Twitter, Lewis Goodall, the Policy Editor for BBC Newsnight, posted: “there’s no doubt the UK is increasingly an outlier”, which you sensed wasn’t a compliment.
He posted a chart that compared the UK to a select range of countries, such as Denmark, France and Germany, and marked each across variables such as whether they had closed down schools, restaurants and/ or had a domestic lockdown.
The conclusion of this very “objective” analysis (of ten other regions) was that the UK was on its own, in contrast to a unified Europe.
There are two areas that have caused concern, in terms of the British strategy.
One is the length of time it took the Government to impose a lockdown compared to others.
While Italy and France ordered their citizens to stay home, Johnson was much slower to do so, which he received huge criticism for.
Anyone who’s been watching the daily press briefings will have lost count of the number of times reporters have dramatically asked when lockdown was coming.
The other area is what has been described as the Government’s “herd immunity” strategy.
Though never espoused as official policy, Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific advisor, has said it would allow “enough of us who are going to get mild illness to become immune”, so as to protect the rest of the population. The aim is for 60 per cent to become infected.
What stifled any plans for this was reportedly new data coming in from Italy.
Modellers at Imperial College and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine realised, based on what was happening there, that the UK’s approach would cause around 250,000 deaths (up from the starting estimate of 100,000).
Therefore, it seems that the Government advanced lockdown plans far earlier than they had originally intended to.
Some will take this as evidence that ministers saw the light – and gave in to the consensus.
But the fact is that Britain has never really been an “outlier” or alone in its approach.
Take for instance, the Netherlands, which has also been slow to implement a lockdown.
Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister, initially resisted closing schools, and only did so after coming under pressure from educators and specialists.
Even so, authorities are still keeping places of business open, such as shops selling non-essential goods and holiday parks, so long as people keep a 1.5 metre distance.
The Dutch authorities have also pursued herd immunity, and have been pretty unapologetic about it.
On the Government of the Netherlands’ website, it reads:
“The Netherlands’ approach is essentially to control the virus as much as possible. That should lead to a controlled spread among the groups least at risk. Maximum control means taking measures to reduce the peak in infections and stagger those infections over a longer period. By taking this approach, one in which most people will experience only minor symptoms, the Netherlands can build population immunity and make sure that its healthcare system is able to cope.”
“As more people become immune to the virus, it will become harder for the virus to spread. This means the chance of it reaching people in vulnerable groups grows smaller. The aim of population immunity is to build a kind of protective wall around those people.”
I suspect that the UK could never publicise this theory in the same way; the Government would simply receive too many allegations of being callous, or fascists trying to kill off their own people.
Some say the reason the Netherlands are brazen about herd immunity is that they have a better health service, so they could cope better with implementing it. There would be lower death rates, even if people became seriously ill.
But if the Netherlands looks radical, Sweden is something else – perhaps the biggest outlier in all of Europe.
Photographs from the country show Swedes out and about in groups, with bars, restaurants and events of under 500 people still allowed to run.
It has kept schools for children up to the age of 16 open, with many people continuing to work and using public transport.
Johan Carlson, head of Sweden’s public health agency, has said that the country “cannot take draconian measures that have a limited impact on the epidemic but knock out the functions of society”. Words that would no doubt go down incredibly badly if Johnson or Donald Trump were to utter them.
Saying that, Carlson has received criticism; some epidemiologists say the authorities are running a huge experiment with the Swedish people.
Denmark, Norway and Finland disagree with their approach, having sealed their borders and imposed restrictions.
Belgian authorities, too, have reportedly criticised the Netherlands’ strategy.
But despite all this, we are not seeing much of these countries come up in the news, too much focus on Britain – and how terrible its approach must be.
My own view is that the repeated accusations of Britain being an “outlier” are an extension of the last few years of Brexit in-fighting, in which the country was derided as “Little England”, arrogantly doing its own thing.
It simply isn’t the case, though. Especially not now (as I write this in lockdown)!