NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T en days after testing positive for COVID-19, Boris Johnson, prime minister of Britain, has been admitted to the hospital. A spokesperson for No. 10 Downing Street said this was a “precautionary step,” which is PR-speak for absolutely necessary.
Johnson’s hospitalization is a surreal and disturbing development in an already surreal and disturbing story. He has said that his government is fighting a “war” against COVID-19. And they are, in a way. But imagine if, during World War II, Winston Churchill had been seriously injured during a German air raid or if, the night before the Battle of Trenton, George Washington was debilitated. From history, we know only too well, the morale of a country in crisis often leans heavily on the man or woman in charge.
Last night, around the same time that news broke of the prime minister’s deteriorating health, the queen gave a rare address to her country. “Those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any,” she said. “The attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humored resolve, and of fellow feeling still characterize this country. The pride of who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.” The queen reminded the country that her first-ever public address had been in 1940, when she, then a child, had addressed the evacuated children of Britain. But are these dangers really analogous?
In World War II, the enemy — Nazi Germany — was a threat to free society, to be defeated only through an enormous cost in human life. Today, however, this threat and cure appear to be in reverse: We will defeat death, we are told, only by sacrificing freedom. Okay, but for how long? There are some who have dared to wonder out loud whether this is, in fact, back to front — whether, when this storm passes, we may be left in a country we do not recognize. “As soon as the scientists start talking about a month or even three or six months” of lockdowns, the former U.K. Supreme Court justice Jonathan Sumption recently wrote, “we are entering the realm of sinister fantasy in which the cure has taken over as the biggest threat to our society.”
Perhaps Sumption is wrong. Perhaps a three-month, six-month, or yearlong lockdown is the only sensible way to contend with the pandemic. But he is right to count costs other than deaths. We know that unemployment breeds despair. And yet millions are now jobless. We know that in civilized societies, people die surrounded by their families, and with access to ministers of their faith. And yet paramedics are telling COVID-19 patients to remember to pack their phone charger, since without it, they may never “see” or “speak” to their families again. People with COVID-19 are dying because of a virus. But the drastic circumstances of their lives and deaths are due not to a virus but to decisions made by someone somewhere who thought that this was how we ought to respond — and in the knowledge that some people elsewhere (such as Sweden) are deciding to respond differently.
Many of these fundamental changes have been decided overnight. Britain took more than three years to decide the conditions under which it would leave the European Union. Less than a year ago, the question of the “Irish backstop” was deemed unacceptable becauses it would keep the U.K. locked into the EU’s trading regulations without a clear exit clause. But then, just last week, Parliament rushed the coronavirus bill through the House of Commons, enacting the most wide-reaching, intrusive legislation the country has ever seen, placing the entire population under house arrest, shutting down the economy’s major organs, and giving the police the power to detain the “potentially” infected, which, at this point, could mean virtually everyone. (As I noted on the Corner, it is not all clear that the police are to be trusted with these new powers.)
The bill is drafted to last for two years and places a ban on all gatherings, including — quite remarkably — political gatherings. Without freedom of assembly, how is this arrangement to be democratically challenged? All is not clear. Now more than ever, Britain needs a leader capable of boosting public morale and preserving the country’s constitution and character.