Matthew Flinders, Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, offers five explanations for the UK’s relative ‘shambolic and bumbling response’ to Covid-19 in comparison to Germany.
There exists a powerful cultural belief amongst the British that in Germany, life is a little more structured, organised and serious. It may come as no surprise then, that, at least for a period of time, Germany handled the Covid-19 pandemic relatively well when compared with the UK. Even six months later and well into the second (and third) iterations of the Covid-19 ‘wave’, one can reasonably argue that the UK remains, comparatively, mired in chaos and confusion. It is not only foreign observers who have noticed this somewhat shambolic and bumbling response – the confidence of the British public in the capacity of the government to design and implement a coherent response has also reached a very low ebb.
On a spectrum from ‘effective policy response’ to ‘Covid chaos,’ we could argue endlessly about the exact positioning of Germany and the UK – of course, the former has not avoided being massively affected by the pandemic. Betting that most people see Germany as having done better overall than the UK, I now offer five thoughts on the why and what of this discrepancy.
The institutional paradox of the ‘United’ Kingdom
While the UK is generally viewed as a power-hoarding majoritarian democracy, it does not seem to have been all that powerful when it comes to responding to Covid. Yes, the scale of this challenge was completely unprecedented, and significant policies have been introduced at scale and at speed. When it comes to understanding the politics of Covid there is a need for understanding what it feels like to govern under pressure. Nevertheless, the vertically-structured chimney stacks in Whitehall clearly struggled to deliver ‘joined-up government’, especially when it came to co-ordinating responses and utilising capacity in the private sector and within universities. Even within ministerial departments the fragmented organisational structures created too many potential veto-points and not enough innovation opportunities. Add to this the relatively new dynamic of territorial devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the growing asymmetry of policy responses quickly began to resemble an ‘Untied Kingdom’. The government’s initial time-top diktats fueled criticism and resistance which grew to a level where the Prime Minister began negotiating regional deals within England that only seemed to increase public confusion about what the rules were. In the end, the unitary state had to step forth and simplify things through a national lock-down.
The second issue is political trust. As more and more studies have highlighted, where governments have been able to respond quickly and effectively they have generally been able to utilise a pre-existing pool of public support or public confidence. Where that was low, the public were often distrustful and more reluctant to comply. The fact is, going into 2020 the British public were already on their knees when it came to trusting politicians, political institutions and political processes. Brexit had polarised the public and exhausted the political system even before Covid. Brexit fatigue then flowed into crisis fatigue and the structure of the British state was almost caught off-guard and ill-prepared because Brexit had sapped just about all its energy. Back in October 2016 a major crisis preparedness exercise, Operation Cygnet, had revealed major weaknesses in the capacity of both Whitehall and the health system to respond to a future pandemic. Lessons were not learned, action was not taken. As Francis Fukayama has argued, a crisis of trust undermined the capacity of many countries to respond effectively and the UK is part of that group.
Clarity on policy
The lack of clarity about policy has been a key issue. The government has been criticised for failing to grasp the seriousness of the challenge at the beginning. Boris missed several early Cobra meetings and there has never been a clear and consistent vision of what the government is doing or why. In many ways, it has been through ‘hugging the experts’ that the government has attempted to achieve credibility and stability. This has broken down in recent weeks as scientists fractured on the best way to proceed.
More importantly, Covid has proved that it is easier to lock down hard and tight than it is to reduce restrictions slowly. Once the first lockdown was lifted, people flocked to beaches and parks. The ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme seems to have only helped to spread the virus, and now we are in lockdown again. Zig-Zag, flip-flop, stop-start, more-less. Policy confusion has reigned while a large amount of the PM’s time is dedicated to either dealing with his well-known and often complex personal life or trying to control tensions within No. 10.
Accountability and scrutiny
If you look at the political impact of previous pandemics, the only thing that is almost certain is that at some point, some politician or official is going to have to take the blame. This is the world of scapegoating and scalp-hunting, which unfortunately almost defines an adversarial polity like the UK. Nobody wants to be the person who becomes the lightning-rod for public frustrations and media sensationalism about what went wrong and why. This matters because in July 2020 the PM stated that there would ultimately be a full-scale independent inquiry into Covid. With this, the shadow of future scrutiny was cast across all those politicians, scientists and medical staff involved in coping with crisis. Scrutiny in a high-blame low-trust context such as the UK risks immediately closing down the sensible risk-taking, innovation and bold decision-making that is needed in a crisis.
Bold decision-making and the art of leadership
This is the most obvious and important difference between the UK and Germany. Boris did not and could not have expected Covid. It came on top of Brexit plus his own personal challenges (divorce, new baby, new partner, near death, etc). Beyond long-standing concerns about how much Covid took out of him (‘Has Boris lost his mojo?’ people asked), it was always clear from his career to date that Boris does not do policy detail. He has a very short-attention span, he cannot prevent himself making inappropriate jokes, he wants to be loved, and as a libertarian, he cannot stand telling people what to do. His weaknesses have been badly exposed by Covid because it has shown that leading a country is not a joking matter.
If you want calm and competence you would not go to Boris Johnson… but you might go to Angela Merkel.
Want to read more? Free access to Matthew Flinders’ article on Democracy and the Politics of Coronavirus: Trust, Blame and Understanding is available here.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.