The political fallout from leaving the European Union was always going to negatively impact the unity of the United Kingdom — but no one could have guessed that it would happen so quickly.
Barely four months into its new independent course and free of the shackles of Europe after 45 years of a loveless marriage, the government in London now faces the prospect of the devolved governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast each going their own way when it comes to looking after the health and well-being of the 12 million or so who live on the periphery of what is fast becoming a disunited kingdom.
The commentary from newspapers across Europe is scathing, rating the UK’s performance as poor and lower league
After the turmoil of Brexit these past four years, who could have imagined that these past four months would cause far greater disruption to the health, wealth and psyche of Britons — yet it is indeed the coronavirus that hasn’t as much deepened the rift between the provinces and London, more exposed the fault lines that divide them.
And much of it is the doing of Boris Johnson.
An amateur job
From a distance — and by that I mean looking farther than the provincial press in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast to coverage beyond Britain — the analysis and commentary is that the Johnson government has done an amateur job in dealing with Covid-19 when all of the professionals were screaming for quicker and sterner action in fighting this pandemic.
The commentary from newspapers across Europe is scathing, rating the UK’s performance as poor and lower league.
“In Great Britain, the infection has spread unchecked longer than it should have,” notes German daily Die Zeit. “The wave of infections also spread from the hospitals to the old people’s homes, which could also have been avoided. The government is now trying to pretend to the public that it has the situation under control.”
Ahh, I can hear Boris backers say “that’s just typical German spite”.
Really? “According to many, testing, testing, testing is the motto,” chimes in Dutch outlet De Volkskrant. “That has hardly happened in the UK for weeks, losing sight of the spread of the virus.
This gap shows that the British were insufficiently prepared for the pandemic, despite the presence of expertise in this area. The country has been catching up in recent weeks. Much of the harm has already been done.”
If you think I’m being too harsh, consider that Health Secretary Matth Hancock made a solemn pledge that the UK would conduct 100,000 daily tests of National Health Service staff by the end of April. It managed that total just once — on April 30.
Was there an outcry? Yes.
And the reaction of Johnson? To double down and promise 250,000 tests daily.
Is it any wonder then that the leaders of the devolved governments in the provinces considered the leadership from Whitehall on Covid-19 to be just bluster?
Put yourself in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and you’re dealing with the terrible daily death tolls, the anguish of a citizenry crippled by coronavirus, unable to mourn, to work, to travel, to plan, to know what the next day, week, or month will bring, where the infirm in care homes are unprepared for the illness, where hospitals are short of personal protective equipment, do you adhere to the hot air coming from London?
Of course the same sentiments hold true in England too — but the provinces have the benefit now of devolved powers.
This growing rift between all became obvious on Sunday when Johnson aired a pre-recorded video message to the nation laying out his road map for getting the UK back up an running. Let’s just say that it went over like a lead balloon in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
In England you will be asked to “stay alert” — from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth, Portmadoc to Portstewart, the devolved message is simply to “stay home”.
Johnson believes that schools should be back up and running by June 1, with classes of 15 pupils operating — in the words of the UK government, not me — “in bubbles”.
Bubbles? More like the Johnson government is living in a bubble. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can’t see schools opening until early September — and then some.
The advice from Johnson’s government is that people can sunbathe and have picnics in parks. Try that in the mountains of Mourne, Snowdonia or the Cairngorms and you and your picnic plans will be quickly curtailed by the local constabularies.
Now, if this dangerous division between the disparate provinces of the kingdom isn’t bad enough, consider what will happen soon if Johnson decides that he’s had enough of talking to Brussels in trying to reach a deal on the UK’s future relationship with the UK — he must give notice by the end of June if he wants to extend the transition time beyond December 31.
Coronavirus might the lesser of problems facing the UK then.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe