Brits flocked to beaches, including this one in Dorset, after the government loosened travel restrictions. (Matthew Childs/Reuters)
LONDON — In the past few days, the beaches of Dorset in southern England were so crammed with sunbathers, as 500,000 merrymakers flouted social distancing rules, that local councils declared an emergency.
In Liverpool, ecstatic soccer fans celebrated a Premier League title in an enormous downtown mosh pit for two days, refusing to disperse and battling anti-riot squads. The mayor called it “heartbreaking.”
Meanwhile, in London, authorities have been scrambling to break up illegal “flash mob” street parties, complete with sound systems and DJs. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick complained that some attendees were drunk and violent, and that all were selfish and reckless, “seeming not to care at all” about their own or their family’s health.
All this, and the pubs haven’t even reopened. That happens Saturday.
As England prepares to further ease its lockdown this weekend, while trying to head off any resurgence of the coronavirus, it faces a public burned out by months of social isolation — and more distrustful of government edicts than ever.
Britain was skeptical of politicians, bureaucrats and experts even before the pandemic, a sentiment stoked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his allies over the past several years in their campaign to see Britain leave the European Union. Michael Gove, now a senior figure in the government, declared during the Brexit push that the public had had enough of experts.
Yet, during the coronavirus lockdown, Gove and other ministers were flanked by scientists at daily news conferences. England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, became a household name. And Brits put their faith in Johnson’s government. Just after the start of the lockdown in March, 72 percent of respondents said the British government was handling the crisis well, according to polling by YouGov.
But Johnson and his administration have seen that trust evaporate after missteps and inconsistent messaging. Just 43 percent approve of the government’s coronavirus response in YouGov’s latest poll.
That free fall in confidence is among the steepest in the world, rivaling a drop of support for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. The governments of Australia, Canada and Germany have seen their approval ratings soar during the pandemic. In the United States, government confidence has remained consistently low — about 41 percent of people approve of the Trump administration’s response, down from a peak of 53 percent in March, according to YouGov’s polling in 22 countries.
Dominic Cummings, special adviser to the prime minister, leaves his home in London on June 25. (John Sibley/Reuters)
YouGov’s international projects director, Marcus Roberts, said that within Britain, trust began to “collapse” after news broke in May that Johnson’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, allegedly flouted lockdown rules by taking a 250-mile road trip while infected.
Roberts said Cummings “broke that fundamental notion of fair play, and with it came crashing down the government’s numbers.”
Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, also noted a “massive drop in public trust” and said it stemmed in part from a growing awareness that Britain entered lockdown too late.
Johnson’s government has been criticized for various failures: to provide enough protective gear to front-line medical workers, to run a robust test-and-trace system, and to protect the elderly in nursing homes. But the government’s decision to delay its lockdown, even while continental Europe told everyone to stay home, has been singled out for particular opprobrium.
One of Britain’s top infectious-disease modelers, Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, told a parliamentary committee last month that “had we introduced lockdown a week earlier, we’d have reduced the final death toll by at least half.”
With almost 44,000 dead, Britain has the highest death toll in Europe.
In March, one reason Johnson and his advisers gave for their go-slow approach was fear that people would quickly experience lockdown “fatigue” and abandon social distancing and quarantine rules.
[U.K. resists coronavirus lockdowns, goes its own way on response]
The scenes of packed beaches in recent days have revived debate about whether that was a legitimate concern. But people trying to resume normal life may also be responding to signals from the government.
On the Facebook page of the Bournemouth Daily Echo newspaper, one user wrote, “The government said ‘come to the beaches’ of course they flocked down here. Why wouldn’t they? They were told its okay. The government should have kept the essential travel only.”
People pack the beach in Bournemouth, southern England, on June 25. (Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)
Another, referring to the Cummings controversy, wrote, “If the PM enables his aide to travel where he likes, people think it’s okay for them to do it.” Another said, “It’s one rule for them and another for us plebs!”
Ben Voyer, a behavioral psychologist at the London School of Economics, has been watching the government’s public health messaging. Some of the inconsistency is understandable, he said, given the evolving understanding of a novel virus. But still, it undermines trust in authority.
First, Voyer recalled, the advice was don’t wear a mask; now it’s wear a mask, on public transportation at least. Before, it was you don’t need a test. Now? Everybody should get tested.
Johnson also recently reduced the social distancing requirement from two meters to one — a change made in part to facilitate the opening of restaurants and pubs in England.
[Two meters? One meter plus? Social distancing rules prompt fierce debate in U.K.]
The coming weeks will be tough because the government is now offering “guidance” vs. “rules,” Voyer said. “To have an impact, people need binary advice. Yes or no. Do it or don’t do it. Is this compulsory or not compulsory?”
Voyer added: “If you leave for people to figure out whether to mask or not, they’ll look around, see what the social norm is, and just go with the flow.”
The new advisories are also complicated. Starting Saturday, people will be able to celebrate weddings again, for example, but not to sing at the ceremonies. A couple can exchange rings but should wash their hands before and after. Newlyweds can visit one set of parents at a time, but not two. They can go to hotels but need to be wary of elevators.
There are pages and pages of these new guidelines.
Researchers at the U.K. Office of Communications, Britain’s communications regulator, found that now, 24 percent of the public is confused about what they should be doing in response to the coronavirus — compared with 17 percent in the first week of the lockdown in March.
Sridhar said many people may also suspect that the government is reopening at its current speed in hopes of kick-starting the economy and seeking a boost in the polls, not necessarily because of the science.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Pizza Pilgrims in London on June 26. (Heathcliff O’Malley/Pool/Reuters)
The British government is trying to revive the economy while keeping citizens safe, Johnson told Parliament, where both Conservative Party lawmakers and the opposition Labour Party support reopening, albeit carefully.
Johnson pointed to clear evidence that it was time to ease the lockdown: New infections were falling by 2 to 4 percent daily, and hospitalizations have decreased by almost 75 percent.
On Tuesday, the government announced that the number of deaths had returned to normal levels for the first time since the virus hit hard in March.
The prime minister, however, warned that the virus is still spreading in other countries and that if the number of new infections began to spike again in Britain, strict measures — locally or nationally — could resume.
Indeed, on Tuesday, following a surge in coronavirus cases, the city of Leicester in the Midlands was returned to lockdown for two weeks, with nonessential shops and schools closed.
Pollster Ben Page, head of Ipsos MORI, described a worrisome confluence of attitudes. “There’s falling concern about the virus and falling confidence in the government,” he said.