Two countries divided by a common pandemic
In late 1970, British prime minister Ted Heath learnt that his Australian counterpart John Gorton planned to change the name of the Department of External Affairs to the Department of Foreign Affairs. It became a big issue – Britain’s view was how could Her Majesty’s Australian Diplomatic Service, as our diplomats were then grandly styled, possibly handle relations with the UK from a ‘Foreign Affairs’ department when the UK plainly wasn’t a foreign country? We were family. And to a great extent we still are. But our responses to the great pandemic challenge could scarcely be more different.
In early May two strange events occurred in Britain. Firstly, as it passed the grim milestones of 30,000 coronavirus deaths and Europe’s highest death tally, Boris Johnson said ‘many people will be looking at our apparent success’. Widely panned for the claim, he hasn’t repeated it.
Secondly, the ritual of the Thursday clap for National Health Service (NHS) staff took place with undiminished enthusiasm. Who would begrudge such a kind gesture? Yet obviously it wasn’t recognition of achievement. Brits note that despite Australia’s spectacularly greater success in containing the virus – a death toll of less than 100 – there’s no equivalent health service worship.
In most developed economies, citizens simply expect good health services, as they do reliable utilities or public transport. But the NHS, the post-war Labour initiative providing universal free healthcare, has a hallowed status in Britain. The weekly applause has a quasi-religious flavour, with Orwellian and woke elements, plus a dash of death-of-Princess-Diana emotionalism. Twitter is full of users denouncing their neighbours for not appearing for the ritual, recalling denunciation of heretics or those foolish enough to stop clapping first after a Stalin speech. Private Eye has run the story ‘Woman who didn’t clap for the NHS to be burned at the stake’. All of this highlights how profoundly Britain has changed since its last great national test, the Blitz, when people certainly didn’t bang pots to thank Air Raid Warden Hodges and his emergency services colleagues. Everyone kept calm and carried on.
Retired doctor Theodore Dalrymple, who has written extensively about the NHS, observes that many in Britain have an unshakeable belief that it is ‘the envy of the world’, underlined by the UK featuring its health service as part of the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. However, Dalrymple says, ‘its performance is mediocre at best. It has a dreadful reputation in the rest of western Europe, and I have never heard a European say that they would like to be in England if they fall ill.’ He notes that if you have brain cancer in Britain your chance of surviving five years is 26 per cent, while in ex-communist Croatia it’s 42 per cent.
NHS worship is particularly strong among the Left. Even though the Tories have never dared touch it, part of the NHS credo is that the party hates and underfunds it. Celebration of the NHS for its heavily migrant and multi-racial staff is used as an ‘up yours’ to the Conservatives’ mythological hostility to immigration. And much celebration of the NHS features its new woke branding, which incorporates the LGBTQ rainbow.
But it’s doubtful whether participants in the weekly NHS love-ins actually care much about health workers. One of Britain’s most catastrophic decisions in response to the pandemic was London mayor Sadiq Khan’s slashing of underground services, making rush-hour trains even more hideously crowded than usual and almost certainly causing the virus to spread further. NHS commuters begged Khan to reverse the decision. The clap-for-carers crowds could have come out supporting them. But they preferred to bang pots – probably because Khan is a Labour ‘progressive’ and therefore beyond criticism.
Another stark area of coronavirus difference between Australia and Britain has been UK acceptance of medical advice later rejected as wrong. Before the lockdown, it gave the green light to large events, such as the Cheltenham races with 250,000 attendees, as they ‘don’t have a big effect on spreading the virus’. Government scientists advised Khan there was ‘no risk’ of catching the virus on public transport as long as travellers washed their hands.
On international air travel, Boris Johnson rejected Home Secretary Priti Patel’s pressure to replicate Australia’s blanket ban on arrivals from virus hotspots. Amazingly, there are still no restrictions on foreign visitors or routine quarantine measures for incoming passengers. About 70,000 continue to arrive every week as police swoop on dog walkers in lonely parts of the Peak District. Britain has finally foreshadowed two-week mandatory quarantine, although unlike in Australia it will be in people’s homes (where presumably infected arrivals can infect other household members), and not until June. Meanwhile, a hundred illegal immigrants of unknown health status arrive each week from across the Channel.
Differences are also marked in the two countries’ approaches to China. Britain hasn’t backed Australia’s call for an independent enquiry into the pandemic’s origin and generally seems more anxious not to upset China. This magazine’s Douglas Murray has revealed how astonishingly far Britain will go to ensure good relations with China: after David Cameron met the Dalai Lama in 2012, Chinese officials demanded that British officials stand and read an apology, which they duly did. Australia has also been guilty at times of kowtowing to China. But there’s nothing quite to compare with this.
Mark Higgie is The Spectator Australia’s Europe Correspondent
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