OPINION: Watching the UK from Spain is like watching a slow-motion car crash

OPINION: Watching the UK from Spain is like watching a slow-motion car crash
London (top) on July 4th and Madrid on May 25th when bars reopened after Covid-19 lockdowns. AFP
"Only time will tell if Spain’s approach will prevent any serious reintroduction of the virus. By contrast, it’s difficult to watch events in the UK without feeling like we’re seeing a slow-motion car crash," writes Sue Wilson from Bremain in Spain.

British citizens living through lockdown in Spain have generally appreciated the Spanish government’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis. Watching developments back in the UK – especially in England – has been a cause of concern, as we fear for the safety of family and friends.

The British lockdown, in comparison to ours, was late, loose and poorly managed. The rules were confusing and frequently illogical, and only seemed to apply to the general public – not to family and friends of the prime minister. It came as no surprise that the lifting of these measures was equally chaotic. 

On the much-hyped Super Saturday, pubs and restaurants were finally able to open in England, except in Leicester, which remains in lockdown due to a Covid spike.

To persuade the public to spend, spend, spend, the government opened pubs at 6am on 4 July. While encouraging a return to normality, such as enjoying a pint at the local, the government was advising the public to “act responsibly”. At the same time, Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, was warning of the continued need to socially distance to avoid a second wave. 

Sunday’s media coverage – of London, in particular – showed that social distancing in newly opened pubs was being largely disregarded. Pubs may have tried to stick to government guidelines but were overwhelmed by crowds of drinkers. The police seemed unable, or unwilling, to enforce the rules, with a senior police chief saying it was “crystal clear” that drunk people were unable to socially distance. 

When bars and restaurants finally opened in Spain, the safety measures were clear. Tables were further apart, group sizes were limited, strict cleaning regimes put in place, hand sanitiser everywhere, and masks to be worn when moving around. If my local bars and restaurants are anything to go by, the rules are being strictly applied, and every effort is being made to ensure compliance and safety. 

That’s not to say the public in Spain never flout the rules, but the general attitude here is rather different. It’s hard to say whether that’s down to a strict and clearly defined government Covid approach, or to the national psyche. 

Only time will tell if Spain’s approach will prevent any serious reintroduction of the virus. By contrast, it’s difficult to watch events in the UK without feeling like we’re seeing a slow-motion car crash, with infection rates sure to rise.

Whether you believe the British government is taking “the right actions at the right time”, it’s difficult to see how its approach could have been worse. Let’s review: the lateness of the lockdown; the lack of PPE; the failure to test, track and trace; the care homes tragedy; and many more errors of judgement spring to mind. Eventually, serious questions will be asked and someone will have to take responsibility. 

In the last few months, blame has been directed away from the UK government at every opportunity. The finger has been pointed at science, the scientists and the British public.

The fear for our friends and families’ safety in the UK also brings anger. It’s difficult not to see evidence of (predominantly young) people enjoying a drink in a crowd without shouting at the TV or newspaper. We’re not sure if they don’t understand the dangers, they think they’re invincible, they are being selfish, or they just don’t care.

Perhaps it’s true that their chances of becoming sick are slim, but how many families will be affected if just one person in a crowded pub is infected? How many policemen, waiters, bar staff – few of whom seem to be wearing masks – will suffer?

It’s natural for us to be worried, even angry, at the crowds of Brits putting others at risk, but should they bear the blame? Yes, they must accept some of the responsibility, but decisions they make about their own safety are largely based on their knowledge of the situation. Whether you blame the government, or the public, for that lack of awareness is another matter. At that age, let’s not forget that we lived in the moment too, staying well away from the politics of the day.

The mixed messaging from the British government – either deliberately, or inadvertently – has given some members of the public a false sense of security. To blame the public entirely for their behaviour is to allow the government off the hook.

Not for the first time during this crisis, I am grateful to the Spanish government for taking swift, decisive action, for regular, informative updates and clearly defined and enforced rules.

At least, here, I feel able to make an informed decision on how to stay safe. I’ll be staying well away from the UK for now, until I can feel that same level of confidence in the British government and the behaviour of the British public.

Sue Wilson

Chair, Bremain in Spain

 


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