Britannia, With Fewer Rules

Soccer in the United Kingdom is a celebration of the British at their most tribal. A fan of one team might live next door to a fan of another and if they don different shirts on game day, these neighbors will be steeped in different lore and howl for different outcomes.

The forces that pit one tribe against another will seem both mysterious and trivial to nonfans. With occasional exceptions. When Southampton F.C. played Swansea City a few weeks ago even the soccer agnostic would have realized that the game highlighted a major difference. A difference on a national scale.

The stands were essentially empty. That’s because the game was held in Swansea, which is in Wales, where the government, battling the coronavirus, was then limiting sporting events’ crowds to just 50. (The rules have since been eased.)

“In normal circumstances, I would be on my way to Wales this afternoon,” Mark Littlewood said on the day of the game. Mr. Littlewood is the director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free-market think tank, and a Southampton fan.

“Were the game held at home for Southampton,” in southwest England, “around 30,000 fans would be there.”

When it comes to coronavirus restrictions, England has stood apart from its European neighbors and even other countries in the United Kingdom. It has never required proof of vaccination for restaurants, common on the continent. Time and again, it has lifted restrictions well ahead of other countries, as it did once more on Thursday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson lifted the last of the “Plan B” rules, ending work-from-home guidance, compulsory mask wearing on public transport and vaccine certificates for some public events.

England has been eager to return to business of every variety — restaurants, theaters, pubs and yes, soccer games. To foreign observers, including an American reporter whose touchstone is the more cautious, wait-it-out approach of New York City, the English have at times seemed bold to the point of fearless.

What explains an approach to the pandemic that could be called “Covid casual,” at least relative to other countries?

There are a lot of theories. Some scholars invoke history and the British emphasis on individual rights. Others focus on some ineffable notion of English character, a singular combination of stubbornness, stoicism and common sense.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been under fire recently for hosting or attending parties that flout the laws he himself imposed.Credit…Paul Childs/Reuters

None of which is to say that England’s leaders have avoided Covid restrictions. There have been three national lockdowns, including one that started in January 2021 and prohibited mixing between households. Pubs, restaurants and nonessential stores had already been closed. At one point, during the first lockdown, people were allowed outdoors to exercise once a day and only locally.

Yes, there have been protests against vaccine passport proposals and plenty of grumbling about restrictions. In general, though, Britons followed the rules with a minimum of fuss.

“The thing about the British love for freedom and liberty is that it’s not pathological,” said Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties nonprofit. She has regarded some Covid rules as both an annoyance and an overreach, but she abided by them anyway. During the first lockdown, she sat in a park with her dog and a police officer asked her to go home, since she clearly wasn’t exercising.

She went home.

Arguably, she didn’t have much choice. But when the English could get away with skirting the rules, most don’t. At least that’s what they say. An Ipsos MORI poll in August found that almost three-quarters of the country would comply if they were “pinged” by the National Health Service’s contact-tracing app and asked to self-isolate for seven days.

It is the English willingness to shoulder a shared sacrifice that explains the widespread outrage over the parties thrown by the prime minister during lockdown. He has apologized to Parliament, though his contrition might not suffice and his political future is unclear.

But with a vaccine program that was among the most efficient in the world, and with more than 72 percent of the population now double jabbed, according to Our World in Data at Oxford University, the English have proved unusually keen to look past the risks and return to habit. This was true in August, when the Delta variant was infecting about 30,000 people a day and stadiums were filled with soccer fans. It was true in December when shoppers were out in force, even while Omicron was infecting 120,000 people a day. (Over 130,000 people in England have died over the course of the pandemic.)

“We didn’t skip a beat,” said John Devitt, the owner of Koya, a three-store chain of Japanese noodle restaurants in London. In fact, there’s been an instant uptick in traffic each time the government has lifted restrictions, he said. “In August of 2020, we reopened with 14 stools instead of our usual 23, and I literally heard one complaint,” he said. “In my mind I’m thinking, you shouldn’t come to the center of Soho with your concerns. Because everybody is out eating and drinking without a care in the world.”

Mr. Devitt calls the government’s approach to Covid “cavalier” and he means that as a backhanded compliment. Behind this ethos is a mix of insouciance and hard-nosed calculation.

“To my mind British society seems to be in a position of saying ‘We’ve done everything you’ve asked us and now want to start living our lives once more,’” said Ahir Shah, a comedian and writer whose work often touches on matters of identity and national character. “My parents have had three jabs and with everyone immunized up to the hilt, even if my mom decided to do a line of Omicron, she might be a bit ill but nothing overwhelming.”

Demonstrators protested vaccine passports and other vaccination efforts last month in Parliament Square in London.Credit…Vickie Flores/EPA, via Shutterstock

Another school of thought holds that English citizens are not what sets apart the country’s reaction to the coronavirus. It’s English politicians, particularly the Conservative Party, which has governed for most of the last century and which has been aligned with right-wing thinkers in the United States for decades.

Why might an English leader speak admiringly of the free-market Chicago school of economics while a counterpart in France or Germany might not? It starts with an affinity borne of history and a common language and extends to a shared ethos that privileges the individual over the communal.

Maybe it matters, academics say, that other countries in Europe were run by despots and monarchs into the 20th century. By the time World War I ended and shook up political regimes around the world, the United Kingdom had been ruled by an elected Parliament for a few hundred years. (To be sure, the franchise was far from universal.)

This could be another way of saying something you hear often in England: People here don’t like to be told what to do. Or as Mr. Littlewood — the frustrated Southampton fan and free marketeer — put it, “If you’re going to infringe on the freedom of a Brit, you better have a good reason to do so.”

Then there is England’s sense of exceptionalism. In its more benign version, observers pin this is to a civic pride that stems from the country’s role in exalting individual rights and denouncing tyranny. Here is where Magna Carta is invoked, along with the works of writers like John Locke, John Stuart Mill, George Orwell and others.

Understand Boris Johnson’s Recent Troubles

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Turmoil at Downing Street. A steady drip of disclosures about parties that violated lockdown rules has ensnared Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain in a scandal that could threaten his hold on power. Here is what to know:

Contentious gatherings. The British news media reported that staff members were invited to a party in the backyard of Mr. Johnson’s residence in May 2020, when officials were instructing people not to socialize to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Subsequently, details about other gatherings involving government officials that violated Covid rules have emerged.

Investigations. A senior civil servant is investigating the matter internally. Mr. Johnson faces questions about whether he broke lockdown rules and misled Parliament about his knowledge of parties at Downing Street that breached Covid rules. The British police are also conducting an investigation into parties held at government offices.

Mr. Johnson’s response. After public backlash, Mr. Johnson issued a contrite apology for attending the party in his backyard, while claiming that he had viewed the gathering as a work event that did not breach the rules. He also apologized for parties held at Downing Street as the queen prepared to bury her husband.

What’s at stake. The crisis has stoked speculations that the political future of Mr. Johnson might be at risk. Though few Conservatives in Parliament have publicly called on him to quit, if the investigation determines that he misled Parliament, it could cost him his job.

The less benign version of English exceptionalism is a history rooted in the country’s one-time role as the greatest colonizer ever. At its height, early in the 20th century, the government and executives in London and around the country controlled about one-quarter of the world’s population, more than 400 million people.

In “Empireland,” the author Sathnam Sanghera linked England’s colonial past to its triumphalism as it managed, and mismanaged, the pandemic. He points out that Mr. Johnson promised a “world-beating” testing program and later a “world-beating” test and trace system, neither of which materialized.

Dan Snow, a historian and podcaster, argues that the resistance to laws around Covid behavior stems from Britain’s faith in the power of vaccines.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Last March, Mr. Johnson crowed about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine — the “Oxford vaccine” as he likes to call it — and praised “the vast dispersal of British ideas, and British values, puffed around the world like the seeds of some giant pollinating tree.”

This is a new articulation of Global Britain, one that isn’t actually garrisoned in countries around the world so much as fertilizing them from a distance.

“Every stage of the crisis has been characterized by the idea that Britain is a special case,” Mr. Sanghera wrote.

It was special, and sometimes for the best of reasons. When the vaccines debuted in the United States, millions of people chased them online. In Britain, the vaccine chased you. One day, a notification showed up on your phone, from the National Health Service, asking which day and vaccination center was convenient. The entire process was easier than buying an iPad online.

But England was often special in the worst way. For stretches of the pandemic it had the highest death rate in Europe. In March 2020, when Mr. Johnson contracted Covid after seeming to defy recommended precautions, The Irish Times described Mr. Johnson’s leadership as “another example of British exceptionalism backfiring in grand style, some might say, and a bad omen for Brexit, the U.K.’s other social distancing project.”

To date, England’s efforts to prevent death from Covid-19 have been more successful than those of the United States, on a per-capita basis, but lag most of Europe. In Germany, there have been 141 deaths per 100,000, in Spain 197. In England, the per capita death rate is 240.

Not the worst, and far from the best. The historian and podcaster Dan Snow argues that this showing flows from the U.K.’s faith in the power of vaccines, which is of a piece with England’s love of — and gift for creating — life-altering technology.

“The vaccine was a kind of tech optimism, it was the moonshot,” he said. “Like the U.S., we’re a country open to transformative technology and that makes sense because this is where the industrial revolution began. We start by fiddling around with looms and textiles and eventually there’s a man on the moon.”

This faith in the power of English minds to dig the country out of any mess is a variation on the theme of exceptionalism. Put another way, the English are different. Expecting them to trod the same path as the rest of Europe is folly.

Or as Mr. Snow put it, “The boring, social democratic solution of ‘Let’s slow down transmission, sit apart from each other, let’s not do whatever we want’ — to English ears, that all sounds a bit Dutch.”

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