British Exceptionalism, Terrible Covid Stats and Brexit

British Exceptionalism, Terrible Covid Stats and Brexit January 29, 2021

Brexiteers are very much like rabid Republicans in thinking, rather intuitively, that the UK is exceptional; the UK, like Republican America, is far and away better than any other country. For everything. Until challenged, and then the metric and topic is very much cherry-picked.

The problem with exceptionalism is that you become very nationally egocentric and see every decision made through the prism of your own existence and brilliance. You will sing your successes in terms of your exceptional brilliance but will rather conveniently ignore your failures.


The UK.


You will also commit to an unhealthy amount of schadenfreude in seeing every negative thing about the EU, or a foreign company, with glee and a success for the UK. It is a zero-sum game for Brexiteers, and there is joy and “amens” to every Daily Express news article decrying the EU and communicating some or other failure of theirs.

Look at the UK’s vaccination project! What a success! We have been able to approve, order, make, distribute and apply vaccinations to a massively successful degree (we’ll ignore the huge issues around second vaccinations). This is because the UK is limber, more agile outside of the EU and we’ve been able to do this precisely because of Brexit.

And the vaccine fight between AstraZeneca and the EU? It’s the EU being anti-Brexit, damn them! The EU is thinking about regulating/stopping exports of vaccine from the EU to the UK!!! What gall!

So on and so forth.

Lost in translation

This is the textbook example of national exceptionalism – that any decision made by another entity is seen through the prism of your own awesome identity. Let’s translate the last claim:

The EU is thinking about regulating/stopping exports of vaccine from the EU to the UK…

Accurately translated, becomes:

The EU is thinking about regulating/stopping exports of vaccine from the EU to non-EU countries (of which the UK is now one).

This is (and the morality of this is an entirely different question) about the EU looking after their own interests, and the UK is no longer part of their interests. But Brexiteers are so damned nationally self-obsessed that everything gets translated as referring in some way to Brexit and the UK. This isn’t about punishing the UK, this is about protecting the EU. Get over it, Brexiteer; it’s not all about you.

The EU will be acting to defend and promote the wellbeing of their own members. Of course their decisions will seek to be of benefit to their member states, and this may be to the detriment of non-member states. This isn’t targeting the UK, but promoting the EU.

We left that club.

If AstraZeneca have overpromised and underdelivered to the EU, then this is a contractual issue between two organisations. Brexiteers shouldn’t automatically jump on the AstraZeneca bandwagon merely on account of them being a UK(-Swedish) corporation so that they are somehow part of the UK national identity, and thus represent Brexit. Those members of the working class up in Sunderland really loving the multinational Big Pharma corporation now, eh!

Funnily enough, in 2017, AstraZeneca was very worried about Brexit and its ramifications, very much now playing out:

What would be more detrimental to the bottom line of a global drug company, trade limitations that restrict product distribution or constrictions in the scientific talent pipeline resulting from isolationist policies? Among other things, it depends on the time horizon in question.

Management at UK-based AstraZeneca appears most concerned with the immediate implications of a hard Brexit on the ability to distribute pharmaceuticals across the globe. In fact, the company’s most recent annual report mentions the importance of current trade agreements, which enabled AstraZeneca to earn 42% of 2016 revenue from countries in continental Europe [1]. The report goes on to acknowledge the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the potential drag on market share, sales, and profitability that could result from barriers to free trade.

However, I believe that AstraZeneca has more to lose over the long-term from the isolationist movement than just trade partners. A recent report from Strategy& argues that companies that are highly dependent on R&D for long-term success are especially susceptible to the negative effects of economic nationalism [2]. AstraZeneca certainly belongs in this discussion as it is expected to spend more than 25% of 2017 revenues on R&D, more than any other company surveyed in Strategy&’s report.

But how exactly could R&D be impacted at AstraZeneca? First, the European Union has provided financial support for research, development and innovation through a number of programs with total aid estimated at €120 billion [3]. This funding is certainly at risk as Brexit continues to take shape. More importantly, immigration policies in the UK and the US are likely to play a major role in the ability of AstraZeneca to attract and retain scientific talent, the lifeblood of drug pipelines.

False claim

Brexiteers will sing the praises of the UK vaccine success story as if it was the result of Brexit. But within the confines of the EU, we would have been able to do exactly what we have done. It would have been a risk, but the EU did not make its member states work in lockstep. There was sovereignty and autonomy in how states could roll out vaccines and organised Covid response, as we can clearly see across the EU.

Indeed, we were offered into the procurement scheme for PPE and ventilators, an option that our government rejected due to Brexiteer mentality.

We cocked up. Then we blamed the EU. Indeed, we lied about the communication chronology. These decisions were political.

Aaaand, it didn’t stick. As the FT reported of Brussels rebutting the UK claims that they never got the memo…:

The commission first mooted the possibility of joint procurement in the committee on January 31, weeks before the first initiatives were launched, the spokesman said.

“The UK was, as all other members of the health security committee meeting, aware of the work that was ongoing, and had ample opportunity to express its wish to participate in a joint procurement if it wanted to do so,” the spokesman said. “As to why it did not participate, this is obviously something on which we cannot comment.”

Something approaching 1000 healthcare workers have died in the UK. But, you know, emails:

Bryant responded: “We had every right to take part, we were invited to take part, apparently we missed the emails or forgot the emails or didn’t ask for emails, five of the meetings we didn’t attend but lots of the meetings we did attend. It’s not about leaving the European Union.”

Brexiteer: “Well done us for leaving the EU, we nailed the vaccinations!”

  1. This was not a result of leaving the EU, and could have been done inside the EU.
  2. The development and funding of the vaccine was as a result of being in the EU.
  3. This is counting a false hit and ignoring the misses (such as PPE and ventilators).

It’s okay for Brexiteers because the whole catastrophe will be covered up by and blamed on the pandemic.


The UK is exceptional, alright. Exceptionally bad in having some of the worst death stats in the world. Boris Johnson announced, looking like a haystack after a storm, that his government did “everything we could” to work against Covid.

Except, this is a lie.

Let’s rewind. Let’s rewind to the beginning. Scientists urged a rapid lockdown. The Tory government delayed until just after the Cheltenham horse racing festival. Why did they squeeze in a super-spreader gathering of 250,000 people? Why was horse racing one of the first to open back up? Why did Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweet “Thanks to the nation’s resolve, horseracing is back from Monday. Wonderful news for our wonderful sport.”?

Follow the money.

The Jockey Club, the historic organisation that owns racecourses at Newmarket and around the country, has two prominent Conservative figures on its board: Dido Harding, the former TalkTalk chief executive and Tory peer who has been put in charge of the government’s crucial Covid-19 test-and-trace operation; and Rose Paterson, the wife of the senior backbench MP Owen Paterson. Rose Paterson is also chair of Aintree racecourse, whose signature race, the Grand National, is sponsored by Randox Health, the diagnostics company advised by her husband that has been given a £133m contract to produce testing kits – without any other firms being given the opportunity to bid for the work….

During the election campaign Hancock rode the thoroughbred Star of Bengal, a horse owned by Carole Bamford, founder of the Daylesford organic farm shop chain, and wife of Anthony Bamford, the chairman of JCB, a prominent donor to the Conservative party and Brexit supporter. Hancock, wearing the party’s rosette on the gallops, tweeted afterwards: “Brilliant riding out in Newmarket this weekend on Star of Bengal. I’ll always support the wonderful sport of horseracing.”

The Tory party is corrupt, and corruption runs through the Covid response rather aptly like a virus. This is by far and away not the only example of cronyism and corruption in Covid decision-making:

Under the cover of an emergency, the government awarded £18bn in coronavirus-related contracts during the first six months of the pandemic, most with no competitive tendering processes. Meanwhile contracts totalling £1.5bn have gone to companies with connections to the Conservative party. Call it a “chumocracy” or straightforward incompetence: it’s clear there’s been a woeful lack of transparency when it comes to how taxpayers’ money is spent.

The more information we have about these contracts, the more complicated it becomes to piece them all together. As the junior health minister Lord Bethell recently told the House of Lords, the government relied on “informal arrangements” to fulfil urgent needs for PPE. One such informal arrangement was a phone call in April between Lord Bethell and Meller Designs, a company owned by a prominent Conservative party donor who has given more than £63,000 to the party. The company, which usually sells home and fashion accessories to retailers such as Marks & Spencer, was later awarded PPE contracts worth £163m.

Johnson said he takes “full responsibility” and so he should. You think the US has bad stats? Well, look at the UK’s…

The general consensus is that this is because of “a legacy of poor decisions that were taken when we eased restrictions”:

  • The initial herd immunity approach that led to a delay in doing anything more beneficial. This led to an estimated further 20,000 deaths.
  • The lack of focus on test and trace.
  • The UK was simply not prepared for a pandemic of this nature in the way some Asian nations had been.
  • There was poor initial data.
  • The government did not introduce effective health controls at the borders and still did not offer “proper sick pay”.
  • The “absolute inability to recognise” the need to address international travel had also led to a more deadly winter surge.
  • The UK did not do what other better-managed island nations did. It was not until June that quarantine rules were introduced for all arrivals and even then travel corridors were soon set up, relaxing the rules for travellers from certain countries. Only this month were these scrapped.
  • The UK had entered the pandemic “in a bad state” with rising health inequality, a slowdown in life expectancy improvements and a lack of investment in the public sector.
  • The prime minister had been given scientific advice to impose lockdowns but “pushed that back” – not only in March but again in September and December.
  • And after delayed lockdowns, we eased restrictions too soon in May.
  • Failure to introduce a short two-week lockdown, or “circuit breaker”, in September – despite their advisers on Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommending it, setting virus back a month and giving test and trace c chance to reboot.
  • Low summer levels created a false sense of security.
  • The government introduced Eat Out to Help Out to try to boost the hospitality industry and this is thought to have exacerbated spread.
  • Lack of early availability and roll-out of PPE and ventilators.

Of course, other things outside of our control also factor:

  • The size and scale of its position as a vibrant hub for international air travel.
  • Its ethnically diverse and densely packed urban populations.
  • A new variant spreading quickly.
  • Ageing population (but not as ageing as elsewhere in Europe), and high level of obesity, diabetes and other underlying health conditions (also mentioned above).

But, being an island nation, we should have had something of an advantage. Perhaps this shows really how closely and naturally integrated into the European continent we are. Other island nations around the world have succeeded so much better by locking down their borders much more strictly. We are, and for understandable reasons, obsessed with not shutting down the economy. The problem is, by dithering between two poles, we get the worst of both worlds. We aren’t just failing, we’re failing big.

Many of the decisions that Johnson and his government made were financial ones, being lobbied hard by party donors and vested interests. And these are admittedly tough decisions – one has to weigh economic conditions against lives. That’s the reality I have previously expressed. But Johnson, even allowing him this, has made poor decisions. You’d think he would learn by actually almost dying from it himself. But no, he’s gambled with the future of our country.

And it looks like he’s backed the wrong horse.

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