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Opinion | Boris Johnson cares about freedom more than people’s lives


The Conservative Party burst into his home. With an impressive new majority, Mr. Johnson accelerated the departure of the British from the European Union, set up a transition period of one year and reportedly told the ministers to stop using the word Brexit. Britain would be free even from the word itself. Mr. Johnson, who called his party government of the people, seemed unassailable.

Then came the pandemic. Unable to get rid of his combination of bluff and bravado, Mr. Johnson struggled to match the gravity of the situation. Boasting of shaking hands with Covid-19 patients, he refused to impose a national lock, even as cases began to pile up. The people born in the UK, he argued, would not tolerate it.

We live in a land of freedom, said Johnson on March 18, as European countries followed Italy in a closure. Two days later, when he announced the closure of pubs, bars and restaurants, he noted with regret how this seemed to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people.

People did not agree. When a national lockdown was finally declared on March 23, public support for the policy was at 93 percent. It remained high over the next two months, although much of the press focused on easing the restrictions. It turned out that the British did not value their freedom more than their lives. But Mr. Johnson did, with deadly effect. Twenty thousand people, according to an estimate, would still be alive if the Prime Minister had imposed the lock earlier.

It was a calamitous error in judgment, but not necessarily surprising. Mr. Johnsons’ reluctance towards foreclosure and his unbridled enthusiasm for Brexit are of one piece. Brexit was born from a state of mind which, at its core, does not like being told what to do: it imagines a dream state where neither the island nation nor its citizens are accountable to anyone except themselves, a libertarian nationalism where all states (and supra (states) are regularized.

This style of freewheeling politics naturally comes to Mr. Johnson, and he has greased his way to power. But it is not suitable for dealing with a pandemic. One of the infamous claims of the Brexit campaign was that the people of this country had enough experts; the attack identified organizations with acronyms. Now, Mr. Johnson and his band of true believers are giving press conferences with scientists from SAGE: the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

The discordance, discordant to observe, produced an inconsistent response. Pretending at all times to be led by science, the government frequently changed its position, then denied doing so, offering the public confusing, ambiguous and sometimes impenetrable advice.

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