Britain becoming ‘laughing stock of the world’

Face of Britain? Michael Gove, head of the Brexit talks (above) and Mr Bean (below). © @AkiAnastasiou

Is modern Britain a tragedy or a farce? In the world’s sixth-richest country, the virus response looks like a tragic failure – and, as for Parliament, many don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The British famously know how to queue. Over the past three months, UK citizens have had plenty of opportunities, waiting patiently in spring sunshine outside supermarkets, garden centres, and now schools.

Then, yesterday, the government recalled MPs to Parliament to join an enormous one-mile queue to vote to do more queuing from now on.

Critics say scrapping remote voting is farcical and dangerous. Angry MPs complained they had to abandon shielding and childcare responsibilities, and travel hundreds of miles to take part in a “fiasco”.

But as they joined a “conga voting queue” that snaked through the halls and corridors of Westminster, the Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg said they needed to “set an example”.

Many papers today are asking: what sort of example has the government set? Notably, this weekend, one of the country’s most venerable commentators said it, along with Britain, had become a “laughing stock” to the rest of the world.

From the start of the crisis, the UK has had a “clear and consistent” plan. First, they would build herd immunity, until the experts warned that a quarter of a million people would die.

Then the advice was to “stay at home” (unless you had tickets for Cheltenham Horse Races). Then it was a full lockdown for everyone (except senior advisor Dominic Cummings).

Worried that people were taking the lockdown rules too seriously, the government changed its advice to “stay alert” and introduced some “simple” guidelines.

If you live in England or Northern Ireland, six people can meet up outdoors. Eight people if you live in Scotland. As many as you like in Wales, as long as you come from the same two households and don’t travel more than five miles. A barbecue in your friend’s garden is fine, but bring your own food and don’t use the loo. Confused?

Political commentators are pointing out that, though it might help to ask the prime minister for some clarity, one of the distinctive features of this crisis has been Boris Johnson’s ability to disappear – sometimes for days at a time – especially when there are difficult questions to answer. (#whereisboris is trending again this morning).

Difficult questions, such as, why was the UK so slow to provide key workers with PPE? Why did it take so long to begin mass testing? Why is the government ignoring expert advice that it is too soon to ease the lockdown?

In March, medical experts said, “we will have done very well” to keep the deaths from Covid-19 below 20,000. Measures would shield the most vulnerable from the virus.

The latest figures show 50,000 dead, with almost 15,000 fatalities in care homes alone. The UK is now the worst-affected country in Europe and the second-worst in the world.

But it knows how to queue.

So, is modern Britain more tragedy or farce?

Gallows humour

Farce, say many. But don’t be fooled. Read any of the famous diaries of the past 100 years. All politics feels, at the time, a bit like a circus act. The essential quality is to be able to muddle through and keep one’s head. Our leaders are only human, after all.

Tragedy, says the other view. The UK is one of the richest countries in the world, with the best universities, the best medical schools, and one of the highest levels of general education. To have made such a mess of things and lost so many lives is both unforgivable and horrific. This is the greatest tragedy since World War Two.

You Decide

  1. Is it ever okay to laugh about some of the situations the coronavirus has forced us into?
  2. Do you think satire can change society?


  1. Draw your own cartoon about the reopening of Parliament.
  2. Write a satirical article arguing that schools should remain closed forever.

Some People Say...

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

Karl Marx (1818-1883), German philosopher and political theorist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Comedy and tragedy are, in fact, closely related. In grim, hopeless situations, we often find ourselves making jokes to relieve tension and give ourselves a sense of control. This gallows humour can be traced back to the 18th-Century Ango-Irish writer, Johnathan Swift. He also helped develop modern political satire. Making fun of people in charge and shining a light on the ridiculous is a way of exposing the flaws and failings in society.
What do we not know?
Are some situations far too serious to be comical? Some say it is tasteless to make jokes about a virus that has killed so many people. Others argue that comedy exists even in the darkest places, such as the WWI trenches, and even in the Nazis concentration camps. Other critics of satire make a very different objection. By laughing at our situation, do we learn to accept it rather than try to change society? Can we be angry and laugh at the same time?

Word Watch

Schools have begun to re-open more widely, despite opposition from teaching union and medical advisers.
Remote voting
Many countries already had electronic systems of voting long before the Covid-19 lockdown, but MPs in the House of Commons vote “Aye” and “Nay” in two separate lobbies. A system of voting that goes back to 1836.
Given a great deal of respect.
Herd immunity
The UK briefly considered allowing the virus to spread, so that the population would develop immunity and slow the rate of infection.
Cheltenham Horse Races
Johnson has been heavily criticised for delaying a full lockdown until 23 March, after major sporting events like the Cheltenham Races, and long after the rest of Europe had banned mass gatherings.
Dominic Cummings
Johnson’s chief adviser was caught travelling 260 miles during the nationwide lockdown, provoking outrage that the government was not following its own advice.
Too seriously
There was an 85% drop in contacts outside the home, much more than experts anticipated. This was good news for slowing the virus, but bad news for jobs and the economy.
The UK lagged behind other countries in the global race to buy personal protection equipment. The wrong kind of gowns and masks arrived late to the wrong places, domestic PPE was shipped abroad, and the government failed to follow up offers from companies to help supply the NHS.
Mass testing
Early in the outbreak, the UK abandoned mass testing, even though the World Health Organisation advised it was essential. Later, critics accused the government of misleading the public about how many daily tests were taking place.
Johnson’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, voted against lowering the threat level this week, despite the prime minister’s announcement that the lockdown is to be eased.


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