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23 December 2021

How Brexit Britain became “Plague Island”

The Remain-Leave divide has taken a new form during the pandemic but both sides of Brexit may now be uniting in anger at Boris Johnson.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On 16 December the hashtag “Plague Island” began trending on Twitter as fast as Omicron cases were rising and cancellations were pouring in across the UK.

Labelled a “Remainer Hashtag” by the conservative news site Guido Fawkes, it’s the term that has come to be used by “very online” opponents of this government to characterise Britain in the time of Covid-19 – riddled with disease, and with a pandemic response inferior to that of its European neighbours.

The UK government’s approach to managing coronavirus has long been looser than many of its global equivalents. By October this year, the country had the highest case rate in western Europe and among the most infections across the world. Around this time, it was dubbed “the Covid capital of Europe” by the London freesheet City AM.

The UK’s Covid-19 death rate so far doesn’t compare favourably with many western European countries either (it is lower than Belgium and Italy, but higher than Spain, France and Germany).

[See also: Public appetite is growing for another lockdown]

Yet it made similar mistakes and faced similar dilemmas to other liberal democracies worldwide, and there are things it has done right, too. Its original vaccine roll-out was the biggest and fastest in Europe, and the UK was the most-vaccinated country in Europe until July this year.

“Plague Island” may not therefore be the fairest label, but it’s one that has stuck in certain circles.

The first use of the phrase online in this context can be found in a New York Times dispatch from London on 21 December 2020 headlined: “For UK, an Early Taste of Brexit as Borders Are Sealed”.

Covering the news of a new variant ripping through the country – which led to last-minute Christmas restrictions, other states imposing travel bans on Brits and border blockades – the piece reports:

“Britain, christened not long ago by a pro-Brexit lawmaker as ‘Treasure Island’ for the riches it offers, earned another moniker on Monday as a new variant of the coronavirus ripped through the country and set off blockades at its borders: Plague Island.”

(“Treasure Island” was what the former Brexit secretary David Davis claimed in early 2020 was the German car industry’s nickname for Britain.)

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It goes on to quote Kelly Merris, originally from Australia, who had cancelled plans to return home for Christmas: “I think the rest of the world looks at us and shakes their head. It’s not a very nice thought to be on a plague island, and that other countries don’t want you.”

The New York Times is credited with coining the phrase, yet one of the reporters of the piece, Benjamin Mueller, tells the New Statesman he first remembers reading it on the Mail Online on 21 December 2020, in a piece headlined: “Ports chaos could last until Xmas Eve: Macron says he will open border but insists all drivers MUST have negative Covid test upon arrival – but French haulage unions stoke STRIKE fears because ‘no trucker wants to deliver to plague island’”

That piece is no longer live, but you can find the cached page here. The phrase had also become a trending term on UK Twitter by that afternoon.

It is perhaps ironic that a phrase favoured by Remainers online appears to have originated in one of their most-hated publications.

In the past week, across social networks (including Twitter and Instagram), the hashtag “Plague Island” has most commonly been paired with “#Brexitcoup”, according to hashtag analysis by Brand Mentions.

“Brexit coup” is a phrase that has been used by anti-Brexit protesters in the past, for example when Boris Johnson suspended parliament ahead of the country’s EU departure date of 31 October in 2019.

Plague Island, then, is perhaps the new vision of Brexit Britain in the age of coronavirus, for those who voted Remain and still vocally oppose Brexit.

[See also: Would the British public support another lockdown?]

“We were stuck here on Plague Island with rocketing infection rates and deaths, with Boris Johnson riding the crest of a wave despite everything, somehow – and we felt we had to speak the truth from our perspective,” said Laura and Andy Perry, 38 and 44, co-authors of the blog “Notes from Plague Island”, which they started in January 2021 and features caustic critiques of Johnson and his government.

“Britain was a once strong but now sick nation in terminal decline”

“We were aware that many European countries were referring to the UK as ‘Plague Island’,” said the pair, who live in the west Midlands and both voted Remain (and “would do so again”).

The name also reminded them of Tsar Nicholas I’s description of an ailing Ottoman empire as the “Sick Man of Europe” in the mid-19th century. “We saw parallels with Britain as a once strong but now sick nation in terminal decline,” Laura and Andy said. They hope their blog signals that “not everyone in the UK agrees with this current government, and that not everyone who lives here is an inward-looking ‘Little Englander’”.

The Perrys aren’t alone in their position on Brexit and Johnson informing their view of the pandemic.

There “definitely does seem to be a correlation between more concern and therefore more support for Covid-19 measures from Remainers than there are from Leavers”, said Chris Hopkins, the political research director at Savanta ComRes, a polling company.

“But that doesn’t mean all Leavers are opposed and unconcerned about coronavirus.”

Although the “overarching takeaway” is that the public generally has been on board with most restrictions, there are some differences along Brexit-voting lines.

“Dominic Cummings was a turning point when we did see some shift, which tended to come from Leave voters”

Hopkins has long been tracking public concern about another wave of coronavirus, and finds “we’ve always had a higher Remain figure than Leave figure” – the most recent at the time of writing showing 81 per cent of Remainers concerned, compared with 73 per cent of Leavers.

[See also: Could Boris Johnson survive another Christmas lockdown?]

In Savanta ComRes’s most recent polling on a potential “full, indefinite lockdown with ‘stay at home’ message”, 43 per cent of people who voted Remain in 2016 support and 36 per cent oppose, while 35 per cent of Leavers support and 44 per cent oppose. (The national average is 38 per cent support, 38 per cent oppose).

On the question of banning different households from meeting indoors, there is also higher support among Remainers: 54 per cent support and 25 per cent oppose, compared with 47 per cent support and 28 per cent opposed among Leavers.

“There is a goody-two-shoes Remainer vibe, almost a bit of a superiority complex”

Regarding a ban on different households meeting outdoors, Leavers on the whole oppose the idea while Remainers on the whole narrowly support it.

Remainers are also more likely to support school closures, mandatory masks in indoor public spaces and compulsory home-working than Leavers, though only by a small margin.

Hopkins also spotted a dip in support for measures among Leavers after two news events: the revelation in May 2020 that Dominic Cummings had driven to Barnard Castle during lockdown, and the recent accusations of No 10 hosting Christmas parties this time last year.

The prime minister’s former top aide breaking lockdown rules was “the turning point when we did start to see some shift, and that shift did tend to come from Leave voters”, said Hopkins. This may be because they “characteristically are more suspicious of big government, being told what to do, and things like that”, he added.

Although Remainers furious at the state of “Plague Island” are the least willing to give Johnson and his government the benefit of the doubt in polling approval ratings, they are still on board with Covid measures.

“Anecdotally and colloquially, I guess there is a kind of goody-two-shoes Remainer type vibe, and almost a bit of a superiority complex, I think, from some of them, which translates as: ‘The government isn’t following the rules, we don’t like Boris Johnson, but we know best still and therefore we are going to be led by the data, and we’re going to carry on being compliant with the rules’,” Hopkins said.

Whereas “the other, extreme Leave side, I think has a bit more of a rebellious streak, characteristically and behaviourally, and that’s possibly where some of the anti-lockdown sentiment has come from, and ultimately we’re seeing it play out now in cabinet, and definitely in Westminster”.

Yet there are still “high levels of support across the board”.

“While a higher proportion of Leavers are against wearing masks in shops than Remainers, a large majority are still very much in favour”

YouGov, another polling company, also finds differences n support for Covid-19 measures between Leavers and Remainers.

In December it found 88 per cent of Remainers supported the return of masks in shops, versus 77 per cent of Leavers. Plus, 23 per cent of Leavers said they had not worn a mask at least once while visiting shops, compared with 13 per cent of Remainers.

Remainers are also more likely to be engaging closely with Covid-19 news stories: 79 per cent of Remainers and 69 per cent of Leavers told YouGov they were following the developing story around Omicron at the end of November.

[See also: Labour now leads the Tories in most polls – but it should avoid celebration]

In summer, when all Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, YouGov found 65 per cent of Remainers were nervous, compared with 50 per cent of Leavers. Remainers are also more likely to have cancelled plans in the run-up to this Christmas than Leavers, by a margin of 66 per cent to 52 per cent.

“While it might make a tempting hypothesis to suppose that there are Leave/Remain differences in opinions on Covid-19 and associated restrictions, there really isn’t all that much going on,” said Patrick English, the political research manager at YouGov.

“We are largely always talking about a few percentage points’ difference in majorities for both groups. So, while for instance a higher proportion of Leavers are against wearing masks in shops than Remainers, a large majority of Leavers are still very much in favour.

“This repeats across pretty much every policy or angle or concern you look at. We shouldn’t therefore overplay or overblow the differences we spot.”

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What unites Remainers and Leavers today is an overall drop in enthusiasm for restrictions. In January there was 79 per cent support among the general public for a full lockdown, which has now fallen to 38 per cent, according to Savanta ComRes’s Chris Hopkins.

[See also: Tory poll lead hit hard by the Downing Street Christmas party revelations]

“We’re starting to see a turning point now,” he said. “Remainers are as angry as Leavers, I think. Maybe for different reasons – maybe the former is anger at Boris Johnson and the government and the latter is more to do with not wanting to lockdown again: ‘We’ve had three jabs so why the hell are we here again?’

“It’s always a problem for governments when two opposing sides come together to hate you for different reasons.”

A plague, if you will, from both your houses.

This article was updated on 4/1/22 with details about the cached Mail Online link.

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