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1 July 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:39pm

Anatomy of a crisis

The UK was well prepared for a pandemic, but the data reveals its flawed response.  

By David Ottewell

Ask Boris Johnson how the UK has fared in dealing with coronavirus and he’ll tell you the “best scientific advice” is to wait for the epidemic to run its course before drawing international comparisons.

It is true that we don’t have a complete picture. The story of Covid-19 is far from over, and in any case no single measure stands as a proxy for how well, or badly, a government has done. Yet there is already much the data does show. We know how many people have died, and where and when they died. We know how quickly, and strictly, each country locked down. We know how testing regimes have varied. We know how economies are suffering. These are important “real-world” indicators with profound social implications. The fact the data cannot tell us everything – not yet, if ever – does not mean it tells us nothing.

In an attempt to provide a comprehensive international audit of what we know so far, the NS data team has compared 14 countries using more than 40 different indicators. The comparator group includes the US, the UK, Italy, Spain, France, Brazil, Germany, Canada, China, India, Russia, South Korea and Japan – the world’s largest economies – as well as Sweden, as an example of a country with a markedly different approach to Covid-19.

Indicators were divided into four groups. The first covered epidemiology: how the virus spread, how many it killed, how quickly it was brought under control. This group included data on testing regimes and the speed and stringency of lockdown measures. The second group covered preparedness: how well adapted each country was for a major epidemic. The third looked at the economic impact. The fourth covered the political impact: how citizens have responded to their government’s choices. There is no sensible way of combining these into an overall ranking of how well each government has done. Each dataset is, rather, a brushstroke: we must let the picture emerge.


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In theory, the UK was well-prepared for a pandemic. The Global Health Security Index for 2019 – which measures preparedness – rated only the US higher. Yet the UK has one of the world’s highest official Covid-19 death rates per capita, and its excess deaths during the pandemic period are 45 per cent higher than expected in a typical year. A survey, commissioned by the New Statesman, of more than 500 UK-based business leaders, 72 per cent of whom work for organisations with revenues of more than $250m a year, revealed that 38 per cent thought the UK was well prepared to handle the outbreak, but only 25 per cent thought the government responded well.

Among countries past their first wave of cases, the UK took longest to bring deaths down. We measured the gap between peak daily deaths from Covid-19 and the point those deaths were reduced to 20 per cent of this figure. The UK took 59 days. Italy took 49, Spain 42, France 34 and Germany 27.

Why? For one thing, the UK was relatively slow to implement key elements of lockdown. The Blavatnik School of Government, based at Oxford University, tracks lockdown measures and assigns a “stringency score” out of 100 to each country, updated daily. At the time of its tenth Covid-19 death the UK had a stringency score of 11 – the joint lowest alongside Spain and the US. By the 100th death, Spain and the US had ramped up their stringency to more than twice that of the UK. It took the UK ten days after its tenth Covid-19 death to cancel public events and close schools – longer than any other country.

Just as the UK locked down late, it lifted lockdown early. At the time restrictions were first eased the UK was still recording nearly seven deaths per million population per day – higher than any other country at the point of lockdown release.

When we asked business leaders to identify the country they believe responded best to the crisis, New Zealand came out top, with Germany, Denmark and China in second, third and fourth place respectively. The UK only just made the top 30, with less than 0.5 per cent of the vote.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has predicted the UK economy will shrink by 11.5 per cent in 2020 – more than any other country in the group. Job losses have so far been mitigated by the furlough scheme: while the unemployment rate quadrupled in the US between January and April, in the UK it remained static at 3.9 per cent. However, furloughed workers may find they have no job to go to when the scheme ends in October, and the number seeking unemployment-related benefits has more than doubled.

While 66 per cent of respondents to our survey said the government’s financial support had been critical to the survival of their business, 73 per cent still expect to cut jobs. Of those expecting to make cuts, 38 per cent predict that more than 20 per cent of roles in their organisation will be lost. Meanwhile, 82 per cent of the business leaders we surveyed expect the outbreak will cause a deeper recession than the crash triggered by the global financial crisis in 2007-08. Around three quarters predict a slow recovery.


The UK’s stimulus package, as a proportion of GDP, is roughly in line with Spain and France and lower than those in Italy, the US and Germany. It is less impressive relative to the scale of the outbreak: the UK has put in $10.2m per Covid-19 death, France $15.9m, Italy $26.5m and Germany $137.3m.

Boris Johnson – like all leaders in the comparator group – saw his approval rating rise in the early stages of the pandemic. By the end of May it had fallen back to roughly where it was at the time of the UK’s first Covid-19 death. Leaders in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Canada and South Korea all preserved increases of between 5.7 and 18.9 percentage points. The only world leaders to suffer bigger falls in their approval ratings were Shinzo Abe of Japan, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Donald Trump. Only 33 per cent of our survey respondents rated Johnson’s leadership during the crisis positively. While the Chancellor Rishi Sunak had a net approval score of 21 per cent, Johnson’s was -1 per cent, the lowest of any government member we asked business leaders to rate.

The pandemic continues, and while the full picture of the UK’s Covid response is unfinished, the shapes are plain to see. 

Additional research by Ben Stevens.

Read more from this week’s special issue: “Anatomy of a Crisis: How the government failed us over coronavirus”

This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis