PM had to soothe concerns over UK virus strategy

Faisal Islam
Economics editor
@faisalislamon Twitter

  • Published
Boris JohnsonImage source, Getty Images

Downing Street has denied claims in the French press that Prime Minister Boris Johnson told pubs and restaurants to close from Friday night due to a demand from French President Emmanuel Macron for the UK to apply a more stringent shutdown.

However, it can be established that the call did take place on Friday. French political sources also told the BBC that President Macron was ready to close the border with the UK on Friday.

"It was going to happen, we were all set up for it," said one.

Early last week, the French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, also singled out the UK for what he referred to as "avoiding containment measures" around the coronavirus pandemic.

In a television interview, he said: "It goes without saying that if neighbouring states, such as UK, spend too long continuing to avoid these containment measures, then we'd have difficulty accepting British nationals who move freely in their own country, and then come to ours."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mr Philippe (L) and Mr Macron (R) have ordered the French people to stay at home amid the pandemic

The French Libération newspaper cited Élysée officials, claiming "we had to clearly threaten him to make him finally budge" from a UK policy referred to as "benign neglect".

However, UK government sources told the BBC that the move on Friday was driven by UK scientists and the need to increase the number of Britons taking social distancing measures to more than 75% of the UK population.

The French preparations to impose border controls on any non-EU citizen, including Britons arriving from the UK, arose from an earlier decision not to treat the UK as a "third country" and keep borders open.

That began to be viewed as a mistake by some in the Élysée, who felt that it was politically impossible to persuade the French people to self-isolate in their homes, while letting anybody from the UK - where the policy is not so strict - enter France.

Pressure to do more

The public statement from the French prime minister - a rare comment on global diplomacy, normally reserved for the President - was part of a strategy of escalation to pressure the UK into doing more.

The plan to close the border on Friday afternoon was called off after the call between President Macron and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

France is not the only country that has expressed concern about the early approach of the UK government to the coronavirus pandemic. And although the UK was always on course to do more, European concern was very real, as it is with the Dutch government.

The Cypriot government, for example, insisted that the UK sovereign base areas, such as RAF Akrotiri, followed very strict Cypriot rules around the pandemic rather than UK ones. Cyprus has now banned flights from the UK as well as other nations.

Differences of approach

In the Republic of Ireland, differences of approach did lead to concerns in the context of the land border. A discussion between Mr Johnson and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar took place on Thursday, where they promised to keep approaches aligned as much as possible.

The UK has also not been attending conference calls involving European health ministers, including non-EU Switzerland, coordinating a continental response.

During the sharp sterling sell-off on Thursday, traders also cited perceptions of the UK's "outlier" approach to the pandemic as one factor.

The government argues that its approach was always driven by the best research available, and that achieving "herd immunity" was never its formal strategy. But the UK approach did change after evidence of the epidemic overwhelming the Italian health system was presented to the government last Monday.