Why are Britons so much more relaxed about Covid than Europeans?

UK residents abroad are shocked at the lack of mask wearing back home, and point fingers at the government’s blase approach

Compared with some other countries, along with high numbers of Covid cases and deaths, the UK has relatively relaxed Covid restrictions, with no mandatory vaccine passports, no social distancing measures, and no mask mandate in England.

Four people from the UK and in Europe share their views on the country’s approach to Covid restrictions compared with others they are visiting or living in.

‘British people seem to think it won’t happen to them’

Liz, 60, who is in Turkey, said people there are “excellent at wearing masks”, which makes her “feel safer” than in the UK. “I was on the Metro in Newcastle before I left and I was a nervous wreck because people weren’t wearing them,” she said.

Liz, who is retired and lives in the north-east of England and is in Turkey to help look after an ill friend, said people wear masks nearly all the time indoors and around 50% do so outdoors.

“A lot of the older generations here live with their families so I think people are more aware of not taking germs home to their parents and grandparents.”

She feels a lot of the complacency in the UK “comes from the example set by the government” and that the message given to the public is “not clear and consistent”.

“I get the impression that the government policy is deliberate and is about herd immunity. I also think it’s partly cultural. British people seem to think, ‘It won’t happen to me, we know best,’ like they’re invincible. Sadly, I think it’s been proven to not be the case.”

‘The difference in attitudes in France was immediately apparent’

When Jimmy, 40, a video producer from Leeds, spent four days watching the Paris Roubaix cycling race in France earlier this month, the difference in people’s attitudes to Covid from those in the UK was “immediately apparent”, he said.

“When you go to a bar or restaurant, you have to show your vaccine pass and you wear a mask,” said Jimmy. “In the UK, everything is just a free-for-all. If restrictions here were a bit more strict, I think it would reduce the impact on us all.”

Jimmy believes the UK should follow France’s example, with tighter restrictions in the short term. “I fear that if we carry on as we are, Covid will continue to disrupt our daily lives. I’m having to work extra hours this week as my colleagues are self-isolating.

“The UK government likes to think they’re giving people a choice, and people are embracing this idea of free thinking. But I think there’s nothing wrong with having some basic public health rules. It’s not inhibiting people’s freedom of thought, it’s just sensible, isn’t it?”

‘There is no rejection of face masks in Spain’

Lucía says she feels very restricted in where she can go in the UK because of the lack of mask wearing. Photograph: Lucía

Lucía, who is in Zaragoza, Spain, looking after her 90-year-old mother, said she feels the government has failed people in the UK. “I’m clinically extremely vulnerable and feel totally restricted in what I do and where I go because people don’t consider it important to protect themselves and others,” said the semi-retired 60-year-old.

Normally living in London, Lucía said she’s in “no hurry” to return to the UK. “I haven’t done it yet, but I was planning to see a film, and when I looked at booking online, I saw that once you book your seat, the ones next to you get booked up too, so they’re empty.”

She feels there is “no rejection of face masks” in Spain and that they’re seen as “protection, not an imposition”. In contrast, she believes the image the UK government projects when they have meetings without face masks tells people they don’t need to wear them. “From the beginning of the pandemic, I feel the government has given people a false idea of freedom instead of showing precautions as something positive.”

‘We have more restrictions, but I feel so much freer here’

Nigel Ross
Nigel Ross says Italy has ‘more restrictions, but I feel so much freer’. Photograph: Nigel I Ross

In Milan, Italy, Nigel I Ross, a university lecturer, said restrictions are still very much in place, with green passes needed to enter public buildings. From today, all employees will also need a pass to enter their workplaces.

“It’s far from perfect, but it’s going extremely well,” said Ross, who is British and has lived in Italy for more than 30 years. “There are around 2,000 new cases a day, which is in part due to us having some of the strictest restrictions in Europe.”

He believes that it’s “the message from the top” that reflects the blase approach to Covid in the UK. “My sister works in a school and with some family members extremely susceptible to infection, it’s like living in semi-terror in some ways. It feels like people are dying unnecessarily, and it’s no wonder Britain is seen as the sick man of Europe. I was there this summer for a couple of weeks and I really noticed the difference. It’s a real contradiction because we have more restrictions, but I feel so much freer here.”


Rachel Obordo and Alfie Packham

The GuardianTramp

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