ROME - The 17-second YouTube video mimicking Prime Minister Boris Johnson's ever shifting guidance on the coronavirus pandemic has attracted tens of thousands of views.
"So we are saying don't go to work, go to work, don't take public transport, go to work, don't go to work, stay indoors if you can, go to work, don't go to work, go outside, don't go outside," deadpans Matt Lucas, one of the country's best known comics and famous for the BBC comedy series Little Britain.
For his fans, Lucas' riff perfectly summed up the mounting frustration many Britons, especially the young, are feeling with the seemingly non-stop amendments to government regulations and the shifting advice of ministers.
Early in July, the British government encouraged Britons to make use of "travel corridors" to the European continent, allowing vacationers to holiday in Europe without the need to quarantine for 14 days on their return home. Hundreds of thousands took up the opportunity to vacation on the continent and hundreds of thousands more booked trips only to have their plans disrupted when the government re-imposed abruptly quarantine requirements for those returning from Spain, Luxembourg, Belgium and Andorra. France is likely to be added to the quarantine list in the coming days.
The sudden changes have provoked fury and led lawmakers to worry about consistency. "There appears to be a lack of transparency around the criteria that the government are using to remove destinations from the list of safe countries to visit. There is no consistency which is leading to public disquiet and concern," says Yvonne Fovargue, a Labour Party lawmaker.
Britons are not alone in losing patience. Frustration is growing across Europe with inconsistencies and the backtracking by governments as they struggle to curb resurgences in coronavirus infections. Public impatience is not helping governments in their efforts to persuade populations to remain vigilant or to accept off-and-on restrictions when viral flare-ups come and go.
"There is no logic or consistency in the Government's approach or, indeed, apparent end in sight to the economically crippling measures deemed necessary to contain the pandemic," bewails Jeremy Warner, an economics commentator for Britain's Independent newspaper.
Critics concede that dealing with a virus that was completely unknown eight months ago is no easy feat — virologists and other infectious disease professionals are learning as they go along. But the stops and starts and volte-faces risk eroding public confidence in some countries, analysts and public health officials fear. There is an urgent need to maintain public morale, they say, and rapid, sometimes overnight changes in policy, which have not been signaled in advance and come of the blue, suggests indecisiveness, even panic, with people increasingly questioning whether governments know what they are doing.
Part of the problem lies with differences of opinion between scientists and politicians. They share a common foe — namely, the virus — but government leaders have other pressing factors to take into consideration, like keeping economies going and reducing as much as they can the damage to jobs, businesses and livelihoods.
"The populace has been, as ministers constantly acknowledge, extraordinarily forbearing through this on-again, off-again suspension of life as we know it. But — you can feel it in the air — the good will is running out," according to Janet Daley, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that is often a booster of the Johnson government.
"There should be consistency and an appearance of agreement between all members of the government [and its official policy advisers] at all times," she says. That has been lacking, especially when ministers have over-promised in a bid to lift flagging spirits. Several times the government has been upbeat with medical claims about transformative tests or treatments only to have had to back down subsequently, say analysts.
Britain's health minister, Matt Hancock, has prompted the dismay of even his own cabinet colleagues with boosterish claims. In April, he announced a contact-tracing app would be ready in England by mid-May, but it is still not functioning properly. He also announced that antibody tests would be a game-changer, but that has not been the case.
Johnson, too, has repeatedly thrown hostages to fortune, say his critics. Among other things he promised to set up a "world-class" testing and contact tracing system, but it has not shaped up to be as efficient as Germany's, and several frustrated local authorities in England have started their own contact-tracing frameworks, despairing that the central government's will ever work smoothly.
Politics and science
Last month, the British leader announced an easing of restrictions, including to the delight of the country's tabloid press the reopening of pubs. He promised "We'll be back to normal by Christmas."
That earned a collective reproof from current and former scientific advisers to the government. They have struck far more pessimistic notes with the current chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, telling a parliamentary committee that another strict lockdown might be necessary when the winter months start drawing in. This month the British government has had to reimpose lockdowns on cities, including Manchester, and towns in north-west England, impacting more than four million people.
Martin McKee, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has warned there has been too much "wishful thinking" by politicians and civil servants.
But Johnson is not alone among European leaders in trying to strike a balance between being too gloomy, which risks public despondency, or being too optimistic, which leads to greater frustration when raised expectations are later dashed. Too much optimism and populations start sliding away from observing the rules. Too gloomy, and it is hard to persuade people to go back to work or shop.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has also found himself impaled on the horns of the coronavirus dilemma. Economic dictated the relaxing of restrictions, as it did the welcoming of European tourists back to the country. But there has been an uptick in new cases in recent days, one that is alarming the government.
Conte warned regional governments Monday to be careful about relaxing too much. "It's risking too much," he said in a television interview. "In some regions there is dancing. It is a choice of the [regional] presidents, but they will be responsible for the consequences," he added.
With a resurgence of infections across much of Europe, governments have had to slam on the brakes on easing and to issue warnings of possible higher restrictions to come. Just days after insisting there was no chance that a second nationwide lockdown might have to be ordered in the coming weeks or months, France's prime minister, Jean Castex, backtracked this week and warned that a second lockdown might be necessary, if people fail to observe social distancing rules. Several tourist hotspots, including the French capital, have seen outbreaks in recent days.
Greece's government has announced additional restrictions because of a flare-up of coronavirus cases and a jump in the number of critically ill people in the country. Government ministers say much of the problem can be traced to foreign tourists. On Sunday, Greece announced 203 new confirmed coronavirus cases, bringing its total to 5,623, with an overall death toll of 212. All events with standing customers or spectators have been ordered canceled across the country.
Bars, restaurants and cafes will have to shut from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. in several locations, including popular tourist destinations, including Mykonos and Santorini.
Tourists are not the only source of new cases. Impatient young Greeks eager to socialize and to party are another cause of anxiety for Greek ministers. This week health minister Vassilis Kikilias appealed to the young to wear masks and maintain social distance. "Once more I appeal to young people and to citizens who are not adhering to personal protective measures to consider their responsibility toward vulnerable groups, our other citizens and toward the country," he said.
Youthful impetuosity is a problem across Europe, most of the rise in cases is being seen in the younger age groups, especially among people in their twenties and thirties. Many of the newly infected are suspected of contracting the virus at beach gatherings and illegal raves.