Boris Johnson has suggested that the coronavirus infection rate is worse in the UK than in Germany or Italy because Britons love freedom more.
Answering questions in the House of Commons, the prime minister rejected suggestions that the UK’s under-performing Test and Trace system might be to blame for the surging infection rates which today forced him to introduce new restrictions on social and economic activity.
Instead, he pointed to Britain’s history as a “freedom-loving country” as an explanation for why its citizens have been unwilling to obey instructions and guidance intended to damp down the disease.
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, who prompted the outburst by asking why the UK’s record was so much worse than Germany’s or Italy’s, told The Independent he was left “speechless” by the PM’s response.
He said Johnson was grasping at “out-of-date attitudes” about the European countries’ history of Nazi and fascist government, and risked encouraging members of the public to break the rules to demonstrate their own love of freedom.
Despite being the first European country to bear the brunt of Covid-19 on its arrival from China, Italy has so far avoided the sharp second wave surge seen in countries like the UK, Spain and France. The country recorded 1,350 new cases and 17 fatalities on 21 September and has a total death toll of 35,738.
Germany’s daily new case figure reached around 2,300 earlier this week and the country has recorded a total of just 9.485 deaths.
The UK’s new infections hit almost 5,000 yesterday, and its death toll stands at 41,825.
In the House of Commons, Mr Bradshaw asked Mr Johnson if it was the case that “the reason Germany and Italy have far lower Covid rates than us, with life continuing more or less normally, might be because they have locally- and publicly-run test and trace services that actually work”.
But the PM rejected this explanation, insisting that “continual attacks” on the NHS Test and Trace system - largely delivered by private companies - was “undermining and unnecessary”.
“Actually, there is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world,” Mr Johnson told MPs. “That is that our country is a freedom loving country.
“If you look at the history of this country over the last 300 years, virtually every advance - from free speech to democracy - has come from this country.
“And it is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary.“
Later, Mr Bradshaw said: “Germans and Italians are enjoying a hell of a lot more freedom right now than British people because life there is carrying on pretty much as normal.
“I’m afraid the prime minister was following his usual habits. When he is on a sticky wicket he launches in these crazed tirades of waffle. He almost seemed to be implying that if you love freedom you will break the rules. Maybe there was a bit of subconscious Dominic Cummings going on in the back of his mind.
“The British people love freedom, but they realise that if we want the freedom to live as we wish to now, we need to deal with Covid.”