Within days, however, the advice had changed, and within a week all schools, restaurants, pubs etc had shut, and the Government had promised huge subsidies to private businesses. The conclusion most people drew was that Johnson’s first plan had been mistaken and the Government was now seeing sense. It is not clear, though, that this is what happened.
It may well have been that the pressure for stricter measures from some scientists (and the media and the general public) to follow Italy and France became too great to ignore. Or it may have been that the number of cases in the UK increased much faster than had been estimated, so that the stricter measures were required earlier than had been forecast. Either way, the impression was left of mixed messages and a major policy U-turn - which is not good for any government, still less at a time of a national emergency.
There is unlikely to be any objective assessment of the rights and wrongs of these decisions for a long time: whether, in fact, the UK might have been right in its initial, relatively relaxed policy, or whether the approach eventually followed and favoured by most countries of Continental Europe was right all along and the UK responded too late. Suffice it to say that a debate is already raging in the UK medical establishment and the media, although nothing will be resolved until it is all over.
And fourth there is history. Boris Johnson began, as did other ministers, by invoking the “Blitz spirit” - the legendary stoicism and solidarity that Britons supposedly displayed during German air-raids in the early part of the Second World War. This also gave the Government a measure of freedom to respond differently to the emergency from other European countries. The trouble with this is that in this emergency, British people have shown themselves to be quite similar to everyone else.
Despite a deserved reputation for national resilience - as seen in the response to successive terrorist attacks - people have been as quick to alarm in the UK as anywhere else, perhaps even more so. There was popular, as well as scientific, demand for stricter, more Italian-style, precautions, and the level of panic-buying has been far greater than across the Channel. Supposedly compliant Britons have also tended to disregard advice at least as much as the Italians or French. People flocked to the parks at the weekend, despite instructions not to gather in groups.
As for how the UK will look when it is all over, it is far too early to say, but some of the questions are clear. Will Boris Johnson realise his Churchillian ambitions; will he emerge stronger, or weaker? Will the UK turn more inwards, or look more outwards? Will it forsake an economic model that leaned more to the free market, regardless of the party in charge, than most of its European counterparts? And, finally, will it end up looking less, or perhaps more, like Continental European countries in terms of its social welfare system, even as it has left the EU?