England Bids to End 55 Years of Hurt as Johnson Gambles on Covid

(Source: @EURO2020/Twitter)

England Bids to End 55 Years of Hurt as Johnson Gambles on Covid

Boris Johnson had just turned two and was living in Washington when England last played in a major soccer final, beating West Germany to lift the World Cup in the summer of 1966.

Today the kid with unruly blond hair is Britain’s prime minister, a man with a track record of taking risky bets, including Brexit. He may not be that keen on football, as the game is called in the country that invented it, but he’s happy to wrap himself in the English flag now that the national team has at last reached another showpiece final. England will take on Italy at London’s Wembley Stadium on Sunday for the European Championship trophy.

A historic win on home turf would not only be a moment of national celebration, but also a major distraction from spiraling Covid cases — and a boon to business if all goes well.

It all boils down to details, something that Johnson the eternal optimist and political gambler, has never allowed to get in the way of a good story.

Johnson’s plan to unlock England on July 19 and declare “Freedom Day” comes against a backdrop of a restive nation that has spent the best part of two years in some form of lockdown. His Conservative Party has an eye on turbo-charging the economy, and Johnson plans a major speech on the recovery to coincide with the lifting of restrictions, according to three people familiar with his plans.

Johnson’s case is that the link between virus deaths and cases has been “severed” and that there is no longer any need to keep a nation captive with face masks and social distancing. Yet his choice to let the virus spread through the unvaccinated leaves a sense of unease. 

The prime minister cites science, but 122 scientists openly disagreed with him in a letter that accused him of a “dangerous and unprecedented” strategy of “mass infection.” His own health secretary said case numbers could hit 100,000 a day while in the same week Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said the nation could look forward to an extra 45 minutes in the pub on Sunday, and an economic bounce from England’s success. 

England Bids to End 55 Years of Hurt as Johnson Gambles on Covid

Johnson is a libertarian at heart and balked at the start of the pandemic that he would be “taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub.” With England’s team hoping to end 55 years of hurt on Sunday, Johnson’s hope is to ride that zeitgeist. He may declare a national holiday if it all goes to plan.

“The football just adds to it: consumer confidence has already returned to pre-crisis levels and things that make us feel good for the economy,” Sunak told BBC radio. “For a services-oriented economy like ours, events like this can have an impact.”

Simon French, chief economist at Panmure Gordon & Co. and a former chief of staff to the U.K. Cabinet Office, agrees —  estimating that England winning would give the economy a 150-million-pound ($207 million) boost mainly through higher consumer spending. Local businesses are already seeing the benefit, not least because Wembley hosted England's semifinal victory over Denmark on Wednesday. 

“We had the place all full, people were jumping up and down,” said Tariy Bhatti, who runs The Wembley Tavern bar, a five-minute walk from the stadium. “From making nothing at all over the past sixteen months, we did very well. People were in here spending money.”

England Bids to End 55 Years of Hurt as Johnson Gambles on Covid

Defeat against Italy, though, would mean the long English wait for a trophy goes on — and leave Johnson to push ahead with his high-stakes Covid bet as millions nurse a hangover.

“Johnson is skipping the appetizers and ordering everything on the menu with 15 pints of lager to wash it down. Let’s get Covid done,” said Nick Cochrane, 51. He was at the match when England beat Denmark and saw how casual law-enforcement felt. 

Four people attending both semi-final matches described a febrile atmosphere where the formalities of keeping a safe distance and wearing a mask were quickly dispensed with. Security paid lip-service to the evidence of rapid Covid tests, while one person said they were just waved in.

England Bids to End 55 Years of Hurt as Johnson Gambles on Covid

Johnson himself didn’t appear to be a stickler for the rules. He was pictured at Wembley on Wednesday wearing a replica England shirt, and leaving the match without wearing a mask. (A spokesman clarified that he got in the car and put on his face-covering shortly afterwards.) 

After months of slow, measured steps, the U.K.’s radical easing of rules puts the country in uncharted territory. The U.K. has the fourth-highest number of daily Covid infections in the world. Experts warn the virus will “rip through” the country, where 65% of adults have had two doses of vaccine, but no under-18s. Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s head of emergencies, described Johnson’s plan as “epidemiological stupidity.”

There is evidence to suggest that the tournament has already helped stoke the rise in cases, especially among young football-mad men. The National Health Service app, which “pings” people when they are potentially exposed to the virus, is now caught up in its own controversy, with  many people ignoring it or deleting it. The government is at pains to say it’s still an important tool.

The bigger question, going into the countdown is: Can English fans behave?  A Bloomberg reporter at Wembley observed one fan climb to the top of a lamp post as the crowd below threw him open cans of beer, some of which he caught and chugged down.

The bigger fear is a resurgence of English hooliganism. The Evening Standard reported that a mob pursued a Danish family after spotting their shirts and boarding their bus. The nine-year-old son ran to the top deck as his father was beaten up.  Europe’s governing soccer body charged the England team over a laser pen pointed at Denmark’s goalkeeper during a penalty. 

For Italians, the memories are particularly painful. In 1985, Liverpool fans breached a fence and charged toward Juventus supporters, causing a stampede that killed 39 Italians. English hooliganism marred the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Writer Bill Buford, whose 1990 book “Among the Thugs” tracked the violence of that era, poignantly described one Italian’s plea at the time: “Why do the English behave like this? Is it something to do with being an island race? Is it because you don't feel European? Is it because you lost the Empire?”

Times have changed since the 1990s, but England fans do retain an unsavory edge: There were outbreaks of fighting at the 2018 World Cup in Russia; elements of the fanbase have booed the team as they take a knee against racism; there is regular jeering of opponents’ national anthems. England is also undefeated at this year’s championship; a loss would put police on alert around the country. 

British historian Orlando Figes, who now lives in Italy, worries that Johnson will be tempted to make political capital from a sporting triumph: “I fear that an England win will be hijacked by the U.K. tabloids and the Johnson government to claim it as a Brexit victory.”

Manager Gareth Southgate has led a group of well-mannered, highly motivated professionals to the cusp of glory.  Johnson urged them on to victory in a letter to Southgate the night before the game

“You have forged a band of brothers whose energy and tenacity and teamwork -- and sheer flair -- seem to shine in everything you do,” he wrote. “You have lifted the spirits of the whole country, and tomorrow we know you can lift that trophy too.”

On Sunday night the players will have control of their destiny. With the virus not going away, they may have a say over Johnson’s as well. 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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