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04.12.2022
A troubled year brought out some of the worst and the best of the UK.
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On any day in the UK, summer or winter, the weather forecast could be, ‘Dark clouds, squally showers, with occasional bright sunshine’. The year 2021 in the UK could be described in the same way.

Covid clouds

Covid provided the dark clouds. In 2021, nearly 77,000 people died of Covid, bringing the total in the UK to some 148,000 since April 2020. In Europe, only Russia has recorded more deaths. The UK’s Covid death rate of 2,197 per 1 million people is above France (1,865), Germany, (1,309) and Greece (1,945), but below Belgium (2,400) and Italy (2,457). The UK’s silver lining to the Covid cloud was the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed at Oxford University. Despite data issues blocking its approval in the US and arguments over delivery in the EU, AstraZeneca’s 2.2bn doses delivered across the world at less than $4 a time may have saved more lives than the 2bn doses of the more celebrated Pfizer vaccine, which costs more than $20 a shot.

In 2021, Covid also sharpened differences in an already divided country. Resistance to Covid vaccines is not as high in the UK as in some other countries, though it may have been higher if the AstraZeneca vaccine had been developed in Germany or France and not the UK. The strongest push back has been by ‘libertarians’ against the lockdowns, masking, Covid passports and social distancing measures designed to manage the pandemic. The different parts of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) have all had different measures in place at different times. While arguments continue over Covid measures, as 2021 ends, the UK is recording over 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day, around 90% due to the Omicron variant.

Political storms

UK politics have been stormy, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the centre. Instead of Brexit setting the UK ‘free’ from the European Union (EU), 2021 has seen the two in constant negotiations over issues such as fishing rights, migrants crossing the English Channel and, especially, Northern Ireland. The Brexit agreement creates a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (England, Scotland and Wales). This is a problem for Johnson because he signed the agreement declaring publicly that there was no customs border, while privately telling his Brexit-supporting allies that there was a border but that he would get rid of it. The EU has made concessions, but the border remains. Johnson’s chief EU negotiator resigned in December, but serious talks will continue in 2022 as both sides want to avoid a trade war.

Johnson’s casual relationship with the truth would have destroyed many other politicians, but in 2021, Johnson survived several scandals. The UK’s early vaccine roll-out saved Johnson and his government when a well-documented report revealed that his mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak had led to thousands of unnecessary deaths. Johnson also survived questions over who paid for his luxury holidays in Mustique and Spain.

However, Johnson is in a tricky situation as the Electoral Commission investigates who gave him up to EUR 234,000 to refurbish the prime ministerial apartment in Downing Street. Further, Johnsons’ attempt to save his Brexit ally MP Owen Patterson, who had breached parliamentary rules over lobbying, backfired badly. Patterson resigned. During the election to replace him, news emerged that during the coronavirus lockdown in December 2020, when families could not see ill or dying loved ones in hospital, Johnson had held Christmas parties in Downing Street. Johnson’s Conservative party lost badly the election to replace Patterson to the Liberal Democrats amid accusations of unfairness and privilege. The defeat weakened Johnson’s control over his party. In December 2021, 101 of his Conservative party MPs voted against his plans to introduce Covid passports to attend nightclubs and large events. His proposal passed only with support from the opposition Labour party and there is a real sense that Johnson’s position as Prime Minister is vulnerable.  

Sporting sunshine

Sport is in the UK’s DNA. Many sports began there, including some that you may not think, such as baseball, table tennis and water polo. As so often, sport brought some sunshine into British lives in 2021.

The sheer scale and number of sporting events in the UK is remarkable. In July and August alone, the UK hosted the Wimbledon Tennis Championship, the British Grand Prix, the open golf championship and the semi-finals and final of football’s delayed Euros 2020, all global events attracting players and spectators from around the world. There was also international cricket against India and Rugby Union against South Africa. If none of that appealed, you could always watch the Olympic games in Tokyo, or any of the domestic sporting events including Rugby League and horse racing.

English football had a good year. Fans returned to stadiums and in the Champions League an all-English final saw Chelsea beat Manchester City. Manchester United also reached the Europa League final but lost to Villareal. England, Scotland and Wales all played in the finals of Euro 2020. England, surprisingly, reached the final only to lose, unsurprisingly, on penalties to deserved winners Italy.

In the Tokyo Olympics the UK finished fourth with 22 gold medals, behind the United States, China and Japan. In the Paralympics the UK, with 46 gold medals, was second only to China. More sporting sunshine came when 19-year old Emma Raducanu won the US Tennis Championship, becoming the first British woman to win a tennis Grand Slam tournament since 1968. UK Formula 1 World Champion, Lewis Hamilton inspired through dignity in defeat. Despite losing in controversial circumstances what would have been a record-breaking eighth championship on the last lap of the last race of the season, Hamilton immediately congratulated Max Verstappen on winning the race and the 2021 championship.

2022

In 2022, Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate 70 years on the throne, but the UK, like its weather, will continue to be unsettled.  The direction and full impact of the Coronavirus on the UK economy and society is, so far, unknown. The UK’s post-Brexit future is uncertain and Scotland’s leaving the UK remains a possibility. Much of Brexit’s impact has been hidden by Covid, but according to a December 2021 opinion poll more than 60% of voters think Brexit is going badly. With Boris Johnson as Prime Minister UK politics will remain contentious. With his future in doubt, his survival depends on if his Conservative party can find someone else more likely to win the next election.

Undoubtedly, 2022 will be another great year of sport in the UK. British boxers will fight for more world titles, Radunacu may win more tennis grand slams and Hamilton may return to Formula 1. The UK will host the women’s Euro 2022 football tournament, while the men’s team has already qualified for the World Cup 2020 in Qatar and may be joined by either Wales or Scotland. In an uncertain year, perhaps the most reliable prediction is that the England football team will go out of the World Cup on penalties.

Happy New Year to all.

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