UK under fire for suggesting coronavirus ‘great leveller’

by Amber Milne | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 9 April 2020 17:39 GMT

Secretary of State for Foreign affairs Dominic Raab on Downing Street after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved to intensive care after his coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms worsened and Raab was asked to deputise, London, Britain, April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Image Caption and Rights Information

British prime minister in hospital amid Twitter storm over effect of COVID-19 on rich and poor

Coronavirus is changing the world in unprecedented ways. Subscribe here for a daily briefing on how this global crisis is affecting cities, technology, approaches to climate change, and the lives of vulnerable people.

By Amber Milne

LONDON, April 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The British government came under fire on social media on Thursday, accused of promoting the idea that the coronavirus was a "great leveller" hitting rich and poor alike.

Debate over the idea - rejected by most health experts - that the virus impacts all people equally arose after a BBC television news anchor said it was a myth put around by members of the government.

Coronavirus: our latest stories

"The disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone rich and poor suffers the same," Emily Maitlis said on Wednesday night's prestigious Newsnight show.

"You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the prime minister's colleagues will tell us," Maitlis said on BBC television.

"This is a myth that needs debunking."

The government said it had no comment on the controversy.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in hospital with COVID-19, joining a roll call of ministers, royals and celebrities who have caught the virus.

"The fact that both the prime minister and the health secretary have contracted the virus is a reminder that the virus does not discriminate," Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told a press conference last month.

But health experts say it is poor people and essential frontline workers who bear the brunt as they are more likely to come into contact with the disease and less likely to get help.


Key members of Johnson's team such as Dominic Raab, who is standing in for Johnson while he recovers, have voiced confidence in his recovery as the prime minister is a "fighter".

But many on Twitter said Raab's language implied that those who have died from the virus - more than 7,000 in Britain by the latest count - did not fight hard enough.

"Saying you survive this horrible virus because you are a fighter is an insult to every single person who has died," said Twitter user Neville Robert Gregory.

"Being a ‘fighter' does not matter one bit on whether you survive or not," said university researcher Martin Heneghan.

Maitlis said it was lower paid workers, from nurses to manual workers, and people who live in tower blocks and cramped conditions who were more like to catch the disease.

Millions of people in Britain have lost jobs and income as a nationwide lockdown forces many non-essential businesses to close their doors, with the low paid worst hit.

Maps show poor neighbourhoods of cities - from Chicago to Barcelona - take a far bigger hit from the virus than nearby areas that are home to wealthier residents.

"COVID19 is not the great leveller, people who are lower income are disproportionately impacted," said opposition Labour party politician Rebecca Moynihan.

"Lockdown is a matter of housing, income, work and health privilege."

Related stories

Women and low-paid among worst hit by UK coronavirus job cuts

Poor city dwellers run greatest coronavirus risk

Conronavirus crisis could plunge half a billion people into poverty

(Reporting by Amber Milne; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.