Boris Johnson’s COVID-19 Christmas bet could pay off

For much of the past two months, it seemed like UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson couldn’t make anyone happy with his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A significant portion of his Tory backbench – over 100 MPs – voted against him in December, furious that Johnson and his cabinet introduced requirements just before Christmas for COVID-19 passes for major events, as well as mask warrants for other places they thought were harsh and unnecessary.

At the same time, Johnson resisted immense pressure from forces outside his party to go even further.

As Omicron’s cases skyrocketed and threatened to overwhelm hospitals, he made England an exception among other parts of the UK – and most of Europe – by refusing to impose stay-at-home orders or limit private social gatherings during the holiday period.

Workers travel on a tube during the morning rush hour in London on Tuesday as UK government-imposed COVID-19 lockdown guidelines encourage working from home. (Toby Melville / Reuters)

People should just “act responsibly,” Johnson said, sparking an uproar from public health experts who have warned of the dire consequences of putting politics ahead of science.

Amid an attempt to walk a tightrope, he also faced a damaging scandal during a previous COVID-19 lockdown last year, when many of his own employees were found to have taken advantage of a Christmas party at 10 Downing Street while the rest of the country was told they had to squat.

Voters in Shropshire, in central England, among many other Brits, were not impressed. On December 17, they delivered their verdict on Johnson’s performance, defeating the Tory candidate in a by-election for a seat the Tories had held for nearly 200 years.

A girl takes a COVID-19 lateral flow test before returning to school, amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Manchester on Tuesday. (Phil Noble / Reuters)

It all ended in a major nightmare before Christmas for the British leader.

Even generally friendly conservative voices in the British media began to openly question whether his charm and the political Teflon coating that had helped Johnson avoid so many political mess over the years could have ultimately given up on him.

But Britain’s first COVID-19 update of the new year delivered on Tuesday may have provided qualified good news for Johnson.

No increase in mortality

Chief Medical Officer of Health Chris Whitty has suggested that Omicron’s cases in London, particularly among young people, may stabilize.

Crucially, Whitty also said the UK is not seeing an increase in COVID-19 mortality despite more than 200,000 new cases every day.

In addition, severe hospital cases requiring intensive care have largely remained stable.

Pupils work in a classroom at Fulham Boys School in London on Tuesday, the first day after the Christmas break following a government announcement that face masks must be worn in English secondary schools amid the COVID-19 epidemic. (Kevin Coombs / Reuters)

“We have a chance to weather this Omicron wave without shutting down our country again,” Johnson said, alongside Whitty, at a press conference on Tuesday.

Britain’s efforts to get boosters, or third doses of COVID-19 vaccine, in adults appear to be making a difference, with more than 34 million vaccinations as of January 5. The government’s coronavirus tracking site says around 60% of all people in the country above the age of 12 have now received the additional protection.

The political implications for his party – and Johnson personally – could be significant. His pre-Christmas bet of leaving bars, restaurants and social gatherings largely untouched, while still watching many members of his own party, may be starting to pay off.

“I agree that everything seems to indicate that so far everything has gone well,” said Joe Twyman, founder of Deltapoll, a London-based political advisory and polling firm.

“Does the way he played Omicron, does that mean he regained the political capital that he lost with the audience and with his backbench? Yes, I think it could be the case.”

Tense weeks to come

However, tense weeks remain to come and the number of Omicron cases could still bring unpleasant surprises.

The UK Office for National Statistics now estimates that up to one in 15 people in England may have the coronavirus, up from one in 25 a week ago.

As of Wednesday, 195,000 positive tests were reported, down slightly from the 219,000 recorded on Tuesday.

“Anyone who thinks our battle against COVID is over is deeply wrong,” Johnson immediately warned Tuesday, noting that the country is still on “war footing,” with significant absenteeism among hospital staff among the biggest concerns.

A random sample of people on the main street in the community of Thames Ditton, on the outskirts of London, expressed frustration with Johnson’s leadership in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adrian DiVirgilio / CBC)

At least 12 hospitals in central England have declared “critical incidents”, a sign that emergency care is at risk due to understaffing.

Business enterprises in all sectors of the economy are also suffering. The popular Icelandic grocery store, which specializes in frozen foods and ready meals, says 11% of its staff are now on sick leave, either because of COVID-19 or because of mandatory quarantines.

british newspapers have also been full of stories that municipalities have had to delay garbage and recycling collection due to understaffing, creating ugly scenes around the dumpsters.

Shortages of conductors and other railway workers have forced most UK providers of passenger rail services to cut back on their services or use reduced timetables.

Britain’s official opposition Labor, which saw its popularity overtake the Tories during Omicron’s push, clearly does not want to ease the pressure, although it will have to fend for next week without its leader, Keir Starmer. .

Starmer tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, for the second time.

“The Tories have been in power for more than a decade, marred in their foolishness of a divided party, a Prime Minister losing the support of backbenchers and a Labor party ready to take over.” , said Vice-President Angela Rayner who took power. for Starmer, as she was toasting Johnson in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

A sign advising customers of a COVID-19-related shutdown is visible outside a bar in Liverpool on Tuesday. (Phil Noble / Reuters)

Johnson and his Tories have up to two years before they face voters again in a general election. So far, no one in the Conservative caucus has come forward to try to remove him from his post, a fate that befell many of his predecessors, including the leader he replaced, the former prime minister. Theresa May.

Nonetheless, pollster Twyman said Johnson was far from politically secure.

“He has a reputation for playing fast and free with the truth and also for playing fast and free with the rules – and that’s not a narrative you want to generate against you and your party.”

Frustration with Johnson’s leadership

Right after New Years Eve, CBC News visited the London suburb of Esher and Walton in Surrey, a constituency populated by single-family homes and traditional Conservative voters.

It is a secure Tory seat held by Cabinet Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. Nonetheless, a random sample of people on Main Street in the community of Thames Ditton, where Raab lives, expressed frustration with Johnson’s leadership.

“Nobody believes what they say anymore,” said Steve Boddy, a longtime resident. “As far as COVID goes, I think he did it the wrong way. He should have locked the country down further.”

“It has cost the nation a lot of lives and heartache. It doesn’t take care of the country,” said Alison Garside.

Others, however, believed that if Johnson could overcome COVID-19, there would be better times for the Tories.

“I think if you can start to see if the economy is booming, they ignore the scandals,” said Barbara Thordsen, who lives in nearby Wimbledon. “I think what we all want is an economy that is going to work.”


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Edward L. Robinett