UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses the House of Commons, February 22, 2021 (PA)
Almost 18 million people in the UK have been given their first vaccine dose, and almost 625,000 have received their second. The Johnson Government has pledged that all adults will be inoculated by the end of July.
The Financial Times describes the vaccination campaign as “a rare pandemic success”. The government is glimpsing some restoration of respect abroad, with The New York Times writing that the “vaccine rollout gives UK a rare win in the pandemic”.
So can Prime Minister Boris Johnson use his self-declared “extraordinary feat” to bury the calamitous missteps in the Government’s handling of the pandemic for almost a year?
A Deadly Past
On March 2, Johnson was told by scientists that if Coronavirus was unimpeded and spread as in China, up to 80% of Britons could be infected and 1 in 100 might die. Epidemiologists such as Imperial College London’s Neil Ferguson forecast more than 500,000 deaths.
Yet the following day Johnson boasted on air about shaking hands “with everybody” at a hospital. He assured the UK public that the country, including the National Health Service, was prepared.
The statement was untrue.
After murmurings of following a more relaxed “Swedish model”, now discredited both in protecting against the virus and in limiting economic damage, Johnson announced containment measures on March 23 after immense pressure from scientists and the public. A week’s delay is estimated to have cost 20,000 lives.
The issue of personal protective equipment was not just insufficient quantities for frontline health workers, but also the chaotic manner in which contracts were handed out to firms with no prior manufacturing experience. Cronyism led to Conservative donors and friends and contacts of ministers, including Health Minister Matt Hancock, making windfall profits. Hancock has been thought to have acted illegally in failing to publish details of contracts; his former neighbor, who has no experience in production of medical devices, is under investigation over £30 million which he received for Coronavirus test tubes.
Hancock said he had “thrown a protective ring” around care homes, but the government is faced with legal action over misleading the public amid the high numbers of deaths in the facilities. Prime Minister Johnson repeatedly said he “followed the science”, only for the Government to ignore it over and over.
Instead of establishing a belated containment, Johnson kept overpromising and thus swinging back and forth over measures. He said “it would be inhuman to cancel Christmas”, only to announce a second period of restrictions in late November. But having finally set out a national policy, rather than the confusing and ineffective variety of “tiers”, he wobbled and allowed households to gather on Christmas Day — even as a threatening mutation of the virus was spreading.
Johnson’s default position of cheerleader, rather than actual leader, culminated in the UK having the highest death rate in the world in January.
But then came the vaccine rollout.
Johnson the Cheerleader — For Now
Rightly, the Government is being applauded for taking the risk of pumping vast amounts of money into untested technologies, signing large contracts with pharmaceutical companies months before the European Union, and leaving the rollout to the National Health Service rather than handing it to cronies.
Ministers are now looking at vaccination of all the vulnerable and over-50s by the end of April. Johnson has pledged that all UK adults will have a jab by the end of July, and this time he may not be overpromising.
Daily deaths are still almost 500, about the same as figures in early May. New cases remain more than double the level of the first wave last spring. The Government’s high-profile combination of border checks, almost a year after the first case entered the UK, and “quarantine hotels” has been a shambles. Johnson’s latest declaration over “lockdown” is being attacked by some as too quick to remove measures, and by others — including Conservative MPs — as far too slow.
Even if the vaccinations are not undone by the new Coronavirus variants, there are the far-from-tangential matters.
There is the threatened dissolution of the Union, with Johnson described as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s not-so-secret weapon for Scottish independence, and the political turmoil in a Northern Ireland cut off from Great Britain by Brexit.
There is the economic downturn, accelerated by the break from the European Union and a 68% drop in UK exports to Europe in January, with Britain going through the most severe recession of any G7 member. Leading minister Michael Gove has already paid the price for acknowledging that the difficulties are far from “teething problems” — he has been demoted in favor of Johnson’s Brexit negotiator David Frost.
But nothing succeeds like a vaccine success. And so Johnson the Cheerleader can return, his dismal performance in opinion polls replaced by a Conservative ascendancy over Labour’s opposition — for now.
On Monday the Prime Minister announced that, in a “cautious but irreversible” way, we may begin to “reclaim our freedoms”. Schools will reopen on March 8, and there will be a gradual relaxation of restrictions thereafter. Outdoor gatherings of up to six people will be allowed from March 29, although as the “threat remains substantial”, Britons will have to wait until later in the spring for any indoor mixing.
Still, Johnson has regained his boosterism: life will “almost be back to normal” by June 21.
He can see the glorious light on the horizon, for him if not the 121,000 who have perished. He can bury his past performance with the dead, confident that he is inoculated against anyone digging it up.