Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, is gifted with a likeability quotient that’s off the charts. He is witty, eccentric with a mind as sharp as a diamond-cutter, yet charmingly self-effacing.
With Boris leading the charge against a well-meaning but dry, lacklustre opponent it’s no wonder that the Tories garnered a massive majority during the last election.
He has been successful at endearing himself to a majority of Britons and, against all odds, he remained true to his pledges on Brexit, but how has his performance stacked-up against a virus from hell that in just a few short months has stolen more than 34,000 British lives—a statistic that tops the rest of Europe and comes second only to the United States?
I can only describe Johnson’s handling of this pandemic as chaotic from day one and it appears that a growing number of my compatriots feel the same.
A headline in the Independent that reads “Public confidence in government plummets after Johnson’s easing of coronavirus lockdown” says it all. For the first time the approval ratings of the new Labour Party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, have overtaken the prime minister’s.
Johnson has always pictured himself in the mould of Winston Churchill but evidently there is a gaping differential in backbone between the man who guided his country to victory in the Second World War telling his people to fight the Nazis on the beaches with pitchforks and the incumbent of Number Ten who invited-in the rotund spiky enemy hoards to do their worst before turning on a dime once their invasion had taken hold.
Tragically his penchant for changing his mind may have contributed to the UK’s disproportionate case numbers and loss of life. When the global spread of COVID-19 first came to light, Johnson chose the herd immunity route premised on 60 to 70 percent of the population contracting the virus which, in theory, would signal its demise. Sweden was the only other country to do the same.
Britons and Swedes were basically told to carry on regardless while maintaining voluntary social distancing and hygiene practices. However, when Imperial College modelling predicted a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, Johnson got cold feet and promptly ordered a partial lockdown. Too little, too late!
By the last week in March the coronavirus had enjoyed free rein to target the most vulnerable, in particular the over-70s and the elderly in care homes for whom the government made no provision. One can only imagine how frightened they were to be trapped in a Petri dish.
Even as the numbers were shooting upwards at a time when the spring weather beckoned people towards the parks and beaches, most Britons kept their faith in Boris. His approval ratings spiked during and immediately after his own brush with COVID-19 which he may have caught during a gloveless and mask-less visit to a hospital.
Shutting down economy
However, it seems Britons’ capacity for forgiveness is not without limits. Johnson has been spooked by economic doom and gloom estimates and the fact that the economy recorded its largest contraction on record. The government admits the UK faces a significant recession due to the shutting down of the economy.
Johnson’s answer was to reopen despite the rate of infectivity (the ‘R’ Rate) having risen to unacceptable levels between 0.7 and the dreaded ‘1” that could overwhelm the already burdened National Health Service.
There is no getting away from it. Johnson’s decisions have been untimely and counterproductive. He opened up at the start when he should have locked down and now he is opening-up again encouraging people to return to work and feel free to enjoy parks, beaches and sports activities at a time when the virus remains virulent in many parts of the country away from the capital.
Moreover, despite news that young children are increasingly being infected albeit with different symptoms from the adult population, he has plans to shortly reopen schools.
The government’s message is no longer “Stay Home” but “Stay Alert” as though those colourful tiny corona critters can be spied creeping up on their victims.
It is a message that is not going down very well with Britain’s mayors who says they were not informed in advance of Johnson’s latest U-turn. Many city councils including Manchester, Liverpool and Gateshead, are refusing to comply.
Head of Gateshead council Martin Gannon encapsulates where Britain has gone so badly wrong. “We locked down too late; this un-lockdown strategy is premature. The testing capacity isn’t robust enough; neither is the tracking and tracing system. The R-rate in Gateshead isn’t low enough. They are doing this too soon. It means a second wave will happen.”
By contrast the Swedish government that stuck with its herd immunity strategy retains a 73 percent approval rate and with hardly a dent to its economy in comparative terms around half the population is believed to have developed immunity.
There were two ways to handle this pandemic successfully. Sweden took one, Jordan that closed down even before it had a single case chose another. Britain’s swing between one and the other has been a textbook case for disaster—and it’s not over yet!
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.