Therese Raphael: Boris Johnson stumbles from crisis to crisis

The British prime minister must manage a rise in infections and a shrinking economy at a time when political support is dwindling
Therese Raphael: Boris Johnson stumbles from crisis to crisis

UK prime minister Boris Johnson on a visit to Appledore Shipyard in Devon. Johnson still has an 80-seat majority and is firmly in charge. But a potential second wave of the virus has brought the first real opposition he has faced since the December vote.  Picture: Ben Birchall/PA

Boris Johnson is right back where he was six months ago: Faced with a choice of how far to clamp down on freedoms in order to suppress the coronavirus’s transmission. 

Only then the strategy was simple. Britain’s lockdown was to protect the capacity of the National Health Service in order to save lives. This time, the goal is more complicated and so are Johnson’s choices.

There may be disagreements on what exactly a second wave is — Britain has come a long way from seeing 500 deaths a day in March (there were 27 recorded on Saturday) — but the arrow is moving in the wrong direction and the question is how the government will respond. 

In Britain, infections are doubling about every week. Yesterday, the British government's chief scientific adviser warned the UK could see 200 or more deaths per day by mid-November if the current rate of infection is not halted.

Patrick Vallance added that if current infection rates continue, the UK could see around 50,000 cases a day by the middle of October. In mid-September, around 3,000 new cases were recorded every day in the UK, he said.

People sit outside at a restaurant in Covent Garden, London, on Monday. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA
People sit outside at a restaurant in Covent Garden, London, on Monday. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA

Only the US, Brazil, India, and Mexico have had more deaths from the virus.

A second wave was “inevitable", Johnson has said. Perhaps so, but it’s also the result of clear mistakes.

The worst of these is the failure to ensure that the country’s Covid testing system could meet the inevitable surge in demand that would come with people resuming normal activities.

Britain isn’t alone here. France, Spain, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe are facing second waves too, with the World Health Organisation saying last week that Europe’s infections are now higher than the peak in March. 

The causes are similar: The lifting of restrictions, people returning from holiday travel, and the reopening of schools, combined with testing problems and, in some places, poor compliance with social distancing, especially from younger populations.

On the face of it, things ought to be easier this time. We have a better handle on how to prevent transmission, how to treat hospitalised patients, and how to protect the most vulnerable. That ought to mean fewer fatalities. And yet, in other ways this period could be even more dangerous.

The narrative that the NHS is coping with this crisis downplays the enormous costs. 

While it may be more prepared in terms of beds, personal-protective equipment for staff, and knowledge of the virus, it’s also struggling with employee fatigue and a massive backlog of non-Covid cases to plough through. 

For people who have been living with undiagnosed or slow-moving cancers, hips that need replacing or other illnesses, this period has been torturous. Even if it manages to avoid a surge in coronavirus hospitalisations this winter, the NHS could well face a different kind of crisis as it tries to meet non-Covid demand.

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When it comes to implementing new lockdown restrictions, the public health situation suggests erring on the side of caution, but doing so would be economically and politically difficult. 

The UK government’s decision to end its popular furlough scheme at the end of October means a sharp rise in unemployment is likely. The economy is forecast to shrink 10% in 2020. 

Almost any action that Johnson is considering — including a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown in October to coincide with school holidays — will carry economic costs that will worry the Treasury, which already looks set to extend some business support loans due to the new lockdown pressures.

The government’s strategy — to suppress the virus to keep education and the economy open, as the UK's health secretary Matt Hancock described it on Sunday — may seem logical, but there’s very little agreement on how that can now be accomplished. The hope that limited, geographical lockdowns — with contained economic fallout — will be enough seems to be fading.

From today, more than 13m Britons will face a host of new lockdown restrictions, including 10pm curfews. There will be hefty new fines for those who break these rules. 

Hancock says Britain is at a “tipping point,” leaving little doubt that other parts of the country will be affected too. 

London mayor Sadiq Khan is advocating tougher lockdown measures in the capital, where case numbers are rising again. 

One thing is clear: In the absence of a working testing and tracing system, both the public health and economic costs will rise.

All of this comes as criticism of Johnson grows within his own party and among the public. The first wave of infections came soon after he won a resounding election victory and celebrated Britain’s exit from the EU. He was riding high in the polls, promising to unify and “level up” the country. 

But repeated errors, confused messaging, and policy U-turns have left many voters disillusioned.

More people now think opposition leader Keir Starmer would make a better prime minister. And that has unsettled many Johnson supporters, who had grown used to his using most situations to his political advantage. 

More people now think opposition leader Keir Starmer would make a better prime minister. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA
More people now think opposition leader Keir Starmer would make a better prime minister. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA

Even the magazine Johnson once edited, The Spectator, normally a bastion of unwavering support, has grown impatient and wondered if he has the stomach for the job.

Johnson still has an 80-seat majority and is firmly in charge. But a potential second wave of the virus has brought the first real opposition he has faced since the December vote. 

If he doesn’t get the response right this time, the Tories may eventually decide the man they backed so enthusiastically to get Brexit done is no longer the leader they want.

  • Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe

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