Prime Minister Boris Johnson is incurring growing criticism as the UK struggles to cope with a rising COVID death toll and lack of exit strategy out of lockdown.
The UK recorded its highest ever daily death toll to Covid-19 on Wednesday with a staggering 1564 fatalities. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now facing increased pressure to provide people with a way out of the current hole the country has found itself in. With people still not adhering to the current lockdown rules on social distancing, there are growing calls for the government to take a tougher approach to those not adhering to national restrictions.
There is no clear end in sight to the current lockdown situation. Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the first UK lockdown, has said that we could find ourselves staying at home until the autumn, as only then will a significant proportion of the population have been vaccinated. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Ferguson highlighted the very high death rate in Britain, especially given ‘only about 20% of the population has been infected’ with Covid. As a result, he said, “We have to get to very high levels of vaccine coverage in those vulnerable groups before we can reduce that risk of having the same number of deaths again.”
The UK death toll from COVID has already officially exceeded 84,000, although it has been shown that the real figure is in fact over 100,000. In addition, the country has one of the highest numbers of deaths per million people – 1245 – even higher than the US which is 1189. The only real way for the country to drag itself out of the current abyss is to vaccinate – on a massive scale. Now, with the NHS stretched to full capacity, this is finally being understood, and there is talk of a 24/7 vaccination operation involving not only medical centres, but pharmacies and even supermarkets. So far, around a third of those over 80 years old have reportedly been vaccinated.
There have been some criticisms of the government’s approach to vaccination, as by vaccinating the most elderly first, the younger, working population are still in a position to carry on spreading the virus. Chairman of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, has been one of many to suggest that the vaccination of teachers should be made a priority in order to reopen schools by February. He wants teachers and school support staff to be immunised along with NHS workers and the elderly. The NASUWT teachers’ union has also backed his calls, saying that such a move would be in the “national interest” and a petition in support of it has reached over 350,000 signatures. However, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson made it clear in discussions on the subject on Wednesday that there were no plans to vaccinate teachers in the near future, and the government would stick to its current plan of vaccinating the population according to age group.
As for Boris Johnson’s future; rumours emerged in ‘The Sunday Times’ last weekend that some Tory backbenchers were preparing for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister over his handling of the pandemic. According to the paper, two MPs have already submitted letters to the chairman of the 1922 committee demanding such a vote, citing ‘frustration at the general incompetence of the U-turns’. This refers to Johnson’s last-minute changes of decision; recently he said schools would go back as normal after Christmas, then announced a lockdown just before they were due to return. Although a number of 55 votes would be needed to arrange a vote of no confidence, the submissions do reflect a growing frustration with Johnson’s leadership.
On Thursday, ‘The Sun’ newspaper reported that influential backbencher Steve Baker, who allegedly ‘was instrumental in the downfall of Theresa May’, stated “it’s inevitable the Prime Minister’s leadership will be on the table.” Mr Baker is seemingly concerned with the government’s Covid strategy. It’s reported that Baker wrote to MPs, saying: ‘it is imperative you equip the Chief Whip today with your opinion that debate will become about the PM’s leadership if the Government does not set out a clear plan for when our full freedoms will be restored.” He asks that Tory MPs demand that Johnson give them a ‘guarantee’ that such an approach will not be used again next winter as it is currently ‘devoid of any commitment to liberty’.
It is hard to see, however, how Johnson could have taken a different approach, given the medical advice and the severity of the second wave the country is enduring. A libertarian himself, it must have been difficult for the PM to put the nation into another lockdown, particularly given the economic strife it would cause. But given the fact the Conservative party is one that prides itself on its personal freedoms and supporting small businesses it is hardly surprising that the current national restrictions do not sit well with them.
Ironically, however, it is these very liberal values that value personal freedom, that has hampered an effective campaign against this second wave of coronavirus in the UK. The British public, suffering from pandemic fatigue, got complacent as winter set in, and in the run-up to Christmas took to the city streets, shopping, socialising and blatantly avoiding any social distancing. If anything at all, there is an argument that Boris Johnson needs to provide harsher penalties for those who violate restrictions, and perhaps impose a stricter system as seen before in other countries like France, where citizens had to have written permission to leave their properties. Otherwise, there is a real fear, having not developed herd immunity in time through vaccination, that the UK will struggle to deal with a third wave when it sets in…
Johanna Ross, a journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow the author on Twitter.