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Is Boris Johnson's Britain Finally Turning a Corner?

Is Boris Johnson's Britain Finally Turning a Corner?

Tuesday, 24 November, 2020 - 12:15

Most Western countries have suffered mightily from Covid-19, but Britain still managed to stand out for all the wrong reasons during the first wave of the pandemic. There was the initial see-sawing between whether to follow a Swedish-style laissez faire approach or more draconian measures, the struggles with test and trace, and confusing public communications.

Still, there appears to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Boris Johnson’s winter Covid plan, unveiled on Monday night, deserves two cheers, and one Hail Mary.

The cheers are for the scientific developments that Johnson acknowledges could turn the tide. When news emerged earlier this month of Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine breakthrough, Johnson was uncharacteristically subdued. Perhaps he was worrying about the thorny distribution challenges of transporting a vaccine at minus-70 degrees Celsius. Maybe it was the knowledge that the UK had only ordered enough of the Pfizer shots to inoculate about a third of its population, and most of that would come only next year. Or perhaps he simply didn’t want Brits to become impatient and bank immunity they don’t yet possess.

Amid all the stock market jubilation, Johnson said the “toot of the bugle [of the scientific cavalry] is louder. But it is still some way off. And we absolutely cannot rely on this as a solution.”

On Monday, the prime minister struck a more bullish tone. One reason is the government has what it thinks is a better way to manage areas of high infection. Liverpool, which had one of the worst rates in the country, has piloted a mass-testing program that seems to be going well. Its infection rate is down to 173 cases per 100,000 from 700 per 100,000 in mid-October.

These so-called lateral flow tests — which the government spent 500 million pounds ($668 million) procuring — aren’t as accurate as the gold-standard PCR tests, but they’re cheap and provide results usually in under 30 minutes, without a laboratory.

The government is now rolling out twice-weekly testing for National Health Service staff and is using the approach in nursing homes. There are plans to deploy rapid tests in 67 areas around England, and to use them to enable people who’ve been in contact with an infected person to shorten their own isolation period. There are still grounds for caution. While testing can help reduce the virus’s spread, it doesn’t work in isolation. Other things have to be in place too, such as a good contact-tracing system, which is all but broken in the UK.

The other reason for Johnson’s good cheer was news that the Oxford University-AstraZeneca Plc vaccine has also proved effective. The initial reaction to the announcement of a lower average effectiveness rate than the Pfizer and Moderna Inc. vaccines was disappointment. But a half dose followed by a full dose appeared to do better. The vaccine is a potential game-changer for the UK. It is cheap and already in production, and Britain has 100 million doses on order.

In other words, instead of having to devise a pecking order for vaccinations, there’s the tantalizing prospect that the most vulnerable portion of the British population could be vaccinated by Easter. Returning to his martial theme, a more chipper Johnson said on Monday: “We can hear the drumming hooves of the cavalry coming over the brow of the hill.”

He added a caveat, though. Even if three vaccines are approved and production timetables don’t turn out to be overly optimistic, there are still the cold winter months to get through. So “tis the season to be jolly, but ‘tis also the season to be jolly careful.”

Many of his Conservative backbenchers wish he’d just stick to the high notes. The national lockdown will be lifted, as promised, on Dec. 2, but it will be replaced with an updated tiered system of restrictions. Bars, restaurants, and shops will remain shut in areas with high infection rates. And there’s now a furious debate about which areas will get that dreaded Tier-3 status. A caucus of Tory backbenchers opposed to lockdowns argue they do more harm than good and cite rising rates of domestic abuse, unmet cancer care needs, and other consequences of lockdown policy.

There were plenty of critical questions in the three hours Johnson spent on a remote link to the House of Commons Monday.

Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party and local government leaders are clamoring for more government spending to keep businesses going through the new restrictions. The Treasury, by contrast, is looking for ways to restore some kind of fiscal rectitude. Johnson will have to find a way to keep the various groups happy, while managing during the winter crunch (when the NHS is under strain in the best of times).

Napoleon supposedly said he’d take a lucky general over a good one. Johnson’s management skills through this pandemic have often left much to be desired. Britons will hope he now at least has luck on his side.


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