World watching as ‘freedom day’ flops in England
As England casts aside almost all its remaining coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, the world is watching the experiment to see whether it shows a pathway back to “normality” or a new warning that even heavily vaccinated countries are not out of the crisis.
England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, warned last week of a potential new lockdown as early as next month. Yet, the UK government nonetheless cast aside the nation’s remaining legal coronavirus framework while heading into what is forecast to be the biggest recorded wave of infections since the start of the pandemic.
The decision has been a tough one for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is himself in coronavirus self-isolation this week. While many businesses have welcomed the move away from legal restrictions to allow people to make their own decisions about how to manage the virus, some have been critical of the government’s decision to end the mandatory requirement to use face coverings in shops and hospitality venues.
Outside of the business community, there has been much more concern expressed, with hundreds of scientists warning that a complete reopening is dangerous. Specifically, it is charged that the end of restrictions risks creating a whole generation with chronic illnesses such as “long COVID,” plus a growing threat of new variants that can break through the present vaccine protection.
Controversial as the unlocking was for the government, what has left it in disarray this week is sloppy, undisciplined messaging. A good example is the mixed messaging from ministers about whether it is mandatory to self-isolate when the National Health Service (NHS) pandemic app tells people to do so because of their previous proximity to someone subsequently testing positive for the virus.
Johnson insists it is “crucial” to isolate when pinged in this way, even for those who are double vaccinated, much to the frustration of many people and firms across the country. Yet, several Conservative politicians, including business and investment ministers Paul Scully and Lord Grimstone, have suggested it is acceptable to ignore a request from the NHS app to isolate.
If Johnson avoids further lockdowns, the political pressure on him may not reach boiling point in coming weeks. However, he could face much more trouble if there are further curbs following his earlier commitment to the “irreversibility” of the easing of restrictions.
The prime minister knows that another series of regional or England-wide lockdowns would be a body blow for his political credibility and authority, so much so that there would be increased doubt in Westminster that he could survive in office until the next election.
One of the biggest risks Johnson is playing now is over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol.
Certainly, the decisions that Johnson has had to make during the coronavirus crisis have been difficult, and any alternative leader would have made mistakes. Yet his approach to tackling the crisis too often has been chaotic and incoherent.
When Johnson scored his huge election win in 2019, it was widely expected at the time that he could remain in office for much of the 2020s, yet the rollercoaster ride that his premiership is proving means his term could end much sooner. This is not just because of his stumbling political performance during the pandemic.
In addition to this are the problems that come from his gambling-style approach to governing the nation. From the very start of his premiership he deliberately took a more adversarial, “scorched-earth” approach to Brexit compared with his predecessor Theresa May.
One of the biggest risks Johnson is playing now is over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol. Despite having signed up to the deal only in December, his government is now describing it as unsustainable.
To be sure, some of Johnson’s gambles have paid off for him, especially in 2019. Since the turn of 2020, however, his “high-wire” approach to governance has generally backfired.
In February and March last year, he originally opted for an “outlier” pandemic strategy that was out of kilter with many countries which imposed restrictive measures faster and/or utilized much wider “mass” testing.
Fast forward to today and, despite many Johnson U-turns, the UK will end up with one of the highest number of deaths per capita of many countries, with the Office for National Statistics highlighting this week there have been 154,000 UK deaths where coronavirus was mentioned on the death certificate. And, on top of this, the nation may be the hardest hit, economically, of any G20 country.
While Johnson previously had much goodwill from the nation after his own brush with death from the virus in 2020, and is still riding high in the polls, public support will not be given indefinitely. Despite his hold on power seeming unassailable a few weeks ago, his premature departure from office in potentially ignominious circumstances cannot be ruled out in the unprecedented context of a continuing coronavirus crisis.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.