As virus surges and Brexit bears down, Boris Johnson stalls for time

London, UK Published: Oct 16, 2020, 03:24 PM(IST)

Boris Johnson Photograph:( Reuters )

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The prime minister also seemed ready to string out trade talks with Brussels, letting a self-imposed deadline pass on Thursday without a deal

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reached a moment of truth on the two issues that have dominated Britain this year: the pandemic and Brexit negotiations with the European Union. But he is still playing for time — a strategy that could put lives or livelihoods at risk if he waits too long.

On Thursday, Johnson inched closer to imposing a second lockdown on the country, moving London to a higher level of restrictions and signaling that he wanted to move Manchester to the highest level, joining Liverpool. But he stuck to his claim that the best way to curb the virus was through targeted responses, not the two-week nationwide lockdown pushed by the opposition Labour Party and his own scientific advisers.

The prime minister also seemed ready to string out trade talks with Brussels, letting a self-imposed deadline pass on Thursday without a deal. While Johnson could torpedo the negotiations on Friday, after a two-day summit meeting of EU leaders, analysts said the British government still appeared eager to strike an agreement by the legal deadline of Dec. 31.

For Johnson, Brexit and the virus are linked: the economic turmoil unleashed by the pandemic has raised the pressure on him to avoid the self-inflicted disruption of a ruptured negotiation with the EU, and the damaging prospect of beginning the new year without a trade agreement in place.

Yet his reluctance to move decisively on either of them, analysts say, risks making both worse.

Dragging out the talks with Brussels could put Britain in a bind if the two sides hit an impasse as the clock runs out. Putting off a short lockdown — which experts have dubbed a “circuit breaker” — could vitiate its effectiveness in curbing the virus’ spread and necessitate a longer lockdown later, according to medical experts.

“If you’re going to do it, do it early, fast and hard,” said Devi Sridhar, chair of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “The longer they delay, the less likely a two-week circuit breaker will work.”

Scientists have proposed that the government schedule the temporary lockdown for the last week of October and first week of November, when schools are closed for midterm break, to make it less disruptive. But some experts questioned whether that would leave enough time to prepare the public for the restrictions.

Britain has missed its chance at earlier action on a midterm lockdown that might have stemmed the latest surge, but it could still be valuable in slowing the spread, said Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who advises the government. “We haven’t missed the boat of it epidemiologically as a strategy,” he said.

Britain has recorded about 16,000 new coronavirus cases per day, on average, over the past week — the most since the pandemic began, and a tenfold increase in just six weeks. Nearly 800 people were admitted to hospitals on Thursday, and 563 patients were on ventilators, raising fears that intensive care units will soon be overwhelmed.

The figures have climbed sharply despite an array of new restrictions adopted after government scientists warned last month that without further action, the caseload could reach 50,000 a day by this point.

While the outbreak has been worst in the north and west of England, there are signs that it is spreading across the country. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, pressed the government to raise the city’s status to a high alert level, which prohibits indoor socializing by people from different households, as of Saturday.

But other mayors lashed out against the restrictions. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, rejected the move to elevate his city to the highest-risk tier, which involves closing pubs and gyms. Burnham, who like Khan is a member of the Labour Party, demanded that the government provide more financial aid to pubs and other businesses that he said would be devastated by the lockdown.

“We will not cave into all the pressure that is being applied to us,” the mayor said in an angry video posted on Twitter. “We will not let them be leveled down by this government through this pandemic.”

For weeks now, Johnson has balanced calls from his scientific advisers for tighter measures with warnings from members of his Conservative Party that a lockdown or similarly draconian measures would wreck the economy.

The political consensus that once characterized Britain’s response to the pandemic has now fractured in both parties, however. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, threw his weight behind a temporary lockdown, while Johnson remains at odds not only with members of his party but also with some in his Cabinet: the popular chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is resisting the push for a lockdown.

“We are effectively burning the furniture to keep warm now,” said Steve Baker, a Conservative lawmaker and one of the leaders of a campaign for Parliament to have a greater say over coronavirus rules. “If we have to continue like that for another three to six months until there is a vaccine, that poses grave risks to the economy.”

Adding to the pressure on Johnson, public-opinion surveys show clear support in the British public for stricter measures, up to and including a “circuit breaker” — though Britons are split about a lengthier lockdown.

By embracing the idea, analysts said, Starmer had effectively boxed in Johnson.

“If the prime minister moves toward a national lockdown, that will look like he’s changed his mind and moved toward Keir Starmer,” said Keiran Pedley, director of politics at Ipsos/MORI, a polling company. “If he doesn’t, then Labour will presumably say in response to any bad news, ‘You should have listened to us.’ From a political situation, Keir Starmer doesn’t face much risk.”

However treacherous the political landscape for Johnson, the Labour Party’s call for a lockdown might actually strengthen the prime minister’s hand with his own party in the short term. Johnson’s Conservative critics, some observers say, may realize that with public opinion and the opposition running against them, they cannot hope for more than the prime minister’s efforts to seek a middle ground.

“It is dawning on them that this is as good as you are going to get,” said David Gauke, a Conservative former lawmaker who fell out with Johnson over Brexit. “No prime minister is going to be more libertarian than Boris Johnson in this particular set of circumstances.”

This time last year, Johnson faced down resistance by Baker and his hard-line allies on Brexit. He did it by talking tough with Brussels and then cutting a deal that he presented as a triumph — a playbook he appears to be trying to use again.

Johnson’s aides insist a trade agreement is within reach if talks can be intensified on the key issues: fishing quotas and state aid to industry. But the longer they drag on, the greater the uncertainty for British exporters — and the greater the leverage for Brussels.

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