LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reached the point of truth on two issues that have dominated Britain this year: the pandemic and the Brexit talks with the European Union. But he still plays for time – a strategy that can expose life or livelihood if he waits too long.
On Thursday, Mr Johnson approached the imposition of a second lock on the country, moving London to a higher level of restrictions and signaling that he wanted to move Manchester to the highest level by joining Liverpool. But he maintains that the best way to curb the virus is through targeted responses, rather than a two-week nationwide crackdown pushed by the opposition Labor Party and its own scientific advisers.
For Mr Johnson, Brexit and the virus are linked: the economic turmoil unfolding in the pandemic has intensified pressure on him to avoid self-harm in the interrupted negotiations with the European Union and the harmful prospect of a new year without a trade deal.
Still, his reluctance to make a decisive decision on each of them, analysts say, risks worsening both.
Continuing negotiations with Brussels could put Britain in difficulty if both sides find themselves at a standstill with the expiration of the clock. Delaying a short lock – which experts have called a “switch” – could impair its effectiveness in curbing the spread of the virus and require a longer lock 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 is to operate.”
Researchers are proposing that the government schedule a temporary blockade for the last week of October and the first week of November, when schools are closed for a break, to make it less destructive. But some experts have questioned whether this will leave enough time to prepare the public for the restrictions.
Britain has missed a chance for earlier action on a medium-term blockade, which may have caused the latest jump, but could still be beneficial in slowing the spread, said Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene. and Tropical Medicine, which advises the government. “We have not missed epidemiology as a strategy,” he said.
The UK has registered around 16,000 new cases of coronavirus a day on average in the last week – the most since the start of the pandemic and a tenfold increase in just six weeks. Nearly 800 people were admitted to hospitals on Thursday, and 563 patients were ventilated, raising fears that intensive care units will soon be overcrowded.
Figures have risen sharply despite a number of new restrictions adopted after government scientists warned last month that without further action, the volume of cases could reach 50,000 a day so far.
While the outbreak was most severe in the north and west of England, there are signs that it is spreading across the country. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pressured the government to raise the city’s status to a high level of readiness, which has banned socializing indoors by people from various households since Saturday.
But other mayors rushed against the restrictions. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, has rejected a move to elevate his city to the most risky layer, which includes closing pubs and gyms. Mr Burnham, who, like Mr Hahn, is a member of the Labor Party, has asked the government to provide more financial support to pubs and other businesses that he says will be devastated by the blockade.
“We will not be able to cope with all the pressure that is being put on us,” the mayor said in an angry video posted on Twitter. “We will not allow the government to level them through this pandemic.”
For weeks, Mr Johnson has been balancing his scientific advisers’ calls for tougher measures with warnings from members of his Conservative Party that blocking or similar draconian measures would destroy the economy.
The political consensus that once characterized Britain’s response to the pandemic has now broken in both parties. Labor leader Keir Starmer has thrown the burden behind the temporary lock, while Mr Johnson remains at odds not only with members of his party but also with some in his cabinet: popular Treasury Chancellor Rishi Sunak is resisting the push to lock.
“We’re burning furniture efficiently to keep warm now,” said Steve Baker, a Conservative MP and one of the leaders of a parliamentary campaign, to have a bigger say on coronavirus rules. “If we have to continue like this for another three to six months while there is a vaccine, there are serious risks to the economy.”
In addition to the pressure on Mr Johnson, opinion polls show clear support in the British public for tougher measures, including a “breaker”, although the British are divided on a longer lock. Accepting the idea, analysts said, Mr. Starmer effectively boxed into Mr. Johnson.
“If the prime minister moves to a national lock, it will look like he has changed his mind and turned to Kier Starmer,” said Keiran Pedley, director of policy at Ipsos / MORI, an election company. “If he doesn’t, Labor will probably say in response to the bad news, ‘You should have listened to us.’ Due to the political situation, Kier Starmer is not facing a big risk. “
As insidious as Mr Johnson’s political landscape may be, the Labor Party’s call for a blockade could actually strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand with his own party in the short term. Mr Johnson’s conservative critics, some observers say, may realize that with public opinion and the opposition that opposes them, they cannot hope for more than the prime minister’s efforts to find a middle ground.
“It dawns on them that this is as good as you get,” said David Hawke, a former Conservative MP who broke up with Mr Johnson over Brexit. “No prime minister will be more freedom-loving than Boris Johnson in this particular set of circumstances.”
This time last year, Mr Johnson faced opposition from Mr Baker and his staunch allies on Brexit. He did so by talking rudely to Brussels and then making a deal that he described as a triumph – a game book he seems to be trying to use again.
Mr Johnson’s aides insist that a trade agreement is in place if talks on key issues can be stepped up: fishing quotas and state aid to industry. But the longer they pull, the greater the uncertainty for British exporters – and the greater the lever for Brussels.