The United Kingdom’s Response to Coronavirus Under Boris Johnson

Johnson Prior to his Hospitalization in Early April

For a moment, the United Kingdom stood still. Its Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had been hospitalized at St Thomas’ Hospital in London on April 5, 2020, after having tested positive for COVID-19. In just 24 hours, however, his condition had rapidly worsened, and he was moved to an intensive care unit. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stepped in for the hospitalized Prime Minister and real worry spread across the nation. If Johnson were to die, he would be the first major leader to die from COVID-19. Politicians across the nation, including the new Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, and the world, like French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump, expressed their sadness and hope for his recovery. Thankfully, perhaps, for the stability of the UK, which had already seen about 5,000 deaths from COVID-19, Johnson survived. Yet with his recovery, new questions about his leadership during this unprecedented crisis have rearisen among the British medical field. Surprisingly, however, opposition politicians have mostly stood behind Johnson, refraining from criticizing the formerly-controversial Prime Minister.

According to a recent report by the Sunday Times, Johnson had skipped five briefings on the coronavirus in January. British scientists like Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, warned the government of the extreme infectivity of the coronavirus and urged a national lockdown – yet a lockdown wasn’t implemented until March 23. Even more troublingly, according to a survey done by the British Medical Association on April 18, most doctors report that they do not have sufficient protective equipment to treat coronavirus patients. In fact, on April 23, two doctors launched a legal challenge against the government over a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and unclear regulations. This was probably sparked by the government’s guidance that in some situations, plastic aprons could be used instead of protective gowns, even for high-risk situations.  Even the government’s goal of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day has fallen through, with only 21,626 having been carried out on April 18. Clearly, there’s a lot of discontent among British doctors and nurses when it comes to Johnson’s government’s response to the pandemic. Surprisingly, however, British opposition politicians have mostly refrained from criticizing Johnson’s approach to the pandemic. When compared to the all-out political warfare ensuing in America over lockdown measures, the contrast is even starker. And it’s attracted attention even from the British press. The Independent published an op-ed on March 16 stating that “Labour should be asking the government tough coronavirus questions”, while The Guardian noted that “Starmer’s [the new Labour Party leader] name rarely comes up in conversation when discussing the coronavirus outbreak.” Why, amidst such medical discontent, are opposition politicians so afraid of criticizing Johnson?

For one, it’s worth noting that for the last four months, the Labour Party was engaged in a prolonged election to replace Jeremy Corbyn. This hampered their response to the pandemic, as seen in the fact they did not create a “shadow Cobra” to parallel the Johnson government’s own emergency committee of the same name. Opposition politicians are also wary of overly politicizing the virus by criticizing Johnson; too much criticism could be construed as a partisan attack, which would hurt them dearly in the polls. Yet perhaps the answer lies in the unexpected competence of Johnson’s leadership during the crisis. Whatever his failings (and they are many, among them his unusual initial strategy to combat the virus through herd immunity), he has at least acknowledged the severity of the crisis and tried to unify the country, unlike President Trump in the United States, who continues to criticize Democrats and has even urged his supporters to protest stay-at-home orders in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. Indeed, Johnson even reached out to Labour party leaders at the beginning of April, stressing the need to “work together during this time of national emergency”. It’s no wonder, therefore, that according to YouGov (a British polling company), 60% of people in the U.K. think Boris Johnson has done a good job of handling the coronavirus pandemic. By contrast, according to FiveThirtyEight, only 44.6% of Americans approve of President Trump’s handling of the pandemic. While not stellar, the United Kingdom’s response to the coronavirus has also been far better than some other European countries, like Sweden, which has refrained from imposing lockdowns at all, resulting in the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 per every million people in the world. Amidst politicization and incompetence abroad, it is perhaps little wonder that despite their worries about Johnson, UK politicians have united around the formerly divisive leader.