LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is walking a political tightrope as he faces increasing attacks from both friends and enemies amid a surge in COVID-19 infections.
For the second winter in a row, Johnson is betting vaccines will be his savior, urging everyone to get booster shots to slow the spread of the new omicron variant, hoping to avoid further politically unpalatable restrictions on business and social activity.
The threat to Johnson and his Conservative Party was on stark display last week as the prime minister reeled from one political crisis to another.
On Tuesday, Johnson faced the biggest parliamentary rebellion of his tenure as 97 Conservatives voted against new COVID-19 restrictions. Two days later he suffered a stinging by-election defeat in a normally safe Conservative area amid anger over reports that government employees held Christmas parties last year while the country was in lockdown. Then Saturday, one of his staunchest allies resigned from his Cabinet, citing discomfort with the new coronavirus rules.
While Johnson’s policy on trying to restrict COVID-19 infections is sound, he will face increasing pressure from all wings of his party to change course, said Giles Wilkes, a senior fellow at the non-partisan Institute for Government. The challenge is to ignore the political noise and base his policies on science, said Wilkes, a former adviser to the prime minister’s predecessor, Theresa May.
“The past month’s political spasms may mark a historical turning point in the story of this administration,” Wilkes said, highlighting pivotal decisions of former Prime Ministers John Major and Gordon Brown that ultimately undermined their standing with voters. “Those are not happy comparisons for the prime minister to contemplate.”
On Sunday, British newspapers were filled with reports on potential contenders for the prime minister’s office, including Treasury Secretary Rishi Sunak, Foreign Minister Liz Truss and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
The pressure on Johnson is being stoked by the highly transmissible omicron variant, which has pushed Britain's COVID-19 infections to record highs in recent days. That has once again fueled concerns that U.K. hospitals will be overwhelmed this winter.
In response, Johnson ordered the National Health Service to ramp up its vaccine program a week ago, promising that everyone 18 and over would be offered a booster shot this month. But he also introduced legislation requiring people to where face masks in shops and to show they have been double-vaccinated or had negative COVID-19 test to enter crowded venues like nightclubs.
The results of Britain's vaccination program have been impressive, with the number of booster shots administered jumping to more than 900,000 on Saturday from 550,000 a week earlier. Some vaccination centers are staying open 24 hours a day to offer shift workers easier access.
But the new restrictions triggered howls from the libertarian wing of Johnson’s party, who say they were unnecessary and the precursor to further limits on personal freedoms. In the face of that opposition, Johnson had to rely on votes from the opposition Labour Party to approve the use of COVID-19 health passports.
Now the government’s scientific advisers are recommending that Johnson go further. Limits on social interactions and a return to social distancing are needed to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, according to leaked minutes from a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
Tobias Ellwood, one of the Conservative rebels, criticized the government’s “off the bus, on the bus” approach to tackling the pandemic, saying the country needs consistency.
“We need almost like a wartime leader, we need a strong No. 10, and the machinery of No. 10 around Boris Johnson. That’s what needs to be improved,’’ he told Times Radio. “The boosterism, the energy, is not enough in these current circumstances.”
Meanwhile, Labour leaders say the “partygate” scandal has undermined public confidence in the Conservative government. It will be difficult for Johnson to impose any new coronavirus restrictions because government offices violated their own rules last year.
Government ministers met Sunday with the leaders of governments in Scotland and Wales to discuss “shared challenges, including the economic disruption caused by COVID.” The meeting was chaired by Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay, not the prime minister.
“He is hiding from his own backbenchers instead of leading,” Wes Streeting, Labour’s spokesman on health issues, told Sky News. “And that kind of weakness instead of leadership should really concern the public, because I think people out there know that measures are necessary.’’
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