UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week insisted the UK was ‘past the peak’ of the COVID-19 outbreak, but he is likely to come under increasing pressure to justify his sluggish initial response to the pandemic.
A growing number of Britons think the government acted too late in implementing strict lockdown measures, as the country’s death toll nears 30,000.
Mr Johnson won a new five-year term in December, so he doesn’t have to face the voters until 2024, and he continues to hold a handy lead over the opposition in the opinion polls.
But an IPSOS poll published late last week found a significant rise in the number of people who think the government was too late in responding to the unfolding crisis.
It wasn’t until late March that the individuals were told to stay home, with non-essential shops closed. The poll found 66 percent of respondents thought that was too late, while only 26 percent thought it was the right time.
“If the public reaches a consensus that the Government acted too slowly in dealing with the virus in the first place, it may have difficult questions to answer on that in the future,” Keiran Pedley from IPSOS said.
Mr Johnson, who spent three days in intensive care as he fought COVID-19, is coming under increased scrutiny for his actions in the middle of March, when gyms, pubs and restaurants remained open.
In particular, the government’s desire to achieve “herd immunity” by allowing the disease to spread has been labelled dangerous and callous.
The Prime Minister’s comments in early March may come back to haunt him, where he said he wasn’t changing his behaviour because of the rising threat of the virus, even as other nations were already taking precautions.
“I’m shaking hands,” the Prime Minister boasted at the time.
“I was at a hospital the other night where I think a few there were actually coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.”
Such comments look foolish with the benefit of hindsight, and will surely play into a post-coronavirus narrative on his judgement, along with decisions to allow large-scale sporting events to continue in early March, such as a Champions League match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, as well as the Cheltenham Festival, which is one of the highlights of the horse-racing calendar.
Both events are now being linked to mass outbreaks in those regions.
As the country prepares to relax distancing restrictions, opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer has said Mr Johnson’s message is “not credible” and he needs to be more upfront with the public. Mr Starmer said the mistakes made at the start of the pandemic cannot afford be repeated.
“The British public have made great sacrifices to make the lockdown work,” he said.
“They deserve to be part of an adult conversation about what comes next.
“If we want to take people with us and secure their consent, this is necessary now. This is a national crisis and therefore needs a national response.
“The coming weeks require urgent preparation and planning from the Government.
“We have already seen the consequences of poor planning and preparation. That cannot happen again.”
For the moment, Mr Johnson’s brush with death has given him something of a free kick with voters. How long that continues remains to be seen.
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