As Britain enters a crisis period, a reprieve of sorts for Johnson

By Mark Landler and Stephen Castle

For months, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been whipsawed by the forces of the pandemic, caught between an opposition that accused him of acting too late and lawmakers in his own party who complained that he had gone too far in locking down Britain’s economy to curb the coronavirus.

On Wednesday, however, Johnson went to Parliament with some of his toughest measures yet, and the chamber’s unruly backbenches were quiet. So dire is the public health crisis now confronting Britain that it has temporarily stilled the political debates that have raged since the virus first emerged in the country 11 months ago.

Johnson won overwhelming approval of the legislation to impose a new national lockdown, which he said could remain in force until March 31, although it is possible that some of the measures could be relaxed before then.

“As was the case last spring, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will be not a big bang but a gradual unwrapping,” Johnson declared in Parliament, adding that the government would lift the restrictions “if they are no longer deemed necessary to limit the transmission of the virus.”

The opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, threw his party’s support behind the measures, expressing regret only that Johnson had not moved more quickly. Starmer called the current period the “darkest moment of the pandemic.”

The latest statistics bear out his characterization. Britain recorded a record 62,322 infections Wednesday, the second consecutive day of record new case numbers, and 1,041 deaths, the first day that number had topped 1,000 since April. All told, 77,346 people have died of the coronavirus in Britain, the highest death toll in Europe.

More frightening than the aggregate numbers are the per capita statistics: one person in 50 was infected by the virus in England between Dec. 27 and Jan. 2, the government estimated. In London, the epicenter of an outbreak fueled by a new, rapidly transmissible variant, 1 in 30 has been infected.

The sense of crisis is so great that the organizers of a weekly ritual of clapping for Britain’s National Health Service, which began in March and ran for 10 weeks, announced they would restart the practice.

Confined to their houses, with the days growing colder, and weeks, if not months of lockdown stretching ahead, some Britons clung to the light of a vaccine at the end of the tunnel.

“The only reason I’m getting through it is because I’m banking on being out when the sun comes out,” said Chris Barkley, 36, a lawyer who lives in east London.

He added that many Britons were at the end of their tether and that the government could not bungle the rollout as it had its test-and-tracing system.

“I don’t think people have got much left in them,” he said.

The job of tackling the pandemic was “a poisoned chalice,” said his friend, Sean McEleney, 33, a teacher, who noted that many countries were struggling.

Britain is now engaged in a grim race between skyrocketing infections and its rollout of a mass vaccination program. Johnson reaffirmed an ambitious goal to vaccinate 13.9 million of the nation’s most vulnerable people — residents of nursing homes and everybody else older than 70 — by mid-February. Protecting those people, he said, was the key to unlocking some of these restrictions.

Johnson’s goal was reminiscent of one his government set back in April, when it pledged to test 100,000 people a day by the end of that month. Britain hit that goal but promptly fell below it in the days afterward — setting a precedent for overpromising and under-delivering that has plagued its handling of the crisis.

Johnson’s chaotic approach to reopening schools is another example. Having insisted that many children would return to classrooms Monday after the winter vacation, Johnson reversed that decision after just one day — a move that has upset millions of parents, pupils and teachers.

On Wednesday, the embattled education secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced that the government would cancel A-levels, the examinations used for college placement, and other tests for younger pupils. Last summer, the government set off a firestorm when it used a computer algorithm to assign grades to students after the exams were canceled during the first lockdown.

This year, Williamson said, teachers would assign grades, adding that he was “going to trust teachers, rather than algorithms.”

While the criticisms continue to percolate, the scale of the challenge has dampened criticism from within Johnson’s Conservative Party. Previous restrictions were resisted by a caucus of upward of 50 skeptics worried about their impact on the economy, infringement of individual liberties and the effect on people’s mental health.

But in Parliament on Wednesday, Johnson swatted away complaints from a handful of Conservative critics including one lawmaker, Desmond Swayne, who complained that coronavirus restrictions represented “pettifogging malice,” a description designed to emphasize the petty nature of the rules.

“Pettifogging, yes — malicious, no,” replied a somber but unruffled Johnson.

With the new variant of the virus pushing British hospitals close to their breaking point, there is limited appetite for rebellion, even among the Conservative Party most obdurate lockdown skeptics.

“In the short term they are quiet, and their criticisms have been drowned out by events,” said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “For the moment, he has a free hand thanks to the pandemic.”

Fielding added, “We are in the same sort of territory as the Second World War in terms of the logistical challenges facing the government. This is a crisis, no two ways about it, and it will get worse before it gets better.”

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