Johnson's luck How the NHS saved the PM

Boris Johnson, a political opportunist of the first rank, is reaping the gains. The Prime Minister’s approval rating is at its highest since last May, soon after he was treated in intensive care for the virus, and his Conservative Party is six points ahead of Labour in the polls. “There is undoubtedly a vaccine bounce going on,” Keir Starmer, Labour’s stolid, relatively new leader, conceded in a recent interview with the BBC. “You can feel it, you go into the vaccine center with anxiety written over your face and then you see people coming out with a smile. It’s an incredible feeling.” Johnson flaunts what he calls the Oxford vaccine as an example of the gifts that post-Brexit Britain is about to bestow upon the world. “As the vaccine programme begins to inspire a new global hope, we want to use this moment to heal, both literally and figuratively,” he wrote in the Times of London this week. Johnson, who has never met a metaphor he wouldn’t manhandle, praised the vaccine as part of “the vast dispersal of British ideas, and British values, puffed around the world like the seeds of some giant pollinating tree.”

For the time being, Johnson’s detractors are flummoxed. “A lot of us can see the chancer in him. But, actually, people want to believe it,” Meg Hillier, a Labour member of Parliament, told me. Hillier is the chair of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, which investigates government spending. Since last spring, Hillier’s committee has documented many of the worst aspects of Britain’s handling of the disaster. During March and April last year, around twenty-five thousand N.H.S. patients, most of them elderly, were transferred out of hospitals into care homes without being tested for the coronavirus. In the weeks that followed, outbreaks were reported in almost forty per cent of England’s care homes. Tens of thousands of people died. After a hesitant initial response, Johnson’s government moved into boondoggle mode, betting big in some areas (such as vaccine development), which have paid off, and others (such as personal protective equipment, where it set out to purchase four months’ supply but accidentally bought five years’ worth), which have not. Amazing sums have been, in another Johnsonism, spaffed up the wall. On March 10th, Hillier’s committee reported on Britain’s inordinately expensive test-and-trace system, which has been allocated thirty-seven billion pounds and has yet to show a meaningful effect on the transmission of the virus. None of these failures matter, though, when the end appears to be in sight. And it doesn’t make much political sense for Johnson’s opponents to harp on about them, either. “People don’t vote for the doom-and-gloom party,” Hillier said. “People will want to vote for what the Prime Minister might call the sunny uplands.”

Britain’s vaccine success has also obscured the impacts of Johnson’s signature policy, which was taking the country out of the European Union. Although Brexit formally took place in January, 2020 (on the same day that Britain recorded its first coronavirus case), it was only at the start of this year that new trading rules took effect. So far, the consequences of Johnson’s hard-line deal with the E.U. have been as dispiriting as they were predictable. Last week, official figures showed a fall of £5.6 billion, or forty per cent, in British exports to the bloc in January, compared to the month before. Some sectors were especially hard hit: dairy exports to the E.U. were cut in half; fish and shellfish exports fell by eighty-three per cent. A survey of industrial firms found that three-quarters are currently experiencing delays and problems because of new customs checks. Lord Frost, the government’s former Brexit negotiator, insisted that the fall in trade was owing to a “unique combination of factors,” including the pandemic, but it was also exactly what economists were expecting. Exports to the rest of the world rose slightly in the same period. “That exports to the E.U. collapsed so badly, much worse than to everyone else, shows that, you know, quelle surprise, if you have some checks on the French side of the border, you’re going to have a lot less trade,” John Springford, the deputy director of the Centre for European Reform, a London think tank, told me. “I don’t think it’s going to be as bad in February and March, but it’s still going to be bad. And I think, then, we are looking at sizable job losses.”

For now, a rotten Brexit doesn’t seem to matter. And that’s largely because the E.U.’s own gigantic vaccine program is in such a mess. For most of last year, British people looked anxiously at statistics and news reports about the pandemic in Europe and wondered why they seemed to be suffering so much worse. (Germany’s death rate from covid-19, which has risen recently, remains about a half of the U.K.’s.) With the vaccine rollout, the same is happening in reverse. The E.U. was slow in ordering doses. Distribution has been hampered by production problems and mixed messaging about the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in particular. Vaccination rates in Germany and France are currently at around eleven doses per hundred residents, compared to the thirty-two in the U.S. and thirty-nine in the U.K. “Liebe Britain, We Beneiden You,” (Dear Britain, We Envy You), ran a headline in Bild, a German tabloid, last month.