By Kaden Pradhan
London, United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is emerging from its third, and hopefully final, major national lockdown. As the restrictions the British people have adhered to for more than a year are being lifted, some have begun to reflect on the crisis the country has gone through and whether it was handled in the best way it could have been. There is no question that the pandemic hit the U.K. much harder than many other countries—the death toll of over 120,000 is extremely high given the small population. During the first months of the crisis, the pressure on our public healthcare system, the NHS, was colossal. Reports from frontline doctors and nurses were published continually; reports telling of a lack of PPE and machinery, panicked attempts to keep people breathing and the grief caused by the hundreds who would die each day. When at last the March national lockdown began to take effect and the number of incoming patients decreased, the sense of relief was palpable.
And yet, it would happen all over again, first in November and then once more in January: the same frenzied rush to secure beds and ventilators for dying patients, the same country-wide mourning as hundreds died daily. The threat of COVID-19 came in waves for us; it was never one, sustained struggle but a constant rise and fall in cases and deaths, a constant uncertainty about the future, which has lasted even until today—who can say for sure that it is finally over? Dangerous, novel variants seem to be discovered every week, each one a hazard to the gradual, fragile recuperation the country is beginning to undergo.
At the helm of government throughout the entire outbreak has been Prime Minister Boris Johnson. When he was elected in 2019, he was the popular choice; the alternative was Jeremy Hunt, who, despite coming across as more measured and collected, lacked the charisma of his rival. Johnson made grand promises in his manifesto, the most important of which being his vow to ‘Get Brexit Done’, a promise that he ultimately fulfilled, albeit with issues. What he did not expect to have to deal with was a pandemic.
Johnson has been described as a scruffy schoolboy—an apt physical description, perhaps, but it would be unfair to say he has handled COVID-19 like a child. An alumnus of both Eton and Oxford University, he has a charming accent. He was, at first, a columnist for newspapers such as The Times and The Spectator. He then became a Member of Parliament (MP) before spending two terms as the Mayor of London. Eventually, he returned to Parliament and served as Foreign Secretary in Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet before finally ascending to May’s position himself.
Being prime minister comes with many legislative duties, and Johnson has spent much of his two years in power in the Houses of Parliament, defending his policies against other MPs. Recently, he has been heavily criticized for delaying the first lockdown, only implementing it some time after his scientific advisors had told him it would be the best course of action. His former aide Dominic Cummings has also released explosive allegations about how Johnson dealt with COVID-19, calling him “unfit for the job” and saying that Johnson thought it was merely a “scare story” before he caught it himself. The Prime Minister himself vigorously denies these accusations. The truth is that he was very much focused on accelerating the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine development programme, since he believed inoculating the population would be the most efficient way of dealing with the pandemic in the long term. The U.K.’s immunization scheme is therefore one of the strongest in the world, with over two-thirds of adults having received their first dose. Johnson’s aims are to radically decrease community transmission.
The British people are watching him with bated breath. While tackling the crisis, Johnson has failed in some areas but also succeeded spectacularly in others. There is no doubt that it is his response to COVID-19, not Brexit, that will ultimately constitute his legacy. He could emerge as the politician who allowed tens of thousands of Britons to die unnecessarily or the Prime Minister who steered the U.K. away from the brink of true disaster and led it instead to a better, happier place. Perhaps we shall only know for sure which of these descriptions is the most apt a few years or even decades from now, but no matter what hindsight shows us, Johnson deserves credit for his unyielding reserve of hope and charm in the face of a true war; a war that the world has waged against something not even visible.