Boris Johnson's Christmas COVID-19 gamble may be paying off

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been walking a tightrope between satisfying his own Conservative Party members who want few COVID-19 restrictions and public health experts who want more robust interventions. Although case numbers remain high, there's reason for Johnson to be optimistic.

Cases and work absences are high, but other signs are encouraging for U.K. prime minister

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic in London on Tuesday. (Jack Hill/Reuters)

For much of the last couple of months, it seemed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson couldn't make anyone happy with his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A sizable part of his Conservative backbench — more than 100 MPs — voted against him in December, furious that Johnson and his cabinet introduced requirements just before Christmas for COVID-19 passes for large events, as well as mask mandates for other venues that they felt were harsh and unnecessary. 

At the same time, Johnson resisted immense pressure from forces outside his party to go even further. 

With Omicron cases soaring and threatening to overwhelm hospitals, he made England an outlier among other parts of the United Kingdom — and most of Europe — by refusing to impose stay at home orders or limit private social gatherings over the holiday period. 

Workers travel on an underground train during the morning rush hour in London on Tuesday, as COVID-19 lockdown guidelines imposed by the British government encourage working from home. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

People would simply have to "act responsibly," said Johnson, triggering an outcry from public health experts who warned of the dire consequences of putting politics before science.

In the midst of attempting to walk the tightrope, he also had to deal with a damaging scandal over a previous COVID-19 lockdown last year, when many of his own staffers were found to have enjoyed a Christmas party at 10 Downing Street while the rest of the country was told they had to hunker down.

The voters of Shropshire in central England, among many other Britons, were not impressed. On Dec. 17, they delivered their verdict on Johnson's performance, rejecting the Conservative candidate in a byelection for a seat the Tories had held for almost 200 years. 

A girl takes a COVID-19 lateral flow test ahead of returning to school, amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Manchester on Tuesday. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

It all added up to a significant nightmare before Christmas for the British leader.

Even usually friendly conservative voices in the British media began openly wondering if his charm and the Teflon political coating that had helped Johnson avoid so many political messes over the years might have finally deserted him.

But Britain's first COVID-19 update of the new year delivered on Tuesday may have provided some qualified good news for Johnson.

No surge in mortality

Chief Medical Health Officer Chris Whitty suggested Omicron cases in London, especially among younger people, may be levelling off.   

Crucially, Whitty also said, the U.K. is not seeing a surge in COVID-19 mortality despite more than 200,000 new cases every day.   

Moreover, serious hospital cases requiring intensive care have largely remained flat.

Pupils work in a classroom at the Fulham Boys School in London on Tuesday, the first day after the Christmas holidays following a government announcement that face masks are to be worn in English secondary schools amid the COVID-19 outbreak. (Kevin Coombs/Reuters)

"We have a chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country again," said Johnson, alongside Whitty, at a news conference Tuesday.

Britain's efforts at getting boosters, or third doses of COVID-19 vaccine, into adults appear to be the difference-maker, with more than 34 million vaccinations as of Jan. 5. The government's coronavirus tracking site indicates approximately 60 per cent of all people in the country above age 12 have now received the extra protection.

The political implications for his party — and Johnson personally — could be considerable. His pre-Christmas gamble of leaving bars, restaurants and social gatherings largely untouched, while staring down many in his own party, may be starting to pay off.

"I would agree that the indications are that so far it appears to have gone well," said Joe Twyman, founder of Deltapoll, a London-based pollster and political consulting firm.

"Does the way he's played Omicron, does that mean he has regained the political capital he lost with the public and with his backbench? Yes, I do think that could be the case."

Tense weeks ahead

Still, tense weeks remain ahead and the Omicron caseload could yet bring unpleasant surprises. 

Britain's Office for National Statistics now estimates that as many as one in 15 people in England may have the coronavirus, up from one in 25 a week ago.   

On Wednesday, 195,000 positive tests were reported, down slightly from the 219,000 that were recorded Tuesday.

"Anyone who thinks our battle with COVID is over is profoundly wrong," Johnson immediately cautioned Tuesday, noting the country is still very much on a "war footing," with heavy absenteeism among hospital staff counting as among the greatest worries.   

A random sample of people on the high street of the community of Thames Ditton, in London's commuter belt, expressed frustration with Johnson's leadership over the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adrian DiVirgilio/CBC)

At least 12 hospitals in central England have declared "critical incidents," a signal that urgent care is at risk because of staffing shortages.

Commercial enterprises from every sector of the economy are also suffering. Popular grocery retailer Iceland, which specializes in frozen food and ready meals, says 11 per cent of its staff are now off work, either with COVID-19 or because of mandatory quarantines.

British papers have also been full of stories about municipalities having to delay garbage and recycling pickup because of a lack of staff, creating ugly scenes around dumpsters.

Shortages of train conductors and other railway employees have forced most U.K. passenger rail providers to scale back services or run on reduced schedules.

Britain's official opposition, the Labour Party, which has seen its popularity overtake the Conservatives during the Omicron surge, is clearly unwilling to let up on the pressure, although it will have to make do for the next week or so without its leader, Keir Starmer.

Starmer tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, for the second time.   

"The Conservatives have been in power for over a decade, marred in their sleaze with a divided party, a prime minister losing the support of the backbenches and a Labour party that is ready to take over," said deputy leader Angela Rayner who took over for Starmer, as she grilled Johnson in the House of Commons Wednesday.

A sign informing customers of a COVID-19-related closure is seen outside a bar in Liverpool on Tuesday. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

Johnson and his Conservatives have up to two years before they need to face voters again in a general election. So far, no one in the Conservative caucus has stepped forward to try to take away his job, a fate that has befallen a number of his predecessors, including the leader he replaced, former prime minister Theresa May.

Nonetheless, Twyman, the pollster, said Johnson remains a long way from being politically safe.

"He has a reputation for playing fast and loose with the truth and also playing fast and loose with the rules — and that is not a narrative you want generating against you and your party."

Frustration with Johnson's leadership

Just after New Year's, CBC News visited the suburban London riding of Esher and Walton in Surrey, a constituency populated by single family homes and traditional Conservative voters.

It's a safe Conservative seat held by cabinet minister and Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. Nonetheless, a random sample of people on the high street of the community of Thames Ditton, where Raab lives, expressed frustration with Johnson's leadership.

"No one believes anything he says anymore," said longtime resident Steve Boddy. "As far as COVID, I think he's done it the wrong way. He should have locked down the country more." 

"He's cost the nation a lot of lives and heartache. He's not looking after the country," said Alison Garside.

Others, though, felt if Johnson could get past COVID-19, there would be better times ahead for the Conservatives.

"I think if you can start seeing if the economy is booming, they overlook scandals," said Barbara Thordsen, who lives in nearby Wimbledon. "I think what we all want is an economy that is going to work."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.