The U.K.’s 72-year-old National Health Service is as close as many in the now largely secular British political class get to a religion.
And Boris Johnson has more to lose than most prime ministers if he allows the revered national institution to collapse on his watch.
The prime minister locked down England for a third time Monday as coronavirus infections pushed hospitals to the breaking point and the death toll rose above 75,000. Failure to act, his top medical officials warned, would put the NHS in danger of being overwhelmed within the next three weeks.
As well as being a health catastrophe, such a result would be politically toxic for the man who made a controversial promise to the NHS during the 2016 Brexit campaign that came to define his career. Johnson told voters the U.K. could save £350 million ($475 million) every week in European Union membership fees if it left the bloc and would be free to spend it on health care instead.
Britain finally left the EU single market Dec. 31, but far from overseeing a boost to Britain’s coffers, the prime minister faces the prospect of steering the economy through a potentially devastating double-dip recession. With retail and hospitality businesses shut again, jobless numbers are likely to increase sharply in the months ahead.
These are the painful trade-offs Johnson’s government has to grapple with. For the prime minister, the risk is his record will be either one of failure to save the economy and protect voters’ jobs, or failure to protect the NHS and save lives — or possibly both.
At the time of his pro-Brexit NHS pledge, emblazoned on the side of a red campaign bus, Johnson was accused of over-promising the benefits that would follow. Similar charges have been leveled at him repeatedly since he locked down the U.K. for the first time in March.
Back then, he said the country would “turn the tide” of the pandemic in 12 weeks. The lockdown halted the spread of the virus, but then the government encouraged people to dine out in restaurants over the summer, contributing to a resurgence of the disease in the fall. Another lockdown followed in November.
Johnson is by nature a man who loves to please the public. He rose to national fame first as a journalist and a television personality on satirical quiz shows. Politically, he has always been a libertarian, railing against the “nanny state” for interfering in people’s lives.
In mid-December he promised restrictions would be lifted in time for families to meet up for five days over the Christmas holidays. He said it would be “inhuman” to cancel the festivities — but a few days later another rise in infections forced him to cancel the plan.
Now the premier is pinning his hopes on another huge promise. This time, he aims to roll out vaccines at a rate of 2 million a week — during a national lockdown — to reach a total of almost 14 million people by mid-February.
It would mean all the most vulnerable people, along with medics and carers, will have been given some protection against the disease, allowing the government to begin lifting restrictions, Johnson said.
Ministers say Johnson’s target can be delivered. But the people who will have to meet it are already working for an organization that has been pushed to the brink: The NHS.
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