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Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are giving him the benefit of the doubt after his former chief adviser declared he was unfit to lead the country out of the pandemic. But ministers fear the British prime minister will face a bigger battle with his party if the coronavirus variant first detected in India derails his plan to lift restrictions next month.

Officials are now intensely studying data on the new strain, which they estimate has seeded across most of the country and accounts for as many as three-quarters of all new infections. It also appears to be more transmissible than the previously dominant one that took hold late last year and led to another lockdown. Cases of the new variant have been doubling each week and more people are requiring hospital treatment.

While Britain has steamed ahead with its vaccination program, there’s a growing sense of deja vu. A delay to ending the last of the lockdown measures would be a blow for Johnson at a critical time for his credibility as a leader. It would also threaten to puncture the economic optimism that has come with inoculating almost 60% of the population.

Government experts now regard the situation as so serious that the prime minister’s much-vaunted plan to end COVID-19 social-distancing rules on June 21 is in the balance. Over the next two weeks, Johnson will be forced yet again to decide whether to keep restrictions in place for longer — angering members of his party who have been calling for a more rapid return to pre-virus life — or to lift curbs and risk what some scientists fear will be a deadly third wave.

According to one minister, Johnson will face a bitter fight with his own rank-and-file Conservatives if he cancels next month’s reopening. A lot of lawmakers will be furious, but if the variant continues to spread, the government won’t have much choice, the minister said.

Another said the data wasn’t yet clear enough to know for certain whether pressing ahead with ending the restrictions will be safe. Inside government, there are “hawks and doves” arguing on each side of the debate about whether to ease the rules, the official said.

Whatever Johnson decides, the onslaught of criticism from former adviser Dominic Cummings risks sabotaging his efforts to win support for his strategy.

During a marathon session in front of a parliamentary committee, Cummings said Johnson and his team had failed the public when they needed a competent government. The prime minister had been too slow to put the country into lockdown last year, and his “very bad misjudgments” contributed to “tens of thousands” of unnecessary deaths, the ex-aide said.

In some of his most damaging comments, Cummings said Johnson deliberately allowed chaos to reign inside his Downing Street operation, and was “unfit” to be prime minister. He went on record to accuse Health Secretary Matt Hancock of lying, and to say Johnson declared he would rather see “bodies pile high” than order a third national lockdown. Both Johnson and Hancock have rejected the allegations.

The U.K. has administered first doses to 58% of the population, while 36% have been given the full two doses. | AFP-JIJI
The U.K. has administered first doses to 58% of the population, while 36% have been given the full two doses. | AFP-JIJI

The mood among Johnson’s Tory tribe after Cummings’s outburst was relatively calm. The maverick strategist, who masterminded Johnson’s Brexit referendum victory and his election success, is himself a compromised figure in the eyes of the public, after driving a few hundred kilometers in the middle of lockdown last year.

Cummings left Johnson’s inner circle in November after a power struggle, and made no secret of his disapproval of the influence of the prime minister’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds. Speaking privately, Conservative MPs dismissed Cummings’s onslaught as a “sour grapes fest.”

While many Conservatives recognize Johnson’s shortcomings and his chaotic nature, in the House of Commons tea room no MPs had a good word to say about Cummings, one Tory said.

Yet the danger from Cummings is not quite over. During his evidence he repeatedly referred to text messages he’d received from Johnson and others, and agreed to see if he could provide copies to the MPs who are investigating the government’s handling of the pandemic.

If he produces these documents — and if they show how badly Johnson handled the first wave — the prime minister risks being undermined just when he needs to persuade the country he’s got his pandemic strategy under control.

The latest variant is “likely” to be more transmissible than strain that drove infections in the U.K.’s deadly second wave, Public Health England research found. The studies also showed increasing confidence that the variant reduces vaccine effectiveness, especially for those who have only had one dose.

The government is trying to bring forward second doses for the most vulnerable groups not yet fully vaccinated. The U.K. has administered first doses to 58% of the population, while 36% have been given the full two doses. The country’s medicine agency on Friday also approved a fourth vaccine for use, the Johnson & Johnson jab that requires only a single shot.

One complexity is that the vaccination campaign makes predicting the impact of the variant even harder than in previous waves of the pandemic, and that areas with low vaccine uptake will remain more vulnerable to infections, according to Duncan Robertson, an analytics specialist and Loughborough University and Oxford.

That makes it a tough decision, and the government’s past lockdowns have signaled failures in policy, he said. “Looking back, the interventions have happened too late and the opening up has been too early,” Robertson said. “Ultimately the risk is fairly high.”

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