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Reckoning on the horizon for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in wake of coronavirus response

"London Calling": Boris Johnson's coronavirus response
"London Calling": Boris Johnson under fire for response to coronavirus crisis 02:06

By rights, when Boris Johnson stood up in the House of Commons for his first Prime Minister's Question period in five weeks, he should have come under heavy fire.

After all, over the previous 24 hours the U.K.'s coronavirus death toll had passed Italy's to become the highest in Europe — and the government has still not fulfilled its weeks-old promise to test 100,000 Britons every day.

Keir Starmer, the new leader of the opposition Labour party, opened the session with the obvious question: "At last 29,427 people in the U.K. have now lost their lives to this dreadful virus. That's now the highest number in Europe and the second highest in the world."

"Can the prime minister tell us — how on Earth did it come to this?" he pondered. Johnson chose not to answer.

Instead, he remarked that comparing international statistics was not helpful, and pivoted away to safer ground — his government's plans for more testing and a phased end to the U.K.'s lockdown.

Boris Johnson — Prime Minister's Questions session in Parliament in London
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question time debate in Parliament in London, Britain, on May 6, 2020. Handout / U.K. Parliament via Reuters

It may have been Johnson's recent illness with COVID-19 that put him in intensive care or the fact that his fiancee gave birth to a baby boy last week, but U.K. lawmakers pulled their punches in follow-up questions, and Johnson got an easy ride.

But it won't last; there is a storm gathering.

Critics from various quarters charge that the U.K. government lost valuable time dithering before imposing a strict lockdown. Its own top scientific advisors had warned in early March that half a million Britons could die if the virus was unconstrained. The warning was repeated more urgently March 16 by a research team at Imperial College in London.

The team's report warned that the government's halfway "mitigation" measures — asking people to stay home while leaving restaurants and pubs open — "could lead to 250,000 deaths and intensive care units being overwhelmed at least eight times over."

Even then, it took Johnson another full week to declare a lockdown — a delay that undoubtedly cost lives.

Critics point to other government missteps.

Early on in the outbreak, it abandoned its coronavirus track-and-trace testing program. That's the program Germany has since demonstrated is the key to bringing infection rates under control. Track and trace in the U.K. was abandoned because the country did not have enough tests, nor did it have enough protective equipment to see medical staff safely through the pandemic. Its strategic stockpiles of crucial supplies like testing equipment and ventilators had been depleted by years of spending cuts.

These reasons behind Johnson and his government's coronavirus failings are complex. They probably include complacency in the wake of a huge election victory in December; scientific advisers who did not signal their alarm forcefully enough; an inflexible public health bureaucracy; the prime minister's own personal distractions (including a messy divorce); and a civil service exhausted and demoralized by months of wrangling over Brexit.

Also, a false assumption that people in a liberal democracy like the U.K. would not stand for drastic curbs on their personal freedom in the name of community health.

Boris Johnson wasn't called to account today, but his political opponents are just getting into position. The reckoning, when it comes, could be explosive.

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