How Biden and Boris Johnson came to the same place on virus politics

LONDON – On the evening of December 21, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared from 10 Downing Street to tell anxious Britons they can ‘move forward with their Christmas plans’, despite an increase in the number of new cases coronavirus. Almost at the same time, President Biden stepped onto a podium in the White House to give Americans a similar green light.

It was a striking, albeit unintentional, display of synchronicity from two leaders who started out with very different approaches to the pandemic, let alone politics. Their convergence on how to handle the Omicron variant says a lot about how countries are dealing with the virus, more than two years after it first threatened the world.

For Mr Johnson and Mr Biden, analysts said, the politics and science of Covid have pushed them towards a policy of trying to live with the virus rather than putting their countries back on a war footing. It’s a very risky strategy: hospitals in Great Britain and parts of the United States are already on the verge of overflowing with patients. But for now, it’s better than the alternative: shutting down their savings again.

“A conservative prime minister trying to deal responsibly with Covid is very different from a Democratic president trying to deal responsibly with Covid,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster in Washington. And yet, he said, their options aren’t that different anymore.

“From a medical and political standpoint,” Mr. Garin said, “there isn’t such a strong imperative for people to squat as they were a year ago.”

Some analysts say the two leaders had little choice. Both are dealing with populations tired by confinement. Both have made strides in vaccinating their citizens, although Britain remains ahead of the United States. And both saw their popularity erode as their early promises to beat the virus faded.

Several of Biden’s former science advisers have publicly urged him this week to reconsider his strategy to move from banning the virus to a “new normal” of coexistence with it. This echoes what Mr Johnson said when he lifted the restrictions last July. “We have to ask ourselves,” he said, “when can we get back to normal? “

Devi Sridhar, an American scientist who heads the Global Health Program at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The scientific community now has a broad consensus that we need to use the tools at our disposal to stay open and avoid the deadlocks of 2020 and 2021. But it’s not easy at all, as we see.

Mr Johnson and Mr Biden’s alignment is important as Britain has often served as a Covid test case for the United States – a few weeks in advance to see the effects of a new wave and d ‘a model, for better or for worse, on how to respond to them.

It was the first country to approve a vaccine and the fastest major economy to deploy it. His spooky projections, from Imperial College London, of how many people could die in an uncontrolled pandemic helped push a reluctant Mr Johnson and equally reluctant President Donald J. Trump to call for distancing restrictions social in their countries.

That Mr Johnson and Mr Trump initially resisted such measures was hardly a surprise, given their ideological kinship as populist politicians. When Mr Johnson locked up Britain, days after his European neighbors, he pledged to “send the virus to wrap” in 12 weeks. Mr Trump also vowed that Covid, “like a miracle”, would be gone soon. The two then suffered episodes of the disease.

Mr Biden, on taking office, promised a different approach, one that pays more attention to scientific advice and takes tough measures such as “expanded masking, testing and social distancing.” Although Mr Johnson never flouted scientific advice like Mr Trump, he was sunnier than Mr Biden, continuing to promise the crisis would pass soon.

But he and Mr Biden have languished politically as new variants have made Covid much more stubborn than they had hoped. On July 4, as new cases faded and vaccination rates rose, Biden said the United States had gotten “the upper hand” on the virus. Weeks later, the Delta variant swept across the country.

In England, with nearly 70 percent of adults having received two doses of a vaccine, Mr Johnson lifted virtually all social distancing rules on July 19, a bold move – some said unwise – that the tabloids Londoners nickname “Freedom Day”. After a midsummer lull in cases that seemed to warrant Mr Johnson’s bet, the Omicron variant has now driven Britain’s number of new cases to over 150,000 a day.

Mr Biden and Mr Johnson have different powers in dealing with the pandemic. As Prime Minister, Mr Johnson can order lockdowns in England, a step he has crossed twice since his first lockdown in March 2020. In the United States, those restrictions are in the hands of governors, including a few. -a few, like the Florida Republican. Ron DeSantis, have become vocal critics of Mr. Biden’s approach.

For Mr Johnson, the main obstacle is not the provocative regional leaders or the opposition, but members of his own Conservative Party, who fiercely oppose further containment measures and have rebelled against even modest initiatives. in that direction.

The Prime Minister has left open the possibility of further restrictions. But analysts say given his eroding popularity he no longer has the political capital to persuade his party to agree to an economically damaging lockdown, even though scientists have recommended.

Mr Johnson is “essentially now a prisoner of his most hawkish cabinet colleagues and the hundred or so MPs who seem allergic to any kind of public health restrictions,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London . . They “just feel like the state has grown too big trying to tackle Covid and they really don’t want the government to grow,” Mr Bale said.

Some British analysts are drawing a comparison between governors of the red states like Mr DeSantis and Tory lawmakers on the ‘red wall’, former Labor strongholds in the Midlands and northern England that Mr Johnson’s Tories swept away in the election of 2019 with its promise to “Brexit.”

It was not low-tax Tories and a small government in the tradition of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, but right-wing populists modeled on Mr Trump and Mr Johnson who defended the Brexit vote – voters whom the Prime Minister would need to be re-elected.

Some critics argue that Mr Biden and Mr Johnson are both out of touch with their countries. The British have been shown to be much more tolerant of blockades than lawmakers in the Prime Minister’s party. In parts of the United States, by contrast, popular resistance to blockades is widespread and deep-seated.

“Biden suffers from seeming to be doing too much and Boris suffers from seeming too little,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist who was a classmate of Mr Johnson at the University of Oxford. “Biden would have done a better job if he had led Britain, and Boris would have done a better job if he had led the United States”

Mr Biden, unlike Mr Johnson, does not face an internal party rebellion over his Covid policy. But the continuing grip of the pandemic has undermined the president’s poll scores, stoking fears of a Republican landslide in the midterm elections. Calls for change from members of Mr Biden’s former science group, some said, reflected concerns his Covid messages were lagging behind reality.

Others pointed out that the president’s determination to keep schools and businesses open, despite the growing number of cases, signaled that a change in mindset was underway in the White House – if only a few months later. than Downing Street.

“When Biden says we should be worried but not panicked, he meets the Americans where they are,” said Garin, the Democratic pollster. “It also meets science where it is.

Stephen Castle contributed reporting.

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