LONDON — After the darkest of winters, the mood in Britain is finally lifting. On Feb. 22, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a tentative path out of the nation’s third and longest lockdown.
“The crocus of hope is poking through the frost and spring is on the way,” Mr. Johnson said at a news conference from Downing Street, with characteristic pomp.
Britons could be forgiven for being skeptical. Mr. Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has been riddled with bluster, broken promises and devastating results: more than 120,000 people have died here, the highest total in Europe and, per capita, one of the worst death rates in the world.
But amid a surprisingly successful vaccine rollout, hope is rising. As of late February, Britain had vaccinated over 20 million people — more than a quarter of the population — with at least a first dose. Only Israel, the Seychelles and the United Arab Emirates have moved faster. The European Union, much to the advantage of those who favored Brexit, lags far behind.
On Feb. 24, a newspaper in Germany carried the front-page headline: “Dear Brits, We Envy You!”
For Britons it is a disorienting change in fortunes, since the country has spent most of the past year as a case study in how not to handle a pandemic.
In the spring of 2020, Mr. Johnson resisted calls for a lockdown, boasted that he was still shaking hands “with everybody” and swiftly contracted the virus himself. As Britain entered the summer, it had already lost more lives than any other country in Europe, up to 20,000 of which, according to one estimate, would have been saved if the country had entered lockdown earlier. But even as the pandemic progressed, Mr. Johnson seemed to learn nothing and only belatedly imposed a second lockdown.
Between November and January a soaring infection rate and a new variant of the virus doubled the death toll and made Britain an object of pity worldwide. As over 40 countries closed their borders to Britons, the country earned the unhappy nickname of “plague island.” Britain looked very unwell, and alone.
What a difference a few weeks have made.
Mr. Johnson’s government can take some credit. Britain controversially opted out of the E.U.’s voluntary vaccination scheme back in July, and the lumbering rollout on the Continent has vindicated that decision. The British government was prompt in ordering the Pfizer and Astra-Zeneca vaccines, and its national regulator was the first in the world to approve both. The country has also been able to accelerate the rate of first doses by allowing up to 12 weeks between jabs, while most countries strive for only three.
But this success also belongs to the National Health Service, which entered the pandemic already struggling under 10 years of Conservative austerity. Famously called the “the closest thing the English people have to a national religion,” by Nigel Lawson, a Conservative lawmaker, trust in the N.H.S. is high, and so is vaccine uptake: A recent study found that more than 8 in 10 adults were willing to have the vaccine. And the N.H.S.’s reach means there is a vaccine center within about 10 miles of almost every Briton’s home.
So, the Conservative government is riding high. Mr. Johnson’s approval ratings, 29 points below the opposition Labour Party leader’s in September, are now 10 points ahead, and his party is stretching its lead in the polls.
The E.U.’s travails have only sweetened the Conservative Party’s success. For a government that was elected at the end of 2019 to “Get Brexit Done,” and a country that officially left the E.U. just a couple of months before recording its first cases of Covid-19, Britain’s comparative speed has played perfectly into the Brexiteers’ caricature of an inept and inefficient bloc. In one fraught exchange, in which the E.U. threatened to block vaccines destined for Britain, only to back down and then falsely claim the vaccine wasn’t particularly effective anyway, it also surrendered any moral high ground that remained. A leading liberal German newspaper, Die Welt, called its actions “the best advert for Brexit.”
Conservatives have encouraged Britons to make the same connection. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, claimed that Britain’s regulatory speed was “because of Brexit” (the regulator denied this), and David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, was even blunter: “If you wanted a single demonstration of why Brexit was important, you’ve got it.”
Given Britain’s high death toll, and the worst recession in the Group of 7, Brexiteers might hope for a better demonstration of their cause. Even now we are continuing in one of the longest and strictest national lockdowns in Europe (only after March 8 will we be allowed to meet someone outside for a “coffee or a picnic” in England). But it’s easy to see how thanks to the vaccine, the nightmare of the pandemic will be absorbed into their favorite Churchillian myth: as yet another test of national resolve where the country stood alone, endured, suffered and ultimately led the way out of the darkness.
The pandemic has proved useful in other ways, too, by keeping public attention off the immediate problems caused by Brexit, like disrupted supply chains and shortages in supermarkets, and making the economic consequences of Brexit less visible, even if those will last longer.
Mr. Johnson is known for his Teflon qualities, and the pandemic could prove to be the definitive case. His errors have been blatant, repetitive and costly, but a triumphant vaccine rollout has put a spring in his step.
After an annus horribilis, Mr. Johnson is enjoying his finest hour — and he will be hard to stop.
Samuel Earle (@swajcmanearle) is a British journalist whose writing has appeared in many publications, including The Guardian, The Atlantic and The New Republic.
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