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Johnson doubles vaccination strategy as popularity wanes

LONDON – When Prime Minister Boris Johnson fumbled his initial response to the coronavirus pandemic, his political fortunes faltered, only to rebound quickly thanks to the surprisingly effective rollout of the British vaccine.

As his popularity declines again – this time following a broken promise not to raise taxes – Mr Johnson is hoping history will repeat itself.

On Tuesday, he announced a campaign to offer vaccine boosters to people aged 50 and over, as well as the first vaccines to three million children, aged 12 to 15 – while reiterating his vow to avoid future blockages.

If winter brought a wave of new cases, however, it could reintroduce mandatory mask wear, roll out vaccine passports and urge workers to stay home if possible, as part of what the government calls its “plan. B ”.

“We are now in a situation where a large part of the population has some degree of immunity, smaller changes in the way we ask people to behave can have a bigger impact,” Mr Johnson said. at a press conference.

For now, the PM trusts a redoubled vaccination campaign to protect Britain’s health services from being overwhelmed and to save him from having to order further shutdowns that would depress the economy and infuriate a noisy caucus of its own legislators.

“The vaccine rebound helped him the first time around and if the booster plan – which will be a massive story in UK politics – goes well and he’s able to say the rollout will go as planned, that l ‘will potentially help,’ said Matthew Goodwin. , professor of politics at the University of Kent.

But Mr Goodwin added, “he is certainly vulnerable in terms of his internal critics.”

For a leader who often seems to defy political gravity, the risks are high because, for the first time in months, poll scores are dropping for Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party. Last week he announced his intention to raise taxes and there are growing doubts about his promise to “level” economically disadvantaged areas.

There are also signs that some of the new voters drawn to Mr Johnson in the 2019 election may walk away. “His post as Prime Minister does not appear to have met the expectations of these voters at the moment,” said Professor Goodwin.

It was a looming funding crisis in health and social care programs that forced Mr Johnson to break his word and agree to raise taxes for workers, employers and some investors. Not only did this jeopardize his party’s reputation for low taxation, it also angered several major party donors.

Support for the Tories fell five points to 33 percent, according to a recent opinion poll by YouGov, with Labor rising one point to 35 percent, placing it in the lead for the first time since January.

Part of Mr Johnson’s difficulty is that while surveys generally show the British public are in favor of strict measures to contain the virus, the lockdown restrictions are anathema to a vocal libertarian wing of his own Tory party .

So while the government has not ruled out the possibility of further strict restrictions, it has made it clear that they will be a very last resort after exhausting “simplified containment” measures, such as compulsory masks or masks. vaccine passports.

On Tuesday, Mr Johnson highlighted the success of the vaccination campaign, which he said has produced “one of the freest societies and one of the most open economies in Europe”. He added: “This is why we are now sticking to our strategy. “

Public health experts generally backed Mr Johnson’s announcements, although some noted that Britain, as usual, appeared to be lagging behind other countries on issues such as immunizing young people or l encouragement of the use of face masks.

“They always get there, just later than they should,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the Global Public Health Program at the University of Edinburgh.

Britain, she said, “was heading in the same direction as other countries, but with a significant delay” in immunizing people aged 12 to 15, developing contingency plans for the compulsory wearing of the mask and the vaccine passports, and the intensification of the tests to pass the country. which is likely to be a difficult winter.

Monday’s decision to vaccinate children as young as 12 was controversial, although many other countries, including the United States, France, Italy and the Netherlands, began to do so there. has months. The UK government’s advisory group, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, had previously concluded that the health benefits of 12 to 15 year olds were marginal. This has sparked a debate over the ethics of vaccinating children to prevent the spread of a virus that poses a health risk to the adults they live and meet with.

On Monday, the chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland argued that by reducing disruption to schools, a vaccination campaign would bring other benefits to young people.

Likewise, the boosters decision places Britain among a growing group of countries offering additional injections to their own citizens before many people in large parts of the world received even one. single dose, prompting criticism from David Nabarro, a special envoy on Covid for the World Health Organization.

“I’m a little upset, frankly, to hear that Britain is going into recalls when it’s just going to take a really valuable vaccine away from people in other parts of the world who can’t get their two doses.” basic, and therefore going to be in danger of death, ”he told Times Radio.

The question for Mr Johnson is whether the vaccines and his light-hearted approach to other restrictions will be enough to prevent more drastic measures.

Graham Medley, an epidemiologist who advises the government, said that in England the virus reproduction rate hovered around one, meaning the epidemic was still circulating widely but not spreading exponentially. He said he did not expect the high levels of infection from last January to return.

Still, Professor Medley said divergent experiences from other parts of the UK, including Scotland, where infection rates fluctuated dramatically, showed how unpredictable the virus remains. Neither model predicted that England cases would decrease rather than increase in July, he said.

“We are still awaiting the full effect of reopening schools and people returning to work,” said Dr Medley, professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Britain still reports more than 25,000 cases of the virus a day and hospitalizations are around 1,000 a day. This is enough to put a strain on the National Health Service, which also faces a huge backlog of procedures that had to be postponed during the pandemic.

Mr Johnson’s bet to lift most restrictions in July appeared to pay off when new cases declined rather than increased. But with schools opening across England in the past two weeks, that surge in infections could still happen. Cases have skyrocketed in Scotland, where schools opened earlier.

Mr Johnson’s bet is that a new vaccine rollout, with minimal restrictions, will be enough to prevent a surge in hospitalizations.

Avoiding further blockages is essential for Mr Johnson, Professor Goodwin said, adding that some of his own lawmakers would be angry even if measures such as mask wear were reintroduced to combat the spread of the virus.

“They really want to see us move forward and learn to live with it,” he said.

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