British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is fending off calls for his resignation with a vigorous defence of his handling of the pandemic and a plan to remove almost all COVID-19 restrictions in England next week.
Mr. Johnson has been under increasing pressure to step down over revelations that he and his staff repeatedly broke lockdown rules by holding a series of parties in his Downing Street office in 2020 and 2021. The pressure intensified Wednesday after one Conservative MP defected to the Labour Party and senior Tory MP David Davis bluntly told Mr. Johnson: “In the name of God, go.”
Mr. Johnson has apologized several times for the social gatherings and insisted he had no idea lockdown rules had been broken. He has been widely mocked for suggesting this week that he thought one party he attended in May, 2020, along with some 30 staffers, was a work event.
On Wednesday, he went on the offensive and told MPs that the government’s pandemic strategy had been so successful that most restrictions can now be lifted and the country can soon start treating COVID-19 like the flu. “Any government would get some things wrong, but this government got the big things right,” he said.
Mr. Johnson has followed a largely light-touch approach to restrictions throughout the pandemic. Even as infections soared again with the emergence of the Omicron variant, the government kept regulations to a minimum. Unlike parts of Canada, there have been no closings of pubs, restaurants or cinemas in England, and vaccine passports have only been required in nightclubs and at large events. Instead, restrictions have been limited to mandatory masks in public places and requirements to work from home “where possible.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson announced that those measures will be dropped by Jan. 27. The government is immediately ditching the requirement that children wear face coverings in school and scrapping requirements for people to work from home. All mandatory mask rules and vaccine-passport requirements will end next Thursday.
“We will trust the judgment of the British people and no longer criminalize anyone who chooses not to wear one,” Mr. Johnson said.
Currently, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 must self-isolate for up to five days. That regulation is set to expire on March 24, and Mr. Johnson said he expected it would not be renewed.
“Indeed, were the data to allow, I would like to seek a vote in this House to bring that date forward in advance of that,” he told MPs. “Just as we don’t place legal obligations on people to isolate if they have flu, as COVID becomes endemic, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance urging people with the virus to be careful and considerate of others.”
COVID-19 infections have been falling steadily across Britain since early January, when daily case counts topped 200,000. The number of daily cases dropped below 100,000 this week, and hospitalizations have also begun to ease, to fewer than 2,000 a day.
The Scottish and Welsh governments have also lifted some restrictions, although their rules have been far tougher than those in England.
Some scientists warned that Mr. Johnson could be moving too early.
“Infections are raging across Europe and other parts of the world, reinforcing the need to take a cautious approach to easing restrictions,” said Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick. “There’s no guarantee that infection levels will continue to fall,” and the National Health Service “remains under extreme pressure.”
It’s also far from certain that Mr. Johnson has managed to head off a challenge to his leadership. Under Conservative Party rules, just 15 per cent of Tory MPs – 54 in this Parliament – can request a vote of confidence in the leader. It’s unclear if that threshold has been reached, but a handful of Tory MPs have publicly called for a leadership review, and many more are believed to have filed requests privately. If a vote is triggered, it could be held in a matter of days, and Mr. Johnson would have to win more than 50-per-cent support among all Conservative MPs.
There are no obvious successors to Mr. Johnson, but several cabinet ministers, notably Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, have begun to sound out colleagues about leadership bids.
Tory MPs will have to decide whether the scandal over parties has damaged public confidence in Mr. Johnson, who led the Conservatives to a massive majority in 2019. More than 100 Conservatives won seats that had been held by the Labour Party for decades, and many of those MPs have become the most concerned about Mr. Johnson’s ability to lead the party in the next election, in 2024.
One of them, Christian Wakeford, crossed the floor to Labour on Wednesday. In a letter to Mr. Johnson explaining his actions, Mr. Wakeford wrote: “Sadly both you and the Conservative Party as a whole have shown themselves incapable of offering the leadership and government this country deserves.”
Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester, said it’s hard to see Mr. Johnson recovering from the scandal if he remains leader.
Polls show “there are more people who believe the moon landings were faked than believe what Johnson has to say about this scandal,” Prof. Ford said. “One thing you can see from polling history is once a leader sinks to the kind of level that Johnson has now sunk to in terms of personal popularity, they never recover. I think there is literally no example of a leader recovering to a position of being a vote winner.”
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