How Biden and Boris Johnson reached the same place on virus policy

It was a striking, if unintended, display of
synchronicity from two leaders who began with very different approaches to the
pandemic, to say nothing of politics. Their convergence on how to handle the
omicron variant says a lot about how countries are confronting the virus, two
years after it first threatened the world.

For Johnson and Biden, analysts said, the politics and
science of COVID have nudged them toward a policy of trying to live with the
virus rather than putting their countries back on war footing. It is a highly
risky strategy: Hospitals across Britain and parts of the United States are
already close to overrun with patients. But for now, it is better than the
alternative: shutting down their economies again.

“A Conservative prime minister trying to deal in a
responsible way with COVID is very different than a Democratic president trying
to deal responsibly with COVID,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster in
Washington. And yet, he said, their options are no longer all that different.

“From both a medical perspective and a political
perspective,” Garin said, “there’s not as strong an imperative for people to
hunker down in the way they were hunkering down a year ago.”

Some analysts say the two leaders had little choice.
Both are dealing with lockdown-weary populations. Both have made headway in
vaccinating their citizens, although Britain remains ahead of the United
States. And both have seen their popularity erode as their early promises to
vanquish the virus wilted.

Several of Biden’s former scientific advisers this
week publicly urged him to overhaul his strategy to shift the focus from
banishing the virus to a “new normal” of coexisting with it. That echoes
Johnson’s words when he lifted restrictions in July. “We must ask ourselves,”
he said, “‘When will we be able to return to normal?’”

Devi Sridhar, an American scientist who heads the
global health program at the University of Edinburgh, said, “The scientific
community has broad consensus now that we have to use the tools we have to stay
open and avoid the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. But it’s not easy at all, as we
are seeing.”

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The alignment of Johnson and Biden is significant
because Britain has often served as a COVID test case for the United States — a
few weeks ahead in seeing the impacts of a new wave and a model, for good or
ill, in how to respond to it.

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

That Johnson and Trump initially resisted such
measures was hardly a surprise, given their ideological kinship as populist
politicians. When Johnson locked down Britain, several days after his European
neighbours, he promised to “send the virus packing” in 12 weeks. Trump likewise
vowed that COVID, “like a miracle,” would soon disappear. Both later suffered
through bouts with the disease.

Biden, taking office, promised a different approach,
one that paid greater heed to scientific advice and embraced difficult measures
such as “expanded masking, testing and social distancing.” Although Johnson
never flouted scientific advice like Trump, he was sunnier than Biden,
continuing to promise that the crisis would soon pass.

But both he and Biden have languished politically as
new variants have made COVID far more stubborn than they had hoped. On July 4,
with new cases dropping and vaccination rates rising, Biden claimed the United
States had gained “the upper hand” on the virus. Weeks later, the delta variant
was sweeping through the country.

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In England, with nearly 70% of adults having had two
doses of a vaccine, Johnson lifted virtually all social distancing rules on
July 19, a bold — some said reckless — move that the London tabloids nicknamed
“Freedom Day.” After a midsummer lull in cases that appeared to vindicate
Johnson’s gamble, the omicron variant has now driven new cases in Britain to
more than 150,000 a day.

Biden and Johnson have different powers in dealing
with the pandemic. As prime minister, Johnson can order lockdowns in England, a
step he has taken twice since his first lockdown, in March 2020. In the United
States, those restrictions are in the hands of governors, a few of whom, such
as Florida Republican Ron DeSantis, have become vocal critics of Biden’s

For Johnson, the major obstacle is not defiant
regional leaders or the opposition but members of his own Conservative Party,
who fiercely oppose further lockdowns and have rebelled against even modest
moves in that direction.

Johnson has kept open the possibility of further
restrictions. But analysts say that given his eroding popularity, he no longer
has the political capital to persuade his party to go along with an
economically damaging lockdown, even if scientists recommended it.

Johnson is “essentially now a prisoner of his more
hawkish cabinet colleagues and the 100 or so MPs who seem to be allergic to any
kind of public health restrictions,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at
Queen Mary, University of London. They “just feel that the state has grown too
big in trying to combat COVID and that they really don’t want the government to
grow any bigger,” Bale said.

Some British analysts draw a comparison between
red-state governors such as DeSantis and Conservative lawmakers from the “red
wall,” former Labour strongholds in the Midlands and the north of England that
Johnson’s Tories swept in the 2019 election with his promise to “Get Brexit

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These are not low-tax, small-government conservatives
in the tradition of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but right-leaning
populists who model themselves on Trump and the Johnson who championed the
Brexit vote — voters the prime minister would need to win reelection.

Some critics argue that Biden and Johnson are both out
of step with their countries. Britons have proved far more tolerant of
lockdowns than the lawmakers in the prime minister’s party. In parts of the
United States, by contrast, popular resistance to lockdowns is widespread and
deeply entrenched.

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

Biden, unlike Johnson, does not face an internal party
rebellion on his COVID policy. But the continued grip of the pandemic has
sapped Biden’s poll ratings, stoking fears of a Republican landslide in the
midterm elections. The calls for change from members of Biden’s former
scientific brain-trust, some said, reflected concerns that his COVID messaging
was lagging reality.

Others pointed out that Biden’s determination to keep
schools and businesses open, despite the soaring number of cases, signalled
that a change in thinking was underway in the White House — if a few months
later than that at Downing Street.

“When Biden says we ought to be concerned but not
panicked, he’s meeting Americans where they are,” said Garin, the Democratic
pollster. “He’s also meeting the science where it is.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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