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Boris Johnson, Covid, Brexit and the Art of Policy Improvisation

LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has always adopted a government approach to government. But his reversals this week on the two most pressing issues facing the country – the pandemic and Brexit – have been breathtaking, even by Johnson’s standards of blatant improvisation.

Alarmed by a resurgence of the coronavirus on Wednesday, Mr Johnson announced that the British government would ban gatherings of more than six people, after weeks of encouraging people to return to work, eat out in restaurants, hang out in pubs and send their own. sons. back to school.

Hours earlier, the government introduced legislation on Northern Ireland that would have nullified a historic Brexit deal that Mr Johnson himself struck with the European Union, guided through Parliament and backed up during last year’s elections on the way to a landslide victory.

The government has admitted that this unexpected move violates international law, which, according to critics, raises a thorny question: Why would people obey Mr. Johnson’s new rules on social distancing when blatantly scoffing at a legal treaty?

Mr. Johnson’s turnaround on lockdown rules was a clearer case of bowing to evidence that the virus is spreading. After a quiet period in June and July, new cases began to creep in in August. On Sunday, they had risen to nearly 3,000, the highest daily number since May 23.

Health officials said they were concerned that many of the cases involved young people, raising the danger of Britain being on the same path as France and Spain, where an increase in cases prompted Britain to impose a travel quarantine. to both countries.

The country’s infection rate went from 12.5 per 100,000 people last week to 19.7 per 100,000, indicating that the “R number” – a measure of how many people are infected on average by each person with the virus – it has risen above one, a critical threshold.

“It’s a point in time to save nine,” Mr. Johnson said at a news conference, joined by his leading medical and scientific advisors. “These measures are not another national bloc. The central point is to avoid a new national bloc. “

Health experts commended Mr. Johnson for imposing modest restrictions now, rather than risking a larger spike, which would require more draconian measures. But they said British policies continued to be inconsistent. Authorities allowed a crowd to gather for the horse racing opening day Wednesday in Doncaster, Northern England, before abruptly closing the rest of the races to spectators.

“The UK government is confused and needs to decide on a clear strategy because in the current approach, both health and the economy will suffer and compliance by the public will continue to decline,” said Devi Sridhar, professor. and President of Global Audience Health at the University of Edinburgh.

The mixed messages reflect persistent tension within Mr. Johnson’s cabinet and party between those who worry about a deadly second wave of infections this fall and winter and those who argue that further lockdowns will throttle the economy. Even now, Mr. Johnson insisted that schools would remain open and that people should still consider returning to work as long as it was safe.

Critics also accuse the government of not organizing an efficient national test and traceability program after months. Labor Party leader Keir Starmer confronted Mr. Johnson in Parliament on Wednesday with stories of people who were told they would have to travel hundreds of miles to get a test.

The government said police will impose fines of 100 pounds, about $ 130, on people who violated the six-person limit. But Mr. Johnson deflected questions as to whether he intended to “cancel Christmas,” a phrase that suggests the difficult decisions the government will face on the virus as autumn and winter approach.

For Mr Johnson, analysts said, choosing a fight with the European Union was much easier. Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said that in the escalation of language on Brexit, Mr. Johnson has reverted to a tried and tested strategy that played the basis of Brexit in the Conservative Party.

While Mr. Johnson’s threat to renege on a treaty has outraged establishment commentators and personalities such as Mr. Major and former Prime Minister Theresa May, the government appears to have calculated that it will cause little backlash beyond Westminster political circles.

“They seem to view violation of international law as a Beltway issue rather than something that will annoy most people – and in that, they are almost certainly right,” said Professor Bale, referring to Washington’s parochial policy.

However, antagonizing the European Union four months before the deadline for a trade agreement is not without risk. Mr. Rahman said he now believes there is a more likely than ever possibility that Mr. Johnson will fail to strike a deal with Brussels, ushering in a hiatus beyond the pandemic.

Having promised in the election to “bring Brexit to an end,” analysts said, Mr. Johnson is also taking a risk in prolonging the dispute, as many Brits are simply sick of hearing about it. In January, if scientists’ fears were true, it could face a far more serious health crisis.

“Covid is a much greater challenge and the political risks of being seen as incompetent are much greater,” said Professor Bale. “Most voters are much more concerned about Covid, which has a direct impact on them, than the technical aspects of legal interpretations.”

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