Britain on a knife-edge as Johnson navigates virus response

While Australians watch on with trepidation as Melbourne’s new surge of COVID-19 infections takes hold, in Britain the city of Leicester, about 150 kilometres north-west of London, has become its new hotspot epicentre. The city of 330,000 has been put into Britain’s first local lockdown after officials became alarmed by a significant rise in infections.

Non-essential shops, which only recently started trading after a months-long lockdown, will close again, while restaurants and pubs, which were expecting to reopen this weekend, will have to keep their doors shut. School closures will force thousands of students to stay home. For a nation that has suffered more than most – the official death toll stands at more than 43,000 but the true figure could be as high as 65,000 – it’s another setback in its bid to contain the pandemic.

From the moment the coronavirus reached its shores, Britain’s rambunctious Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has led a government that has bungled the health crisis. When Mr Johnson took to the lectern on March 12 to warn Britain that it was facing the worst public health crisis for a generation, he failed to put the country into an immediate lockdown. Not only did Britain pay a very heavy price for that mistake, but Mr Johnson almost lost his own life after contracting the virus.

Since his return to work, support for his Conservative party has taken a hit after a string of missteps, while Labour under its new leader, Keir Starmer, a former human rights lawyer, has gained ground. Mr Starmer, who has proven more popular than expected, has also put the heat on Mr Johnson in Parliament, exposing the Prime Minister’s bluster about his government’s failed handling of the health crisis.

The pressure on Mr Johnson is not about to let up. Tory backbenchers pushed hard for an easing of social distancing restrictions, sensing a shift in the public’s patience and fearing a deeper than forecast recession. As the United States is learning with its recent surge in infections, opening up too early is a fraught exercise. Whether Leicester is a forewarning of more troubles ahead when Britain lifts many of its restrictions on July 4 will play out over the coming weeks, but recent images of people ignoring social distancing while flocking to the beach have many health experts worried.