Discontent with Boris Johnson imperils his future, UK virus rules amid Omicron outbreak

The lawmakers cheered Johnson, yet almost 100 defied him, voting in the House of Commons against requiring vaccine passports for nightclubs and other crowded venues.

Published: 16th December 2021 09:42 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th December 2021 09:42 AM   |  A+A-

British PM Boris Johnson

British PM Boris Johnson (Photo | AP)

By PTI

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LONDON: Behind a heavy oak door in Parliament, Prime Minister Boris Johnson implored Conservative lawmakers to back him by voting for new restrictions to help slow the fast-spreading omicron variant.

The lawmakers cheered Johnson, yet almost 100 defied him, voting in the House of Commons against requiring vaccine passports for nightclubs and other crowded venues.

The rebellion didn't defeat the measure, which was approved with opposition support and took effect Wednesday.

But it could have big implications for Johnson's political future and for Britain's pandemic response.

"It was a very clear message that colleagues are not happy with how the government is operating at the moment," Mark Harper, one of the rebels, told Times Radio.

"The team captain should be able to depend on the loyalty of the team, but it's a two-way street."

Tuesday's rebellion by 98 Conservative lawmakers on vaccine certificates was by far the biggest of Johnson's premiership, and an echo of the serial revolts that ousted his predecessor, Theresa May.

More than 60 Tory legislators also voted against mandating vaccinations for all health care workers.

Johnson's government argues that the restrictions are needed to confront the "grave threat" from the highly transmissible omicron variant, which is spreading so quickly it could overwhelm Britain's hospitals even if it is less severe than previous strains.

The sheer scale of the omicron surge is ominous.

Britain recorded 78,610 new virus cases on Wednesday, the highest daily total of the pandemic, and health officials say infections are doubling about every two days.

Still, some on the Conservative party's right wing don't believe the dire warnings, and don't like the "nanny state" measures the pandemic has brought.

In Tuesday's vote, they were joined by others wanting to send a warning to a prime minister whose approval ratings have plummeted amid policy U-turns and ethics scandals.

Any further coronavirus restrictions look certain to face strong resistance from Conservatives, leaving Johnson reliant on the opposition to get them approved.

"The prime minister is so weak that without Labour votes last night, vital public health measures wouldn't have got through," Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said Wednesday during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons.

"His MPs are wrong to vote against basic health measures, but they are not wrong to distrust him," Starmer added.

The Conservatives chose Johnson as their leader in 2019 because the blustering, Latin-spouting former London mayor was anything but a typical politician.

He'd been fired from a party job for lying, used racist and offensive language in columns and quips, but he was upbeat, entertaining and a hit with voters.

Johnson promised to "get Brexit done" after three years of gridlock over Britain's departure from the European Union.

He won a big victory in the December 2019 election by winning over voters in England's "red wall", a belt of former industrial towns that had long been Labour strongholds.

The pandemic knocked Johnson off course.

His initial reluctance to impose a nationwide lockdown in early 2020 helped give the UK the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe apart from Russia, with more than 146,000 deaths.

A successful vaccination program helped Johnson recover some of his authority, but a slew of damaging allegations has tarnished him.

First there was an expensive refurbishment of the prime minister's official Downing Street apartment, funded by a Conservative donor.

Johnson was cleared of wrongdoing over the "cash for curtains" affair, but the party was fined by Britain's political regulator.

Then the government faced charges of cronyism when it tried to block the suspension of Owen Paterson, a Conservative lawmaker found to have broken lobbying rules.

Most damaging are allegations that staff in Johnson's office flouted coronavirus rules with lockdown-breaching Christmas parties last year, when others were banned from gathering.

Johnson has ordered an inquiry, but insists he personally broke no rules.

It all adds up to a dangerous moment for Johnson.

Starmer is working to restore Labour's fortunes after the party suffered four consecutive election defeats, and it has recently opened up a lead in opinion polls.

Danny Finkelstein, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, said Conservative lawmakers' "large-scale open rebellion against government policy on the most important question of the day" amounted to a vote of no-confidence in the government.

"How long can such a position endure?" he asked in the Times of London.

A special election on Thursday for the North Shropshire parliamentary seat, formerly held by lobbying-scandal lawmaker Paterson, could add to Conservative jitters.

Polls suggest the opposition Liberal Democrats have a chance of winning what has long been a staunchly Conservative district.

Britain is not scheduled to hold a national election until 2024, so Johnson may have time to recover.

His popularity could rise if the omicron wave washing over the UK is not as bad as many fear, and Johnson meets his goal of offering all adults a booster vaccine by New Year's Eve.

The Conservatives have a long history of dumping leaders they consider liabilities.

Several ministers, notably Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, are already being discussed as possible replacements.

Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government think-tank, said Johnson "looks much weakened, but it's not clear to me if he is fatally weakened".

"He still has some quite biggish advantages, particularly if you're a red wall Conservative looking at who can get people to turn out for the Conservatives again," she said.

"Is Liz Truss, is Rishi Sunak, really going to bring them flocking to the ballot boxes in the way that Johnson's star quality does? That's not so clear."

Meanwhile, a public inquiry into Britain's handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be led by a retired judge and start next year, the UK government announced Wednesday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said former Court of Appeal judge Heather Hallett will chair the COVID-19 inquiry, which is due to begin in spring 2022.

"She brings a wealth of experience to the role and I know shares my determination that the inquiry examines in a forensic and thoroughgoing way the government's response to the pandemic," Johnson said.

After pressure from bereaved families, Johnson agreed to hold an inquiry on his government's handling of the pandemic, which has left more than 146,000 people in Britain dead.

The probe will have the power to summon evidence and to question witnesses under oath.

Britain is currently facing a surge in coronavirus cases due to the omicron variant.

The country recorded 78,610 new virus cases on Wednesday, the most confirmed in a day since the start of the pandemic.

Deaths remain far lower than during previous peaks, due to vaccines, and the government is trying to give everyone 18 and up a booster dose by the end of the year.

The pressure group Bereaved Families for Justice said the announcement of a chairperson to lead the promised inquiry was a "positive step" but "comes far too late".

"We've been calling for an inquiry since the end of the first wave, and we will never know how many lives could have been saved had the government had a rapid review phase in summer 2021," said Matt Fowler, the group's co-founder.

"With the omicron variant upon us, the inquiry really cannot come soon enough."

Hallett said she would be consulting bereaved families and others on the inquiry's terms of reference.

"I shall do my utmost to ensure the inquiry answers as many questions as possible about the UK's response to the pandemic so that we can all learn lessons for the future," she said.

Hallett oversaw inquests into the deaths of 52 people killed in the July 7, 2005 bombings on London's transit system.

Last month, she was appointed to lead an inquiry into the death of Dawn Sturgess, who died in 2018 after being exposed to Novichok, the Soviet-made nerve agent used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury.

Because of Hallett's position with the COVID-19 probe, the government plans to find someone else to lead the inquiry to explore allegations of Russian involvement in Sturgess' death.

The UK on Wednesday recorded the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with 78,610 new cases largely due to the Omicron variant alongside the dominant Delta variant.

The previous record was 68,053 on January 8, when the UK was still in full lockdown.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed a Downing Street press conference to warn that the Omicron cases were now doubling at a rate of less than two days but stressed positive signs that the boosted booster dose campaign, a tool not available during the previous COVID spike, will help combat the impact of the infections.

"Let's keep going, let's keep giving Omicron both barrels and let's slow its spread and give the vaccines more time," said Johnson.

"Let's slow down omicron's spread and reduce the harm omicron can do to us by building up our vaccine defences. We are throwing everything at it and wherever you are we'll be there, with a jab, for you, so please, get boosted now," he said, as he announced that the National Health Service (NHS) booking service is now open to all over-18s to book their doses.

Cases have risen by nearly 20,000 in one day, with 59,610 confirmed cases recorded on Tuesday.

The jump in cases follows the introduction of new measures in recent days, with mandatory face masks in most indoor settings and Covid passes for large events in England.

"The doubling rate in some regions is also under two days and we're also seeing hospitalisations up a third in London," Johnson noted.

"But we're also seeing signs of hope. Since we launched our emergency omicron appeal on Sunday night, a great national fightback has begun. And people have responded with an amazing spirit of duty and obligation to others," he said.

England's Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Chris Whitty, said the situation is now one of an epidemic upon an epidemic as a result of the Delta and Omicron variants impacting infection rates side by side.

"Vaccinated people still end up in hospital but their protection is much better," he said.

It came as the head of the UK Health Security Agency, Dr Jenny Harries, had earlier warned the Omicron variant is "probably the most significant threat" since the pandemic began with staggering figures to be expected in the coming days.

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid refused to rule out introducing new restrictions over the coming weeks, but insisted the measures of compulsory face masks, work from home where possible and vaccine certification for big venues in place currently are the right ones.

Asked if more guidance would be issued instead of legislation, he told reporters: "We keep the whole situation under review. It is fast moving, I think people understand that."

On Wednesday, the UK gave out 656,711 booster or third doses of a vaccine, up by over 140,000 on the day before.



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