The main charge is that Johnson’s government took too long to take the virus seriously, meaning it had an inadequate testing regime, locked down too late and obsessively tried to handle the crisis from London. The result is that the UK has suffered the most deaths in Europe and the fifth most in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
During the crisis, Johnson’s government has suffered multiple embarrassing scandals — from his chief adviser being accused of breaking lockdown rules to a messy U-turn after nationwide confusion over schoolchildren’s exam results led to protests in London.
Unfortunately for Johnson, life is unlikely to be much easier this fall. After an eventful summer, UK lawmakers return to parliament on September 1, giving Johnson’s opponents in the Labour Party — newly invigorated under the leadership of Keir Starmer — a forum to hold him to account as numerous crises run into each other between now and the end of the year.
September is the month that large swaths of the country will attempt to return to some degree of normality. Students will go back to schools and universities, meaning parents who had been forced to stay at home to provide childcare can go back to work.
Having failed to get children back to school earlier in the summer, it will be vital for Johnson to oversee a successful start to the new school year in England next week. “I have previously spoken about the moral duty to reopen schools to all pupils safely, and I would like to thank the school staff who have spent the summer months making classrooms Covid-secure in preparation for a full return in September,” Johnson said in a statement released Sunday night.
It is “vitally important” for all children to return to school after months of disruption, Johnson said.
The statement was widely interpreted in the British media as an attempt to demonstrate that Johnson was getting a grip on matters. But as more of the UK opens up, the risk of a spike in coronavirus cases increases. “All of these things could help the virus spread again, as potential contacts will be significantly increased,” said Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading. He adds that as autumn rolls into winter, “people might think they have a normal winter cough or cold and take the virus into work, school or university.”
The return of students to universities could pose a particular risk, said Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “It will be a miracle if we don’t have a major shutdown within a month of the university term starting,” he said. “Around 500,000 students traveling from all over the country to mix with each other in high-density student housing and campuses.”
Supporters of the government claim that it is essential for the UK economy, which contracted by 20% in the last quarter, to open up again. But health experts worry about the consequences. “If we go back to the same level of contact that we had in March then we will go back to the same level of epidemic growth,” Graham Medely, professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CNN.
This would be politically difficult for the government to handle. “It’s quite possible we will need another round of extremely interventionist lockdowns, and in the six-month gap from the first lockdown, they have thrown away good will by looking like an incompetent shambles,” said Ford.
Brexit challenges ahead
Another challenge in the fall is the rush for the UK to strike a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union. While both sides are committed to reaching an agreement, talks have not progressed significantly in some time. The current transition period with the EU expires on December 31.
Johnson, of course, led the campaign to leave the EU in 2016, resigned from Theresa May’s government over what he called the softness of her Brexit policy, and ran his leadership campaign on a promise of taking a harder line with Brussels.
A UK government source, not authorized to speak on the record, told CNN that while a deal “can be done” by early October — the absolute latest date in the eyes of the UK — but that “doesn’t mean it will.” The source added that Brussels’ negotiators still didn’t really understand the UK’s position and that lack of process and a ticking clock meant the mood was gloomier than in previous rounds.
This feeling of not being understood is mutual. An EU official, also not authorized to speak on the record ,said: “There has to be a better understanding and awareness of our position and the reality of what leaving the EU means.” That source thinks that the UK is holding out “in the hope that everything will be agreed at the end,” but note that position is “full of risk” and might result in a rushed deal that isn’t terribly worthwhile.
The timeframe is fraught, as much needs to occur between any agreement being reached and it becoming legally binding. Anton Spisak, a former Cabinet Office Brexit official, said that “even after a political deal is done, government lawyers have to ‘scrub’ the text to make sure it is actually legally operable, a process which can take months… The problem for Boris Johnson is that he has imposed the end-of-year deadline on himself, so he needs to find some legal solution to avoid falling off the potential cliff-edge.”
Georgina Wright, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government thinktank, said the ratification process for the EU “means a vote in the Council (grouping of 27 member states) and the EU Parliament by 31 December,” adding that the parliament has “been very clear that it will not be rushed into an agreement — their last sitting is on 14 December.”
The economic implications of no-deal are well known, but given the pandemic, there could also be political implications. “If there is no-deal then there is a real danger of both sides spiraling downwards and blaming one another, possibly ending in a nasty standoff,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College, London. “We saw during the early days of the pandemic the UK’s reluctance to work with the EU in key areas. How bad could that get if talks end in October, then the virus surges in November?”
Of course, it could be the case that schools and universities reopen without a hitch and the economy starts to bounce back. The gloom around Brexit talks could be laying the ground for a stunning breakthrough. It is entirely possible that Johnson ends the year with his Brexit deal and the country on its way out of the pandemic, head held high.
Or everything might go wrong. “A spike in the virus, Brexit talks going badly, schools and universities having to shutdown, all of these things combined would create a tornado for the government,” said Ford. “And if they handle these crises as incompetently as they’ve handled nearly everything else, the opposition just needs to start back and let them get on with trashing their credibility.”
Either way, the next four months will not be easy for Johnson. Even if everything goes the way he wants, so much of how that happens is out of the Prime Minister’s hands. And if the worst-case scenario comes true, he might be faced with the unenviable reality of having to make some tough decisions as to how Brits will be allowed to celebrate the Christmas period.