With almost 14,000 hospital deaths from coronavirus and Thursday's toll of 861 the highest in Europe, Britain is suffering more from the pandemic than any of its neighbours. Internationally, its government's response to the virus has become a byword for tardiness and incompetence as it struggles to catch up on testing, contact tracing and protective equipment for health workers.
But as far as most of the British public is concerned, Boris Johnson and his government are doing a fine job, taking the right decisions at the right time. A new poll by Ipsos MORI shows a sharp increase in the prime minister's popularity, an improvement in his party's and for the first time this year, a majority saying Britain is moving in the right direction.
If nobody who died did so because the NHS lacked the capacity to treat them, the strategy would be a success regardless of how Britain's death toll compared to its neighbours'
Fifty-one per cent have a favourable opinion of Johnson, up 17 points since March, with 31 per cent having an unfavourable one, down 16 points. The Conservatives have seen their favourability score rise by seven points to 39 per cent, with 37 per cent taking an unfavourable view of the party, down eight points.
The poll was conducted late last week when Johnson was still in hospital with coronavirus. But David Lidington, the former cabinet office minister who served as Theresa May's deputy, believes sympathy is only one factor driving the poll numbers.
“There was genuine wide and deep public sympathy for him in his illness. And I think that despite the criticism that there has been both in the British press and internationally about some of the British government’s decisions, I think that the way in which both Boris Johnson personally and the government collectively have actually gone up in opinion polls actually indicates that most of the public have concluded that they are doing the best they can in extraordinarily difficult circumstances and are working with the public interest in mind rather than from any ulterior, self-interested motive,” he said.
Lidington declined to criticise the government’s handling of the epidemic, although he acknowledged that a future inquiry is likely to question elements of the strategy. The most fundamental question is why more people are dying from coronavirus in Britain than in neighbouring countries and whether different or earlier actions could have prevented some of these deaths.
Definition of success
But the government and its advisers have designed their own definition of success, summed up at a Downing Street press briefing this week by chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance.
By characterising the fight against coronavirus as a national effort to protect the NHS, Johnson has tapped into a deep vein of British national identity
"The aim is to keep numbers below NHS capacity, to make sure by doing so we save lives," he said.
Never mind that many of those who have died of the virus might not even have become infected if the lockdown had come earlier or if testing and contact tracing had limited local outbreaks. If nobody who died did so because the NHS lacked the capacity to treat them, the strategy would be a success regardless of how Britain’s death toll compared to its neighbours’.
Johnson himself described the government’s strategic aim in stirring terms in the video message he recorded after he left hospital on Sunday.
“We are making progress in this national battle because the British public formed a human shield around this country’s greatest national asset – our National Health Service. We understood and we decided that if together we could keep our NHS safe, if we could stop our NHS from being overwhelmed, then we could not be beaten, and this country would rise together and overcome this challenge, as we have overcome so many challenges in the past,” he said.
By characterising the fight against coronavirus as a national effort to protect the NHS, Johnson has tapped into a deep vein of British national identity.
“It is seen, and the government has realised this and embraced this, as an institution that represents a particular embodiment about how the UK thinks of itself collectively. It’s up there with the armed forces and the monarchy as a great national institution,” Lidington said.
Johnson’s own near-death experience from coronavirus has bound him emotionally to the NHS in the minds of a public that is uncritically devoted to its health service. And in his message on Sunday, the prime minister invited them to put their faith in their own feelings rather than in the cold, unforgiving evidence of the daily death toll.
“We will win because our NHS is the beating heart of this country. It is the best of this country,” he said.
“It is unconquerable. It is powered by love.”