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Science | History | Citizenship | PSHE | Relationships and health

A grim toll and a question of responsibility

Should Boris Johnson resign? As the UK passed a terrible milestone, the Prime Minister faced hard questions about the government’s response to the pandemic, and how it measures up. “I take full responsibility”. It was the second time Boris Johnson had said this in 24 hours. Facing the leader of the opposition yesterday, the British prime minister repeated that he had done all he could to save lives. According to his main political opponent, Labour leader Keir Starmer, it had not been enough. The UK has crossed the threshold where, by all measures, 100,000 people have died from Covid-19. Britain is only the fifth country to lose so many and is the smallest to do so. The UK coronavirus death rate stands at 148.48 per 100,000 people, higher than any country of comparable size. More than twice as many British people have died of Covid-19 as died in the Blitz. The Archbishop of Canterbury has called on the nation to pray and reflect on the scale of the loss. But people are also reflecting on how this happened, and whether the prime minister is to blame. The case breaks down like this: 1. Dither and delay: The first charge against Johnson is that he did not lock the country down fast enough. Neil Ferguson, an advisor to SAGE, has argued that if the UK had locked down a week earlier, up to 20,000 lives could have been saved. 2. Care homes: One reason UK deaths were so high is that the government, fearing the NHS would be overwhelmed, allowed the release of hospital patients being treated for other illnesses, untested, into care homes. The virus ran unchecked through care homes during the first wave, killing 16,000 residents, compared to 3,000 in Germany. 3. Work till you drop: The government was criticised for failing to provide support for those on low pay to isolate, and for encouraging people to return to work, even though workplaces have been hotbeds of infection. One office in Swansea, for example, has been linked to more than 500 cases of Covid-19. Boris Johnson’s defenders argue that to explain the UK’s dire performance requires more than pointing to decisions by the prime minister and his cabinet. There are other factors to consider: 1. New strain: The Kent variant of the coronavirus that emerged at the end of last year is said to be at least 30% more virulent than the original strain. As the epicentre of this mutation, it was inevitable that Britain would be harder hit than its neighbours. 2. Public health: Britain has more obese people than many of its European peers, and has, by global standards, an older population. Both age and weight are risk factors for Covid-19. 3. Underlying conditions: Some have made similar points about the health of the state; the UK ranks 30th out of the OECD countries in terms of hospital capacity. This is a problem that preceded Johnson, and that arguably led to the tragedy in care homes. As he addressed the nation, Johnson said that when the crisis was over “we will make sure we learn the lessons” of the pandemic. For Johnson’s critics, these lessons will come too late. Should Boris Johnson resign? Bye bye Boris No, say some. The PM has led the country through the worst crisis in living memory. He was right to weigh up the dangers of Covid-19 against the damage of a national lockdown. He delayed the first lockdown because he was following scientific models – not a whim. What is more, he is now overseeing the roll-out of a vaccine much more effectively than his European counterparts. Yes, he should, say others. Even members of his own party are attacking his approach. Johnson has not been able to make any of the hard decisions necessary to face down the virus. Defenders who point to structural problems behind Britain’s high death toll are pointing to the legacy of governments he has served in. He cannot avoid taking real responsibility for his actions any longer. KeywordsLeader of the Opposition - The leader of the second-largest party in the House of Commons. They have a constitutional duty to hold the government to account. The incumbent is Keir Starmer.

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