Johnson needs to save the UK Health Service to save his career

by TIM ROSS /BLOOMBERG

The U.K.’s 72-year-old National Health Service is as close as many in the now largely secular British political class get to a religion.

And Boris Johnson has more to lose than most prime ministers if he allows the revered national institution to collapse on his watch.

The prime minister locked down England for a third time Monday as coronavirus infections pushed hospitals to the breaking point and the death toll rose above 75,000. Failure to act, his top medical officials warned, would put the NHS in danger of being overwhelmed within the next three weeks.

The U.K.’s 72-year-old National Health Service is as close as many in the now largely secular British political class get to a religion.

And Boris Johnson has more to lose than most prime ministers if he allows the revered national institution to collapse on his watch.

The prime minister locked down England for a third time Monday as coronavirus infections pushed hospitals to the breaking point and the death toll rose above 75,000. Failure to act, his top medical officials warned, would put the NHS in danger of being overwhelmed within the next three weeks.

Johnson is by nature a man who loves to please the public. He rose to national fame first as a journalist and a television personality on satirical quiz shows. Politically, he has always been a libertarian, railing against the “nanny state” for interfering in people’s lives.

In mid-December he promised restrictions would be lifted in time for families to meet up for five days over the Christmas holidays. He said it would be “inhuman” to cancel the festivities — but a few days later another rise in infections forced him to cancel the plan.

Now the premier is pinning his hopes on another huge promise. This time, he aims to roll out vaccines at a rate of 2 million a week — during a national lockdown — to reach a total of almost 14 million people by mid-February.

It would mean all the most vulnerable people, along with medics and carers, will have been given some protection against the disease, allowing the government to begin lifting restrictions, Johnson said.

Ministers say Johnson’s target can be delivered. But the people who will have to meet it are already working for an organization that’s been pushed to the brink: The NHS.