Leaders get popularity boost as vaccinations pick up in U.S., Britain

The Yomiuri Shimbun

“Half of the UK adult population are now fully vaccinated. It’s a remarkable achievement.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson proudly tweeted this on June 3. He received his second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine at a London hospital on the same evening.

Vaccinations started last December in Britain and have proceeded smoothly. The number of newly infected patients has declined markedly, so restaurants were allowed to reopen for indoor seating in May. Society is gradually getting back to normal.

As of early June, about 75% of Britain’s adult population had received their first dose of vaccine. The government has set a goal of getting all adults their first dose by the end of July.

Although Johnson has praised himself for the results, his initial response to the pandemic was slow. Britain was also late in requiring everyone to wear face masks in public. Johnson himself came down with COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — in March last year, and his condition at one time deteriorated to the point where he had to be treated in an intensive care unit.

Dominic Cummings, a former chief advisor to Johnson, said the prime minister initially dismissed COVID-19 as “the new swine flu.”

The death toll in Britain has topped 120,000. A highly transmissible new variant originating there, known as the Alfa variant, raged there from the end of last year, and newly confirmed cases exceeded 60,000 a day in January 2021.

Johnson placed his hopes on vaccination.

“Drugs failed to produce sufficient results, and the benefits of such measures as lockdowns were limited. Vaccination was the only way out,” said Shinichiro Umeya of Nomura Research Institute, who is knowledgeable about the measures taken against COVID-19 in Britain.

Distribution and inoculations progressed smoothly. The National Health Service, which has a centralized database of patient information, served as a control tower for these tasks, and good use was made of its past experience in handling large-scale vaccinations, including those of HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccines meant to prevent cervical cancer.

The British government also secured staff to administer the shots. Under legal revisions made last October, practical nurses and pharmacists, if trained, can now give inoculations. The NHS has also worked to recruit retired doctors and nurses.

Also effective was the fact that Johnson actively sought the swift vaccination of the entire population, prioritizing giving the first shot against objections from both the ruling and opposition parties.

Johnson believed that having as many people as possible gain a certain degree of immunity would reduce the risk more than having fewer people get two doses.

It can be considered, as a U.K. government official has put it, “a policy that gives priority to actual results, a Britain’s characteristic way of doing.”

Britain’s popular royal family has also helped promote vaccinations.

“As far as I can make out it was quite harmless, very quick,” Queen Elizabeth II said in a video broadcast in February, recalling her own vaccination. She also said people “ought to think about other people rather than themselves,” a message that was interpreted as her urging the public to get vaccinated.

Although infections with a new coronavirus variant, which was first identified in India and is called the Delta variant, are spreading now in Britain, Johnson enjoys strong support. According to a poll taken by research agency YouGov, nearly nine out of 10 eligible voters in the country highly approved of the response made by the British government, with 51% attributing it to “Johnson’s competence.”

The Conservative Party led by Johnson has an approval rate of 46%, compared with the opposition Labour Party at 30%.

The United States, where newly infected patients topped 300,000 a day in early January, is also swiftly recovering from the wounds inflicted by COVID-19.

At the White House on May 13, U.S. President Joe Biden said, “Today is a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus.” He announced new guidelines that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks, in principle.

Vaccinations have been progressing well since the Biden administration was inaugurated. It hit its goal of administering 100 million COVID-19 shots in Biden’s first 100 days in office within just 58 days.

The target of reaching 200 million vaccine doses was achieved on the 92nd day. The current goal is to have 70% of the U.S. adult population get its first shot by July 4.

The administration is calling on the U.S. public to unite against the virus, repeatedly emphasizing that the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed the combined total from World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War.

Biden’s administration has made good use of the Defense Production Act, a U.S. federal law enacted in 1950 in response to the start of the Korean War. It gives the U.S. president the power to respond to contingencies, enabling him or her to ask companies to prioritize producing goods needed in times of such emergencies as war and natural disasters.

Under this law, the Biden administration is also striving to boost the production of raw materials and ingredients for vaccines. These moves are in stark contrast to those in Japan, where peacetime procedures tend to be emphasized.

Public opinion also views the U.S. administration’s response to COVID-19 favorably. According to the findings of a survey released by The Associated Press in May, 71% of Americans rated the government’s handling of the pandemic favorably. Even 47% of those backing the Republican Party approved, while Biden’s overall approval rating was a high 63%.

How about Japan? Infections have been kept much lower than in the United States and Britain, thanks to repeated declarations of a state of emergency and measures for early detection and response to clusters. However, public discontent still runs deep.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was briefed by special advisor Masashi Adachi in April about a report compiled by the Nomura Research Institute on the measures taken by other countries, including the United States and Britain. Suga nodded and replied that the bottom line was “how we can we speed up the pace of vaccinations, right?”

The leaders of both the United States and Britain see their administrations stabilizing, thanks to the accelerated pace of vaccinations, which has pushed up their approval ratings. Will Suga be able to join the ranks of these successful leaders? The next few months will be crucial in determining the success or failure of his administration’s handling of the pandemic.