LONDON — At home, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is being slammed for his public health response to the coronavirus pandemic, with calls for a public inquiry as the country’s death toll is now the highest in Europe.
But on the global stage Thursday, Johnson got a break from the criticism.
The prime minister hosted Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance’s replenishment conference, which aimed to raise $7.4 billion to vaccinate 300 million children against existing viral infections over the next five years.
At the end of the conference, Johnson bragged he had the “scoop” that they had raised $8.8 billion for Gavi.
The conference was a necessary step in securing money so that routine vaccination isn’t left behind while the focus is on battling COVID-19. But it was also a chance for Johnson to reassert the U.K.’s role as a health leader.
“Everyone thought that the U.K. was a leader and would walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Now they are not doing that, it’s embarrassing” — Clare Wenham, assistant professor at the London School of Economics
In both his introductory and concluding statements, Johnson wasn’t shy about touting the U.K.’s role on the global stage, boasting that the “most promising” coronavirus vaccine candidates are being developed in the country, highlighting a partnership between the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca.
“Just as the U.K. is the single biggest donor to the international effort to find a coronavirus vaccine, we will remain the world’s leading donor to Gavi,” he said, before committing £1.6 billion to the Gavi replenishment.
Johnson also referenced the “ingenuity” of British doctor Edward Jenner — who developed the first vaccine in the 18th century — as the reason the world has vaccines in the first place.
Notwithstanding those achievements, the government has come under fire over its domestic coronavirus response, with the country’s death toll exceeding 39,700, surpassed only by the U.S.
Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, pointed to a “big juncture” between what the U.K. can do for global health elsewhere in the world and what it can do at home.
Prior to the pandemic, she said, the U.K. “demonstrated widespread leadership in global health.”
“Everyone thought that the U.K. was a leader and would walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Now they are not doing that, it’s embarrassing,” she said. “At the moment they are trying to claw back that legitimacy and leadership in global health.”
Still, the tone on Thursday stayed positive.
International leaders, from Australia to Canada to Singapore, thanked Johnson for hosting the conference, while philanthropist Bill Gates praised the U.K.’s generous support for Gavi “from the beginning.”
But perhaps the biggest praise came from World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who thanked his “friend” Johnson “for his leadership in this very vital area of public health.”
Johnson even managed to get U.S. President Donald Trump to make a brief appearance during the pledging drive. Trump began his message by telling Johnson he has “tremendous respect for you and everything you do.”
“He called and said, ‘Do you think you can do something? Maybe around the Oval Office or right by the Oval Office?’ I said, ‘Why not?’” Trump recalled, pointing to the Oval Office in the background of his video.
Trump said it will take international cooperation to defeat the “mean” and “nasty” coronavirus, and ended his message by sending his “regards to Boris.”
The global limelight did not mean Johnson was off the hook at home.
He faced increasing concern Thursday over the return of MPs to parliament.
On Wednesday, Business Secretary Alok Sharma went into self-isolation after appearing ill while taking part in a debate in the House of Commons. Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael tweeted that the incident should be a “wake up call” and that by returning to parliament, MPs “risk the safety of people across the country.”
Downing Street hasn’t ruled out whether Johnson, who had a 45-minute socially distanced meeting with Sharma on Wednesday, would need to self-isolate if the business secretary tested positive.
Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting.
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