Prime Minister Boris Johnson returns to work on Monday to the biggest dilemma of his premiership: how to lift the coronavirus lockdown that is destroying swathes of the British economy without triggering a deadly second wave of the outbreak.
Johnson, 55, is back in Downing Street almost a month since testing positive for COVID-19, which threatened his life to the shock of the nation just as the crisis was reaching a peak.
The prime minister thanked Britons for abiding by the lockdown as he returned to work on Monday after recovering from a serious COVID-19 infection, saying Britain was turning the tide against the coronavirus spread.
Speaking outside his Downing Street residence, Johnson said it was still too dangerous to relax a stringent lockdown hammering the economy as that may cause a deadly second outbreak as he compared the disease to a street criminal that the British people had wrestled to the floor.
Stressing it was still a time of maximum risk, he said he understood the concerns of business and would consult with opposition parties – but he made clear that there was to be no swift lifting of the lockdown.
“We simply cannot spell out now how fast or slow or even when those changes will be made, though clearly the government will be saying much more about this in the coming days,” Johnson said, looking healthy again.
“If we can show the same spirit of unity and determination as we’ve all shown in the past six weeks then I have absolutely no doubt that we will beat it.”
Johnson, who spent days in intensive care in hospital after he was infected with the virus, said the country was coming “to the end of the first phase of this conflict”.
“We must also recognise the risk of a second spike, the risk of losing control of that virus and letting the reproduction rate go back over one because that would mean not only a new wave of death and disease but also an economic disaster,” he said.
“I ask you to contain your impatience because I believe we are coming now to the end of the first phase of this conflict and in spite of all the suffering we have so nearly succeeded.”
“Everyday I know that this virus brings new sadness and mourning to households across the land and it is still true that this is the biggest single challenge this country has faced since the war,” Johnson said.
His inbox is full to bursting.
His government, party and scientific advisers are divided over how and when the world’s fifth largest economy should start returning to work, albeit in limited form.
“He will be back in the driving seat as we speak,” said Edward Argar, a junior health minister. “He is raring to be back and he is full of energy as you would expect.”
Johnson was due to chair the government’s daily COVID-19 emergency response meeting on Monday, but Argar added that it was still too early to lift the lockdown.
Johnson’s deputy, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, said social distancing would be in place for some time yet.
The United Kingdom is one of the worst-hit nations, with more than 20,732 hospital deaths reported as of Saturday.
But the most stringent lockdown in peacetime has left the economy facing possibly the deepest recession in three centuries and the biggest debt splurge since World War Two.
At the start of the outbreak, Johnson initially resisted imposing a draconian lockdown but then changed course when projections showed a quarter of a million people could die.
Since the lockdown was imposed on March 23, his government has faced criticism from opposition parties and some doctors for limited testing capabilities and lack of protective equipment for some frontline health workers.
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer urged Johnson to set out when and how an economic and social lockdown might be eased – as did some Conservative Party donors.
“Simply acting as if this discussion is not happening is not credible,” Starmer wrote in a letter to Johnson.
He said the government had been too slow to impose the lockdown, to expand testing and to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospital and care home staff.
Latest data on Sunday showed deaths related to COVID-19 in hospitals were up by 413 in the previous 24 hours, the lowest daily rise this month. A total of 29,058 tests were carried out on April 25.
Based on those statistics, the United Kingdom has the fifth worst death toll in the world, after the United States, Italy, Spain and France.
But the full British toll is much higher as statistics for deaths outside hospital – for example in care homes – are slower to be published.
However, Stephen Powis, medical director of the National Health Service in England, said the “very definite” downward trend in coronavirus cases in hospital demonstrated that social distancing was reducing virus transmission and spread.