British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has returned to work after a serious bout of COVID-19 and made it clear the country faces many more weeks of lockdown restrictions as it battles what he called “an unexpected and invisible mugger.”
“I am sorry I have been away from my desk for much longer than I would have liked,” Mr. Johnson said Monday as he returned to 10 Downing Street for the first time in three weeks.
Mr. Johnson was admitted to St. Thomas’ Hospital in London on April 5, 10 days after testing positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. He spent three nights in intensive care before being released during the Easter weekend. He had been recuperating at Chequers, his country residence, and handed over most of his responsibilities to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
Britain’s management of the outbreak has come under intense scrutiny and criticism during Mr. Johnson’s absence. When the Prime Minister went into the hospital, the country had 47,800 confirmed cases of the virus and 4,900 people had died. As of Monday, those numbers had swelled to 157,149 and 21,092, respectively.
Mr. Johnson imposed a near-total lockdown on March 23 to slow the spread of the virus. He closed schools, restaurants, pubs and most stores, and ordered people to work from home. The measures will be reviewed on May 7 and so far the government has not indicated if the lockdown will be eased.
However, pressure has been building from business leaders and labour unions to lift at least some restrictions. There have also been signs that the public is growing restless with the lockdown and highway traffic has picked up across parts of the country.
Over the weekend, Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Mr. Johnson to produce a strategy for a way out of the lockdown. "The British public have made great sacrifices to make the lockdown work,” Sir Keir said in a letter to Mr. Johnson. “They deserve to be part of an adult conversation about what comes next. If we want to take people with us and secure their consent, this is necessary now.”
On Monday, Mr. Johnson said he shared the public urgency but added the country couldn’t afford another spike in the disease “because that would mean not only a new wave of death and disease but also an economic disaster.” He said the measures would only be eased gradually “when we are sure that this first phase is over.”
“If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor,” Mr. Johnson said.
Public-health officials believe Britain is past the peak of the outbreak. The number of new cases has been rising at a slower pace in recent days along with the daily death toll. Health Minister Matt Hancock has also said the country’s National Health Service has not been overwhelmed by cases, and on Monday he announced that some hospitals will begin reopening services that had been closed during the outbreak, such as cancer and mental-health care.
However, Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, said on Monday that the crisis was far from over. “This has got a very long way to run,” he said. Until a vaccine is found, he added, “this could go in a lot of different directions.”
He and other health officials have warned that some physical-distancing measures could remain in place for months.
Mr. Hancock has also faced criticism over testing and his promise to conduct 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. So far, fewer than 40,000 daily tests are carried out and an online system Mr. Hancock unveiled last week to provide home testing kits for essential workers crashed in its first hour of operation. The site has been reactivated but critics said the government should have been more prepared.
Figures complied by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which represents the world’s largest developed countries, ranked Britain near the bottom of member states in terms of testing. Britain conducts 10 tests for every 1,000 people, according to the OECD figures. That compared with 30 in Italy, 28 in Spain and 18 in Canada. The OECD average is 23.
Mr. Hancock insisted on Monday that the government remained on track to meet the 100,000 target.
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