Boris Johnson goes back to work as U.K. pandemic ebbs
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson is back on the job, but criticism grows over his handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.K.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is returning to work after recovering from a coronavirus infection that put him in intensive care, with his government facing growing criticism over the deaths and disruption the virus has caused.
Johnson’s office said he would be back at his desk in 10 Downing St. on Monday, two weeks after he was released from a London hospital. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has been standing in for the prime minister, said Sunday that Johnson — the only world leader to be diagnosed with the coronavirus — was “raring to go.”
Britain has recorded 20,732 deaths among people hospitalized with COVID-19, the fifth country in the world to surpass 20,000 deaths. Thousands more are thought to have died in nursing homes.
Johnson, 55, spent a week at St. Thomas’ Hospital, including three nights in intensive care, where he was given oxygen and watched around the clock by medical workers. After he was released on April 12, he recorded a video message thanking staff at the hospital for saving his life.
Johnson hasn't been seen in public since, as he recovered at Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat outside London.
While he convalesced, Britain's coronavirus death toll has mounted, with another 413 virus-related deaths announced Sunday.
Scientists say the U.K. has reached the peak of the pandemic but isn't yet out of danger. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is declining and the number of daily deaths peaked on April 8.
But with hundreds of new deaths announced each day, some health experts say Britain could eventually have the highest virus death toll in Europe.
Opposition politicians say Britain's death toll could have been lower if Johnson's Conservative government had imposed a nationwide lockdown sooner. But they are also demanding to know when and how the government will ease the restrictions that were imposed March 23 and run to at least May 7.
Some people and businesses are growing impatient with the restrictions, which have brought much of the economy and daily life to a halt. Road traffic has begun to creep up after plummeting when the lockdown first was imposed, and some businesses have begun to reopen after implementing social-distancing measures.
“Decisions need to be taken quicker and communication with the public needs to be clearer,” opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said in a letter to Johnson.
“The British public have made great sacrifices to make the lockdown work,” he wrote. “They deserve to be part of an adult conversation about what comes next.”
But Johnson’s government, facing criticism for being too slow to impose the lockdown, appears in no hurry to end it. Raab said there would be no dramatic sudden change to the restrictions.
“We won’t just have this binary easing up of measures. We will end up moving to a new normal,” he told the BBC. “We need to take a sure-footed step forward which protects life but also preserves our way of life. So we are very focused on doing the homework that can allow us to do that.”
As fears recede that the health system will be overwhelmed, opponents are criticizing Johnson’s government over shortages of protective equipment for medical workers and a lack of testing for the virus. More than 100 infected medical workers have died so far.
The government has promised to conduct 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of the month, but has yet to reach even 30,000 a day. Increasing testing, so that all people with the virus can be identified and their contacts traced and isolated, is key to loosening the lockdown.
The British government says all health care staff and other essential workers can be tested if they show symptoms. It is rolling out almost 100 mobile testing sites, staffed by soldiers, to conduct tests at nursing homes, police stations, prisons and other sites.
In the first two days of expanded testing, however, the online system handling daily demand for the tests had exceeded the supply by early morning.