British PM faces lockdown dilemma upon return to work

Boris Johnson returns to work today, two weeks after he was discharged from hospital where he battled Covid-19. (AP pic)

LONDON: 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 to the day since he was tested positive for Covid-19 which incapacitated the prime minister and threatened his life at the peak of the coronavirus crisis.

His inbox is full to bursting. His government, his party and his scientific advisers are divided over how and when the world’s fifth-largest economy should start to get back to work, albeit in a limited form.

“He will be back in the driving seat as we speak, getting on with the job,” said Edward Argar, a junior health minister. “He is raring to be back and he is full of energy as you would expect.”

Johnson is due to chair the government’s daily Covid-19 emergency response meeting on Monday, Argar said, but he added that it was still too early to lift the lockdown.

Johnson’s deputy, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, said social distancing would in place for some time yet. He too said Johnson was “raring to go”.

The United Kingdom is on course to be among the worst-hit European states with more than 20,732 hospital deaths reported as of Saturday.

But the most stringent lockdown in peacetime history has left the economy facing possibly the deepest recession in three centuries and the biggest debt splurge since World War II.

At the start of the outbreak, Johnson initially resisted imposing a draconian lockdown but then changed course when projections showed that a quarter of a million people could die in the United Kingdom.

Since the lockdown was imposed on March 23, his government has faced criticism from opposition parties and some doctors for the United Kingdom’s limited testing capabilities and the lack protective equipment for some frontline health workers.

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, who has replaced veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn, 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 an open 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.

Johnson is expected to announce plans for how the lockdown could be eased as early as this week, the Daily Telegraph reported.

The number of deaths related to Covid-19 in hospitals across the United Kingdom rose to 20,732, up by 413 in 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 official Covid-19 death toll in the world, after the United States, Italy, Spain and France.

But the United Kingdom’s total death toll is much higher as statistics for deaths outside hospital – for example in care homes – are slower to be published.

Stephen Powis, medical director of the National Health Service in England, said the “very definite” downward trend in the number of coronavirus cases in hospital demonstrated that social distancing was reducing virus transmission and spread.