Boris Johnson will return to work to face big decisions on lifting the UK’s nationwide lockdown, amid growing pressure from some government ministers and Conservative party donors.
Downing Street confirmed on Saturday evening that the prime minister, who has been recuperating from coronavirus at his country residence Chequers, would return on Monday, after his medical team signed off his return to work.
On Saturday, the UK reached a grim milestone as the death toll from the illness passed 20,000. The UK’s latest testing figures rose to 28,760 on the same day, significantly behind the government’s daily target of 100,000.
Mr Johnson has been recovering since he was discharged from St Thomas’ hospital on April 12. He spent a week in hospital owing to the virus, including several days in intensive care.
Mr Johnson held a three-hour meeting on Friday with foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who has deputised during his recovery, and chancellor Rishi Sunak to plan his return. He began receiving official papers again last week and participated in several video meetings.
The prime minister returns to No 10 facing difficult choices about ending the nationwide shutdown. Some members of the government are eager to lift the restrictions as rapidly as possible, while others are concerned that moving too quickly could see the virus spreading out of control.
Mr Johnson is reportedly chiefly concerned about a second wave of coronavirus infections. At Friday’s summit, Mr Johnson quoted Cicero, the Roman statesman, saying that “the health, or welfare, of the people should be the supreme law,” according to the Sunday Telegraph.
He has also spoken of the need for a “new normal” of continued social distancing restrictions once the most stringent measures have been lifted.
But several big Tory donors have expressed their concerns about continuing the lockdown. Financier Michael Spencer, who backed Mr Johnson’s leadership campaign last year, told the Sunday Times: “We should start loosening up as soon as we reasonably can and allow the economy to start moving forward.”
Peter Hargreaves, co-founder of Hargreaves Lansdown, who funded the Conservative party’s last election campaign, also told the paper that continuing the lockdown would “do more harm to people’s health by putting them out of work and ruining their businesses”.
Pressure to loosen restrictions in the UK comes as governments across Europe move closer to easing their own lockdown measures. France, Spain and Italy, continental Europe’s three worst hit countries, are all due to lay out detailed exit plans in the coming days, as they report declining infection rates and falling daily death figures.
Meanwhile, the UK government is facing a legal challenge to release a 2016 study on the preparedness for a flu epidemic.
Cygnus, a three-day simulation exercise, reportedly highlighted areas where the UK was ill-prepared for a pandemic — including ventilator capacity and a lack of PPE equipment.
The details of the exercise were deemed “too terrifying” to be made public, according to one senior government official involved in the exercise, who also cited “national security” concerns.
Moosa Qureshi, a National Health Service doctor, is threatening a judicial review if the government does not release the report. A Freedom of Information request for the exercise has already been rejected.
“There is no persuasive argument for secrecy when managing a healthcare crisis. Successful science and healthcare depend on transparency, peer review, collaboration and engagement with the public,” she told the Observer.