Britain’s Boris Johnson returned to work Monday less than three weeks after leaving the critical-care ward of a London hospital, where he nearly lost his life to the coronavirus. His recovery comes amid mounting pressure on the government from major donors to his ruling Conservatives — as well as from some senior party members — to start easing the coronavirus lockdown and to get the country back to work, at least partially.
His decision on when to relax home confinement and to start trying to revive the economy could well define his tenure in Downing Street — and certainly will shape for months ahead the contours of a public health crisis that’s seen Britain hit harder than most of its European neighbors, say commentators.
Speaking in Downing Street Monday Johnson said Britain is “beginning to turn the tide” in the fight against the coronavirus, but said this is not the time to relax the nationwide lockdown, Boris Johnson has said. Easing off would be to “throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak,” he added.
Johnson compared COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, to a mugger, saying, “this is the moment when we have begun, together, to wrestle it to the floor.”
Pressure to relax lockdown
But prominent Conservative party donors are demanding a relaxation of the strict social-distancing measures, first imposed on the country more than a month ago as cases started to climb. The donors say the "lockdown cure" is worse than the disease it is meant contain, arguing the damage being wrought on the country’s economy by the unprecedented confinement of millions of workers risks becoming irreparable.
“I’m strongly in favor of getting the country back to work. This is not about profit; this is about saving the country from going bankrupt, from mass unemployment, from businesses going bust, people losing their livelihoods and homes,” Steve Morgan, the retired boss of one of Britain’s biggest house-builders, told reporters Sunday.
He was joined by half-a-dozen other top party donors pressing publicly for an exit strategy from the lockdown. “We have to do something. The economy is absolutely tanking and we just can’t go on having a blank sheet,” Henry Angest, a millionaire banker, told the Sunday Times. Other critics warn that unless business gets back to work the country will be looking at Great Depression levels of mass unemployment, which will also have a devastating impact on people’s wellbeing and longevity.
Their calls — seen as part of a coordinated backlash to reports last week that Johnson did not want to rush into lifting the lockdown measures — were resisted also Sunday by Britain’s stand-in leader, foreign minister Dominic Raab. On his last day as acting prime minister, Raab warned that Britain is in a “delicate and dangerous” stage of the coronavirus outbreak and it would irresponsible to outline how the lockdown can be eased or even when it can.
Critics of the government — including some senior backbench Conservative lawmakers — accuse the government of hiding behind the scientists and dodging questions about the competing priorities between lives and the health of the economy.
Government ministers say they have to be guided by science, but the experts advising them insist they cannot make the call about when to ease the lockdown — Downing Street has to weigh the competing priorities and to calculate the trade-offs, they say.
However, many scientific advisers have not been shy in urging for the lockdown to be continued, saying the decline rate of infections is still too high for any major easing of restrictions.
“Certainly it is far too high to consider lifting lockdown restrictions at present,” said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia. “We need to get numbers down to a few hundred new cases a day before we can do that. Such a decline could take months.”
Former Conservative lawmaker and columnist Matthew Parris, says government ministers are engaged in an exercise of “pass the parcel to the science, as if science alone will make the judgments they know must, in the end, be political.”
Government officials say they are wary of detailing their thinking on an exit strategy, maintaining if they do so, public expectations will be raised and it may prompt people to relax their vigilance. But behind the scenes officials have been debating how to ease restrictions, admit Downing Street advisers. One adviser acknowledged to VOA that the Cabinet is sharply split in what he termed “the lives versus livelihoods debate” with divisions unrelenting over how and when to ease up.
The country’s coronavirus death toll rose Sunday by 813, bringing the tally to more than 20,000 fatalities. Priti Patel, the interior minister, described the figure as a “terrible milestone” and a “deeply tragic and moving moment.” She said it showed why the British public should remain at home for the foreseeable future.
But there are increasing doubts about the accuracy of the count, with opposition politicians claiming deaths at home and in nursing facilities for the elderly are being under-counted. The acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, says he suspects the accurate number of deaths could well be closer to 40,000, has called for a public inquiry into the government's coronavirus strategy.
Small businesses are especially determined to get some lifting of the lockdown started and are making their views known to lawmakers. “All members of parliament must be receiving representations from businesses large and small needing further assistance, or some sense of when they can start to plan for at least a partial release from these measures,” said Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers.
And the government is also being urged by opposition parties to outline an exit strategy. On Saturday, Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote to Johnson asking why other governments are being transparent about their plans and easing some restrictions, while the British government is not disclosing its strategy. "The UK government is behind the curve on this,” he wrote. “I fear we are falling behind the rest of the world. Simply acting as if this discussion is not happening is not credible,” he added.
Part of the lockdown dilemma for Downing Street is that it has still not managed to boost testing capacity to same level as many other European governments. The health minister, Matt Hancock, pledged weeks ago that the government by the end of this month would handling 100,000 tests a day, but it is still far way behind reaching that daily target. On Friday it managed 28,000 tests.
Without better testing, and the ability to identify hotspots and trace contacts, an easing of the lockdown risks prompting a second wave of infections, virologists say. Polls show majorities support the lockdown continuing with over half the population against the economy being reopened in the next few weeks.
But there are signs that the population is tiring of home confinement and fine weather is enticing more people outside. Hundreds of Britons headed Sunday to DIY stores, with major lines forming outside stores in Edinburgh, Swansea and York. And in Bournemouth, on England’s south coast, packed with sun seekers breaking lockdown guidelines.