Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in a stable condition Thursday after his third night in an intensive care ward and had improved enough to be moved back to a general ward, where he will still be closely monitored, a Downing Street spokesman said.
"He is in extremely good spirits," Downing Street added in statement.
The announcement came as the country's lawmakers and media commentators were struggling to understand the full remit of Johnson's chosen stand-in, former minister Dominic Raab. They have been seeking clarification on how decisions will be taken while the country's prime minister remains hospitalized for the coronavirus.
The lack of clarity so far offered by Downing Street comes as Britons were told they will have to remain in lockdown for some weeks. Top ministers met Thursday to review the social distancing measures imposed on March 23 to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Speaking after the meeting, Raab told reporters Britain "must keep going" with lockdown, warning against giving the coronavirus "a second chance to kill more people." He added: "The deaths are still rising and we haven't yet reached the peak of the virus, so it's still too early to lift the measures that we put in place."
More than 7,000 Britons have died from the coronavirus and the numbers being infected are still accelerating — although the increase appears to be slowing.
Johnson better, but struggling
Johnson was admitted to London's St Thomas' Hospital on Sunday night and transferred to intensive care the following day. Officials have stressed that at no stage has he been hooked up to a ventilator, but say he has received extra oxygen to help with breathing.
It is not the first time a sitting Prime Minister has been hospitalized. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher both were — briefly — during their premierships. Their visits, though, were elective and they were not in any danger. Their speedy return was never in doubt and the chain of command was clearer — Blair had an official deputy prime minister.
In the 1960s an exhausted Harold Macmillan underwent surgery for a benign prostate tumor and chose to resign soon after. But government was not disrupted and the transfer of power to a successor went smoothly, following guidelines Macmillan drafted himself at the behest of Buckingham Palace.
But there is nothing routine now about Johnson's absence. There has not been any time in modern British history when the country's prime minister was absent during an emergency. The cabinet manual, which sets out the rules and regulations for the running of government, is silent about what happens when a prime minister is unable to carry out his duties, adding an air of political uncertainty.
And for all of the upbeat briefings by Downing Street officials and cabinet ministers about Johnson's medical condition, there have been doubts about the progress reports. Midweek the country's chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, assured the public that Johnson was "improving" and "sitting up in bed" engaging positively with doctors.
That begs the question, whether Johnson was incapacitated at any stage. Downing Street has not helped itself in tamping down alarm. Last week, Westminster was awash with rumors that Johnson's condition had worsened during a seven-day self-isolation period after displaying symptoms of the coronavirus and testing positive for the virus. Government spokespersons dismissed the claims.
And Johnson appeared a week ago on the doorstep of Downing Street to join in the nightly applause for the country's doctors and nurses. But the normally ebullient Johnson clearly appeared unwell. "He looked dreadful," acknowledged Guto Harri, a friend and former communications adviser.
His transfer back to a general ward Thursday prompted a collective sigh of relief. But the coming days will still be crucial for Johnson as his body continues to fight the virus, say virologists.
And questions remain about Raab's authority as a stand-in. Ever since Johnson fell ill with the coronavirus, Downing Street has sought to project a sense of normality. His transfer to an intensive care ward Sunday was accompanied by an announcement that Raab would deputize for Johnson "where necessary." Some senior British officials have told VOA much is being improvised. "This is just a temporary option while we wait to see if Johnson's health improves, or if he deteriorates," said one official, who asked not to be named in this article. "We are hoping Johnson will bounce back quickly," he added.
But even as a temporary solution, Raab's position is highly unusual. He does not have the authority of a prime minister and cannot dismiss ministers — nor is he tasked with briefing formally the Queen. He will chair cabinet meetings but it remains unclear whether he can order ministers on how to handle their departments.
Some senior lawmakers have publicly expressed alarm at the stopgap arrangement.
"It is important to have 100% clarity as to where responsibility for UK national security decisions now lies," Conservative lawmaker Tobias Ellwood tweeted Tuesday. "We must anticipate adversaries attempting to exploit any perceived weakness," he added.
Government spokespersons responded that the National Security Council under Raab's chairmanship can make defense decisions — but it is unclear whether that, in fact, is in accordance with constitutional law.
Senior political figures from past cabinets have also voiced concern at what they see as a power vacuum at the heart of government. Michael Heseltine, a deputy prime minister under Conservative prime minister John Major, has said Downing Street needs to be much clearer about Raab's role.
"There must come a time when a deputy is effectively prime minister," he told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper. "The present urgency of the situation and the potential decisions that may need to be taken quickly does mean that Dominic Raab will have to use his discretion and know when to act. This is a very difficult thing to do because he will be surrounded by lots of people who know what Boris Johnson said, believe Boris will be quickly back and have their own personal agendas anyway, so it's a very difficult personal position and the man will be tested by the loneliness of the job," he added.
The 46-year-old Raab has only one year of cabinet experience behind him.
Other senior British figures have sought to calm nerves and to impress on the public that Johnson's absence doesn't mean there will be any indecision. Government will grind on regardless.
"We have a cabinet system of government," Theresa May, Johnson's immediate predecessor in Downing Street, told British broadcasters. "Dominic Raab is leading that cabinet and I know — from everything I've seen and heard — that cabinet, which is supported by excellent scientific advice and a first-class civil service, is absolutely committed to dealing with this crisis," she added.
But a cabinet without a prime minister is potentially a recipe for confusion at best and chaos at worst, say some commentators, especially if Johnson's illness prolongs. Asked by reporters earlier this week who makes a decision if there is "genuine disagreement" in the cabinet, Raab said: "We've got very clear directions, very clear instructions from the PM. We are focused with total unity, and total resolve, in delivering them."
Even before Johnson entered hospital, there were reports of divisions between key cabinet players — Michael Gove, Treasury minister Sunak and the health minister Matt Hancock. And there are personal animosities, too. Raab's lack of top flight political experience also raises questions — in last year's Conservative leadership contest, which Johnson won handsomely, Raab was pushed out early because of lack of support.