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Pandemic grips Britain with Johnson still in intensive care

Daily death toll rises to record in the country.
Police officers patrol outside an entrance to the emergency department at St Thomas' Hospital where UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is being cared for in intensive care. Image: Bloomberg

Prime Minister Boris Johnson remained in intensive care while his deputy tried to reassure Britain that the battle against coronavirus was under control even as the daily death toll rose to a record.

The UK is headed into its peak of the outbreak and the government is contending with criticism over its handling of the crisis, with hospitals short of protective equipment and testing lagging behind other countries.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, pushed into the spotlight as Johnson fights the disease in the hospital, told the nation on Tuesday evening that he was confident his boss would pull through. “If there’s one thing I know about this prime minister, he’s a fighter,” Raab said.

With signs of the pandemic turning the corner in Spain and Italy, Europe’s hardest-hit countries, Britain is moving into its most critical phase. The Department of Health said that the number of people dying from Covid-19 had risen by 786 in 24 hours, bringing the total to 6 159.

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said there were signs for optimism in the numbers for new infections, which were stable. There would need more data, though, before the authorities could make any decision to end a lockdown that’s crippling the economy.

“It’s possible we’re beginning to see the start of a change where we see the numbers flattening off,” Vallance, standing alongside Raab at the daily virus press conference, said. “We won’t be sure of that for a week or so.”

U-Turn

Johnson’s move to hospital in London on Sunday evening — and then the facility for the most at-risk patients — has compounded a sense of a government struggling to get to grips with the crisis. Over the course of March there were a series of abrupt changes of course.

The month started with Johnson, 55, insisting he was still shaking hands with everyone he met, including coronavirus patients. At that stage, the government expected the disease to spread widely, but didn’t see the need for restrictions on movement. But within two weeks, schools were closed and then Johnson told citizens to stay indoors.

On Tuesday evening, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty suggested that the UK’s lack of emphasis on testing had been a mistake when commenting on why Germany appeared to have a lower fatality rate.

“We all know that Germany got ahead in terms of its ability to do testing for the virus and there’s a lot to learn from that,” he said. “And we’ve been trying to learn the lessons from that.”

Under pressure

In the prime minister’s absence, Raab is chairing the key meetings. But for all the public insistence that Cabinet colleagues are working together well, the British leadership is being tested as few governments have.

Many of the people in top positions were rivals for the Conservative Party leadership last year, including Raab. Johnson has the authority of overwhelming mandates from both his party and the electorate, allowing him to lay down the law. Raab has neither.

On Tuesday, he seemed uncomfortable when asked who would make difficult decisions if there were disagreements, emphasising that the focus was on following the instructions that Johnson had set out.

The prime minister was taken to St. Thomas’ Hospital in the UK capital after suffering from virus symptoms for 10 days. He was moved to intensive care on Monday evening. His office has said little about his medical condition, beyond that he is stable, in “good spirits”, receiving oxygen treatment, and has not been diagnosed with pneumonia or put on a ventilator.

Keeping lockdown

Among the decisions that my need to be made in Johnson’s absence are whether and when to tighten, extend or lift the current lockdown, which has seen all bars, restaurants and all non-essential shops closed, and people urged to work from home where they can.

Italy, the original epicentre of the outbreak in Europe, has begun to look at emerging from its lockdown as new deaths and cases flatten out. Spain has extended its emergency measures until April 25.

Although it hasn’t been formally announced, it’s clear that restrictions in Britain will remain after the initial three-week period that started on March 23 ends this weekend. The issue, according to Whitty, is balancing the danger of the virus spreading more quickly, and overwhelming the National Health Service, with the negative impacts of the lockdown on people’s health and economic wellbeing.

Indeed, the idea was floated at the weekend that tighter restrictions might be needed, as people went out to enjoy the sunshine in parks. How to proceed may come down to the kind of finely balanced judgment that a prime minister usually has to make.

Earlier in the day, another key member of Johnson’s top team, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, announced he was self-isolating after a member of his family displayed symptoms of virus infection.

© 2020 Bloomberg

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