LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to work on Monday after recovering from COVID-19 and warned that it was still too dangerous to relax a stringent lockdown wreaking havoc on Britain’s economy, for fear of a deadly second outbreak.
Looking healthy again after a life-threatening bout of the coronavirus, Johnson compared the disease to an invisible street criminal whom Britons were wrestling to the floor.
“If we can show the same spirit of unity and determination as we’ve all shown in the past six weeks then I have absolutely no doubt that we will beat it,” the 55-year-old said outside his Downing Street home, a month and a day after testing positive.
“I ask you to contain your impatience because I believe we are coming now to the end of the first phase of this conflict and in spite of all the suffering we have so nearly succeeded.”
With unemployment soaring, many companies crippled and a recession looming, Johnson said he understood the concerns of business and would consult with opposition parties pressing for clarity on a pathway out of lockdown.
But with Britain posting one of the world’s highest death tolls - 21,092 hospital deaths and thousands more yet to be quantified in care homes - he stressed it was still a time of maximum risk.
“We simply cannot spell out now how fast or slow or even when those changes will be made, though clearly the government will be saying much more about this in the coming days,” he said.
“We must also recognise the risk of a second spike, the risk of losing control of that virus and letting the reproduction rate go back over one because that would mean not only a new wave of death and disease but also an economic disaster.”
The lockdown has left Britain facing possibly the deepest recession in three centuries and the biggest debt splurge since World War Two. Johnson’s government, party and scientific advisers are divided over how and when the world’s fifth-largest economy should start returning to work, even in limited form.
Finance minister, Rishi Sunak, announced the latest in a series of emergency measures to try and stave off calamity, a programme of small business loans fully backed by the state.
He said the government would stand fully behind commercial loans of up to 50,000 pounds ($62,000) for emergency credit to small firms, which will not be required to meet repayments or pay interest for the next 12 months.
Johnson initially resisted introducing the lockdown but changed course when projections showed a quarter of a million people could die. The government is next due to review social distancing measures on May 7.
Since the lockdown started on March 23, his government has faced criticism from opposition parties and some doctors for initially delaying measures, for limited testing capabilities, and for a lack of protective equipment for health workers.
Johnson’s spokesman said the government may not know if a target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April had been met on Thursday because of a time lag with data. Health minister Matt Hancock later said the testing system was on course to meet the target.
Johnson’s spokesman added that the prime minister would meet opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, who has urged the prime minister to say when and how restrictions might be eased.
Additional reporting by William Schomberg, David Milliken, William James, Estelle Shirbon, Michael Holden, Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan and Costas Pitas; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Stephen Addison