Boris Johnson Returns to Work as Business Demands Lockdown Clarity
Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, pauses while speaking during a daily coronavirus briefing inside number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K., on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Photographer: Julian Simmonds/The Daily Telegraph/Bloomberg)

Boris Johnson Returns to Work as Business Demands Lockdown Clarity

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson is back at work to lead the U.K.’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus, amid calls to ease the lockdown that has brought swathes of the economy to a standstill.

It is exactly one month since Johnson went into isolation after contracting a severe case of Covid-19, which put him in intensive care and left the U.K. without its leader as the country entered the peak of the outbreak. He returned to his office at 10 Downing Street on Sunday night.

“It’s great that he’s back and able to take the reins again,” Health Minister Edward Argar told Talk Radio on Monday. “He’s very much back in charge and back at his desk.”

Johnson spent the past two weeks recuperating at Chequers, his official country residence, and has been gradually easing himself back into his duties, with calls to his ministers and others.

With the nation recording its lowest daily death toll since March and lockdowns being partially lifted on the European continent, the premier is facing increasing pressure to explain how and when his administration will start to lift the restrictions that are hurting the economy. The government will review the lockdown on May 7.

“It’s too early at the moment to speculate what might or might not come through in any changes,” Argar told BBC News on Monday.

Businesses are “clamoring” for information, the Institute of Directors said. A survey of more than 1,000 business leaders showed fewer than one in four were optimistic for their prospects over the next 12 months. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is due to make a statement to Parliament later Monday on the impact of the lockdown on the economy.

How and When

Six business leaders, including Conservative Party billionaire donors Michael Spencer and Peter Hargreaves, have written to the government asking them to ease restrictions, according to the Sunday Times. Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote to Johnson calling for an “exit strategy,” while his party’s senior spokeswoman Rachel Reeves told the BBC the public should be treated as adults.

“We should really begin to offer a narrative of how and when it’s going to stop,” Spencer told the newspaper. Three unidentified Cabinet ministers told the paper they questioned how much more voters would stand.

Tory member of Parliament Graham Brady told BBC Radio late Sunday that government policy is “confused” and needs to change. “I think there is a recognition that we need to do much more to get the economy moving,” he said.

On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who’s been deputizing for Johnson while the premier was out of action, rejected the calls for an early easing of the lockdown, telling Sky News the outbreak was still at a “delicate and dangerous” stage. On Sunday, the U.K. reported 413 hospital deaths from the previous day, taking the tally to almost 21,000, the fifth highest in the world. More than 150,000 people have tested positive for the virus.

In a series of television interviews on Sunday, Raab wouldn’t be drawn on how and when the U.K. would scale back restrictions. “Until we can be confident -- based on the scientific advice -- that we are making sure-footed steps going forward that protect life, but also preserve our way of life, frankly it is not responsible to start speculating,” he told Sky.

Domestic Violence

It’s not just the economic impact that Johnson needs to weigh. The cross-party Home Affairs committee called for action against rising cases of domestic abuse, citing “higher levels of violence and coercive control.” Pressure group Counting Dead Women calculated that between March 23, when the lockdown began, and April 12, there were at least 16 domestic abuse killings of women and children, according to the report.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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