LONDON — After spending the past month battling COVID-19, Boris Johnson is back at work, but he’s not giving any clues to when Britain might be able to leave lockdown.
Looking pale and with his famous white-blonde mop long and shaggy (there’s no one around to give a proper haircut at Number 10 Downing Street), the British Prime Minister told the country to “contain your impatience” and to “keep going” with quarantines and social distancing until coronavirus deaths and infections abate.
Johnson said the government would only start lifting lockdown restrictions and offering a timeline of how and when businesses can get back to work when it was sure the first phase of the outbreak was over.
The government has set out a five-point checklist, including a consistent fall in death rates and lower infection rates, that needs fulfilling before it begins to ease restrictions.
“I understand your impatience, I share your anxiety,” he said, addressing shopkeepers, entrepreneurs and the hospitality sector in particular. Without cash, he said, “there will be no economy. And I can see the long-term consequences of the lockdown. But I refuse to throw away the effort and sacrifice the country has made,” and risk a second spike of the disease.
He said that when the government was sure that phase one had passed, “then, one-by-one, we’ll fire up the engines of the vast U.K. economy. But I will not spell out when these changes will be made.” He added that a strategy for getting businesses back to work was already in the pipeline.
Johnson returned to work on Monday morning after a spell in intensive care, with some medical experts saying earlier this month that he had a 50 percent chance of survival. He left intensive care on April 12, recovered at home and returned to Downing Street on Sunday night with his pregnant partner Carrie Symonds, who last month had a mild form of the virus.
Johnson has been under increasing pressure from the media, the public, business leaders, members of his own Conservative party and leaders of the opposition to start easing restrictions and to get the economy moving. Each weekend, increasing numbers of people have ben flouting social distancing measures and taking to the streets, beaches and boardwalks to soak up the April sunshine.
The U.K. government is also looking at what other countries are doing: Italy is beginning to loosen its measures and France is set to do the same in May. The British government won’t even update the public until May 7 about whether it plans to change the social distancing rules already in place.
Over the weekend, Britain’s number of dead reached 20,000, and as of Monday morning that number had risen to 20,732, with total cases of infections numbering 152,840.
Despite his diminished — and slightly disheveled — figure, Johnson appeared as energetic as usual, referring to COVID-19 as a robber that sneaks up on its victims. “Now, the moment has begun to wrestle it to the floor. It is the moment of maximum risk,” he said.
If restrictions were lifted too soon or if people get lazy or blasé about staying at home and keeping their distance in public, Johnson said the U.K. could suffer more “economic disaster, more death and disease, and we would need to slam the brakes on the country once again.”
In his usual barnstorming tone, Johnson added that if the country continued to show its “spirit of unity, we will come through faster, and emerge stronger, than ever before.”
Johnson made his speech as new figures emerged from forecasting group EY Item Club, confirming earlier reports that the U.K. would undergo a “deep, short” recession. EY believes it will take until 2023 for the U.K. to return to 2019 output levels.
EY also predicted that consumer spending will drop by 7.5 percent this year, while business investment could fall by 13.6 percent, with both figures beginning to increase again next year.