Boris Johnson won his personal battle against COVID-19. Now comes the hard part

April 27, 2020, 11:03 AM UTC

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It’s Boris Johnson’s first day back at work. He may wish he had stayed in bed.

On Monday, the British Prime Minister appeared outside 10 Downing Street, his official residence, after nearly three weeks out of public sight as he recovered from COVID-19. He’d been hospitalized, including two nights in intensive care, and then spent more than two weeks recovering at his official country retreat.

He returns to a government that is facing intense criticism over its handling of the pandemic. Before he went into the hospital, Johnson had faced heavy criticism over the government’s lack of tests and protective equipment for health care workers. Those questions have now been joined by pressure over whether ministers took the threat seriously enough in the earliest days of the crisis, and the lack of transparency about the makeup of the government’s scientific advisory group.

Johnson’s government is also facing questions about when and how the U.K. will emerge from lockdown; Germany and other European countries have begun to ease measures and chart a way forward. Even Italy, which was hit the earliest and hardest in Europe, has said it would begin to ease restrictions from next Monday.

On Monday, Johnson addressed those questions directly, saying there would be more news in the coming days, but warning that he would not risk the country seeing another spike in infections. The U.K. is at a period of “maximum risk,” he said. 

“I refuse to throw away the sacrifices of the British people,” Johnson said. The U.K. will enter its sixth week of lockdown on Tuesday. 

Johnson’s statement will be a blow to some members of his own cabinet. Treasury officials, according to reports in the Financial Times, have been pushing the government to at least announce a plan for starting to ease some of the restrictions businesses currently face under lockdown. They are concerned about the severe economic costs of the shutdown and that they’ll soon exhaust the emergency funding they’ve made available to businesses.

Meanwhile, some of Johnson’s scientific advisers are disappointed and perplexed that the strict social distancing measures put in place haven’t had a more dramatic impact on the overall rate of hospitalizations and deaths, according to a report in the Guardian. While hospitalizations in London, the U.K.’s largest coronavirus hotspot, have come down from almost 5,000 to fewer than 3,500, they remain higher across the country than officials had hoped would be the case after five weeks of social distancing measures.

The death rate has also plateaued at a high level, with between 650 and 850 new deaths in hospitals being reported each weekday and more thought to have died in care homes and other settings. The current tally is 20,732 deaths in hospitals. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty had previously said he had hoped social distancing measures would enable the U.K. to keep its death toll below 20,000.

John Edmunds, a member of the government’s scientific advisory panel, told the Guardian that the rate of new infections being reported each day—close to 5,000—is far too high for government officials to consider lifting strict social distancing restrictions, as even the current rate of infections would be too much for the contact-tracing systems the government is trying to put in place to handle. 

Over the weekend, the government also faced mounting questions about a lack of transparency over the makeup of its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) council, which it has relied on for scientific advice from the earliest days of the crisis.

While the list of members has not been officially published, a Guardian report over the weekend listed Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief political adviser, and a data scientist involved in the “Leave” campaign ahead of the British vote on Brexit as attendees, alongside well-known experts in virology and epidemiology.

Scientists said that the attendance of political advisers at SAGE meetings was common and even useful in order to keep the government well informed. The risk would be whether Cummings in particular was a contributing member of the group, or simply observing, and the degree of political interference as a result.

“Politicians and their direct political advisers have no place on scientific advisory committees,” Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford, said in a comment. “Clearly the deliberations of scientific committees must interface with the process of political decision-making, but that is very different from a politically motivated individual using the scientific committee as a mouthpiece.”

More hard questions are looming. This week, the government will also face its self-imposed deadline of 100,000 tests per day, after concerns earlier this month that testing levels were still below that of most other Western countries, and that the government had moved too slowly in acquiring further tests. Antibody tests, which had frequently been touted in government press conferences, also turned out to be a dud—the batch was not reliable enough to be widely used. 

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