'Boris can't come back soon enough': troubled Britain's hopes rest on PM's comeback

President Trump reveals the 'old Boris' is ready to tackle the pandemic

A handout image released by 10 Downing Street, shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he delivers a television address after returning to 10 Downing Street after being discharged from St Thomas' Hospital, in central London on April 12, 2020. - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was discharged from hospital on Sunday, a Downing Street spokesman said, a week after being admitted for treatment for coronavirus and spending three days in intensive care. "The PM has been discharged from hospital to continue his recovery, at Chequers," the spokesman said, referring to the prime minister's country estate outside London. (Photo by Pippa FOWLES / 10 Downing Street / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / 10 DOWNING STREET / PIPPA FOWLES" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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As Boris Johnson plans a return to power from the well-ordered gardens of Chequers, he will be surveying a world that has entirely changed since he became a victim of coronavirus.  

He will know that his four-week absence from government has included Britain stumbling over decisions in tackling the pandemic that is dangerously damaging its economy.

The country’s parlous state has led to Mr Johnson making an early return, possibly as early as Monday, apparently a fortnight earlier than originally planned.

After a phone call with the prime minister, President Donald Trump on Thursday endorsed his quick recovery saying: “I was actually surprised, he was ready to go. It's like the old Boris, tremendous energy, tremendous drive.” He added: “They're lucky to have him over there.”

President Trump's tribute will resonate with many for whom the country has been rudderless for some weeks. Britain has not had an easy time as Covid-19 deaths rose to what is now viewed as the peak. “We are seen as the pariahs of the world, not as much as China, but in that we moved far too slowly,” one commentator said.

The criticism, albeit with hindsight, is that the UK lagged far behind other European countries in implementing a full lockdown.

A month ago, it was beyond imagination that the prime minister would be sitting in the sunshine of his official country residence convalescing as one of 130,000 people who had developed Covid-19.

Contemplating the week spent in intensive care where he listened to the gentle hum of ventilators keeping alive those gasping for air and seeing those who did not make it covered up and wheeled away. He was prime minister. This wasn’t meant to happen.

Mr Johnson’s absence has left a significant power vacuum at the heart of the British government.

“Boris can’t come back soon enough,” a government source said. That wish may well be granted, with the prime minister reportedly set to return to work next week.

To date there have been 18,738 deaths in Britain. That number is set to grow, potentially giving Britain the highest number of fatalities in Europe.

At the outset of the pandemic in Europe, coronavirus was viewed by some as a uniquely Italian problem after the country suffered mass infection rates. Italy had an elderly population, a people who loved hugging and kissing and a nation of large families.

Then other European powers began lockdowns. Eventually it became apparent that the virus knew nothing of borders. On March 23, a full lockdown was declared in Britain.

Parents of nurse Jenny McGee on her experience looking after Boris Johnson

Parents of nurse Jenny McGee on her experience looking after Boris Johnson

No matter that Mr Johnson missed five crisis meetings, he now had his hand firmly on the tiller and would guide Britain through the troubled waters ahead. In an address to the nation he garnered great credibility and a record audience of 27 million.

“The way ahead is hard, and many lives will sadly be lost,” he said, four days before he was diagnosed with the virus. It was an engaging performance, warning of dire dangers and great hardship, echoing his hero Winston Churchill.  

The Dunkirk spirit was further invoked when the cry went out to manufacturers, big and small, to make desperately needed ventilators.

When it became apparent that very high standards were required, the idea was quietly dropped. But it was not forgotten, leading the government into a back-and-forth dispute with the newspapers. 

The Financial Times ran a troubling story on the muddled, Panglossian thinking over ventilators.

Downing Street was furious. It issued a long and strongly worded rebuttal that was Trumpian in its non-denial denial.

The Sunday Times came in for the same treatment when it wrote a brutal expose on the failings of leadership. It reported that in February, ministers were warned that Britain faced a catastrophic loss of life unless drastic action was taken.

"It's very clear that the No10 operation wants to lump the FT, BBC and Times into the same category as Twitter and government websites," said one veteran journalist. "Pedlars of fake news."

The rebuttal to the Times's story was an extraordinary 2,100-word statement. The FT’s was 2,900 words.

The extraordinarily defensive response also exposed a painful truth: with the prime minister convalescing, there was a gaping leadership vacuum at the heart of government.

Contrast this with other European countries. Italy, Spain and France have handled appalling situations competently and in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has surged in popularity by giving her people honest and credible explanations, no matter how hard the outcome.

“Unlike back here, she’s seen as an adult,” said one British commentator. Mrs Merkel's leadership, combined with Germany’s contingency planning and meticulous contact tracing, has saved its people and economy great pain.

Earlier this week Mr Johnson managed a brief phone call with US President Donald Trump, saying he was “on the road to recovery”. He could well be back in Downing Street by next week.

His return will coincide with some crucial decisions. Foremost will be when to bring Britain out of lockdown. It is a question that has divided government. The hawks want a swift easing of restrictions to resuscitate a drowning economy. The doves fear an early return would risk a sudden rise in infections that could overwhelm the NHS and cause even greater economic damage.

Medical planners cite next November as a crucial month. “So far it’s been a phoney war,” said a senior NHS manager. “This virus has not seen a proper winter yet. If we get this wrong November could see us overwhelmed.”

Westminster insiders believe that Mr Johnson’s experience has changed his outlook, especially on the NHS.

"He will have seen things first hand  people dying – and that's going to have an impact," a source said. "Before, he thought the economy more important but now he will be more cautious about the impact if Covid-19 is unleashed back on the nation."

Britain has been without a leader for a month. That absence proved how vital leadership is in a crisis. Mr Johnson's return will be the moment he is judged on whether he can transform the nation's fortunes.