LONDON — Boris Johnson, perhaps the world’s most famous coronavirus patient, was back at work Monday — after spending the worst of Britain’s epidemic sidelined, first in self-isolation, then struggling to breathe in the hospital, and later in recovery in the countryside.
Johnson’s weeks of illness and recovery rattled and then bolstered the country. The hashtag #Borisisback was trending on Twitter.
The prime minister appeared outside 10 Downing Street on Monday morning and told the country that now is the moment for maximum effort to confront maximum risk. He urged Britons not to lose patience after six weeks of lockdown, but to carry on just a little bit longer.
“This is the biggest single challenge this country has faced since the war, and I no way minimize the continuing problems we face,” said Johnson, standing at a lectern in a blue suit and red tie, with his yellow mop of hair as artfully askew as ever.
But Johnson has been absent for most of the six weeks of strict lockdown that his government ordered. While he was sick and struggling to get well, more than 20,000 Britons died.
Although aides and colleagues stressed that Johnson was “in good spirits” during his illness, the prime minister has conceded he could have been one of the dead.
Upon his release from the hospital, Johnson said it “could have gone either way” while he was in intensive care. His aides say he was given “oxygen therapy” but never put on a mechanical ventilator.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who served as leader of the country for the last three weeks, said Sunday that his thoughts had always been for Johnson and his family, “particularly when we knew it was touch and go.”
The prime minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, told broadcasters, that his son “almost took one for the team.”
In his brief speech on Monday, Johnson thanked the ministers who stood in while he was away, as well as the people for their “sheer grit and guts.”
Johnson began, “I am sorry I have been away from my desk for much longer than I would have liked.”
Monday was the first time Britons have seen their prime minister in public since March 26, when he appeared on the steps of 10 Downing Street to applaud National Health Service workers.
In that last public appearance, three days after he ordered a national lockdown, he was already sick and suffering from a persistent cough and high temperature. The next day, his official spokesman revealed that Johnson had tested positive for the coronavirus.
For 10 days, as Johnson isolated himself in the prime minister’s residence at 11 Downing Street, his aides insisted he was continuing to lead the country’s response to the virus via telephone call and videoconference. During this time, Johnson broadcast several short videos, in which he looked drained, pale and unwell.
He was getting his meals left on a tray at the door to the apartment — and his pregnant fiancee was also self-isolating, as were Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Johnson’s top political adviser, Dominic Cummings, who both were stricken.
When Johnson went into the hospital on April 5, there had been 555 coronavirus deaths in hospitals in England and Wales, and fewer than 100 in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
By the time Johnson returned to his leadership role on Monday, more than 21,000 people had died of the virus — meaning he was out of commission for more than 97 percent of the deaths.
While many countries around the world begin to ease strict stay-at-home measures and business closings, as infections, hospital admissions and deaths appear to be declining in many places, Johnson signaled that Britain would not move quickly away from its version of the lockdown.
“I know it’s tough, and I want to get this economy moving as fast as I can, but I refuse to throw away the efforts and sacrifice of the British people. . . . I ask you to contain your impatience,” Johnson said.
On Monday, Johnson said little about his own isolation, his illness, his nights in the intensive care unit or his weeks of recovery, except to compare the coronavirus to a mugger.
“If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger — which I can tell you from personal experience, it is — then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor,” he said.
“And so it follows that this is the moment of opportunity. This is the moment when we can press home our advantage. It is also the moment of maximum risk,” said Johnson. He added that he knows “how hard and stressful it has been to give up, even temporarily, those ancient and basic freedoms.”
While Britons, even those who disliked Johnson, cheered for the prime minister’s recovery, his critics and the press have been asking tough questions about why Britain delayed its lockdown, and how since then it has struggled to deploy adequate testing and to provide protective equipment for front-line health workers. At the same time, mortality in nursing homes has soared.
While Johnson was recovering, a Sunday Times article, headlined “38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster,” criticized his administration for being slow to act.
The article said that even before Johnson became sick, he had missed five of the government’s emergency “COBRA” crisis meetings on the novel coronavirus.
In January, the article said, Johnson was focused on Brexit. In February, he was distracted by his personal life. In mid-February, Johnson agreed to a divorce settlement with Marina Wheeler, with whom he has four children. At the end of the month, Johnson and his 32-year-old partner, Carrie Symonds, announced their engagement and said they are expecting a baby in early summer.
In mid-February, Johnson was criticized for going on a “working holiday” with Symonds to Chevening, a grace-and-favor mansion, instead of attending to the threat of the coronavirus or visiting flood-hit communities in Yorkshire and Wales.
“WhereIsBoris” trended on social media in the United Kingdom. Jeremy Corbyn, who was then leader of the opposition Labour Party, labeled Johnson a “part-time” prime minister.
While Johnson has been sidelined by illness, British businesses and workers have been flogged. Economists estimate that the coronavirus lockdown might be sapping almost $3 billion a day out of the British economy.
There is mounting pressure to begin to reopen the country after its lockdown.
On Monday, Johnson said, “I refuse to throw away all the effort and sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life and the overwhelming of the NHS.”
A second spike would, he said, be an economic “disaster.”
“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.”