Boris Johnson has arrived back at Number 10 as he prepares to resume charge of Britain’s war on coronavirus on Monday.
The Prime Minister was whisked through the rear entrance of Downing Street in a dark Volkswagen minibus at around 6.30 this evening.
Pictures show him greeting a security guard at the gate before heading inside one of the network of interconnected buildings flanked by his personal protection.
After recuperating from his own coronavirus battle at Chequers with pregnant fiancée Carrie Symonds, Johnson has told colleagues he is ‘raring to go’.
Downing Street tonight confirmed that the PM will chair Monday morning’s daily 9.15 Covid-19 meeting of Whitehall’s top officials.
His return relieves Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab of command after almost three weeks deputising for the stricken premier.
But the PM comes back to Westminster facing restlessness on both Tory and Labour benches for the government to publish a lockdown exit strategy.
Johnson, 55, was discharged from St Thomas’ Hospital in London two weeks ago after spending five nights inside including three in intensive care.
He made a brief stop-off at Number 10 to record a message to the nation – where he thanked NHS staff for saving his life – before heading to his grace-and-favour country home in Buckinghamshire.
There, he has steadily been increasing his workload by making calls with ministers, looking through his papers and hosting Zoom video conferences.
But his return to Downing Street, much earlier than some experts had predicted given the life-threatening severity of his illness, puts his hand firmly back on the tiller as the cabinet faces tough decisions over whether to ease the lockdown.
In Johnson’s absence, ministers have displayed a united front in refusing to be drawn on releasing a blueprint to get Britain moving again.
Yet the government is under pressure from rebellious Tory backbenchers and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to sketch out a loosening of restrictions.
Raab, whose role as first secretary saw him fill in for Johnson, this morning scolded these ‘irresponsible’ demands.
Johnson was initially understood to be eager to relax the curbs when possible, but following his own struggle with the virus has reportedly shifted to a more cautious approach.
He will take back the reins days after Britain’s deaths passed the grim 20,000 milestone, now standing at 20,732 after a further 413 fatalities were reported today.
The number of cases also rose by 4,463 to 152,840 following 29,058 tests, a figure the re-energised PM will be keen to ramp up to hit the government’s 100,000 target by the end of April.
A source told the Mail on Sunday last night: ‘Boris is tightening his grip. You are going to see much greater clarity, energy and purpose now.’
It comes after splits opened up in the Government over how to map a path out of the lockdown, and criticism of Ministers for failing to introduce widespread testing and source adequate supplies of protective equipment for health workers.
During the three-hour Chequers summit, which included Cabinet Ministers such as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill and aides including chief adviser Dominic Cummings and No 10 Director of Communications Lee Cain, Johnson was given a detailed briefing on the policy work being carried out on Covid-19.
Sunak presented an economic blueprint based on the ‘best practice’ that has been shown to work in countries such as Switzerland, Denmark and Germany.
It is understood the Chancellor briefed Johnson on a four-point plan to reopen non-essential shops, change working patterns and then open schools – as well as making ‘hygienic measures’ a permanent fixture in Britain’s workplaces.
Sunak highlighted plans in Austria where shops over 400 sq m (4,300 sq ft) and hardware stores and garden centres have already reopened, while in Germany hairdressers are open as long as staff and clients wear protective clothing.
And he championed the Czech Republic’s five-stage plan to lift all domestic restrictions by June 8, with particular focus on the country’s plans to start by opening farmers’ markets and car dealerships.
Reports last week said Johnson’s serious illness had turned him from a ‘hawk’ who supported an early exit from the lockdown into a ‘dove’ who regarded the protection of the NHS as the overwhelming priority.
But that interpretation is disputed by one Minister, a close ally of the Prime Minister, who said: ‘I don’t think that is right. He is going to start showing some leg on leaving lockdown.’