Senior cabinet ministers are facing questions about who is making the big decisions in government while Boris Johnson battles coronavirus in intensive care.
After England’s chief medical officer suggested mistakes had been made in the UK’s approach to testing, a strategy for increasing the number of COVID-19 tests is a key issue confronting the cabinet in the prime minister’s absence.
But the biggest dilemma for ministers is how and when to end the coronavirus lockdown.
Dominic Raab, the PM’s stand-in, has refused to confirm whether a decision on easing restrictions would be taken on Easter Monday – and he suggested it could be delayed.
There are now claims of a power vacuum at the heart of government after Downing Street revealed there are strict limitations on Mr Raab’s powers while he is deputising for Mr Johnson in key meetings.
There are also doubts in Whitehall about whether critical decisions on the lockdown can be taken without Mr Johnson’s input.
Mr Raab, who is first secretary of state as well as foreign secretary, has struggled to answer questions on whether he has the authority to change course.
Some MPs are calling for a caretaker prime minister to be appointed – and Lord Heseltine, who was deputy prime minister under John Major, has called for greater clarity on the powers handed to Mr Raab.
“There must come a time when a deputy is effectively prime minister,” Lord Heseltine told The Daily Telegraph. “I don’t think we’ve probably quite got to that now.
“But the present urgency of the situation and the potential decisions that may need to be taken does mean that Dominic Raab will have to use his discretion and know when to act.”
When Mr Johnson announced the lockdown in his TV address on 23 March, he said it would be reviewed after three weeks.
But at the latest Downing Street news conference, Mr Raab said: “We’re not at that stage yet.”
After two nights in intensive care battling the virus, Mr Johnson’s condition is stable and he is in good spirits, according to Number 10. He is receiving oxygen but is not on a ventilator and does not have pneumonia.
Calling the PM “a colleague and a friend”, Mr Raab said: “I’m confident he’ll pull through because if there’s one thing I know about this prime minister, he’s a fighter and he’ll be back at the helm leading us through this crisis in short order.”
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But it was plain from the PM’s most recent video appearance, last Friday, that he was struggling to throw off the virus – and he was admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital in London on Sunday evening.
Mr Johnson has now spent a third night in hospital – and since a large part of the 55-year-old’s stay has been spent in intensive care, Mr Raab’s claim that Mr Johnson will soon be back leading the government’s fight against coronavirus looks optimistic.
Prompting alarm among Tory MPs, medical experts are claiming Mr Johnson may be off work for at least a month, and his recovery from the shock of a spell in intensive care may last until the summer.
Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia, told the Daily Mail: “If you have been sick enough to go on intensive care and you survive – and only about half of patients survive – clearly you will need some time to recover.
“I would expect most people who were that ill, to need at least a month or possibly two to be sufficiently back and to be able to function.”
Professor Mike Grocott, a consultant in critical care medicine at the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust and vice president of the Royal College of Anaesthetists, said: “On average a person who spends a while in intensive care on oxygen therapy alone, but basically immobile, would have a decrease in physical function for a period of time, that was likely to extend into weeks.
“A period of inactivity will have an effect on physical function, typically characterised by a loss in muscle mass and strength. It depends on how bad the duration and magnitude of illness was and it also depends on the quality and amount of time invested in rehabilitation.”