Boris Johnson is unlikely to be formally back at work for another week at the very least.
But appearing on video in a suit and tie, less than two hours after leaving St Thomas’ hospital, the impression given by the prime minister is that he is keen to get back to overseeing the country’s coronavirus response as soon as possible.
After spending a week on a ward, including three days in intensive care, Johnson headed straight to his country retreat at Chequers, where he will be joined by his pregnant fiancee, Carrie Symonds.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, is notionally still in charge of the government’s coronavirus response, having been tasked with deputising for the prime minister at the point he entered intensive care.
However, sources with knowledge of No 10 said it was very unlikely that major decisions about reviewing and lengthening the lockdown would now be taken without at least some input from the prime minister.
The sense of a power vacuum in No 10 and faltering communications strategy since his admission to hospital had been very apparent to Tory MPs and more widely.
But Johnson’s video message thanking the NHS for “having saved my life, no question” and optimism the UK was “making progress in this incredible national battle against coronavirus” was intended to inject some optimism after a week in which the government has come under increasing pressure.
The prime minister made no mention of the criticism that has dogged the government in recent weeks over its failure to get personal protective equipment to all NHS and care staff who need it, the problems with increasing testing and the UK’s daily mortality rate having exceeded the deadliest days in Italy and Spain.
But Tory MPs are privately hopeful that the prime minister’s first steps on the road to recovery will help sharpen the government’s grip on the challenges it faces in the coming weeks. The next big decision to be taken by the government, which is due by this Thursday, is how long to formally extend the current lockdown for before its next review.
In the longer term, Johnson is very likely to be back in the driving seat for decisions on the different options for easing the lockdown, from letting certain sectors return to business, to reopening schools, bringing in a rolling programme of restrictions on certain days or allowing younger age groups to return to society.
Concerns will, however, remain about Johnson returning to the helm too quickly. Following his admission to hospital, colleagues expressed concern Johnson had still been receiving his red box of government papers at his hospital bed and urged him to rest.
No 10 has insisted it has been transparent throughout Johnson’s illness but several reports have confirmed the Guardian’s account last week that the prime minister was more ill than officials were letting on in the days before his admission to hospital.
The Guardian was also told on Sunday that doctors initially told Johnson this weekend that he should stay in hospital until Tuesday before agreeing to let him recuperate at Chequers. No 10 said the prime minister had followed medical advice at all times.
Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds said on Twitter she “cannot thank our magnificent NHS enough”, adding: “The staff at St Thomas’ hospital have been incredible. I will never, ever be able to repay you and I will never stop thanking you.”
She added: “There were times last week that were very dark indeed. My heart goes out to all those in similar situations, worried sick about their loved ones. Thank you also to everyone who sent such kind messages of support. Today I’m feeling incredibly lucky.”