Britain’s government sought Wednesday to keep a grip on the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as Prime Minister Boris Johnson started a third day in the intensive care unit of a London hospital being treated for COVID-19.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab chaired a meeting of the government’s COVID-19 crisis committee while the number of virus-related deaths reported in the U.K. approached the levels seen in the worst-hit European nations, Italy and Spain.
The country’s confirmed death toll reached 6,159 as of Tuesday, an increase of 786 from 24 hours earlier. That was the biggest daily leap to date, although the deaths reported Tuesday occurred over several days.
The virus has hit people from all walks of life — including Johnson, the first world leader known to have been diagnosed with COVID-19. The 55-year-old prime minister was admitted to St. Thomas’ Hospital late Sunday with a fever and cough that persisted 10 days after he tested positive for the virus.
He was moved to the ICU on Monday night after his condition deteriorated. U.K. Health Minister Edward Argar said Wednesday that Johnson is receiving oxygen but still did not require a ventilator, suggesting the prime minister’s condition had not worsened further.
Johnson’s illness has unleashed a wave of sympathy for the prime minister, including from his political opponents. It has also heightened public unease about the government’s response to the outbreak, which faced criticism even with the energetic Johnson at the helm.
[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]
Britain was slower than many other European nations to close schools, shut businesses and restrict people’s movements in a bid to curb infections, and the government has struggled to meet its goal of dramatically the number of individuals tested for the virus.
READ MORE: Coronavirus — Britain’s Boris Johnson in stable condition, remains in ICU
Britain has no official post of deputy or acting prime minister, but Johnson has asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to temporarily take over many of the prime minister’s duties to lead the country’s response to the pandemic.
But Raab’s authority is limited. He can’t fire Cabinet ministers or senior officials, and he won’t hold the prime minister’s weekly audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
In the British political system, the prime minister’s power lies less in the role’s specific responsibilities — which are relatively few — than in the leader’s political capital and authority as “first among equals” in the Cabinet.