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UK Top News

Face-to-face but not elbow-to-elbow, Britain's cabinet returns

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held his first face-to-face cabinet meeting of top ministers in more than four months on Tuesday, seeking to lead by example as he encourages Britons to return to work and revive the coronavirus-hit economy.

The weekly meeting inside Johnson’s Downing Street office was replaced with video conference calls when the COVID-19 crisis threatened to run out of control.

But in recent weeks Johnson has called on people to return to their workplaces, concerned that the economy, poised for recession, could be crushed over the long term by a lockdown that has kept millions at home for several months.

Supplied with hand sanitizer and individual bottles of water, ministers were asked to attend a socially-distanced meeting, spaced out around a vast rectangle of tables inside a grand chamber in the foreign office.

“Welcome to the Locarno Suite, which is the foreign office’s idea of a modest seminar room,” Johnson joked at the start of the meeting.

The gilded suite, named after the signing of a 1925 diplomatic treaty, is in stark contrast to the regular venue for the meeting inside Downing Street’s Cabinet Room, where attendees sit crowded elbow-to-elbow around a single table.

On Tuesday, microphones were provided to make sure Johnson’s message was not lost to the room’s vaulted ceilings.

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Johnson, his health minister and other top officials caught the virus early in the pandemic.

After weeks of meetings via webcams and screens - some led by the prime minister from a small office where he was isolating with the disease - Johnson said meeting face-to-face was “the right thing to do.”

Johnson has pushed ahead with easing the lockdown, lifting advice from next month to avoid public transport - one of the reasons deterring people from returning to work - while encouraging workers to use alternative means where possible.

“I hope I speak for everyone in this room when I say we will not be blown off course by the coronavirus,” he said.

Reporting by William James and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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