Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday made his first public appearance since being hospitalised with coronavirus three weeks ago, saying Britain was beginning to “turn the tide” on the outbreak but rejecting calls to ease a nationwide lockdown.

In a statement in Downing Street marking his return to work, looking thinner and with his trademark blond hair a little more unruly than usual, Johnson apologised for being away “for much longer than I would have liked”.

He thanked the British people for heeding more than a month of stay-at-home orders, saying their action had helped ensure the state-run National Health Service (NHS) had not become overwhelmed.

“That is how and why we are now beginning to turn the tide,” Johnson said, echoing his promise on March 19 that Britain could turn the tide on the outbreak in three months if people followed social distancing rules.

But more than 20,000 people have already died in Britain, not including deaths in care homes and in the wider community, making it one of the worst hit countries in the global pandemic.

And while Johnson acknowledged growing demands for the lockdown to be lifted to reduce the economic impact, he insisted that now was not the time.

“I refuse to throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak, a huge loss of life and the overwhelming of the NHS,” he said.

– ‘Refining’ lockdown measures –

Johnson, 55, became the most high-profile world leader to contract COVID-19 one month ago.

He spent a week in hospital, including three nights in intensive care, admitting in a video message after he was discharged that things “could have gone either way”.

After a fortnight recovering at his countryside retreat of Chequers, he returned to Downing Street on Sunday night.

On Monday morning he chaired the daily government coronavirus meeting, “and will now be resuming full duties”, his spokesman said.