By Michael Holden and Andy Bruce
LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson was back on his feet in his recovery from COVID-19 on Friday as Britain recorded its deadliest day yet in the coronavirus pandemic, with 980 more deaths taking the country's overall toll to nearly 9,000.
The rise in deaths, which even exceeded the deadliest day reported so far in Italy, the country worst hit by the virus, comes as the government told Britons to obey a lockdown and resist going out in the spring sunshine over Easter.
"However warm the weather, however tempting your local beach or park, we need everyone to stay at home because in hospitals across the country NHS staff are battling day and night to keep desperately sick people breathing," health minister Matt Hancock told a news conference.
One person the National Health Service (NHS) is treating is Prime Minister Johnson, who emerged from three nights of intensive care on Thursday after entering hospital on Sunday as his symptoms of COVID-19 persisted.
The prime minister, 55, who needed oxygen support, was now able to take short walks between periods of rest, as part of the his recovery, which his office said was at an early stage.
"I was told he was waving his thanks to all of the nurses and doctors he saw as he was moved from the intensive care unit back to the ward," his spokesman said. "The hospital said that he was in extremely good spirits last night."
Johnson was the first world leader to be hospitalised with the coronavirus, forcing him to hand control to foreign minister Dominic Raab just as Britain's coronavirus outbreak worsened drastically.
PM "MUST REST"
While Johnson's condition was improving, it was unclear how long he would be incapacitated.
"He must rest up," his father, Stanley Johnson, told BBC radio. "You cannot walk away from this and go straight back to Downing Street and pick up the reins without a period of readjustment."
Hancock said Raab had done an "excellent job" in Johnson's stead. "The good news is that the government in his absence has been functioning very efficiently, very effectively," he said.
In Johnson's absence, ministers' top priority is considering if and when it can end the lockdown which has so far been in place for three weeks.
The four-day Easter break began on Friday with bright sunshine, and authorities warned they were on the lookout for those breaking a ban on social gatherings or venturing out without good reason.
LOCKDOWN MUST STAY
Officials say the measures are vital to curbing the spread of the virus and must remain in place until the number of new hospital admissions and infections has peaked.
"We don't have enough information yet to make any changes to the social distancing arrangements," Hancock said.
The government says it will have a better idea by next week of whether the lockdown was proving successful, with health officials saying the indications were positive.
However, the death rate is still expected to continue to rise for several days. Hancock said the death toll had reached 8,958 people as of 1600 GMT on April 9 - the fifth highest in the world.
One senior minister was under pressure on Friday himself for not adhering to the lockdown after newspapers said he travelled to a second home outside London and visited his parents.
"For clarity - my parents asked me to deliver some essentials - including medicines," housing minister Robert Jenrick tweeted in his defence, adding that he had left London to return to his family home.
"We are confident that he complied with the social distancing rules," Johnson's spokesman said.
The government has also faced criticism over its response to the outbreak, from a lack of testing for the virus, to failing to provide enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline healthcare staff.
Hancock said new testing centres had been opened to allow all frontline staff to be tested, while a "Herculean" effort was underway to ensure they received PPE.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by David Goodman, Frances Kerry and Hugh Lawson)