The UK is “beginning to turn the tide” in the fight against the coronavirus but this is not the time to relax the nationwide lockdown, Boris Johnson has said.
Speaking in Downing Street as he returned to lead the government’s fight against COVID-19, the prime minister said easing off would be to “throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak” of the coronavirus.
He added: “I ask you to contain your impatience, because I believe we are coming now to the end of the first phase of this conflict and in spite of all the suffering we have so nearly succeeded.
“If you can keep going in the way you have, if you can help protect the NHS, then I have no doubt we will together beat this.”
Mr Johnson said the UK was “passing through the peak” and, comparing COVID-19 to a mugger, continued: “This is the moment when we have begun, together, to wrestle it to the floor.”
But the PM said now was the moment of maximum risk because of the possibility that people would see Britain’s “apparent success” and “go easy” on social distancing measures.
Mr Johnson said easing off could lead to a “second spike” in the outbreak, which would mean a “new wave of death and disease” and an “economic disaster”.
More than 20,000 people have died with COVID-19 in hospitals, but the true death toll is much higher as this total does not include deaths in care homes and the community.
The PM described the virus as the “biggest single challenge this country has faced since the war” and added that “every day I know that this virus brings new sadness and mourning to households across the land”.
He hailed the government’s handling of the crisis, claiming the UK had “defied so many predictions”.
“We did not run out of ventilators or ICU beds,” Mr Johnson said.
“We did not allow our NHS to collapse, and on the contrary we have so far collectively shielded our NHS so that our incredible doctors and nurses and healthcare staff have been able to shield all of us from an outbreak that would have been far worse and we collectively flattened the peak.”
But there has been criticism of the government’s response to COVID-19, with the PM accused of ordering a nationwide lockdown too late and being too slow to act in the early stages of the outbreak.
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In addition, there has been anger and criticism over a lack of personal protective equipment for frontline staff and disquiet over attempts to increase testing for the disease.
Number 10 has insisted the UK remains on track to carry out 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month, despite time running out to meet the much-publicised target.
Responding to Mr Johnson’s Downing Street address, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: “The NHS has done tremendously but the govt didn’t lockdown early enough, didn’t provide the PPE & didn’t test & trace.
“This cost us lives as we have one of the worst death rates worldwide. It’s vital our government doesn’t make anymore mistakes & is transparent with the public.”
The PM spent a week in hospital with persistent symptoms of the virus, including a number of days in intensive care, earlier this month.
Mr Johnson has previously said there is “no question” that the NHS saved his life and admitted that at one stage “things could have gone either way”.
After being discharged from St Thomas’ Hospital in London on Easter Sunday, the PM spent two weeks recovering at Chequers, his country retreat.
On his first day back the PM chaired the daily COVID-19 “war cabinet” of senior ministers.
He was also expected to hold one-to-one talks with cabinet colleagues on the progress of their departments in his absence.
The lockdown will dominate Mr Johnson’s in-tray, with demands growing in some quarters for it to be relaxed.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has been calling for an “exit strategy” from Number 10, while it has been claimed that business leaders are “clamouring” to know when the restrictions will be eased as fears grow about the longer term outlook for the economy.
While Mr Johnson made clear that now was not the time to relax the lockdown, he spoke briefly about how the government would approach doing so in the future.
The restrictions designed to halt the spread of the virus have been in place for more than a month, with the next review of the measures due to be held by 7 May.
The PM said the second phase of the UK’s response would see the government “begin gradually to refine the economic and social restrictions and one-by-one to fire up the engines of this vast UK economy”.
He added that this would involve “difficult judgements”, saying: “We simply cannot spell out now how fast or slow or even when those changes will be made, though clearly the government will be saying much more about this in the coming days.”
Mr Johnson said such decisions would be taken with the “maximum possible transparency”, telling Britons: “I want to share all our working and our thinking, my thinking, with you, the British people.”
The PM added that he would try to strike a consensus about how to ease the lockdown in the days and weeks to come, by “reaching out to build the biggest possible consensus across business, across industry, across all parts of our United Kingdom, across party lines, bringing in opposition parties as far as we possibly can”.
He added: “I think that’s no less than what the British people would expect.”