Boris Johnson has told the country to contain its “impatience” over the coronavirus lockdown as he returned to Downing Street with a rallying cry following his own battle with the disease.
Addressing the public in his first statement from No.10 after a bout of the disease saw him admitted to intensive care, the prime minister said Britain was now “on the brink” of protecting the NHS from being overwhelmed by the pandemic.
But, in a clear message to businesses and Conservative MPs concerned about the economic toll of Britain’s continued shutdown, Johnson said a second outbreak of the virus could risk not just “a new wave of death and disease, but also an economic disaster”.
“I know how hard and how stressful it has been to give up even temporarily those ancient and basic freedoms, not seeing friends, not seeing loved ones, working from home, managing the kids, worrying about your job and your firm,” he said.
“So let me say directly also to British business: to the shopkeepers, to the entrepreneurs, to the hospitality sector, to everyone on whom our economy depends. I understand your impatience, I share your anxiety.
“And I know that without our private sector, without the drive and commitment of the wealth creators of this country there will be no economy to speak of. There will be no cash to pay for our public service. No way of funding our NHS.
“And yes, I can see the long-term consequences of lockdown as clearly as anyone. And so, yes, I entirely share your urgency. It’s the government’s urgency. “
But he added: “And yet, we must also recognise the risk of a second spike. The risk of losing control of that virus and letting the reproduction rate [the rate at which those with the virus infect others] go back over 1.
“Because that would mean not only a new wave of death and disease. But also an economic disaster, and we would be forced once again to slam on the brakes across the whole country and the whole economy, and reimpose restrictions in such a way as to do more and lasting damage.”
The government has been under mounting pressure in recent days to spell out more detail on how Britain might begin to ease its lockdown, which has been in force for over a month as the death toll from the virus passed 20,000 and forecasters produced dire warnings about the health of the UK economy.
A growing chorus of Conservative MPs, as well as Labour’s Keir Starmer, have demanded more detail from ministers over the exit strategy,
But the prime minister said that while he was determined to “get this economy moving” as fast as possible, he would not “throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life and the overwhelming of the NHS”.
He told the country: “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. We defied so many predictions, we did not run out of ventilators or ICU beds, we did not allow our NHS to collapse.”
Batting away calls to give specifics on the path out of lockdown, Johnson said Britain had not yet reached the moment to “move on to the second phase” of its fight against the disease – a phase he said would see the country “continue to suppress” coronavirus while also moving “gradually, to refine the economic and social restrictions and one-by-one to fire up the engines of this vast UK economy”.
“In that process, difficult judgements will be made," he said.
“And 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.
“And I want to serve notice now that these decisions will be taken with the maximum possible transparency. And I want to share all our working and our thinking, my thinking, with you the British people.”
The PM said he would also draft in business groups and opposition parties “as far as we possibly can” in plotting the path out of lockdown, while continue to rely on scientific input.