Britain is “past the peak” of the coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson announced, as he pledged to publish a “road map” out of lockdown next week.
The prime minister struck an optimistic tone as he said infections and deaths from Covid-19 in the UK were now “on the downward slope”.
“We’ve come under what could have been a vast peak”, the prime minister said. “As though we’ve been going through some huge alpine tunnel and we can now see the sunlight and pasture ahead of us.”
The comments came as it was announced the cumulative number of Covid-19 deaths in the UK had hit 26,771, which is thought to be the highest mortality rate in Europe.
Heading his first Downing Street briefing since falling ill, Mr Johnson praised Britons for having avoided an “uncontrollable and catastrophic” epidemic in which there could have been “500,000 deaths”.
The prime minister said a “huge amount of work” was now going into an “exit strategy”, with the first draft to be published next week.
While it will offer a “road map, a menu of options” for how restrictions could be eased in future, Mr Johnson cautioned that it would not give any timings, as they would depend on the science.
Keeping the R down is going to be absolutely vital to our recovery and we can only do it by our collective discipline and working together.”
He said: “We will have to beat this disease by our growing resolve and ingenuity, so I will be setting out a comprehensive plan next week to explain how we can get our economy moving; how we can get our children back to school; how we can travel to work and how we can make life in the workplace safer.
“In short, how we can continue to suppress the disease and at the same time re-start the economy.”
He insisted that to avoid the “disaster” of a second peak the UK must meet five tests before the lockdown can be lifted.
“Keeping the R down is going to be absolutely vital to our recovery and we can only do it by our collective discipline and working together.
“I know we can do it because we did it, we have shown we can do it in phase one.”
The reproduction rate number is a way of rating a disease’s ability to spread and is the average number of people that one infected person will pass the virus on to.
Scientific adviser Patrick Vallance told the briefing that he believed the R was currently between 0.6 and 0.9 across the country.
“But what I can tell you is that everyone responsible for tackling these problems, whether in government or the NHS or Public Health England or in local authorities, we’re throwing everything at it, heart and soul, night and day, to get it right – and we will get it right and we’re making huge progress.”
Mr Johnson suggested, like First Minister Nicola Sturgeon did earlier this week, that the use of face coverings will form part of a package of measures to safely ease the lockdown and keep the R number down.
He said: “What I think Sage is saying, and what I certainly agree with, is that as part of coming out of the lockdown, I do think that face coverings will be useful both for epidemiological reasons but also for giving people confidence they can go back to work.
“But you’ll be hearing more about that thing next week.”
Mr Johnson went on to say that he was “not going to pretend” the government had not made any mistakes in the handling of the crisis.
“We’re determined urgently and in particular to overcome those challenges that have in the last few weeks been so knotty and so infuriating,” the PM said.
“I’m not going to minimise the logistical problems we face in getting the right protective gear to the right people at the right time, both in the NHS and in care homes. Or the frustrations that we’ve experienced in expanding the numbers of tests.
“But what I can tell you is that everyone responsible for tackling these problems, whether in government or the NHS or Public Health England or in local authorities, we’re throwing everything at it, heart and soul, night and day, to get it right – and we will get it right and we’re making huge progress.
“And I will not underrate the work and achievement of those who are dealing with global shortages in a global pandemic – they are rising to a challenge we’ve never seen in our lifetimes.”
Mr Johnson – whose fiancee Carrie Symonds gave birth to their son on Wednesday – started the briefing by giving a heartfelt thanks to the NHS, saying he had been “very, very lucky”.
“I want to thank everybody who has been doing such a good job in my absence, and I want to thank the NHS for so much – including getting me back here and, I might add, a very much happier hospital visit yesterday,’ he said.
Sir Keir Starmer said the prime minister’s commitment to outline an exit strategy next week was a “step in the right direction”.
The Labour leader said: “I’ve been calling on the prime minister to have a plan for the next stage and exit strategy. We’ve been pushing hard on that in the last week or two.
“The prime minister has now said he’s going to have a plan next week. So I think that shows that we were right to challenge on it, and I’m pleased that we’re going to see a plan. We’ll look at it when we see it, but it’s a step in the right direction.”