The worst of the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK looks to be over, prime minister Boris Johnson announced today as he returned to work following his own recovery from the virus.
Addressing the nation from outside No 10 this morning, Mr Johnson said measures taken to protect the NHS from being overburdened had so far succeeded.
“Every day I know that this virus brings new sadness and mourning to households across the land”
However, he stressed that it was too early to relax restrictions due to the risk of the emergence of a second spike.
“Once again I want to thank you, the people of this country, for the sheer grit and guts that you have shown and are continuing to show,” said Mr Johnson, whose speech came after the number of deaths in UK hospitals from Covid-19 passed 20,000 for the first time over the weekend.
“Every day I know that this virus brings new sadness and mourning to households across the land.
“And it is still true that this is the biggest single challenge that his country has faced since the war and I in no way minimise the continuing problems we face.
“And it is also true that we are making progress with fewer hospital admissions, fewer Covid patients in ICU, and real signs now that we are passing through the peak.”
The nation was “on the brink of achieving that first clear mission, to prevent our National Health Service from being overwhelmed in a way that tragically we have seen elsewhere”, added Mr Johnson.
Despite the positive steps forward, Mr Johnson said strict social distancing measures must remain in place, warning that now was the time of “maximum risk”.
While recognising the impact the lockdown was having on the economy, Mr Johnson said there was a chance of cancelling out the gains that had been made by easing restrictions too early.
He said it was crucial to prevent a “second spike” and not allow the reproduction rate of Covid-19 – the number of cases that are likely to emerge from one person having the virus – to go back above one.
“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,” said Mr Johnson.
“We defied so many predictions – we did not run out of ventilators or ICU beds”
He added: “I refuse to throw away all the effort and sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life and the overwhelming of the NHS.
“I ask you to contain your patience because I believe we are coming to the end of the first phase of this conflict and in spite of all the suffering we have so nearly succeeded.”
The lockdown measures would only be eased once the UK was meeting the five tests the government had previously set out, said Mr Johnson.
These are confidence the NHS can cope with demand, a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate, rates of infections dropping to manageable levels, enough testing capacity and personal protective equipment, and the risk of a second peak eliminated.
Mr Johnson added: “We defied so many predictions – we did not run out of ventilators or ICU beds, 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, 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.”
In order to drastically increase critical care capacity for Covid-19, NHS England has had to cut non-urgent operations and procedures, repurpose around 30,000 of its 100,000 general acute beds, redeploy staff, and water down nurse staffing ratios.
Seven temporary Nightingale hospitals have also either been created or are in the process of being set up across the country to take in patients with Covid-19 if intensive care units in established hospitals become full, with similar units planned for the other UK countries.
Earlier this month, Mr Johnson spent around a week in St Thomas’ hospital in London including some time in intensive care after falling seriously ill with Covid-19.
After being released, the prime minister released a video message on 12 April thanking the NHS for saving his life, giving special mention to ITU nurses Luis Pitarma and Jenny McGee.
First secretary Dominic Rabb acted as a stand-in prime minister while Mr Johnson was off sick.
Latest figures from the Department of Health and Social Care show 152,840 people have tested positive for Covid-19. Of those who were admitted to hospital, 20,732 have died.