The UK is “past the peak” of its coronavirus outbreak, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday (30), despite recording another 674 deaths in the last 24 hours, taking the toll to 26,711.
The country is now the third-most affected in the world behind the US and Italy on cumulative deaths, after changing its reporting to include community as well as hospital deaths on Wednesday.
But Johnson, making his first appearance at a daily government briefing since his own battle with Covid-19, said there were reasons for optimism.
“For the first time, we are past the peak of this disease… and we are on the downward slope,” he told reporters.
“We are coming through the peak or rather we are coming over what could have been a vast peak, as though we have been going through some huge Alpine tunnel.
“And we can now see the sunlight and the pastures ahead of us. So it’s vital that we don’t now lose control and run slap into a second and even bigger mountain.”
The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said the rate of transmission was now below one, with fewer hospital admissions and people in intensive care.
That was having an effect on overall deaths, he said.
“The R (rate of transmission) is below 1. We think it’s between 0.6 and 0.9 across the nation. Maybe a little lower in some places, a little higher in others but it’s below 1 across the country,” he added, referring to the number of people infected by one person with Covid-19.
Johnson promised to set out next week a “menu of options” on how the lockdown could be relaxed, but said the exact dates of any change would be driven by scientific advice and data.
With rising unemployment and many companies crippled, the government has been under pressure to outline an exit strategy.
The government is also facing questions over its likely failure to meet the target Health Secretary Matt Hancock set of carrying out 100,000 daily tests for the virus by the end of April, with testing seen as key to ending the lockdown.
Johnson, who had returned to work on Monday having recovered from Covid-19, earlier headed a virtual cabinet meeting.
The government has so far refused to discuss when the lockdown will end.
“It’s thanks to that massive collective effort to shield the NHS that we avoided an uncontrollable and catastrophic epidemic, where the reasonable worst case scenario was 500,000 deaths,” said Johnson.
A first review into the lockdown must come before May 7, and scientific advisers have been presenting ministers with options over how it could be eased.
“I will be setting out a comprehensive plan next week to explain how we can get our economy moving… how we get our children back to school, back into childcare… and third, how we can travel to work and how we can make life in the workplace, safer,” Johnson said.
He said a “roadmap” would be published next week about the government’s plan to ease restrictions, after concerns about the economic effect of the social distancing measures.
“The dates and times of each individual measure will be very much driven by where we are in the epidemic,” he added.