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Boris Johnson has used his first public appearance since recovering from Covid-19 to warn that lifting the coronavirus lockdown too soon would risk “a new wave of death and disease”.
Speaking in Downing Street on Monday morning hours after his return to work, the prime minister said the UK was “beginning to turn the tide” against the virus.
But he said this was “the moment of maximum risk” and not the time “to go easy” on social distancing as it would “throw away all the effort and sacrifice of the British people” and risk a second peak.
Drawing on his own battle with Covid-19, which put him in intensive care, he said: “If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger – which I can tell you from personal experience, it is – then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.
“And so it follows that this is the moment of opportunity, this is the moment when we can press home our advantage. It is also the moment of maximum risk.
“I know there will be many people looking at our apparent success, and beginning to wonder whether now is the time to go easy on those social distancing measures.”
He said he understood “how hard and stressful it has been to give up, even temporarily, those ancient and basic freedoms”, before adding that a second spike in cases risked “economic disaster”.
The PM said “difficult judgements” lay ahead as the government considered when to ease the lockdown, and that he would invite opposition parties – including Keir Starmer’s Labour – for talks.
He said: “We will also be 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.
“I think that’s no less than what the British people would expect.”
He also urged people to continue sticking to the rules on social distancing, adding: “If you can keep going in the way that you have kept going so far; if you can help protect our NHS to save lives; if we as a country can show the same spirit of optimism and energy shown by Captain Tom Moore who turns 100 this week; if we can show the same spirit of unity and determination as we have all shown in past six weeks, I have absolutely no doubt that we will beat it.
“Together we will come through this all the faster and the United Kingdom will emerge stronger than ever before.”
Johnson resumed full-time duties at the head of the government today, three weeks after he was admitted to hospital with severe Covid-19 symptoms.
He arrived back in No.10 on Sunday evening to a growing clamour from senior Tories to begin lifting the lockdown as its economic impact becomes clear.
Sir Graham Brady, chair of the Conservative backbench 1922 committee of MPs, told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour last night the government should “err on the side of openness and trying to make sure that more people can get on with their lives”.
Labour leader Starmer, who backs the lockdown, added to the pressure with a renewed call for the government to set out an “exit strategy” explaining how it will eventually be lifted.
Scientists advising the government have warned any relaxation risks a renewed flare up just as the number of patients in hospital with the disease is beginning to fall.
Over the weekend, ministers highlighted a warning by Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey about the economic devastation a second wave of the disease would cause.
Johnson has less than a fortnight before the next major decision point comes up, with a three-week review of the lockdown restrictions due on May 7.