Boris Johnson said the UK is at the point of “maximum risk” in its battle with coronavirus, as he acknowledged frustrations over the continuing lockdown but insisted he would not risk a second peak in the disease by relaxing restrictions too quickly.
The Prime Minister, who returned to take charge of the Government’s response to the crisis on Monday following his recovery from Covid-19, said there are signs that the UK is “passing through the peak” of the outbreak and “coming now to the end of the first phase of this conflict”, but underlined the importance of maintaining social distancing measures.
More than 20,000 people have already died with the disease in hospitals, with the true death toll including care homes and other settings likely to be far higher.
He said: “I want to get this economy moving as fast as I can” but “I refuse to throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life.”
The Prime Minister indicated the lifting of the lockdown, which is expected to be reviewed on May 7, would be a gradual process and promised the “maximum possible transparency” with efforts to seek consensus across party lines.
He said: “When we are sure that this first phase is over and that we are meeting our five tests – deaths falling, NHS protected, rate of infection down, really sorting out the challenges of testing and PPE, avoiding a second peak – then that will be the time to move on to the second phase in which we continue to suppress the disease and keep the reproduction rate – the R rate – down, but begin gradually to refine the economic and social restrictions and one by one to fire up the engines of this vast UK economy.
“And in that process difficult judgments will be made 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.”
Sport has been on hold in Britain since the middle of last month, with racing suspended following the behind-closed-doors meetings at Wetherby and Taunton on March 17.
The British Horseracing Authority is formulating plans for a phased resumption of racing on the Flat when the Government gives its approval. Fixtures will be behind closed doors, with fields limited to a maximum of 12 runners.
Laura Farris, Conservative MP for Newbury, outlined those points to Nigel Huddleston, Minister for Sport, during DCMS parliamentary questions and asked what commitment he could give to support such solutions.
He said: “All major sports need to look after their staff, competitors, stakeholders and fans, and that includes having an eye to when competition might resume.
“At this stage it is not possible to give a timescale when current restrictions will be relaxed, potential conditions in which sport might be return include behind closed doors, at neutral venues and with limited staff and broadcast crew.
“Other considerations would include first responder capacity and the availability of regular testing.
“We are in regular contact with the sector on what might be possible in future, but this will be entirely dependent on public health guidelines.”
While the BHA has announced some of the measures it is considering, trainer Mark Johnston thinks racing’s rulers should “state our intentions” to Government as to a possible timetable for a racing resumption.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The BHA has done a huge amount of work since the suspension of racing for a resumption behind closed doors, looking at all the risks involved and planning to cover all Government guidelines and all eventualities.
“I think they’re very close to, or probably at the point, where they can state the intention to return to racing behind closed doors in as risk averse manner as possible under the circumstances.
“I think they should be telling the Government when it is the intention to resume, based on some trigger like the lifting of lockdown – that seems the most obvious next stage in things.
“This is not to suggest to Government that we are a special case or that we can ignore Government’s position, but frankly the Government has far more to do than write our plans for us, so I believe our industry must look after itself, it must make a robust plan for the resumption and state our intentions.
“That gives Government an opportunity to, at the most extreme case veto it, which we hope they wouldn’t do, but to question any areas of the plan that concern them.”