Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued new public advice on the coronavirus on Sunday ahead of his announcement on how to ease a nationwide lockdown, but warned he would proceed cautiously as the death toll in Britain, already the highest in Europe, continues to mount.
In a televised address to the nation at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT), Johnson is expected to extend most of the stay-at-home orders imposed in late March, although garden centres are set to reopen.
But in a sign of a gradual shift towards getting the country moving again, he tweeted new public advice for people to “stay alert”, to replace the current slogan to “stay home, save lives”.
It urges people to stay at home “as much as possible” and limit contact with others, a more lenient message than previous rules to only go outside where necessary and to meet nobody outside your household.
Johnson, who himself spent a week in hospital with coronavirus last month, has made clear he will proceed with “maximum caution” in easing the lockdown.
He is looking at a plan to contain infection rates in the longer term, with ministers considering imposing a 14-day quarantine on anyone coming into the country from abroad.
An alert system is also being developed to monitor the outbreak, which will inform when and how lockdown measures might be lifted — or tightened — at a national and local level.
Johnson has been criticised for failing to take the outbreak seriously enough at the start, still shaking hands in early March and delaying the imposition of a lockdown.
Britain has now recorded more than 31,500 deaths among people who have tested positive for COVID-19 — the second highest figure in the world after the United States.
There are growing demands from his own MPs to lift the lockdown as it wreaks economic havoc — the Bank of England this week predicted a 14-percent slump in British GDP this year.
But in an interview with the Sun on Sunday newspaper, Johnson warned that now was “the most dangerous bit”.
“We’re past the peak now but we’ll have to work even harder to get every step right,” he said.
“Mountaineers always say that coming down from the peak is the most dangerous bit. That’s when you’re liable to be over-confident and make mistakes.
“You have very few options on the climb up, but it’s on the descent you have to make sure you don’t run too fast, lose control and stumble.”
The government has had to lower expectations about Johnson’s address, after newspaper reports earlier this week suggested the lockdown would be eased.
Public adherence to the rules has so far been good, but crowds flocked to parks this weekend to take advantage of the hot weather.
There is some concern that the government’s message to “stay alert” might sow confusion, with Scotland’s first minister among the critics.
“Given the critical point we are at in tackling the virus, #StayHomeSaveLives remains my clear message to Scotland at this stage,” Nicola Sturgeon tweeted.
Johnson’s announcement will only concern England, as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have already announced they are maintaining stay-at-home measures.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said the new “stay alert” message was about people taking “personal responsibility” by maintaining social distancing and washing their hands.
“We should be staying at home as much as possible but when we do go to work and go back to our business we need to remain vigilant,” he told Sky News television.
He revealed details of the new alert system, led by a new centre for biosecurity, which will assess the risk of coronavirus at one of five levels and monitor the impact of any changes.
Britain is also trialling a new phone app to identify localised outbreaks, and in recent weeks has increased its capacity to test for coronavirus to around 100,000 a day.