British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will on Sunday set out the next stage of his plan to tackle coronavirus, but with the highest toll in Europe and deaths still rising, few changes are expected to a nationwide lockdown.
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 will reopen.
Media reports say he will change the government’s advice to the public from “stay home” to “stay alert”, to begin the process of urging people to go back to work.
But the focus is likely to be on a plan to contain infection rates in the longer term, with ministers considering imposing a 14-day quarantine on anyone coming in 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.
Read More: UK to set up coronavirus alert system
Johnson, who himself spent a week in the hospital with coronavirus last month, has made clear he will proceed with “maximum caution”.
He 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.”
– Stay home? –
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 England’s new messaging 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.