If we keep doing the right things, there is a way through

I want to thank each and every one of you for the sacrifices you are making to help combat the spread of COVID-19.

Because of what you are doing – staying at home except for essential reasons such as shopping or medical purposes, not meeting up with people outside your own household, and keeping 2 metres away from others when you are out  – we are starting to see some positive signs in the suppression of the virus.

That progress could be very easily reversed though. So we need to stick with these lockdown measures for a period yet. Indeed, there’s no guarantee that any of them can be lifted at the end of this current three week period.

And when it is safe to start to ease up, it will not be a ‘flick of a switch’ moment. Great care and caution will be needed and some restrictions will need to stay in place for a long time yet.

This difficult and uncertain process of considering how we can restore a semblance of normality to our lives, whilst also containing the virus is one I want to be open with you about every step of the way.

This process has started with the publication of a paper – ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19): framework for decision making’ – which outlines the factors we will need to weigh up before we can lift any of the current restrictions.

What is clear is that we will not be returning to normality as we once knew it anytime soon – we will need to find a new normal.

The paper sets out the objectives and principles that will guide us, the factors we will need to take into account, the framework in which we will take decisions, and the preparations we need to make now.

We face an extremely complex situation with many uncertainties. We will – as we have done all along – inform those decisions with the best scientific advice possible, but the science will never be exact, so we will also require to make very careful judgments.

Our central objective must continue to be suppressing COVID-19 and minimising its damage in health terms but, if possible, with a better balance – because we know the lockdown measures are also doing wider damage.

They’re doing harm to the economy and to living standards, to children’s education, to other aspects of our physical health, mental health and wellbeing. And the toll of all of that may also, in time, be measured in poorer health outcomes and lives lost.

So we must try to find a better balance than what we have now.

The key consideration is the virus reproduction rate – the R number.

Before lockdown that R number was very likely above three, which means everyone with the virus was infecting three more people and so on.  Our best estimate now is that the R number is between 0.6 and 1 – though it is probably higher in certain settings, such as care homes.

We need to get it as far below one as possible before we can restrictions – however the data is not exact, so we need more time to monitor the statistics to be sure the virus is under control.

When we do reach that stage, it’s important to remember the virus will not have gone away.

So as we start to lift restrictions, the serious risk is that COVID-19 runs rampant again. It’s why we have to maintain a balance between a new normal and the boundaries we have come to know.

This means some form of social distancing and limiting contact with others will be a fact of life for a long time to come – possibly for the rest of this year and maybe even beyond, until treatments and a vaccine offer different solutions.

Our steps forward will need to be careful, gradual and probably quite small to start with.

I appreciate how hard this is to contemplate. Like most of you, I would love to flip a switch and go back to how things were just a few months ago. But it is just not possible and indeed, it would be dangerous.

As we take decisions, we will continue to judge the best scientific advice, work closely with other governments across the UK, and learn from international experience.

And we will consider not just the health imperatives, but also issues of practicality, sustainability, fairness and equity, ethics and human rights.

The progress we have made so far has been achieved together. The path ahead is not an easy one but I believe that together we will be able to navigate it.

So this discussion is one I am opening up to all of you.

I suspect most of you won’t make a habit of reading government documents, but I would urge you to read this one.

As the situation develops, I will continue to share our thinking and the evidence with you.

And I am confident that if we keep doing the right things, and if we consider all of the options carefully, there will be a way through.

And we will get there together.