Even as COVID-19 returned in a “second wave” this month, Boris Johnson was adamant he didn’t want a second national lockdown.
Only six days ago, the prime minister was telling MPs another lockdown “would be completely wrong for this country”.
However, the virus is continuing to spread rapidly, and even in the short timeframe since those comments, the situation is even more urgent.
A further 4,926 lab-confirmed cases were confirmed on Tuesday, a figure comparable to the daily infection rates recorded during the peak of the first wave in April.
Watch: All you need to know from Boris Johnson’s coronavirus statement to MPs
And buried in Johnson’s speech to MPs on Tuesday – in which the PM announced a raft of new measures to try and restrict the spread of the virus – was a first hint that the nation could be heading towards a second lockdown.
He started by stating: “This is by no means a return to the full lockdown of March. We’re not issuing a general instruction to stay at home.
“We will ensure that schools, colleges and universities stay open, because nothing is more important than the education, health and wellbeing of our young people.”
But the key admission came after the new measures – including encouraging office staff to work from home, pubs closing at 10pm and wedding attendance being cut from 30 to 15 – were announced.
Johnson warned “significantly greater restrictions” will be imposed if the COVID reproduction “R” rate does not fall below 1.
R represents the average number of people each COVID-19 positive person goes on to infect. When the figure is above 1, an outbreak can grow exponentially. The current UK estimate is between 1.1 and 1.4.
Here is what Johnson said:
“I must emphasise that if all our actions fail to bring the R below one, then we reserve the right to deploy greater firepower, with significantly greater restrictions.
"I fervently want to avoid taking this step, as do the devolved administrations, but we will only be able to avoid it if our new measures work and our behaviour changes.”
Johnson’s stance was made more awkward when his Scottish counterpart, Nicola Sturgeon, announced just two hours after his House of Commons speech that different households would be banned from visiting each other across Scotland.
The rule went further than any of the measures Johnson had announced for England on Tuesday, although millions in areas of the north are subject to a ban on households mixing.
Johnson has regularly expressed his unease at imposing restrictions, while the PM has previously faced a revolt from his own Tory MPs over the “rule of six” law which bans most social gatherings of more than six people in England.
Backbenchers have warned Johnson not to go too far, with one, Steve Baker, saying: “It is time for us to actually start living like a free people, not subjecting ourselves to constantly shifting legal requirements, which I think now no-one can fully understand.”
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The latest developments came a day after Johnson’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, made a pointed call for “speed and action” after a dire warning that infections are doubling every seven days.
Sir Patrick said that if this continues unabated, the UK could see 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October.
Last week, it had been reported tougher lockdown measures could be reimposed if the rule of six law has not reduced the number of COVID-19 infections by the end of the month.
ITV reported Downing Street insiders as saying all social distancing measures apart from school closures will be considered.