The prime minister has hailed the “courage, discipline and patience of the nation” one year after he first announced a lockdown to combat coronavirus.
Speaking at a Downing Street COVID-19 news conference, Boris Johnson said the country has endured an “epic of endurance and privation” over the last 12 months, acknowledging: “We suffered so many losses.”
Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show a total of 149,117 people have had coronavirus recorded on their death certificate since the pandemic began.
The PM said the nation had at times been “fighting in the dark” against a “callous” enemy, but science had helped us “to turn the lights on and to gain the upper hand” with the development of numerous effective vaccines.
Mr Johnson added that after a year that has seen three lockdowns and restrictions affecting numerous elements of everyday life, the UK was “cautiously but irreversibly, step by step, jab by jab” on the way to “reclaiming our freedoms”.
In answer to a question from Sky News’ Beth Rigby about what the legacy of the pandemic will be, Mr Johnson said the focus must be on education and “remediating the damage, plugging the gaps”.
He said that the “future of the country depends on us now repaying that generation” of schoolchildren and students.
And the PM, who himself contracted the virus and spent time in intensive care, acknowledged: “I certainly think that this is something that we will all remember and be dealing with in different ways for probably – certainly in my case – for as long as I live.”
He promised that “at the right moment” a permanent memorial to those who have died will be built and the “whole period” will be remembered.
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said there would be “bumps and twists on the road” ahead, but a new surge would be met with a “wall of vaccinated people”.
Leading the 145th Number 10 briefing of the pandemic, Mr Johnson inevitably faced questions about what the government could – and critics would contend should – have done differently.
“In retrospect there are probably many things that we wish that we’d known and many things that we wish we’d done differently at the time, in retrospect, because we were fighting a novel disease under very different circumstances than any previous government had imagined,” the PM said.
He said the “biggest false assumption” was over the scale of asymptomatic transmission of COVID.
And Mr Johnson defended the government against accusations it was too slow in introducing the lockdowns, saying: “We took all the decisions with the interest of the British people foremost in our hearts and in an effort to protect the public and prevent death and suffering.”
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said greater testing capacity in the early days of the pandemic would have made a “big difference”.
Prof Whitty said: “It wasn’t until people started getting into hospital and dying we had a really better fix on how fast things were moving.”
The PM’s comments come after people across the UK observed a minute’s silence to remember the victims of the coronavirus pandemic.
At 8pm people are being encouraged to stand on doorsteps with phones, candles and torches to signify a “beacon of remembrance”.
The London Eye, Tate Britain, Blackpool Tower, the Scottish Parliament, Belfast City Hall and other landmarks will be lit in yellow evening to mark the occasion.
Having introduced a third national shutdown in January, Mr Johnson began easing restrictions earlier this month with the full reopening of primary and secondary schools.
But he repeated his warning about the potential effects of a third coronavirus wave in Europe, saying the UK has to be “very wary”.
And the PM also revealed he hopes to be able to say more about the potential for foreign travel from the UK by 5 April.
Asked about the potential for an EU blockade on the export of COVID vaccines, Mr Johnson replied: “All I can say is we in this country don’t believe in blockades of any kind, of vaccines or vaccine material, (it’s) not something this country would dream of engaging in and I’m encouraged by some of the things I’ve heard from the continent in the same sense.”