The end is not in sight. With an estimated 20,000 new infections a day, and with experts warning that the reproduction rate of coronavirus may be rising again, any premature loosening of the lockdown will only prolong the crisis. When the prime minister speaks on Sunday evening, it is essential that he makes it clear that people should still be staying at home, not relaxing their guard.

Though so many other countries had been hit, the government did not act soon enough to either contain the threat or prepare for it. Those failures have made a longer and tougher lockdown necessary. It was slow to take the pandemic seriously, slow to impose stringent social distancing, and slow to pursue equipment, testing and tracing, as the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, noted this week.

At the same time, it has been far too hasty in its promises, and Boris Johnson is under pressure from his party’s right for a hasty relaxation. Following his own experience with the virus, Mr Johnson is reportedly very cautious. Only weeks ago, the chief medical officer warned that highly disruptive social distancing measures would be needed until at least the end of the year.

Yet heading towards a warm bank holiday weekend, the promise that the prime minister would lay out a plan for England’s gradual exit from lockdown, and his remark that he wanted to “get going with some of these measures” on Monday, led to excitable headlines promising that freedom beckoned.

A swift revision of the message saw ministers speaking instead of modest changes for the next three weeks – of the kind already outlined for Wales – and only a tentative roadmap for after that, but damage may already have been done. A prime minister whose rhetoric so often invokes the second world war should remember that careless talk costs lives. There are signs that more people are out and about. On social media, the government switched from the clear injunction “stay home” to the nebulous “stay safe”. The “four nations” approach was strained as Nicola Sturgeon said she wouldn’t be pressured into loosening measures.

Though lockdown is undoubtedly more comfortable for some than others, no one relishes uncertainty about the future or being cut off from friends and family. For many people, the impact is profound. Households are going hungry. Disadvantaged children will fall further behind academically. Domestic abuse is increasing. The Bank of England has predicted that the economy could shrink by 14% this year, in its sharpest contraction for three centuries.

Public caution is not a sign that Britain has become “addicted” to the furlough scheme, but simply that people are rightly aware of the risks to themselves and those they love. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned this week, a world with no lockdown and a rapidly spreading pandemic does not make for a healthy economy; and nor does one in which containment measures are reintroduced repeatedly because they were eased too quickly and in ill-judged ways.

A successful exit will require a much sharper drop in infections, and better preparation, than we have so far seen. Immense issues remain with testing. Tracing is not feasible while the incidence of infections is so high, and the government could yet ditch its own contact-tracing app in favour of the “decentralised” model favoured by Apple and Google. Health and social care workers must be adequately protected. Though the right would like to see Mr Johnson offer a timeline for key measures, this should be resisted. A broad outline of plans is sensible. But any dates attached, however carefully caveated, will inevitably be seen as promises; the political pressure not to deviate from them will be intense.

What is needed is sober decision-making, with an open discussion about the scientific evidence, and proper scrutiny. Choosing to lay out his plan in a televised briefing, rather than to parliament, is another sign of Mr Johnson’s disdain for the institution and reluctance to be held accountable. This cannot continue. The government made a disastrous start to this crisis. Close attention is required to ensure its exit plan is not similarly flawed.