This was a news conference that earlier in the week probably wasn’t in the prime minister’s diary.

What was in his diary was a convivial lunch with the Taoiseach Micheal Martin at his Chequers country retreat.

The prime minister has grown fond of Chequers, we’re told, and missed escaping to the peace and quiet of the Chilterns during lockdown.

But the sudden surge in the so-called Indian variant of COVID this week presented an emergency that required a Friday afternoon dash back into London on the M40.

Even so, the prime minister was late back and started more than half an hour late.

But what was coming at this news conference was already obvious from an emergency government statement issued late the previous night.

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Ominously, the final sentence read: “We cannot rule out re-imposing economic and social restrictions at a local or regional level if evidence suggests they are necessary to contain or suppress a variant which escapes the vaccine.”

And so Mr Johnson spelled it out. Monday’s step three of the roadmap out of lockdown – pubs, restaurants etc reopening – goes ahead as planned.

But the government had decided to go ahead with step three “on balance”, Mr Johnson said. On balance?

That suggests there has been a fierce debate in Whitehall and between ministers and medics like Professor Chris Whitty – who was standing alongside the prime minister – about whether to execute an abrupt U-turn.

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Indian variant ‘expected to become dominant’

But to cancel step three now, at the 11th hour, would have provoked a furious backlash from business and – more importantly for the prime minister – from Tory backbenchers.

But we should enjoy the respite while it lasts. Step 4, on 21 June, is now up in the air, we’ve been warned.

The prime minister has put us firmly on notice that it’s in jeopardy because of the threat from the Indian variant.

Grounded, on the other hand, are flights to European holiday destinations, after Mr Johnson ruled out adding more countries to the “green list” of countries we can visit under the traffic light system. A tough border regime will remain in force for the foreseeable future, he added.

Mr Johnson began his news conference by talking about “hard choices”, a term that always means bad news when used by a prime minister.

The good news was that vaccines are being speeded up for over 50s, an eight-week gap instead of 12. That will be warmly welcomed. The prime minister is putting his faith in “jabs, jabs, jabs” to tackle the threat of the Indian variant.

But the prime minister ended by saying: “I have to level with you.” That will have sent a shiver down the spine of many people.

Remember his sombre warning in March last year: “It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

More than a year on from that warning, this was the prime minister’s most downbeat news conference for some months. No wonder he had to make an emergency dash back to Downing Street from Chequers.