Boris Johnson hopes for return to normal by Christmas - despite Whitty warning of 'difficult' period until spring

‘We are aiming for that, we are driving for that,’ prime minister says - but chief medical officer urges caution

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 09 September 2020 21:36 BST
Boris Johnson hopes for return to normal by Christmas

Boris Johnson has claimed life can still be “back to normal by Christmas” in some ways, even as he confirmed a new crackdown on socialising amid rising infections.

“We are aiming for that, we are driving for that,” the prime minister told a press conference – referring to hopes of a return to theatres, for example.

The comment risked further confusion as – just minutes earlier – Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, had warned the “difficult period” would last until the spring.

Mr Johnson also floated the idea of rapid and widespread tests, to enable people to enter venues, while admitting to problems of “technology”, “resources” and “logistical challenges”.

The divide with his chief medical officer appeared clear, as Mr Whitty said of the current testing problems: “Constraints are not magically going to disappear.”

Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, echoed that caution, warning: "We would be wrong to assume this was a slam dunk.”

As the press conference was being staged, it was revealed that the number of new Covid-19 infections had risen again – to 2,659 over a 24-hour period – but with only 8 further deaths over the last 28 days. 

The prime minister repeatedly urged people to follow the new “rule of 6”, the new limit of six people at almost all gatherings, indoors or outside, anywhere in England.

Infection rates among young people aged 20-29 in the UK have increased to more than 41 per 100,000 and were “going up much more rapidly” over the past few days, Mr Whitty said.

Boris Johnson: 'You must not meet socially in groups more than six'

From an average of 12.5 cases per 100,000 in the UK just a week ago, infection rates have shot up to 54.5 among the 19-21 age group – and 48 for 17 and 18-year-olds.

Overall, the UK infection rate is running at 19.7 per 100,000, on the brink of the threshold of 20 above which countries are considered for quarantine restrictions.

Professor Whitty said: “The period between now and spring is going to be difficult because this is a respiratory virus.

“I think, in terms of the existing restrictions, people should see this as the next block of time that may not last for many months, but it is very unlikely to be over in just two or three weeks.”

He added: “People shouldn't just see this as a very short term thing, they should see it over the next period. But I think putting an exact time on it is, I think, very difficult.”

But, asked if Christmas was now “cancelled”, a more upbeat Mr Johnson said: “I'm still hopeful, as I've said before, that in many ways we could be able to get some aspects of our lives back to normal by Christmas.”

He again raised hopes of “a kind of passport, a freedom to mingle with everybody else who is similarly not infectious” – even though that project of mass testing is officially dubbed ‘Operation Moonshot’.

”We are aiming for that. We are driving for that. As I have said...we cannot be 100 per cent sure that we can deliver that in its entirety.” 

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