Coronavirus: Social distancing could last until end of year unless vaccine found, chief medical officer suggests

‘It is going to take a long time and I think we need to be aware of that,’ says Chris Whitty

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 22 April 2020 18:57 BST
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Social distancing could last for at least another year unless vaccine found, chief medical officer suggests

Social distancing measures could remain in place until the end of the year without a vaccine for coronavirus, England’s chief medical officer has said.

Professor Chris Whitty told the daily Downing Street press conference that some restrictions would need to remain as the probability of having a vaccine or effective drugs to treat the virus within the next calendar year was “incredibly small”.

A sudden easing of restrictions would be a “wholly unreasonable” expectation, Prof Whitty warned, saying the path out of the lockdown must be carefully plotted to prevent the virus from spreading again and overwhelming the NHS.

He also said the public should not expect to see the number of deaths from coronavirus “fall away” suddenly.

His comments came after Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the UK had reached the peak of the coronavirus outbreak and said people with non-Covid-19 related health conditions should feel safe to seek medical care.

In other developments:

  • Mr Hancock said the government could not commit to providing “free masks” for everyone if scientific guidance changes on widespread use
  • Sir Keir Starmer accused ministers of being way behind other countries in responding to the crisis in the first “hybrid” PMQs session
  • Brussels said the UK was still not part of any EU medical equipment purchasing scheme despite claims from health secretary
  • The government admitted deaths in England’s care homes could be double the number that has been reported
  • Human trials for a potential coronavirus vaccine were due to begin on Thursday at Oxford University

As attention in government turns to the lockdown exit strategy, Prof Whitty told the public that some forms of social distancing will need to be in place for a “long time”.

He said: “In the long run, the exit from this is going to be one of two things, ideally. A vaccine, and there are a variety of ways they can be deployed... or, and or, highly effective drugs so that people stop dying of this disease even if they catch it, or which can prevent this disease in vulnerable people.

“Until we have those, and the probability of having those any time in the next calendar year is incredibly small, and I think we should be realistic about that.

“We’re going to have to rely on other social measures, which of course are very socially disruptive as everyone is finding at the moment. But until that point, that is what we will have to do.”

However, Prof Whitty said he was “very hopeful that we will have vaccines which have proof of concept much earlier than a year”.

“But there is a long path between having a vaccine that’s proof of concept, and until we have either a vaccine or a drug ... what we will have available to us are social measures.”

After weeks of lockdown, ministers are trying to find a way to ease restrictions – such as reopening schools or allowing small social gatherings – without triggering a second spike in coronavirus cases.

The average number of cases spread by an infected person – known as the R value – must remain below one otherwise the NHS will be overwhelmed, the government’s scientific advisers believe.

Prof Whitty said the public had to be “very realistic”, adding: “If people are hoping it’s suddenly going to move from where we are in lockdown to where suddenly into everything is gone, that is a wholly unrealistic expectation.”​

Dominic Raab, the first secretary of state, said the UK was “not out of the woods” yet and warned that a second spike would lead to economic pain as well as risks to public health.

Earlier, Mr Hancock said there would be “large scale” contact tracing to keep the spread of the virus under control once the lockdown was lifted.

This would mean widespread public testing and isolation of sick people and all their contacts, in an attempt to control localised outbreaks of coronavirus.

Mr Hancock also confirmed that the outbreak had hit its high point, telling MPs: “We have high confidence that we are at a peak in this disease, but obviously we need to see that come down.”

He said the NHS would resume treating patients with conditions such as cancer soon and urged anyone with symptoms to come forward now.

The Department of Health said 18,100 patients had died in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK, as of 5pm on Tuesday, up by 763 from 17,337 the day before.

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