Coronavirus: Chris Whitty says he expects UK to remain at 'significant' levels until the spring of 2021 at least

Relaxations to lockdown announced by prime minister are 'not risk-free'

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 23 June 2020 18:59
Chris Whitty says he expects UK coronavirus to remain at 'significant' levels until the spring of 2021 at least

The public has been urged by Boris Johnson and his chief scientific advisers to proceed with caution despite the reopening of pubs and restaurants in England from 4 July.

Announcing relaxations to lockdown rules in the Commons, the prime minister said “our long national hibernation” was over and agreed with a Tory MP who said people should “do their patriotic best for Britain” by going to pubs as they reopen.

But at the daily Downing Street briefing later, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned that the PM’s package – which will also see hotels open, friends and families allowed to meet in their own homes and the two-metre social distancing rule cut to a minimum of one – was “not risk-free”.

And chief medical officer Chris Whitty predicted that Covid-19 would still be circulating at “significant” levels at least until the spring of 2021.

Both stressed that two metres remains the general rule for social contacts outside of the home, and that people should approach more closely only if they have taken mitigating steps like wearing face coverings, sitting side by side and keeping interactions brief.

Meanwhile, a group of eminent medics – including the presidents of 11 royal colleges and the chair of the British Medical Association – warned that a second wave of coronavirus was a “real risk” and urged the government to conduct a review to ensure the country is prepared to face it.

In a letter to the British Medical Journal, they wrote: “While the future shape of the pandemic in the UK is hard to predict, the available evidence indicates that local flare-ups are increasingly likely and a second wave a real risk. Many elements of the infrastructure needed to contain the virus are beginning to be put in place, but substantial challenges remain.

“The job now is not only to deal urgently with the wide-ranging impacts of the first phase of the pandemic, but to ensure that the country is adequately prepared to contain a second phase.”

Making the much-trailed “unlockdown” announcement in the Commons, Mr Johnson said it was essential for the public to act responsibly and warned he would not hesitate to reimpose restrictions locally or nationally to clamp down on Covid flare-ups.

But he made clear he would rely on “common sense and community spirit” rather than enforcement to ensure that the new rules are observed and “see us through to victory over this disease”.

The prime minister joked about visiting “pubs and hostelries” across the country to mark their reopening and urged them to “use their ingenuity to open up in all the ways that they can” while keeping in line with new guidance.

The new guidelines for England, unveiled as figures showed the official UK death toll rising by 171 to 42,927, will see:

– Pubs, restaurants, hotels, cinemas, hairdressers, museums, galleries and outdoor playgrounds reopen from 4 July, conditional on being made “Covid-secure”.

– Indoor gatherings of two households of any size to take place in homes and hospitality venues, including overnight stays in holiday accommodation.

– Places of worship open to congregations of up to 30, including for weddings, but without singing which risks spreading infection.

– Gyms, swimming pools, tattoo parlours and soft play areas remain closed, with theatres and concert halls allowed only to show screenings of past events but no live performances.

“Yes I want to see people out in the shops,” Mr Johnson told MPs. “It is a fantastic thing to see.

“Yes I want to see people taking advantage of hospitality again, a wonderful thing. Yes I want to see people enjoying friends and family again but they’ve got to do it in a responsible way and observing social distancing.”

Boris Johnson sets out lockdown relaxations in the House of Commons (AFP/Getty)

The announcement by No 10 that the daily 5pm briefings were ending after more than three months appeared to send a clear signal that the height of the crisis was over, with Mr Johnson saying ministers would now appear only when “we have something really important to say”.

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, hinted at further easing to come, tweeting that his “aspiration” was to open gyms by the middle of next month.

But both Mr Whitty and Mr Vallance took a notably cautious tone when they appeared alongside the PM at the last of the daily press conferences, stressing that the decision to ease restrictions was taken by politicians.

Sir Patrick said the government’s approach to easing the lockdown, which was taken in the light of economic as well as scientific and medical advice, was “reasonable”.

But he added: “It is not risk free. It cannot be risk free. Every time you take a step to open up there is some associated risk with that,”

The latest figures showed the epidemic shrinking by 2 to 4 per cent a day, while the crucial R number – showing the average number of people infected by each coronavirus patient – remained below one, said the chief scientific adviser.

But he warned that the numbers were “flattening off” rather than going down to zero, saying: “Don’t be fooled that this means it has gone away. The disease is growing across the world. It is coming down in the UK but it hasn’t gone away.”

Prof Whitty said it was “absolutely critical” that individuals and businesses take new guidelines seriously.

“If people hear a distorted version of what’s being said, that says ‘this is all fine now, it’s gone away’ and start behaving in ways that they normally would have before this virus happened, yes, we will get an uptick for sure,” he warned.

Sir Patrick said it was “extremely unlikely” that Covid would burn out naturally in the UK and said he was only “moderately optimistic” of vaccines and treatments negating the danger it poses in the near term.


And Prof Whitty predicted that the country could have to cope with Covid-19 into 2021.

“I would be surprised and delighted if we weren’t in this current situation through the winter and into next spring,” he said.

“I expect there to be a significant amount of coronavirus circulating at least into that time and I think it is going to be quite optimistic that for science to come fully to the rescue over that kind of timeframe.

“But I have an absolute confidence in the capacity of science to overcome infectious diseases – it has done that repeatedly and it will do that for this virus, whether that is by drugs, vaccines or indeed other things that may come into play.

“For medium to long term, I’m optimistic. But for the short to medium term, until this time next year, certainly I think we should be planning for this for what I consider to be the long haul into 2021.”

Acknowledging the chief medical officer’s concerns, Mr Johnson said: “As for 4 July, I hope it will be a great day but obviously, you know, people have got to make sure they don’t overdo it.

“I know Chris is particularly worried about this – we can’t have great writhing scenes in the beer gardens when the virus could be passed on. This has to be done in a sensible way.”

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