Coronavirus: Social restrictions 'to remain for rest of year'

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A man with a mask on in a pharmacyImage source, PA Media

The UK will have to live with some disruptive social measures for at least the rest of the year, the government's chief medical adviser has said.

Prof Chris Whitty said it was "wholly unrealistic" to expect life would suddenly return to normal soon.

He said "in the long run" the ideal way out would be via a "highly effective vaccine" or drugs to treat the disease.

But he warned that the chance of having those within the next calendar year was "incredibly small".

"This disease is not going to be eradicated, it is not going to disappear," he said, at the government's daily coronavirus briefing.

"So we have to accept that we are working with a disease that we are going to be with globally... for the foreseeable future."

The latest figures show a further 759 people have died with the virus in UK hospitals, bringing the total number of deaths to 18,100.

Prof Whitty said the public should not expect the number of coronavirus-related deaths to "fall away" suddenly after the peak.

"In the long run, the exit from this is going to be one of two things, ideally," he said.

"A vaccine, and there are a variety of ways they can be deployed... 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."

Prof Whitty warned there were multiple different ways in which the coronavirus epidemic would result in deaths or ill health.

Media caption,

Prof Chris Whitty on easing restrictions: "It's going to take a long time"

As well as those dying from Covid-19, he said others may die indirectly because the NHS has had to be "reoriented towards Covid", leading to fewer elective procedures and screening.

He also said if the interventions in place "extend deprivation among people" that would increase the risk to their long-term health.

"So what we have to do is think very seriously about this: what is the best balance of measures that gives us the best public health outcome?"

He said there was a "proper trade-off" which ministers would have to consider.

The government's chief medical adviser and other experts have often said the only secure long term route out of the coronavirus epidemic is the discovery of either a vaccine or effective drugs.

So Prof Whitty's latest comments are not a total surprise, however they throw cold water on any idea that lockdown restrictions will be fully lifted in the summer or even the autumn.

A vaccine and drugs are unlikely to materialise until next year and until then some form of social distancing will be required, according to Prof Whitty.

But that certainly doesn't mean all the current restrictions remain in place until then.

Schools, some businesses and public transport might well be reopened in the not too distant future. Pubs and restaurants, under this scenario, will probably be nearer the bottom of the list.

Prof Whitty of course is an adviser and it's up to the politicians to decide. They will have to weigh up the impact on the economy and society but also, as they often say, be guided by the science.

Also speaking at the briefing, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said easing social distancing measures too soon would risk a second spike of coronavirus cases.

He said this could trigger a second lockdown that would "prolong the economic pain" across the country.

Mr Raab, who is deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, acknowledged the mental, physical and economic strain social distancing measures were having on people throughout the UK, but said they "must remain in place for the time being".

Gen Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the defence staff, also joined Wednesday's press conference and described the military response to coronavirus as the "single greatest logistical feat" of his 40 years of service.

Gen Carter said the military has worked in support of healthcare workers on the front line, and has been involved with planning and testing - along with helping the Foreign Office with repatriation efforts.

He added that the military was also preparing mobile pop-up testing centres in a bid to roll-out more Covid-19 testing.

Earlier, the government insisted it would meet its target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April - an increase of 82,000 on Monday's levels.

Sir Keir Starmer, who was making his debut in Prime Minister's Questions as Labour leader, said the UK had been "very slow and way behind other European countries" on testing.

He asked how it was possible to go from 18,000 tests a day to 100,000 in just eight days.

Mr Raab said the UK currently had testing capacity of 40,000 a day and, with new laboratories coming on stream, the government would reach its target.

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