The UK is going to have to live with some form of disruptive social measures for at least the rest of the year, England’s chief medical officer has said.
Professor Chris Whitty told reporters at the daily Downing Street press briefing that some measures would need to stay in place until there was a vaccine or a drug which reduced the severity of Covid-19.
He did not spell out exactly the type of measures that would be needed but ministers are known to be looking at the need for some element of social distancing to be maintained.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also unveiled plans for contact tracing on a “large scale” as a way of keeping the virus under control once the current lockdown is eased.
Through increased widespread testing of the general population and isolating sick people and all their contacts, the hope is that localised outbreaks of coronavirus can be controlled.
Prof Whitty 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 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 are 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 but it will be the best combination that maximises the outlooks. But it’s going to take a long time and I think we need to be aware of that.”
Prof Whitty said any easing of lockdown measures must keep the transmission of coronavirus from one person to the next – known as the R value – to below one.
He said: “We cannot allow R, the force of transmission, to go above one for any extended period at any point because, if it does, exponential growth of this will continue,” he said.
“It does not take very long from where you get from bad numbers to really bad numbers.
“This disease is not going to be eradicated, it is not going to disappear so we have to accept that we are working with a disease that we are going to be with globally for the foreseeable future.
“We have to be very realistic 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.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is standing in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recovers from Covid-19, told reporters that the lower the transmission rate, the more options for easing the lockdown were on the table.
In the Commons on Tuesday, Mr Hancock said he was confident the country was at the peak of the outbreak but stressed that continued social distancing was currently needed to bring the number of new cases down.
He told MPs, many of whom joined the Commons session remotely: “We are ramping up our testing capacity and our capacity for contact tracing in a matter of weeks.”
He also said a contact tracing app which will alert people if they have been in contact with somebody with the virus and should self-isolate was currently in trials.
“As we have reached the peak, and as we bring the number of new cases down, so we will introduce contact tracing at large scale,” he said.
“The fewer new cases, the more effective test, track and trace are as a way of keeping the disease down, and therefore the more of the social distancing measures can be lifted.”
Mr Hancock has come under fire over his 100,000 a day testing target, which is set for the end of this month,
Latest Government figures show that less than half the testing capacity was used in the 24 hours up to 9am on Tuesday.
Capacity stood at 41,398 but only 18,206 tests were carried out over the period in England, Wales and Scotland.
In other developments on Wednesday:
– Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Mr Raab faced each other in a sparsely attended House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions.
– The Government and Care Quality Commission (CQC) said that deaths in England’s care homes could be double the number that has been reported.
– An RAF plane landed at Brize Norton from Turkey in the early hours of Wednesday, after being sent to collect a shipment of PPE.
– The Government continued to face questions about its participation in EU schemes to secure vital equipment, with Brussels saying there had been “ample opportunity” for the UK to join in.
– 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.
Mr Hancock said the NHS would resume treating patients with a wider range of conditions soon following fears that thousands of people are dying or seeing serious conditions, including cancer, go undetected.
But he urged anyone with symptoms to come forward now, saying the NHS was still open to look after them.