Boris Johnson has said he believes the UK will be “well past” coronavirus by the middle of next year, but warned of “tough times” ahead.
The Prime Minister’s comments come a week after he spoke of his hopes that there could be a “significant return to normality” in time for Christmas – a vision that leading scientists warned would be difficult to deliver.
Mr Johnson also said he would not make a “prediction” about when social distancing measures would end, saying that it would “depend on our continued ability to drive down the virus”.
But last week, in response to a question from the public, the PM said it “may conceivably be possible” to depart from social distancing measures, such as the one-metre rule, “by November at the earliest”.
In a media interview on Friday, Mr Johnson was asked who or what has been his biggest enemy as Prime Minister, and he said: “This whole planet has faced a very nasty new foe in the form of a bug that we didn’t know about before.”
He added: “I think that by the middle of next year we will be well on the way, we will be well on the way past it.
“But … I must be clear with people, I do still think that we have tough times ahead in keeping this virus under control.
“We have tough times ahead in coming through economically, but I have absolutely no doubt that we are going to, and this country is going to bounce back stronger than ever before.”
Speaking about how long measures will have to remain in place, the Prime Minister said: “The use of face masks, the use of all the social distancing measures really does depend on our ability collectively to get the pandemic right down and to keep it down.
“I’m not going to make a prediction about when these various social distancing measures will come off.
“Obviously we have been able to reduce some of them. We no longer ask people to stay at home, we’re trying to get back much closer to normal, but our ability to dispense with the social distancing measures will depend on our continued ability to drive down the virus.”
Mr Johnson was asked about whether he thinks it is a good idea for the public to be “shaming” people who are not wearing face coverings in places where they should be worn.
He replied: “I think we should rely on the massive common sense of the British people that have so far delivered the results that we’ve seen, and that’s going to work.”
Mr Johnson said people understand the value of face masks in confined places.
At a No 10 press conference last week, Mr Johnson said it was his “strong and sincere hope” that ministers would be able to review the remaining restrictions from November onwards, “possibly in time for Christmas”.
The chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, has warned that measures such as hand-washing, isolation and household quarantine would be needed for a “prolonged period”.
Giving evidence to the Lords Science and Technology Committee last week, he said: “It has not gone away. So, all of those need to continue for a long period of time.”
The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance – who had previously warned against easing the work-from-home guidance – told the committee that the winter would be a “very complex time”, with people suffering from other illnesses aside from Covid-19.