The wholesale lifting of the lockdown is a “wholly unreasonable” expectation, England’s chief medical officer has said, as ministers work to calculate a balance between restrictions and freedoms.
Professor Chris Whitty said a trade-off must ensure any easing of the measures does not allow the disease to spread exponentially and overwhelm the NHS as a “minimum ask”.
His remarks at the Downing Street press conference on Wednesday came after Health Secretary Matt Hancock said large scale contact tracing of cases was a way of easing restrictions.
With the UK believed to have reached the peak of the crisis, the Government is trying to work out how measures can be eased to boost the economy and improve lives under strain by the lockdown.
Prof Whitty explained that any alterations must ensure the R value, or the average number of cases spread by an infected person, stays below one otherwise the NHS will be quickly overwhelmed by a rapid spread.
“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,” he said.
“We are going to have to do a lot of things for really quite a long period of time, the question is what is the best package and this is what we’re trying to work it.
“If you release more on one area you have to keep on board more of another area so there’s a proper trade-off and this is what ministers are having to consider.”
Prof Whitty said social distancing measures will have to stay until either a vaccine or highly effective drugs that prevent deaths are deployed on a large scale.
“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,” he added.
Ministers have a range of options available. For instance, they could allow a return to school, permit certain industries to resume, or allow limited social gatherings.
But if the combination introduced allows infections to spiral then a second lockdown would need to be enforced, prompting further economic harm.
Mr Hancock earlier told MPs that the country had “reached the peak” of the Covid-19 outbreak.
“We are ramping up our testing capacity and our capacity for contact tracing in a matter of weeks,” he told the House of Commons.
Tracking down cases would allow new infections to be identified so individuals and anyone they have been in close contact with could go into isolation so they do not spread the virus further.
But Mr Hancock has weathered criticism that the UK is a long way off its 100,000-a-day target for testing by the end of the month.
The latest Government figures showed 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.