Coronavirus social distancing to last for ‘next calendar year’

Professor Chris Whitty says it is ‘wholly unrealistic’ to expect life to return to normal soon

Chris Whitty
Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, at Downing Street
(Image credit: Alberto Pizzoli/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The government’s chief medical adviser has warned that it is “wholly unrealistic” to expect life to return to normal soon and suggested that social distancing measures to halt the spread of coronavirus could last until the end of the calendar year.

Speaking at yesterday’s Downing Street briefing, Professor Chris Whitty said some preventative measures would need to stay in place until a vaccine or treatment was developed.

“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.

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“Until we have those, and the probability of having those any time in the next calendar year is 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.”

The Guardian said the “stark assessment dampened hopes that the lockdown would be largely removed when it is reviewed in just over a fortnight”, while the BBC’s health editor Hugh Pym said Whitty’s comments “throw cold water on any idea that lockdown restrictions will be fully lifted in the summer or even the autumn”.

Pym adds that it “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,” he says.

Following days of speculation about an imminent loosening of the lockdown, Whitty said: “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.”

At the same briefing, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said easing social distancing measures too soon would risk a fresh spike of coronavirus cases and a second lockdown that would “prolong the economic pain” across the country.

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Cabinet minister “hawks”, such as Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and Trade Secretary Liz Truss, have reportedly argued that it is time to loosen restrictions and raised concerns about the impact of a lengthy shutdown on the economy.

One government adviser told the Guardian: “There’s a general feeling that we have been completely public health-guided but lockdown is not without its public health consequences as well. The increase in domestic abuse and also the established statistics show that whenever there is a recession, people die.”

The latest government figures, as of 9am on Wednesday, show that 133,495 people in the UK have tested positive for the new coronavirus. As of 5pm on 21 April, of those hospitalised in the UK who tested positive for coronavirus, 18,100 have died.

The Times notes that Health Secretary Matt Hancock became the first cabinet minister to explicitly state that the virus had peaked. “However, data published by the government last night featuring international comparisons suggested the peak will continue for a long time,” says the newspaper.

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