Social distancing may be in place for the year, chief medical officer warns

Published by Scott Challinor on April 23rd 2020, 8:45am

The UK chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty has indicated that social distancing measures may have to be in place for at least the rest of the year in order to prevent a second peak of coronavirus.

He said that the UK will have to live with the virus “for the foreseeable future” and that it was “unrealistic” to expect daily life to return to normal quickly.

Speaking at Wednesday’s daily coronavirus briefing, he 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."

Prof Whitty also indicated that ministers will have to decide on an “optimal combination” of social distancing regulations to curb the spread of Covid-19 until a working vaccine has been developed.

He explained that the virus’ force of transmission could not go above one person, meaning that one sufferer infects one other individual, for any “extended period” of time.

Prof Whitty said: “What we are trying to work out is what are the things that add up to an R of less than one.

“That narrows our options quite significantly. 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. 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.”

The next review of the UK lockdown measures is due on May 7, and Prof Whitty said that the long-term “exit” from it would come through either a vaccine or “highly effective” anti-viral drugs.

He added: “Until we have those – and the probability of having those any time in the next calendar year are incredibly small – we should be realistic 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.”

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab, once again deputising for the prime minister at the briefing, said that the government had to be sure that a “second spike” will be avoided before any lockdown measures can be lifted.

Raab explained that a second spike in the number of cases would almost certainly trigger another lockdown and “prolong economic pain”.

Meanwhile, health secretary Matt Hancock has revealed plans for contact tracing to come into effect in May, which will be a vital part of the UK government’s exit strategy.

Hancock said: “We are ramping up our testing capacity and our capacity for contact tracing in a matter of weeks, and we’ll have it ready to make sure that we can use that as and when the incidence of transmission comes down.

“The effectiveness of test, track and trace to keep the reproductive rate of this virus down is determined by the incidence in the community and our goal is to get to a point where we can test, track and trace everybody who needs it.”

Prof Whitty added that the government’s scientific advisers would put forward “all the various things that are possible” to help ministers decide on the “right combination” of measures going forward.

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Scott Challinor
Business Editor
April 23rd 2020, 8:45am

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