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It is “wholly unrealistic” to expect life to return to normal in 2020 as the UK cannot defeat the coronavirus until it has a vaccine or treatment, England’s chief medical officer has suggested.
Chris Whitty said the chances of either a vaccine or effective treatment being available in this “calendar year” were “incredibly small”.
And so the government’s effort must be focused on keeping the infection, or R, rate below one so that each person infected with Covid-19 passes it on to less than one other person on average.
A failure to do this could see the NHS overwhelmed and so there is only a “narrow” range of options available to ministers when considering how to ease the current lockdown, which will be reviewed again on May 7.
These include measures to balance Covid-19 deaths against deaths from other causes because the NHS is focusing on the virus, as well as analysing whether lockdowns can damage people’s mental and physical health, and whether the economic impact can also shorten lives.
Whitty told the daily Downing Street briefing: “This disease is not going to be eradicated, it is not going to disappear.
“We have to accept that we are working with a disease that we are going to be with globally for the foreseeable future.”
He added: “If people are hoping it’s going to suddenly move from where we are now in lockdown suddenly into everything’s gone, that is a wholly unrealistic expectation.
“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.”
Dominic Raab meanwhile refused to say whether some lockdown restrictions could be eased when it is reviewed on May 7, while admitting there was now a “glimmer” of hope as the UK passes the peak of infections.
He suggested there are reasons to be optimistic with daily death rates and new cases slowly falling, and hospitalisations falling in London and flattening in the rest of the country.
“There is certainly light at the end of the tunnel, there is a glimmer, but we are not there yet,” Raab told the Downing Street daily press briefing.
Raab has set five tests before the lockdown can be lifted, including:
The NHS maintaining the capacity to cope with Covid-19 cases
A sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate
Reliable data from SAGE showing the rate of infection is decreasing to “manageable levels across the board”
Supply of tests and personal protective equipment (PPE) meeting demand
No risk of a second peak in the epidemic which overwhelms the NHS.
Whitty said the public should not expect the number of Covid-19 deaths to “fall away” suddenly.
He told the briefing: “It is important for people to fully understand that… even in those countries which started their epidemic curve earlier than in the UK, and which are still ahead, the downward slope from the point which we change is a relatively slow one.
“We should anticipate the same situation in the UK. We should not expect this to be a sudden fall away of cases.”