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Boris Johnson’s decision to ease the coronavirus lockdown is “absolutely not risk free” and strict measures could return in winter, the top scientists advising government have warned.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty said if people believe “this is all fine now” and the disease has “gone away”, then the UK “will get an uptick” in cases.
It came as the PM announced cinemas, galleries, museums and pubs were all set to reopen their doors on July 4, provided social distancing measures were in place.
The two-metre rule will be replaced with “one-metre plus” regulation, which means a metre distance is acceptable with another protection or “mitigation” – such as a face covering or screen.
Appearing alongside the prime minister, Whitty underlined the UK was in for a “long haul” battle with Covid-19 - which could stretch into 2021 - and that it “is absolutely critical people stick to the guidance”.
“For medium to long term, I’m optimistic,” he said, referring to potential developments in finding treatment or a vaccine.
“But for the short to medium term, until this time next year, certainly I think we should be planning for this, for what I consider to be the long haul into 2021.”
Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer, also urged caution, saying “we are with this a long time”.
It stood in stark contrast to the PM, whose government is balancing the health crisis with fears millions of jobs could be lost.
Johnson tried to strike an upbeat tone and told the No.10 briefing he wanted to see “bustle” and “activity”, adding: “As for all the things I’m looking forward to, there is a very long list.
“I’d love to go to the theatre again. I’d like to go and see The Globe.
“I’d like to go to a restaurant, frankly. I would love to get my hair cut.”
Whitty, meanwhile, underlined that there would be an increase of cases if people did not take the new “one-metre plus” social distancing measure seriously.
“If people hear a distorted version of what’s being said, that says ‘this is all fine now, it’s gone away’ and start behaving in ways that they normally would have before this virus happened, yes, we will get an uptick for sure,” he said.
“It is absolutely critical people stick to the guidance that has been given. It’s a changed guidance for there are still very significant restrictions socially and there are very significant restrictions on business of different sorts.”
Whitty said it was a “balance of risk” to alter the two-metre rule and that the decision ministers came to was “a reasonable balance of risk” though “absolutely not risk-free”.
He added: “We may at some point say that particular bit of the decisions that were taken is too much of a risk with the benefit of hindsight and we have to go back on it.”
He said, however, that if people followed the new guidance properly it was possible reduce the risk of infection “in a very structured way down to something which is broadly equivalent to [what would be achieved by a social distance of] two metres”.
Whitty also stressed the need for people to “engage properly” with the NHS Test and Trace system, and said it could become a “major part of our defence against the return, in a big way, of this virus”.
Any further relaxing or tightening of the lockdown changes could come when the winter months draw in.
“Every few weeks we have a different understanding of this virus,” he said.
“Therefore as our understanding changes, our countermeasures change and the epidemiological changes and, of course, there may be a possibility to relax some things and a need maybe to increase others.
“So I think this shouldn’t be seen as a static picture for several different reasons but it is going to be a long haul, and everybody standing here fully appreciates this is going to be a long haul.”
Vallance said the Oxford vaccine study was “probably” the “most advanced” in the world “but there are no guarantees” on any treatment.
Both top scientists also made clear that “the job of advisers is not to sign things off – it is to give advice”, and Johnson agreed, saying: “I take responsibility – the government takes responsibility – for these decisions.”
Then PM added: “We are indebted to our scientific colleagues for their advice continually, but it is our responsibility to choose.”
Johnson also recognised that Whitty and Vallance had concerns about the lockdown being lifted for pubs and other venues on July 4.
He said, however, that the UK must “adjust” to the new guidelines and “make it work”, adding: “As for July 4, I hope it will be a great day but obviously, you know, people have got to make sure they don’t overdo it.
“I know Chris is particularly worried about this – we can’t have great writhing scenes in the beer gardens when the virus could be passed on.
“This has to be done in a sensible way, people should be giving their names to the pubs, to the restaurants, doing things in a way that allows us, if something does happen, to track back, to test and trace and stamp out any outbreak.
“That’s the absolutely crucial thing. People should of course enjoy themselves but, as Chris and Patrick have said, this is going to be with us for a while.
“We’ve just got to adjust and make it work.”