16/01/2021 08:09 GMT | Updated 16/01/2021 10:50 GMT

This Is The UK's Path Out Of Covid Hell – And How Long It Will Take

The pandemic feels never-ending. We asked scientists how long we'd have to wait for things to get better.

If there’s one thing we all want to know right now, it’s when this whole pandemic thing will be over.

The situation facing the UK is dire – sky-high infection rates, hospitals buckling under pressure and over 1,500 deaths in a single day this week.

But there is good news – infection rates are slowing, effective treatments are keeping people alive and a respectable three million people have been vaccinated already.

So let’s look ahead at our path out of all this...

What’s the government’s plan?

Good question, and not one with a definite answer.

Last month Matt Hancock sounded pretty optimistic – we roll out the vaccine and life begins to return to normal by spring

His actual words were: “The NHS stands ready to deploy at the sort of pace that is needed to help us get out of this pandemic by the spring.”

Oh lovely, so back to normal in a couple of months?

Ugh, no. Since making that chirpy assessment last month, Hancock has not mentioned spring since. Even at the time, he studiously avoided defining just exactly when spring was.

Hmm, OK. What about ‘getting out of this pandemic’? 

Again, Hancock has been a bit wishy-washy.

While touting the vaccination programme this week, Hancock said: “Our UK Covid-19 vaccines delivery plan maps our route back to normality.

“The next few months will present a significant opportunity to turn the tide of battle against Covid – I am looking forward to watching these plans bring more reassurance and hope back to people’s lives after a difficult year.”

Which, again, is a bit on the vague side.

So what are we aiming for?

We asked the Department of Health and Social Care what Hancock meant when he said “out of this pandemic by the spring”, and if he still stood by the statement.

A spokesperson replied:Vaccines are our way out of this pandemic and will help us return to a more normal way of life. We now have three approved vaccines and are rapidly rolling out the biggest vaccination programme in UK history.

“Through the UK vaccine delivery plan we aim to have vaccinated all care home residents by the end of January and by mid-February we will have offered a first vaccine dose to priority groups 1 to 4.

“The full impact on infection rates will not become clear until a large number of people have been vaccinated, but as larger numbers do get vaccinated, we will get back to a more normal way of life.”

There are three key points to take from this. According to the government:

  1. Vaccines are the key to getting out of the pandemic
  2. By mid-February, 15m of the most vulnerable will have been offered (not necessarily given, it should be noted) a vaccine
  3. The full impact of the vaccination programme won’t be known until an unspecified “large number” of people have been given the vaccine
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Thank God for those vaccines, right?

Yes. And no.

The government is pushing the “vaccines are our way out of this pandemic” line hard.

It’s not surprising given how much of a miracle their speedy development has been – but actual scientists are concerned about the government’s messaging around them. 

“You can’t just vaccinate your way out of this,” Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor at the Leeds Institute of Medical Research, tells HuffPost UK.

“It’s great news that we have these vaccines but they can’t just be seen as a way out on their own. They have to be coordinated with suppression and maintaining our borders.”

Dr Griffin’s concern is that other efforts to combat coronavirus such as the embattled Test and Trace system have fallen by the wayside over recent months and even more so now the focus is on vaccination. And he’s not alone.

Public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally told HuffPost UK: “There is a concern that the enthusiasm from the PM and ministers for vaccination will be very dangerous in a sense, because during the course of the pandemic they’ve continually looked for the silver bullet.

“We’ve gone through several of these – antibody tests, the Test and Trace app – and they seem to be completely unable to understand that what you need is a whole spectrum of measures that do include social distancing and restrictions.”

This week Labour MP and mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham also echoed these views. 

Why won’t vaccines alone get us out of the pandemic? 

In short, mutant strains.

“The biggest worry is that we’ll find a variant along the way which will significantly decrease the effectiveness of the vaccine,” says Dr Griffin.

We already have various strains of Covid-19, one of which is currently rampaging around the UK. Others have been identified as originating in South Africa and Brazil.

As yet there is no evidence that these will be more resilient or resistant to the vaccines that have been developed, but there is nothing to say this won’t change.

Viruses are live organisms and as such have the main principal drive that we humans do – to survive. Variations occur all the time and the ones that thrive are those that are more infectious and less deadly as they survive in the bodies of more and more people.

There are two major factors that increase the likelihood of a virus mutating. First is how much there is circulating in the population. The more virus about, the more chance some of it will mutate.

The second can be thought of as barriers to infecting people, which place more pressure on the virus to adapt to survive.

Unfortunately, vaccination can act as such a barrier.

“The danger is if you give a sub-standard vaccination programme or you don’t cover as much of the population as you want, you’re going to leave that virus enough wiggle room to change and adapt and we may end up with a very long-lasting scenario where we’re having to adapt vaccines continuously,” says Dr Scally.

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How do we prevent that?

It’s impossible to stop mutations entirely. The best thing we can do is stop the spread of infection as much as possible while the vaccination programme is rolled out.

Unfortunately, this means a continuation of social distancing and restrictions.

“We still need to lock down and to suppress the virus because vaccinating amid the ongoing pandemic is going to be very difficult indeed,” says Dr Griffin.

“My personal view is that we need to push for elimination and that can’t just happen with a vaccine. We need to crush cases again, we need to make good on this lockdown because we didn’t with the last two.

“In terms of getting back to normal, I can’t see restrictions being lifted completely before the end of this year at all. I’d be really surprised.”

Don’t despair too much, this is unlikely to mean the current full lockdown will last until 2022.

But we will more than likely have to get used to a gradual easing of restrictions over a period of months, rather than expecting to look forward to a magical day when everything is suddenly normal again.

Professor Neil Ferguson, who is director of the Medical Research Council’s Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said that after lockdown lifts some social distancing measures will still be required, in large part due to the new strains of the virus.

“The new variant without doubt will make the relaxation of restrictions more difficult because it is substantially more transmissible,” he said.

“So it will be a gradual process to the autumn.”

How long will it take to vaccinate everyone?

The government hopes to be able to vaccinate two million people a week by the end of January and that every adult will be offered a vaccine “by the autumn”.

With three vaccines now approved, the biggest stumbling block is manufacturing enough doses.

“It is a challenge but is probably realistic in terms of manufacturing enough vaccine to do that,” Dr Stephen Morris, research fellow in vaccine process analytics at University College London, tells HuffPost UK.

“It’s an advantage that they’re all using different technologies so they’re not competing for the same reagents and other supplies of materials.

“There will also be a challenge as more countries authorise the vaccines as deliveries will be spread across more countries.”

82-year-old Brian Pinker receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine from nurse Sam Foster at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford earlier this month.

The UK does have an ace up its sleeve – the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre that is currently being built in Harwell.

“This has been on the cards for a while and was originally planned to open next year,” says Dr Morris.

“It was designed as a platform for the likes of myself to test out new manufacturing technologies so it’s designed to be very flexible but now it’s been repurposed to some degree. 

“That in theory will have enough manufacturing capacity to produce enough vaccine for the UK.”

That sounds positive, but what if a vaccine-resistant strain pops up?

It’s not the end of the world. The government has said a new coronavirus jab could be manufactured within just 30 to 40 days.

Nadhim Zahawi, vaccine development minister, told the Commons science and technology committee that measures had been put in place to produce the “next iteration” of jabs if needed. 

When will we know that we’re out of the pandemic?

Again, the government hasn’t defined this – but there’s no reason not to aim for the elimination of Covid as the marker of things being over.

“This doesn’t mean you see no virus whatsoever,” says Dr Griffin.

“It means very low levels of transmission, small outbreaks that are managed because most of us have had the vaccine and we have testing and tracing.

“You can see by the way paved by Australia, for example. It’s possible to eliminate this virus from our shores. We’re an island.”

Vaccination alone won’t achieve this and a functioning Test and Trace system and public health controls at ports and airports will be crucial – both things the government has so far failed to achieve.

“We’ve had an un-policed and voluntary self-isolation policy but it’s about as much use as a sieve in a rainstorm,” says Dr Scally.

“We need to do three things – get the virus down, keep it down and keep it out.”

Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images
Ambulances at the Royal London Hospital

Could we have gotten out of the pandemic sooner?

Depressingly, yes.

As politically unpopular as it would have been, there’s a strong case to be made that if the UK had been kept under lockdown over last summer then we could have kept the virus under control.

“We crushed the spread of cases during the first lockdown and got the R rate down, and the epidemic was squashed but then they started to unlock,” says Dr Griffin.

What’s the bottom line, then?

If everything goes to plan with the vaccination program, life could begin to return to normal in autumn – but it’s unlikely we’ll see a full lifting of social distancing and restrictions until after this, possibly until the end of the year.