Even as European nations start to ease the drastic lockdown restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, an uncomfortable truth is beginning to emerge: Life will not go back to the way it was — not soon, at least, and perhaps not ever.
“It won’t be a return to normal life,” France’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, said Sunday during a discussion of the country’s plans to gradually reopen schools and workplaces.
Just a week ago, French President Emmanuel Macron had struck a more optimistic tone, announcing that the country’s lockdown would start to be lifted on May 11 and that the country would return to “happy days.”
“Hope is reemerging,” Macron said.
With a vaccine up to 18 months away, however, politicians and public health officials are tempering such uplifting pronouncements with a sober reality check.
“Our life from May 11 will not be like our life before — not immediately, and probably not for a long time,” Philippe said. “We’ll have to learn to live with the virus.”
“Many of our fellow citizens have started ... teleworking. Many can do it, many have been able to take advantage of this option,” Philippe said, according to HuffPost France. “This telework will have to continue.”
And anyone dreaming of a summer holiday should think again.
“Can we book a house, a rental, a camping spot or a hotel in July or August in France or abroad? I’m afraid it is unreasonable to imagine travelling abroad very soon,” the prime minister said.
“To imagine that — because the situation has stopped worsening and is starting to improve, the epidemic is behind us — would be a mistake,” he added.
Officials in other countries have echoed Philippe’s assessment.
“I want to be clear on one point: The battle is not won,” Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, said in an interview Monday, per HuffPost Italy. “We are going in the right direction, but we’re not out of danger.”
On Sunday, Italy’s death toll from the coronavirus rose by 433, the lowest daily total in a week. The number of new cases decreased from 3,491 to 3,047. The falling numbers have led Italian officials to eye May 4 as the start of “phase two,” when restrictions on daily life and economic activity may gradually be lifted.
In the United Kingdom, government officials have resisted calls to outline an exit strategy to end the nationwide lockdown. BuzzFeed News reported on Saturday, however, that the government is considering a “three-stage” approach to easing the restrictions.
Nonessential retail shops and industries could start to reopen in early to mid-May, according to the report, and other social distancing measures would be relaxed over the summer. But people deemed to be most vulnerable to the virus could face strict restrictions until a vaccine is developed.
The government has pushed back against the report, insisting that no decision has been made about when to open schools and that restrictions could remain in place for many months.
Michael Gove, the UK chancellor, told the BBC on Sunday that hotels, pubs and restaurants would likely remain closed for the foreseeable future.
“Areas of hospitality will be among the last to exit the lockdown, that is true. They will be among the last,” he said.
However, the debate about when restrictions on various parts of society might be relaxed has papered over the more fundamental truth that it won’t be possible to fully resume normal life until there’s a vaccine — which could take more than a year.
“It’s not going to be going back to normal,” Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, who is one of the government’s key scientific advisers, said last week. “We will have to maintain some level of social distancing, a significant level of social distancing, probably indefinitely, until we have a vaccine available.”
During that time, certain groups of people, including the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, would need to remain isolated. But the UK government is concerned that the public has not yet accepted the possibility of the lockdown continuing for so long, per the BuzzFeed News report.
“‘You can’t see granny for 18 months’ is going to be an extremely unpopular and difficult policy to enforce,” a government minister told BuzzFeed News.
And even then, a vaccine is not a guarantee.
“All new vaccines that come into development are long shots. Only some end up being successful, and the whole process requires experimentation,” Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, wrote in The Guardian on Sunday.
“Coronavirus will be no different and presents new challenges for vaccine development,” he wrote. “This will take time, and we should be clear it is not a certainty.”
With reporting from HuffPost France, HuffPost Italy and HuffPost UK.
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