This week, HuffPost UK reader Simon asked: When will distancing be dropped completely?
Boris Johnson has promised there will be no social distancing measures in place by October 2021.
The prime minister made the pledge during his Conservative conference speech. “With the help of weekly and almost daily improvements in the medicine and the science, we will ensure that next time we meet it will be face-to-face and cheek-by-jowl,” he said.
He’d previously said he hoped for “normality” – meaning no social distancing – by November 2020. However that’s looking extremely unlikely.
As it stands, everyone should be social distancing in order to reduce the spread of the virus. Mask-wearing is also mandatory in various indoor settings.
The question of when distancing will be dropped completely isn’t an easy one to answer, but when do experts think these measures may be able to (safely) end?
Professor Rowland Kao, an expert in veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, previously told HuffPost UK there’s “considerable difficulty” in making a prediction of how long social distancing measures will last.
Scrapping distancing depends on a combination of how much the 1m rule influences the R number, and whether or not other measures can be kept or put in place to keep the R number down, he said.
The R number – sometimes referred to as the R0 – is the “basic reproduction number”. It’s used to measure the transmission potential of a disease and represents the number of people one infected person will, on average, pass the virus on to.
Another key factor is whether the number of new cases is low enough, so that any additional rise in cases due to the removal of social distancing can be contained by good test, track and trace – without putting too much stress on the NHS, said Prof Kao.
For this, we need a track and trace system that works well.
In a perfect world, experts would like to see no new active infections before scrapping social distancing in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Professor John Edmunds, an expert from the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, believes we’ll be under distancing restrictions until there’s high enough levels of immunity in the population for this to be unnecessary.
Because incidence will (hopefully) be kept at a relatively low level in the future – due to lockdown measures and track and trace – immunity generated by natural infection is “not likely to play a major role in achieving the high level of population immunity necessary to break chains of transmission,” he said. So, we need a vaccine to achieve this level of immunity.
“That means we will remain with some social distance measures in place until a safe and effective vaccine is found, mass-produced and delivered to the population,” he said.
It’s possible there’ll be a vaccine ready by next year, if trials go well. However it’s unclear how quickly they’d be able to roll this out to the population.