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Social distancing restrictions could remain for rest of year, says UK’s Chief Medical Officer

Coronavirus: Professor Whitty says disruptive measures will remain until effective vaccine or medicine introduced

Mark Moran
23 April 2020
Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty
Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty


The UK could have to live with disruptive social distancing measures for at least the rest of the year, the government's chief medical officer has warned.

During a 10 Downing Street press briefing on 22 April, Professor Chris Whitty said it would be “wholly unrealistic” to expect life would suddenly return to normal until the availability of a proven vaccine or drugs to treat the disease.

“In the long run, the exit from this is going to be one of two things, ideally,” he said. “A vaccine, and there are a variety of ways they can be deployed… or highly effective drugs so that people stop dying of this disease even if they catch it, or which can prevent this disease in vulnerable people. The probability of having any of those in the next calendar year are incredibly small.

“We are going to have to be realistic about that, so we are going to have to rely on other social distancing measures, which are, of course, very socially disruptive, as everyone is finding at the moment. But, until that point, that is what we are going to have to do. It will have to be the best combination that maximises the outlooks. But it is going to take a long time and we need to be aware of that.”

Prof Whitty also warned the public not to expect the number of coronavirus-related deaths to suddenly fall away after the peak.   “This disease is not going to be eradicated, it is not going to disappear,” he said. “So we have to accept that we are working with a disease that we are going to be with globally for the foreseeable future.”

The Chief Medical Officer said there were multiple different ways in which the coronavirus epidemic would result in deaths or ill health. As well as those dying from COVID-19, others may die indirectly because the NHS has had to be “reoriented towards COVID”, meaning there were fewer elective procedures and less screening. He also flagged how measures designed to fight the pandemic could increase deprivation among people, which could increase the risk to their long-term health.

Prof Whitty said “What we have to do is think very seriously about this: what is the best balance of measures that gives us the best public health outcome?”

The latest figures show a further 759 people have died with the virus in UK hospitals, bringing the total number of deaths to 18,100.

The 5 tests

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has set out five tests that are being applied to how the government tackles the pandemic.

Test 1: Making sure the NHS can cope
Test 2: A 'sustained and consistent' fall in the daily death rate
Test 3: Rate of infection decreasing to 'manageable levels'
Test 4: Ensuring supply of tests and PPE can meet future demand
Test 5: Being confident any adjustments would not risk a second peak


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