The government’s top scientific advisers have cast doubt on Boris Johnson’s hope of a return to normality by Christmas with a warning that social distancing could be needed for “a long period of time”.
The prime minister said it “may conceivably be possible” to ease social distancing measures “by November at the earliest” at a press conference at Downing Street on Friday.
But England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty poured cold water on the prime minister’s optimism by saying that measures such as hand washing, distancing and wearing face coverings would need to continue for the foreseeable future.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, said there was a “very significant chance” of a second wave of the deadly virus – meaning social distancing measures would be necessary.
Their comments came as Mr Johnson set out plans for a wider relaxation of lockdown rules in August, including an easing of the work-from-home guidance and new rules allowing non-essential use of public transport.
“It is my strong and sincere hope that we will be able to review the outstanding restrictions and allow a more significant return to normality from November, at the earliest, possibly in time for Christmas,” the prime minister said.
Asked if he would scrap the one-metre rule when two households meet, he said: “What we’re saying is that we hope that by November at the earliest, if we can continue to make progress in our struggle against the virus, then it may conceivably be possible to move away from the social-distancing measures, from the one-metre rule and other things by that time.”
But Professor Whitty later told the Lords Science and Technology committee: “There are some things which we started right at the beginning, which absolutely have to continue for a prolonged period of time – washing hands, isolation, household isolation.
“And then we’ve added to that things like contact tracing, most recently face coverings.
“And these are issues of, and issues around distancing, which have been varied but the reality is distancing remains an important part of this mix and how it’s interpreted in different governments has evolved.
“But it has not gone away. So, all of those need to continue for a long period of time.”
The top medic said he would be “very surprised” if a vaccine was available in the next six months.
Sir Patrick said there was a risk that coronavirus “goes round the world and comes back again”, leaving the UK vulnerable to a second wave.
“Therefore the measures of reducing contact to reduce spread, the sorts of social distancing measures that we’ve talked about, and the hygiene measures that go along with that, will be necessary,” he added.
Sir Patrick said there was “a very significant chance” the virus could return “in force.
He added: “Everyone that I’ve spoken to thinks it’s highly likely that this disease will continue to circulate and will come back in waves.”
It comes only a day after Sir Patrick said people should continue working from home if they could, setting himself at odds with No10’s latest shift.
Meanwhile, newly published documents revealed that scientists advising the Government said on June 22 they do not believe it is possible to return to “pre-Covid normality” without contact tracing and other measures that would “be difficult to achieve” unless a vaccine is found.
Mr Johnson said both experts had taken part in cabinet talks before the announcement of the latest easing of lockdown but “in the end decisions are taken by the elected politicians”