Covid-19 could cause disruption for years to come, government sources are admitting in a change of tone from the language of “beating” the disease.
One source said things will not return to normal until 2022 at the earliest and that a second wave this winter is likely, leading to more Leicester-style local lockdowns.
Another said recent research showing coronavirus antibody levels decline within months of exposure were creating uncertainty over whether a vaccine will provide long-term immunity.
In the Commons yesterday Health Secretary Matt Hancock agreed with a Labour former minister who asked if the country will have to “co-exist” with coronavirus in future, just as many areas of the world learn to live with malaria.
Responding to John Spellar’s suggestion that the UK should “face up to the fact that we have to contain the virus, but we may have to co-exist with it”, Mr Hancock said: “He is absolutely spot-on in highlighting the two vast challenges that this country, and every country, face: an unprecedented health challenge and an unprecedented economic challenge as a consequence.”
Minsters think a vaccine will not be ready for deployment until early spring 2021 and even then it may need regular booster shots. The Business department is in charge of a plan for mass vaccination, prioritising healthcare staff and the elderly and vulnerable.
However, a vaccine is no longer seen as a “silver bullet” following research into patients and staff at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS trust that showed antibody levels decline after just two or three months.
Officials are clear that an upsurge in coronavirus cases is likely during the coming winter, just as flu and colds spread more in colder weather.
“You only have to think back to the flu crisis a few years ago when patients were on trolleys at hospitals during an ordinary flu season to realise how the NHS can be stretched in a cold snap.” Another source said:
“I don’t know when things will get back to normal. Nobody can rule out a second national lockdown but the intention is to target outbreaks with very local and limited lockdowns.”