Social Distancing Could Last Rest of Year, Govt Expected to Recommend Public Wear Masks

AP Photo/Morry Gash
AP Photo/Morry Gash

Britain’s Chief Medical Adviser, Chris Witty, has said that it would be “wholly unrealistic” to believe lockdown restrictions will be lifted entirely, forecasting that some kind of social distancing measures may be in place for the rest of the year.

Prof Whitty told the Downing Street press conference on Wednesday: “In the long run, the exit from this is going to be one of two things, ideally.

“A vaccine… 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.

“Until we have those, and the probability of having those any time in the next calendar year is incredibly small, and I think we should be realistic about that, we’re going to have to rely on other social measures, which of course are very socially disruptive as everyone is finding at the moment.”

Whitty made the remarks after health secretary Matt Hancock had revealed that the United Kingdom is believed to have reached the peak of the wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This disease is not going to be eradicated, it is not going to disappear, so we have to accept that we are working with a disease that we are going to be with globally for the foreseeable future,” Whitty added in comments reported by The Times. “We have to be very realistic. If people are hoping it’s suddenly going to move from where we are in lockdown to where suddenly everything is gone, that is a wholly unrealistic expectation.”

The senior medic also admitted that a “high mortality rate” of senior citizens in care homes was likely, adding that the current estimate of 1,000 care home facility deaths due to coronavirus was likely to be an “underestimate”.

Prof Whitty’s official assessment is largely in line with other scientists who have said in recent weeks that the United Kingdom could be in coronavirus lockdown on and off for up to a year, with another expert opinion being that strict social distancing may need to be in place for at least half of the year. Whitty’s colleague, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, also said on Sunday that a coronavirus vaccine was a “long shot”.

Government scientists have also heard evidence on the benefits of the public wearing masks, which may become a crucial part of loosening lockdown measures. Scientists addressing the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on Tuesday said that while they may not be able to stop a person catching coronavirus, there is some evidence that homemade masks — for example, made with natural fibres like cotton and lined with paper towels — should help prevent them from spreading the virus.

The British government is said to be reconsidering its guidance against the public wearing face coverings, to put it more in line with the United States’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advice, where medical staff continue to wear clinical mouth-nose masks and the public is recommended to wear homemade cloth “face coverings” when out in public.

Cabinet ministers are set to receive advice following a meeting on Thursday over whether wearing cloth masks could slow the spread of infection in encloses spaces such as workplaces, public transport, and shops.

Chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners Martin Marshall told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday: “I think the guidance we’re expecting to hear that people wearing a face mask is a voluntary activity, not mandated, makes sense and certainly makes a lot of sense to focus limited resources that we have at the moment on those who have greatest need and that’s the health professionals.”

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