Jonathan Van-Tam, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, has warned that the Chinese coronavirus may be seasonal, and that society will likely have to “learn to live” with it for months and possibly “several years”.
Speaking alongside Dominic Raab, the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary who was at the helm of the government’s pandemic response while Prime Minister Boris Johnson was briefly incapacitated by coronavirus, Professor Van-Tam emphasised the good news that the number of patients in British hospital infected with the illness appeared to be in “sustained decline”.
Responding to a question from a member of the public about the threat of a “second wave”, however, the medical technocrat warned that — while the authorities were “absolutely hoping not to have a second wave”, and that they are “unlocking social distancing” only gradually for that reason — there was a risk that it could indeed return with renewed vigour in the colder months, and even prove to be a seasonal illness like the flu.
“Maybe people are just hoping and praying that this virus will just go away — as indeed I hope and pray it will,” Van-Tam said on Monday.
“But the reality is that, certainly until we get a vaccine, and only if we get a vaccine that is really capable of suppressing disease levels, will we ever be what we would call kind of ‘out of this’,” he continued.
“And so from that perspective, we may have to live, and learn to live, with this virus in the long-term, and certainly for many months to come — if not several years,” he warned.
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Professor Van-Tam said that a vaccine may be a game-changer in this respect, but cautioned that “we can’t be sure we will get a vaccine” — echoing similar comments by Boris Johnson recently.
“The other thing to say is that this virus is a new virus. We don’t fully understand something called seasonality,” he continued.
The Deputy Chief Medical Officer observed that flu viruses tend to “decline over the summer months” before increasing in potency in colder weather, adding that while it was “not clear” that coronavirus would behave in a similar way, “there may be an element of seasonality” to it.
“[A]utumn and winter conditions [could] provide a better environment for the virus to then do its work again,” he warned, adding that, for that reason, “we have to be very cautious… and plan for these kinds of healthcare surges — that we hope we don’t need, but we want to be ready for them if they happen”.
Infrastructure for dealing with such surges might include the so-called Nightingale emergency hospitals which have been established in various locations.
The flagship Nightingale hospital in London has now been put on standby, with another Nightingale in Birmingham being stood down today.
The Nightingale in Manchester is the only emergency hospital actually treating patients at present, with several others currently idle — and one in Exeter still under construction.
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