England’s chief medical officer has said that there could be another lockdown next winter, seemingly regardless of whether the vaccine rollout is successful.
Professor Chris Whitty made the remarks during a Downing Street press conference alongside Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday evening. Predicting that even if the risk level for infection is lowered due to vaccine rollouts, the chief medical officer suggested that restrictions would be imposed on Britons for the foreseeable future.
On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a third national lockdown in England with effectively no firm end date, saying only that “if things go well”, restrictions may start to be lifted in late February. Less than 24 hours later, senior minister Michael Gove extended the soft deadline further, pushing it back to March.
Whitty said of easing lockdown: “What is going to happen over time is that the risk level is going to gradually decrease…things will be able to be lifted by degrees, possibly at different rates in different parts of the country.”
He stopped short of saying that lockdown would be lifted entirely, saying: “We’ll then get, over time, to a point where people say, ‘this level of risk is one that society is prepared to tolerate’ and lift down to almost no restrictions at all.”
Continuing that “we might have to bring a few [restrictions] in next winter, for example. That is possible because winter will benefit the virus.”
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However, he said that even once the virus is allegedly “de-risked” through the vaccination programme, zero-risk of death from the Chinese virus is simply not “a realistic possibility”, implying it was equally a “political” and “societal” decision on how many annual coronavirus deaths are acceptable — much like how British society has long-accepted thousands of influenza deaths every winter.
Professor Whitty said: “Just as we do with flu, every year roughly on an average year around 7,000 people die; in a bad year, up to 20,000 people a year die.
“We accept that there is a level of risk that society will tolerate — and we should tolerate. People die. That’s one of the things that happens.
“We have to do that at a certain point. That’s a political decision. That’s a societal decision.”
“Zero risk is not something which is a realistic possibility,” he said.
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Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi said on Wednesday that decisions on restrictions would remain with the government, telling Sky News: “This will be a political decision when we get to that point of inflection between where community transmission is really impacted by the vaccination programme and, of course, by continuing to ramp up the testing infrastructure in the United Kingdom.
“Then the decision for government, for us, is to say ‘well you know when is it right to begin to lift some of the non-pharmaceutical interventions that we’re having to make’ – like the current lockdown that we are in – there will come a moment when we see where we can basically manage this virus and be able to bring it back under control.
“And that is a decision for the government.”
MPs are set to vote on the new lockdown measures on Wednesday, with The Telegraph reporting that MPs are expected to demand a deadline on when restrictions will end and clarity on how many people would need to be vaccinated before measures can be lifted. However, an MP told the newspaper that there will be no rebellion against the government, and the third lockdown is likely to be approved in the House of Commons.