Chris Whitty has suggested the UK needs to take a cautious approach to coronavirus for up to two more years.
England’s chief medical officer said the government needs to remain alert, particularly towards variants of the virus, for “probably the next year or two”.
The government is aiming to remove all restrictions on social contact on 21 June as part of a gradual four-stage easing of the lockdown.
Prof Whitty said the approach is cautious “because we’ve got such a difficult situation to go through at the moment”.
He told a Royal Society of Medicine webinar on Thursday: “What we don’t want to be is in a situation where we look back in six months and say: ‘If we’d only just been a bit more cautious for a month or two we would’ve actually got through [vaccinating] the whole population, we’d have understood a lot more, we’d know how to deal with this, we’d probably have a few variant vaccines on the stocks.’”
He added: “I don’t think though, this should be seen as an indefinite posture. I think this is a matter of probably the next year or two whilst we understand how to do this and find a way of responding rapidly to variants.”
Prof Whitty hinted this could result in travel restrictions continuing to be imposed for certain countries as he said on border policy: "You don't worry about any country that's got less [virus and variants] than you have, but you do worry about any country that's got more than you have."
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Prof Whitty is known for his pragmatism when discussing the country’s post-lockdown future.
On Monday, when restrictions were lifted to allow six people or two households to meet outdoors, he warned there is a “high likelihood” infections will increase.
Last month, he also warned “significant numbers” of people will still die from COVID-19 later this year, even as the vaccine is rolled out.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has forecast at least 30,000 more coronavirus deaths by June next year “under the most optimistic" scenario for lifting lockdown.
In January, Prof Whitty even warned restrictions may return again this winter. “That is possible because winter will benefit the virus,” he said.
However, at his Royal Society of Medicine talk on Thursday, he was optimistic about the effectiveness of COVID vaccines against new variants going forward.
Prof Whitty said: “If we scroll forward two years I think we’re going to have a very wide portfolio of vaccines.”
Technology, he said, can “turn around a vaccine to a new variant incredibly fast, compared to how historically we’ve been able to do it”.
“So I think technology will find a way through this in the long run, but we’ve got a period of risk between now and then.”
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