Professor Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser and the chief medical officer for England, today gave the clearest indication yet of just how long social distancing will last – and, in his words, it’s a “long time”.
There were two ways we would exit the current crisis, he said. First, with a “highly effective vaccine”, or second, with “highly effective drugs” that could either treat or prevent Covid-19. The chances of having one or both “any time in the next calendar year are incredibly small”, he said. Until that point, the UK will have to rely on “social measures, which of course are very socially disruptive” to suppress the virus.
It’s not fully clear whether, by “any time in the next calendar”, he meant before the end of 2020 or within the next 12 months (the latter seems more likely, judging by his other comments), but either way: social distancing is here to stay.
Whitty also explained, in more detail than we’ve previously heard, the process for easing coronavirus restrictions over time. The key was to keep the “R” value – the number of people an infected person spreads the disease to – below one. A value of higher than one would cause the virus to spread through the population.
Scientific experts will weigh up the impact of easing any given measure, or of introducing a new measure such as contact tracing, on the R value. It will evaluate these measures in different combinations to see which keep the R value below one, and will from there provide a range of options to ministers, who will then decide how to proceed.