Whatever the epidemic does, the overwhelming view among senior scientists is that coronavirus is here to stay. The cold assessments came from the left and right of Boris Johnson at Monday’s Downing street briefing. From one side, Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said the virus “will be with us forever”. From the other, Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, warned of Covid illness and deaths “for the rest of our lives.
Prof Dame Anne Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: “There will be more deaths from coronavirus, with winter waves a particular threat, but learning to live with Covid is not about how many deaths society can bear. We see upsurges caused by respiratory viruses every winter. We don’t make an estimate of what deaths we can tolerate, we say we wish to minimise those deaths by having a vaccination campaign.”
Johnson said that we will not wake up one day and suddenly decide to face the virus. The process has already begun, with changes in behaviour adopted in the pandemic likely to carry on long after formal restrictions are lifted. “What we want is to do the things that least disrupt our lives and minimise the risk of infection without having to go into these awful lockdowns,” she said. Good hygiene, remote working, mask wearing, better ventilation, not going to work or mixing with people when we have symptoms, cycling rather than taking public transport, avoiding needless flights – all of these and more will play a part in the post-lockdown world, she said.
The vaccination programme is central to when life can return, if not to normal, then something far closer than today. By the autumn, most adults will have had the chance to get two shots of vaccine. “Once everybody who is eligible is vaccinated then you have put your wall in place, but we are not there yet,” said Griffiths. “The wall is missing some bricks, in terms of some vulnerable groups, some vaccine sceptics, but mainly the younger people, and until your wall is there you can’t say let’s move forward.” Seasonal boosters for at-risk groups are likely if their immunity wanes, and ongoing natural infections will contribute to community immunity.
What else needs to happen? David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and head of the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House, said we would not learn to live with the virus until we took responsibility for the risks, as we do with the flu, sexually transmitted infections and other viruses. “The first thing we have to do, is governments have to be willing and able to transfer the risk assessment and the response to the people instead of doing it through the people.
“It’s not a matter of saying we’ll accept this number of deaths, we should never accept deaths. We need to learn how we ourselves can make sure we don’t infect ourselves or infect others, but that’s just not been possible yet because governments have done that job,” he said.