Social distancing measures could remain in place until the end of the year without a vaccine for coronavirus, England’s chief medical officer has said.

Professor Chris Whitty told the daily Downing Street press conference that some restrictions would need to remain as the probability of having a vaccine or effective drugs to treat the virus within the next calendar year was “incredibly small”.

A sudden easing of restrictions would be a “wholly unreasonable” expectation, Prof Whitty warned, saying the path out of the lockdown must be carefully plotted to prevent the virus from spreading again and overwhelming the NHS.

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He also said the public should not expect to see the number of deaths from coronavirus “fall away” suddenly.

His comments came after Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the UK had reached the peak of the coronavirus outbreak and said people with non-Covid related health conditions should feel safe to seek medical care.

In other developments:

Mr Hancock said the government could not commit to providing “free masks” for everyone if scientific guidance changes on widespread use
Sir Keir Starmer accused ministers of being way behind other countries in responding to the crisis in the first “hybrid” PMQs session
Brussels said the UK was still not part of any EU medical equipment purchasing scheme despite claims from health secretary
The government admitted deaths in England’s care homes could be double the number that has been reported.
Human trials for a potential coronavirus vaccine were due to begin on Thursday at Oxford University.

As attention in government turns to the lockdown exit strategy, Prof Whitty told the public that some forms of social distancing will need to be in place for a “long time”.

He said: “In the long run, the exit from this is going to be one of two things, ideally. A vaccine, and there are a variety of ways they can be deployed… or, and or, highly effective drugs so that people stop dying of this disease even if they catch it, or which can prevent this disease in vulnerable people.

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A man holds a pocket watch at noon, at an almost empty market near the Imam Ali shrine

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Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, part of The Grand Palace)

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An empty street leading to the historic Old Town Square

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4/18 Washington DC, US

Lawn stretching towards the Capitol, home of Congress

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5/18 Jerusalem’s Old City

A watch showing the time in front of Damascus Gate

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6/18 London, UK

The Houses of Parliament seen from Westminster Bridge

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Empty lanes in the city that saw the first outbreak of disease

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8/18 Havana, Cuba

The Malecon road and esplanade winds along the city’s seafront

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A little busier than elsewhere: midday traffic in Tahrir Square

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The Brandenburg Gate, the only surviving city gate in the capital

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Bolivar Avenue, opened in 1949 and the site of many demonstrations and rallies

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12/18 Moscow, Russia

Spasskaya Tower (left) on the eastern wall of the Kremlin, and St Basil’s Cathedral

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13/18 Istanbul,Turkey

The harbourside Eminonu district is usually buzzing with activity

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14/18 New Delhi, India

Rajpath, a ceremonial boulevard that runs through the capital

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15/18 Amman, Jordan

The Roman amphitheatre that dates back to the 2nd century AD

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16/18 New York City, US

The main concourse of Grand Central station in Manhattan

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17/18 Kiev, Ukraine

Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the site of many political protests since the end of the Soviet era

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18/18 Accra, Ghana

The odd walker out in the midday sun on Ring Road Central

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1/18 Najaf, Iraq

A man holds a pocket watch at noon, at an almost empty market near the Imam Ali shrine

Reuters

2/18 Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, part of The Grand Palace)

Reuters

3/18 Prague, Czech Republic

An empty street leading to the historic Old Town Square

Reuters

4/18 Washington DC, US

Lawn stretching towards the Capitol, home of Congress

Reuters

5/18 Jerusalem’s Old City

A watch showing the time in front of Damascus Gate

Reuters

6/18 London, UK

The Houses of Parliament seen from Westminster Bridge

Reuters

7/18 Wuhan, China

Empty lanes in the city that saw the first outbreak of disease

Reuters

8/18 Havana, Cuba

The Malecon road and esplanade winds along the city’s seafront

Reuters

9/18 Cairo, Egypt

A little busier than elsewhere: midday traffic in Tahrir Square

Reuters

10/18 Berlin, Germany

The Brandenburg Gate, the only surviving city gate in the capital

Reuters

11/18 Caracas, Venezuela

Bolivar Avenue, opened in 1949 and the site of many demonstrations and rallies

Reuters

12/18 Moscow, Russia

Spasskaya Tower (left) on the eastern wall of the Kremlin, and St Basil’s Cathedral

Reuters

13/18 Istanbul,Turkey

The harbourside Eminonu district is usually buzzing with activity

Reuters

14/18 New Delhi, India

Rajpath, a ceremonial boulevard that runs through the capital

Reuters

15/18 Amman, Jordan

The Roman amphitheatre that dates back to the 2nd century AD

Reuters

16/18 New York City, US

The main concourse of Grand Central station in Manhattan

Reuters

17/18 Kiev, Ukraine

Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the site of many political protests since the end of the Soviet era

Reuters

18/18 Accra, Ghana

The odd walker out in the midday sun on Ring Road Central

Reuters

“Until we have those, and the probability of having those any time in the next calendar year are incredibly small and I think we should be realistic about that.

“We’re going to have to rely on other social measures, which of course are very socially disruptive as everyone is finding at the moment. But until that point, that is what we will have to do.”

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However Prof Whitty said he was “very hopeful that we will have vaccines which have proof of concept much earlier than a year”.

“But there is a long path between having a vaccine that’s proof of concept, and until we have either a vaccine or a drug… what we will have available to us are social measures.”

After weeks of lockdown, ministers are trying to find a way to ease restrictions – such as re-opening schools or allowing small social gatherings – without triggering a second spike in coronavirus cases.

The average number of cases spread by an infected person – known as the R value – must remain below one otherwise the NHS will be overwhelmed, the government’s scientific advisers believe.

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A rose is delivered by drone to a woman on Mother’s Day in Jounieh, Lebanon

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Women dance on their balcony as a radio station plays music for a flash mob to raise spirits in Rome

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A skeleton stands on a balcony in Frankfurt, Germany

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The film Le ragazze di Piazza di Spagna is projected on a building in Rome

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A woman uses a basket tied to a rope to pull a delivery of groceries up to her balcony in Naples, Italy

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DJ Francesco Cellini plays for his neighbours from the rooftop terrace of his flat block in Rome

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A woman gestures from her balcony in Barcelona

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Cellist Karina Nunez performs for her neighbours at the balcony of her flat in Panama City

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9/15

DJ Nash Petrovic live streams a set from his roof in Brooklyn

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10/15

People applaud medical workers from their balconies in Modiin, Israel

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11/15

A Brooklyn resident relaxes in a hammock hung on their balcony

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12/15

Residents toast during a “safe distance” aperitif time between neighbours in Anderlecht, Belgium

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13/15

Musician Adam Moser plays for neighbours from his balcony in Budapest, Hungary

Reuters

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A man and his son on their balcony in Brooklyn

Reuters

15/15

A man sits alone on a roof terrace in Rome

Reuters

1/15

A rose is delivered by drone to a woman on Mother’s Day in Jounieh, Lebanon

AFP/Getty

2/15

Women dance on their balcony as a radio station plays music for a flash mob to raise spirits in Rome

Reuters

3/15

A skeleton stands on a balcony in Frankfurt, Germany

AP

4/15

The film Le ragazze di Piazza di Spagna is projected on a building in Rome

AP

5/15

A woman uses a basket tied to a rope to pull a delivery of groceries up to her balcony in Naples, Italy

EPA

6/15

DJ Francesco Cellini plays for his neighbours from the rooftop terrace of his flat block in Rome

Reuters

7/15

A woman gestures from her balcony in Barcelona

EPA

8/15

Cellist Karina Nunez performs for her neighbours at the balcony of her flat in Panama City

Reuters

9/15

DJ Nash Petrovic live streams a set from his roof in Brooklyn

Reuters

10/15

People applaud medical workers from their balconies in Modiin, Israel

Reuters

11/15

A Brooklyn resident relaxes in a hammock hung on their balcony

Reuters

12/15

Residents toast during a “safe distance” aperitif time between neighbours in Anderlecht, Belgium

Reuters

13/15

Musician Adam Moser plays for neighbours from his balcony in Budapest, Hungary

Reuters

14/15

A man and his son on their balcony in Brooklyn

Reuters

15/15

A man sits alone on a roof terrace in Rome

Reuters

Prof Whitty said the public had to be “very realistic”, adding: “If people are hoping it’s suddenly going to move from where we are in lockdown to where suddenly into everything is gone, that is a wholly unrealistic expectation.”​

Dominic Raab, the first secretary of state, said the UK was “not out of the woods” yet and warned that a second spike would lead to economic pain as well as risks to public health.

Earlier, Mr Hancock said there would be “large scale” contact tracing to keep the spread of the virus under control once the lockdown was lifted.

This would mean widespread public testing and isolation of sick people and all their contacts, in an attempt to control localised outbreaks of coronavirus.

Mr Hancock also confirmed that the outbreak had hit its high point, telling MPs: “We have high confidence that we are at a peak in this disease, but obviously we need to see that come down.”

He said the NHS would resume treating patients with conditions such as cancer soon and urged anyone with symptoms to come forward now.

The Department of Health said 18,100 patients had died in hospital after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK, as of 5pm on Tuesday, up by 763 from 17,337 the day before.



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