Experts disagree on how long it could take to lift the UK’s restrictions on daily life fully, but most are hoping some will ease over the summer.
Are we in for the long haul?
It seems so, yes. England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries has suggested normal life will not resume for at least six months.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA), says it is plausible that if lots of people have had the virus already, restrictions could ease in June.
However, he says that is a big if and nobody can really predict the end of the epidemic.
What does it depend on?
Experts agree there needs to be mass testing to get an idea of how many people have the virus at present and how many have had it (an antibody test).
At present, it is not known how many cases are occurring in the community. If people could be tested and given the all-clear, they could get back to work and to their daily lives.
Robert Dingwall, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, says the priority is likely to be getting people back to work so that “we can restore a functioning economy”.
He adds: “This would start to increase usage of the transport system and the consequences could be carefully monitored.”
Does that mean restrictions could all be lifted at once?
No. Prof Hunter says the UK could start lifting restrictions gradually. It could also base them on people’s exposure and whether they are immune or not, thanks to testing.
But, if the UK relaxes restrictions too soon, there will be another peak of the virus.
He says: “I think what will happen is that (infection numbers) will go down in June and we’ll start relaxing our controls in June.
“In the summer, I think there will be some transmission but not so much.
“We will then get another peak in September and October, but the second peak won’t be as dreadful as the first one… and we should have drug treatments by the autumn that will stop people developing such serious illness.
“If we have antibody tests, it also means we only have to start worrying about people who are still susceptible to the virus.”
What about my summer holiday?
Prof Dingwall says there “is just too much uncertainty” to predict when restrictions might be lifted.
He says when restrictions lift, it would be sensible to restore a certain amount of leisure travel, at least on a regional basis, to revive the tourism and hospitality sector.
“Older and vulnerable people can make their own risk assessments against this general background – the personal risks will vary a lot according to where they live and what they need to do,” he says.
But he predicts that international travel will not resume properly until next summer. Prof Hunter is hopeful it could be much sooner than that.
Is the only true way out of this a vaccine?
Prof Dingwall says yes.
“One of the things that worries me is that governments seem to be encouraging the belief that once we have had this period of sacrifice, the virus will have gone away,” he says.
“The most we can achieve is to have enough people to have been infected that the virus circulates at a much lower level, much like seasonal influenza, and we can adjust the capacity of the NHS to deal with outbreaks when they occur.
“Once a safe, effective and affordable vaccine is available – and I am quite sceptical about the idea that this can be delivered within 18-24 months, a huge global effort will be required to eradicate it.”
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