Lockdown end: Expert predicts new normal – ‘Covid will remain a threat… perhaps forever’

Lockdown: Local restrictions are ‘possible’ claims expert

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A new normal is defined as a state to which an economy or society settles into following a crisis when this differs from life before the onset of the crisis. Currently, the COVID-19 crisis is still running rampant around the globe, prompting significant changes to life as we knew it before the virus hit. As coronavirus lockdown continues to be scaled back, with England due to lift its final restrictions in June, Express.co.uk speaks to a virologist and molecular medicine professor about what exactly the new normal will look like.

Professor Martin Michaelis, virologist and professor of molecular medicine at the University of Kent, said the new normal is difficult to predict, but Covid is certain not to disappear completely or suddenly.

The virologist told Express.co.uk: “COVID-19 will not go suddenly away. It will take until 2022 or even 2023 before a substantial fraction of the world population will be vaccinated.

“In the meantime, there will be a continuous risk that new variants are introduced, which are not covered by the available vaccines or immunity provided by infections with previous virus strains.

“Moreover, protection provided by vaccines and previous infections will most probably wane over time.

“Hence, COVID-19 numbers will need to be closely watched, also after the removal of all formal restrictions.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lockdown easing map is contingent on four conditions:

The coronavirus vaccine programme continues to go to plan

Vaccines are sufficiently reducing the number of people dying or needing hospital treatment

Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospital admissions

New coronavirus variants do not fundamentally change the risk of lifting restrictions.

Assuming these conditions are met, England will have its final lockdown restrictions, including all legal limits on social contact and event sizes lifted from June 21.

However, it will be far from a complete return to normal according to Professor Michaelis.

He said: “If there is no new surge of hospital cases and COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted as planned, there will still be a significant number of unvaccinated individuals.

“This is why experts and the Government expect peaks in COVID-19 spread with every easing step and why the Government still expects 30,000 or more further COVID-19 deaths.

“The scale of these peaks and whether easing steps will need to be delayed or restrictions to be reintroduced will depend on our behaviour and on whether novel variants emerge or are imported.

“Also without formal restrictions, this will not be a COVID-19-free world, and we will need to follow distancing rules (“Hands, Space, Face and Fresh Air) for the foreseeable future.

“We will be allowed to do what we want to do and to meet whom we want to meet, but this will have to be in a responsible way that minimises the risk of COVID-19 transmission.”

Professor Michaelis believes life after Covid will differ greatly from life before the pandemic, with the virus proving to be a persistent threat for a long time.

He said this would likely lead to practices such as the wearing of masks and more robust hygiene practices becoming inherent in modern life.

The virologist told Express.co.uk: “Life in a ‘post-COVID-19’ world will differ from our life before the pandemic. COVID-19 will remain a threat for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever.

“I hope that we will learn from COVID-19 in two different ways. Firstly, I hope that we will adopt a lifestyle that inherently reduces the transmission of infectious diseases.

“To do this, we will need to develop an intuitive understanding of which situations are associated with particular infection risk.

“Mask wearing may become a habit, in particular, if someone experiences disease symptoms, as it already is in many Asian countries. We may develop more rigid expectations of hygiene.

“For example, it is possible that buffets and sharing plates where everybody helps themselves become a thing of the past, in particular in public places like restaurants or at conferences.

“Moreover, more people may be more cautious about crowded places. Although this may feel funny for a while, it will develop into a new normal over time.

“The benefit would be that as a society we would become much more resilient towards disease outbreaks. Such a modified lifestyle would not just protect us from COVID-19 but also reduce deaths from flu or prevent norovirus outbreaks that can cause significant morbidity and mortality in care homes.

“Hence, we would be rewarded by living in a world with less disease.”

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Other areas which will change in a “new normal” post-Covid world will include guidance around mass events and indoor places according to the virologist.

He said it is likely there will be “changes and more caution there”, adding: “I would think that many people will be more careful out of their own motivation after the experience with COVID-19.”

Additionally, he said, “food, self-service and buffets may be organised differently.”

But it is not only social interaction and events which will be changed forever.

Professor Michaelis said new variants and the return of the virus would also remain a sinister threat.

The professor told Express.co.uk: “In a way, we will have to learn what we can do without causing further COVID-19 spikes or even waves.

“If the situation gets out of hand, restrictions will need to be reintroduced, and we will have to learn to do better.

“We already see new virus variants emerging that can infect individuals, who already had been infected, and that are not covered by the current vaccines.

“Moreover, COVID-19 vaccines will most probably only protect individuals for a limited time, perhaps between six months and a few years.

“Therefore, it is likely that we will get used to yearly COVID-19 vaccinations in a similar way as we know it from the annual flu jab.”

In the future, the only way to keep the survival of the virus under control is “suppression to very low numbers” according to Professor Michaelis.

He added: “So far, there is only one possibility to keep COVID-19 sustainably under control and this is suppression to very low numbers.

“If we reduce COVID-19 to very low numbers, ideally below one case per 100,000 residents per week, it will become possible to control COVID-19 spread by identifying and isolating infected individuals and their contacts.

“This will require that we continue with consequent random testing of asymptomatic individuals and that we support infected individuals so that they actually can self-isolate.

“In such a low COVID-19 scenario, there is also room for manoeuvre if we detect a spike and not an immediate need for sweeping measures.”

The virologist said low Covid levels will also help protect countries from new variants which are resistant to the vaccine.

He said: “Low Covid levels enable us to control variants against which there is no pre-existing immunity in our population. They also reduce the chance of new variants forming, because virus replication is minimised and new variants only occur through mutations when the virus replicates.

“Vaccines can help us to achieve the very low COVID-19 levels that we need to avoid sustainably substantial restrictions and lockdowns in the future.

“However, they cannot keep the COVID-19 levels down on their own in the long term, because they are always one step behind.

“When a new variant is detected, there will always be a time gap until new vaccines will become available.”

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