Boris Johnson may struggle to deliver his vision of a ‘significant return to normality’ in time for Christmas, leading scientists have warned.
The prime minister signalled another significant easing of coroanavirus lockdown restrictions in England on Friday, relaxing work-from-home guidance and paving the way for theatres and sports stadiums to reopen.
At a No 10 press conference, he said it was his ‘strong and sincere hope’ that ministers would be able to review the remaining restrictions, such as the closure of night clubs, from November onwards.
However a former chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, said that it could prove difficult to achieve with respiratory illnesses tending to flourish in the colder weather.
He said that while the disease was declining, there were still between 3,000 and 11,000 new cases a day in England.
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‘It is going to be difficult. We know that winter is when respiratory viruses thrive so it is going to be tough,’ he told BBC’s Newsnight.
‘The Prime Minister said ‘Hope for the best, plan for the worst’. Of course what we need to do as far as possible is prevent the worst.’
His comments echoed the cautious tone of chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty, who warned measures such as hand-washing, isolation and household quarantine would be needed for a ‘prolonged period’.
Giving evidence to the Lords Science and Technology Committee on Friday, he said: ‘It has not gone away. So, all of those need to continue for a long period of time.’
The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance – who had previously warned against easing the work-from-home guidance – told the committee that the winter would be a ‘very complex time’ with people going down with other illnesses which were not Covid-19.
He warned there may even need to be another national lockdown, saying: ‘As you release measures it is inevitable as you get more contacts that you will see more cases… Come winter, the challenges will be very much greater and of course there is a risk that this could need national measures.’
The prime minister’s roadmap to normality included a £3 billion fund to get the NHS ‘battle ready’ for a second wave at winter. He said it was safe to use public transport and announced that from August 1, employers in England can decide whether it is safe to for workers to return to the office.
From that date, most remaining leisure centres will also reopen and indoor performances with live audiences can resume if pilots are successful, while trials will begin for sports stadiums to reopen from October.
Wedding receptions for up to 30 people can resume, and bowling lanes, skating rinks, casinos and beauticians can reopen as long as they have measures in place to reduce Covid-19 transmission.
The PM struck an optimistic tone in his address, though he admitted the virus could become more virulent in the winter. He said Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty had taken part in a Cabinet discussion before the relaxation was announced, after some questioned if they were absent from the briefing because their answers might clash with his hopes for the country’s quick return to normality.
However he said that ultimately ‘decisions are taken by the elected politicians,’ suggesting he may have overruled scientific advice in a bid to get the economy moving again.
Plans in place to prevent another nationwide shutdown include handing local authorities in England new powers to close specific premises, shut outdoor spaces and cancel events. Ministers will also be able to close entire sectors or types of premises in an area and issue ‘stay at home’ orders, Mr Johnson said.
His plans have been criticised by some with opposition members and trade unions accusing him of passing the buck to employers to decide when it is safe to return to work.
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