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Coronavirus latest: We can avoid lockdowns if we treat Covid like flu, says Chris Whitty

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Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance discuss coronavirus eradication

Professor Chris Whitty said the virus is “not going to go away” and we will have to learn to live with it. The Chief Medical Officer said: “You’ve got to work out what’s a rational policy to this. Here I would differentiate quite a lot between an epidemic or pandemic environment and what you get with, let’s say, seasonal flu. Every year, on average somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 citizens die of flu, most of them very elderly. And every few years you get a bad flu year where 20,000 to 25,000 die of it and it really dominates hospitals.

“The last time we had that was three years ago in the UK and no one noticed it.

“So it is clear we are going to have to manage it, at some point, rather like we manage flu.

“Here is a seasonal, very dangerous disease that kills thousands of people and society has chosen a particular way round it.”

A further 51 Covid deaths were reported across the UK yesterday, down a fifth compared to 63 announced last Thursday.

Some 4,479 new cases were confirmed, a 30 percent drop from almost 6,400 a week ago.

Speaking at a Royal Society of Medicine webinar, Professor Whitty said the future approach to managing Covid would depend on what people are “prepared to put up with”.

Professor Chris Whitty

Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty (Image: Hollie Adams/PA Wire/PA Images)

Some restrictions such as banning care home visits and closing schools slow the spread of infections but also prevent people living a “whole life”.

He said: “The right number of deaths is clearly none. We want to get as close as we can [to zero] but the question is – how do you balance that against other priorities?

“What we’ve demonstrated in the last year actually is we don’t have to have flu at all if we don’t want to, because the things we’ve done against Covid have led to virtually no winter flu.

“It has not completely disappeared but it’s been incredibly rare this year.

“If next year we said, ‘Covid has gone away magically and we’ve shown we can deal with flu, everyone lock down over the winter’, I think the medical profession would not make itself popular with the general public.

“So what we’ve got to do is work out some balance that keeps it at a low level, minimises deaths as best we can, but in a way that the population tolerates.” The top medic said vaccines and drugs would help to reduce the impact on the economy and society.

Asked whether areas of the UK that see high cases might have to go back into lockdown, he said: “No, I don’t think so.”

However, he said ministers may have to “pull the alarm cord” if a variant emerges that escapes immunity and could lead to an uncontrolled surge in cases. Prof Whitty also said he thought there will be a “very wide portfolio of vaccines” available in two years.

But for now we must proceed with caution to keep Covid-19 variants at bay, he insisted.

He warned that while vaccines are still being rolled out there will be a “period of risk” where the capacity to respond to variants is more limited.

A nurse administers a coronavirus vaccine at a hospital in Glasgow

A nurse administers a coronavirus vaccine at a hospital in Glasgow (Image: Jane Barlow/PA Wire/PA Images)

He said: “If we scroll forward two years, I think we’re going to have a very wide portfolio of vaccines. Large numbers of companies incentivised to compete on the basis of who can be first to get one.

“Hopefully, everyone in the world who wishes to be vaccinated will have had a first course of vaccination, so we won’t have the current big deficit globally.

“And we have got technologies where you can turn around a vaccine to a new variant incredibly fast. So I think technology will find a way through this in the long run. But we’ve got a period of risk between now and then when really the principle effort of the vaccine companies is just to get enough vaccines full stop.

“What we don’t want is a situation where we look back in six months and say, ‘If we’d only just been a bit more cautious for a month or two we would’ve actually got through vaccinating the whole population. We’d have understood a lot more, we’d know how to deal with this, we’d probably have a few variant vaccines on the stocks’.”

This caution would not be needed forever but “probably the next year or two”.

Prof Whitty also said it was not realistic to think you could stop variants entering Britain.

He said: “The more cases you import, the bigger the starting point it has and the quicker you’re going to get to the point where it’s a problem.”

Public Health England have urged people to stick to Covid rules this Easter if they are meeting loved ones.

Its weekly report said case rates had decreased but small increases were seen in the 10 to 19 age group over the past three weeks, likely a reflection of schools reopening and mass testing.



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