Hopes are rising that Britain may soon put the worst of Covid-19 behind it. After a year in which the disease has paralysed the nation, killed more than 100,000 people, closed schools and universities, and brought the NHS to its knees, there are now signs of hope emerging.
Most optimism stems from Britain’s vaccination programme, which has resulted in the inoculation of more than 10 million people in the past two months alone, and which aims to have vaccinated the entire adult population later this year.
The nation’s lockdown nightmare may be ending. But exactly when? And what are the pitfalls that lie ahead? We look at three scenarios that focus on the possible state of the nation in early May.
The optimist’s view
In the wake of the national lockdown and a successful vaccine programme, most scientists believe that Covid deaths, hospitalisations and daily cases will have plummeted by the end of April. Schools and universities will have reopened, non-essential shops will back in business, and there will be much more flexibility for travel within the UK.
However, such a scenario will only come about if Britain continues vaccinating at its current impressive rate of 2.5 million to 3 million inoculations a week.
“To maintain a campaign like that you have to need venues where you can vaccinate thousands every day; have a population willing to be vaccinated; have trained individuals who can carry out inoculations; and have assured supplies of vaccine,” said Prof Linda Bauld of Edinburgh University.
“The first three factors will be fine, but the fourth – the supply of vaccines – is a concern. We will have to be very sure of our supply lines though I am generally confident.”
Another key concern will be the reopening of schools. This is very likely to trigger a rise in case numbers and scientists will be closely monitoring infection rates. Some fear reopening will push up the infection rate – the R number – by as much as 0.5. So will there be enough people who have received first doses of the vaccine and whose protected state will counteract the rise and keep R down? Most scientists believe that the prospect of improving the lives of schoolchildren is worth the risk.
The middle ground
Prime minister Boris Johnson is now under intense pressure from the right wing of the Tory party to lift all Covid restrictions in order to open up the economy in time for the local and Scottish elections on 6 May. Scientists warn against such a move because they say it will leave millions of older and vulnerable people still vulnerable to catching severe cases of Covid.
Last summer Johnson released the country too early from lockdown, a move that resulted in the rapid arrival of the disease’s second wave. If he repeats this mistake, we could, by May this year, see numbers of cases of Covid-19 – having dropped spectacularly in March and April – to start to rise again as pubs, restaurants and other public venues open for businessand the virus starts to spread again.
“I think there’s is a real danger that we will ease restrictions too early and we will return to putting quite severe pressure on the health service once more,” said Prof John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. A return to lockdowns and increased social distancingwould then be necessary, he added.
“The problem is that by May we will still have vaccinated only those at highest risk of getting serious illness but not those who are responsible for the bulk of transmission of the virus. For good measure, we still do not know just how effective vaccines are at limiting transmission of the virus. That will also be a key factor in determining how summer in Britain unfolds.”
The worst case
By far the greatest worry for most scientists is the creation and spread of new variants of the Covid-19 virus – in particular, mutations that could evade the protection provided by the current vaccines on offer.
“It’s the nightmare scenario,” said Edmunds. “And I don’t think it’s unrealistic.”
Major travel restrictions are now being imposed in a bid to prevent the arrival of mutated viruses such as the South African variant, which many researchers fear could evade the protection provided by current vaccines. Crucially, these will have to be imposed for a long period, which suggests foreign holidays are unlikely to be commonplace this year. However, the UK will also have to monitor and scrutinise its own population to detect new variants that might appear within our own population. The result will be the return of national lockdowns if a new, worrying strain is uncovered.
According to this bleak scenario, life will have changed very little in three months’ time if new, alarming variants continue to appear.
That point was stressed by Prof Martin Hibberd, also of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “My main worry is that there will be a new strain of virus that will overcome the protective effects of previous infections and vaccines, meaning that we will have to develop new vaccines and then re-vaccinate everybody again. In the longer term, Covid-19 could have a similar impact on society that influenza has, with annual vaccinations, stay home if you are ill, and an acceptance that this will be a deadly disease for many years into the future.”