Plan for the future now or Covid will last for years, UK scientists warn

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Experts condemn government’s ‘short-term’ response and urge it to rethink its approach

Ambulances at the Royal London Hospital on Saturday 9 January.
Ambulances at the Royal London Hospital on Saturday 9 January. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters
Ambulances at the Royal London Hospital on Saturday 9 January. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters

Last modified on Sun 10 Jan 2021 13.31 EST

Senior British scientists have warned that a lack of long-term planning in the battle against Covid is leaving the nation vulnerable to major outbreaks of the disease for at least another year.

The rollout of vaccines currently under way would cut hospital admissions and deaths among the old and vulnerable, they said, but it would still leave many other people at risk of being infected and suffering from the long-term effects of the disease.

Even though millions of doses of vaccine are being administered, serious outbreaks of Covid-19 are likely to continue throughout the year and into next year. These issues should be the focus of careful planning now, the scientists warned.

“Having 20 million people vaccinated is likely to reduce numbers of cases but we must not forget that this is a highly transmissible virus and if we do not continue with social measures, it will soon whip round communities again and cause havoc,” said Liam Smeeth, professor of clinical epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“I can understand the short-term panic that is going on at present as hospital cases rise so quickly but I am amazed at the sheer lack of long-term strategy there has been for dealing with Covid,” he told the Observer. “I can see no signs of any thinking about it.”

This view was backed by Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University. “This epidemic would have unfolded very differently and in a much happier way if we had accepted, back in February, that we were in this for the long term,” he said. “However, the view that it was a short-term problem prevailed.

“It was thought we could completely suppress the virus, and that is why we are in the mess that we are in now.”

The idea that the virus could be eradicated was a costly mistake, said Martin Hibberd of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “We have to understand Covid-19 is going to become endemic. The virus will not disappear. We are not going to eradicate it. Even if every human on Earth was vaccinated, we would still be at risk of it coming back.”

Several other issues still have to be resolved, added Hibberd. These include concerns about how long vaccines provide protection and how new variants might evade vaccine protection. “We might be lucky and find the virus does not change very much and vaccine cover is not affected, causing the virus level to drop to low prevalence,” Hibberd said.

“However, the virus might turn out to be as good as influenza at changing its coat. In that case, we will end up having to make new vaccines and distribute them every year. We should be thinking about that problem now.”

The prospect of restrictions being enforced for many months was also raised by Anne Johnson, an epidemiologist at University College London. “In March, we are still going to be under restrictions which will have to be imposed for months after that. What happens in autumn will depend on our success in keeping the virus down over the summer,” she said.

“We will also need to analyse how much virus there is in the community and calculate what antibody levels have been triggered by natural infections and by vaccination. These are going to be very important in determining the spread of the virus next winter.”

Smeeth argued that social distancing measures could possibly have to continue until next winter and warned of the dangers of new virus mutations evading vaccine protection. “Sadly, I feel we are very far from being out of this epidemic,” he said. “It is possible the virus could mutate tomorrow to become harmless. That is not a totally naive hope.

“But having said that, so far all we have discovered are mutations that actually made it more infectious and that is something we should be preparing to deal with – though I don’t see much sign of that happening.”