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Chris Whitty says we might never reach population immunity to COVID amid warning of 'huge surge'

Will Taylor
·News Reporter
·3-min read
Chris Whitty made stark warnings at Wednesday's Downing Street press conference. (PA)
Chris Whitty made stark warnings at Wednesday's Downing Street press conference. (PA)

A top government medical expert has issued a stark warning about the future of the UK’s coronavirus outbreak.

Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, has said the nation is “not anywhere near” being able to lift social distancing restrictions, despite the beginning of mass vaccination.

Responding to a question at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, Whitty said that more needs to be known about whether vaccines reduce transmission of COVID-19.

He also warned that restrictions cannot be eased when the most vulnerable, such as elderly people, are vaccinated.

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Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty during a media briefing on coronavirus (COVID-19) in Downing Street, London.
Chris Whitty warned restrictions will not ease up in the very near future. (PA)

“If we let go, at that point, there’ll be a huge surge and people who are a bit below the highest risk groups... will then in very large numbers get infected,” he warned.

“Some of those would get very seriously ill and end up in hospital and some of those would die.”

That was followed by a warning that despite hope more vaccines, including the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna jabs, will join the one from Pfizer-BioNTech in gaining regulatory approval, there will not be a sudden point where COVID-19 no longer poses a risk to people.

“We will not get to the point there is zero risk,” Whitty said, adding that coronavirus would still be in circulation as vaccinations continue, just at a lower level.

“The decision for society, led by political leaders, is going to be at what level of risk do we actually start to raise these measures and that’s going to be a difficult choice.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing on coronavirus (COVID-19) in Downing Street, London.
Boris Johnson urged for a more low-key Christmas. (PA)
Care home worker Pillay Jagambrun, 61, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in The Vaccination Hub at Croydon University Hospital, south London, on the first day of the largest immunisation programme in the UK's history. Care home workers, NHS staff and people aged 80 and over began receiving the jab this morning.
Despite the roll-out of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, there is no sign yet of social distancing restrictions easing up. (PA)

And he emphasised that “we’re not anywhere near that yet” and the next step is to get the vulnerable vaccinated.

Whitty said while jabs will protect most people from serious illness, it is not yet known if they will provide a reduction to the transmission of coronavirus.

While they are likely to have some impact, he said if vaccinations don’t reduce transmission enough “we will never achieve this concept of population immunity or herd immunity”.

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Prime minister Boris Johnson also emphasised that “we’re by no means” ready to ease social distancing permanently, but discussed a “potential crossover point” when more people receive jabs and the country can “think very differently about the non-pharmaceutical interventions, the social distancing and all those types of measures”.

“There will come a point, I believe, between now and Easter when that will happen,” he said.

“But what we’re trying to do now is massively accelerate if we possibly can that vaccination programme.”

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