The move comes as the Scottish Government today publishes an outline of what life will look like as the coronavirus lockdown begins to be lifted, warning of a “new normal” rather than a return to life as it was before.
Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Chris Whitty told reporters at the daily Downing Street press briefing that some measures would need to stay in place until there was a vaccine or a drug that reduced the severity of Covid-19.
After a wave of cancellations affecting major summer events such as the Edinburgh festivals and Wimbledon, Prof Whitty’s comments will cast doubt over important gatherings later in the year, including Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and winter celebrations.
In a signal of further disruption to come, yesterday Buckingham Palace extended the cancellation of public royal engagements into June. There has been growing speculation about the possibility of restrictions being relaxed, so that some non-essential businesses can reopen and pupils can return to school, with the possibility of in-person attendance on alternate weeks being raised.
Businesses also face the likelihood of having to reconfigure workplace layouts and shift patterns to guarantee employees are spaced at least 2m apart as the lockdown is eased. Last night it was reported that Conservative backbenchers on the 1922 Committee voiced concerns at the impact on the economy of the lockdown continuing.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday unveiled plans for contact tracing on a “large scale” as a way of keeping the virus under control once the current lockdown is eased.
Through increased widespread testing of the general population and isolating sick people and all their contacts, the hope is that localised outbreaks of coronavirus can be controlled.
But asked about the prospect of the lockdown being significantly eased, Prof Whitty said: “In the long run, the exit from this is going to be one of two things, ideally.
“A vaccine, and there are a variety of ways they can be deployed ... or highly effective drugs so that people stop dying of this disease even if they catch it, or which can prevent this disease in vulnerable people.
“Until we have those, and the probability of having those any time in the next calendar year are incredibly small and I think we should be realistic about that, we’re going to have to rely on other social measures, which of course are very socially disruptive as everyone is finding at the moment.
“But until that point, that is what we will have to do, but it will be the best combination that maximises the outlooks. But it’s going to take a long time and I think we need to be aware of that.”
Prof Whitty said any easing of lockdown measures must keep the transmission of coronavirus from one person to the next – known as the R value – to below one.
He said: “We cannot allow R, the force of transmission, to go above one for any extended period at any point because, if it does, exponential growth of this will continue.
“It does not take very long from where you get from bad numbers to really bad numbers. This disease is not going to be eradicated, it is not going to disappear, so we have to accept that we are working with a disease that we are going to be with us globally for the foreseeable future.
“We have to be very realistic if people are hoping it’s suddenly going to move from where we are in lockdown to where suddenly into everything is gone, that is a wholly unrealistic expectation.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will unveil a Scottish Government paper on life beyond lockdown today, and said it would “evolve into a detailed plan as our evidence develops”. “The lockdown measures currently in place are absolutely necessary to suppress the virus, protect our health service and to save lives. But we need to chart a way forward and this paper sets out the principles that will guide us,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“Life may not return to normal for some time yet, but there is a way forward, and ultimately we will come through this challenge.”
Earlier, experts researching a possible coronavirus vaccine said it may be available for frontline workers and the most vulnerable by late winter.
Professor Robin Shattock from Imperial College’s Department of Infectious Disease, said if a vaccine candidate is shown to be safe and effective, it might be ready before the end of the year. But it could be 2021 until it is available on a global scale.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told reporters the lower the transmission rate, the more options for easing the lockdown were on the table.
In the Commons, Mr Hancock said he was confident the country was at the peak of the outbreak, but stressed that continued social distancing was needed to bring the number of new cases down.
Mr Hancock has come under fire over his 100,000-a-day testing target, which is set for the end of this month.
Latest Government figures show that less than half the testing capacity is being used.