Boris Johnson suggested today that the UK would still be dealing with coronavirus next summer, just days after promising a return to ‘normality’ in time for Christmas.
The Prime Minister this morning said he believes the UK will be ‘well past’ coronavirus by the middle of next year, but warned of ‘tough times’ ahead.
And he refused to put a timescale on how long Britons would be forced to wear face coverings to carry out everyday tasks.
It came on the day people in England were required to start wearing face coverings in shops, shopping centres, banks, takeaways, post offices, sandwich shops and supermarkets or risk a £100 fine.
But the comments on a visit to a London health centre come a week after he spoke of a ‘significant return to normality’ in time for Christmas – a vision that leading scientists warned would be difficult to deliver.
Mr Johnson also said today he would not make a ‘prediction’ about when social distancing measures would end, saying that it would ‘depend on our continued ability to drive down the virus’.
But last week, in response to a question from the public, the PM said it ‘may conceivably be possible’ to depart from social distancing measures, such as the one-metre rule, ‘by November at the earliest’.
It came as former prime minister Tony Blair warned coronavirus will not be eliminated and Britons must learn to live with it, urging the Government to focus on containment measures to see the country through a second wave.
In a media interview this morning Mr Johnson was asked who or what has been his biggest enemy in his year in office, saying: ‘This whole planet has faced a very nasty new foe in the form of a bug that we didn’t know about before.’
He added: ‘I think that by the middle of next year we will be well on the way, we will be well on the way past it.
‘But … I must be clear with people, I do still think that we have tough times ahead in keeping this virus under control.
‘We have tough times ahead in coming through economically, but I have absolutely no doubt that we are going to, and this country is going to bounce back stronger than ever before.’
Speaking about how long measures will have to remain in place, the Prime Minister said: ‘The use of face masks, the use of all the social distancing measures really does depend on our ability collectively to get the pandemic right down and to keep it down.
‘I’m not going to make a prediction about when these various social distancing measures will come off.
‘Obviously we have been able to reduce some of them. We no longer ask people to stay at home, we’re trying to get back much closer to normal, but our ability to dispense with the social distancing measures will depend on our continued ability to drive down the virus.’
Meanwhile a Tory peer has revealed the Government is examining if gloves may also need to be worn.
Responding to a question in the House of Lords, health minister Lord Bethell said: ‘To date, gloves are not in the guidance but they remain an area that we’re looking at.’
Earlier Mr Blair said infrastructure to stop the spread of the virus was critical as another national lockdown would not be possible, suggesting that people instead need to learn to live safely with the virus.
Mr Blair described the crisis as ‘the biggest challenge logistically and practically’ a government has ever faced, but criticised ministers for not yet putting in place an ‘infrastructure of containment’.
He said: ‘The reality is that we’re going to be living with Covid-19 – we’re not really going to be able to eliminate it.
‘And when you look at what has been happening in other countries, as lockdown has been eased, then more and more problems have appeared and many countries, having gone into lockdown then easing it, are finding spikes in the disease.
‘You can’t be sure of this but there’s at least a 50/50 chance that you have a resurgence of the disease in the autumn and that’s why it is absolutely essential now to prepare for that.
‘And to put in place every single last bit of containment infrastructure that you possibly can to make sure that if that happens you are able to control the disease, because you’re not going to be able to go back into the lockdown that we endured in March, April and May.’
A new report by his think tank, the Tony Blair Institute, calls for public confidence to be rebuilt ‘on the knowledge that every possible step has been taken to mitigate risk’ – requiring containment measures in the absence of a ‘game changer’ vaccine or treatment.
It recommends the rollout of mass testing, mandated use of face masks in all enclosed public environments, and suggests introducing an individual risk categorisation – with A showing those most at risk, to people with low health risks and a low transmission risk in category D.
The proposed categories would correlate to measures such as participation in mass testing and mandatory mask wearing for those with low health risks and high risks of transmission. The report also recommends that the Government issue those most at risk with N95 face masks.
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on coronavirus, said: ‘The Prime Minister said back in March we could send coronavirus packing within 12 weeks, now he’s admitting we are still likely to be tackling this pandemic next summer.
‘This stark admission shows that Boris Johnson’s bluff and bluster has finally collided with reality.
‘There is no time to waste in ensuring lessons are learned from the catastrophic mistakes made in responding to this crisis.
‘The Prime Minister agreed this week to consider the recommendations of the rapid cross-party coronavirus inquiry I am chairing, he must now commit to acting on them too.’
Mr Johnson was asked about whether he thinks it is a good idea for the public to be ‘shaming’ people who are not wearing face coverings in places where they should be worn.
He replied: ‘I think we should rely on the massive common sense of the British people that have so far delivered the results that we’ve seen, and that’s going to work.’
Mr Johnson said people understand the value of face masks in confined places.
At a No 10 press conference last week, Mr Johnson said it was his ‘strong and sincere hope’ that ministers would be able to review the remaining restrictions from November onwards, ‘possibly in time for Christmas’.
The chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, has warned that measures such as hand-washing, isolation and household quarantine would be needed for a ‘prolonged period’.
Giving evidence to the Lords Science and Technology Committee last week, he said: ‘It has not gone away. So, all of those need to continue for a long period of time.’
The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance – who had previously warned against easing the work-from-home guidance – told the committee that the winter would be a ‘very complex time’, with people suffering from other illnesses aside from Covid-19.