Despite positive news about potential coronavirus vaccines, the public should be warned that the pandemic may yet stretch into autumn next year, experts have said.
The government has suggested that life may return to some normality by Easter 2021, but minutes from a meeting of Scotland’s COVID-19 Advisory Group paint a different picture.
In the meeting, leading scientific advisers warned that the “pandemic could stretch till next autumn and there needs to be engagement with the public on this”, according to The Times.
The meeting took place on 2 November – before breakthroughs in vaccines were made public – but the group was told at the same session that the first COVID vaccinations could be administered in December.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Scottish COVID-19 Advisory Group and an expert in infectious diseases at Edinburgh University, was hopeful about vaccinations – but urged caution on expectations of life returning to normal.
He said: “If it is rolled out really efficiently and if the vaccine works as well as we all hope it will work, it is conceivable it will make a difference by Easter…
“The vaccine will be effective, we have seen the data, but if it is not as effective in solving the pandemic as a whole including the possibilities about how many people take it up, then my personal judgement is we might be looking at September.”
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Linda Bauld, a behavioural scientist at Edinburgh University, said the autumn 2021 scenario was a “very pessimistic” timescale but that the public should be told of what could happen.
She added: “It is better to have a road map.
“All the literature on behaviour change and how we cope with crises show it is better to have some information about the duration and so people can adapt.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish government said: “As this pandemic continues, experts across the world are still understanding more about the virus.
“That’s why it’s so important that everyone continues to follow the guidance to keep themselves and others safe.
“Our guidance will continue to be informed by the independent advice of experts such as the COVID-19 advisory group.”
The details of the meeting come after health secretary Matt Hancock said he hopes the rollout of a COVID vaccine will signal that life can go back to “normal” by Easter.
There will be a shift to an emphasis on “personal responsibility” rather than social distancing after Easter once the vaccines have reached the most vulnerable people, he added.
Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, has also said 2021 has a good chance of being far better for humanity than 2020.
Stevens also said a “lot of uncertainty” remains around what extra costs the coronavirus pandemic will cause for the NHS.
Lord Victor Adebowale, chair at the NHS Confederation, asked Stevens how he is, and he replied: “I think like everybody, there’s a sense that we are going to have a very pressurised winter, but that looking out perhaps to Easter and beyond there are some grounds for optimism, not just on things like vaccination and mass testing and some of the new treatments, but that 2021 has the realistic possibility of being frankly a far better year for humanity than 2020.”
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