Mask-wearing will persist indefinitely in Britain despite the roll-out of a Covid vaccine, the deputy chief medial officer has indicated.
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Professor Jonathan Van Tam warned on Wednesday evening that the approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab in the UK did not herald the end of the virus, telling a Downing Street press conference: "I don't think we're going to eradicate coronavirus ever. I think it's going to be with humankind forever."
Prof Van Tam hinted at the prospect of annual winter inoculations against Covid becoming the norm in years ahead. Comparing it to flu, he said: "I think we may get to a point where coronavirus becomes a seasonal problem."
He suggested face coverings would remain a staple of daily life, saying: "Do I think there will come a big moment where we have a massive party and throw off masks and hand sanitiser and say that's it, it's behind us, like the end of the war? No I don't."
Habits learned during the pandemic which "clearly stopped the spread of other respiratory viruses" as well as coronavirus "may perhaps persist for many years and that may be a good thing if they do", he said.
Since July, face coverings have been mandatory in England when on public transport, visiting shops and inside hospitality venues, but not while seated at a table to eat or drink. People who refuse to wear one and have not been granted a medical exemption can be fined up to £6,400.
Boris Johnson appeared alarmed at Prof Van Tam's assertion that coronavirus suppression measures such as masks were here to stay, saying: "Yes, maybe – but you may want to get back to life pretty much as close as normal." The Prime Minister said that "eventually the vaccine will make a very significant difference to the way we live our lives".
Setting out his intention to "clarify" his meaning, Prof Van Tam said: "I do not think the Government will continue to have to recommend social distancing masks and hand sanitiser forever and a day.
"I hope we will get back to a much more normal world, but the point I was trying to make was do I think, possibly some of those personal habits for some people will persist longer, and perhaps become enduring for some people? Yes, I think that's possible."
Mr Johnson compared such a scenario to the Far East, where voluntary mask-wearing is common, but said: "Who knows?"
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