‘Inevitable’ new wave could mean masks and social distancing still needed

Ella Pickover, PA Health Correspondent
·4-min read

It is “inevitable” that there will be a new wave of Covid-19 infections, an expert has said.

Professor Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said face coverings and some sort of social distancing may still be needed if there is a new wave of infections later this year.

It came as experts said it could take a few years to get back to normal life, and scientists predicted a fresh wave of coronavirus cases will hit the UK.

Documents from the Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) group have been published which suggest an increase in hospital admissions and deaths is “highly likely” during the later stages of the UK’s road map out of lockdown.

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Prof Hunter told the PA news agency: “I think it is inevitable that we will see another wave of infection because that’s how coronavirus behaves.

“There are other coronaviruses that we’ve been living with for decades and they generally come in waves every two or three years.

“Vaccines reduce the risk of transmission but they don’t totally prevent transmission.

“And vaccine alone isn’t enough to bring the R value below one.”

Speculating on what a new wave of infections could look like, he said: “Current vaccines are really quite good at preventing severe disease – at least 80% after the first dose and probably closer to 90%-95% after the second dose.

“Therefore the ratio between cases and severe diseases and deaths that we saw last year won’t be repeated.

“And we will see far fewer severe cases and deaths than we saw last year.”

He added that cases of reinfection are likely to be “much less severe”.

“So when you’re seeing these waves of infection, as we move into the next decade or whatever, they will all be occurring in people who have already either been vaccinated, and also likely to have had a previous natural infection at some point.

“And so ultimately this disease will become less and less severe over coming years.”

He said a potential new wave of infections in the summer could be among both people who are yet to be vaccinated and those who have not built up enough immunity through vaccination.

“People who haven’t been vaccinated and haven’t yet had a prior natural infection will be at more risk of catching the infection, becoming symptomatic and becoming severely ill,” he said.

But he said the vast majority of vulnerable groups have been vaccinated, “but not all by any means”.

He added: “We will still see some people who have had the vaccine ending up developing severe disease and needing to go into hospital, but there will be far fewer.”

Asked whether social distancing will be needed in future, he told PA: “Irrespective of what we’re told by our leaders, I suspect there will be people who will continue to wear face coverings for some time to come, whether or not they have to by law.

“I can certainly see them being … relaxed at some point.

“If we do see a summer or autumn surge in infections, I could imagine that, in a number of contexts, face coverings will continue to be worn.

“I think if we are seeing another wave, then I think we will be encouraged, or forced, one or the other, to continue to wear face coverings and to practise some form of social distancing.

“So no hugging and kissing work colleagues probably this year.”

He added: “I don’t think we’ll be back to normal this year, but it will be a lot easier than it has been.”

Professor Sir Mark Walport told BBC Breakfast it could take a few years to get back to normal completely.

Asked how long social distancing and face masks might be part of people’s lives, he said: “We’ve lived with flu for many years, and we are unfortunately going to have to live with coronavirus, but we know that, over time, it will change its relationship with us in the sense that more humans will be immune.”

He said flu in a bad year can kill up to 20,000 people “and so, unfortunately, this is another of the infections that particularly kills more vulnerable, elderly people”.

“I suspect we’re going to have to live with some measure of social restrictions at least throughout this year, and we’ll see, hopefully next year we’ll be more and more normal, and in a couple of years we should return to complete normality.”