England’s top medic has said that some restrictions may have to be brought back into place next winter to control the virus.
Professor Chris Whitty said people need to be aware the virus will not “disappear with spring”.
England’s chief medical officer told the Downing Street press conference that if people stick to the rules “really strongly” and at the same time the NHS is vaccinating “as fast as it can”, then the lockdown could be “enough”.
It is hoped the vaccine programme could get to a stage where no other measures are needed.
He warned there is a possibility that a “few” measures would be needed next winter – which is a time when viruses thrive.
“If we did not do all the things all of us must now do, if people don’t take the stay at home message seriously, the risk at this point in time, in the middle of winter with this new variant, is extraordinarily high,” he said.
Prof Whitty said the risk level will gradually decrease over time, with measures being “lifted by degrees possibly at different rates in different parts of the country, we’ll have to see”.
“We’ll then get over time to a point where people say this level of risk is one society is prepared to tolerate and lift right down to almost no restrictions at all,” he added.
“We might have to bring a few in next winter, for example, that is possible, because winter will benefit the virus.
“The aim of this is to de-risk it as much as possible by the vaccine to the point where we get to the stage where the risk is incredibly low, relative to where we are now, just as we do with flu where every year an average of about 7,000 people die, in a bad year up to 20,000 die – we accept there is a level of risk that society will tolerate.”
Prof Whitty added that the risk will be reduced by vaccination but zero risk “is not something which is a realistic possibility”.
He said that if people stick to the rules “really strongly” and at the same time the NHS is vaccinating “as fast as it can”, then the lockdown could be enough.
On the longer term, he added: “What we all hope is that we can get a vaccine programme which actually means we don’t have anything in the future at any stage, that would be ideal.
“I think it is also important to understand that this coronavirus is not going to go away, just as flu doesn’t go away, just as many other viruses don’t go away.”
Prof Whitty continued: “The hope would be that we don’t need to do anything, certainly nothing on the scale we are having to at the moment, because vaccination should take the great majority, possibly all, of the heavy lifting.
“But I think we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this just disappears with spring.
“What will happen with spring is the risk will go right down, hopefully we’ll have spring, summer, autumn, possibly winter as well, with almost nothing in place once the full vaccination programme is through.”
He also said that one in 50 people being estimated to have coronavirus across the UK is “really quite a large number indeed”.
“But then we had the problems with the new variant and the worst period of winter combining to lead to a significant increase since that time. We’re now into a situation where, across the country as a whole, roughly one in 50 people have got the virus,” he continued.
“One in 50 is really quite a large number indeed.”
Prof Whitty said the UK’s chief medical officers met on Monday morning to review data and on the same day advised that the country should move to coronavirus alert level five.