Rules around social distancing and masks are likely to be scrapped this year but people may choose to keep them up, a leading scientific adviser has said.
Professor Neil Ferguson said people’s future behaviour may change – such as the desire to wear a mask and not to infect anyone if ill.
At present, the UK’s road map says “all legal limits on social contact” will be lifted no earlier than June 21.
Prof Ferguson’s comments came after Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England, suggested at the weekend that people may need to wear face coverings and continue social distancing for several years until life gets back to normal.
Asked about the prospect, Prof Ferguson told BBC Breakfast: “I suspect, later this year, the mandates, the legal requirements to do some of those things will have gone.
Watch: How to wear a face covering comfortably
“I think there’s an interesting question as to whether people’s behaviour changes as quickly.
“People have got used to being very cautious around each other, used to wearing masks.
“I can’t predict how quickly that will change or whether we’ve actually seen a permanent change in society, to some degree.
“I think it’s quite possible that this pandemic, which has been an immensely traumatic event for this country and for the world, will cause significant long-term cultural changes, behavioural changes in the population.”
He said, for example, it is routine in Southeast Asia for people to wear masks if they have a cold or any sort of respiratory disease.
“I can’t say whether that kind of cultural norm will cross to Europe, to the UK, but it’s quite possible that it will,” he said.
“We have got used to being careful, particularly if we’re slightly ill ourselves, about not wanting to infect other people, and so those sort of things may well happen here.”
Prof Ferguson, who works at Imperial College London, said he believes the UK’s reopening road map is still on track despite concerns over a third wave of Covid-19 in Europe.
He said the surge in Europe has “already happened to us and we’re through to the other side, but the real concern is things like the South African variant, where the vaccination programme we’re currently using, whilst it would still give some protection against that (variant), the protection would be reduced.”
The UK has “rolled out vaccination very fast and so we are in a very different position from most European countries”, he added.
“We have vaccinated more than twice the proportion of the population than any other European country has done, so we’re in a better place from that point of view.
“I don’t think, just because cases are rising in Europe, that necessarily throws our timetable into doubt; what it may do is affect planning around restrictions on international travel, how much we try and screen people coming into the country.”
On keeping to the road map, he said the UK has a “very good chance of both being able to relax measures and not needing to tighten up”.
However, he said, depending what happens in other countries, “travel may be one of the later things to be relaxed”.
“But I think we… whilst not everything will be back to normal by the summer, certainly by the autumn, it will feel a lot more normal.”
Regarding booster jabs in the autumn, Prof Ferguson said these would be “critical”, adding: “We don’t yet know how long the immunity lasts from the vaccines we’re giving, but natural immunity to coronavirus probably lasts a year or so, so it’s entirely likely we will need to boost immunity.
“We can’t stop things like the Brazilian and the South African variants forever and they are different immunologically.
“The current vaccines are not as effective against those strains probably, so for that reason as well we want to update vaccines and boost people’s immunity.”
Watch: How to remove a face covering correctly