Social distancing may be needed for a long time, Chris Whitty says

Social distancing sign in Hyde Park. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Social distancing may be necessary for a long time, England’s top medic has said, warning that eliminating coronavirus is highly unlikely.

Professor Chris Whitty told the Lords Science and Technology Committee that, while certain hygiene measures will be around for the foreseeable future, keeping a safe distance from others will also need to be maintained.

He further told the peers on Friday that aiming to eliminate Covid-19 from the UK was “quite optimistic”.

Prof Whitty said: “There are some things which we started right at the beginning, which absolutely have to continue for a prolonged period of time, washing hands, isolation, household isolation.

“And then we’ve added to that things like contact tracing, most recently face coverings.

“And these are issues of, and issues around distancing, which have been varied but the reality is distancing remains an important part of this mix and how it’s interpreted in different governments has evolved.

“But it has not gone away. So, all of those need to continue for a long period of time.”

Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Credit: Aaron Chown/PA

The comments come after Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a Downing Street press conference it “may conceivably be possible” to depart from social distancing measures “by November at the earliest”.

England’s chief medical officer said that eliminating Covid-19 in a “highly connected” country like the UK would be very difficult.

Prof Whitty explained: “Elimination means zero cases onward transmitted and for this disease this is going to be very difficult.”

He added: “We’ve tried to eliminate or eradicate a very large number of diseases over the years.

“We have so far in humans eradicated one, smallpox, and we’ve tried on a lot of other occasions, this is not an easy thing to do.”

The committee also heard that it would be “incredibly important” to keep Covid-19 cases low in the winter.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said winter was “going to be a very complex time, where the vast majority of people of course who end up with the symptoms may not have Covid, they may have something else.

“And so there are going to be people potentially being isolated for reasons that are non-Covid.”

Prof Whitty said a coronavirus contact tracing app could be an “important” tool during the winter or if there is a surge of cases.

But added: “But of course there are operational issues and there are privacy issues that need to be completely sorted out before we could be confident we could use that.”

Agreeing with him, Sir Patrick warned: “I think it’s important to recognise it would have to be very widely applied, because unless everybody or a vast majority of people are using it, it’s really not going to add that much.

“So optimistic modelling of this says if 30% of people had the app it would give you 9% more contact identification.”

Sir Patrick also hailed the British public’s “extraordinary altruism and spirit” to want to do things that help other people during the coronavirus pandemic.

In response to a question about face coverings he told the peers communication needs to be clear about what benefit this brings “and face covering wearing is a classic one where there may be some protection to the wearer but there’s more protection to others”.

Prof Whitty added that public health guidance needs people “buying into it” so they understand what actions to take.

He acknowledged there were “technical” variations in terms of surgical face masks or face coverings available to the public.

But added: “The variation in those is much less important than getting people to do the basics.

“And the basics are, if you’re going to wear one in a high risk area it must cover your nose and mouth.

“Wearing a brilliant mask covering half your mouth, only your mouth or only your nose, clearly is only going to have very limited effect.”