Coronavirus will not be eliminated and Britons must learn to live with it, Tony Blair warned as he urged the Government to focus on containment measures to see the country through a second wave.
The former prime minister said infrastructure to stop the spread of the virus was critical as another national lockdown would not be possible, suggesting that people instead need to learn to live safely with the virus.
In an exclusive interview with the PA news agency, Mr Blair described the crisis as “the biggest challenge logistically and practically” a government has ever faced, but criticised ministers for not yet putting in place an “infrastructure of containment”.
He said: “The reality is that we’re going to be living with Covid-19 – we’re not really going to be able to eliminate it.
“And when you look at what has been happening in other countries, as lockdown has been eased, then more and more problems have appeared and many countries, having gone into lockdown then easing it, are finding spikes in the disease.
“You can’t be sure of this but there’s at least a 50/50 chance that you have a resurgence of the disease in the autumn and that’s why it is absolutely essential now to prepare for that.
“And to put in place every single last bit of containment infrastructure that you possibly can to make sure that if that happens you are able to control the disease, because you’re not going to be able to go back into the lockdown that we endured in March, April and May.”
A new report by his think tank, the Tony Blair Institute, calls for public confidence to be rebuilt “on the knowledge that every possible step has been taken to mitigate risk” – requiring containment measures in the absence of a “game changer” vaccine or treatment.
It recommends the rollout of mass testing, mandated use of face masks in all enclosed public environments, and suggests introducing an individual risk categorisation – with A showing those most at risk, to people with low health risks and a low transmission risk in category D.
The proposed categories would correlate to measures such as participation in mass testing and mandatory mask wearing for those with low health risks and high risks of transmission. The report also recommends that the Government issue those most at risk with N95 face masks.
Mr Blair said: “The purpose of our suggesting that you categorise people according to their risk is not because that means that if you are a lower risk that you shouldn’t take precautions, because you need to because you can spread the disease.
“But those people who are in what we call the A and B category where you are at significant risk, then it is actually part of the Government’s duty to help people with the measures that they need to protect themselves.
“So for example providing reusable masks for people who are especially at risk, making sure that for example people working in certain environments have shields… and making sure that those types of people also can get tested when and if they want to.”
The former Labour leader also reiterated his call for the Government to roll out mass testing, including of those who may not realise they have coronavirus.
“If you’re only testing the people with symptoms, it is very important to do that of course, but you are missing asymptomatic people and you are missing pre-symptomatic people and often part of the biggest problem with the disease are pre-symptomatic people,” he explained.
Mr Blair said the Government was “too slow” to lock down, though said he understood why people were “hesitant” to take such severe measures with their economy.
But he went on: “What isn’t forgivable going forward is not to build this containment infrastructure on the basis that you are at significant risk of further spikes of the disease and possibly a resurgence in the autumn.
“You’ve got the time to prepare. You’ve got to take that time and use it properly. And my anxiety about the Government at the moment is that it has still not really put in place that infrastructure of containment that is going to see us through a resurgence of the disease if unfortunately that happens.
“And really you can’t excuse that because it is now clear what you have to do to prepare and we should prepare.”
Mr Blair said the Government should be collecting more data to help improve the understanding of treating coronavirus and preventing its spread, and recommended ministers provide face masks of the required quality to those that need them.
“We’re still several marks below in my view of what we need to do and where we need to be if we should be unfortunate enough to have this resurgence…
“The simple truth of the coronavirus is that if you think back at the very beginning there were debates about whether we go for herd immunity and in the end rightly people rejected that and said ‘no, we’ve got to go to try and knock the disease out’.
“I think the common understanding… is that you’re not going to eliminate it, you’re going to have to live with it. So the question is how do you control it, because if you have to live with it and you can’t control it, you actually are going to go back into all the arguments around herd immunity because inevitably that’s where you’ll be.
“So the question is: what are the measures you need to put in place to control it, realising that its elimination is probably not possible.”