The UK is past the peak of the current wave of coronavirus with cases, hospital admissions and deaths on a “downward slope”, according to the chief medical officer.
Here is a look at what that means for the future and the route out of lockdown.
– What is the current situation?
Most of the UK is living under tough lockdown restrictions.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told a Downing Street briefing on Wednesday: “I think that most of my colleagues think we are past the peak.”
He said that “provided people continue to follow the guidelines”, the UK is “on the downward slope of cases, of hospitalisations and of deaths”.
But he warned that this “doesn’t mean you could never have another peak”.
Echoing the cautionary tone, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that while there are “some signs of hope” with the numbers of Covid patients in hospital starting to fall, “the level of infection is still alarmingly high”.
– But with the vaccine rollout under way, surely that will make all the difference?
Yes and no. Prof Whitty emphasised that it can take several weeks for immunity to build after having a jab.
He also said that while vaccines “probably reduce the risk of transmission”, scientists are “not absolutely confident about by how much”.
Data from a study by the University of Oxford released this week suggested a single dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine offers protection of 76% for up to three months and may reduce transmission by 67% – with efficacy rising to 82.4% after the second dose 12 weeks later.
Prof Whitty said that while the rate of virus within the community remains “incredibly high”, vaccines must be used alongside continued social distancing “to pull the rate of the virus right down”.
– What does the route out of lockdown look like?
That is not yet clear and might not be for another few weeks. Mr Johnson has committed to setting out his plan for England on February 22.
He has described the Government’s approach as a “prudent and cautious” one.
Indicating his hopes of avoiding another lockdown, he told the Downing Street briefing: “We have got a timetable for the way ahead, we don’t want to be forced into reverse.”
Schools will be first to reopen, with the earliest date being March 8 for England and Northern Ireland.
Scotland and Wales hope to begin phased reopenings of schools after half-term, from February 22.
Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething said there cannot be a “huge splurge of reopening” as that would risk “a significant bounce-back in cases”.
– How is summer 2021 looking?
Things could be “more or less back to normal for the summer” if the vaccine rollout goes to plan, one expert advising the Government has said.
Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) member Professor Andrew Hayward said the fact the virus is a seasonal disease should allow a reopening by summer.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Once the most vulnerable people, particularly those over 50 and those with chronic illnesses, are vaccinated then yes I think we can see a significant return to normality.
“That, in addition to the fact coronavirus is a seasonal disease, I think will make a big difference and allow us to open up.
“I think what we’ll see is a phased opening up as the vaccination levels increase, and then we will be more or less back to normal for the summer, I would imagine.”
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi has declined to put a date on when all over-50s can expect to receive a jab, saying a target will be set for reaching them and people with underlying conditions once the most vulnerable have been offered their vaccinations by February 15.
Prof Hayward told BBC News it is “difficult to say” whether mass gatherings would be a good idea and acknowledged that travel is something “that may still be affected”.
Asked about the use of the word “normal”, he said: “It is difficult to balance the language and I think it is right to signify that there is some light at the end of the tunnel here.”
Indicating that summer holidays this year might be staycations rather than trips abroad, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said he is “optimistic” people will have “a great British summer”.
He is due to set out the “operational plan” for hotel quarantines next week.
UK nationals and residents returning from “red list” countries will be kept in quarantine hotels for 10 days to slow the spread of new virus strains, but no date has been announced yet for when the measure will begin.
Asked about Wales, Mr Gething said it was “too uncertain” yet to say that people will be able to holiday abroad, adding that there will be a need for “responsible choices”.
– What about next winter?
Prof Whitty said the virus “is not going to be eradicated from the globe or indeed eliminated from the UK” and could surge again in winter “because that’s what highly contagious respiratory viruses always do”.
He told the Downing Street briefing it should not be a surprise to anyone that even with a successful vaccine rollout and the jabs working well “there will still be residual risk”.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA), has said that some social distancing measures are likely to be needed throughout next winter to prevent a spike in deaths, largely among the unvaccinated.