Professor Chris Whitty told the final daily coronavirus briefing that he would be “surprised and delighted” if the virus was no longer in the UK next spring.
On the day that Boris Johnson told Brits they could go back to pubs and restaurants, among other new freedoms, Professor Whitty struck a more cautious tone.
He told reporters: “I would be surprised and delighted if we weren’t in this current situation through the winter and into next spring. I think then, let’s regroup and work out where we are.”
Professor Whitty added that he thinks there will be a “significant amount of coronavirus” in the UK until next spring and that it would be “optimistic” to think that the disease will be overcome by then.
He added: “But I have an absolute confidence in the capacity of science to overcome infectious diseases – it has done that repeatedly and it will do that for this virus, whether that is by drugs, vaccines or indeed other things that may come into play.
“For medium to long term, I’m optimistic. But for the short to medium term, until this time next year, certainly I think we should be planning for this, for what I consider to be the long haul into 2021.”
The new measures announced by the Prime Minister could be dangerous if people don’t stick to social distancing rules, Professor Whitty warned.
He went on: “A lot of the changes are about emphasising things that we can do and it is really critical that individuals and firms take these really seriously,” he said.
“Because if we don’t take them seriously then chains of transmission between households will be re-established.”
Professor Whitty said ways to limit the spread of the virus over one metre might include not sitting face-to-face, or putting up “physical barriers” between people, such as perspex screens.
He added: “To be really clear, it is absolutely critical that every individual, every household and every firm takes these precautions seriously. If that does not happen, we will go back to a situation where transmission starts to rise again.”
Asked whether the new freedoms were too risky, Professor Whitty said: “This is a balance of risk, it’s like many things in medicine, you don’t go for operation if you don’t have you have to. It’s a balance of risk.
“And I think that this is a reasonable balance of risk. It is not risk-free, absolutely not risk-free, nobody thinks it is, and we may, at some point say that particular bit of the decisions that were taken was too much of a risk with the benefit of hindsight…but it is a balance of risk informed by reasonable professional judgments.”
Mr Johnson said he knew that Professor Whitty was particularly concerned about the July 4 opening date.
He told reporters: “As for July 4, I hope it will be a great day but obviously, you know, people have got to make sure they don’t over do it.
“I know Chris is particularly worried about this – we can’t have great writhing scenes in the beer gardens when the virus could be passed on.
“This has to be done in a sensible way, people should be giving their names to the pubs, to the restaurants, doing things in a way that allows us, if something does happen, to track back, to test and trace and stamp out any outbreak.”
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the Government’s approach to easing the lockdown was “reasonable”, although he agreed that there were risks involved.
He added: “You need to be prepared where there is local outbreaks to deal with them locally and if they become beyond local then you need to deal with them at regional and national levels which would mean reversal of some of the measures. That is the only way you can keep on top of this.”
Sir Patrick said the number of new infections were plateauing rather than going down to zero.
He went on: “Don’t be fooled that this means it has gone away. The disease is growing across the world. It is coming down in the UK but it hasn’t gone away,” he said.
One of the ways that the virus could be overcome is if a new vaccine can be developed. A vaccine being developed by a team at Oxford University could be released as soon as October in the “best scenario”, one of the lead researchers said on Monday.
And Sir Patrick said the Oxford University vaccine study was “probably” the “most advanced” in the world.
He predicted that further medical breakthroughs would allow the Government to “limit the sorts of distancing we have”.
Sir Patrick added: “I think we are with this a long time.“We hope that the vaccines and the therapeutics come along soon but there are no guarantees on any of those.
“And with therapeutics we have the building blocks, we have the first steps, let’s hope that progresses more quickly to make it a manageable disease which again would change some of the restrictions that you might need to apply.”