Social distancing may have to continue until spring 2022 despite the rollout of effective Covid-19 vaccines, a leading scientist has claimed.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA), warned that some social distancing measures are likely to be needed throughout next winter to avoid a spike in deaths, largely among those who have not been vaccinated.
‘Gradual reduction in restrictions’
Prof Hunter explained that as the vaccine rollout continues, restrictions will gradually be able to ease and he predicted a near-normal summer this year.
By spring 2022, the number of people who are left exposed to coronavirus could be so small that social distancing should be allowed to stop, but it is expected some restrictions will have to remain until then.
Prof Hunter said: “The big question around when we can get back to normal is still not possible to say for certain.
“The key issue is what we do about vulnerable people who have declined a vaccine or who are unable to have the vaccine?
“I suspect we will have to continue with some degree of social distancing until at least spring 2022, if only to protect vulnerable individuals from severe disease who have declined immunisation.”
However, as more vulnerable people are vaccinated, the need for hospital beds will fall and there will be a substantial drop in the reproduction number of the virus (the R rate), which should mean restrictions will not need to be as severe as they are at the moment.
He added: “The way I see it, we will see a gradual reduction in restrictions, probably starting the end of this month, maybe early March, that will mainly be about schools reopening, followed by other sections of society.
“As we move into spring, the better weather will also reduce R and there will be more easing as we move through spring and into summer.
“But I think we may see another surge in cases next autumn and probably some tightening of the rules again, but I really doubt it will be as tough as this winter.”
Vaccines won’t stop all cases
Prof Hunter explained that most of the people who may be in hospital with coronavirus next winter will be those who have not had the jab, and as vaccines do not provide 100 per cent protection, it is likely there will be some cases and deaths among the vaccinated.
While vaccines do prevent some onward transmission of the virus they will not stop all cases, although the pool of unprotected people will reduce as more people get the vaccine.
As such, the risk of infection will be small enough that in time, restrictions will no longer be needed.
Prof Hunter said he would be surprised if there are more than half of the deaths next winter as seen in the current wave, and he expects schools will have a full academic year next year with minimal interruptions, although local outbreaks could still occur.
He explained: “You’re going to start seeing localised flare-ups in areas where vaccination coverage hasn’t been as good as you would have liked.
“So I think what will happen is we will put a lot more effort into identifying clusters early.
“When we identify clusters, we will have another go at persuading people to be vaccinated in those areas, and possibly imposing some form of local restriction in those areas, whilst that localised outbreak is controlled.”
“But more generally, I suspect during the winter, it will be a continuation of wearing face coverings. And it would not surprise me if there is an ‘If you’ve not been vaccinated, stay at home’ message.
“It’s plausible that some larger, crowded venues may also be forced to close next winter for a couple of months.”