Coronavirus: Chief Medical Officer says UK faces 'real problems' during winter months
Chris Whitty has warned of "real problems" during winter
Coronavirus will cause the UK "real problems" during the winter months, England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has suggested.
The warning came as he suggested it was possible that a "effective and safe" vaccine for the virus might not be ready before the winter of 2021.
Speaking on Saturday, Professor Whitty said it would be "foolish" to plan for having a vaccine this winter, saying it was inevitable that the UK would continue to see localised outbreaks.
"I would obviously be delighted if it came earlier rather than later but I'd be quite surprised if we had a highly effective vaccine ready for mass use in a large percentage of the population before the end of winter, certainly before this side of Christmas," he said.
"Now that may be wrong. A lot of people are doing a huge amount scientifically, logistically to make sure that's a pessimistic statement, to try and see if we can get a vaccine at extraordinarily fast speed but we have to check it works and we have to make sure it's safe and these things do take time.
"So I think if we look forward a year I think the chances are much greater than if we look forward six months and we need to have that sort of timescale in mind.
"So planning for the next winter, it would be foolish to plan on the basis we will have a vaccine."
He added: "We should plan on the basis we will not have a vaccine and then if one does prove to be effective and safe and available then we're in a strong position to be able to use it and that will be great, but we should be planning on the basis of what we currently have."
Official figures from the Department of Health and Social Care show the number of confirmed UK coronavirus cases has hit 324,601, with 41,423 deaths linked to the virus.
But Professor Whitty said while he was confident in the "long-term" that scientists would deliver a working vaccine, he did not believe it would be available in the coming months.
His comments come amid growing fears among ministers that a second wave of the virus alongside traditional flu cases could put the NHS under severe pressure.
Speaking last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled plans to offer around 30 million people in England a free flu vaccine, saying it would help "protect the NHS in the winter months because we've still got Covid and the threat of a second spike of Covid, and its vital therefore to keep that pressure off the NHS by everybody getting a flu jab".
Meanwhile, Professor Whitty said younger people were behind a recent surge in cases in areas of the north west, such as Oldham and Blackburn, which have been hit with fresh lockdown restrictions.
"Certainly what we've seen in most countries is that it spreads through younger people and then it starts to move up the age bands," he said.
"Younger people, for example, who've got friends that work in care homes or work in healthcare settings, then it starts to lead to cases in people who are much more vulnerable and that's the point where you start to see significant long term health implications and sometimes sadly deaths."
He added: "The worry is that if rates start to increase again and you only have to look around the world, across North America, in Europe, in Asia now, in Latin America, that actually significant increases after having got on top of things are extraordinarily easy to happen if we’re not very very careful.
"If that happens, as the surge happens, it will move up the age groups to people who have got pre-existing health conditions and you would go back to seeing a situation where the numbers of people going to hospital are increasing and the numbers of people subsequently, sadly, dying increasing."