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Chief Scientific Advisers Say There's A "Disastrous" Risk The Public Will Think The Pandemic Is "Done” As Vaccine Rolls Out

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, arrive at Parliament for their appearance in front of MPs (PA)

5 min read

The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has warned there is a risk the public think the pandemic is "all over" now a coronavirus vaccine is being rolled out.

Appearing alongside England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty at a joint meeting of the Commons science and technology and health and social care committees, Sir Patrick warned that "very few people" would recommend easing Covid-19 restrictions at this stage.

Sir Patrick sounded a note of caution, just one day after the first jabs against the disease were administered anywhere in the world across the UK.

"The biggest risk we face now is everyone thinks this is all over. And it isn't all over," he said.

"We have a very important light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines. We've got a lot to do to roll out the vaccines, we've got a lot to do to make sure the vulnerable are protected.

"We're a long way off yet knowing how we can move it to the rest of the population, that's dependent upon things like does the AZ [AstraZeneca/Oxford] vaccine get approved.

"It's not the time to suddenly say we relax everything and, if that happens, we will have a big surge.”

This was echoed by Professor Whitty, who said despite the "self-discipline" shown by the public so far they must continue to follow all the rules through winter.

"We're heading into spring of 2021 in much better shape than we were three or four months ago," he told the committee.

"The first response would be to say 'well that's it, it's done' - that would be disastrous, because then actually the wave would come back incredibly quickly.

"We're all very nervous about January and February, which is the highest risk period for the NHS in particular, March as well.

"The alternative is to say 'actually, there is an end to this, we just need to get ourselves through this last period' and we really must be self-disciplined as we have been all the way through this year."

With four million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine set to be delivered before the end of the year, the senior government adviser was asked what proportion of people would need to be vaccinated for social distancing measures to be eased.

"I think very few people would recommend starting to really remove things during a high-risk period of the year, which the winter always will be for respiratory infections, until you have got the tiers which the JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] has laid out covered,” he told the cross-party group of MPs.

"Because those are the ones who are by far the most likely to die and they are the ones who are by far most likely to end up in the NHS.

"That does leave a lot of people who could, for example, have all the syndrome of things that are currently called long Covid, there are a variety of other medical things, it's not that that will get rid of the problem completely.

"Once you have got to that stage, I think a conversation about now what do we want to do next becomes a really important conversation."

He added: "If you only were to vaccinate those 20 million people, the numbers are rough but for the sake of argument, you are still going to have a lot of people who are susceptible.

"That will not produce population immunity even if it prevents transmission. So what that will do is substantially reduce mortality, significantly reduce the impact on the NHS, but it will still leave a lot of people who could become ill with this, and could in some cases have serious outcomes."

The chief medical officer was then asked at what point lockdowns would no longer be needed, replying: "At a certain point, society, through political leaders, through elected ministers and through Parliament, will say this level of risk is a level of risk that we think it is appropriate to tolerate.

"Just as we accept that in an average year 7,000 people die of flu, and in a bad flu year, 20,000 people die of flu. We accept that as that is what happens biologically.

"At a certain point you say, 'actually, the risk is now low enough that we can largely do away with certainly the most onerous things that we have to deal with'."

He added: "This will be a kind of gradual retreat from that, but it is a de-risking process rather than it's just going to go away.

"We will de-risk hopefully to a very low level of risk, but I think it's very unlikely we'll get to zero level of risk."

On the same subject Sir Patrick added: "It's a science-informed political decision.

"What we're looking at is exactly that sort of question, as to depending on the effects of the vaccine on transmission, which we don't know yet.

"As Chris has said, you would have different models as to what that would mean in terms of the degree of immunity across the population you will end up with, that will be relevant to keeping suppression of transmission versus protecting those who are most vulnerable.

"Priority number one has to be protect those who are most vulnerable, you can see the effects of that.

"There will still be transmission amongst others at that point, so we need to be aware of that, and then we will know a bit more as we learn about transmission across the different vaccines, what effect they have.

"But, ultimately, then there are some decisions to be made about how much risk society wishes to take with that."

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