The UK may never get fully back to how it was before the pandemic with masks worn for years, a top virologist has warned.
While fears over mutant strains of Covid-19 could see Brits locked out of concert stadiums, sporting events and nightclubs with social distancing a key concern until into 2022.
Dr Phillip Gould of Coventry University says scientists’ “biggest worry” is that new mutations in the coronavirus could threaten to move the UK’s vaccine programme back.
The more transmissible variant discovered in Kent has spread across the population and has “out-competed the previous version, slowly taking over”, said the expert, who is Coventry University’s Associate Head of School for Health and Life Sciences.
It and the South African strain have raised fears among scientists that Covid-19 mutations could prove resistant to currently-approved vaccines.
Dr Gould sounded a note of optimism, as “amazing” new technology developed by scientists allows them to “adapt the vaccine, like we do every year with the flu vaccine”.
But while the UK is “lucky” to have vaccinated so many people at this point, and “well ahead of the game with vaccinations”, those hoping for a return to full normality anytime soon may be disappointed, the doctor warns.
And we may never go back to exactly how life was before the pandemic, with certain precautions becoming the norm forever – and social distancing until late this year, or even further.
“I think social distancing will remain for a long time,” says Dr Gould. “Our way of life will change long-term.
“Wearing a face mask in shops and on buses will remain for a long time, even after places and businesses have opened up.
“The economy can get going in summer – but it won’t look like a normal summer.
“We need long-term immunity and vaccination.”
The wearing of masks and the fastidious washing of hands has already become a way of life in the UK, Dr Gould suggests, as it is in, for example, East Asian countries who experienced previous pandemics.
“People’s perceptions have changed dramatically,” he says. “People go ‘where are my keys, where is my phone, and where is my mask’.”
And while there is hope of some reprieve for bored Brits in the form of a summer holiday, it is unlikely that social events will be back with a bang anytime soon.
The virologist does not see Britain’s bustling nightlife scene returning to the way it was this year.
And there is little chance big sporting events will be able to enjoy big crowds for many months.
“Not piling into places will remain the same for this year, definitely, long term,” he added.
“We will have changed our culture dramatically, like not going to work if you’re feeling a bit ill – something many of us used to do.
“Are high risk places like nightclubs going to insist you have a test or vaccine before you go in?
“Will we ever get the big football crowds back again? Long-term it’s possible.”
Dr Gould cited last year’s Cheltenham Festival – which has been blamed for a spike in cases in Gloucestershire after attracting 250,000 people between March 10 and 13 – and the Champions League match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid – which went ahead on March 22 with thousands of away fans allowed in despite the Spanish capital emerging as a Covid epicentre – as “big peaks” in transmission.
“We will be vaccinated, tests will be available, but I can’t see it until we are really confident that the vaccine programme is rolled-out – and that won’t be until the end of the year,” he added.
Dr Gould also suggested that rapid lateral flow tests, which use a mouth and/or nose swab, and can take about 15 minutes to give a result, will become very common before big events.
“We need to make sure the herd immunity is up, from the vaccination programme,” he adds.
Dr Gould, whose research interests is based around the molecular characterisation of respiratory viruses, is optimistic that new vaccines can be made “quickly”.