Only a vaccine or drugs can control coronavirus, Government briefing warns, as more details around lockdown released

The winter flu season may stop medics from being able to trace the coronavirus and put a strain on hospital beds as the symptoms of the two are so similar, a briefing document on coronavirus has warned.

By Geraldine Scott
Monday, 11th May 2020, 2:04 pm
Updated Monday, 11th May 2020, 2:10 pm

The document, which will be presented to Parliament this afternoon, explains the Government’s next steps in handling the epidemic.

It details that reopening schools or relaxing all social distancing measures would lead to a devastating second wave of coronavirus which would be much worse than the first, in advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

It comes as some minor tweaks were made to the lockdown rules, including removing the limit on the amount of exercise you can take per day and being able to meet one other person in, for example, a park while remaining two metres apart.

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A construction worker wearing a protective face mask at a building site in central London, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said people who cannot work from home should be "actively encouraged" to return to their jobs. Photo: PA

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson will tell MPs the virus will be in the population for a long time, and the document said “in the near future, large epidemic waves cannot be excluded without continuing some measures”.

The document released today said: “Only the development of a vaccine or effective drugs can reliably control this epidemic and reduce mortality without some form of social distancing or contact tracing in place.”

It said herd immunity had “never been part of the Government’s strategy” and said that “in the medium-term, allowing the virus to spread in an uncontrolled manner until natural population-level immunity is achieved would put the NHS under enormous pressure”.

Instead, the Government’s aim is “to return life as close to normal as possible, for as many people as possible, as fast and fairly as possible [...] in a way that avoids a new epidemic”.

But those in the extremely clinically vulnerable category were warned they will have to continue to shield for “some time yet” and the document warned the Government cannot only rely on the development of a vaccine, as it said “it is possible a safe and effective vaccine will not be developed for a long time (or even ever)”.

However, there are more than 70 vaccine development programmes worldwide and it may be possible to develop a treatment if not a vaccine.

Amid the advice that has changed, people who have to travel in public are now advised to wear face-coverings to protect against the illness.

The PM said last night that as of Wednesday, those who cannot work from home are now encouraged to return to their jobs if their employer is open.

But workers were urged to try and avoid public transport if at all possible.

And the document said: “This increased mobility means the Government is now advising that people should aim to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible and they come into contact with others that they do not normally meet, for example on public transport or in some shops.”

It said homemade face coverings - which are not the same as medical face masks - can reduce transmission in some circumstances.

Other changes in the rules include being able to now meet with one person not in your household as long as it is in an outdoor space and you remain two metres apart, you can also play sports such as tennis with someone outside of your household as long as social distancing is maintained.

People are also able to drive as far as they like, for example to take a walk in the countryside.

However the fines for breaking the rules are set to rise, and those coming into the country will now be required to quarantine for 14 days.

The starting point for lockdown fines in England will rise to £100 from Wednesday.

The first fine will be lowered to £50 if paid within 14 days, according to the Home Office.

Fines will double for each repeat offence, up to a maximum of £3,200.

Existing legislation known as the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 will be updated from Wednesday to reflect the changes coming into force.

It is not yet clear if the same changes to fines will be adopted in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is also looking at how safe it would be for households to be able to form a “bubble” with another household that they would be permitted to socialise with.

Should the infection rate remain low enough as these tweaks are made, by July the Government could allow pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, places of worship, and cinemas to reopen.