England’s chief medical officer has warned of a ‘catastrophic’ resurgence of coronavirus cases if people stop following social distancing guidelines now that the mass vaccination program has begun.
Professor Chris Whitty told MPs the winter months are high risk for the NHS, especially due to respiratory infections. He stressed the importance of vaccinating around 20 million people as a priority for a vaccine before any substantial easing of restrictions.
He said at a joint hearing of the Commons committees for science and technology and health and social services that the UK is heading into spring 2021 “in much better shape than three or four years ago. months, “but he cautioned against complacency.
“That would be disastrous, because then 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 that ‘actually there is an end to it, we just need to get through this last period, and we really need to be self-disciplined, like we have been doing throughout this year. ”
This week, some of the UK’s most vulnerable people received the first injections of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine outside of a clinical trial, as the NHS launched the most ambitious mass vaccination program in its history.
Older people in nursing homes, other people over 80, and health and care workers are first in line for vaccine, followed by people with health problems and younger people.
While vaccines are “by far the most powerful tool in our box,” said Whitty, very few people would recommend “to start really eliminating [restrictions] during a high-risk time of year, that winter will always be for respiratory infections, until you have covered the levels set by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI).
He added: “I want to be very clear. For the next three months, we will not have sufficient protection. The idea that we can suddenly stop now because the vaccine is there – that would be really premature, it’s like someone giving up a 16 mile marathon race. It would be absolutely the wrong thing to do.
An estimated 20 million people are included on JCVI’s priority list for the Covid-19 vaccine, which includes all people aged 50 and over, and anyone from 16 years of age who has a health problem that affects them. puts you at a serious risk of coronavirus.
The UK Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approved the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine last week and is reviewing clinical trial data for the AstraZeneca / Oxford University vaccine and the US National Institutes of Health / Moderna vaccine .
Testifying at the session, June Raine, chief executive of the MHRA, said the regulator expected a new package of test data from AstraZeneca in the coming days, which would inform its decision to license the emergency use. More data from US Moderna vaccine trials are expected in the next week or two.
Whitty said he expected to have a portfolio of three to four vaccines by the middle of next year.
Clinical trials of Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines have shown that they help protect against severe Covid-19 disease, but it is less clear whether they completely prevent infections and stop people from spreading the virus.
Whitty said the short-term impact of the vaccination program would be to reduce hospitalizations and deaths. However, the virus is believed to continue to circulate, leaving many people at risk for ‘long Covid’, a mix of medical problems that persist months after a person has apparently recovered.
On the prospects of returning to an almost normal life, Whitty said that at one point, society, through political leaders, would say the level of risk of infection was tolerable, “just as we accept that ‘on average, 7,000 people die from the flu. , and in a year of bad flu, 20,000 people die from the flu ”.
He added, “At one point you’re actually saying that the risk is now low enough that we can certainly largely eliminate the more onerous things that we have to deal with. It will be a kind of gradual retreat. But it’s a process of reducing risk, rather than just disappearing. “