Covid: Masks and social distancing 'could last years'

People may need to wear face coverings and socially distance for several years until we return to normality, a leading epidemiologist has predicted.

Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisation at Public Health England, said basic measures could be in place until other countries successfully roll out jabs.

She also said a return of big spectator events required careful monitoring and clear instructions about staying safe.

Ben Wallace told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show that booking a break abroad now would be "premature" and "potentially risky".

The UK set another record for the number of coronavirus vaccine doses given in a single day on Saturday, with 873,784 jabs.

Dr Ramsay said restrictions such as face coverings in crowded places and social distancing had become accepted by many and still allowed the economy to function.

She said "people have got used to those lower-level restrictions now, and people can live with them, and the economy can still go on with those less severe restrictions in place".

"So I think certainly for a few years, at least until other parts of the world are as well vaccinated as we are, and the numbers have come down everywhere, that is when we may be able to go very gradually back to a more normal situation," she added.

Warning it was "very important that we do not relax too quickly", Dr Ramsay said any circulating virus would inevitably pick on those who are vulnerable.

"We have to look very carefully before any of these restrictions are lifted," she said.

Prof Chris Whitty, the UK government's chief medical adviser, told MPs earlier this month that it was hoped "simple interventions like washing hands, face masks where appropriate, test-and-trace, and above all vaccines" would keep the virus controlled beyond the summer.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, has also said face masks could be needed in certain situations if the number of infections rises in the winter, but that it was possible people will naturally behave in a way that promotes social distancing.

A group of government scientific advisers said last month that "maintaining a baseline of policies which reduce transmission" will be necessary for some time to come.

Those experts said these could include continuing test-and-trace, self-isolation, and public messaging that encourages "voluntary actions to reduce risks".

The government's roadmap for easing lockdown in England states all legal limits on social contact will be removed no earlier than 21 June.

In a second release of restrictions on Monday 29 March, people will be able to mix outdoors with up to six others in a return to the so-called "rule of six".

Outdoor sport and leisure facilities can also reopen, organised outdoor sports are allowed once more, and outdoor parent and child groups with up to 15 parents can meet.

In Scotland, communal worship resumes on 26 March. In Wales, supermarkets can sell non-essential items from Monday, and garden centres can open. And in Northern Ireland, six people from two households can meet in private gardens from 1 April.

The government established a review of measures to control coronavirus from the summer onwards last month.

Meanwhile, Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, has told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend there should be a rapid investigation into what happened during the first months of the pandemic.

He said he believed there was a "slowness in political response - almost casual really - suggesting a failure of scientific and medical advice reaching political power".

"We should have a rapid investigation of the first part of the pandemic - January to June - so we can learn the lessons and be bettered prepared for the future," he said.

Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, England's deputy chief medical officer, suggested last week that a public inquiry into the pandemic now would be an unwelcome distraction to those tasked with controlling the virus.

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