Vaccine could mean Covid rules are relaxed by April, says UEA expert
- Credit: PA
People will not be able to throw away their face masks or stop social distancing for some time yet, despite the start of Covid-19 vaccinations, a University of East Anglia virus expert has said.
The first vaccinations, for people aged 80, care home workers and NHS workers who are at higher risk, in Norfolk and Waveney began on Wednesday (December 9).
But Prof Paul Hunter, a specialist in medical microbiology at the UEA, said it would take some time before the general population is being given the jab - which is delivered in two doses - and that the virus could be with us forever, albeit with less harmful effects.
Prof Hunter said: "The first thing to say is that it will be some months before the vaccine is rolled out even to those who have been prioritised as high risk.
"At the moment, the current priorities are those people who have pre-existing conditions which make them vulnerable and the over 50s.
"If you are under 50, I really don't know when the vaccine will be rolled out to those people, but it will be some way off.
"So, these first vaccinations are not going to have much impact on stopping the spread for some time."
Prof Hunter said the suggestion that herd immunity would be built up through vaccinations was "baloney".
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He said: "If you look at London, where we are seeing a surge, that's being spread by people aged 10 to 19 and they are not going to be given immunisations any time soon, if at all.
"All this talk of herd immunity is baloney.
"What is happening is that the vaccine is being used to stop people from dying or getting seriously ill.
"The more people who have the vaccine, the fewer people will die, but that does depend very much on how many vulnerable people have the vaccine."
But Prof Hunter said that, by April next year, the situation should get to a point where restrictions can be further relaxed.
He said: "I cannot imagine there will be a day when Boris Johnson stands up and announces 'we have conquered the virus'.
"What I think will happen, but I don't know, is that we will see a gradual reduction in the restrictions.
"The way I imagine it would happen is that areas in Tier 3 might be able to go down to Tier 2, Tier 2 areas can go down to Tier 1 and maybe there will be a new Tier Zero.
"It's possible that even in those Tier 3 areas there can be relaxations, such as around pub openings."
Norfolk is currently in Tier 2, with the government due to review the grading next week.
He said Covid-19 was likely to be around forever, but that it would get to a manageable point where masks and social distancing are no longer necessary.
He said: "I think the virus is here forever now. But there were viruses in Tudor and Victorian times and one of those probably jumped into humans.
"The view which a number of people hold is that it killed a lot of people, but now it is just the common cold.
"Toddlers and children got multiple infections, built up the necessary protection and it's now the common cold.
"Although you may occasionally see fatal infections from that in older people who have not built up the necessary protection, it is not generally so serious."
Prof Hunter said a similar situation could occur with Covid-19.
But he said some people might want to keep wearing masks, even when it is no longer strictly necessary.
He said: "If you go to the Far East, there's a much higher proportion of people wearing masks.
"Part of that is due to concerns about pollution, but it's also due to the SARS outbreak in 2003.
"They got into that habit and carried on. I wouldn't be surprised to see some people here not want to give up their masks, but we will see a time when they are not needed."