Social distancing ‘could last until the autumn’ amid fears people could drop their guard

Ellen Manning
·5-min read
As Londoners await the announcement of a second coronavirus lockdown it's business as usual in the West End with people out socialising outside the bars and restaurants on Old Compton Street in Soho on what will be the last weekend before a month-long total lockdown in the UK on 31st October 2020 in London, United Kingdom. The three tier system in the UK has not worked sufficiently, to suppress the virus, and there have have been calls by politicians for a 'circuit breaker' complete lockdown to be announced to help the growing spread of the Covid-19. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)
Strict social distancing rules could remain in place for months, according to a report in The Times. (Getty)

Social distancing rules could be kept in place until at least the autumn as part of plans reportedly being considered by the government as to how and when lockdown restrictions are eased.

According to The Times, ministers are considering continue to enforce rules around face masks and staying at least one metre apart for months - potentially until the end of the year.

The newspaper reported a Whitehall source as saying: "The thinking is that social distancing will need to be in place for a long time to come. It has repercussions for the scale of any reopening. Restaurants, pubs and offices will all need to be COVID-secure."

According to the report, keeping strict social distancing rules in place could allow easing of restrictions in other area.

But it could mean that relatives and loved ones from different households remain unable to hug each other for months.

Watch: 'Too risky' for special mixing rules among vaccinated people

The government is under increasing pressure to outline how the country can move out of lockdown. Boris Johnson and his senior scientific and medical advisers have repeatedly said it is too soon to say when restrictions will be completely lifted and in what form their easing might take.

On Thursday Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said restrictions should not begin to be reduced until COVID cases fall below 10,000 a day.

Yesterday there were 13,4000 cases, according to government data, down 40% on the previous Thursday. 

Read more: Revealed: Map shows major local variation in COVID vaccination rates

He said it was "not sensible" for the government to draw up a roadmap out of lockdown before infection rates are under control, arguing: "Transmission is still incredibly high in the UK", saying it had to be brought down to "the single thousands before we can possibly think of lifting restrictions".

The prime minister will set out a roadmap for easing lockdown restrictions on February 22, junior home office minister Victoria Atkins confirmed on Friday.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in central London on February 10, 2021, to give an update on the coronavirus covid-19 pandemic. - The United Kingdom is one of the worst affected countries with almost 115,000 deaths from the virus, while authorities hope that the peak has passed. (Photo by Steve Reigate / POOL / AFP) (Photo by STEVE REIGATE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson is set to announce a roadmap for the easing of lockdown on February 22. (Getty)

The government previously said schools could begin to return from March 8, and there has been widespread speculation over what changes could follow.

The PM has warned against an “open sesame” sudden releasing of rules, saying any relaxing of restrictions will be gradual to avoid a resurgence of the virus.

Friday's report in the Times suggesting the ongoing need for strict social distancing rules comes just a week after reports in the same newspaper suggested that a relaxation on outdoor socialising and sport could be the first restrictions to be lifted, and could come within weeks of the planned March 8 return of schools.

The reports highlight the widespread confusion and speculation over how the country will emerge from lockdown.

Senior public health officials have already voiced concerns that a premature relaxation of rules could lead to another spike of the virus.

Dr Susan Hopkins, COVID-19 strategic response director at Public Health England, who on Thursday warned that some restrictions should last until all adults have been vaccinated, said there were fears people could “drop their guard” on holiday leading to a surge in infections.

She told Sky News: “Some of the weeks last year there was really, really low amounts of infection, less than two in 10,000 people were infected at one point in the summer.

“But it started to increase, and I think one of the things that we have learnt is that when people go on holidays, perhaps they drop their guard a bit, perhaps they mingle a bit closer, and they mingle in groups, and that may be one of the areas where spread of infection can occur.

“So I think we are going to have to have some measures in place until the whole population are vaccinated, at least all of the adult population.

“And even then I think we will need to know more about transmission before we can release everything and get back to life as it was.”

But critics are urging the government to ease restrictions as soon as possible, including some Conservative MPs who are becoming increasingly outspoken on the issue.

Steve Baker, a Tory MP and deputy chair of the COVID Recovery Group, claimed "senior scientists are failing to recognise their power to spread despair and despondency".

He added: "Some seem to be floating untested hypotheses in the media. Doing so is not science. It is the death of science. Perhaps worse, it brings scientists squarely into the political domain, something we would I am sure all like to avoid."

One leading expert said he was hopeful rules will be lifted from 8 March.

Tim Spector, lead scientist on the Zoe app and professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said: “Based on the Zoe data and our predictions we are soon to be in the same place we were in early June, with the advantage of having a large proportion of the population vaccinated, which could mean good news in terms of lifting some restrictions sooner rather than later.

“By March 8 we should have less than 1 in 740 people with symptoms, allowing us to get kids back into the classrooms and starting to allow people to exercise and meet, at least outdoors, where the risk of transmission is much lower."

The Zoe app figures, which includes information from around one million weekly reporters, estimates around one in 233 people in the UK currently has symptomatic Covid-19.

Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?