COVID-19: One Year On Masks and Social Distancing Could Be Till Years to Come
At the start of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its infancy, it is fair to say no one knew what was coming. Indeed, even Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, admitted on the anniversary of the first lockdown that he didn’t know what to expect of the months and years to come. One year on from the day that Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, went on TV to announce to the country that we were going into lockdown (23rd March 2020) to prevent the spread of sars-cov-2, we know much more, but there still remains uncertainty as to what the future holds. In this article, we will take a look at what the next year may hold for the UK and the wider world as the COVID-19 pandemic comes to a head.
One Year On From The Announcement Of The First Lockdown
The last 12-months has been like no other in recent times. For some, life has gone on reasonably unaltered, but for others, everything has changed. So many people have lost loved ones and jobs, and we have all lost our freedom and certainty. On 23rd March 2020, Boris Johnson spoke to the UK:
“The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades – and this country is not alone….From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction - you must stay at home”.
During the announcement, he laid out the harsh lockdown restrictions:
- shopping for basic necessities as infrequently as possible
- one form of exercise a day - for example, a run, walk, or cycle - alone or with members of your household;
- any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person; and
- travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home.
In the first weeks of the pandemic, there was considerable uncertainty regarding how to stop the spread of the virus. Some people would wear gloves, some would wear masks, and some would wear neither when visiting the supermarket. But over time, the government refined its messaging on how to stop the spread of COVID-19, including mandating facemasks when in indoor settings, the two-metre rule, social and care bubbles, exercising rules, and the rule of six.
Plans To Return To Normality
On 22nd February 2021, in the midst of a tumultuous winter and a third national lockdown (which started on 6th January 2021), during which over 68,000 people per day were being diagnosed, and over 1,200 were dying with the virus, Boris Johnson announced a tentative roadmap to normality. In it, he laid out a four-step process towards lifting all restrictions, the precise timing of which was conditional on:
- The vaccine deployment programme continuing successfully.
- Evidence showing vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated.
- Infection rates not leading to a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.
- The assessment of risks not being fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern.
He explained that there would be a five-week gap between each stage to allow time to reflect on the data. The four steps to ‘normality’ he outlined are as follows:
- 8th March 2021 – children would return to school
- No earlier than 12th April 2021 - Non-essential retail, personal care premises, such as hairdressers and nail salons, and public buildings, such as libraries and community centres, will reopen.
- No earlier than 17th May 2021 – outdoor social contact rules will be lifted, and outdoor performances will be permitted, and indoor hospitality and entertainment venues can reopen subject to limits on capacity
- No earlier than 21st June 2021 – all restrictions lifted.
Does This Mean The End Of COVID-19?
No one is expected on the 21st June 2021 to mean the end of COVID-19. First, there is the threat of a third-wave from Europe, which the government is saying is a certainty. This will likely happen before or at the start of Winter 2021, or perhaps even sooner. This does not mean that deaths will return to the numbers we saw at the height of the pandemic due to the effectiveness of the vaccination programme. The next issue is the continuing rollout of the vaccination programme to the wider population and whether this will be slowed down or even halted by the various threats to supply in the recent news media. Another concern is whether new strains of the virus will undermine vaccines, and if so, how quickly we can respond with new vaccinations to counter these. And then there is the speed at which the whole world becomes vaccinated, as ultimately until everyone is vaccinated, we all remain vulnerable.
Despite all of this, some experts still predict COVID-19 will be with us for many years to come, and with it, face masks and social distancing. According to Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisation at Public Health England, “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”.
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has also gone on record this week as saying that in his view, the world will not return to normal until 2022. Promoting his new book during an interview for a Polish newspaper, he said, “By the end of 2022, we should be basically completely back to normal”.
Quite what returning to ‘normal’ means seems to be open to interpretation. On the one hand, there are predictions of going ‘completely’ back to normal; on the other, some believe the virus will continue indefinitely, albeit at a much-reduced level, with social distancing, masks, and vaccinations becoming the new ‘norm. Only time will tell, but what is certain is that we must all learn from this pandemic and prepare for the next one, which, hopefully, will never come.