The last 12 months have been an “epic of endurance and privation” since the first coronavirus lockdown began a year ago today, Boris Johnson has said.
The Prime Minister held a Downing Street briefing this afternoon alongside chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
Mr Johnson said the nation is on the path to “reclaiming our freedoms” on the anniversary of the first lockdown, while the scientists provided an update on vaccinations, case numbers and deaths.
Earlier today, people across the UK took part in a minute’s silence to remember Covid-19 victims after a terrible 12 months.
MPs and peers in both Houses of Parliament and ministers in the devolved nations marked the anniversary at midday, while NHS and social care workers also joined the pause for reflection.
Mr Johnson addressed the anniversary at today’s briefing and was questioned over what he would have done differently, and how the UK is preparing for a potential third wave of infections.
Here are the nine key points from this afternoon’s press conference.
Reflections on the one year anniversary of the first nationwide lockdown
Boris Johnson started today’s briefing by reflecting on how the UK has responded to the pandemic since the first lockdown was announced one year ago.
He said it seemed “incredible” to put the country into lockdown and “shun so many of the patterns of behaviour that are so natural to us”.
The last year has been “an epic of edurance and privation”, he said.
“At the right moment” a permanent memorial to those who died from coronavirus will be built, he added, and the “whole period” will be commemorated.
Update on vaccination programme
Turning to vaccines, Mr Johnson said that battling the virus early one was like “fighting in the dark against a callous and invisible enemy” until progress in science helped to “turn the lights on and gain the upper hand.”
He said more than 30 million doses of the vaccine have now been administered in the UK, adding that the government’s targets of vaccinating the first nine priority groups by mid-April and then all remaining adults by the end of July will be met.
“Step by step, jab by jab, this country is on the path to reclaiming our freedoms,” he told the briefing.
Talking through the latest data, Professor Chris Whitty said the continued roll-out is important “for ensuring that as new surges happen they will meet a wall of vaccinated people”.
He said that will help to reduce the ratio of people catching the disease to the number of people dying from it.
Latest data shows new cases, hospitalisations and deaths are falling
Prof Whitty said case numbers are continuing to fall but are starting to flatten out, adding that this is expected.
“We have always expected some upward pressure as people went back to school and some unlocking happened,” he told the briefing.
He said the number of people in hospital “has come right down, and is continuing to fall rapidly” due to a combination of lockdown and vaccine rollout.
On the number of deaths, he said: “These are falling and falling quite rapidly and you can see they’re falling much more rapidly than the rate of decline of number of cases.”
Prof Whitty also outlined new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on the overall number of deaths since the pandemic began.
He said there was a “very substantial spike” in mortality in the first wave, followed by a lower one in the first bit of the second wave and then, when the new variant emerged, a second “very substantial spike” on top of other non-coronavirus-related deaths.
According to the ONS, 147,179 have died from coronavirus, he said, and more will do so – “but we are now on the downward slope”.
He said excess deaths had now reached 111,641 since the pandemic started.
Potential third wave arriving from Europe
Asked about how the government is preventing a surge of cases coming in from Europe, Mr Johnson said we must be very wary of the potential of a third wave.
“We are seeing on the European continent distinct signs of a third wave and they’re taking steps to abate that, to deal with that,” he said.
He said the UK has “very tough measures at our borders already”, which include mandatory tests before arrival, and further tests on day two of quarantine and day eight.
“I want to be clear with the public – we keep all these measures under review,” he said.
“In so far as it’s necessary to take extra measures to protect this country against new variants, variants of concern, of course we’re going to do that.”
Booster jabs for elderly and most vulnerable
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said booster jabs may be needed in the autumn but scientists do not yet know how long antibodies last.
“I think the expectation is that antibodies to vaccines will also last for a reasonable period,” he said.
“We don’t know exactly how long because obviously people haven’t been vaccinated for a very long period.”
He told the briefing: “There will be a need to think about booster jabs for vaccines in the autumn I suspect, particularly thinking about getting a high level of immunity to cover things over the winter.”
Prof Whitty added: “The second reason for having to do a second vaccine is if we got a variant that had a relative escape from our current vaccines and that would be another reason why we might need to do re-vaccination.”
One thing to have done differently?
Mr Johnson, Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty are all asked for the one thing they wished had been done differently during the pandemic.
The prime minister said there are “many things we wished we’d known” because “we were fighting a novel disease under very different circumstances than any previous government”.
He said the “biggest false assumption” during the pandemic was over asymptomatic transmission.
“That misunderstanding about the reality of asymptomatic transmission certainly led to real problems that we then had to work very, very hard to make up ground.” he admitted.
Sir Patrick said there were “a whole host of things it would have been nice to know”.
He said: “The one thing that I think would have been really important earlier on is to have had much better data on what was happening.
“That would have required testing to be up and ready immediately and it would have required the ability to get that information into a source and to be able to see it.
“We simply didn’t have that at the beginning and it was very difficult to know the speed at which things were moving and therefore make decisions based on the real-time data which we can do now and that would’ve made a big difference.”
Prof Whitty agreed with Sir Patrick, adding that, at the time, there was much less of an understanding of how widespread the virus was in Europe.
“In retrospect we now know the amounts of importation that there were from Spain, from France and from bits of Italy that didn’t obviously have a problem, for example, but at the time we didn’t have that information and that would have almost certainly have led to slightly different approaches to how we did things,” he said.
Chances of eradicating Covid-19 in the UK ‘close to zero’
Prof Whitty said the chances of eradicating coronavirus completely are close to zero.
Asked whether it was still an option to pursue a zero Covid approach, he said: “I regret to say that I think the chances of eradicating this disease, which means getting rid of it absolutely everywhere, are as close to zero as makes no difference.
“We’ve only ever achieved eradication of one disease, which is smallpox, with a very phenomenally effective vaccine over a very long period of time, literally hundreds of years. Others have come close but it is very difficult.”
He said the majority of people have mild or no symptoms which makes it “very difficult to find”, adding that the vaccine is “good but not 100 per cent effective”.
“We can get Covid rates down – that should absolutely be our aim,” he said. “I don’t think there is anybody that thinks eradicating in the UK or globally is a realistic prospect at this point in time.”
Education will be ‘legacy problem’ after pandemic
The prime minister said education is the biggest issue for him in terms of the legacy of the coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s the loss of learning for so many children and young people. That’s the thing we’ve got to focus on now as a society,” he said.
He added: “It’s been an absolutely unimaginable year for schoolchildren, for university students, for everybody in education.
“They’ve put up with incredible privations in order to help us, the whole country, get through and our future as a country depends on us now repaying that generation, making sure they get the education they need, so for me that’s the biggest priority.”
Pandemic likely to have ‘delayed effect’ on non-Covid aspects of NHS
Prof Whitty said the impact of the pandemic on other aspects of the health service “will have some delayed effect”.
“There will be people for example who’ve probably delayed having screening and I would really encourage people to take that up for things like cervical cancer, breast cancer, which run the risk of people having a delayed diagnosis,” he told the press conference.
“The same will be true for people who’ve not gone for routine or elective care, who normally would.”
Prof Whitty said another issue is that “much of what’s happened in lockdown has the risk of making people who are on the borderlines of deprivation in more difficult economic and other circumstances and we all know that has a massive impact on long-term health implications.”