A key government coronavirus adviser has said he is “confident” the majority of Brits haven’t had COVID-19.
Prof Chris Whitty’s declaration emphasises how a full lifting of lockdown restrictions remains a long way off.
He said: “The ability for this to take off again in a really serious second wave is absolutely identical.”
The UK’s draconian lockdown will continue until 7 May at the earliest, at which point it may be extended. Even if it is lifted, restrictions are certain to be eased on a gradual basis with continued social distancing.
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Prof Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, appeared before Parliament’s science and technology committee on Friday and was asked if parts of the country which have been less severely affected by the outbreak could see their lockdowns lifted earlier.
Prof Whitty flatly rejected this idea, explaining: “The peak we are going through at the moment is artificial, almost the same everywhere, as a result of what people did in terms of starting with all these various measures like self-isolation.
“Because those happened across the country at roughly the same time [a national lockdown was imposed by Boris Johnson on 23 March], that peak is occurring at broadly the same time around the country.”
He went on: “We are confident that the great majority of the population has not had COVID.
“Therefore the ability for this to take off again in a really serious second wave, if we’re not careful, is absolutely identical.
“If you put those two together, the argument for strong regional variation in what we do is not a terribly convincing one.”
As of Friday, 143,464 people had tested positive, according to official Department of Health figures.
However, it is not yet understood how many people have had coronavirus without suffering symptoms. Antibody tests – which detect if a person has had COVID-19 – have not yet been developed.
Meanwhile, no vaccine for the virus exists, with Prof Whitty saying earlier this week that the chances of one being developed this year are “incredibly small”.
Prof Whitty later reaffirmed he does not think it likely Britain will remain in the current lockdown pattern for the “indefinite future”.
He told the committee: “On the one hand, do not anticipate that we are suddenly going to be able to lift everything, but nor do I think it likely that we will have to keep in exactly the current pattern for the indefinite future.
“There’s somewhere between those two, and working out exactly what that is, and what the timescale of that is, and what the package is, is going to be a difficult task for governments all around the world and certainly obviously including the UK.”