When will Covid end? How long pandemic could last in the UK and if there will be another lockdown
The Covid-19 pandemic has now been an unwelcome part of our lives for almost two years.
News of the virus first broke in January 2020. Back then many saw it as a distant problem only affecting the Chinese province of Wuhan.
But it did not take long to start spreading. Italy was the first European country to feel the full effects of coronavirus, before Boris Johnson announced the first UK lockdown on 23 March.
The country has endured two lockdowns since – including one over Christmas – but the roll-out of the vaccine has allowed for a return to relative freedom.
The biggest question remaining is when the pandemic will finally be over for good.
Here is what experts and politicians have said.
What the Government has said
Government ministers have repeatedly stated the pandemic is “not over”, urging people to continue to take precautions such as test regularly.
However, they have not given any public indication of when they expect Covid to end.
Policy Editor Jane Merrick reports: “Sources have told i there are three working scenarios in Whitehall for how the last months, or even years, of the pandemic might unfold – optimistic, middle and pessimistic – depending on the ongoing effectiveness of vaccines, new anti-viral treatments and the threat of new variants and surges of cases in the UK and other countries.”
Under the optimistic scenario the pandemic would become an endemic between this year and 2023, and would be kept it check with testing, vaccines and anti-virals. It would not cause any excess pressure on the NHS.
The middle scenario would see the pandemic become an endemic between 2023 and 2024. Under this scenario Covid would add to winter pressures for the next two years, but not during the rest of the year. Sources say the Government sees this as the most likely.
The worst case scenario is considered highly unlikely, as it would see vaccines losing effectiveness and anti-virals failing. This would see the return of lockdowns until as far away as 2026.
A Government spokesperson said: “As a responsible Government, we prepare for all eventualities, regularly reviewing risk and contingency planning in light of the current situation and developments, and prioritising operations accordingly.
“This is necessary to identify and prepare for any potential risks which could emerge in the future.”
What experts have said
The question of when the pandemic will end in the UK is very different to globally, as poorer countries have had far less access to the vaccine, and it may take them years to catch up to vaccination rates in Europe.
Booster jabs and anti-virals will mean the virus is much more manageable in the UK and other wealthier nations.
Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, told i: “As things stand, I see this as an incremental war of attrition playing out over the next 18-24 months.
“The implicit UK policy of ‘living with the virus’ in a kind of defeatist compromise seems untenable. If current UK conditions were extrapolated forward, we would be on course for a rumbling turnover of 10-15 million infections per year, with 30-50,000 excess deaths – not the statistics that we had previously been anywhere close to tolerating and incompatible with NHS function as we’d known it.”
Professor Matt Ashton, director of public health for Liverpool, said: “All pandemics come to an end eventually, and that is great because that gives us hope.
“But there is still massive uncertainty about how and when that is going to happen for Covid-19. We have got to get through winter, in terms of pressure on the health and care system.”
What have experts said about a winter lockdown?
Professor Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist whose modelling helped instigate the first lockdown last year, has said: “I think it is unlikely we will get anything close to what we had last year, that catastrophic winter wave.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We might see slow increases as we did in October, for instance, but not anything as rapid as we saw last year.”
A number of European countries are tightening restrictions to deal with fresh waves of the virus.
Asked if the rise in cases on the continent could impact the UK during winter, Professor Ferguson said: “Not necessarily. We don’t fully understand the drivers of what’s causing the increases in places like Germany though where cases numbers have gone up very quickly. It may be waning immunity from the vaccines – they haven’t rolled out boosters as quickly as we have, it may be going into winter that people are mingling more indoors.”
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He added: “We can’t be complacent, but at the moment I don’t think we’ll be in a situation the Netherlands is coming into where they really do need to get on top of rising case numbers using social distancing.
“I very much hope we can avoid that in this country.”
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), said that although “we are not out of the woods yet”, Britain’s Covid situation is far from requiring nationwide measures this Christmas.
Asked about a winter lockdown, he told Sky News: “I think we’re a long way away from thinking in those terms.
“Clearly, there is a situation that if the NHS is under severe pressure, if the number of deaths sadly starts to increase then obviously there may be discussions around whether more restrictions need to come in.
“I would hope that, with a very successful vaccination campaign, the idea of a winter lockdown is a long way away.”
Government ministers have repeatedly stated the pandemic is ‘not over’, urging people to continue to take precautions such as test regularly