Social distancing and face masks may have to continue until 50% of the UK is vaccinated

Restrictions on social interaction may have to continue until around half of the UK population has been vaccinated, an expert has warned.

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Hopes for a swift return to normality now that the Covid-19 vaccine rollout has begun may not be possible, as scientists say that additional measures are needed to bring case numbers down to a safe level.

They suggest that restrictions may have to stay in place until at least 50 per cent of the UK’s population has been vaccinated against the virus. This means that measures such as social distancing and wearing face masks will continue long after the elderly and those most at risk from coronavirus have received the jab.

‘Restrictions are going to need to be carried on’

Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said vaccination on its own will not be enough to bring the virus circulating in the community to “very low levels.”

Speaking at a Science and Media Centre press briefing, he said, “We actually need to have the absolute amount of virus circulating to be very low.

“And we won’t do that by vaccination alone until we’re getting 50 per cent of the population vaccinated or more, and that’s going to be quite a bit of a long way off yet.

“So I fear that the sort of restrictions we have, the non-medical interventions, are going to need to be carried on.

“I think if people take these seriously, then it’s possible for various economic activities to go ahead, but you have to make sure that you are keeping to the non-medical interventions, being aware and behaving as if every person you contact has got the virus. And that you have it as well.”

350,000 people vaccinated

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that as of 8am on Saturday 19 December, 350,000 people in the UK have now been vaccinated.

The UK has already secured 40 million doses of the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, which has produced a 95 per cent efficacy rate in trials, as well as seven million doses from US firm Moderna, amounting to enough for around 3.5 million people who will each receive two doses.

The Moderna vaccine has now been approved for use in the US, but is not expected to be available in the UK until spring at the earliest, according to the government.

The UK has also placed an order of 100 million doses of a vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca, which has produced results of up to 90 per cent effectiveness. This vaccine is still awaiting approval for use.

The Covid-19 vaccines are first being administered to the elderly and vulnerable, as well as health and social care workers.

Those aged under 50 will be the last to receive the vaccine, based on the government’s priority list, and it is expected that some social restrictions will need to remain even after the highest risk groups have been vaccinated.

Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol, warned that restrictions may have to continue for some time, stating, “I think the modelling is very clear that even if you had high coverage and high levels of protection in the high-risk groups, you would still see epidemics, and large numbers of hospitalisations and deaths if you relax the measures before you have a broader control of viral circulation in the population at large.

“So I think the idea that you can immunise a large proportion of the elderly and then kind of go back to normal is misguided.

“I think that none of the models suggest that that’s going to be possible.”