Coronavirus will be around for “evermore” and is unlikely to be eradicated, a scientist advising the government on the pandemic has said.
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), also said the UK can expect tens of thousands of deaths from the second wave of coronavirus in what is a “bleak” situation.
Britain, like other countries in Europe, is currently in the grip of a resurgence in COVID-19 infections, with much of the country under local restrictions and more than 21,000 daily cases reported on Tuesday.
Professor Edmunds told the Science and Technology and Health and Social Care committees: “We are going to have to live with this virus for evermore.
“There is very little chance that it’s going to become eradicated.”
And he later went on to say: “I think if you look at where we are, there’s no way we come out of this wave now without counting our deaths in the tens of thousands.”
Professor Edmunds added that, although coronavirus will be around indefinitely, the prospect of a vaccine towards the end of the winter should impact the government’s strategy now.
He continued: “If vaccines are just around the corner then, in my view, we should try and keep the incidence as low as we can now, because we will be able to use vaccines in the not too distant future.”
Professor Edmunds said the UK had played a “clever game” in investing in different coronavirus vaccines.
Britain has signed supply deals for six different COVID-19 vaccines, with 340 million doses secured across different types of technologies.
He said: “I think we will be in a reasonable position in months.
“I don’t think we’re going to be vaccinating everybody but to start, maybe the highest risk people, healthcare workers and so on.”
Professor Edmunds also said that immediate action was needed – and not just regionally – to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases.
Asked about when the peak of the second wave might be, he said there would be peaks in the North West probably in the next four to six weeks unless additional measures were brought in.
He said: “Then the rest of the country are weeks behind.
“We’ll see peaks around Christmas, in the new year, of very severe numbers of cases throughout the UK.
“It’s slower and lower in the sort of South West and South East but in the more kind of urban centres in the UK – and that’s the sort of thing we’re looking at – very large numbers of cases, hundreds of deaths a day occurring.”
He said the UK as a whole probably would not reach the peak seen in March and April but some parts such as Liverpool were already there.
Professor Edmunds added: “So I think we are looking at quite a bleak situation unless we take action, and we have to take action.
“I don’t think we should be taking action just specifically in the highest risk areas, but I think we need to take action everywhere else to stop them getting into that kind of rather perilous position.”
Professor Edmunds’ comments come two days after Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said a vaccine is “unlikely” to completely stop infections and the disease might never fully disappear.
Sir Patrick pointed to how smallpox was the only disease to have ever been completely eradicated and that, in future, treating COVID-19 might become more like dealing with seasonal flu.
Professor David Robertson, head of viral genomics and bioinformatics at the University of Glasgow, said in May that COVID-19 is “so successful” it will never be eradicated.
He told the House of Lords Science and Technology committee: “It is so transmissible, it’s so successful, we’re so susceptible, that actually it’s a little bit of a red herring to worry about it getting worse, because it couldn’t be much worse at the moment in terms of the numbers of cases.”
The head of the World Health Organisation said in August he hopes the coronavirus pandemic will be over in two years.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added that the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 took two years to end.
He continued: “Our situation now with more technology, of course with more connectiveness, the virus has a better chance of spreading, it can move fast.”
A new study by King’s College London has found one in in 20 people with coronavirus are likely to have symptoms for eight weeks or more.
The research, which uses data from the COVID Symptom Study App, suggested so-called “long COVID” affects around 10% of 18 to 49-year-olds who become unwell with coronavirus.