Vaccines and treatments could mean that – by the end of the year – Covid-19 is an illness we can live with “like we do flu”, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said.
He told the Daily Telegraph he hoped new drugs arriving by the end of 2021 could make Covid a “treatable disease”.
The drugs – and vaccines – represent “our way out to freedom”, he said.
Mr Hancock said he hoped all UK adults could be offered the vaccine “a bit before” September.
Although more than 14 million people have been given a first vaccine dose, the health secretary said new treatments were also necessary for a “small number” of people who may not be protected by the vaccine.
Antibody treatments are being trialled as an alternative to vaccines for people with impaired immune systems.
“I hope that Covid-19 will become a treatable disease by the end of the year,” Mr Hancock told the Telegraph.
He said the new treatments will play an important role in “turning Covid from a pandemic that affects all of our lives into another illness that we have to live with, like we do flu. That’s where we need to get Covid to over the months to come”.
In addition to the new treatments, Mr Hancock said living with Covid safely would depend on the vaccines:
“If Covid-19 ends up like flu, so we live our normal lives and we mitigate through vaccines and treatments, then we can get on with everything again,” the health secretary said.
Mr Hancock’s comments suggest he is ruling out a “zero Covid” strategy, aimed at eliminating the virus entirely from the UK.
Former cabinet minister Damian Green MP told BBC Newsnight: “Zero Covid is probably a mirage. It is going to be with us, we are going to have to live with it.”
But Mr Green said by vaccinating a large part of the population, particularly those most at risk, and approving new treatments, we can “slowly, gradually, cautiously open up with the confidence that we are not going to have to lock down again”.
Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, told the BBC that – if the UK decides “zero Covid” is not possible – politicians will have to decide what level of deaths is acceptable – adding that in some years, 30,000 people die from flu.
“That’s a conversation politicians are going to have to have with the country,” he said.
He said the UK was likely to see another spike in the number of Covid-19 cases next winter, and he suggested it would take two, three or four years to build up sufficient levels of immunity in the population.
“It’s an illusion to think that our success is going to be sufficient to protect us, because even if we do have high levels of population immunity, our borders are not going to be secure – and we can’t keep locking people up in hotels for the next five years,” Dr Horton said.