Social distancing may last beyond 2020, U.K. medical officer says

A man runs alongside Parliament in central London during the coronavirus lockdown, April 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The British government came under sustained criticism Wednesday for responding slowly to the coronavirus pandemic as its chief medical adviser warned that social distancing measures may have to stay in place for the rest of this year and beyond.

The government reported that 759 more hospital patients with the virus had died since the last update a day earlier, taking the country's total to 18,100. In Europe, the U.K. is behind only Italy, Spain and France in virus-related deaths. The actual death toll is potentially thousands more since the British government does not include in its daily updates the people who died in care homes or other settings outside hospitals. 

Daily figures for reported deaths suggest the U.K. is going through the peak of its virus outbreak, a view that Health Secretary Matt Hancock supported. The nation hit its highest reported daily death toll in hospitals of 980 on April 10.

Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical adviser, said the experience of countries where infections surged earlier suggests there will not be a sudden fall in the number of daily deaths. 

Whitty also warned that social distancing measures may have to stay in place for at least the rest of 2020 as a vaccine or antiviral drug treatment for the new virus is unlikely to be discovered any time soon. He said the probability of either being available "in the next calendar year is incredibly small." It will be up to ministers, he said, to decide upon the mix of measures when the lockdown restrictions are eased.

"I think we should be realistic about that," he said. "We're going to have to rely on other social measures, which, of course, are very socially disruptive as everyone is finding at the moment."


Earlier, Keir Starmer, the new leader of the main opposition Labour Party, told lawmakers that a "pattern is emerging" in which the Conservative government has been too slow in putting the country into a virus lockdown, in testing people for the virus and in getting critical protective gear for medical workers.

He spoke in the first partially-online Prime Minister's Questions session in the House of Commons as lawmakers sought to strike a balance between scrutinizing the government and abiding by social distancing guidelines.

Labour lawmaker Barry Sheerman went further, slamming the government's handling of the pandemic as "shambolic" — a sign that the multi-party political consensus that formed over the pandemic is fraying.

The questions are coming as Prime Minister Boris Johnson convalesces at his country retreat following his week-long stay in a hospital receiving treatment for COVID-19. Johnson, who has been away from the front line of the crisis for nearly four weeks after he first tested positive for the virus, is due to hold an audience with Queen Elizabeth II by phone later Wednesday.

"You can't have a void of decision-making," former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair told ITV television.

While sympathizing with Johnson's plight, Blair said hugely important decisions have to be "taken now,'' including ramping up testing so Britain can safely exit its coronavirus lockdown, which is scheduled to run until May 7 at least.


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Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has been sitting in for Johnson, said the government still aims to conduct 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of this month — even though it is only delivering around 20,000 tests now.

"With a project like this, it does require an exponential increase in the final days and the final week," Raab told the slimmed-down chamber, where only 50 of the House's 650 lawmakers were able to attend and up to 120 could participate via video. 

The government has also faced acute criticism over the lack of protective gear for front-line workers, a topic highlighted by the days-long confusion surrounding a Royal Air Force flight picking up protective gear from Istanbul, Turkey. Though it finally arrived in the early hours of Wednesday at Brize Norton, central England, it remains unclear how much protective gear was on the plane.

Raab told lawmakers that 69 workers in the National Health Service have died after testing positive for the virus. Health Secretary Hancock later said 15 social care workers have also died.

Hancock said testing will be broadened over the coming days with drive-thru and new mobile units.

"This is one area we've had our foot on the gas," Hancock said.

Danica Kirka and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this story.