Society will need to learn to live with a “substantial” degree of Covid-19 mortality, but the worst seems to be over, a Government scientific adviser has said.
Professor Andrew Hayward, from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the number of deaths will continue to drop as vaccination kicks in, and death rates could begin to look more like those for flu.
Other experts including Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia, have said the UK can expect a wave of deaths next winter, mostly among the unvaccinated and those for whom vaccines do not provide total protection.
Prof Hayward told Times Radio: “I think given the societal trade-offs, we are going to have to live with a degree of mortality that will be substantial.
“I think it will get less over time as more people get vaccinated, and as more people get immune, and I do believe that we’ve been through the worst of this.”
Prof Hayward said he does not think new variants of Covid-19 will completely evade the protection offered by vaccines.
A study this week found that between 25% and 61% of people in the Brazilian city of Manaus were susceptible to reinfection with the worrying P1 strain, which has also been found in six people in the UK.
Vaccine manufacturers are working on updated vaccines to tackle variants, which could be fast-tracked for approval by the autumn.
Prof Hayward said: “The vaccines will still take the sting out of it, if you like, and reduce the case fatality rates.
“Of course, we have the technology to update the vaccines and I think that’s where we’re going really, a situation that will be much more like flu, the numbers of deaths will be much more like flu, the approach to surveillance of new strains and development of new vaccines and regular annual vaccinations will be like that.
“And we will get back to normal.”
Asked if he thought epidemiologists did not really have the ear of Government in early March last year, before the first lockdown, Prof Hayward said the “political concept of going into lockdown and doing something like that seemed so extraordinary”.
He added: “Also, I think there was conflicting advice … there was some advice if you go too early then people will get tired of it, but it did seem to be fairly inevitable that we would need to do something like that at some stage.
“I think the timing of it was something that they were getting conflicting advice on.
“However, I think we didn’t learn our lesson from that and we didn’t really learn the lesson that lockdowns are going to be way, way more effective if you start them earlier.”
Prof Hayward said it was much easier to put out a very small fire than it is to put out a really big forest fire.
“When it came to the following autumn, we didn’t learn that lesson,” he said.
Looking back at the beginning of the pandemic, he added: “I think one of the reasons that we’ve had so many deaths is that we left things far too late, in terms of taking more restrictive measures.
“We should have been taking social distancing measures – if not a full lockdown, then other measures that were trying to separate people, much earlier.
“At that time, of course, we also didn’t really have the same mechanisms to measure how much disease there was in the community, so we were largely only really seeing the tip of the iceberg of cases.
“By the time you start to see major increases in deaths then it was really too late to take action, and hence the levels got extraordinarily high before we took effective action, and it took a long, long time for them to go back down again.”
The comments come as new figures from the Zoe Covid symptom study run by King’s College London put the current reproduction number (the R) of coronavirus close to 1 across the UK.
The study reported there are currently 8,111 daily new symptomatic cases of Covid-19 in the UK on average, based on swab tests data from up to five days ago.
This is a 15% drop on the previous week, it said.
Analysis by the PA news agency shows hospital admissions in the UK for coronavirus stood at 757 on February 28, down 83% from the peak of 4,578 on January 12.
The total number of patients in UK hospitals with Covid-19 stood at 12,136 on March 2, down 69% from a peak of 39,253 on January 18.
The seven-day rolling average for UK deaths within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 has fallen from 1,283 on January 22 to 231 on February 28.
On Thursday, health minister Lord Bethell said Britain was the most likely place in the world where a mutant variation of coronavirus will occur as it will happen in an area where there is “a high infection rate and a large amount of suppression of the virus by either a lockdown or a vaccine programme”.