BRITAIN is in a Grand National-style race to beat Covid and must not fall at the final fence, Jonathan Van-Tam warned tonight.
The deputy chief medical officer also said Brits will probably have to stick to lockdown and social distancing rules until "mid to late Spring" as he answered Sun readers' questions in an exclusive chat.
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But if Brits start easing up on lockdown rules now “they are going to give the vaccine a headwind to run into”, he warned.
In a rallying cry to the nation, he urged the country to “not relax” when the end is in sight.
Britain is leading the world in its vaccination programme, but tens of millions will need to be jabbed before infection rates are slashed and strict rules can be torn up, he added.
He told Sun readers today: “That’s the problem right now – disease activity is really high. But people are starting to think, oh well the vaccine is coming along I can relax a bit now.
“No, no no no. The vaccine effects are going to take three months until we see them properly, and until then no one can relax.
“We are probably in the last few furlongs of this race – like in the Grand National. We just have a couple more fences, we have just got to stick with it.”
He said even those who have received their jabs must stick to lockdown and social distancing rules and not hug their relatives.
He said Britain will be "in a different place"once tens of millions of people have been given the jab.
He added: “That is not until, my guess, the mid to late Spring. And people have got to be patient with that.”
Matt Hancock has previously set four tests for lifting Britain's lockdown measures.
The number of deaths and hospitalisations needs to be coming down, no new variants that cause problems, and the vaccination programme being rolled out as planned all must happen first.
It's unlikely to be until the end of February at the very earliest, but ministers have refused to put a time-frame on it.
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After around three months of mass vaccinations Britain will be “in a different place”, he said.
He rubbished speculation the UK will need to move to 3 metres social distancing – insisting the current measures are right and just need sticking to.
Prof Van-Tam said the nation is facing a “very difficult couple of months”.
The country must adopt a “surround-sound” strategy for crushing Covid – vaccinating tens of millions so infection rates are slashed, chains of transmission broken, and pressure on hospitals eased – he said.
The top medic also predicted Brits may choose to wear masks forever on packed tubes and crowded spaces to protect them from infection, as the pandemic has "changed the way" people see hygiene.
He explained: "We all carry hand sanitiser around now, we all expect in most of the places we go into that hand sanitiser is provided at the door.
“I think there are going to be people who make a personal decision to say, you know what, when I’m in a crowded place in the winter I’m going to put a face covering on. When I’m on a tube I am going to put a face covering on."
He also said the virus would not be wiped out altogether, stressing: "I don’t think we are ever going to take this virus away out of humankind."
There will likely be even MORE mutant strains of the virus as it continues to change, he added.
"I think the virus is going to continue to change over time, as the disease has already shown signs of doing."
Jonathan Van Tam answers Sun readers’ questions
1: Anonymous: Once everyone who is vulnerable has been vaccinated, can we go back to life as normal? Are you hoping to lift restrictions after the first vaccination wave ends in mid February?
JVT: “We are in a really dangerous place now – you can see what it’s like in hospitals.
“I completely understand that people want to know when we can lift restrictions. It is natural.
“But no vaccine is going to change and turn the ship around overnight.
"We are going to have a very difficult couple of months.
“When we are confident that we have got on top of the severe disease and are bringing infection levels down, then we can advise government ministers about what flexibility they have got to start to relax the rules.
“But here is the rub on this – if people start relaxing now they are going to give the vaccine a headwind to run into, and they are going to make it harder for us to get those effects we want to see so badly.”
2: Sam Irving – If everyone is given a vaccine by Autumn, why talk of restrictions next winter?
JVT: "I don’t think we are ever going to take this virus away out of humankind. I think the virus is going to continue to change over time, as the disease has already shown signs of doing.
"And I think the virus is likely to be with us probably for the foreseeable future – probably in the same way that flu is.
“I can’t tell you how long the vaccine protection is going to last for. We are very hopeful it is going to be in the region of a very high number of months, possibly a small number of years. But we can’t say yet.
“If the virus is going to continue to change there will come a point where we will have to reformulate the vaccines.”
3 : Luke – Will face masks still need to be used even when everyone is vaccinated ?
JVT: “The pandemic has changed a lot of things. It has changed the way you and I approach hand hygiene. We all carry hand sanitiser around now, we all expect in most of the places we go into that hand sanitiser is provided at the door.
“I think there are going to be people who make a personal decision to say, you know what, when I’m in a crowded place in the winter I’m going to put a face covering on. When I’m on a tube I am going to put a face covering on.
“I really don’t think the government has any intention that we should all walk around forever and a day distinguishing each other only by peering through a face covering.
“But I think individuals at different levels will choose to keep some of the infection precautionary behaviour that we have had to adopt as a matter of absolute necessity during Covid.”
4: Dawn Douglas – I'm quite concerned about queuing with other people to get the vaccine. I've been shielding since March and concerned there's a risk of catching covid with lots of other people inside and no ventilation.
JVT: “I have seen those queues in some of the photos outside the vaccination centres. I understand that concern – but remember outside is outdoors and the risks are extremely low.
“I have also done a couple of shifts as a vaccinator in vaccination centres, and I have never seen 2m social distancing as rigidly enforced by staff and the marks on the floor as I have in those vaccination centres.”
5: Aniko Simon – Why are we waiting 12 weeks to deliver the second jab when Europe is doing it 24 days later?
JVT: “The UK’s supply is constrained. Every country in the world wants these vaccines.
“I think that is a straight forward, almost zero sum choice really. I have talked about my mum, but it’s not just about my mum it is about your mum too and other people’s mums.
“If we have got to get as many mums and dads who are older, protected, as much as we can in the shortest time we can, then the right strategy has got to be to share out what we have got in the most efficient way for the whole population.”
6: David Hall – Can we mix and match the Oxford and Pfizer vaccines?
JVT: "At the moment our advice is no, because we don’t have any data. But do I think that is inherently unsafe? No.
“Are we going to do studies to understand how these vaccines might be used one after the other in the future? Absolutely.”
7: Snap Dragon – When a person has received both doses of the vaccine and it has taken effect, will they be able to drop their own restrictions so that they can make physical contact with family and friends?
JVT: “No. No. It is a flat no on that one.
“We know that the vaccines are effective in preventing infection. We don’t know if they are effective in preventing transmission.
“Although it’s a really hard thing for people who have been vaccinated to swallow, the rules still apply. They apply to the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.
“Until we have got tens of millions of people vaccinated, where we have got tangible evidence on reducing transmission, and where we can see disease rates falling in the population and be confident we are in the right place.
“That is not until, my guess, the mid to late Spring.
“If they relax too soon they are going to give this vaccine a headwind in which to do its work.
“The vaccine effects are going to take three months until we see them properly, and until then no one can relax."
8. Zakk Kaye – Do you blame members of the public who have become complacent and careless for the severe increase in cases, and unfortunately deaths recently?
JVT: “I don’t think it is a question of blame. It is a question of the fact that we have lived with these restrictions in some way shape or form for so long we learnt to manage that our own way.
“And we forget that a new variant emerged and became dominant in the last few months of 2020.
“We are just not in a safe space at all. And people cannot afford to make up their own rules.
“Somebody has said – I don’t go to supermarkets but I do meet up with my friends.
“Well, I am sorry – all the rules apply all of the time.”
Mr Van Tam said he did not expect the Government laws on face masks to last forever.
“But I think individuals at different levels will choose to keep some of the infection precautionary behaviour that we have had to adopt as a matter of absolute necessity during Covid," he added.
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