Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance – Hannah McKay/Pool via AP
Boris Johnson has admitted that eradicating Covid-19 is likely to be impossible because Britain’s “globalised economy” means it cannot go it “alone”.
The Prime Minister said that while it may be an “objective for humanity”, it was clear from listening to scientists for “many, many months” that an elimination strategy did not make sense.
His comments were echoed by the chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, who said the chances of wiping out the virus was as “close to zero as makes no difference”.
The chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance added that the focus as the UK left lockdown was to keep infection numbers as low as possible, with the Government pinning its hopes on the vaccination programme and mass testing as the country gradually returns to normality.
Their downbeat assessment came at a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the first lockdown, with Mr Johnson stating that the country was now “step by step, jab by jab” on its way to “reclaiming our freedoms.”
However, appearing at a meeting of the backbench 1922 committee afterwards, he came under fresh pressure from Tory rebels to move faster in lifting restrictions with several raising concerns over the impact on the hospitality industry.
Asked by one MP if he believed a third wave of infections spreading through Europe risked derailing the roadmap, Mr Johnson said it was “inevitable” it would reach the UK but insisted “we are prepared.”
Ahead of crunch votes on Thursday on renewing emergency powers in the Coronavirus Act and approving new roadmap regulations, he also faced separate calls to set out a clear” plan for overseas summer holidays or face another revolt in Parliament.
After holding a minute’s silence earlier in the day to commemorate the tens of thousands of Britons who have died after testing positive for covid-19 within 28 days, Mr Johnson also announced that a memorial would be built in their honour.
“At the right moment we will come together as a country to build a fitting and a permanent memorial to the loved ones we’ve lost and to commemorate this whole period,” he added.
“For month after month, our collective fight against coronavirus was like fighting in the dark against a callous and invisible enemy until science helped us to turn the lights on and gain the upper hand.”
The Government’s strategy is to use lockdown measures to suppress the virus until vaccinations lead to a significant and irreversible fall in transmission, serious illness and deaths.
But some scientists, MPs and campaigners believe ministers should go further and seek to eliminate covid-19 altogether.
They point to the approach of other island nations including Australia and New Zealand, which have managed to push rates to their lowest possible level through stringent border measures.
However, the calls have been widely criticised by Government experts, who believe such a strategy is unsustainable and impossible to achieve due to the UK economy’s reliance on international travel, global supply chains and trade.
Prof Whitty has also previously challenged the vagueness around the term “zero covid”, as it implies the total eradication of the disease rather than driving it down to levels that are manageable.
Asked by The Telegraph if he believed the Government’s policy objective should be to eradicate covid or bring cases down to the lowest possible level, Mr Johnson said: “Listening to the scientists intently as I have for many, many months, I’m not sure that that eradication makes sense in a globalised economy for one country alone.”
Prof Whitty said that the only disease that had been eradicated was smallpox due to a “phenomenally effective vaccine” over “literally hundreds of years”.
“I think if you talk to anybody who looks at this really seriously who understands how infectious diseases work, I don’t think there’s anybody who thinks eliminating from the UK or eradicating globally for any long period of time is a realistic prospect at this point in time,” he continued.
Sir Patrick added: “Don’t expect that this is going to disappear. Expect that there will be recurrences of infections particularly in winter and this will become a circulating virus as others have done over thousands of years.”
It came as Tory MPs on Tuesday warned that the Government’s foreign travel ban potentially up to the end of June and the £5,000 fines to enforce it are “sowing confusion” among the public and are in danger of damaging an aviation and travel industry “already on its knees.”
They say ministers’ global travel taskforce must lift the blanket ban on travel and lay out a clear “opening-up” plan for overseas breaks in lower risk countries from the proposed date of May 17.
Boris Johnson has promised the taskforce, headed by Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, will publish its report on opening up overseas travel in April ready for May 17, the earliest date at which he has said foreign travel could resume.
However, low vaccination rates in Europe and a surge in Covid cases in some countries including the South African variant has led to fears that Britain could be hit by the EU’s third wave and warnings from ministers that it is “premature” to start booking Summer holidays now.
France, where up to one in ten cases are thought to be linked to the South African variant, has been put on a travel ban watch list, while health minister Lord Bethell warned on Monday that other EU countries could be put on the red list, requiring travellers to quarantine in hotels.
Henry Smith, the Tory chair of the all party Future of Aviation Group, said: “Our aviation, travel and tourism industries has been amongst the hardest hit by Covid-19 and they desperately need a roadmap out of the restrictions as well as clear criteria on how and when they can restart.
“The Prime Minister’s inclusion of international travel in his roadmap out of lockdown brought hope to these embattled industries and extreme measures [like the travel ban to June] only sow confusion and risk further damaging an industry already on its knees.”