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Scientist contradicts PM: Covid won’t be ‘done by Christmas’

Wellcome director Jeremy Farrar says humanity may live with infections for decades to come

The coronavirus pandemic will not be over by Christmas and humanity may be living with the virus for decades to come, a top scientist has said.

The warning, from the director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, comes in response to a question during a Health and Social Care select committee hearing on 21 July about whether life would return to normal by Christmas, as some government messaging has suggested.

The prime minister said last week he expected “significant return to normality” by November or December, while the health secretary Matt Hancock told MPs this week that the government was working “very hard” to ensure a Covid-19 vaccine will be available by Christmas, but that he “can’t promise to play Santa”.

Asked if it was helpful to speak about the pandemic in these terms, Farrar said: “Things will not be done by Christmas. The infection is not going away. It’s now a human endemic infection.

“Even if we have a vaccine or very good treatment, humanity will still be living with this virus for very many years to come.”

“I think we need to transition from this sense of crisis and urgency. We need to keep the urgency in place through June, July and August, but we need to move now to a consistent, long-term approach to this because humanity will be living with this infection for decades to come.”

Asked what could be done differently to prevent a second wave of coronavirus in the UK, Farrar said it was important to use July and August “wisely” and not to get complacent.

“If we have any sense of complacency or [that] this is behind us, then we could undoubtedly have a second wave and we could easily be in the same situation again,” he said.

Paul Nurse, the director of the Francis Crick Institute, said: “We need to have clear leadership in place. People who take responsibility for the decisions, who are clear about the decisions being made and who are not passing the buck from one to another.”

Trust was also important, he added, referring to the government’s rush to claim it hit 100,000 test a day by April. “Suggesting 40,000 tests in the post are adequate to getting up to simply a target of 100,000 destroys trust. We need honesty and transparency with that and simply inventing things for one-liners is…no way to deal with it.”

Testing was also critical, he said: “We’ve seen that without testing in place things did very badly in the pandemic. Unfortunately, the big lighthouse labs did not assist at that time. They may assist in the future but we have to make sure there’s capacity, rapid turnaround, accuracy and also flexibility.”