Coronavirus vaccinations are under way in the UK, which Matt Hancock has heralded as the “light at the end of the tunnel”.
Around four million doses of the Pfizer vaccine are expected to be delivered by the end of the year, enough for two million people.
But when will things start to return to “normal”, can we stop wearing masks, and what does this mean for the tier system?
When will we go ‘back to normal’?
The decision about when coronavirus restrictions can start to be eased is both political and societal, Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, said.
Asked by MPs on Wednesday, Dec 9, if the vaccine rollout means restrictions can start to be eased, Mr Whitty said the immunisations would start to reduce the mortality rate and the rate of hospitalisations in the UK.
But he added: “At a certain point, society, through political leaders, through elected ministers and through Parliament, will say this level of risk is a level that we think it is appropriate to tolerate.”
Then, it will have to be decided if the risk is low enough to “largely do away with certainly the most onerous (restrictions) that we have to deal with”, he added.
He stressed this will happen “incrementally” and restrictions would not be lifted all at once on a certain day.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, previously suggested the country would start getting back to “normal” after Easter.
He told MPs last month that if the Pfizer and Oxford vaccine were both approved, he hoped to lift the “damaging social distancing interventions” after Easter.
After Margaret Keenan received the first jab on Tuesday, Mr Hancock said if we can vaccinate every person vulnerable to the disease “we can move on”.
Furthermore, news broke of a promising development on December 13, when Professor Sarah Gilbert of the University of Oxford revealed there is a “pretty high” chance the Oxford vaccine will be rolled out before the end of the year.
The lead researcher shared: “I think the chances are pretty high. But we do need multiple vaccines, all countries need multiple vaccines, the world needs multiple vaccines, and we need vaccines made using different technologies if that’s possible.”
When will the tiers be reviewed, and ultimately removed?
The current tier restrictions will be re-evaluated this Wednesday, December 16.
Robert Jenrick, Communities Secretary, previously said there was “every reason” to expect some areas could be moved into a lower tier based on their current case rates.
But there is concern London may be moved from Tier 2 into Tier 3 as cases have continued to rise.
On December 8, Matt Hancock told LBC radio: “The case numbers are going up in parts of London, in parts of Essex, in parts of Kent, and we know what happens when case numbers go up, sadly more people end up in hospital and more people end up dying.” He added his message to Londoners was to “stick to the rules”.
But with the vaccinations now in progress, some experts say we could start to see an easing of the tier restrictions from the end of January.
Prof Paul Hunter, of the University of East Anglia, said: “Rather than stopping (the tiers completely), I would imagine it that every few weeks a local authority would drop down a tier.”
However, Prof Whitty told MPs on Dec 9 that it would take at least three months to ensure the most vulnerable have “sufficient protection” from the vaccine programme.
How many people need to be vaccinated before restrictions are eased?
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Advisor, said it would take “quite a long time” to make sure everyone in priority groups received their jabs. In the meantime, he urged the public not to “let our guard down” and “stick to the rules”.
Dr Gillies O-Bryan-Tear, the chair of policy and communications at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, said it was likely all risk groups (those 65 and over) would be vaccinated by March or April.
“At that point, there’ll be huge political pressure to ease restrictions because the at risk people will be protected,” he said.
It is still unclear if the coronavirus vaccine prevents transmission, therefore even if the majority of at risk groups are vaccinated they could still spread the virus.
But is is expected once the risk groups are immunised by April at the latest, restrictions will start to be lifted.
Can I go on holiday next year?
Kate Bingham, the chairman of UK vaccine task force, said this week she had a “gut feeling” that people would be able to go on summer holidays next year.
“It is likely that those people most at risk will be vaccinated through to April, and then the JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] and the Department for Health will then consider how to broaden out the vaccinations to other adults,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Dec 8.
“I think by the summer we should be in a much better place to get on planes.”
Her comments were backed by Mr Hancock, who told the Commons that day that he had “high confidence” that summer 2021 will be a “bright one … without the sorts of restrictions that made the summer of 2020 more restricted”.
Mr Hancock also confirmed he has already booked his own summer getaway to Cornwall next year.
How long will we have to wear masks?
Sir Patrick Vallance said this week that even with the vaccine rollout face masks may still be required by next winter, this is due to the issue of transmission.
Scientists say even when masks are no longer required by law, the pandemic may have left a lasting cultural effect on society, and people will continue to wear them regardless.
Stephen Baker, professor of molecular microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said wearing masks in public places has been normal in Asian countries for years.
“If I told you this time last year, we’d all be wearing face masks in public places you’d have thought I was mental,” he said, “And now everybody seems to have adopted that, I think it may continue.”
He added that recent changes to our behaviours are likely to have a “longer term benefit” to infectious disease control in the future.
“This is going to be an overall positive experience on the way we then control future infections, and the way we limit the spread of them, by people changing their behaviour, by being aware of them touching common surfaces, by wearing face masks in public, and by having an understanding that they need to go and get immunised,” he said.
“I think that’s going to have a big impact.”
Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, also hinted face coverings are not going anywhere anytime soon.
“Do I think there will come a big moment where we have a massive party and throw off masks and hand sanitiser and say that’s it, it’s behind us, like the end of the war? No I don’t,” he said during a briefing last week.
But Boris Johnson responded to the suggestion adding: “We want to get back to normal”.
How long will I need to maintain social distancing measures?
Mr Hancock told MPs last month that “some parts” of social distancing measures, such as hand hygiene, will need to remain in place for some times.
Ms Bingham said on Dec 8 that she did not think we would “ever” get away from the virus and added: “We’re going to have to maintain sensible hygiene and washing hands, and so on.”
Prof Hunter said some social distancing measures, such as not shaking hands, keeping two metres apart and limiting the amount of people indoors, are likely to ease “in a gradual way” area by area.