The world is shutting down. Places that were once teeming with the hustle and bustle of daily life have become ghost-towns with massive restrictions put on our lives – from lockdowns and school closures to travel restrictions and bans on mass gatherings.

It is an unparalleled global response to a disease. But when will it end and when will we be able to get on with our lives?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he believes the UK can “turn the tide” against the outbreak within the next 12 weeks and the country can “send coronavirus packing”.

But even if the number of cases starts to fall in the next three months, then we will still be far from the end.

It can take a long time for the tide to go out – possibly years.

It is clear the current strategy of shutting down large parts of society is not sustainable in the long-term, the social and economic damage would be catastrophic.

What countries need is an “exit strategy” – a way of lifting the restrictions and getting back to normal.

But the coronavirus is not going to disappear.

If you lift the restrictions that are holding the virus back, then cases will inevitably soar.

“We do have a big problem in what the exit strategy is and how we get out of this,” says Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.

“It’s not just the UK, no country has an exit strategy.”

It is a massive scientific and societal challenge.

There are essentially three ways out of this mess.

  • vaccination
  • enough people develop immunity through infection
  • or permanently change our behaviour/society

Vaccines – at least 12-18 months away

A vaccine should give someone immunity so they do not become sick if they are exposed.

Woman coughing

Natural immunity – at least two years away

The UK’s short-term strategy is to drive down cases as much as possible to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed – when you run out of intensive care beds then deaths spike.

Alternatives – no clear endpoint

“The third option is permanent changes in our behaviour that allow us to keep transmission rates low,” Prof Woolhouse said.



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