One of the government’s scientific advisors has said herd immunity is possible in the UK by the autumn if coronavirus infections continue at their current rate.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of Downing Street’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said a combinations of soaring infection rates and vaccinations will provide people with protection against the virus.
Ferguson said he believed if the vaccine rollout proceeded as planned, it might be possible to have “many fewer restrictions” by autumn.
“In an optimistic scenario, where we get high levels of vaccine coverage and it’s highly effective, there is a scenario where by the autumn we really have many, many fewer restrictions than we have now,” he told The Sunday Times.
“We’re almost basically back to normal.”
He added: “It’s possible with a high level of coverage we may have a period of time in the UK where we don’t see much in the way of transmission but it’ll be somewhere else in the world and get reintroduced.”
Scientists are unsure what proportion of the population must be vaccinated in order for herd immunity to take effect.
Most scientists and health experts think at least 80% will be required to defend a population against coronavirus.
“We don’t know the extent to which immunity completely blocks infection – neither natural immunity nor immunity you would get from vaccines.”
Ferguson added that it could be possible to start “relaxing measures to a degree by March”, but he made a grim prediction for the number of deaths still to come.
“Even optimistically it will be quite difficult to avoid another 20,000 deaths. It’s highly likely we’ll hit 100,000,” Ferguson added.
Watch: Chris Whitty warns NHS facing ‘most situation anyone can remember’
It comes after England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned it would be some weeks before the vaccines start to reduce the number of people taken to hospital.
The number of patients with COVID-19 in hospital is at a record high in England, while the official coronavirus death toll for the UK passed 80,000 on Saturday and lab-confirmed cases hit more than three million.
"Hospitals are always busy in winter, but the NHS in some parts of the country is currently facing the most dangerous situation anyone can remember," Whitty wrote in The Sunday Times.
"If the virus continues on this trajectory, hospitals will be in real difficulties, and soon.
"Staff-to-patient ratios – already stretched – will become unacceptable even in intensive care."
More than half a million over-80s are due to receive invitations this week to sign up to receive a jab.
The first 130,000 invitations were due to arrive over the weekend, as the government strives to meet its target of offering inoculations to almost 14 million vulnerable people in the UK by mid-February.