From the midst of England’s third lockdown, it’s clear that any return to normality is not coming soon. It may still be several weeks before we see significant drops in the number of daily deaths and schools will not reopen until March 8 at the earliest. But if you look beyond the bleak winter and into the spring and summer, there are reasons for cautious optimism. Over 11 per cent of the UK’s population have received a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine and the number of new infections is falling.
That doesn’t mean that summer will be normal. With Glastonbury cancelled for a second year running and Wimbledon hedging its bets by planning for multiple different scenarios, the shadow of the pandemic will loom large over the coming months. When an uptick in Covid-19 cases could see even the most modest holiday plans go awry, it’s clear there is plenty more uncertainty in store.
If you’re struggling to imagine how you’ll spend the summer, you’re not alone. WIRED spoke to seven Covid-19 experts to find out what their hopes and plans are for our second pandemic summer. Here’s what they had to say.
Will staycations be allowed?
Travel within the UK is currently severely limited. Government rules state that people can’t leave home without a reasonable excuse and even then they must stay in their local area. Breaking these rules risks a fine of £200. Hotels are shut and staying away from home is completely out of the question. But will this change come summer? “I definitely think people will be able to go on holiday in the UK,” says Tim Spector, a professor at King’s College London and the lead of the ZOE Covid-19 symptom tracking study app.
Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, is also holding out for holidays within the UK. “I think we will probably be considering UK holidays this summer again. I imagine it will be more similar to last summer rather than a normal summer,” she says.
A lot of this depends on the success of the vaccination programme. Paul McKay, a senior research fellow in mucosal vaccinology at Imperial College London, is positive about its potential impact and says he would love to go on holiday this year and to see things return to something like normal. “If it keeps the numbers down then we will get back to the situation that we were in at the end of last summer. It wasn’t complete freedom, but people still went on holiday,” he says.
Will it be possible to travel abroad?
With international travel currently banned without legally permitted reasons and many borders shut to other countries, leaving the UK seems a long way off. New variants have reared their heads across the globe and the government has announced a hotel quarantine lasting ten days for people arriving from 30 “red list” countries.
“I don’t anticipate getting on a plane or even a long distance train,” says Mark Jit, a professor of vaccine epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. But he is hoping to get out of his house and meet up with a couple of friends nearby. For now, airlines are also betting against a return to leisure travel. EasyJet has stated that it “expects to fly no more than 20 per cent of planned capacity” during the first quarter.
UK holidays? Sure. Travel abroad? Don’t count on it. “I’m more confident that we’ll be on top of things in the UK. The question is how on top of things the rest of the world is,” says Paul Lyons, a principal research associate working in immunology at the University of Cambridge. He hopes to be able to visit family and go cycling in the Pyrenees but recognises the number of unknowns. “It’s a big imponderable at the moment as to how opened up things are going to be.”
Will we be able to see family and friends?
With warmer weather comes the potential to meet people outdoors – and more people, too. “I’m hoping that by summer it might be possible to get together with one or two friends and go somewhere outdoors in London or very nearby rather than being stuck at home for 23 hours a day which I am now,” says Jit.
Lyons hasn’t seen his elderly parents in nearly a year, except for on pixelated video calls. But now that they’ve both had their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to visit them in the not-too-distant future. “I think if they’ve had the second dose of the vaccine, and the R rate is lower, I expect we should be able to see them,” he says.
Many of the experts WIRED spoke to pointed to meeting up in smaller groups. “I don’t think we are going to go back to a summer where we are going to meet up with ten people,” says Spector. “But hopefully we will be able to meet up with people in the park, go cycling, meet people at the beach, do those kinds of things outdoors.”
Warmer weather also brings the possibility of eating outside again, whether at home or at a restaurant. “We might be able to have barbecues outside and meet up in what will be billed as a socially responsible way with a bit of social distancing,” says Adrian Shields, a clinical lecturer of immunology at the University of Birmingham.
And of course, it’s not just food we want to enjoy with our friends, but a drink too. Current restrictions stop pubs from selling alcohol for takeaway but under last summer’s restrictions you could meet a limited number of your friends in the pubs for a drink. Wenham hopes that will return this year. “The things that I love about summer in the UK are things like being able to go and have a glass of rosé at an outdoor wine garden on a Friday in the summer. Will that happen? I’d like to hope so.”
Will big sports and cultural events happen?
At the moment the only way to see sport is on a screen. Museums are shut and cultural experiences are limited to walks in the park. Reopening indoor venues isn’t just a case of safety, but a matter of economics. “It depends how many people you need to get through the doors to make it worthwhile,” says Greg Towers, professor of molecular virology at University College London.
“If we are going to public venues like museums I’m sure they are still going to insist on people wearing masks to try and reduce that risk further and it’s going to be sometime before we can dispatch with all that.” says Shields. “They’re going to control admission, so you’re going to have to book if you want to go down to the Natural History Museum and you’re going to get a time slot to go around and stuff like that.”
If sports venues do open it’s likely they will be for limited numbers. “I don’t think you will see crowds of 50,000 people this year. I think the limited experiment of 3,000 to 5,000, at ten per cent capacity, is quite doable,” says Spector, who, as a healthcare worker, has received his first dose of the vaccine. However, he’s not sure if he would be attending sporting events any time soon. “I would feel nervous because even vaccines don’t give you 100 per cent immunity. And I think that idea is going to stick with us probably for many years.”
What difference will vaccines make?
Something all our experts agreed on was the need to balance risk. While the vaccine could and should greatly reduce personal risk, the population risk may remain unknown. In trials the vaccine has been proven to be effective at stopping people from getting ill. But we don’t yet know how effective it will be at stopping community transmission. “We will get that kind of information within the next month or two because of all the vaccines that have been given in the UK,” says McKay. “It would be important for me in a large group setting that I wasn’t a risk to someone who cannot get the vaccine. I would still personally wear masks and observe social distancing.”
Shields agrees. “Although the personal risk might be negligible, if we’re bringing lots of people together we don’t know who might be carrying the virus and as a result spreading it to vulnerable individuals where the risk is still significant,” he says. “It’s going to be a real balancing act.”
Vaccines aren’t the only change this year. Compared to last summer we now have worrying new variants. The UK variant, also known as B117, is estimated to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than other variants. Jit, however, remains hopeful. “We’ve got to remember we’re facing a more transmissible variant this year so some things are different from last summer, but on the other hand we’ve also got a vaccine. So we’ve got one thing helping us but one thing hindering us.”
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