After a day of worrying headlines over the potential risk of the South African variant, the takeaway of Monday's press conference was clear: don't panic. Both Matt Hancock and deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam were at pains to reassure the public over the threat the new variant presents. With a small sample study suggesting the Oxford vaccine has a lower efficacy against the South African strain, Hancock urged the public to stick with the current vaccination programme.
With 147 confirmed cases of the South African variant so far identified in the UK, Van-Tam said the Kent variant remains the dominant threat and all vaccines are believed to be effective against the UK strain. He said there was 'no reason to think that the South African variant will catch up or overtake our current virus in the next few months'.
With this, he urged those considering putting off receiving a vaccine until a new formula is available to think again. While Hancock praised the high uptake of the vaccine so far, he promised to keep on searching for the 'few per cent' in the top priority groups who are yet to receive a vaccine. He also urged over-70s in England who have not yet got a vaccine appointment to contact the NHS.
As for the future, neither Hancock nor Van-Tam was in the mood to offer specifics on the roadmap for easing the lockdown. The Health Secretary said it was too early to discuss relaxing exercise rules to allow for more people to exercise together. Meanwhile, JVT's advice on summer holidays was simply the more ambitious the plan, the higher the chance of it being cancelled.
In terms of the way out, the most illuminating answer came from Van-Tam. Asked in the Q&A session whether the government's approach was to eliminate Covid, the deputy chief medical officer said that the aim was instead to get to a point where coronavirus can be treated like seasonal flu. He said the key was to take the 'whole curve' of the virus and switch it so the vast majority of cases are manageable in the community rather than overwhelming hospitals. He added that it was this that would allow life to return to normal — or at least close to normal.