But as Britain enters a critical stage in its fight against the pandemic, a range of measures are being brought in. They include the mass screening of students and hyper-local crackdowns on outbreaks. As schools reopen this week and more people return to workplaces, fears are mounting of a second wave of coronavirus.
However a senior government source told the Sunday Express that scientists at both Oxford University and Imperial College London are “extremely close” to developing and testing a vaccine.
It could then be mass produced and given to the entire population in a matter of a few months, allowing life to rapidly return to normality in 2021.
Ministers are remaining cautious about developments and the “reopening” of the UK.
They are now looking at the latest events in France, which recorded a shock 7,379 new infections on Friday – the second highest daily tally since March.
Yesterday there were 12 deaths in Britain and 1,108 new cases.
Coronavirus vaccine: The UK could get its vaccine in six weeks
It comes after the Government’s Sage group of experts warned that in a worst-case scenario, there could be 80,000 deaths in winter.
However a senior Government source said that they are confident they can keep infections under control, although it will require a cautious approach.
Revealing news of the work on a vaccine, the source said: “We are looking at a best-case scenario of six weeks to develop and test a vaccine – and that would be a game changer.
“Even if it takes longer, we feel Oxford and Imperial are close. Obviously, it then needs to be rolled out and millions of doses given to the public but we have built up the manufacturing capability.”
Kate Bingham, head of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, said that while she is “cautiously optimistic” about a vaccine, the most important thing is to “keep working and not be tempted into celebrating too soon”.
The most important thing is to keep working and not be tempted into celebrating too soon
She said she hoped that the final trial results, which would indicate whether a vaccine could be used, might be available sometime before Christmas.
But the source said even without a vaccine Britain is well-placed. They said: “One of the things that has made our ability to tackle coronavirus much better in the past few months is that we are now getting much improved data.
“To begin with, we were relying on hospital admissions to track the disease but because of the time lag in the original infection and the point people needed hospital treatment, that information was around a month out of date.
“Now we are getting much more up-to-date data and are able to look at local scenarios.”
Part of the ability to track the disease better has been the setting up of local and regionalised committees, including councils, mayors and local MPs.
Prince William at the Oxford Vaccine Group on a royal visit
The source said: “This has allowed them to take ownership of tackling the disease in their areas.
“They know what is happening on the ground there better than we do and it allows them to indicate which areas need locking down again and they can come up with suggestions.”
Steps are also underway to deal with universities returning. The source said: “The Government is ramping up testing close to universities, amid fears that we could see increased transmission between students.
“So we will be rolling out scores of local testing sites over the coming weeks, many close to universities or in university towns and cities.”
It comes as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson wrote to parents to reassure them it is safe for children to return to school.
He said: “There are always a few nerves before the first day back at the start of a new school year. This year, understandably, there may well be some parents who have particular worries about their children returning to the classroom.”
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But he warned: “If a child is not in school, they stand to lose far more than just a few months of learning. It could well put a huge dent in their future life chances.
“Education is a birthright, so let’s make sure we get all children back – back to learning, back to playing and back to being
He said he wanted to provide reassurance “that huge lengths have been taken to prepare all our schools for this moment”.
A range of measures have been put in place for returning youngsters. These include children in primary school staying in groups to reduce the risk.
In the event of local restrictions being put in place, older children and staff will wear face coverings in communal areas where they can’t easily social distance. Strict hygiene and cleaning protocols will be in place in all schools and PPE is being distributed to bolster their supplies for use in the unlikely event that a pupil develops symptoms.
A small number of home-test kits are also being distributed to all schools for anyone who develops symptoms and is not easily able to get tested.
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Gavin Williamson said the Government’s priority is getting children back to school
Mr Williamson added: “Our priority now is to get all our children back. It really is the best place for them to be. Nothing can match being in a classroom with a real teacher to inspire them and their friends to share their discoveries.”
The National Association of Head Teachers has confirmed that 97 per cent of schools plan to welcome all pupils full-time from the start of the autumn term.
However, the guidance in England is still being finessed, including a last-minute announcement that a “rota system”, limiting the number of students attending secondary schools at any one time, could be used in areas with a significant rise in Covid-19 cases.
The guidelines were welcomed by school leaders but unions expressed a “weary, resigned sense of inevitability” at the lateness of the announcement. Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, branded the timing of the new guidance “reprehensible”.
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT, called for more funding to be provided so extra staff can be recruited if schools are affected by local lockdown measures.
He said: “The Government now needs to confirm that schools will have the additional resources they need to deliver an effective remote learning offer to all pupils, as well as funding for any additional staff needed.”