Health chief warns coronavirus outbreak could last months and vaccine may never be found

People wearing masks to protect against coronavirus in central London (PA Images via Getty Images)

A health chief has warned that the coronavirus outbreak could last months in the UK and that a vaccine may never be found.

Professor Jason Leitch, the Scottish government’s national clinical director, insisted concern about the risks posed by coronavirus is not being overhyped.

He said escalation measures in the UK are looking “inevitable”, despite the British government’s decision on Monday to remain in the “containment” phase of its response to Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

Prof Leitch told BBC’s Good Morning Scotland that it was legitimate for there to be concerns – especially for at-risk groups – and the outbreak would last “months, not weeks”.

He said the decision to escalate the response across the UK would happen once there is “sustained community spread”, rather than a critical number of cases.

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“Just now, all 23 of Scotland’s cases can be linked to travel or people who have travelled,” he said.

“We know the route for everybody who has got an infection. When we stop being able to do that, which we think is now inevitable, we will have to do something different with society.”

Prof Leitch warned that scientists may not be able to find a vaccine for coronavirus.

“The reason people are sick is pneumonia and therefore you need to give their body time to recover from the pneumonia,” he said.

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“This is not a bacteria, you can’t give them antibiotics, and until we get a treatment – which we may never get – we have to support the individual to recover themselves.”

Empty shelves of a Tesco store in Leytonstone, London, as many people panic buy over coronavirus fears (Getty)

Asked about people with underlying health conditions who are believed to be most at risk, Prof Leitch said: “People should be behaving sensibly and normally with these health conditions.

“Millions of people live with chronic health problems all day and every day.

“Just now, the advice for these people is to go about their business as usual. Don’t panic buy, make sure you’ve got your medicines in place, make sure you’ve got friends and family who can look after you and know where you are.”

England's deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said on Tuesday that the start of the UK peak of the coronavirus outbreak is expected within the next 10 to 14 days.

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She said "many thousands of people" would contract coronavirus as the disease continued to spread in the UK.

"We currently have relatively few cases here, which is why we are still in the containment phase," she said.

"Large numbers of the population will become infected because it's a naive population - nobody has got antibodies to this virus currently.

"We will see many thousands of people infected by coronavirus, that's what we're seeing in other countries, and the important thing for us is to make sure that we manage those infections."