Health Secretary Matt Hancock last week raised hopes by pledging an increase in testing, and the possibility of issuing immunity certificates to allow those who had undergone an antibody test to prove they are able to resume their usual activities.
He said the results will inform the Government on the “big choices we have to make around social distancing and how we exit from this crisis”.
But Professor Chris Whitty today said it would be months before antibody tests were developed, and said it would be a “mistake” to start to discuss a way out of restrictions, in an apparent change of direction.
It came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepared to spend a second night in hospital for his coronavirus symptoms.
Prof Whitty, in his first public appearance after recovering from the virus himself, said: “The key thing is to get to the point where we are confident we have reached the peak and this is now beyond the peak and at that point I think it is possible to have a serious discussion about all the things we need to do step-by-step to move to the next phase of managing this.
“But I think to start having that discussion until we’re confident that that’s where we’ve got to, would I think be a mistake.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who led today’s daily briefing, added: “The risk is if we start taking our eye off the ball, of tackling the coronavirus, stopping the spread and getting through the peak, we risk delaying the point at which we could in the future take those decisions on easing restrictions. So it is really important right now to keep the over-riding focus on maintaining the discipline that we’ve had.”
The peak of the outbreak is expected in the UK in around two weeks, and it has been reported that the Treasury is concerned that if the lockdown continues after June, it will no longer be able to support businesses.
Some 5,373 people who have tested positive for coronavirus have now died, at least 342 of those have been in Yorkshire.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said earlier today: “If we can [make sure the NHS is not overwhelmed] then we can look in the weeks to come to begin to very carefully... lift some of those measures.”
And Prof Whitty told reporters that “of course” there was planning for the next phase but stressed there were a “very large number of elements that need to be brought together”.
These include testing, such as antibody tests which have not yet been proven to work, as well as the future availability of vaccines and drugs to lessen the severity of the illness.
But he also said effective antibody testing could take months to be developed.
He said: “In terms of the current tests we’ve got at the moment, you’ve got to remember this is a new disease to which we have had absolutely no knowledge at the beginning of January and inevitably we’re feeling our way, to some extent.
“I am very confident we will develop antibody tests, whether they be lab-based or dipstick-based over the next period. I’m very confident of that.
“The fact that we have not, in our first pass, in the first things that people produced, got ones which are highly effective is not particularly surprising to anybody who understands how tests are developed. I would expect those to continue to improve potentially on the dipstick-side and definitely on the lab-side which would be available in due course through the NHS over time.”
He added: “The situation we’ll find ourselves in a few months, and possibly a few weeks, will be considerably different to what we find ourselves in at the moment.”
Professor Dame Angela McLean, the Ministry of Defence’s Chief Scientific Adviser, added: “We need a good, long time series of data on all of these stages of infection in order to be able to tell what the impact of the measures that came on March 23 are going to be.
It’s too early to tell yet, we need people to carry on following those instructions so that we can work out three weeks later what actually happens in hospitals.”
She added: “We need to know how well the current restrictions are working before we can say anything sensible about what the next stage might be.”