Coronavirus may linger on in the most disadvantaged parts of British society long after social distancing and testing measures have driven it out of the mainstream, a leading government scientist has warned.
Dame Angela McLean, the Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific adviser, said that even after lockdown has been lifted and infection numbers have subsided, the virus could find a haven among the most “hard to reach” people – often taken to include the homeless, long-term benefit claimants and migrant workers.
The authorities will have a responsibility to carry on hunting down pockets of infection in “every part of our society”, she said.
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Dame Angela was speaking just moments after first secretary of state Dominic Raab told the daily Downing Street press conference that Boris Johnson’s recent illness showed that coronavirus “doesn’t discriminate”.
Standing alongside Mr Raab in No 10, Dame Angela took a markedly different tone: “Infectious diseases always do and always will target the disadvantaged.
“And I think one of the things that we fear, as we hopefully bring the incidence of infections and the number of people who are infected every day right down to very low levels, is that infection will disappear into parts of our communities that are really, really hard to reach.
“It’s incumbent on all of us, including our scientists, to find ways that we can make sure that we can track the ongoing spread of infection amongst every part of our society.”
She was responding to a question from community volunteer Bren McInerney, who was chosen from members of the public to take part in the daily conference.
Mr McInerney, from Gloucester, asked how Britain can ensure that as it emerges from the Covid-19 outbreak “we address inequalities across community and neighbours and continue to invest and empower local communities to thrive”.
Mr Raab told him that the pandemic had been a “timely reminder” of the importance of the “levelling up” agenda set out by Mr Johnson in last year’s general election.
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And he added: “One of the things that we found with coronavirus is that hasn’t discriminated. We’ve got the prime minister who’s been laid low with it. We’ve got people all across the country, no-one has been impervious to this virus.
“And I think it’s also taught us to appreciate those key workers that I mentioned, not just those in the NHS and care homes who obviously do an amazing job, but also those keeping our supermarkets running, keeping deliveries flowing.”
Mr Raab said the UK must make sure it comes out of the crisis “together as one country” and keeps alive the spirit of “national mission” which allowed it to tackle the coronavirus.
With Mr Johnson expected to set out his roadmap out of lockdown in an address to the nation on Sunday, the foreign secretary warned that the next stage of the recovery “won’t be easy”.
“As we consider the decisions which we will take next, to protect life but also to protect our way of life, it’s now clear that the second phase will be different,” he said.
“We will need to adjust to a ‘new normal’ where we as a society adapt to safe new ways to work, to travel, to interact and to go about our daily lives.
“We have never experienced anything like this first stage of Covid-19 in terms of the scale of the lives lost but also the lockdown it has required.
“As we go forward we want to make sure that the next phase is more comfortable, is more sustainable and prevents lasting damage to jobs and livelihoods.
“But we need to be under no illusions – the next stage won’t be easy.
“If we are going to protect life and preserve our way of life, we must continue to be guided by the scientific advice we receive and make sure that the next steps we take are sure-footed and sustainable.”