England’s chief medical officer has said he is “confident” that life will go back to normal.
Professor Chris Whitty said he is “not in doubt” that life can return to the way it was before than pandemic struck.
But he urged people to play their part and cut out any unnecessary contact with anyone outside their home.
He suggested that measures could be needed until “some time in the spring” to stem the spread of the virus.
He told BBC Breakfast: “I am confident we will go back to life as it was before at some point, that’s not in doubt.
“That’s the life we all want to lead.
“And what will happen, once the vaccination has rolled out across a wide enough part of the population, so that the most vulnerable are protected but also so that enough people are protected, to actually reduce the risk for the whole society – that’s going to take a rather long period of time, but months not years.
“We will begin stage by stage; over the next period, people will be able to have the restrictions lifted and it won’t happen in one go.
“And at a certain point, hopefully, we’ll get back to a life that is basically exactly the same as it was before.
“However, we’re quite a long way away from that at the moment.
“We really would like people to concentrate on the period now, fully accepting that we all want life to get back to normal and life will get back to normal, but it will actually get back to normal more quickly if we can get on top of this early now.
“If you get invited for a vaccination, please take up that offer.
“And that’s the way you will get on top of this epidemic.
“And, by stages, get back to the life that we all want to lead.”
But he suggested that measures could be needed until “some time in the spring” to stem the spread of the virus.
“We’ve got to make this sustainable because we got to be able to maintain this for several more weeks now,” he added.
“We’re really going to have to do a significant action for all of us for several more weeks until probably some time in the spring for very much of what we have to do.
“So, the three things that people can leave home for are essential work where they can’t do it from home, when they are doing exercise – which is very important for people’s physical health, their mental health – and for essential things like shopping or medical intervention.”
Asked about his previous comments that restrictions may need to continue into next winter, Prof Whitty told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he had been making the “obvious point” that respiratory viruses cause problems in winter.
“Obviously our hope is that the vaccination programme will be so effective, and so extensive in terms of the vaccine efficacy, of everyone taking it up, that actually we need no additional things above what you would normally do in winter … but I think you need to leave open the possibility.
“As a doctor, I’m trained to tell people pretty straight what I think’s going to happen – that’s what I think is one of the possibilities.”
He said the hope is that vaccination will become so widespread that it reduces Covid to a “low enough level that actually the great majority or all of these restrictions are not necessary”.
Asked about herd immunity, he said allowing “natural herd immunity” to be achieved by letting the virus spread through the population “would have led to very, very large numbers – hundreds of thousands probably – of people dying”.
He said the vaccine, however, would have a “large effect on transmission” of the virus and offer immunity “for a reasonable length of time”.
He said the UK might then “get to a stage where so many people are vaccinated and so many people are therefore immune that the remaining small number of people who are not vaccinated are protected by that wider group”.
“That is what people mean by herd immunity normally, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near that at the moment,” he said.
“That is obviously a state we would all like to get to and that’s one of the reasons, if people are offered a vaccine, I would strongly encourage them to take it up.”
And he told BBC Radio 5 Live he hopes that restrictions will not be necessary next winter but that society is “quite a long way” from returning to normal life.
“If we have a very effective vaccination programme, if the vaccine works for a long period of time and prevents transmission, and in particular if everybody takes it up as they’re offered it, then my hope is that we will need minimal or no restrictions in due course,” he said.
“There will be at some point a small enough risk that as a society we say ‘Look, we’re just going to get back to normal life’, but we’re quite a long way away from that at the moment.
“We’ll just say ‘This amount of risk we will tolerate’.”
Meanwhile, Prof Whitty joked that he is “rather hoping” that someone had sent a clicker to Downing Street at Christmas when probed about the repeated use of the phrase “Next slide please” during the coronavirus press conferences.