Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday a new national lockdown for England until at least mid-February to combat a fast-spreading new variant of the coronavirus, even as Britain ramped up its vaccination programme by becoming the first nation to start using the shot developed by Oxford University and drugmaker AstraZeneca.
Johnson said people must stay at home again, as they were ordered to do so in the first wave of the pandemic in March, this time because the new virus variant was spreading in a “frustrating and alarming” way.
“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than at any time since the start of the pandemic,” he said in a televised address.
From Tuesday, primary and secondary schools and colleges will be closed for face to face learning except for the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils. University students will not be returning until at least mid-February. People were told to work from home unless it’s impossible to do so, and leave home only for essential trips.
All non-essential shops and personal care services like hairdressers will be closed, and restaurants can only operate takeout services.
As of Monday, there were 26,626 COVID-19 patients in hospitals in England, an increase of more than 30 per cent from a week ago. That is 40 per cent above the highest level of the first wave in the spring.
Large areas of England were already under tight restrictions as officials try to control an alarming surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, blamed on a new variant of COVID-19 that is more contagious than existing variants. Authorities have recorded more than 50,000 new infections daily since passing that milestone for the first time on December 29. On Monday, they reported 407 virus-related deaths to push the confirmed death toll total to 75,431, one of the worst in Europe.
The UK’s chief medical officers warned that without further action, “there is a material risk of the National Health Service in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”
Hours earlier, Scotland’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, also imposed a lockdown there with broadly similar restrictions from Tuesday until the end of January.
“I am more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year,” Sturgeon said in Edinburgh.
The announcements came on the day UK health authorities began putting the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine into arms around the country, fuelling hopes that life may begin returning to normal by the spring.
“The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet but I really do believe that we’re entering the last phase of the struggle,” Johnson said.
Britain has secured the rights to 100 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is cheaper and easier to use than some of its rivals. In particular, it doesn’t require the super-cold storage needed for the Pfizer vaccine.
The new vaccine will be administered at a small number of hospitals for the first few days so authorities can watch out for any adverse reactions. Officials said hundreds of new vaccination sites – including local doctors’ offices – will open later this week, joining the more than 700 vaccination sites already in operation.
A “massive ramp-up operation” is now underway, Johnson said. The goal was that by mid-February, some 13 million people in the top priority groups – care home residents, all those over 70 years old, frontline health and social workers, and those deemed extremely clinically vulnerable –will be vaccinated, he said.