British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that the UK is at a “very perilous time” in the COVID-19 pandemic, as a wave of infections puts pressure on the healthcare system.
Johnson said on Monday the UK was now in a ‘race against time’ to curb the virus, a highly contagious new variant of which has spiked cases and led to more deaths, before overwhelming the National Health Service (NHS).
His government last week imposed a third national lockdown in England in a bid to slow transmission, and authorities are stepping up efforts to immunize 15 million people by mid-February as part of a vaccination program massive.
“We can all see the threat our NHS faces, the pressure it is under, the demand in intensive care units, the pressure on ventilated beds, even the shortage of oxygen in some places,” said Johnson to reporters during a visit to a vaccination center. in Bristol, one of seven mass vaccination sites opened on Monday.
“It’s a very perilous moment,” he said. “The worst thing for us now is to allow success in the deployment of a vaccination program to create any kind of complacency about the state of the pandemic.”
Johnson’s comments came after the government’s chief medical adviser warned that the coming weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic would be “the worst” in the UK, in terms of pressure on hospitals.
Professor Chris Whitty said the NHS will come under greater pressure than ever before, with around one in 50 people now infected across the UK, and as hospitals in parts of the country are pushed to breaking point.
“The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers in the NHS,” he told the BBC. “This new variant really pushes things in a way that the old variant, which was already very bad, couldn’t.”
At the height of the first outbreak in April, around 18,000 people were hospitalized, but there are now 30,000, Whitty said, adding that the health service was facing “a major crisis.”
Whitty urged the public to obey the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the virus; the new mutation is thought to be up to 70% more contagious.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan on Friday warned hospitals in the UK capital were at risk of being overwhelmed by COVID patients, and health ministers and chiefs pleaded with people to respect lockdown measures and stay at home unless it is essential to go out.
Immunization plan put into action
British officials aim to have given a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to some 15 million people by mid-February, including everyone in the country over the age of 70 and workers in the health and primary care, a measure they hope will allow lockdown restrictions to be relieved.
“What we need to do before the vaccines work because it will be several weeks before that happens, we really need to double down,” Whitty said.
Having approved vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna, UK open its seven large-scale vaccination centers on Monday as part of a feverish effort to meet its vaccination target by mid-February.
The country currently vaccinates about 200,000 people a day, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday.
Paul Brennan of Al Jazeera, reporting from a mass vaccination site at London’s ExCeL center, said Whitty’s comments reflected the “stark and frightening” situation in the UK.
“He said it wasn’t tinkering with restrictions that would make a difference, but that it was up to everyone to take responsibility for minimizing as much as possible the social contacts they have outside the home.” , said Brennan.
“He did not put the onus on politicians to tighten the rules,” Brennan said.
About 1.3 million people had received their first two-dose vaccination as of January 3, according to government data, but the UK must vaccinate two million people per week to meet its February 15 target.
When asked on Monday if life would ever return to normal, Whitty said there was “no doubt” that we would return to “life as it was before at some point.”
Once the vaccines are in place, he said, “people will be able to lift the restrictions.”
“It won’t happen all at once, and at some point I hope you will come back to a life that is basically exactly the same as before,” Whitty said. “However, we are quite far from it at the moment,” he said.
More than 81,400 people in the UK have died within 28 days of receiving a positive COVID-19 test, the fifth highest official toll in the world.
“Anyone who isn’t shocked by the number of people in the hospital who are seriously ill right now and dying during this pandemic, I think, has not understood that at all,” Whitty said. “It’s a terrible situation.”