Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the U.K. is “on course” to meet its coronavirus vaccine target, but warned the surge in cases has left the state-run National Health Service in a “very, very serious situation.”
During his media rounds Sunday, Hancock said more than 200,000 people are being vaccinated every day, with the total now about 2 million -- including one-third of the over-80s regarded as the group most vulnerable to the disease. The government will publish daily data from Monday, and Hancock said mass vaccination centers opening in coming days will accelerate the rollout.
Read more: Can Johnson Defy Critics and Vaccinate 15 Million Britons in Time?
The U.K. faces a race against time to administer vaccines and get the disease under control, before it can lift a national lockdown that threatens to drag the country back into recession. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set a target to deliver about 15 million shots to vaccinate the most vulnerable groups by mid-February, a goal he has described as a “big stretch.”
The pressure has been ramped up by the emergence of a new faster-spreading virus strain. The government’s scientific advisers believe new Covid-19 infections are running above 100,000 a day -- comparable or exceeding the first wave in the spring. The U.K. reported an additional 59,937 confirmed cases on Saturday, taking the total above 3 million since the pandemic began.
They also warned that lower adherence to the lockdown is undermining efforts to reduce infections, and that stricter measures may be necessary.
“The pressure on the NHS is very, very bad and we need to bring the case rate right down,” Hancock told Sky News. “These rules are not there as boundaries to be pushed, they’re the limit of what people should be doing.”
Asked later on the BBC if the government would introduce tougher restrictions including curfews, Hancock said he would not “speculate” on any additional measures but said the government is keeping all data under review.
“It remains to be seen” if the current restrictions are enough to counter the new strain, Peter Horby, chairman of the scientific group advising the government on respiratory virus threats, told the BBC. “Now we’re in a situation where everything that was risky in the past is now more risky,” he said, adding that “we are now in the eye of a storm.”
Writing in the Sunday Times, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the NHS faces the “most dangerous situation anyone can remember” due to the surge in cases. “If the virus continues on this trajectory, hospitals will be in real difficulties, and soon,” he wrote.
The comments come after London Mayor Sadiq Khan on Friday declared a “major incident” in the U.K. capital to try to prevent emergency services from being overwhelmed. Major incidents have been declared previously for the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, in which 72 people died, and terrorist attacks.
Even as cases rise and with the U.K.’s death toll the highest in Europe at more than 80,000, the government faces growing pressure -- including from Conservative Party lawmakers -- to say when the latest lockdown can be lifted. Many want that process to begin in mid-February, or when the most vulnerable people have been vaccinated.
On Sunday, Hancock said the aim is to start relaxing measures in England before the March 31 date in the lockdown legislation, but said it hinges on factors including the case rates and pressure on the NHS.
Government scientists expect infection rates to drop more slowly during and after the current lockdown than in the first wave, due to the volume of cases in the community. Horby said social-distancing measures will be needed “for the coming months” and are likely to be needed again next winter.
Neil Ferguson, who sits on the same advisory committee as Horby, warned “it’s highly likely” the U.K. will hit 100,000 deaths, but he expects the virus rate to slow as the effects of vaccines and growing herd immunity in hot spots kick in. But he told the Sunday Times newspaper whether the country can avoid another lockdown -- or an extension of the current one -- hinges on vaccines.
“In an optimistic scenario, where we get high levels of vaccine coverage and it’s highly effective, there is a scenario where by the autumn we really have many, many fewer restrictions than we have now,” Ferguson told the paper.
In other developments:
- The government announced an extension of mass coronavirus testing to all local authorities in England to identify asymptomatic Covid-19 cases among people unable to work from home.
- Hancock said it’s likely that a dual influenza-coronavirus vaccine program will be needed in the future.
- The Sunday Times cited officials it didn’t identify as saying the government is looking at contingency plans to postpone local elections due in May.
- Labour Party leader Keir Starmer told the BBC that current lockdown rules “may not be enough” and that nursery schools “probably should be closed.”