U.K. Hospitals Face Breaking Point as Johnson Prepares Lockdown

The U.K.’s state healthcare system risks being overwhelmed in the next three weeks, forcing Boris Johnson to impose tougher lockdown rules in a desperate attempt to get control over the surging coronavirus pandemic.

In a joint statement, the most senior government medical officers for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales warned parts of the National Health Service “are already under immense pressure.”

“We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases,” the four chief medics said in a statement released by the government. “Without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”

Johnson will announce new pandemic restrictions in an address to the nation at 8 p.m. in London. A third national lockdown for England -- with schools ordered to close -- looks almost inevitable and Scotland appeared to preempt the move by announcing a shutdown from midnight.

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Johnson has been forced to rip up his strategy yet again in response to changes in the outlook for the pandemic. A faster-spreading mutation of the virus threatens to overwhelm the NHS and has thrown the premier’s plan to get English children back into classrooms after the holiday into disarray.

Ministers had hoped Monday’s focus would be on celebrating the delivery of the first shots of a Covid-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca Plc.

“The spread of the new variant of COVID-19 has led to rapidly escalating case numbers across the country,” Johnson’s office said in a statement on Monday. “The prime minister is clear that further steps must now be taken to arrest this rise and to protect the NHS and save lives.”

U.K. Hospitals Face Breaking Point as Johnson Prepares Lockdown

The pound extended its drop, falling as much as 0.8% to $1.3562 to lead declines among major currencies.

Parliament will be recalled on Wednesday to debate the rule changes after a surge in cases forced the premier into action, while the Scottish authorities announced a lockdown north of the border earlier on Monday.

“We are now in a race between the vaccine and the virus,” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said as she ordered Scots to stay home and for schools to stay shut.Soaring Infections

Johnson’s government is back in crisis mode, with new virus cases exceeding 50,000 a day and hospital admissions soaring past the peak of the first wave in April. Johnson, who ended the year on a high by securing a last-minute trade deal with the European Union, warned a “surging epidemic” means stricter rules are coming.

“If you look at the numbers there’s no question we’re going to have to take tougher measures and we will be announcing those in due course,” Johnson said in a pooled TV interview earlier Monday. “We will do everything we can to keep the virus under control.”

ITV reported the government plans to put the whole of England into Tier 4, the highest level in its system of restrictions, meaning non-essential shops will have to close and further curbs will be placed on socializing. Tier 4 rules effectively mirror the second lockdown in November, and already govern more than 75% of England’s population.

“There’s no doubt at the moment that infection rates are high, the NHS is under severe pressure -- particularly in London and parts of the South East where the new variant has been accelerating in transmission,” NHS England medical director Stephen Powis told the BBC.

U.K. Hospitals Face Breaking Point as Johnson Prepares Lockdown

Former Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was among those calling for Johnson to impose an immediate national lockdown. Writing on Twitter, he said schools and borders should be closed and all household mixing banned.

The Financial Times reported that there was consensus in the Cabinet to have primary and secondary schools closed until the mid-February.

It’s a far cry from the government’s optimism in early December, when the arrival of vaccines was described as the “scientific cavalry” coming to the rescue. The picture changed dramatically when the emergence of a faster spreading strain of Covid-19 led to the introduction of a stricter fourth tier of regional coronavirus rules that hammered retailers reliant on Christmas shoppers.

School Dilemma

In the November shutdown, schools remained open, reflecting the government’s promise to keep in-person classes going. On Monday, Johnson gave mixed messages on schools, saying that while they are safe to open, “all measures” are “under review” because of the role they play in spreading the virus.

“The issue is the extent to which the mingling of kids in schools by putting lots of households together cause the epidemic to spread even faster,” Johnson said. “We’ll have to look very hard at what we do with secondary schools later on in the month.”

In the meantime, many schools have openly defied orders to open. Opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer called on the government to deliver a tougher “stay-at-home” message.

“You only need to go out on the streets now to see lots of people out and about, you see trains that are half-full, we need to go back to where we were in March with a very, very strong messaging about staying at home,” Starmer told the BBC. ”The virus is out of control, everybody can see that.”

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