U.K. Steps Up Biggest Vaccine Drive, With One in 50 Now Infected

More than 1 million people in England now have coronavirus, the British government said, as medics race to vaccinate the most vulnerable against the rapidly spreading disease.

Rocketing case rates from the new virus strain mean one person in every 50 in England now has Covid-19, while in London one in 30 is infected, official survey results showed.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled the statistics as he vowed to speed up the government’s vaccination program, in order eventually to lift the latest lockdown. He said 23% of all over-80s in England have now been given a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, meaning some of those at the greatest risk are starting to get the protection they need.

Johnson underlined his promise to vaccinate almost 14 million people at the highest risk and carers by mid-February. He said 1.3 million people across the U.K. had already received the first of two shots.

U.K. Steps Up Biggest Vaccine Drive, With One in 50 Now Infected

But he signaled there could be many more months of restrictions ahead, saying current plans to end England’s national lockdown in mid-February were subject to a “lot of caveats, a lot of ifs.” England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said measures could be in place next winter, adding: “We shouldn’t kid ourselves this just disappears with spring.”

Invisible Shield

The prime minister was speaking at a press conference Tuesday, a day after he put the country into its third national lockdown since the pandemic began. The rest of Europe is also buckling under the strain of a resurgent pandemic, with Germany fighting high infection rates and encountering difficulties rolling out vaccines.

The new national restrictions in the U.K. threaten to push the economy into a double dip recession, prompting Johnson’s government to announce another package of emergency support for businesses, worth more than 4.6 billion pounds ($6.2 billion).

“You all want to be sure that we in government are now using every second of this lockdown to put that invisible shield around the elderly and the vulnerable in the form of vaccination, and so to begin to bring this crisis to an end,” Johnson said. “Yes it is a huge effort. It’s the biggest vaccination program in the history of this country.”

He defended his decision to order the country to stay at home again, and pointed to latest infection figures showing record levels of coronavirus in the population. “The number of patients in hospitals in England is now 40% higher than at the first peak in April,” he said. “When everybody looks at the position people understand overwhelmingly that we have no choice.”

The figure of one in 50 people infected is an estimate based on a mass testing survey that aims to find people who have infections but no symptoms. It is significantly higher than the infection rate implied by the national totals from all positive test results, which mostly rely on people to seek tests when they show symptoms.

Passenger Testing

British officials are in talks over what more is needed to protect the U.K. from the pandemic, including potentially new restrictions at ports and airports on non-essential travel. At the press conference, Johnson said a new testing regime will be introduced. “We will be bringing in measures to ensure that we test people coming into this country and prevent the virus from being readmitted,” he said.

The lockdown followed warnings from government medical advisers that the National Health Service could be overwhelmed within the next three weeks unless urgent action was taken.

At Tuesday’s press briefing, Whitty said the “hope” is the new lockdown will be enough to bring the pandemic under control. “If people stick to those rules really strongly and at the same time, the NHS is vaccinating as fast as it can, then our hope is the lockdown will be enough. But we’ve all got to do that.”

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