U.K.’s ‘Warp Speed’ Booster Rollout Is Already Struggling
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson’s strategy for tackling a U.K. surge in omicron infections is already facing setbacks, as medics warn of bottlenecks and staffing shortages in the vaccine booster program.
The British prime minister promised to ramp up delivery of boosters to “warp speed” to achieve its target of reaching all adults by the end of December, and late Monday announced that hundreds of new vaccine sites would open across the country, including at soccer stadiums and racecourses.
Amid reports of hours-long queues at walk-in centers, doubts are growing over how realistic the goal is as the number of daily infections hits 200,000. The government’s online booking platform has repeatedly crashed, and the Times newspaper reported National Health Service leaders as saying the year-end deadline is unlikely to be met.
“It’s a challenging logistical operation,” Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said on Sky News on Tuesday. “There will be teething issues.”
Johnson said the target effectively means NHS must beat its daily record for vaccinations -- 844,000 in March -- “day after day.” The government is relying on the inoculation program, combined with relatively light curbs announced last week such as mandatory face coverings in indoor spaces, to get through the omicron crisis.
Yet the risks could escalate rapidly if the government miscalculates. Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament on Monday the new coronavirus strain now accounts for 20% of confirmed Covid-19 cases in England.
With cases thought to be doubling every two to three days, there is very little wiggle room to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed -- even if the omicron variant makes people less sick than delta or other strains.
The BMA, which represents U.K. doctors, is calling for the introduction of tougher measures including requiring face coverings to be worn in all hospitality settings and the limits on numbers for indoor gatherings.
“Despite describing the current situation as an ‘emergency’ with a ‘tidal wave’ of infections on the horizon, the government’s response relying entirely on the vaccine booster program is missing the wider measures required to control the spread of omicron,” it said in a statement Monday. It also warned that the NHS is “severely understaffed” and that maintaining normal services alongside the booster program is “potentially impossible.”
On Monday, Johnson refused repeatedly to rule out imposing further rules before Christmas to try to contain omicron. “We take whatever steps are necessary to protect public health,” he told broadcasters, while confirming the first U.K. death linked to the variant.
Tougher curbs would put him on a collision course with members of his ruling Conservative Party, many of whom are already threatening to rebel when the measures announced last week are put to a vote in Parliament on Tuesday.
Many Tories are especially angry about the plan to require larger venues to demand customers have so-called Covid passports showing proof of vaccination or a negative test for entry. That has also alarmed businesses, which have warned of the damaging effect of the new rules on the economy.
Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters at a regular briefing the government has no plans to tighten rules beyond the measures being put to a vote in Parliament on Tuesday.
While the new rules are almost certain to pass because the opposition Labour Party has said it will vote for them, Johnson will be hoping the virus doesn’t again force his hand in the coming days.
Getting boosters “will save lives and help avoid more stringent restrictions later on,” Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said in a webcast press conference on Tuesday. “I know this is an uncertain time for many.”
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