U.K. Ramps Up Covid Vaccine Rollout With Hospitals Under Strain

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The U.K. said its coronavirus vaccine rollout will accelerate with the opening of seven regional centers at sports and conference venues this week, amid warnings hospitals are struggling to cope as cases surge.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Sunday the U.K. is “on course” to meet its vaccine target with more than 200,000 people receiving doses every day and the total now standing at about 2 million. The government publishes daily data from Monday, when Hancock will visit one of the new centers before holding a press conference in Downing Street to lay out the vaccination strategy.

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 control the disease. A new faster-spreading virus strain threatens to overwhelm the state-run National Health Service and prolong the need for a lockdown measures that threaten to drag the economy into a double-dip recession.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set a target to deliver about 15 million shots to the most vulnerable people by mid-February, a goal he has described as a “big stretch.” With those most at risk of dying from the disease protected, the idea is to then gradually lift restrictions and re-open the economy.

Much is also riding politically on meeting the target, after his government faced months of criticism over its handling of the pandemic.

The U.K. was the first country in the Western world to approve a Covid immunization last month, giving the green light to the Pfizer-BioNTech shot. It has since begun administering doses of a vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca and last week approved a vaccine from Moderna.

Surging Infections

The pressure to get vaccines into arms has been ramped up by the emergence of the new virus strain, which has thrown the government’s plans on everything from the economy to education into turmoil by forcing another lockdown.

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 54,940 confirmed cases on Sunday, with the total now 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 U.K. vaccine delivery plan will be the keystone of our exit out of the pandemic,” Hancock said in an emailed statement Monday. “But we all must continue to play our part by staying at home, following the rules and keeping hands, face, space at the forefront of our minds when out and about.”

‘Real Difficulties’

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.

In other developments:

  • Hancock said it’s likely that a dual influenza-coronavirus vaccine program will be needed in the future.
  • The Times said supermarkets face being legally required to force that customers wear masks and observe rules on mixing with others
  • The Telegraph reported the government may stop members of different households from exercising together
  • The Federation of Small Businesses warned that at least 250,000 firms will close this year without more government support.
  • In a speech Monday, opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer will urge the government to give key workers a pay increase and protect family incomes by preventing local councils from raising taxes
  • 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.

But 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 lockdown can be lifted. Many want that process to begin in mid-February, or once the most vulnerable people have been vaccinated.

Easing Rules

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.

Still, there are warnings the government may yet have to intensify the current lockdown. “It remains to be seen” if the 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 on Sunday.

“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.”

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