England heading for tougher COVID-19 restriction as cases surge

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was poised to introduce tougher coronavirus restrictions in England at midnight on Monday, in a new national lockdown to try to reduce a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Johnson was due to deliver a televised address to the nation at 2000 GMT.

Johnson’s government earlier on Monday touted a scientific “triumph” as Britain became the first country in the world to start vaccinating its population with Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shot.

But as the country grapples with the world’s sixth highest death toll and cases repeatedly reaching highs, Britain’s four chief medical officers and the medical director of England’s health service said the alert level should move to its highest.

New measures aimed at reducing pressure on the health service would include school closures for most pupils in England and requiring people to work from home unless they are unable to do their jobs remotely, in what would be similar to the lockdown introduced early on in the pandemic in March.

On a happier note, dialysis patient Brian Pinker on Monday received the first Oxford/AstraZeneca shot outside of a trial.

“I am so pleased to be getting the COVID vaccine today and really proud that it is one that was invented in Oxford,” said the 82-year-old retired maintenance manager, just a few hundred metres from where the vaccine was developed.

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But even with the vaccines being rolled out, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths are rising.

More than 75,000 people in the United Kingdom have died from COVID-19 within 28 days of a positive test. A record 58,784 new cases of the coronavirus were reported on Monday.

“We are not confident that the NHS (National Health Service) can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days,” the chief medical officers of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the medical director of NHS England said in a statement.

Moving ahead of Johnson, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon earlier on Monday imposed the most stringent lockdown for Scotland since last spring.

“It is no exaggeration to say that I am more concerned about the situation that we face now than I have been at any time since March,” she said.

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Last month, Britain became the first country to roll out the vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech, and it is prioritising getting a first dose of vaccines to as many people as possible over giving second doses.

Some experts say they are worried about such an approach.

Two new variants of the coronavirus are complicating the COVID-19 response.

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UK scientists have expressed concern that the vaccines being rolled out may not be able to protect against a new variant of the coronavirus that emerged in South Africa and has spread internationally.

Britain has administered more than a million COVID-19 vaccines – more than the rest of Europe put together, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.

Johnson’s government has secured 100 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine which can be stored at fridge temperatures between two to eight degrees, making it easier to distribute than the Pfizer shot.

Six hospitals in England are administering the first of around 530,000 doses Britain has ready. The programme will be expanded to hundreds of other sites in coming days, and the government hopes it will deliver tens of millions of doses within months.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had administered 4.2 million first doses of COVID-19 vaccines as of Saturday morning and distributed 13.07 million doses.

More than a tenth of Israel’s population have had a vaccine and it is now administering more than 150,000 doses a day.

Germany and Denmark are looking into the possibility of delaying administering a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine to make scarce supplies go further, after a similar move by Britain.

Britain became the first Western country to approve and roll out a COVID-19 vaccine, although it is behind Russia and China which have been inoculating their citizens for months.

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