Seven centres will open on Monday as British government accelerates efforts to tackle the virus that is running rampant.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned the United Kingdom is at a “very perilous moment” in the COVID-19 pandemic, as a surge of infections puts pressure on the health system.
Johnson on Monday said the UK was now in a “race against time” to curtail the virus, a new highly infectious variant of which has driven the rising caseload and led to more deaths, before it overwhelms the National Health Service (NHS).
His government last week enforced a third national lockdown in England in a bid to slow transmission, and officials are increasing efforts to vaccinate 15 million people by mid-February as part of a mass immunisation programme.
“We can all see the threat that our NHS faces, the pressure it’s under, the demand in intensive care units, the pressure on ventilated beds, even the shortage of oxygen in some places,” Johnson told reporters during a visit to a vaccination centre in Bristol, one of seven mass vaccination sites opened on Monday.
“This is a very perilous moment,” he said. “The worst thing now for us is to allow success in rolling out a vaccine programme to breed any kind of complacency about the state of the pandemic.”
Johnson’s comments came after the government’s chief medical adviser warned that the next few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic will be “the worst” in the UK, in terms of pressure on hospitals.
Professor Chris Whitty said the NHS would come under greater pressure than ever, with about one in 50 people now infected across the UK, and as hospitals in parts of the country are pushed to breaking point.
“The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS,” he told the BBC. “This new variant is really pushing things in a way in that the old variant, which was already very bad, wasn’t able to do.”
During the peak of the first outbreak in April, about 18,000 people were in hospital but now there are 30,000, Whitty said, adding the health service was facing “a significant crisis”.
Whitty urged the public to obey the lockdown enforced to curtail the spread of the virus; the new mutation is thought to be up to 70 percent more contagious.
On Friday, Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, warned the UK capital’s hospitals were in danger of being overwhelmed by COVID patients, and ministers and health chiefs have pleaded with people to respect lockdown measures and stay at home unless it was essential to go out.
UK officials aim to have given one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to some 15 million people by mid-February, including to everyone in the country older than 70 and front-line health and care workers, a move they hope will allow lockdown restrictions to be eased.
“What we need to do before the vaccines have had their effect, because it will take several weeks before that happens, we need to really double down,” Whitty said.
Having approved vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna, the UK opened its seven large-scale vaccination centres on Monday as part of feverish efforts to reach its mid-February inoculation target.
The country is currently immunising about 200,000 people a day, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday.
Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from a mass vaccination site at London’s ExCeL centre, said Whitty’s comments reflected the UK’s “stark and frightening” situation.
“He said it was not tinkering with restrictions that would make a difference, but that it was up to everybody to take responsibility for minimising as much as possible the social contacts they have outside of the home,” Brennan said.
“He was not putting the responsibility on politicians to tighten the rules,” Brennan said.
About 1.3 million people had received their first dose of the two-dose vaccination as of January 3, according to government data, but the UK needs to inoculate two million people a week to meet its February 15 target.
Asked on Monday if life would ever return to normal, Whitty said it was “not in doubt” that we will return to “life as it was before at some point”.
Once vaccines are rolled out, he said, “people will be able to have the restrictions lifted”.
“It won’t happen in one go, and at a certain point, hopefully you’ll get back to a life that is basically exactly the same as it was before,” Whitty said. “However, we’re quite a long way away from that at the moment,” he said.
More than 81,400 people in the UK have died within 28 days of receiving a positive COVID-19 test, the fifth-highest official death toll globally.
“Anybody who is not shocked by the number of people in hospital who are seriously ill at the moment and who are dying over the course of this pandemic, I think, has not understood this at all,” Whitty said. “This is an appalling situation.”