The UK is facing the worst weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, its chief medical officer said Monday as the health sector entered a “dangerous time” as deaths and cases hit record highs as a mass vaccination program gained momentum.
The number of deaths caused by the virus has now exceeded 81,000 in the UK – the fifth highest number in the world – and more than 3 million people have tested positive. A new, more communicable variant of the disease is emerging in the population. One in 20 people in parts of London is now infected.
To get the pandemic under control and try to restore some level of normalcy by the spring, the UK is launching its largest vaccination program to date, with shots to be offered to everyone in the four main priority categories – around 15 million people – by the middle of next month .
However, government chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned that the situation would worsen in the meantime.
“The next few weeks will be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers for the NHS (National Health Service),” he said.
“Anyone who is not shocked by the number of people in the hospital who are seriously ill right now and who are dying in the course of this pandemic, in my opinion, has not understood this at all. This is an appalling situation,” he told BBC TV.
About 18,000 people were hospitalized during the peak of the first outbreak in April, but it is now 30,000, Whitty said, adding the health service is facing a “major crisis”.
“Everyone is saying this is the most dangerous time we’ve really had in terms of the number of members of the NHS,” he said.
On Friday, the Mayor of London said the UK capital’s hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed by COVID patients and ministers and health chiefs have asked people to respect lockdown measures and stay home unless absolutely necessary required to go out.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration is hoping for a mass vaccination program that will provide a way out of the pandemic by spring.
The UK was the first country to approve vaccines developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer / BioNTech, and on Friday approved Moderna’s shot. Recordings are to be offered to 15 million people by the middle of next month.
To meet this goal, which requires the delivery of 2 million vaccines a week, the government is opening seven major vaccination centers, and additional doctor’s offices, hospitals, and some pharmacies will also begin firing shots.
“The vaccinations are really increasing, 200,000 a day. We did an incredible job last week,” Nadhim Zahawi, the minister responsible for the vaccination program, told Sky News.
The four highest risk levels, including those over 70, the most clinically vulnerable and frontline health workers, will be offered the vaccines until Feb.15, he said.
“I hope they do. Let’s hold on to it,” said opposition leader Keir Starmer, who has repeatedly accused Johnson of being too slow to respond to the pandemic, of the target.
“Britain shouldn’t have the highest death toll in Europe and the deepest recession. We shouldn’t be facing the slowest recovery and we shouldn’t suffer the tragedy of so many deaths from this virus every day.”
There have been calls for the government to crack down on those who break the lockdown rules, but Zahawi said the ministers did not want to “get tougher”. He warned, however, that there are concerns about the spread of the virus in supermarkets and that it is important to ensure that people wear masks in them.