PM Johnson says UK in ‘race against time’ as it faces worst weeks of Covid-19 pandemic

Shots would be offered to those in the highest risk levels, the eldest and frontline health workers, by the middle of February. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday (Jan 11) Britain was in "a race against time" to rollout Covid-19 vaccines as deaths hit record highs and hospitals run out of oxygen, with his top medical adviser saying the pandemic's worst weeks were imminent.

A new, more transmissible variant of the disease is now surging through the population, with one in 20 people in parts of London now infected, threatening to overwhelm the health service with hospitals overloaded with patients.

The death toll in the United Kingdom has been soaring and now stands in excess of 81,000 - the world's fifth-highest toll - while more than 3 million people have tested positive.

In a bid to get on top of the pandemic and to try to restore some degree of normality by the spring, Britain is rushing out its largest ever vaccination programme, with shots to be offered to about 15 million people - by the middle of next month.

"It's a race against time, because 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 said on a visit to a vaccination centre in Bristol, in southwest England.

"This is a very perilous moment. 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."

The government's chief medical adviser Chris Whitty had earlier warned the situation was set to deteriorate.

"The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS (National Health Service)," he told BBC TV.

"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. This is an appalling situation," he told BBC TV.

'Dangerous time'

During the peak of the first outbreak in April, about 18,000 people were in hospital but now there are 30,000, Whitty said, describing it as "the most dangerous time we've really had in terms of numbers".

Johnson's government is pinning its hopes on a mass vaccination programme to offer a way out of the crisis. Britain was the first country to approve vaccines developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and by Pfizer-BioNTech , while it approved Moderna's shot on Friday.

Johnson said Britain had already administered shots to 2 million people already - more than any other European country - and was opening up seven big vaccination centres as part of its vaccination expansion plans.

But he admitted that delivering doses to 15 million people in the four highest risk levels, including those over 70, the most clinically vulnerable and frontline health workers, by Feb 15 was "a huge ask".

"We believe it's achievable, we're going throw absolutely everything at it, to get it done," he said.

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The UK hopes to vaccinate its top four priority groups, about 15 million people, by the middle of next month. But despite ramping up its mass vaccination program, the government expects the next few weeks to be the worst of the pandemic.

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has repeatedly accused Johnson of being too slow to respond to the pandemic, said the Prime Minister's indecision had cost lives and worsened the economic impact "We shouldn't be facing the slowest recovery and we shouldn't be suffering the tragedy of so many deaths every day from this virus," he said.

Ministers and health chiefs have pleaded with people to respect lockdown measures and stay at home, amid fears some people are not adhering to the rules strictly enough, along with concern that the virus is being spread in supermarkets.

"Where we have to tighten them, we will," Johnson said of the rules.

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