LONDON • It is too early to say when the national coronavirus lockdown in England will end, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said yesterday, as daily deaths from Covid-19 reach new highs and hospitals become increasingly stretched.
Britain posted a fresh record in daily deaths on Wednesday for the second day running, figures Mr Johnson has called "appalling".
A prevalence survey, known as React-1, suggested that infections had not fallen in the first days of the lockdown, though the government has said the impact of national restrictions introduced on Jan 5 was not yet reflected in the numbers.
"I think it is too early to say when we will be able to lift some of the restrictions," Mr Johnson told broadcasters. "What we are seeing in the ONS (Office for National Statistics) data, in the React survey, we are seeing the contagiousness of the new variant that we saw arrive just before Christmas. There is no doubt, it does spread very fast indeed."
England's third national lockdown has seen bars, restaurants and schools mostly closed, with Mr Johnson attributing a steep rise in cases at the end of last year to a more transmissible variant of the coronavirus, which was first detected in England.
While deaths have been rising, the number of new cases has fallen from a peak of 68,000 on Jan 8 to 38,000 on Wednesday.
Mr Johnson aims to vaccinate high-priority groups by the middle of next month, before considering whether restrictions can be eased.
Earlier, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he hoped schools would reopen by Easter, and that they would have two weeks notice before restarting.
Ministers have appealed to people to stay at home as much as they can to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed and to give the authorities time to roll out vaccines.
Meanwhile, the government's top scientific adviser described some hospitals as looking like a war zone.
Professor Joe Harrison, chief executive of Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, said the hospital had seen more than twice the number of patients in the second wave than the first, and currently had 186 patients with Covid-19.
"We believe that over the next week or so, we are going to continue to see real pressures in our critical care unit," he told Reuters. "And then, hopefully, we will turn the corner and things will start to improve."
Meanwhile Oxford University researchers said yesterday that rapid lateral flow tests will likely identify the most infectious Covid-19 cases with higher viral loads, despite concerns over the overall sensitivity of the tests, as the British government eyes mass testing to ease the current lockdown.
Along with the roll-out of vaccines, the government has cited widespread testing, including lateral flow tests, as a key part of its plans to reopen the economy.
However, concerns about the tests' accuracy have led some to question the plan. Some scientists have sounded the alarm at Mr Johnson's plans, dubbed "Operation Moonshot", saying that mass coronavirus testing is likely to be ineffective and expensive.
Lateral flow tests are less sensitive than polymerase chain reaction tests, which are considered the gold standard, but can return results in just half an hour. Lateral flow tests work best among those with higher viral loads, when more virus is detected in the nose and throat.
Oxford scientists are also preparing to rapidly produce new versions of their vaccine to combat more contagious Covid-19 variants discovered in Britain, South Africa and Brazil, The Telegraph reported on Wednesday.
The team behind the vaccine from Oxford and AstraZeneca is undertaking feasibility studies to reconfigure the technology, the newspaper said, citing a confirmation from Oxford University.