British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said tougher lockdown restrictions were probably on the way as Covid-19 cases keep rising in the United Kingdom, but that the roll-out of vaccines was set to accelerate on Monday with the first 530,000 doses of the newly approved Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines ready to be administered.
He added he hoped “tens of millions” would be treated over the next three months.
Cases of Covid-19 in the UK are at record levels, likely fuelled by a new and more transmissible variant of the virus. That has already forced the government to cancel the planned reopening of schools in and around London, with calls from teachers’ unions for wider closures.
Much of England is already at the highest Tier 4 level, which involves the closure of shops not selling non-essential items and places like gyms and recreation centres as well as a stay-at-home instruction.
But Johnson, asked in a BBC interview on Sunday about concerns that the system may not be enough to bring the virus back under control, said restrictions “alas, might be about to get tougher”.
“There are obviously a range of tougher measures that we would have to consider … I’m not going to speculate now about what they would be.”
Johnson sets policy for England, with rules in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales set by their devolved authorities.
The UK recorded 57,725 new cases of the virus on Saturday, and with more than 74,000 deaths so far during the pandemic, the country is alternating with Italy as the worst-hit European nation, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Addressing concerns over education, and with millions of pupils set to return from their Christmas holidays on Monday, Johnson said schools were safe, and advised parents to send their children in, in areas where rules allow it.
“There is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe, and that education is a priority,” he said.
The schools issue has split opinion, with unions and some local authorities warning against reopening and threatening to act against government advice, and others saying that closures also have a significant negative effect on students.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from London, said there is scepticism around the stepped-up vaccination plan including questions over logistics and infrastructure.
“There is some research that has taken place already suggesting that only one in four people in the UK are now in a position whereby they can get to vaccination centres,” Simmons said.
“[But] there are plans to roll out more vaccination centres,” he added.
In a shift from practices in the United States and elsewhere, the UK plans to give people second doses of both vaccines within 12 weeks of the first shot rather than within 21 days, to accelerate immunisation across as many people as quickly as possible.
Simmons said the move is controversial and healthcare professionals have criticised the government for not adequately explaining the rationale.
But the situation is critical and the UK has done quite well with administering vaccines so far, “in that it has a supply line that is better than Europe it would seem because of the quicker approvals”, Simmons says.
“But it can’t afford to be complacent because of the figures – now five days in a row we’ve had record numbers of infection rate rises, and we have a situation now whereby the UK is likely to overtake Italy as the worst hit [European] country.”