London: Boris Johnson pinned his hopes for a national recovery on a plan to deliver 2 million coronavirus vaccinations a week, as the U.K. went back into lockdown in an attempt to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed.
Amid dire warnings that the National Health Service could fail to cope with soaring infection rates, the prime minister shut England’s schools and ordered people across the country to stay at home.
Johnson warned of hard weeks ahead but announced a target to give shots to 13.9 million people at the highest risk from the disease by mid-February. Once they have all been vaccinated, the restrictions can begin to be eased, he said.
The emergency measures, matching curbs in other parts of the U.K., started on Monday night and will last until at least Feb. 15 as medics try to get a grip on the pandemic. The announcement risks potentially devastating retail and hospitality businesses and threatening to push the economy into recession again. The pound fell.
In a televised address to the nation, Johnson said he had no option but to close down all social activities, education and non-essential travel in the face of a sudden and severe surge in infections. The swift roll-out of vaccines will help end the crisis, he said.
“With every jab that goes into our arms, we are tilting the odds against Covid and in favor of the British people,” Johnson said in the broadcast. “The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet, but I really do believe that we are entering the last phase of the struggle.”
The police will have legal powers to use fines and dispersal orders to enforce the rules. Parliament will be recalled to debate the measures on Wednesday but the regulations are due to become law earlier that day, Johnson said.
The prime minister was forced to act after data showed new infections soaring past 80,000 on Dec. 29 and more people in the hospital than in the first peak of the virus in April.
By Jan. 4, there were almost 27,000 patients hospitalized with Covid-19 in England, a 30% increase in a week, which the government blamed on a surge in infections from a new, faster spreading strain of the virus.
Johnson resisted pressure from scientists and opposition lawmakers to lockdown the whole country in December. He cut back plans to allow families to mix over Christmas, but insisted he wanted to avoid nationwide curbs like those seen in March, choosing to keep a regional tier system in place instead.
Government chief medical officers for the four nations of the U.K. warned on Monday that the health service may not be able to cope without urgent action now. They issued a statement saying the NHS is “under immense pressure” already.
“We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days,” they said in a statement which said the national alert level is now at the highest level five.
The British Medical Association, the union for doctors, underlined the crisis facing the NHS.
“Hospitals are stretched to breaking point,” Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA council, said in an email. “Doctors are desperate, with some even comparing their working environment to a war-zone as wards overflow.”
Scotland also announced a lockdown starting at midnight on Monday. “We are now in a race between the vaccine and the virus,” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said as she ordered Scots to stay home and for schools to remain shut.
Johnson had made keeping schools open for face-to-face learning a priority for his government. But scientists warned last month they would have to close to stop the virus from spreading. While children rarely suffer badly from the disease, they can infect their families after catching it from their friends.
On Monday, the premier said he wants to vaccinate about 14 million older and vulnerable people and their carers, including frontline medics, by the middle of February.
“If we succeed in vaccinating all those groups, we will have removed huge numbers of people from the path of the virus,” Johnson said. “That will eventually enable us to lift many of the restrictions we have endured for so long.”
But there will be a “time lag” between vaccinating patients and the pressure on the NHS easing, Johnson said, adding that he is “cautious about the timetable ahead.” Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi was more forthright about the target, saying on Twitter that “we will do this.”
The dilemma for the government has been to try to balance attempts to stop the spread of the virus against the need to keep shops and businesses open to protect the economy, which has already suffered its deepest recession since the Great Frost in 1709.
A double-dip recession is looking increasingly inevitable as a result of the new lockdown. Before Johnson’s announcement, most economists expected the U.K. economy to eke out some growth this quarter.
Four weeks of school closures could cost as much as 3% of GDP, according to a tweet by Ludovic Subran, chief economist at Allianz SE. Bloomberg Economics estimates that as much as 6% of Europe’s labor supply could be affected by the narrowing of childcare options.
The Confederation of British Industry called on ministers to put in place measures to help companies with cash-flow, supply chains and to promise that they will be supported as long as the restrictions last.-Bloomberg