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U.K.’s Boris Johnson orders new national coronavirus lockdown

Boris Johnson watches as nurse Jennifer Dumasi is injected with the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson watches as nurse Jennifer Dumasi is injected with the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the Chase Farm Hospital on Monday.
(Stefan Rousseau / Associated Press)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a new national lockdown for England until at least mid-February to combat a fast-spreading new version of the coronavirus, even as Britain ramped up its vaccination program by becoming the first nation to start using the shot developed by Oxford University and drugmaker AstraZeneca.

Johnson said the country is at “a critical moment,” with cases rising rapidly in every part of the country.

From Tuesday, primary and secondary schools and colleges will be closed for face-to-face learning except for the children of key workers. University students will not be returning until at least mid-February. People were told to work from home unless it’s impossible to do so, and leave home only for essential trips.

All nonessential shops and personal care services like hair salons will be closed, and restaurants can offer only takeout service.

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Johnson said people must stay at home again, as they were ordered to do so in the first wave of the pandemic in March, this time because the new virus variant was spreading in a “frustrating and alarming” way.

“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than at any time since the start of the pandemic,” he said in a televised address.

As of Monday, there were 26,626 COVID patients in hospitals in England, an increase of more than 30% from a week ago. That is 40% above the highest level of the first wave in the spring.

The U.K. has seen a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks as public health officials struggle to control the spread of a new variant of COVID-19 that is more contagious than previous variants. Authorities have recorded more than 50,000 new infections a day since passing that milestone for the first time on Dec. 29. On Monday, they reported 407 virus-related deaths to push the confirmed death toll total to 75,431, one of the worst in Europe.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that more lockdown restrictions in Britain are likely as the country reels from a new coronavirus strain.

The U.K.'s chief medical officers warned that without further action, “there is a material risk of the National Health Service in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”

Hours earlier, Scotland’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, also imposed a lockdown there with broadly similar restrictions from Tuesday until the end of January.

“I am more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year,” Sturgeon said in Edinburgh.

Scotland, which controls its own health policy under the U.K.'s system of devolved government, has often imposed stricter coronavirus restrictions than those in England.

The announcements come on the day U.K. health authorities began administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine around the country, fueling hopes that life may begin returning to normal by the spring.

Britain has secured the rights to 100 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is cheaper and easier to use than some of its rivals. In particular, it doesn’t require the super-cold storage needed for the Pfizer vaccine.

Drugmaker AstraZeneca says its developmental COVID-19 vaccine ‘should remain effective’ against the new coronavirus strain spreading through Britain.

The new vaccine will be administered at a small number of hospitals for the first few days so authorities can watch out for any adverse reactions. But the NHS said hundreds of new vaccination sites — including local doctors’ offices — will open later this week, joining the more than 700 vaccination sites already in operation.

A “massive ramp-up operation” is now underway in the vaccination program, Johnson said.

Brian Pinker, an 82-year-old dialysis patient, received the first Oxford-AstraZeneca shot at 7:30 a.m. at Oxford University Hospital.

“The nurses, doctors and staff today have all been brilliant, and I can now really look forward to celebrating my 48th wedding anniversary with my wife, Shirley, later this year,” Pinker said in a statement released by the National Health Service.

But aspects of Britain’s vaccination plan have spurred controversy.

Both vaccines require two shots, and Pfizer had recommended that the second dose be given within 21 days of the first. But the U.K.’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization said authorities should give the first vaccine dose to as many people as possible, rather than setting aside shots to ensure others receive two doses. It has stretched out the time between the doses from 21 days to within 12 weeks.

While two doses are required to fully protect against COVID-19, both vaccines provide high levels of protection after the first dose, the committee said. Making the first dose the priority will “maximize benefits from the vaccination program in the short term,” it said.

Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said policymakers are being forced to balance the potential risks of this change against the benefits in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

“We have a crisis situation in the U.K. with a new variant spreading rapidly, and as has become clear to everyone during 2020, delays cost lives,” Evans said. “When resources of doses and people to vaccinate are limited, then vaccinating more people with potentially less efficacy is demonstrably better than a fuller efficacy in only half.”


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