UK hospitals stagger as new virus variant takes huge toll

Britain is facing a long, bleak winter as cold, wet weather and a more contagious variant of coronavirus put unprecedented strain on the nation’s hospitals

That picture made Prime Minister Boris Johnson order a third national lockdown that started Tuesday and requires everyone in England to stay at home for at least the next six weeks except for exercise, medical appointments, essential shopping and a few other limited exceptions.

England's previous nationwide lockdown ran from Nov. 5 to Dec. 5. In announcing the new stay-at-home order, Johnson said it won’t be reviewed for lifting until at least mid-February. By that time, the government hopes to have given one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to about 13 million people who are most at risk, potentially allowing some relaxation of the restrictions.

Under the latest lockdown, schools and outdoor sports facilities are closed along with bars, restaurants, hair salons, gyms, theaters and most shops.

“The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet, but I really do believe that we are entering the last phase of the struggle,” Johnson told the nation Monday night. “Because with every jab that goes into our arms, we are tilting the odds against COVID and in favor of the British people.”

Johnson and Sturgeon said the restrictions were needed to protect the hard-pressed National Health Service as a new, more contagious variant of coronavirus sweeps across Britain. On Monday, hospitals in England were treating 26,626 COVID-19 patients, 40% more than during the first peak in mid-April.

Many U.K. hospitals have already been forced to cancel elective surgeries and the strain of responding to the pandemic may soon delay cancer surgery and limit intensive care services for patients without COVID-19.

In December, a record 2,930 people were forced to wait 12 hours or more before hospitals could find beds for them, the Health Service Journal reported Monday, citing leaked figures from the National Health Service. The previous high of 2,847 waits of at least 12 hours for a hospital bed was reported in January 2020.

Public health officials hope the new lockdown will reduce the strains on the NHS while they roll out a national vaccination program that targets older people, health care workers and those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Britain has approved two vaccine shots so far — one from Pfizer-BioNTech and the other from Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

As of Monday, the NHS had vaccinated 1.3 million people across the U.K. The government plans to have almost 1,000 vaccination centers operating across the country by the end of this week, Johnson said.

While rollout of the vaccination program is complicated, Anandaciva of the King's Fund said the structure of the NHS will help it deliver the shots. In addition to a nationwide network of hospitals, doctors and nurses, it can rely on other allied health care professionals, such as pharmacists, to deliver the vaccine.

“That’s one area where you can really maximize the benefits of having a nationalized service because you can … establish hubs, you can pool staff, and you’ve got a very strong brand to attract people,″ he said. “I think the NHS is doing quite a good job of setting up the logistics of how you will get the vaccine into the right places."

In the meantime, grants are being given to help businesses further strained by the new rules. Grants of up to 9,000 pounds ($12,200) will be offered to businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors.

“The new strain of the virus presents us all with a huge challenge - and, whilst the vaccine is being rolled out, we have needed to tighten restrictions further,'' Treasury chief Rishi Sunak said. "Throughout the pandemic we’ve taken swift action to protect lives and livelihoods and today we’re announcing a further cash injection to support businesses and jobs until the spring.''

Johnson announced the lockdown after the chief medical officers of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales raised the U.K.-wide COVID-19 threat assessment to the highest level. The health system is already under “immense pressure,” they said.

The new measures are similar to those imposed last spring, with people being told to work from home unless it’s impossible to do so, and to leave home only for exercise or essential trips such as grocery shopping. Schools across England were ordered to close their doors except for the children of critical workers and most vulnerable children, and shift to online instruction beginning Tuesday. University students won’t return to campus until at least mid-February.

All nonessential shops and personal care services like hairdressers will stay closed. Restaurants will be allowed to offer takeout services only.

New COVID-19 infections have soared in recent weeks as public health officials struggled to contain the new variant, which the government says is 50% to 70% more contagious. The number of confirmed new daily infections in the past seven days jumped 50% from the previous week, and coronavirus-related deaths rose 21% in the same period.

Britain reported 830 coronavirus-related deaths on Tuesday. The death toll from the pandemic is now 76,423, one of the world's highest tallies.

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