More than half of England is under the nation’s strictest lockdown measures, and people have been ordered to stay at home, but the coronavirus is still spreading at an alarming rate. Hospitals are treating more patients than at any time during the pandemic, and there is a growing debate about allowing tens of thousands of students to return to classrooms after the holiday break.
The nation’s scientists have said that a more contagious variant of the virus is driving the rise in cases and, having already imposed severe restrictions on more than 48 million people, it remains unclear what other tools the government has at its disposal to get the outbreak under control.
There were 41,385 new lab-confirmed cases reported on Monday, the highest figure yet on a single day. The National Health Service said there were now over 20,000 people in the hospital, more than at the peak of the pandemic in April.
With the government scheduled to meet to evaluate the current restrictions on Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to impose another national lockdown and move students — especially older ones in colleges and secondary schools, who may be more easily infected by the new virus variant — to remote learning.
The government said that it would rely on mass testing to keep the virus from spreading in schools, with military help. Some 1,500 soldiers are being dedicated to providing schools with the “guidance, materials and funding they need to offer rapid testing to their staff and students from the start of term,” according to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson.
But two teacher unions have said that staff had not been given adequate time to set up mass testing and the country’s board of scientific advisers, known as SAGE, has recommended against allowing classrooms to reopen, according to British media reports.
Even as the country’s health workers find themselves under growing pressure to treat the influx of patients, they are also being asked to speed up the largest mass vaccination program in the nation’s history.
Around 200,000 people are getting their first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine every week. With the approval of a vaccine from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford expected in coming days, the number of doses available will expand drastically. The AstraZeneca vaccine, which comes without the stringent temperature requirements of Pfizer’s, should also be easier to distribute.
There is no evidence that the vaccines are any less effective against the variant of the virus spreading in Britain, and they remain the best chance for the country to break the back of the current wave of infection.
But to meet the government’s promise to vaccinate all those over the age of 50 by spring, the speed of delivery would have to be 10 times as fast as it is now.
That will require not just supply, but the staff to deliver the vaccines. And that means even more pressure on N.H.S. workers.
Sir Simon Stevens, the head of the N.H.S. in England, delivered a message to health workers “back in the eye of the storm,” praising their dedication and urging them to press on through “the toughest year most of us can remember.”
“Many of us have lost family, friends, colleagues and — at a time of year when we would normally be celebrating — a lot of people are understandably feeling anxious, frustrated and tired,” he said, delivering his remarks from a vaccination center on Tuesday. “Therefore now is the right time, I believe, on behalf of the whole country to record our enormous debt of gratitude and our huge thanks.”