Boris Johnson says tougher measures needed soon to control Covid surge

But the prime minister resisted growing pressure for an immediate tightening of restrictions, insisting that the impact of tier 4 “stay home” orders announced on 21 December remains unclear, and any new controls would be announced “in due course”.

The prime minister’s comments come after health secretary Matt Hancock admitted that the government’s regional tier system was “no longer strong enough” to deal with the virulent new strain of Covid-19 which has sent hospitalisations and death rates soaring in recent weeks.

And it follows Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s demand for an immediate move to national lockdown to rein in infections as the vaccination programme is stepped up, with the first patients receiving the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab today.

Teaching unions are calling for an immediate pause in the reopening of schools, apart from for vulnerable children and children of key workers, and a move to remote learning while Covid-secure working arrangements are reviewed. 

And former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said schools and borders should be closed and all household mixing banned “right away”.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon has called an emergency session of the Scottish Parliament today, amid expectations that she will toughen up controls north of the border.

But Downing Street said there were no plans for a recall of the Commons after MPs’ Christmas break was last week extended to 11 January. And Mr Johnson is not convening a meeting of his Coronavirus Operations (CO) committee today to discuss possible tightening of regional restrictions.

There have been calls for the remaining areas in the second-highest tier 3 – covering some 12.2m people (22 per cent of the population of England) in areas including much of Yorkshire and the southwest – to be moved up to the tougher tier 4. More than three-quarters (78 per cent) of England is already in tier 4, with non-essential shops shut and residents told to “stay home”.

Liverpool’s director of public health Matt Ashton today called for stronger national controls, arguing that the regionalised system is of value only when infection rates are generally falling.

Latest UK-wide figures on Sunday recorded 54,990 positive tests and 454 daily deaths, as the new variant drove a spike which has pushed numbers of Covid patients in hospital above the peaks seen during the first wave last spring.

Speaking during a visit to Chase Farm Hospital in north London to meet some of the first people to receive the Oxford vaccine on Monday, Mr Johnson said there were “tough, tough” weeks to come.

He said the impact of tier 4 measures introduced before Christmas remained “a bit unclear”, but added: “If you look at the numbers there’s no question we will have to take tougher measures and we will be announcing those in due course.”

But Mr Hunt – now chair of the Commons Health Committee – said action was needed immediately.

The current situation in NHS hospitals is “off-the-scale worse” than any winter crisis he experienced in his six years at the Department of Health, with more beds taken up by Covid patients than in the first wave last spring and evidence that cancer and heart attack victims are missing treatment, he said.

“The number one lesson is that countries that act early and decisively save lives and get their economies back to normal faster,” said Mr Hunt. “We therefore cannot afford to wait: all schools should be closed, international travel stopped, household mixing limited and the tier system reviewed so that the highest tier really does bring down infection levels.

“In the face of exponential growth, even waiting an extra day causes many avoidable deaths, so these plans must now be urgently accelerated.”

Mr Johnson said there will be a “massive ramp up” in vaccination numbers in the coming weeks, with “tens of millions by the end of March”.

The limiting factor in expanding the UK’s vaccine rollout was not supply or staff but waiting for batches to be approved, he said.

“There’s a massive ramp-up operation now going on,” said the PM.

“The rate-limiting factor is now not supply of vaccines – although we want that to go faster – it’s getting them properly tested and getting them to the NHS.

“It’s not the ability to distribute the vaccine, it’s not the shortage of staff.

“It’s getting it properly tested. That will ramp up in the weeks ahead.”

AstraZeneca has said that it can produce 2 million doses a week of the vaccine, which is seen as a breakthrough because it can be stored and transported in normal fridge temperatures, allowing it to be used in a wider range of venues.

But Mr Johnson said that delays were introduced in the process because each batch needs to be “properly approved and quality-controlled”.

He declined to say when vaccinations would hit 2 million a week, but said he could not rule out it coming as late as February or March.

Mr Johnson said it was vital that the public sticks to hygiene and social distancing rules while the vaccination programme is stepped up.

“We will do everything we can to keep the virus under control and people should be in no doubt that the Government will do everything that’s necessary,” said Mr Johnson.

“But I must stress at this critical moment it is so vital that people keep disciplined.”

The PM said huge numbers of people were following the guidance and he recognised some were becoming frustrated.

He added: “I think the public have been fantastic in the way they have tried to follow the guidance.”

The national medical director of NHS England, Prof Stephen Powis, said that the new vaccine will be delivered in around 100 hospital hubs and 700 centres in GP practices and in the community by the end of the week, with plans to expand as more supplies become available.

Prof Powis said that the arrival of the vaccine gave him hope that “when we get into the spring and into the summer we will be able to get more back towards normal ways of life”.

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