British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says tougher lockdown restrictions were probably on the way as COVID-19 cases keep rising, but he maintained that schools were safe and children should continue to attend.
Cases of COVID-19 in Britain are at record levels and increasing, fuelled by a new and more transmissible variant of the virus.
That has already forced the government to cancel the planned reopening of schools in and around London, with calls from teaching unions for wider closures.
Much of England is already under the toughest level of restriction set out in a four-tier system of regional regulations designed to stop the spread of the virus and protect the national healthcare system.
"It may be that we need to do things in the next few weeks that will be tougher in many parts of the country. I’m fully reconciled to that," says PM Boris Johnson#Marr https://t.co/tFfJrwiuzF pic.twitter.com/lQaYknpnV2
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) January 3, 2021
But Mr Johnson, asked in a BBC interview about concerns the system may not be enough to bring the virus back under control, said that restrictions “alas, might be about to get tougher”.
“There are obviously a range of tougher measures that we would have to consider … I’m not going to speculate now about what they would be.”
Mr Johnson advised parents to send their children to school, in areas where rules allow it.
“There is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe, and that education is a priority,” he said.
Unions representing teachers have called for schools to turn to remote learning for at least a couple of weeks more due to the new variant, which scientists have said is up to 70 per cent more contagious.
The UK is in the midst of an acute outbreak, recording more than 50,000 new coronavirus infections a day over the past five days. On Saturday, it notched a daily record of 57,725 new cases.
With nearly 75,000 virus-related deaths, the UK is alternating with Italy as the worst-hit European nation, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
“We are entirely reconciled to do what it takes to get the virus under control, that may involve tougher measures in the weeks ahead,” Johnson said in an interview with the BBC. “Obviously there are a range of tougher measures that we would have to consider.”
Mr Johnson conceded that school closures, curfews and the total banning of household mixing could be on the agenda for areas under the most stress.
London and south-east England are facing extremely high levels of new infections and there is speculation that restrictions there will have to be tightened to bring the virus under control.
In some parts of the British capital and its surrounding areas, there are around 1000 cases per 100,000 people.
Johnson’s government is using a tiered coronavirus restrictions system.
Most of England is already at the highest Tier 4 level, which involves the closure of shops not selling non-essential items and places like gyms and recreation centres as well as a stay-at-home instruction.
The UK has moved quickly on the vaccination front. It was the first to begin vaccinating people over 80 and health care workers on December 8 with the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.
Last week, regulators approved another vaccine made by Oxford University and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca that is cheaper and easier to use than the Pfizer vaccine.
Hundreds of new vaccination sites are due to be up and running this week as the National Health Service ramps up its immunisation program with the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab.
Officials say about 530,000 doses of the new vaccine will be in place Monday as the country moves towards its goal of vaccinating two million people a week as soon as possible.
“We do hope that we will be able to do tens of millions in the course of the next three months,” Mr Johnson said.
The AstraZeneca/Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine has been approved.
— NHS (@NHSuk) January 2, 2021
The Oxford-AstraZeneca shot will be administered at a small number of hospitals for the first few days so authorities can be on the lookout for any adverse reactions.
Hundreds of new vaccination sites – at both hospitals as well as local doctor’s offices – are due to launch this week, joining the more than 700 already in operation, NHS England said.
In a shift from practices in the US and elsewhere, Britain plans to give people second doses of both vaccines within 12 weeks of the first shot rather than within 21 days, to accelerate immunisations across as many people as quickly as possible.