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With ‘worst weeks’ still ahead for Britain, Boris Johnson weighs tougher measures

England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, told the BBC on Jan. 11 that the weeks ahead will be among the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: Reuters)
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LONDON — With infections rising throughout Britain, England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, warned Monday that the next few weeks could be the “worst” of the pandemic, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked the public for “maximum vigilance.” Tougher measures could be necessary if cases continue to rise, he said.

Speaking to the BBC, Whitty said Britain is in greater danger from the virus than before and urged the public to alleviate pressure on the country’s increasingly overburdened National Health Service by “minimizing the amount of unnecessary contacts.”

The new, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus, which has been reported in more than 30 countries, is “everybody’s problem,” he said, adding that “the next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS.”

His warning came as Johnson said nationwide lockdown measures could be tightened if people failed to adhere to restrictions asking people to stay at home except for necessary travel.

“We’re going to keep the rules under constant review,” Johnson said Monday during a visit to a vaccination center in Bristol, England.

Third national lockdown announced in England amid coronavirus surge driven by variant strain

A stricter lockdown could mean that people are no longer allowed to exercise outdoors with others from outside their households or see people who are part of their “support bubbles,” the Guardian reported.

At a news conference Monday evening, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock outlined the government’s plan to vaccinate at least 15 million people in high-priority groups by mid-February.

With seven mass vaccination sites opening across England and a team of 80,000 trained volunteers on hand to help administer doses, Hancock said, officials were dedicated to making vaccinations happen “as fast as we can.”

He added that 2.6 million doses of the vaccine have been given to 2.3 million people — more than in all other European countries combined.

On Sunday, Hancock said in a statement that all adults would be offered the vaccine by the fall.

London’s Metropolitan police service said over the weekend that it would continue to fine those found to be breaking the rules, adding that the city was facing a “critical point” in the pandemic.

“We will enforce obvious Covid breaches wherever we see them,” a tweet from the official Metropolitan Police account said. “Anyone who attends illegal gatherings can expect to face a fine, not just organisers.”

At least 81,567 deaths have been linked to the virus in Britain, with residents of England under a third nationwide lockdown with no official end date.

“We’re now at a situation where in the U.K. as a whole, around 1 in 50 people is infected,″ Whitty said. “And in London, it’s around 1 in 30. In parts of London it’s around 1 in 20.”

Last week, London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident” in the city as he expressed concern that hospitals may soon run out of beds.

“The situation in London is now critical with the spread of the virus out of control,” Khan said in a statement, adding that the NHS was struggling to stay afloat.

With medical staffers exhausted and hospital mortuaries reportedly running out of room for bodies, officials are relying on the mass vaccine rollout to help the country reopen and rebuild.

Hancock said Sunday that the government is immunizing about 200,000 people a day and plans to dramatically ramp up that number by turning soccer stadiums, racecourses and other large venues into mass vaccination sites. Hundreds of doctor offices, hospitals and pharmacies will also be newly authorized to inoculate people starting this week, according to Reuters.

An estimated 170 bodies are being stored at a temporary morgue in Surrey, a county southeast of London, the Guardian reported, with officials saying the county’s hospitals had room for roughly 600 bodies in their mortuaries but had exceeded that limit. More than half of the corpses in the temporary facility were coronavirus patients.

Meanwhile, countries across Europe are facing renewed crises, with overwhelming, mounting case and death figures. Neighboring Ireland reported the world’s highest rate of new cases in the past seven days.

This report has been updated. Farzan reported from Washington.