British PM says new variant may carry higher risk of death

By Michael Holden and Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday the new English variant of COVID-19 may be associated with a higher level of mortality although he said evidence showed that both vaccines being used in the country are effective against it.

“We’ve been informed today that in addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant – the variant that was first discovered in London and the southeast (of England) – may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” he told a news briefing.

The warning about the higher risk of death from the new variant, which was identified in England late last year, came as a fresh blow after the country had earlier been buoyed by news the number of new COVID-19 infections was estimated to be shrinking by as much as 4% a day.

Johnson said however that all the current evidence showed both vaccines remained effective against old and new variants.

Data published earlier on Friday showed that 5.38 million people had been given their first dose of a vaccine, with 409,855 receiving it in the past 24 hours, a record high so far.

England and Scotland announced new restrictions on Jan. 4 to stem a surge in the disease fueled by the highly transmissible new variant of the coronavirus, which has led to record numbers of daily deaths and infections this month.

The latest estimates from the health ministry suggest that the number of new infections was shrinking by between 1% and 4% a day. Last week, it was thought cases were growing by much as 5%, and the turnaround gave hope that the spread of the virus was being curbed, although the ministry urged caution.

The closely watched reproduction “R” number was estimated to be between 0.8 and 1, down from a range of 1.2 to 1.3 last week, meaning that on average, every 10 people infected will infect between eight and 10 other people.

But the Office for National Statistics estimated that the prevalence overall remained high, with about one in 55 people having the virus.

“Cases remain dangerously high and we must remain vigilant to keep this virus under control,” the health ministry said. “It is essential that everyone continues to stay at home, whether they have had the vaccine or not.”

Britain has recorded more than 3.5 million infections and nearly 96,000 deaths – the world’s fifth-highest toll – while the economy has been hammered. Figures on Friday showed public debt at its highest level as a proportion of GDP since 1962, and retailers had their worst year on record.

(Additional reporting by William James, Alistair Smout, Andy Bruce and Sarah Young; Editing by Alison Williams)

PM Johnson says UK in ‘race against time’ as it faces worst weeks of pandemic

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday Britain was in “a race against time” to roll out COVID-19 vaccines as deaths hit record highs and hospitals ran out of oxygen, and his top medical adviser said the pandemic’s worst weeks were imminent.

A new, more transmissible variant of the disease is now surging through the population, with one in 20 people in parts of London now infected, threatening to overwhelm the National Health Service (NHS) as hospitals fill up with patients.

The death toll in the United Kingdom has been soaring and now stands in excess of 81,000 – the world’s fifth-highest official toll – while more than three million people have tested positive.

In a bid to get on top of the pandemic and to try to restore some degree of normality by the spring, Britain is rushing out its largest ever vaccination program, with shots to be offered to about 15 million people by the middle of next month.

“It’s a race against time because we can all see the threat that our NHS faces, the pressure it’s under, the demand in intensive care units, the pressure on ventilated beds, even the shortage of oxygen in some places,” Johnson said on a visit to a vaccination center in Bristol, in southwest England.

“This is a very perilous moment. The worst thing now for us is to allow success in rolling out a vaccine program to breed any kind of complacency about the state of the pandemic.”

The government’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty earlier said the situation was set to deteriorate.

“The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS,” he told BBC TV.

“Anybody who is not shocked by the number of people in hospital who are seriously ill at the moment and who are dying over the course of this pandemic, I think, has not understood this at all. This is an appalling situation,” he told BBC TV.

VACCINATION TARGET

Health minister Matt Hancock said there were now more than 32,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital, far more than the roughly 18,000 hospitalized during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in April.

Johnson’s government is pinning its hopes on a mass vaccination program after Britain became the first country to approve vaccines developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and by Pfizer/BioNTech. It also approved Moderna’s shot last Friday.

Its plan, announced on Monday, envisages two million shots being delivered to around 2,700 centers a week in England by the end of January, with the aim of immunizing tens of millions of people by the spring and all adults offered a vaccine by the autumn.

The first daily vaccination statistics showed that nearly 2.3 million people had so far received their first doses of a COVID vaccine and nearly 400,000 had received a second dose.

Johnson said more had received the vaccine in Britain than in any other European country but admitted that inoculating 15 million people in the four highest risk levels, including those over 70 and frontline health workers, by a Feb. 15 target was “a huge ask”.

“We believe it’s achievable, we’re going throw absolutely everything at it, to get it done,” he said.

Opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer, who has repeatedly accused Johnson of being too slow to respond to the pandemic, said the prime minister’s indecision had cost lives and worsened the economic impact

Ministers and health chiefs have pleaded with Britons to stay at home, amid fears that some people are not adhering to the rules strictly enough, along with concern that the virus is being spread in supermarkets.

Hancock said that support bubbles, where households can “bubble” with another if they are single-person or fit other criteria, would be maintained, but that rules on exercising with someone else could be restricted.

“Where we have to tighten them, we will,” Johnson said of the rules.

(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton, William Schomberg, Paul Sandle, Alistair Smout and James Davey; writing by Michael Holden; editing by Estelle Shirbon, Guy Faulconbridge, Angus MacSwan and Gareth Jones)

England goes into new COVID-19 lockdown as cases surge

By William Schomberg and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday ordered England into a new national lockdown to try to slow a surge in COVID-19 cases that threatens to overwhelm parts of the health system before a vaccine program reaches a critical mass.

Johnson said a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus was spreading at great speed and urgent action was needed to slow it down.

“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than any time since the start of the pandemic,” Johnson said in a televised address to the country as he ditched his regional approach to fighting the pandemic.

“With most of the country already under extreme measures, it’s clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control.

“We must therefore go into a national lockdown, which is tough enough to contain this variant. That means the government is once again instructing you to stay at home.”

Johnson said the measures would include school closures from Tuesday and rules requiring most people to stay at home apart from essential shopping, exercise and other limited exceptions.

He said that if the timetable of the vaccination program went as planned and the number of cases and deaths responded to the lockdown measures as expected, it should be possible to start moving out of lockdown by the middle of February.

However, he urged caution about the timetable.

NEW VACCINE LAUNCHED

As Britain grapples with the world’s sixth highest death toll and cases hit a new high, the country’s chief medical officers said the spread of COVID-19 risked overwhelming parts of the health system within 21 days.

The surge in cases has been driven by the new variant of COVID-19, officials say, and while they acknowledge that the pandemic is spreading more quickly than expected, they say there is also light at the end of the tunnel – vaccinations.

Johnson’s government earlier touted a scientific “triumph” as Britain became the first country in the world to start vaccinating its population with Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shot.

Dialysis patient Brian Pinker on Monday received the first vaccination outside of a trial.

“I am so pleased to be getting the COVID vaccine today and really proud that it is one that was invented in Oxford,” said the 82-year-old retired maintenance manager, just a few hundred meters from where the vaccine was developed.

But even with the vaccines being rolled out, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths keep rising.

More than 75,000 people in the United Kingdom have died from COVID-19 within 28 days of a positive test since the start of the pandemic. A record 58,784 new cases of the coronavirus were reported on Monday.

Moving a few hours ahead of Johnson, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed the most stringent lockdown for Scotland since last spring.

The devolved administration in Wales said all schools and colleges there should move to online learning until Jan. 18.

(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon, Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Sturgeon orders Scots to stay at home as new variant advances

By Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Scotland on Monday imposed the most stringent COVID-19 lockdown since last March and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would shortly impose tougher curbs in England to contain a rapidly spreading outbreak of a new variant of the coronavirus.

The United Kingdom has the world’s sixth-highest official coronavirus death toll – 75,024 – and the number of new infections is soaring across the country.

As Johnson mulled tougher measures for England, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the new variant accounted for nearly half of new cases in Scotland and is 70% more transmissible.

Scots, she said, would be legally required to stay at home for January from midnight. Schools will close for all but the children of essential workers.

“I am more concerned about the situation that we face now than I have been at any time since March,” Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament.

“As a result of this new variant, (the virus) has just learned to run much faster, and has most definitely picked up pace in the past couple of weeks,” Sturgeon said.

Visiting a hospital to see the first people receive the vaccine made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, Johnson said the country faced “tough, tough” weeks to come.

“If you look at the numbers, there’s no question that we’re going to have to take tougher measures and we’ll be announcing those in due course,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the virus really surging.”

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland implement their own COVID-19 responses though they are trying to coordinate more across the United Kingdom.

SCHOOLS

England is currently divided into four tiers of restrictions, depending on the prevalence of the virus, with the vast majority of the country in Tiers 3 and 4 where social mixing is restricted and restaurants and pubs are closed.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said earlier that the rules in Tier 3 were clearly not working.

With England moving back towards the strict lockdown of the first wave in March, Johnson was also asked if schools would have to close once again and return to online learning.

He said that would remain a last resort for primary schools given the social and educational damage that can be done to isolated children.

But he indicated they may need to rethink a plan to reopen secondary schools for pupils aged between 11 and 18.

“It looks as though secondary schools probably play more of a role in the spread of the epidemic than primary schools, so we’ll have to look very hard at what we do with secondary schools later in the month,” he said.

The government has spent the year trying to balance the need to shut down the country to contain the virus without hammering the economy.

The first national coronavirus lockdown in May last year prompted a 25% drop in economic output – unprecedented in modern records – leaving Britain’s economy harder hit by the pandemic than most others.

While the economy recovered partially in the third quarter, renewed lockdown measures threaten to cause a double-dip recession at the start of 2021.

(Reporting by Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge, Andy Bruce; Editing by Sarah Young and Hugh Lawson)

“The deal is done”: EU and UK clinch narrow Brexit accord

By Guy Faulconbridge, Elizabeth Piper and John Chalmers

LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain clinched a narrow Brexit trade deal with the European Union on Thursday, just seven days before it exits one of the world’s biggest trading blocs in its most significant global shift since the loss of empire.

The deal means it has swerved away from a chaotic finale to a tortuous divorce that has shaken the 70-year project to forge European unity from the ruins of World War Two.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters: “It was a long and winding road. But we have got a good deal to show for it. It is fair, it is a balanced deal, and it is the right and responsible thing to do for both sides.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted a picture of himself inside Downing Street, raising both arms in a thumbs-up gesture of triumph, with the words “The deal is done”.

“We have taken back control of our money, borders, laws, trade and our fishing waters,” a Downing Street source said.

“We have delivered this great deal for the entire United Kingdom in record time, and under extremely challenging conditions … all of our key red lines about returning sovereignty have been achieved.”

While the last-minute deal prevents the most acrimonious ending to the saga on Jan. 1, the United Kingdom is set for a much more distant relationship with its biggest trade partner than almost anyone expected at the time of the 2016 referendum.

A deal had seemed imminent for almost a day, until haggling over just how much fish EU boats should be able to catch in British waters delayed the announcement of one of the most important trade deals in recent European history.

The UK formally left the EU on Jan. 31 but has since been in a transition period under which rules on trade, travel and business remained unchanged until the end of this year.

The details of the accord have yet to be made public, but if the sides have struck a zero-tariff and zero-quota deal, it will help to smooth trade in goods that makes up half their $900 billion in annual commerce.

Even with an accord, some disruption is certain from Jan. 1 when Britain ends its often fraught 48-year relationship with a Franco-German-led project that sought to bind the ruined nations of post-World War Two Europe together into a global power.

Tony Danker, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, gave the deal a grudging welcome:

“Coming so late in the day, it is vital that both sides take instant steps to keep trade moving and services flowing.”

After months of talks that were at times undermined by both COVID-19 and rhetoric from London and Paris, leaders across the EU’s 27 member states have cast an agreement as a way to avoid the nightmare of a “no-deal” exit.

But Europe’s second-largest economy will still be quitting both the EU’s single market of 450 million consumers, which late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher helped to create, and its customs union.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Guy Faulconbridge, Elizabeth Piper, Conor Humphries, Kate Holton, John Chalmers, William Schomberg, Paul Sandle and Michael Holden; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and John Chalmers; Editing by Alison Williams)