LONDON – About half of England is under the strictest closure measures in the country, 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 ever during the pandemic, the number of new infections has set a daily record, and there is a growing debate about the possibility that tens of thousands of students could return to the classrooms after the holidays.
The country’s scientists say a seemingly more contagious variant of the virus is causing the increase in cases, and with severe restrictions already being imposed 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 53 135 new cases confirmed by laboratory on Tuesday, the highest figure yet in a single day. The National Health Service said there were now more than 20,000 people in English hospitals, more than at the height of the April pandemic.
As the government meets on Wednesday to evaluate its restrictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to impose another national exclusion and move students – especially older students in colleges and secondary schools, who could be more easily infected by the new virus variant. – after distance education.
Some hope that the daily caseload will drop as the restrictions imposed around Christmas on London and the South and East of England begin to have an effect.
But a powerful combination of a new strain of the virus, an impending return to schools and a measure that could meet people in the lower-risk areas indoors on Christmas Day has raised fears that worse in the new year may come.
“We are entering a very dangerous new phase of the pandemic, and we will need decisive early national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February,” said Andrew Hayward, Professor of Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at University College London, told the BBC. .
An increasing amount of research supports the concern that the new virus variant may be more than 50 percent more contagious than those already spreading rapidly in spread.
And the variant continued to appear in countries around the world, despite bans on British travelers imposed by dozens of nations.
The British government turned to a now well-known arsenal of tools to keep the variant in check, increasing restrictions on movement, closing businesses and limiting the number of people allowed to gather.
Although officials blame the variant for the increase in cases, many of the rules are difficult to apply on a large scale and it is difficult to know what role individual behavior may play.
Mr. Johnson’s handling of the pandemic is marked by last – minute decisions and reversals, which have aroused the skepticism and anger of the public, but the government has tried to stop the pursuit of keeping schools open.
Since the summer, the government has given priority to keeping students in classrooms, even in areas that have had major outbreaks and during the country’s second national exclusion in November. After students spent the first months of the pandemic in online home classes, Johnson called the reopening of schools a ‘moral duty’ in August, promising that the last thing we want in the event of the resurgence of the virus’ do is to close schools. ”
Britain’s approach was similar to that of many European countries, where leaders feared that the closure of schools would again highlight inequalities and irreparably harm the academic and emotional development of children.
But as the number of cases of coronavirus skyrocketed, Germany and the Netherlands returned to school closure, and many of Britain’s teachers boasted about it.
The government promised a terrible return for schools in January, saying they would rely on mass tests to prevent the virus from spreading in schools, and use the military to help.
Although about 1,500 soldiers are ready to give schools ‘the guidance, materials and funding they need to test their staff and students quickly from the start of the term’, according to British Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, most support will be provided remotely, via online sessions and telephonically.
Most school children should be expected to stumble under the supervision of a school employee or a volunteer.
“1500 troops doing webinars are probably not the response of the government we were looking for,” Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Union of School and College Leaders, a trade union, told the BBC.
The country’s two largest education unions – the National Education Union and the NASUWT – also criticized the last minute of the mass test plan and on Monday told Mr. Johnson wrote to ask for extra safety precautions and give more time to put them in place. .
The British Scientific Advisory Group, known as SAGE, has recommended that classrooms be reopened, according to British news reports.
The scientists said the coronavirus cases in Britain would get out of control unless schools closed in the new year. The scientific advisory group believes that closing schools in January could shrink infection rates.
Although the country’s health workers are under increasing pressure to treat the influx of patients, they are also being asked to expedite the most ambitious mass vaccination program in the country’s history.
About 200,000 people receive their first Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine each week. With the approval of a vaccine from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford expected in the coming days, the number of available doses is likely to expand drastically.
There is no evidence that the vaccines are less effective against the variant of virus spread in Britain, and it is still the best chance for the country to break the current wave of infection.
But to achieve the government’s promise to vaccinate everyone over 50 by spring, the speed of delivery must be ten times as fast as it is now.
Nick Davies, an assistant professor of mathematical modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the rapid vaccination should blunt the impact of the new variant.
“Achieving 2 million vaccinations a week can significantly reduce the burden,” he said. posted on Twitter. The current level of 200,000 per week does not have much impact.
It requires not only the supply but also the workforce to deliver the vaccines. And that means even more pressure on health workers.
Dr. Rebecca Lewis, a surgeon working in a London hospital and the secretary of the Doctors’ Association, describes how health workers are exhausted, with little time to recover. She said staff illness had reached critical levels. The requirements regarding the use of protective equipment have not yet been reviewed in light of the new tension, she said, and it could possibly play a role in the frontline workers contracting the virus.
The implementation of the vaccination in the country must be intensified, said dr. Lewis said Tuesday, adding that in addition to the elderly and the vulnerable, doctors who vaccinate should have a priority.
Dr. Lewis said she has worse days ahead.
“We know that mid-January is going to be terrible,” she said.
Marc Santora reports from London and Anna Schaverien from Brighton, England.