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Covid: ‘Most dangerous time’ of the pandemic, says Prof Whitty

The UK will go through the “most dangerous time” of the pandemic in the weeks before vaccine rollout has an impact, England’s chief medical officer has warned.

Prof Chris Whitty urged people to minimise all unnecessary contact with others.

The next few weeks will be “the worst” of the pandemic for the NHS, he said.

Thousands more people are due to receive a vaccine this week after seven mass centres opened across England.

NHS England said hundreds more GP-led and hospital services would also open later this week.

But with all centres, people will need to wait until they receive an invitation.

The government is aiming to vaccinate around 15 million people in the UK – the over-70s, healthcare workers and those required to shield – by mid-February.

Prof Whitty told BBC One’s Breakfast: “This is everybody’s problem. Any single unnecessary contact you have with someone is a potential link in a chain of transmission that will lead to a vulnerable person.”

He said there were over 30,000 people [in English hospitals alone] with Covid-19 – compared to about 18,000 [in England] at the peak last April.

He added that “anybody who is not shocked” by the number of people in hospital “has not understood this at all”.

“This is an appalling situation,” he said.

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Health Secretary Matt Hancock will set out the government’s vaccine delivery plan at a news conference later.

He said the proposals would be the “keystone of our exit out of the pandemic”.

Mr Hancock said on Sunday about two million people in the UK had been vaccinated so far.

The vaccine plan will be unveiled after a weekend that saw the UK pass the milestone of 80,000 deaths with coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

Currently, around one in 50 people across the UK is infected and Prof Whitty told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s a very high chance that if you meet someone unnecessarily they will have Covid.”

In Essex, Southend Hospital’s oxygen supply has “reached a critical situation” due to rising numbers of infections.

It has had to reduce the amount it uses to treat patients, according to a document shared with the BBC.

In Surrey, which has one of the highest infection rates in the country, a temporary mortuary has been opened as hospital mortuaries have reached capacity.

Almost 200 bodies are being stored at the emergency site, which is a former military hospital, and other local authorities have told the BBC they expect to open similar facilities soon.

Under the national lockdown, people in England must stay at home and can go out only for limited reasons such as food shopping, exercise, or work if they cannot do so from home.

Similar lockdown measures are in place across much of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ministers held two meetings on Sunday to discuss how to enforce the current lockdown measures more strictly and whether even tighter restrictions may be needed.

BBC political correspondent Iain Watson said no decisions on further restrictions were taken as there was a desire within government to wait until reliable data on existing measures becomes available in 10 days.

However, he added there had been a discussion on better enforcement of existing regulations, including at shops and workplaces.

Map showing where England's vaccination centres and mass vaccination sites are, as well as the UK's hospital hubs

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The vaccination programme is described as the biggest in NHS history.

The seven mass testing sites, which NHS England said were chosen to give a geographical spread, are:

  • Millennium Point, Birmingham
  • Ashton Gate, Bristol
  • ExCel Centre, London
  • Manchester Tennis and Football Centre
  • Centre for Life, Newcastle
  • Robertson House, Stevenage
  • Epsom Downs Racecourse, Surrey

The new centres will each be capable of delivering thousands of vaccinations each week and will be followed by “dozens more” large-scale sites, NHS England said.

There will be about 1,200 vaccination sites when more GP-led and hospital services open later this week, along with the first pharmacy-led pilot sites, it added.

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While, some vulnerable people have questioned why they have been asked to travel to centres miles away from their homes during a pandemic, the NHS has said people would not miss out on their vaccination if they wait for an appointment at a centre closer to home in the coming weeks.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said nobody should be asked to travel more than 10 miles to get a vaccine once more centres open.

Asked on Today why the centres were not open 24 hours a day, he said it was “more convenient” for older people to attend during the day.

“If we need to go to 24-hour work we will absolutely go to 24 hours a day to make sure we vaccinate as quickly as we can,” he said.

But he cautioned: “We are limited by the amount of vaccine that is coming through the system.”

He said ministers “don’t want to use tougher measures” to stem the spread of the virus, but he was “worried” about whether people were wearing masks and following social distancing at supermarkets, as well as by pictures of social interactions in parks.

“If you have to exercise you can go out for exercise only,” he said.

Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England national medical director, said the NHS was “really under intense pressure” and “this is much bigger than the first wave back in April”.

“I don’t think anyone in the NHS has known anything like this, this is a once-in-a-century pandemic,” he said.

Prof Rupert Pearse, an intensive care doctor, told BBC Breakfast that in a “normal” winter it would be “unlikely” that more than three of four flu patients would need intensive care at any one time, but his unit is now running 130 intensive care beds.

“To compare this to a normal winter flu epidemic is out of all proportion, it’s orders of magnitude larger,” he said.

Chart showing priority groups

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Pharmaceutical firm Boots said its first vaccination site was due to open later this week to offer the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab to the people most vulnerable.

It said sites in Huddersfield and Gloucester were planned to open in the coming weeks.

And Scotland is starting its wider rollout of the Oxford vaccine at more than 1,100 locations from today.

Two vaccines – Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca – are currently being administered in the UK.

On Friday a third coronavirus vaccine – made by US company Moderna – was approved for use, although supplies are not expected to arrive until spring.

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