Meanwhile, Japan has announced it is banning all new entries of foreign nationals from Monday following the discovery of the variant in travellers from the UK.
The news came at the same time as a further six million people in east and south-east England had tier 4 conditions, England’s strictest Covid level, imposed on them on Boxing Day. Lockdowns were also introduced in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Around 24 million people in England, more than 40% of the population, are now living in tier 4, as pressure mounts for the whole country to be put in this category.
Scientists from the Independent Sage group have urged that all regions of England be placed in tier 4, meaning that non-essential shops, hairdressers, and leisure and entertainment venues must close. Devolved nations were advised to bring forward their own national lockdowns. Tier 4 should include enhanced travel restrictions, the group said, while arguing that an emergency plan be introduced to enable safe education in January and February.
This idea is supported by teaching unions, who have demanded that the government keeps schools closed as evidence has grown that the new virus variant is proving to be particularly infectious among children.
This point was backed by Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia. “If this new variant is behind the increase in this age group, then that is a big worry,” he said.
France announced this weekend that it has discovered its first case of the new variant – a French citizen who arrived in Tours after travelling from London a week ago, according to health officials.
In Madrid, Spanish officials said three cases of the new variant recently discovered in the country involved relatives of a man who had arrived from the UK on Christmas Eve, while the fourth case also involved a traveller from the UK. None of the patients was reported to be seriously ill.
In the UK, the NHS on Saturday revealed that a further 161 people who had tested positive for Covid-19 have died. The patients were aged between 44 and 100 years old, and all except eight had known underlying health conditions. The figure brings the total number of confirmed reported Covid deaths in hospitals in England to 48,311.
Numbers of cases are soaring around the country as the coronavirus variant continues to spread rapidly, particularly among young people. A daily rate of 32,725 cases was reported at the end of last week, a 46.6% increase on the previous week.
Pressure is mounting for the medical authorities to announce their approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The UK has agreed to buy 100 million doses, and last week Prof Sir John Ball, of Oxford University, a member of the government’s official Sage group of advisers, said he expected the country’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to give approval “just after Christmas”.
Staffing could present challenges for the rapid delivery of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Photograph: EPA
The news would give badly needed hope that vaccines will become available quickly enough to halt the recent rapid rise in Covid-19 cases. However, approval will also raise major headaches about the distribution of doses. To date, more than 600,000 have been administered since 8 December, but scientists have warned that more than a million people will have to be inoculated every week to bring infections under control in the near future.
Tom Sasse, associate director at the Institute for Government, called for a public debate around the prioritisation of individuals receiving vaccines. “By mid-January, quite a lot of the really vulnerable will have been vaccinated but then you are going to have this quite large group of 60- to 75-year-old people who won’t have been vaccinated,” he told the Observer. “A lot of people in the NHS are saying they are not the most likely to die but they could still fill up our wards.”
Despite this, the arrival of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine would undoubtedly be a game-changer, said Helen Buckingham, director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust. “Then staffing will become the primary constraint,” she added.
“At the moment, vaccination is done by staff in primary care, and they are managing that alongside their other workloads. But when you start setting up mass vaccination centres – and NHS England have indicated they will do that – then you will need more staff.”
Buckingham said the NHS was working to make sure there were people in place to give the vaccines and support those receiving it, with a target of around 40,000 staff being sought. “It’s not just a case of sticking the needle in,” she said. “People have to have the proper information about the vaccine beforehand, be observed afterwards and so on.”
Against the background of rapidly rising infection rates, Boris Johnson’s abysmal public rating appears to have bottomed out. According to the latest Opinium poll for the Observer, the prime minister’s approval rating is now -6% (38% approve, 44% disapprove), compared with -8% two weeks ago.
By contrast, the opposition leader Keir Starmer’s net rating has maintained a steady positive, showing at +12%, an increase from +9% since he was last rated in a poll.
Positive ratings were given to only two other major politicians in respect of their Covid performances: the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, at +11% and chancellor Rishi Sunak at +27%.
Every other major politician of whom opinions were canvassed for the poll was given a net negative rating, with the home secretary, Priti Patel, coming bottom at -19%.