UK PM Johnson says end of COVID-19 lockdown in England will be slow unwrapping

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LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday (Jan 6) that any end to the latest lockdown in England will be a “gradual unwrapping” when the regions of the country will move out of stringent restrictions step by step.

Addressing parliament before lawmakers are due to vote on the lockdown, Johnson said he had resisted shutting school until the last moment, but was forced to do so. Schools, he said, would be the very first to open when the lockdown ends.

Urging caution over any timetable for the reopening of the country, he said: “And as was the case last spring, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will not be a big bang but a gradual unwrapping.”

READ: Bleak start to new year for Britain as it enters third COVID-19 lockdown

The order to close schools backtrack on the government’s pledge to keep them open, with some lawmakers seeking assurances that schools will reopen in mid-February.

“It’s been a huge shambles,” Robert Halfon, chairman of the House of Commons’ education committee, told the BBC. “This has got to stop. The government has got to offer consistency, a consistent policy that doesn’t change every couple of days.”

Johnson also pledged that his government would use “every available second” to shield the elderly and the vulnerable from the virus.

“There’s a fundamental difference between the regulations before the House today and the position we faced at any previous stage, because we now have the vaccines that are our means of escape,” Johnson said.

“And we will use every available second of the lockdown to place this invisible shield around the elderly and the vulnerable.”

READ: UK scientists question COVID-19 vaccine dosing delay

The UK is in a maelstrom of rising COVID-19 infections, hospitalisations and deaths. Britain reported more than 60,000 new daily coronavirus cases for the first time on Tuesday. More than 391,000 people have tested positive in the past seven days, up 44 per cent from the previous week.

Rising infection rates are putting unprecedented strain on the nation’s healthcare system. Hospitals in England are currently treating over 26,000 coronavirus patients, 40 per cent more than during the first peak of the pandemic last April.

When he announced the stay-at-home order, Johnson said it wouldn’t lifted before mid-February. By that time, the government hopes to have given one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to about 13 million people who are most at risk, potentially allowing some relaxation of the restrictions.

“After the marathon of last year, we are indeed now in a sprint, a race to vaccinate the vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them, and every needle in every arm makes a difference,” Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday.

The session came amid anger over the chaos in the government’s education strategy during the pandemic.

Johnson ordered the national lockdown in England after public health officials warned that the rising infection rates threatened to overwhelm the National Health Service.

On Tuesday, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 2 per cent of people in the UK are currently infected with COVID-19.

The government is ramping up its mass vaccination program after regulators authorised a second vaccine.

READ: WHO recommends 2 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine within 21-28 days

The UK is using both the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and one made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

Both require two shots, but British authorities have made a decision to delay the second shot — shifting it from 21 days after the first to up to 12 weeks later — in order to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible. That decision is being hotly debated by governments and scientists around the world.

As of Monday, the NHS had vaccinated 1.3 million people across the UK. The government plans to have almost 1,000 vaccination centres operating across the country by the end of this week, Johnson said.

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