UK vows 'sprint' to vaccine finishing line

London (AFP) –


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday said the coronavirus marathon had turned into a hopeful sprint to vaccinate millions in the weeks ahead but justified another lockdown to relieve crisis-hit hospitals.

Hastily recalled lawmakers were to vote on the lockdown retrospectively after it took effect across England overnight, forcing schools to close this week as part of a stay-at-home order, while the UK's other nations have imposed similar curbs.

Johnson said a variant strain of the virus which emerged in southeast England last month was spreading with "frightening ease and speed", worsening one of the world's worst death tolls.

Official data show that one in 50 people in England were infected last week, rising to one in 30 in London, and many hospitals say they are swamped with Covid-19 patients.

"It is inescapable that the facts are changing, and we must change our response," Johnson told the House of Commons, noting the lockdown would stay in legal force until March 31 but would be reviewed in mid-February.

By then, the government plans to have given a first vaccine dose to about 14 million people including everyone over 80, care home residents and all frontline medics in the National Health Service (NHS).

Britain was the first country to start rolling out vaccines last month with the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, and this week began injections of a home-grown jab developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

So far, over 1.3 million people have received a first dose of one or the other vaccine across the UK, and the government is delaying follow-up doses in order to spread as much protection around the population as possible.

- Flight tests -

"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," said Johnson, who nearly died of Covid-19 last year.

He stressed that Britain, which has now fully left the European Union, had vaccinated more people than the rest of Europe combined.

"But if we're going to win this race for our population we have to give our army of vaccinators the biggest head start we possibly can."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock was also to speak to MPs before Wednesday's vote, while Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will give more detail on how children will be assessed after he cancelled end-of-year exams, including for university aspirants.

There has been discontent from lockdown sceptics among some members of Johnson's ruling Conservatives.

But MPs were expected to back the restrictions after the main Labour opposition party offered its support.

However, Labour leader Keir Starmer said the deteriorating situation was not only "bad luck", accusing Johnson anew of indecision after a series of policy U-turns last year and this month, including waiting to close schools until the new term had already begun.

He also queried why the government had yet to impose mandatory pre-flight testing for airline passengers coming to Britain, after other mutant strains also emerged in South Africa and Denmark.

"It's vital we protect this country from the readmission of this virus from overseas... We will continue to take whatever action is necessary," Johnson replied, without spelling out specific measures.