Covid lockdown England: Secondary schools reopening DELAYED

Primary schools in England’s worst-hit coronavirus hotspots will remain shut at the start of term on January 4 as ministers desperately try to slow the spread of the disease. 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced this afternoon that primary schools in dozens of areas across London, Essex, Kent and beyond will not be allowed to reopen as planned. 

Vulnerable children and the children of key workers will be the only pupils allowed to attend the schools in person, with all of their classmates being forced to switch to online learning. 

Mr Williamson also announced the planned staggered return of secondary schools and colleges is being pushed back by a week to provide more time to roll-out mass Covid-19 testing for pupils and staff. 

Students in years 11 and 13 who are facing exams will physically return on January 11 – a date which had originally been earmarked for the return of all secondary and college pupils in England.

Students in the other year groups will now have to wait an extra week until January 18 to return. 

However, Boris Johnson suggested this evening that even that return date could be changed for some schools as he said the Government’s approach will be shaped by infection rates.

The Government’s original plan was for the majority of secondary school and college pupils to start the term online from January 4 before resuming face-to-face lessons from January 11.

In the latest coronavirus developments: 

  • The WHO has warned the coronavirus is not necessarily ‘the big one’ and a more deadly pandemic could sweep the globe;
  • Chief medical officer Chris Whitty won praise after being spotted doing his rounds on the respiratory ward of a London hospital over the Christmas weekend;
  • NHS England medical director Professor Stephen Powis urged people to see in 2021 ‘within the rules’ because ‘Covid loves a crowd’.
  • Author Michael Rosen, 74, says his ‘near death’ intensive care Covid battle has left him almost blind in one eye, partially deaf and suffering breathless dizzy spells; 
  • An A&E nurse has tested positive for Covid-19 eight days after he received Pfizer vaccine;
  • London ICUs have asked major hospitals in Yorkshire if they will agree to take some patients as wards hospital admissions exceed peak of first wave.

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NHS chief Prof Stephen Powis tells Britons NOT to throw New Year’s Eve parties 

Britons have been warned not to throw New Year’s Eve parties because ‘Covid loves a crowd’.

NHS England medical director Professor Stephen Powis urged people to see in 2021 ‘within the rules’, which means no indoor mixing between households.  

All of England – except 2,000 residents on the Isles of Scilly – face the two toughest coronavirus tiers from midnight, thwarting typical December 31 celebrations.

Prof Powis told a Downing Street press briefing: ‘We can all play a part in fighting this terrible virus: stay at home, mark the New Year with just nearest and dearest within the rules.

‘This action will reduce infections, relieve pressures on hospitals, and that’s how everybody can help to save a life.

‘Covid loves a crowd, so please leave the parties for later in the year.’ 

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Mr Williamson has faced massive pressure in recent weeks over the proposed staggered restart of secondary schools and colleges in the New Year as teachers, unions and scientists all called for a delay.  

However, the decision to keep primary schools in hotspot areas closed went further than many people were expecting. 

The Education Secretary told MPs: ‘We will be opening the majority of primary schools as planned on Monday January 4. 

‘We know how vitally important it is for younger children to be in school for their education, wellbeing and wider development. 

‘In a small number of areas where the infection rates are highest we will implement our existing contingency framework such as only vulnerable children and children of critical workers will attend face-to-face. 

‘We will publish this list of areas today on the gov.uk website.’ 

The full list of the areas subject to primary school closures from January 4 was later published by the Department for Education. 

It includes 22 London boroughs, 11 boroughs in Essex and nine in Kent. 

Mr Williamson stressed the restrictions on primary schools are only being applied to the worst-hit infection hotspots and that the ‘overwhelming majority’ in England will open as planned. 

He also said areas which are subject to the restrictions on face-to-face primary teaching will be regularly reviewed in the hope that schools can reopen as soon as possible. 

On the issue of secondary schools and colleges, the Education Secretary said the coronavirus infection rate is ‘particularly high among this age group’ and as a result ‘we are going to allow more time so that every school and college is able to fully roll-out testing for all of its pupils and staff’. 

He said: ‘All pupils in exam years are to return during the week beginning January 11, with all secondary school and college students returning full time on January 18.

‘During the first week of term on or after January 4, secondary schools and colleges will prepare to test as many staff and students as possible and will only be open to vulnerable children and the children of key workers.’ 

Mr Williamson said he expected the ‘full return of all pupils in all year groups’ on January 18. 

However, speaking at a Downing Street press conference this evening, Mr Johnson suggested that date could be changed for some schools depending on infection rates. 

He said: ‘I want to stress that depending on the spread of the disease it may be necessary to take further action in their cases as well in the worst affected areas.’

The timing of the announcement of the schools rethink sparked a furious reaction from union leaders. 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said: ‘This is another last-minute mess which could so easily have been avoided if the Government had listened to school leaders before the holidays.

‘Instead, back then, schools which wanted to shift to remote learning were threatened with legal action. Now we have a situation where the Government is instructing schools to reduce the amount of teaching time available.

‘If we’d had the freedom to take action before the holidays, we might have been in a position to have more schools open for more pupils. School leaders will be baffled, frustrated and justifiably angry tonight.’

Jon Richards, head of education at the union Unison, said: ‘Everyone agrees it’s important for schools and colleges to open but it can’t be at any expense when infections are rising.

‘This delay for secondary schools is a sensible decision, giving more time to organise mass testing effectively to limit the spread. Primary and early years reopening should also be delayed because social distancing isn’t really possible.

‘Ministers should also ensure any moves to extend the vaccine priority list must cover all school staff and not just teachers.’

The Government’s initial plan was for exam year pupils to physically return to secondary schools and colleges from January 4 while the other students took part in online learning before then going back on January 11.  

Mr Williamson’s announcement comes after a number of senior scientists called for schools to remain completely shut in January, arguing that such drastic action is the only way to bring infection rates down. 

Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said there had been a ‘balancing act’ since lockdown was initially eased between keeping control of the virus and maintaining ‘some semblance of normal society’.

But he said the planned reopening of schools from next week may have to be postponed.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme yesterday: ‘Clearly nobody wants to keep schools shut. But if that’s the only alternative to having exponentially growing numbers of hospitalisations, that may be required at least for a period.

‘There are no easy solutions here. My real concern is that even if universities, schools, do have staggered returns or even stay closed, how easy it would be to maintain control of the virus is unclear now, given how much more transmissible this variant is.’

Earlier, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) members Professor Andrew Hayward and Dr Mike Tildesley had signalled the possibility of a ‘slight delay’ to having pupils back in the classroom. 

Figures published yesterday by NHS England showed a further 365 people who tested positive for Covid-19 had died, taking the total number of confirmed reported deaths in hospitals in England to 49,225.

Downing Street said yesterday that it was ‘still planning for a staggered opening of schools’ after Christmas but insisted the plans were being kept under constant review. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: ‘We’re still planning for a staggered opening of schools and we are working to ensure testing is in place.

‘As we have said throughout the pandemic, we obviously keep all measures under constant review.’

Boris and JVT pin everything on Oxford vaccine working after 981 worst daily death toll since April: PM’s ‘bitter regret’ as he plunges ALL of England into Tier 3 and Tier 4 and delays school reopenings

By James Tapsfield, political editor, and Stephen Matthews, health editor, for MailOnline

Where is going to Tier 4 from midnight? 

Leicester City

Leicestershire (Oadby and Wigston, Harborough, Hinckley and Bosworth, Blaby, Charnwood, North West Leicestershire, Melton)

Lincolnshire (City of Lincoln, Boston, South Kesteven, West Lindsey, North Kesteven, South Holland, East Lindsey)

Northamptonshire (Corby, Daventry, East Northamptonshire, Kettering, Northampton, South Northamptonshire, Wellingborough)

Derby and Derbyshire (Derby, Amber Valley, South Derbyshire, Bolsover, North East Derbyshire, Chesterfield, Erewash, Derbyshire Dales, High Peak)

Nottingham and Nottinghamshire (Gedling, Ashfield, Mansfield, Rushcliffe, Bassetlaw, Newark and Sherwood, Nottinghamshire, Broxtowe)

Birmingham and Black Country (Dudley, Birmingham, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton)

Coventry

Solihull

Warwickshire (Rugby, Nuneaton and Bedworth, Warwick, North Warwickshire, Stratford-upon-Avon)

Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent (East Staffordshire, Stafford, South Staffordshire, Cannock Chase, Lichfield, Staffordshire Moorlands, Newcastle under Lyme, Tamworth, Stoke-on-Trent)

Lancashire (Burnley, Pendle, Blackburn with Darwen, Ribble Valley, Blackpool, Preston, Hyndburn, Chorley, Fylde, Lancaster, Rossendale, South Ribble, West Lancashire, Wyre)

Cheshire and Warrington (Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester, Warrington)

Cumbria (Eden, Carlisle, South Lakeland, Barrow-in-Furness, Copeland, Allerdale)

Greater Manchester (Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan)

Tees Valley (Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees )

North East (County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside, Sunderland)

Gloucestershire (Gloucester, Forest of Dean, Cotswolds, Tewkesbury, Stroud, Cheltenham)

Somerset Council (Mendip, Sedgemoor, Somerset West and Taunton, South Somerset)

Swindon

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole

Isle of Wight

New Forest 

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Boris Johnson warned of a new ‘reality’ with mutant Covid rampant tonight as he plunged virtually the whole of England into brutal lockdown until the Spring – with the UK recording 981 deaths in the worst daily toll since April and vaccines the only hope of escape.  

The PM voiced ‘bitter regret’ after it was announced that three quarters of the country will be in Tier 4 from midnight, adding the rest of the South East, Midlands, North East, parts of the North West and parts of the South West to the top bracket.

All remaining areas – barring just 2,000 people on the Isles of Scilly – are being escalated to Tier 3, including Liverpool, previously seen as an example of how to cope with the disease. 

Meanwhile, secondary schools have seen their return delayed even further in January, with most pupils now shut out until at least January 18 – two weeks longer than originally planned – while testing systems are put in place. 

Hundreds of primaries in the ‘highest infection’ areas will also not fully reopen from January 4, while secondaries will have to wait until the next tier review in two weeks to learn whether they must stay shut indefinitely. 

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are already in the midst of their own clampdowns amid fears over the more infectious ‘mutant’ strain that is running riot. 

The seriousness of the situation was underlined tonight as the UK recorded another 50,023 cases – a jump of a quarter over the same day last week – and 981 deaths, the highest since April.   

At a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson and deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam made clear that hopes for a return to normality now hang on massively scaling up the vaccine rollout, after the Oxford/University AstraZeneca received approval from regulators.

However, even if the government manages to crank up vaccinations to two million doses a week, it will still take months to cover enough of the population to ease restrictions safely. 

Matt Hancock has admitted that just 530,000 jabs will be available on Monday when they start being administered. 

In another miserable signal, Mr Johnson warned that the public ‘should not, in any way think that this is over’ due to the positive news on vaccines as ‘the virus is really surging’. 

He said he ‘bitterly regretted’ the harsher restrictions but the ‘reality’ was that the virus was spiralling out of control. 

‘We have to face the fact that we’ve got two big things happening at once in our fight against Covid – one’s working for us and one’s working against us,’ he said.

‘On the plus side we have got two valid vaccines, and we’re racing to get them out – and on the bad side there is a new strain of the virus which is spreading much faster and surging across the country.’

Referring to the new tier measures, Mr Johnson said: ‘At this critical moment, with the prospect of freedom within reach, we’ve got to redouble our efforts to contain the virus.

‘No-one regrets these measures more bitterly than I do, but we must take firm action now.’

Mr Johnson said: ‘We must face the reality, the sheer pace of the spread of this new variant, requires us now to take even tougher action in some areas, and that does affect schools.’ 

Prof Van Tam said: ‘Unfortunately it is a pretty grim and depressing picture at the moment.’

He added that the NHS had yet to see the impact of mixing during the festive period.

‘The situation in the UK is precarious in many parts already, the South East and London,’ he said.

‘It is almost certainly true that the NHS has not yet seen the impact of the infections that will have occurred during mixing on Christmas Day and that is also unfortunately rather sobering.’

Prof Van Tam added that members of the public had ‘just got to play your part from bringing us back from this very dangerous situation’.  

Some three quarters of England — more than 44million people — will be under Tier 4 curbs following the latest review of the system, which was announced in the Commons this afternoon.

Another 14million will be in Tier 3, leaving just the Isles of Scilly in Tier 1. 

Speculation is also growing about a ‘Tier 5’ crackdown, that could include even harsher measures such as a curfew. 

Some 24million people, including London, much of the South and the East are already under the strictest stay-at-home orders.  

Pressure has mounted on the Government to act as hospitals across England warned of increasing strains on services due to Covid-19 patient numbers, which have reached their highest levels during the pandemic.    

Boris Johnson voiced 'bitter regret' after it was announced that three quarters of the country will be in Tier 4 from midnight, adding the rest of the South East, Midlands, North East, parts of the North West and parts of the South West to the top bracket

Boris Johnson voiced 'bitter regret' after it was announced that three quarters of the country will be in Tier 4 from midnight, adding the rest of the South East, Midlands, North East, parts of the North West and parts of the South West to the top bracket

Boris Johnson voiced ‘bitter regret’ after it was announced that three quarters of the country will be in Tier 4 from midnight, adding the rest of the South East, Midlands, North East, parts of the North West and parts of the South West to the top bracket

Just 2,000 people on the Isles of Scilly are left in Tier 1 - with everyone else in England now under the highest Tier 3 and 4 lockdowns from midnight

Just 2,000 people on the Isles of Scilly are left in Tier 1 - with everyone else in England now under the highest Tier 3 and 4 lockdowns from midnight

Just 2,000 people on the Isles of Scilly are left in Tier 1 – with everyone else in England now under the highest Tier 3 and 4 lockdowns from midnight 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that the Midlands, North East, parts of the North West and parts of the South West are being escalated to Tier 4 from midnight

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that the Midlands, North East, parts of the North West and parts of the South West are being escalated to Tier 4 from midnight

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that the Midlands, North East, parts of the North West and parts of the South West are being escalated to Tier 4 from midnight

What areas are going into Tier 3 from midnight? 

Rutland

Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin

Worcestershire (Bromsgrove, Malvern Hills, Redditch, Worcester, Wychavon, Wyre Forest)

Herefordshire

Liverpool City Region (Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, Wirral, St Helens)

York & North Yorkshire (Scarborough, Hambleton, Richmondshire, Selby, Craven, Ryedale, Harrogate, City of York)

Bath and North East Somerset

Devon, Plymouth, Torbay (East Devon, Exeter, Mid Devon, North Devon, South Hams, Teignbridge, Torridge, West Devon, Plymouth, Torbay)

Cornwall

Dorset

Wiltshire 

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Pointing to rapidly increasing infections thought to be driven by the mutant Covid, Mr Hancock told the Commons earlier: ‘Sharply rising cases and the hospitalisations that follow demonstrate the need to act where the virus is spreading.’

He said the majority of new cases recorded yesterday ‘are believed to be the new variant’.

Mr Hancock added: ‘Unfortunately, this new variant is now spreading across most of England and cases are doubling fast.

‘It is therefore necessary to apply Tier 4 measures to a wider area, including the remaining parts of the South East, as well as large parts of the Midlands, the North West, the North East and the South West.’

Delivering more bad news, Mr Hancock said almost all the country will be under the top two brackets.

‘Even in most areas not moving into Tier 4, cases are rising too, and it is therefore necessary to apply Tier 3 measures more broadly too – including in Liverpool and North Yorkshire,’ he said.

‘The rest of Yorkshire remains in Tier 3. These changes will take effect from 00:01 tomorrow morning.

‘The new variant means that three quarters of the population are now going to be in Tier 4 and almost all of the country in Tiers 3 and 4.

‘And I know that Tier 3 and 4 measures place a significant burden on people, and especially on businesses affected, but I am afraid it is absolutely necessary because of the number of cases that we’ve seen.’  

The approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine was a desperately needed boost after the country racked up a record 50,000 daily cases yesterday.

Mr Hancock insisted a rapid rollout of the jab now offers ‘high confidence’ the pandemic will be past within months.

3.2MILLION PEOPLE IN ENGLAND TO BE PLUNGED INTO TIER 4 DESPITE FALL IN CASES

Some 3.2million people in England are tonight facing being plunged into the harshest restrictions despite Covid-19 infections falling in their areas.

Department of Health data for the week to December 24, the latest available, shows 22 local authorities in the North and Midlands have been singled out for the economically ruinous restrictions even though their outbreaks shrunk. 

It suggests ministers could plunge areas into the highest tiers, regardless of whether ramped up local efforts are stemming the spread of the virus. 

South Tyneside saw infections plummet by 19.6 per cent to a rate of 454 cases per 100,000 residents, but this did not keep it in Tier Three, which would have allowed non-essential shops and gyms to keep the shutters up.

In Boston, Lincolnshire, cases spiralled downwards by 18.8 per cent to 234 per 100,000, and in Stoke-on-Trent they dipped by 18 per cent to 722 per 100,000.

As many as seven of the authorities saw their infection rate tick downwards by more than 10 per cent, but this did not lead to them being kept in lower tiers.

Below are the 22 local authorities that recorded drops in infections, but are still bound for Tier 4:

Authority

South Tyneside 

Boston

Stoke-on-Trent

East Lindsey

Redcar

Lincoln

Preston

Hyndburn

West Lindsey

Staff Moors

Newcastle-under-Lyme

% fall

-19.6 

-18.8

-18

-14.6

-13.1

-12.5

-10.9

-9.9

-9.3

-7.8

-6.2 

Case rate

365

234

722

187

172

365

320

218

282

237

286 

Rossendale

Bassetlaw

South Lakeland

Newcastle 

Gedling

Rugby

Oldham

East Staff

Stockton 

Mansfield

Nottingham

-5.9

-5.7

-5.1

-4.3 

-3.6

-3.2

-3.1

-2.5

-1.1 

-0.7

-0.4 

159

280

187

446

319

364

465

397

455

265

709 

 

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The UK has ordered 100 million doses of the vaccine with supplies due to arrive today or tomorrow and the first jabs starting on Monday. 

Two doses are needed to get long-term protection, but Mr Hancock revealed that the stocks could be spread more widely than anticipated as the MHRA has advised that the gap between the first jab and the second jab can be extended from four weeks to 12 weeks.

The same rule will be applied to the Pfizer jab already approved in early December – raising the prospect that more Britons could be given a single dose soon to ease the pressure on the NHS from rampant infections. Tony Blair has been calling for all available stocks to be used for single doses, with the booster follow-up being delayed.

However, Mr Hancock dodged saying whether he believed the numbers being vaccinated could be scaled up to the two million a week scientists say is needed. 

And alongside the positive news he delivered a stark warning that the country still faces a tightening of the brutal lockdown today. 

Mr Hancock said today’s decision meant Britain can ‘accelerate the vaccine rollout’ and ‘brings forward the day when we can get our lives back to normal’, adding: ‘We will be able to get out of this by the Spring.’

He told Sky News: ‘It is going to be a difficult few weeks ahead. 

‘We can see the pressures right now on the NHS and it is absolutely critical that people follow the rules and do everything they can to stop the spread, particularly of the new variant of this virus that transmits so much faster.

‘But we also know that there is a route out of this. The vaccine provides that route out. We have all just got to hold our nerve over the weeks to come.’ 

Asked if he could provide a timeline for when under-50s without pre-existing conditions may be vaccinated, Mr Hancock told Times Radio: ‘It depends on the speed of manufacture, I wish I could give you a date, your invitation right now, but we can’t because it depends on the speed of the manufacture.

UK ‘could vaccinate 24million by Easter’

Britain could vaccinate 24million people against coronavirus by Easter after the game-changing Oxford University/ AstraZeneca jab was approved this morning and its makers promised to deliver 2million doses a week.

In a massive boost to ending the pandemic within months, the UK medical regulator green-lit the vaccine, which is cheap, easy to transport to care homes and protects 70 per cent of people after just 21 days. Regulators are now recommending the jab is given in two doses three months apart, rather than over a four-week period, allowing millions more to be immunised over a shorter time period.

Britain has already ordered 100million doses and injections are due to start on Monday, but ministers now face the mammoth challenge of trying to vaccinate 2million people a week to curb the spread of a highly-infectious mutant strain racing across the country.

During a round of interviews this morning, AstraZeneca boss Pascal Soriot promised the firm will be able to hit the ambitious target of delivering 2million doses a week by mid-January, while Matt Hancock claimed the NHS could deliver the jab ‘at the pace AstraZeneca can manufacture’ and insisted the bold aim was ‘absolutely deliverable’. But he refused to commit to an actual figure.

There will be doubts about whether scaling up vaccinations so significantly in a matter of weeks is possible given that only about 280,000 Brits are being inoculated against Covid each week and NHS workers — who play a critical role in administering the vaccines — are dealing with record numbers of hospital patients. Mr Hancock has also repeatedly failed to hit numerous targets throughout the pandemic, including goals to ramp up test capacity.

Top experts, including members of SAGE, have warned ministers they need to ramp up weekly vaccination rates seven-fold by mid-January to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed this winter. The new strain of Covid has caused a sharp spike in infections and, while it doesn’t appear more deadly, it spreads more easily than the regular virus which increases the overall volume of people falling ill and needing hospital care.

Today’s approval only applies to two full doses and not the half-dose, full-dose regimen that scientists claimed was up to 50 per cent more effective, with regulators admitting there was not enough data to approve the latter tactic. But it still significantly increases the likelihood of the Government achieving the target because, unlike the Pfizer jab, Oxford’s can be stored in a normal fridge which makes it easier to transport to care homes and GP surgeries.  

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‘This product, it’s not a chemical compound it’s a biological product so it’s challenging to make, so that is the rate-limiting factor in terms of the rollout.

‘Now that we have two vaccines being delivered we can accelerate, how fast we can accelerate will be determined by how fast the manufacturers can produce.

‘But what I can tell you is that I now have a very high degree of confidence that by the spring enough of those who are vulnerable will be protected to allow us to get out of this pandemic situation.

‘We can see the route out and the route out is guided by this vaccine and that’s why this is such good news for everyone.’

Former PM Mr Blair welcomed that the government seemed to be following his blueprint of using the available stocks to give a single dose to as many people as possible.  

‘The trial results make the case for using all available vaccines to vaccinate people with the first dose, without holding back a second dose for each person, overwhelming,’ he said. 

‘The first dose gives a high level of immunity – enough to halt hospital admissions – and the second dose is in any event at its most effective 2/3 months after the first, by which time we will have extra supplies of the vaccine to cover second doses.

‘In addition, the Government should consider urgently: acceleration of the vaccination programme. Of course, 1m vaccinations a week is remarkable by normal standards. 

‘But given the rates of transmission and the costs of lockdown, we need to do much more. Given the advantages of the AstraZeneca vaccine in terms of simplicity to administer – like the flu jab – we should surely be using every available potential resource including all pharmacies, occupational health capacity and those suitable to be trained fast to administer vaccines and increase the rate of vaccination.

‘And we should think about greater flexibility in the plan, with vaccination of groups most likely to transmit the virus and hotspot areas as well as age and vulnerability.’

The bombshell news on lockdown Tiers was greeted with grim acceptance tonight.

Metro mayor for the Liverpool City Region Steve Rotheram said: ‘Despite our area leading on many of the medical developments in the fight against Covid, we have seen transmission rates rise recently in every part of our city region, leading to a worrying uptick in positive cases.

‘At the same time cases have risen at alarming rates across the rest of the country, threatening to push our NHS to its limits.

‘Being placed into Tier 3 today is something that none of us wanted but I hope that these new measures help to slow down and contain the spread of the virus quickly.’

He promised to support local businesses and called for more Government assistance.

He added: ‘We have seen throughout the past 10 months that restrictions can only suppress the virus for a limited period of time.

‘That’s why I have called on ministers to bring forward plans to rapidly increase the speed of the vaccine rollout, so that we can return to some sort of normality for good at the earliest opportunity.’

Yesterday’s infection tally of 51,135 is the highest toll officially recorded by the Department of Health in a single 24-hour period and it marks a sharp 44 per cent rise on last Tuesday’s figure of 36,804. 

The Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, which has been described as a ‘game changer’, was given the green light by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘The Government has today accepted the recommendation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to authorise Oxford University/AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine for use.

‘This follows rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data by experts at the MHRA, which has concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness.’  

AstraZeneca said it aimed to supply millions of doses in the first quarter of next year as part of an agreement with the Government to supply up to 100million dosesIts chief executive Pascal Soriot said: ‘Today is an important day for millions of people in the UK who will get access to this new vaccine. It has been shown to be effective, well-tolerated, simple to administer and is supplied by AstraZeneca at no profit.’

London doctor is ‘taken aback’ by number of young people in hospitals with Covid 

A junior doctor has described being ‘taken aback’ by the number of young patients without pre-existing conditions now being treated in hospitals for coronavirus.

Dr Yousef Eltuhamy, who works in an intensive care unit at a hospital in London, said he was surprised to see an influx of people who were ‘fit and well’ being admitted to hospital with the virus.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast today he said: ‘It’s actually really surprising. I didn’t expect to see so many young people in their 40s and their 50s, patients who don’t have any prior medical history at all, people who are fit and well.

‘Having had coronavirus myself back in May and being unwell with it, even though I’ve got no medical problem, I really don’t take this lightly. I don’t think anyone should take this virus lightly – young or old.’

Dr Eltuhamy described how the year had been ‘really difficult’ for staff on the frontline and said NHS workers were being ‘stretched really thin’ following an increase in admissions.

He told the programme: ‘Honestly it’s been really difficult. Not just for me but all of the colleagues I’ve spoken to across the NHS. It’s been really tough.

‘Every time I start my shift, I walk into my intensive care unit and I’m just greeted with a sight that takes me aback every time.

‘Row on row of patients extremely unwell, all with the same awful virus, all severely critically unwell and looking to me and my colleagues to help them get better.’

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In a statement, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘This is a moment to celebrate British innovation – not only are we responsible for discovering the first treatment to reduce mortality for Covid-19, this vaccine will be made available to some of the poorest regions of the world at a low cost, helping protect countless people from this awful disease.

‘It is a tribute to the incredible UK scientists at Oxford University and AstraZeneca whose breakthrough will help to save lives around the world. I want to thank every single person who has been part of this British success story. While it is a time to be hopeful, it is so vital everyone continues to play their part to drive down infections.’

And Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and chief investigator of the Oxford trial, said: ‘The regulator’s assessment that this is a safe and effective vaccine is a landmark moment, and an endorsement of the huge effort from a devoted international team of researchers and our dedicated trial participants.

‘Though this is just the beginning, we will start to get ahead of the pandemic, protect health and economies when the vulnerable are vaccinated everywhere, as many as possible as soon possible.’

Data published in The Lancet medical journal in early December showed the vaccine was 62 per cent effective in preventing Covid-19 among a group of 4,440 people given two standard doses of the vaccine when compared with 4,455 people given a placebo drug.

Of 1,367 people given a half first dose of the vaccine followed by a full second dose, there was 90 per cent protection against Covid-19 when compared with a control group of 1,374 people.

However, it emerged today that the idea of giving half-doses has been shelved, raising some questions about the efficacy level. 

The overall Lancet data, which was peer-reviewed, set out full results from clinical trials of more than 20,000 people.

Among the people given the placebo drug, 10 were admitted to hospital with coronavirus, including two with severe Covid which resulted in one death. But among those receiving the vaccine, there were no hospital admissions or severe cases.

The half dose followed by a full dose regime came about as a result of an accidental dosing error.

However, the MHRA was made aware of what happened and clinical trials for the vaccine were allowed to continue. 

A volunteer is administered the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which has been approved for use today

A volunteer is administered the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which has been approved for use today

A volunteer is administered the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which has been approved for use today

A researcher in a laboratory at the Jenner Institute, working on the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which the Government says will help see all adults vaccinated if needed

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