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UK has not yet hit the peak of Covid-19 infection – Chris Whitty

Sylvia Staff 83, receives an injection of a Covid-19 vaccine at the NHS vaccine centre that has been set up at Robertson House in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. The centre is one of the seven mass vaccination centres now opened to the general public as the government continues to ramp up the vaccination programme against Covid-19. Pic by Joe Giddens

By Jane Kirby, PA Health Editor

The UK has not yet hit the peak of the current wave of Covid-19 infection, with the next few weeks being “the worst” of the pandemic for the NHS, England’s chief medical officer has warned.

Professor Chris Whitty said the vaccine rollout offered hope that lockdown restrictions could be lifted in the coming months, but described the current UK death rate as “appalling”.

During a BBC phone-in on the current high case rates, he said: “I don’t think we’re yet at the peak, I’m afraid.

“I think we will be at the peak if everybody can double down and absolutely minimise their contacts.

“The point of the lockdown is to bring that forward, but it only works if everyone really thinks about every individual interaction they have and try and minimise them.”

Prof Whitty said the the new variant of coronavirus was causing a “significant problem”, telling BBC Breakfast: “We will get through together, but at this point in time we’re at the worst point in the epidemic for the UK.”

Asked if coronavirus is being spread outdoors, Prof Whitty said the risks were much lower than for indoors, but said problems could occur if people gathered in groups, such as huddled round a market stall.

It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reportedly discussed the prospect of introducing tougher controls to ensure the public abide by the restrictions, such as stopping people exercising with one other person.

Prof Whitty told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the risks from, for example, jogging past someone were “very low”, but said there could be an argument for wearing masks in some circumstances.

“If people for example are crowded together in a queue outdoors, if they’re really huddled together round a market stall or something – that is a risk with this virus – and in that situation there might be some logic to people thinking about wearing masks.”

Pressed on whether people should wear masks in all outdoor settings, he said the most important thing was actually that people stayed home unless their journey was essential.

“I think that the much more important thing is that people should not be leaving their home unless they absolutely have to,” he said.

“And where they do, try and keep their distance from people.”

He added: “In a sense tinkering with the rules may be useful, but the far more important thing is that everybody abides by the spirit of the rules that are there at the moment.

“Everybody knows what they need to do. And I think that’s the key thing – minimise the number of contacts.”

Prof Whitty suggested measures could still be needed until “some time in the spring” to stem the spread of the virus.

“We’re really going to have to do a significant action for all of us for several more weeks until probably some time in the spring for very much of what we have to do,” he said.

But he suggested it will be “months, not years” until life gets back to normal.

He added: “I am confident we will go back to life as it was before at some point, that’s not in doubt.

“That’s the life we all want to lead.”

It comes as seven mass vaccination centres open across England in a drive to ramp up the rollout of coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

Around two million people in the UK have now been vaccinated against Covid-19 as the Government aims to hit a target of vaccinating around 15 million at highest risk by the middle of February.

The new centres – including at a football stadium and a tennis club – will be joined later this week by hundreds more GP-led and hospital services along with the first pharmacy-led pilot sites, taking the total in England to around 1,200.

The first patient to receive his Oxford/AstraZeneca jab at Newcastle’s mass vaccination centre at the Centre for Life was 81-year-old Nana Kwabena Edusei, who is originally from Ghana but who has lived in the UK for 55 years.

Speaking earlier, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the vaccine rollout could take place 24 hours a day if there are enough supplies of the jab from manufacturers.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If we need to go to 24-hour work we will absolutely go 24 hours a day to make sure we vaccinate as quickly as we can.”

Mr Zahawi also suggested that police officers, teachers and other critical workers will be in the “highest category of phase two” of the vaccine rollout.

Phase one includes the clinically vulnerable, the elderly and NHS and social care workers.

Mr Zahawi urged people to follow rules in all settings, such as observing one-way systems in supermarkets, adding he was worried about pictures of crowded beaches.

He told Sky News: “We are concerned that, for example, in supermarkets, we need to make sure people actually wear masks and follow the one-way system rule, and when they are at capacity to operate safely for people to wait outside supermarkets.

“We don’t want to go any tougher because this is a pretty tough lockdown, but what we need is people to behave as if they’ve got the virus so we can bring this virus under control whilst we vaccinate.”

NHS England’s national medical director, Professor Stephen Powis, also urged the public to continue to follow the rules while coronavirus vaccines are rolled out.

“The vaccine programme is not going to have an impact on Covid for a few months yet,” he told Sky News.

“The NHS is under intense pressure – that’s potentially going to get worse – so it’s really important that, while we roll out the vaccines, everyone remembers to stick to those social distancing rules that are in place.

“I know it’s been a long 12 months and it’s easy to get tired of these restrictions but I really can’t overemphasise enough the danger that the NHS is in.”

On Sunday, a public health director said coronavirus cases in Wales are “cause for serious concern”, while Scotland’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney said Scotland is facing “a very alarming situation” with the virus.

Northern Ireland’s health chiefs said the number of Covid-19 patients will double by the third week of January, with one trust boss saying “our hospitals are facing into an abyss”.

Later on Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock is due to set out the Government’s vaccines delivery plan – hailing it as the “keystone of our exit out of the pandemic”.