(CN) — Faced with an escalating coronavirus crisis, the United Kingdom on Monday imposed a new lockdown and also became the first nation in the world to use the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, an antidote that experts hope will become a centerpiece in the global fight against the pandemic.
During an evening speech, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a new lockdown in England, telling people to not leave their homes unless they must for essential reasons. The lockdown also includes the closing of schools and universities. Similar measures are being put into effect in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, he said.
Earlier in the day, Britons were heartened by the rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, a significant milestone because it is considered a likely candidate for worldwide distribution. Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines already in use, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine does need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures and that makes it easier and cheaper to distribute. The vaccine was developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, a U.K.-based drugmaker.
This new vaccine against the coronavirus can’t come soon enough for the U.K., a nation reeling from an explosion of new infections and a rising wave of deaths following the discovery of a new strain of the coronavirus that experts warn is more contagious.
“It’s been both frustrating and alarming to see the speed with which the new variant is spreading,” Johnson said.
But he said the lockdown is necessary because otherwise the National Health Service, the U.K.’s publicly funded health system, would become overwhelmed.
“I know how frustrated you are and I know that you’ve had more than enough of government guidance about defeating this virus,” he said. “But now, more than ever, we must pull together.”
Johnson promised that vaccines will pull the U.K. out of the gloom.
“The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet,” he said. “But I really do believe that we’re entering the last phase of the struggle because with every jab that goes into our arms we are tilting the odds against Covid and in favor of the British people.”
On Monday morning, Brian Pinker, an 82-year-old dialysis patient, became the first person outside clinical trials to get the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot, which was administered at the Oxford University Hospital.
“The vaccine means everything to me. To my mind, it’s the only way of getting back to normal life,” he said in a statement after getting the shot.
In the past month, the U.K. has become a pioneer in vaccinating its population. On Dec. 2, it became the first nation to approve the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which relies on a relatively new vaccine method using RNA, a type of molecule found in human cells. Last week, it approved the emergency use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
So far, more than 1 million Britons have received the first of two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the U.K. government plans to vaccinate millions more in the coming weeks as it opens up hundreds of new vaccination sites. This is the largest inoculation program in British history.
The U.K. has secured 100 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and 40 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Both vaccines require two shots. It is expected to take months to vaccinate enough of its 63 million citizens to extinguish the threat posed by the virus. People considered most at risk – the elderly, sick and health workers – are getting vaccinated first.
If all goes well, Johnson said the most vulnerable and at-risk portions of the population should be vaccinated by the middle of February and that will allow an easing of restrictions.
Still, there are lots of uncertainties about how effective vaccines will be and how long immunity will last. Also, concerns are growing that new strains may make vaccines ineffective and that the virus nonetheless will become endemic around the world.
The U.K. is suffering an explosion of new infections. On Monday, it registered a record 58,784 new infections in a single day, the seventh day in a row with more than 50,000 new cases. It also reported 407 new deaths Monday, bringing its death toll to 75,431, the second highest in Europe after Italy, which has reported 75,680 deaths linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
A week before Christmas, the U.K. sent shockwaves across the world when it said a new variant of the virus it had detected was quickly spreading in southern England. Although the new strain is not believed to be more lethal, experts say it is much more contagious.
Since the middle of December, the U.K. has gone from recording more than 25,000 new cases a day to more than 50,000. To contain the new strain, nations around the world barred travelers from the U.K.
Southern parts of England in and around London are the hardest hit. Areas northeast of London have infection rates of over 1,000 cases per 100,000 people. Non-essential shops and schools across London and parts of southeast England were closed before Christmas.
The outbreak of the new strain is overwhelming hospitals in England, where 26,626 people are hospitalized with Covid-19.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.