UK steps up mass vaccination program as travel corridors close
The U.K. will step up its mass coronavirus vaccination program this week, offering shots to millions more people, as the country shuts its borders to anyone who hasn’t tested negative.
Vaccines will be offered to people aged 70 and over, and those deemed “clinically extremely vulnerable” from Monday -- the third and fourth priority groups. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it a “significant milestone” in the vaccination effort.
The government aims to offer the vaccine to all U.K. adults by September, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Sunday. So far, more than 4.3 million people have received their first dose, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.
Meanwhile, ministers will close travel corridors with other countries from Monday, meaning that all visitors from overseas will require a negative test result within 72 hours of travel to enter Britain. Health officials will step up checks to make sure they self-isolate at home for the next 10 days.
England Isn’t Listening to Johnson’s Lockdown Orders Any More
The government hasn’t ruled out setting up quarantine hotels or using GPS trackers to make sure people stay put. Raab told Sky News it would consider “all possibilities” to enforce Covid rules and prevent any new variants of the virus derailing the U.K.’s vaccination efforts.
Forcing travelers to stay in dedicated hotels on arrival would still put the U.K. many months behind other countries, such as Australia which introduced the policy last March.
England is in its third national lockdown, with schools closed and people ordered to stay at home, as the government attempts to control the surge in cases over the winter. There are currently more than 37,000 coronavirus patients hospitalized, and the daily death toll remains high -- with another 671 deaths recorded Sunday.
Johnson’s government is pinning its hopes on the vaccination program to end the crisis. The National Health Service will begin rolling out the shot to the two new groups this week because some areas of England have already vaccinated the top two priority groups: the over-80s and frontline health and care workers.
Ten new mass vaccination centers will open this week -- including at a racecourse, cathedral and rugby ground -- taking the total in England to 17, with more to follow. There are also 1,200 hospitals and GP-led sites offering vaccinations.
“We have a long way to go and there will doubtless be challenges ahead -- but by working together we are making huge progress in our fight against this virus,” Johnson said in a statement.
The current lockdown is set to be reviewed in mid-February but ministers have warned there will be no quick return to normality. Raab said restrictions would only begin to be lifted by the “early spring” and that it would be a gradual process rather than a “big bang.”
The profound impact of 10 months of restrictions on businesses and workers means that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is under increasing pressure to do more to help the poorest families.
The U.K.’s main opposition Labour party will turn up the heat Monday by forcing a vote in the House of Commons on extending a boost in benefit payments -- worth more than 1,000 pounds a year -- beyond March 31. Raab said the uplift to Universal Credit was a “temporary measure” and March’s Budget would set out support.
The Times reported Saturday that Sunak plans to give a one-time payment of 500 pounds ($680) to benefit recipients instead. But a powerful group of Conservative lawmakers, the Northern Research Group, has warned this would be not enough -- and insisted Sunak must extend the benefits uplift.
Ministers are also facing calls to do more for sectors of the economy hardest hit by the virus restrictions -- the British Chambers of Commerce warned last week that many businesses are “on their knees.”
A new government grant program for airports and their ground operations to help with the costs of closing travel corridors was welcomed by the British Airline Pilots Association -- but they warned that the situation for aviation was “becoming desperate” and called for a wider recovery plan.
For Eurostar International Ltd., whose passenger trains link London with Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, the outlook is equally bleak. Its traffic plunged 95% even before the latest measures, prompting the London First lobby group to write to Sunak urging he act swiftly to safeguard the operator’s future.