Britain is facing the worst weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, its chief medical officer said on Monday, with the health service entering a "dangerous time" as deaths and cases hit record highs while a mass vaccination programme picks up steam.
Deaths from the virus have now exceeded 81,000 in the United Kingdom - the world's fifth-highest toll - with more than 3 million people testing positive. A new, more transmissible variant of the disease is surging through the population, with one in 20 people in parts of London now infected.
In a bid to get on top of the pandemic and to try to restore some degree of normality by the spring, Britain is rushing out its largest ever vaccination programme, with shots to be offered to all those in its top four priority categories - about 15 million people - by the middle of next month.
But the government's chief medical adviser Chris Whitty warned the situation would deteriorate in the meantime.
"The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS (National Health Service)," he said.
"Anybody who is not shocked by the number of people in hospital who are seriously ill at the moment and who are dying over the course of this pandemic, I think, has not understood this at all. This is an appalling situation," he told BBC TV.
During the peak of the first outbreak in April, about 18,000 people were in hospital but now there are 30,000, Whitty said, adding the health service was facing "a significant crisis".
"Everybody says that this is the most dangerous time we've really had in terms of numbers into the NHS," he said.
On Friday, London's mayor said the British capital's hospitals were in danger of being overwhelmed by COVID patients, and ministers and health chiefs have pleaded with people to respect lockdown measures and stay at home unless it was essential to go out.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government is pinning its hopes on a mass vaccination programme to offer a way out of the pandemic by the spring.
Britain was the first country to approve vaccines developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and by Pfizer/BioNTech, and on Friday approved Moderna's shot. It is aiming to offer shots to 15 million people by the middle of next month.
To reach that target, which will require delivering 2 million vaccines a week, the government is opening seven big vaccination centres while additional doctors' surgeries, hospitals and some pharmacies will also start delivering shots.
"The vaccinations are really beginning to ramp up, 200,000 a day, we've done an incredible job this past week," Nadhim Zahawi, the minister in charge of the vaccination programme, told Sky News.
Those in the four highest risk levels, including those over 70, the most clinically vulnerable and frontline health workers, will be offered the vaccines by Feb. 15, he said.
"I hope they do. Let's hold them to that," opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has repeatedly accused Johnson of being too slow to respond to the pandemic, said of the target.
"Britain shouldn't have one of the highest death tolls in Europe, and the deepest recession. We shouldn't be facing the slowest recovery and we shouldn't be suffering the tragedy of so many deaths every day from this virus."
There have been calls for the government to take harder action against those who break the lockdown rules, but Zahawi said ministers did not want to "go any tougher". However, he cautioned there was concern about the spread of the virus in supermarkets and there was a need to ensure people wore masks while in them.