LONDON – About half of England is under the country’s strictest lockdown measures and people have been ordered to stay home, but the coronavirus is still spreading at an alarming rate. Hospitals are treating more patients than ever before during the pandemic, the number of new infections has hit a daily record, and there is a growing debate about allowing tens of thousands of students to return to the classroom after the vacation break.

The country’s scientists have said that an apparently more contagious variant of the virus is fueling the surge in cases, and with severe restrictions already imposed on more than 48 million people, it remains unclear what other tools the government has to prevent the outbreak Control.

41,385 new laboratory-confirmed cases were reported on Monday, the highest number in a single day. The National Health Service said there are now more than 20,000 people living in English hospitals, more than at the height of the pandemic in April.

With the government scheduled to meet on Wednesday to assess its restrictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to impose another national lockdown and allow students – especially older college and high school students – who may be more easily infected by the new variant of the virus move. for distance learning.

Some hope that the daily number of cases will decrease than the restrictions imposed on London and south and east England around Christmas begin to work.

But a strong combination of a new strain of the virus, an imminent return to school, and an action that allowed people in areas of lower risk to meet indoors on Christmas Day has raised fears that the New Year will get worse could.

“We are entering a very dangerous new phase of the pandemic and we need determined early national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February,” Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London, told the BBC.

A growing body of research supports concerns that the new variant of the virus may be more than 50 percent more contagious than those that are already rapidly in widespread use.

And the variant continued to appear in countries around the world, despite dozens of nations banning British travelers. Indian health officials reported Tuesday that six people tested positive for the variant. The infected have all returned from the UK in recent weeks, health officials said, and are isolated.

The UK government has turned to a now well-known arsenal of tools to keep the variant at bay, increase movement restrictions, close stores and limit the number of people allowed to congregate.

While officials blame the variant for the rise in cases, many of the rules are difficult to enforce on a large scale, and it is difficult to know what role individual behavior may play.

Mr. Johnson’s handling of the pandemic was marked by last minute decisions and reversals that fueled public skepticism and anger.

One place the government has held the line is by keeping schools open.

Since the summer, the government has made classroom placement a priority, even in areas prone to major outbreaks and during the country’s second national lockdown in November. In August, after students spent the first few months of the pandemic in online classes from home, Mr Johnson described reopening schools as a “moral duty” and promised that if the virus recurs, “the last thing is us want to do is close schools. “

The British approach was similar to that of many European countries, where leaders feared that school closings would once again increase inequalities and irreparably affect children’s academic and emotional development.

But as the number of coronavirus cases skyrocketed, Germany and the Netherlands have returned to school closings and many UK teachers are calling for the same.

The government had promised a staggered return of schools in January, saying it would rely on mass testing to prevent the virus from spreading in schools, using the military to help.

Although around 1,500 soldiers were on standby to “provide the schools with the guidance, materials and funding they need to provide quick tests to their staff and students from the start of the semester,” said UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson , most of the support is provided remotely, through online sessions, and over the phone.

Most school children have to wipe themselves with the supervision of a school worker or volunteer.

“1,500 soldiers hosting webinars may not be the government answer we’ve been looking for,” Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School Leaders, a union, told the BBC.

The country’s two largest apprenticeship unions – the National Education Union and NASUWT – also criticized the last-minute nature of the mass test plan and wrote to Mr Johnson Monday to request additional security measures and more time to implement them.

The country’s scientific advisory group known as SAGE has advised against allowing classrooms to reopen, according to British media reports.

The scientists said UK coronavirus cases would get out of hand if schools didn’t close in the new year. The scientific advisory group assumes that the closure of schools in January would lead to a decrease in the number of infections.

Michael Gove, a cabinet minister who is helping coordinate the UK coronavirus response, said Monday, “We are always keeping things updated.”

Even as the country’s health workers come under increasing pressure to treat the influx of patients, they are urged to accelerate the most ambitious mass vaccination program in the country’s history.

Around 200,000 people receive their first intake of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine each week. With the approval of a vaccine from AstraZeneca and Oxford University expected in the coming days, the number of doses available is likely to increase dramatically. The AstraZeneca vaccine, which does without Pfizer’s strict temperature requirements, should also be easier to distribute.

There is no evidence that the vaccines are any less effective against the UK variant of the virus, and they remain the country’s best chance of weathering the current wave of infections.

However, to keep the government’s promise to vaccinate everyone over 50 by spring, delivery speeds would have to be ten times faster than it is now.

Nick Davies, assistant professor of mathematical modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said rapid vaccination should mitigate the effects of the new variant.

“Achieving 2 million vaccinations a week could reduce the burden significantly,” he wrote on Twitter. The current 200,000 a week “doesn’t have much of an impact.”

This not only requires the supply, but also the staff to dispense the vaccines. And that means even more pressure on health workers.

Simon Stevens, director of the NHS in England, gave health workers a “back in the eye of the storm” message, praising their efforts and urging them to continue “the toughest year most of us can remember”.

“Many of us have lost family, friends, colleagues and – at a time of year when we would normally celebrate – many people understandably feel anxious, frustrated and tired,” he said, sharing his remarks from a vaccination center starting Tuesday. “So now, I believe, is the right time to express our enormous gratitude and thanks on behalf of the whole country.”

Marc Santora reported from London and Anna Schaverien from Brighton, England.

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