Vehicles queue to enter NHS Vaccination Centre parking lot, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Manchester, Britain January 11, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday the UK was in “a race against time” to roll out Covid-19 vaccines as deaths hit record highs and hospitals ran out of oxygen, and his top medical adviser said the pandemic’s worst weeks were imminent.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said there were now more than 32,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital, far more than the roughly 18,000 hospitalised during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in April.

No shortage of oxygen

However, there was no national shortage of oxygen to treat Covid-19 patients, Hancock said on Tuesday, but some patients had to go different hospitals when local capacity has been used up.

“The limitation is not the supply of oxygen itself, it is the ability to get the oxygen… through the physical oxygen supply systems within hospitals, and that essentially becomes a constraint on an individual hospital’s ability to take more COVID patients,” Hancock told lawmakers.

“There is no constraint – that we are anywhere near – on the national availability of oxygen (or) oxygenated beds. It does mean … that sometimes we have to move patients to a different part – as local as possible – but occasionally across the country, to make sure they get the treatment that they need.”

A new, more transmissible variant of the disease is now surging through the population, with one in 20 people in parts of London now infected, threatening to overwhelm the NHS as hospitals fill up with patients.

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 about 15 million people by the middle of next month.

“It’s a race against time because we can all see the threat that our NHS faces, the pressure it’s under, the demand in intensive care units, the pressure on ventilated beds, even the shortage of oxygen in some places,” Johnson said on a visit to a vaccination centre in Bristol, in southwest England.

“This is a very perilous moment. The worst thing now for us is to allow success in rolling out a vaccine programme to breed any kind of complacency about the state of the pandemic.”

The government’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty earlier said the situation was set to deteriorate.

“The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS,” 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.

Significant crisis

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.

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