Coronavirus testing and vaccinations are to be ramped up across England this week, as the Government tries to get a hold on the outbreak which has led to record deaths and hospital admissions.
People without coronavirus symptoms and who cannot work from home are to be prioritised for quick turnaround tests made available to every local authority.
Meanwhile, as the vaccine rollout gathers pace, more than half a million over-80s are due to receive invites this week to jet a jab.
It comes as the official coronavirus death toll for the UK passed 80,000 on Saturday, and lab-confirmed cases hit more than three million.
The number of patients with Covid-19 in hospital is at a record high in England, and medics have warned things are likely to get worse before they improve, with the full impact of festive mixing not yet seen in the health service.
Some experts have branded the current lockdown measures not strict enough, in the face of the more transmissible variant which has spread rapidly in many parts of the country.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said targeted asymptomatic testing followed by isolation is “highly effective in breaking chains of transmission”.
He said the Government was asking employers to “work with us to scale up workforce testing” as it was announced local authorities will be encouraged to target testing towards those who cannot work from home during the lockdown.
He said: “Lateral flow tests have already been hugely successful in finding positive cases quickly – and every positive case found is helping to stop the spread – so I encourage employers and workers to take this offer up.
“We must all do all we can to stop the spread of Covid, right now.”
The new variant of Covid-19 is spreading much faster.
— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) January 9, 2021
As part of the national coronavirus vaccination programme, more than 500,000 invitations asking people aged 80 or over to sign up for a jab are expected to arrive with recipients this week.
The first 130,000 invites were due to arrive over the weekend, as the Government strives to meet its target of offering inoculations to almost 14 million vulnerable people in the UK by mid-February.
Boris Johnson said: “There are deeply challenging weeks ahead, but today signals another significant step forward in the race to protect the public, and defeat the virus.”
The letters have been sent to those who live between a 30 to 45-minute drive from one of seven new regional centres in England, with information about how they can book a slot either over the phone or via an online national booking service.
Buckingham Palace revealed the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh received their Covid-19 vaccinations on Saturday.
A royal source confirmed the injections were administered by a royal household doctor at Windsor Castle.
The UK will have three jabs to use by spring, when the recently-approved Moderna vaccine comes onstream.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will be available in more than 1,000 locations in Scotland from Monday.
Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford tweeted that vaccination there was “gathering momentum”, after facing questions on Friday about the speed of the rollout which had at that point seen just 1.6% of its population jabbed, compared to 1.9% in England and 2.1% in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the use of the Excel Centre as one of the new large-scale vaccination venues and said the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the site opening as a patient rehabilitation facility will be “crucial in freeing up much-needed beds across London’s hospitals, while also accelerating the roll-out of the vaccine”.
Mr Khan, who declared a “major incident” in the capital on Friday amid concerns hospitals could be overwhelmed, said the threat the virus “poses to our city is at crisis point”.
The latest Government figures showed a further 1,035 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the UK total to 80,868.
Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies for deaths where Covid-19 has been mentioned on the death certificate, together with additional data on deaths that have occurred in recent days, show there have now been 95,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
Official death figures continue to be affected by a lag in the publication of recent data and will contain some deaths that took place over the Christmas and New Year period that have only just been reported.
Dr Simon Walsh, deputy chair of the British Medical Association’s consultants’ committee and Dr Justin Varney, director of public health at Birmingham City Council both said things are likely to get worse for hospitals in the coming weeks as the rise in cases leads to more admissions.
Professor Susan Michie and Professor Robert West, both of whom participate in Independent Sage which has called for tougher measures at various points in the pandemic, described the current lockdown as not strict enough compared to the first in March.
But David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy working on Covid-19, said any further tightening should be considered in a targeted way.
He told Times Radio: “The most important thing at this stage is to do very careful sifting of the data to answer the question who is getting infected, where are they getting infected, how are they getting infected, so that the additional measures, if they are going to be put in place, can be targeted.”
He warned there will be “a bit more difficulty to weather” in the months ahead in and urged people to “find the extra resolve to keep going” or risk making things worse.