UK COVID-19 Update: Johnson's Lockdown Plans, and Oxford's Vaccine Up to 90% Effective

Peter Russell

November 23, 2020

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

No 'Free for All' After Lockdown Ends: PM

An updated three-tier system of restrictions will be implemented in England after the current national lockdown ends on 2 December, the Prime Minister announced today.

The new regime will mean that people will be able to leave their home for any purpose, and meet others in outdoor public spaces, subject to the 'rule of six'.

Weddings and outdoor sports will be able to resume, and shops, gyms, and the wider leisure sector can reopen.

Addressing the Commons by video link from Downing Street, Boris Johnson warned the Government was "not going to replace national measures with a free for all". Instead, there would be "a regional, tiered approach, applying the toughest measures where COVID is most prevalent".

He told MPs that:

  • People in tier 1 should work from home wherever possible

  • In tier 2, alcohol will only be served in hospitality settings as part of a substantial meal

  • In tier 3, indoor entertainment, hotels, and other accommodation would have to close, except for delivery and takeaways

Further details on which regions would be put into which category would be announced later in the week, probably on Thursday, he said.

"I'm sorry to say we expect that more regions will fall, at least temporarily, into higher levels than before," the Prime Minister said.

Mr Johnson confirmed that work was underway between all four nations of the UK to agree a plan on a "time-limited Christmas dispensation" to allow families to come together while minimising transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus during the festive season.

"This virus is obviously not going to grant a Christmas truce," he said. "It doesn't know it's Christmas… and families will need to make a careful judgement about the risk of visiting elderly relatives."

Specific guidance would be published for the clinically extremely vulnerable on how to manage the risks in each tier.

By the end of the year, a boost to testing would allow every care home resident in England to have two visitors who could be tested twice a week, the Government announced.

Meanwhile, local authorities placed in tier 3, would be offered "a six week surge of testing", Mr Johnson said.

The Prime Minister urged the public to continue to follow the rules to help contain transmission rates, saying that "Christmas cannot be normal", and that "there is a long road to spring".

Oxford Vaccine 'Highly Effective'

Eagerly anticipated interim results from phase 3 trials of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford showed it was 70.4% effective at preventing COVID-19.

Efficacy was 62% among participants who received two standard doses of ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, also known as AZD1222, at least one month apart.

However, this rose to 90% among those in a smaller subset who received a half dose followed by a standard dose after at least a month.

Crucially, the early data showed no hospitalised or severe cases in anyone who received the vaccine.

Trial results for the replication-deficient chimpanzee adenoviral vectored vaccine were announced in an early morning press release from Oxford's partner, the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, who said it would now push ahead to achieve regulatory approval.

The announcement followed highly promising interim results this month from messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines produced by Pfizer in partnership with BioNTech, and Moderna.

However, while the two mRNA vaccines suggested efficacy of around 95%, both vaccines require cold chain storage at around -70 degrees C.

The Oxford vaccine is cheaper to produce and can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures, prompting its developers to claim it was a vaccine for the whole world.

AstraZeneca said that if regulators approved giving a half dose followed by a full dose, it would increase the supply of the vaccine and reduce time taken to vaccinate.

Prof Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, explained in a briefing hosted by the Science Media Centre: "We think that by giving a smaller first dose that we're priming the immune system differently, we're setting it up better to respond."

Dr Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at Wellcome, described the findings as "hugely encouraging".

"These results suggest it is highly effective in protecting [against] serious illness and it may reduce transmission," he commented, adding that it was "critically important that the trial is completed and regulators can now independently and rigorously assess the data".

Oxford scientists said the full results would appear in a peer-reviewed journal imminently.

Prof Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that despite many hurdles needed to be crossed before the pandemic was brought under control, "November 2020 looks set to be the month that humanity developed the tools to turn the tide against this devastating virus".

The UK Government has ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine.

Other Vaccine News

The UK's medical regulator said it would make a decision "in the shortest time possible" on the Pfizer-BioNTech candidate coronavirus vaccine after receiving additional data.

"It is our job now to rigorously assess these data and the evidence submitted on the vaccine's safety, quality, and effectiveness," said Dr June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Pfizer and BioNTech were the first to release interim phase 3 results involving a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The announcement on 9 November was followed a week later by interim results for Moderna's mRNA candidate vaccine.

Both vaccines demonstrated an efficacy rate of around 95%.

The MHRA insisted that it would not rush its decision. "Our job is to work to the highest standards, and safety is our watchword," said Dr Raine.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said it was "another important step on the road to recovery".

The UK has ordered 40 million vaccine doses by the end of 2021 from Pfizer-BioNTech.

Mr Hancock said the NHS would be ready to begin a vaccination programme as soon as the first vaccine was approved and delivered to the UK.

BMA Calls on Chancellor for NHS Spending Boost

More than £10 billion of extra funding is needed to tackle the growing backlog of NHS work in the wake of COVID-19, the British Medical Association (BMA) said today.

It urged the Chancellor of the Exchequer to keep a promise to give the health service what it needed in this week's spending review.

A BMA analysis suggested there had been 14.6 million fewer outpatient attendances than expected in England throughout the pandemic, potentially costing £1.7 billion to work through, and 2.2 million fewer total elective treatments, that could cost a further £9 billion.

It warned that the size and cost of the backlog was likely to increase during the winter months.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: "The Chancellor this week has a golden opportunity to make good on his word, and begin to undo the damage wrought by the failure to invest in the nation’s health – none of us can afford for him to waste it."

Archive of a Pandemic

A COVID-19 digital archive documenting the experiences of healthcare workers living and working through the pandemic has been launched by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

The ongoing project, in the form of diaries, photographs, and interviews, will chart how doctors treated COVID-19 patients, access to PPE, changing work patterns, the health and wellbeing of healthcare workers, and how the public responded to the crisis.

The College said it would serve as a useful historical archive and help healthcare workers learn lessons from the pandemic.

Daisy Cunynghame, the archive's curator, said: "However much we all think we know from the newspapers, TV, and the internet about what is going on behind the scenes during this pandemic there is still so much that we don't know about. These interviews uncover the experiences of doctors facing PPE shortages and challenges finding food when working long hours while others are panic buying.

"But, overall, what really came across to me was how much doctors were really impressed by the public's response to COVID-19, and how much they appreciated gestures such as the 'Clap for the NHS'."


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