London, Jan 10 (PTI) The UK on Sunday announced a major expansion of COVID-19 tests being made available more widely to asymptomatic people as part of efforts to control the rapid spread of a new coronavirus variant, which has led to Britain hitting the grim milestone of 80,000 deaths from the virus.
The community testing regime, until now available to those displaying symptoms, has been expanded to cover anyone unable to work from home to access the rapid lateral flow tests that give results in 30 minutes.
The move comes as hundreds of thousands of people aged 80 and over were sent letters to book a coronavirus vaccination at new National Health Service (NHS) vaccination centres that will be up and running from Monday.
'With more than 1,000 vaccination sites across the country, including seven new mass vaccination centres, we will help protect hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people over the coming weeks as we accelerate towards offering 12 million people the jab in England by the middle of February,' said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
'Our plan is to vaccinate as many people as possible across the entire United Kingdom as quickly as we can… There are deeply challenging weeks ahead, but today signals another significant step forward in the race to protect the public, and defeat the virus,' he said.
NHS England said 130,000 letters have been sent out this weekend with more than 500,000 following in the coming days as the national vaccination programme is 'rapidly accelerating'. The letters have been sent to people aged 80 or over who live 30 to 45 minutes drive from one of the seven new sites and explain how they can book a slot – over the phone or online.
'Through our vaccine delivery plan we have already provided a first dose to more than 1.2 million people in England and we are mobilising the government, NHS and the armed forces as part of a massive national effort. The vaccination centres are an important milestone and will help accelerate the rollout further,' said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
'They will work hand in hand with GPs, pharmacies, hospitals and care homes to offer vaccines to everyone in the top four priority cohorts, saving thousands of lives and helping us start to return to normal in the future,' he said.
One vaccination centre will open in each of the seven NHS regions this week with many more expected to be up and running by the end of the month. The centres, which include one at the site of the London Nightingale Hospital and Manchester’s Etihad Stadium, are planned as a convenient alternative to under-pressure general practice (GP) and hospital services and can each deliver thousands of vaccinations every week.
'With more vaccine supplies now coming on stream we are rapidly accelerating the programme and these large scale NHS vaccination centres are an important new way for people to get the life-saving jab, alongside our GP and hospital services,' said NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis.
'NHS staff are under huge pressure with big rises in coronavirus infections leaving record numbers needing hospital treatment but are still pull out all the stops to deliver COVID jabs as swiftly as we can,' he said.
Nurses, doctors, physios and other NHS staff working nearby are also being jabbed at the centres, along with social care and care home workers.
Meanwhile, NHS England has written to hospital trusts across the UK to outline plans to vaccinate all frontline staff against COVID-19 following the rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the second COVID-19 vaccine to be given the green light for use in the UK. It joins the Pfizer/BioNTech jabs and a Moderna vaccine expected to be rolled out by March. All three vaccines require two jabs given within 28 days apart.
'It is only right that we prioritise the NHS staff who have been on the frontline of this global pandemic. We need to protect those that have been helping to protect us and ensure they can protect their loved ones too,' said Dr Nikki Kanani, a GP and NHS medical director for primary care.
'Doctors, nurses and other frontline staff who continue to work tirelessly will be offered the vaccine first, before administering the vaccine to all health and social care staff by mid-February. Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff make up around a fifth of the NHS workforce and have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, so it’s crucial they take up the offer of a vaccine when offered,' she said.
The acceleration of the vaccination programme comes as the UK remains under tough lockdown conditions to try and control the surge in infections and pressure on hospitals, with the police warning on tougher fines and crackdowns for breaching stay at home rules without a reasonable excuse. Twelve people were arrested during an anti-lockdown protest in south London on Saturday as officers clashed with some of the maskless protesters shouting 'take your freedom back'. PTI AK ZH ZH