There is “no doubt” that a third wave of coronavirus sweeping across Europe will “wash onto our shores”, the Prime Minister has said, as he reflected on lives lost to Covid on the anniversary of England’s first national lockdown.
Speaking at this evening’s Downing Street press conference, Boris Johnson said the UK “must be realistic” about a huge surge in cases across countries such as France, Italy and Germany.
“There is another wave building in the European continent, amongst our friends, [and] we will see it wash onto our shores,” he said.
“The extent to which it affects us will depend on the strength of the fortifications we’ve built against it via the vaccine programme,” the PM added.
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, warned that the chances of eradicating the virus were “close to zero”, adding that a fast-pace global vaccination programme would prove the best defence against a spike in Covid cases.
More than 28m people in the UK have now received a first dose of the jab, including all top four priority groups.
The government has insisted that disruptions to Britain’s vaccine supplies expected in the coming weeks will not compromise ministers’ target to offer a first dose of the jab to all over-50s by 15 April and all adults in the UK by 31 July.
However, the EU’s sluggish vaccine rollout has sparked concerns that new Covid mutations could emerge alongside a surge in coronavirus cases.
Just 12 per cent of adults in the EU have received a first dose of the Covid jab, compared to more than 50 per cent of adults in Britain.
Paris has entered a month-long lockdown after France last week recorded almost 35,000 cases in a single 24-hour period. Scientists estimate that 5 to 10 per cent of new cases in the country could be the South African variant, which is thought to be partially resistant to available vaccines.
Italy also imposed fresh restrictions last week following a 10 per cent spike in Covid cases, with the country set to enter its third nationwide lockdown over the Easter weekend.
Johnson insisted the UK is “step by step, jab by jab” on the path to “reclaiming our freedoms” over the coming months, but warned that foreign travel will likely be off the cards this summer.
The PM said he was aware there was a “great deal of interest” in the resumption of international travel, but that it was “just too early to say” whether restrictions will be lifted in time for summer.
“We’ve heard already that there are other European countries where coronavirus cases are rising, so things are certainly looking difficult at the time but I hope to be able to say more by 5 April,” he said.
It comes amid a bitter dispute with the EU over the bloc’s dwindling vaccine supplies, with European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen threatening to block vaccine exports to the UK if Britain does not hand over some of its jab supplies.
The PM is understood to be willing to compromise over the distribution of supplies manufactured at the Halix facility in the Netherlands in order to prevent the EU implementing a blanket ban on vaccine exports.
“We’re all fighting the same pandemic… We in this country don’t believe in blockades of any kind on vaccines or vaccine material. It’s not something we’d dream of applying,” the PM said this evening.
Speaking on the anniversary of England’s first national lockdown, Johnson also announced that a “suitable memorial” will be created to honour the victims of the pandemic, which has so far killed more than 126,000 people in the UK.
Johnson hailed the past year as an “extraordinary moment in our history”, saying that when people come to describe this “epidemic to future generations,” they will “tell the story of the heroes of the NHS and social care of pharmacists, teachers, armed service personnel, shop workers, transport workers, the police and so many others”.