The UK on Saturday recorded more new coronavirus infections in a single day than ever before, registering more than 57,700 cases in 24 hours, many of which are attributed to a possibly more contagious strain of the virus that is particularly prevalent in London .
During the same period, 445 deaths linked to the virus were also recorded.
The UK government is facing growing pressure from teachers’ unions to keep schools in England closed for at least two more weeks.
The UK has so far announced a death toll of more than 82,600 since the start of the pandemic.
The UK has recorded its five highest daily numbers of new infections in the past five days – all above 50,000 and double the daily count of just a few weeks ago.
Hospitals in London are starting to reach their capacity limits, according to media reports. Patients are housed in hallways or have to wait hours in an ambulance until a bed is free.
Royal College of Physicians President Andrew Goddard has advised hospitals across the country to prepare for similar conditions.
“This new variant is definitely more contagious and is spreading across the country,” he told the BBC.
Simon Clarke, associate professor of cell microbiology at the University of Reading, told Al Jazeera that the main concern with the new variant was “its ability to spread.”
He confirmed, however, that mutations in the new variant were unlikely to affect vaccine sensitivity.
The government, which oversees schools in England, has already decided to keep all schools in London closed next week to try to stem the new infections.
Unions want the policy to spread across England, expressing fears over the health of teachers and students.
After an emergency meeting on Saturday, the National Education Union, which represents nearly 450,000 education workers, called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government to push online learning for at least two weeks .
He also told members that they have a legal right not to have to work in a “dangerous environment” of accelerating coronavirus cases, hospital admissions and deaths.
“We do our job as a union by informing our members that they have the legal right to refuse to work in hazardous conditions which are a danger to their health and to the health of their school communities,” said Kevin Courtney, spouse of the general secretary union.
Another union representing teachers, NASUWT, has also called for an immediate move to distance education nationwide due to viral safety concerns. Its secretary general, Patrick Roach, said there was “a real concern” that schools and colleges may not be able to reopen safely at this time.
“The NASUWT will not hesitate to take appropriate measures to protect members whose safety is at risk due to the failure of employers or the government to ensure safe working conditions in schools and colleges,” did he declare.
The government’s science advisory group for emergencies warned at a December 22 meeting that schools must remain closed to reduce rates of transmission of the virus.
The UK is grappling with a spike in new cases following a new variant of the virus which officials say could be up to 70% more infectious.
The variant was particularly prevalent in and around London, prompting Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to reverse plans to allow some primary schools – those for children 11 and under – in the capital to reopen as scheduled on January 4.
Most of England’s other primary schools are still scheduled to open on Monday. The reopening of high schools has already been delayed for millions of students, with exam-year students due to return on January 11 and others a week later.
With many UK hospitals at or near full capacity, there are growing concerns about how the already under pressure National Health Service will deal with people seeking treatment for COVID-19 after being infected during the holidays .
Field hospitals that were built last spring but were later put on hold are again equipped to accommodate patients.
On the inoculation front, the UK began vaccinating people over the age of 80 and healthcare workers on December 8 with the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.
Last week, the government approved another vaccine made by the University of Oxford and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca that is cheaper and easier to use.
The UK plans to step up vaccinations on Monday using the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, and has set a goal of vaccinating two million people per week as soon as possible.
Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath in southern England was one of the first to receive the newly approved vaccine on Saturday.
“So even though it’s really tough and the staff are under pressure, the hospitals are coping and we’re still providing care to everyone who needs it,” said George Findlay, the trust’s chief medical officer.
Over a million people in the UK have already received their first Pfizer vaccine.
Britain plans to administer second doses of both vaccines within 12 weeks instead of the originally planned 21 days, in order to speed up vaccination of as many people as possible as quickly as possible.