UK coronavirus death toll passes 50,000 after rise of 595 in one day

Grim milestone reached after highest daily rise since May

Andrew Woodcock,Patrick Grafton-Green,Andy Gregory
Wednesday 11 November 2020 21:28 GMT
Coronavirus daily death toll hits six-month high in Scotland

The UK has passed a grim milestone, as it became the first European country to suffer 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

In a bleak reminder of the threat that Covid-19 continues to pose, despite recent hopes of a potential vaccine, Britain’s official death toll increased by 595 in the deadliest single day of the pandemic since May.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, acknowledged “we’re not out of the woods yet” and urged Britons to continue to observe the restrictions that will see pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops in England closed, and most social contact banned, until 2 December.

And the deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, warned that the breakthrough announced by Pfizer and BioNTech on Monday will not provide a “short cut” out of lockdown.

The UK’s official tally of 50,365 deaths within 28 days of a positive test for the coronavirus is likely to underestimate the true total, as separate figures from the Office for National Statistics show more than 65,000 fatalities in which Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate.

The figure puts the UK fifth in the global league table for deaths, behind the USA, Brazil, India and Mexico.

Meanwhile, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine has warned of the danger of the disease spreading in overcrowded A&E departments where patients are being kept on trolleys for hours waiting for beds.

Warning that the NHS has 9,000 fewer beds that it needs to cope with the coronavirus, Katherine Henderson told The Independent: “Crowding in A&E is unsafe, but with coronavirus it is potentially lethal. We have said this endlessly to NHS England. Exactly what we said should not happen is happening. I am absolutely terrified by this.”

Responding to the death toll reaching 50,000, Mr Johnson said: “Every death is a tragedy and we mourn everybody who’s gone and our feelings are with their families and friends as well.”

But he said the UK had reached a “different phase” in its experience of the pandemic, with aid on its way from the mass testing programme that began in Liverpool last week and is being extended to other English cities, as well as the “realistic prospect” of a vaccine.

“You have, as it were, two boxing gloves to pummel the disease in the weeks and months that follow,” said the prime minister.

“But I’ve got to stress that we’re not out of the woods yet. It does still require everybody to follow the guidance [and] do the right thing to suppress the disease in the way that we all understand.”

Prof Van-Tam told a Downing Street press conference he was “very hopeful” that vaccines will play an important role over time in helping the world live with Covid.

But he refused to put a time-frame on a return to normal life, and warned: “Will these vaccines be a ‘get-out clause’ for the current second wave that we are in? Absolutely not.

“We're going to have to push the second wave down by the non-pharmaceutical interventions, the social distancing, the stay-at-home, all the things that we're doing right now. There's no short cut to the future that you and I both aspire to.”

As the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) confirmed its recommendation that jabs should be offered first to those living or working in care homes, followed by the elderly, Prof Van-Tam said he would personally be confident to be given the vaccine – though he did not believe he would or should be on the priority list.

Declaring that he “absolutely trusts” the UK’s MHRA medicines regulator to judge whether a vaccine is safe and effective, he said that he applied a “mum test” to determine whether he was confident about the jab.

“My mum is 78. She'll be 79 shortly,” he said. “And I've already said to her, ‘Mum, make sure when you're called you're ready. Be ready to take this up’.“

After a poll in the Daily Mail found that 74 per cent of Britons would take the vaccine, but four in 10 thought senior politicians should have it first to prove it was safe, Downing Street said that Mr Johnson would be “happy” to receive any vaccine approved by the regulators.

But a spokesperson added: “The criteria for who will be given the vaccine first will be decided by scientific and medical experts.”

No 10 gave its backing to Prof Van-Tam’s assurance that there was “no inkling” that ministers or industry were contemplating giving vaccines first to those who could pay.

Prof Van-Tam made a strongly personal case against allowing people to jump the queue to get inoculated by paying to go private.

“I’m a doctor,” he said. “I’ve worked for or around the NHS for most of my career.

“One of the things I like about the NHS is that it's there for everybody, irrespective of their level of wealth or who they are in society. That is a really, really important principle to me personally.

“I'm giving you my views as a clinician, that I think these vaccines need to be prioritised to those who need them, not those who can afford to pay for them privately.”

Prof Van-Tam confirmed that the UK has the option to order up to 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, but said they would not be bought until the MHRA medicines regulator has cleared the jab as safe and effective.

He said he was confident that, once the inoculation becomes available for use, the NHS has the capacity to get it to patients as quickly as it can be produced.

The JCVI’s Covid-19 immunisation chair, Professor Wei Shen Lim, said that the committee’s interim recommendation was that any vaccine should be given first to care home residents and workers, then by age group, starting with the over-eighties and going down to the over-65s before including younger adults with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to Covid.

Phase one of the vaccination programme would cover everyone over 50, and should by then have protected 99 per cent of those at risk of dying from the virus, he said.

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