A new hard-hitting government advert asks Britons if they “can look coronavirus patients in the eye”, as ministers toughen messaging amid concerns the newer variant is more deadly.
The first of a series of new adverts was aired on ITV and Channel 4 on Friday evening and features COVID-19 patients and the staff looking after them at Basingstoke and North Hampshire Hospital.
It begins with a room full of doctors trying to save someone in intensive care before showing the faces of those very ill with the virus and the medics taking care of them.
They remain silent, staring at the viewer, before a voice asks: “Can you look them in the eyes and tell them you’re doing all you can to stop the spread of COVID-19?”
The shift in tone comes after the prime minister warned that the second coronavirus variant may be proving more fatal than the original one.
He and a number of experts have also warned that lifting restrictions in March would simply lead to another lockdown in April, leaving the UK with no hope of a return to normality any time soon.
“There is some evidence that the new variant may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” Boris Johnson told a Downing Street news briefing on Friday.
His chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance said that with the new variant – 13 or 14 people out of every 1,000 over the age of 60 with the virus are dying.
With the initial one the number was 10.
A record 1,820 people were reported to have died of coronavirus on Wednesday, with another 1,401 COVID-related deaths registered on Friday.
The government claims that somebody is admitted to hospital with the virus every 30 seconds in England, with a quarter of them under the age of 55.
Nurses, meanwhile, have written to the government calling for an “urgent” review into whether standard surgical face masks prevent transmission of the new variant on COVID wards.
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing has said that some hospitals are using enhanced PPE, creating a “postcode lottery” of protection.
At Friday’s briefing, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty stressed that infections nationwide are still “at a very high level” and the situation is “extremely precarious”.
“The impact of the current wave is still putting significant pressure on hospitals across the country and many patients are very sick,” he urged.
“Vaccines give clear hope for the future, but for now we must all continue to play our part in protecting the NHS and saving lives.”
Sir Patrick Vallance also cautioned that there is still not enough evidence to tell if current vaccines will protect against the emerging variants from South Africa and Brazil.
But despite the rising death toll, the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (SAGE) said on Friday that the virus reproduction (R) number had fallen from between 1.2 and 1.3 to between 0.8 and 1.0.
Although this suggests lockdown is working, experts have warned that restrictions are still a long way from being eased – as hospitals are still in crisis – and that more could be necessary to keep numbers down.
Rowland Kao, professor of veterinary epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “While the recent results showing declining case numbers is good news, and suggest that the variant is controllable via existing measures, these results on deaths imply that burden in hospitals will continue to be high requiring a more prolonged period of restrictions.”
SAGE member and former chief scientific advisor Sir Mark Walport told the BBC: “If the evidence shows that the decrease in cases isn’t continuing, then clearly policymakers will have to consider much tougher measures.”
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