British PM Boris Johnson
British PM Boris Johnson
File Photo

New Delhi: Battling through a “critical moment” in the coronavirus pandemic, which has been exacerbated due to a new highly transmissible variant of the deadly virus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday cancelled his forthcoming visit to India. He had accepted an invite to be the chief guest of the Republic Day parade on January 26.

Johnson decided to stay put in his country, even as the UK began its third Covid-19 lockdown on Tuesday with the citizens ordered to stay at home and the government calling for one last major national effort to stem the virus before mass vaccinations turn the tide.

"The prime minister spoke to Prime Minister Modi this morning, to express his regret that he will be unable to visit India later this month as planned," a Downing Street spokeswoman said.

She was quoted in a report from London as saying that "in the light of the national lockdown announced last night, and the speed at which the new coronavirus variant is spreading, the prime minister said that it was important for him to remain in the UK so he can focus on the domestic response to the virus."

The complete shutdown of schools and businesses in the UK is similar to the very first nationwide lockdown imposed in March 2020.

"As I speak to you our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid than at any time," said Johnson. He revealed that the number of hospital patients has increased to nearly 27,000, almost a third higher than the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in April 2020. He, however, stressed that there is "one huge difference" compared to the lockdown of last year.

"We are rolling out the biggest vaccination programme in our history. We have vaccinated more people in the UK than in the rest of Europe combined,” he said.

Giving a “realistic” picture on vaccination by the National Health Service, he said: "By the middle of February if things go well, and with a wind in our sails, we expect to have offered the first vaccine dose to everyone in the four top priority groups identified by the Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation."

The UK prime minister said this means vaccinating care home residents and carers, all over-70s, everyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable, and all NHS frontline and health workers.

"That will eventually enable us to lift many of the restrictions that we have endured for so long," he said.

He advised people to leave their homes only for essential shopping, some daily exercise or medical reasons.

"I want to say to everyone right across the UK that I know how tough this is. And I know how frustrated you are and I know that you have had more than enough of government guidance," Johnson said.

“But now more than ever we must pull together. You must follow the new rules from now and they will become law on Wednesday morning.”

He admitted that the weeks ahead will be the “hardest yet” but reiterated that the UK was entering the “last phase of the struggle”.

“Because with every jab that goes into our arms, we are tilting the odds against Covid and in favour of the British people,” he said.

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