By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday Britain was in "a race against time" to roll out COVID-19 vaccines as deaths hit record highs and hospitals ran out of oxygen, and his top medical adviser said the pandemic's worst weeks were imminent.
A new, more transmissible variant of the disease is now surging through the population, with one in 20 people in parts of London now infected, threatening to overwhelm the National Health Service (NHS) as hospitals fill up with patients.
The death toll in the United Kingdom has been soaring and now stands in excess of 81,000 - the world's fifth-highest official toll - while more than three million people have tested positive.
In a bid to get on top of the pandemic and to try to restore some degree of normality by the spring, Britain is rushing out its largest ever vaccination programme, with shots to be offered to about 15 million people by the middle of next month.
"It's a race against time because we can all see the threat that our NHS faces, the pressure it's under, the demand in intensive care units, the pressure on ventilated beds, even the shortage of oxygen in some places," Johnson said on a visit to a vaccination centre in Bristol, in southwest England.
"This is a very perilous moment. The worst thing now for us is to allow success in rolling out a vaccine programme to breed any kind of complacency about the state of the pandemic."
The government's chief medical adviser Chris Whitty earlier said the situation was set to deteriorate.
"The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS," he told BBC TV.
"Anybody who is not shocked by the number of people in hospital who are seriously ill at the moment and who are dying over the course of this pandemic, I think, has not understood this at all. This is an appalling situation," he told BBC TV.
Health minister Matt Hancock said there were now more than 32,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital, far more than the roughly 18,000 hospitalised during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in April.
Johnson's government is pinning its hopes on a mass vaccination programme after Britain became the first country to approve vaccines developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and by Pfizer/BioNTech. It also approved Moderna's shot last Friday.
Its plan, announced on Monday, envisages two million shots being delivered to around 2,700 centres a week in England by the end of January, with the aim of immunising tens of millions of people by the spring and all adults offered a vaccine by the autumn. [L8N2JM4RV]
The first daily vaccination statistics showed that nearly 2.3 million people had so far received their first doses of a COVID vaccine and nearly 400,000 had received a second dose.
Johnson said more had received the vaccine in Britain than in any other European country but admitted that inoculating 15 million people in the four highest risk levels, including those over 70 and frontline health workers, by a Feb. 15 target was "a huge ask".
"We believe it's achievable, we're going throw absolutely everything at it, to get it done," he said.
Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has repeatedly accused Johnson of being too slow to respond to the pandemic, said the prime minister's indecision had cost lives and worsened the economic impact
Ministers and health chiefs have pleaded with Britons to stay at home, amid fears that some people are not adhering to the rules strictly enough, along with concern that the virus is being spread in supermarkets.
Hancock said that support bubbles, where households can "bubble" with another if they are single-person or fit other criteria, would be maintained, but that rules on exercising with someone else could be restricted.
"Where we have to tighten them, we will," Johnson said of the rules.
(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton, William Schomberg, Paul Sandle, Alistair Smout and James Davey; writing by Michael Holden; editing by Estelle Shirbon, Guy Faulconbridge, Angus MacSwan and Gareth Jones)