Britain reported 1564 new deaths within 28 days of a positive test for Covid-19 on Wednesday, a record daily toll, meaning more have died in the second wave of the pandemic than the first wave last year, a health official said.
The reported daily number of deaths exceeded the 1325 recorded on 8 January and comes as Britain battles a new, more transmissible variant of the virus. The government figures showed there were another 47,525 cases, up from 45,533 new cases on Tuesday.
Britain is targeting a 24-hour, 7-day a week Covid-19 vaccination programme as soon as possible, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, as he bids to step up the pace of the rollout with daily coronavirus deaths at record levels.
AstraZeneca executives said the company was on track to deliver 2 million doses of its shot a week by mid-February, and Johnson said increased availability would be crucial to scaling up to a round-the-clock service.
"We'll be going to 24/7 as soon as we can," Johnson told Parliament. "At the moment the limit is on supply."
British airline EasyJet said the National Health Service would train hundreds of its cabin crew to administer Covid-19 vaccines under a fast-track scheme designed to help boost the country's vaccination efforts.
There have now been almost 85,000 deaths in Britain - the fifth highest figure globally - and 3.2 million have tested positive for Covid-19.
"With each passing day, more and more people are tragically losing their lives to this terrible virus, and today we have reported the highest number of deaths on a single day since the pandemic began," Yvonne Doyle, the medical director for Public Health England, said on Twitter.
"There have now been more deaths in the second wave than the first."
Although the number of deaths reported daily continues to rise, the number of new cases reported daily over the last week has been below a high of 68,053 also recorded on 8 January, suggesting lockdown measures were beginning to take effect.
However, Johnson said there were about 32,000 Covid-19 patients in hospitals, about 70 percent more than during the peak of the first outbreak last April, and he said the risk of intensive care units being overwhelmed was substantial.
"(Health workers) now really are fighting very, very hard to contain this pandemic after months and months in which they've really been working flat out and I think the strain is colossal," he told lawmakers.
He said tougher restrictions brought in last week were starting to have an effect on the spread of Covid in some parts of the country, cautioning that it was still early days.
He also said he did not rule out bringing in even tougher restrictions to try to temper the spread of the coronavirus, which has largely been driven by the new variant.
WHO warns on new variants' spread
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed concern about the spread of new coronavirus variants.
A highly infectious strain, which originated in the UK, has now spread to 50 countries and territories, the WHO said.
Since the strain was first detected late last year, it has driven a spike in coronavirus infections and deaths linked to the disease in the UK.
A strain first identified in South Africa, meanwhile, has spread to 20 other countries, the WHO said.
Health experts say both new variants appear to be more transmissible than previous strains but not necessarily any more dangerous. They have also played down the possibility that vaccines will not be as effective against these variants.
Still, the increased transmission of these variants is taking its toll.
"Going into a second year of this [pandemic] could even be tougher given some of the transmission dynamics," WHO expert Mike Ryan said during an event on social media.
There are also concerns about a third new strain that Japanese authorities have identified in four people who are thought to have caught it in Brazil.
Pope receives vaccine
In the Vatican, Pope Francis was given the first shot of a coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, media reports in the US and Argentina say.
This has not been officially confirmed by the Vatican, however the 84-year-old Argentine pontiff had said he planned to be inoculated during this week.
Earlier on Wednesday, Vatican press office chief Matteo Bruni said "the campaign of vaccination against Covid-19 began this morning".
He added that it was voluntary, and "priority is being given to health care and public safety personnel, the elderly, and those persons most frequently in contact with the public".
On Sunday, Pope Francis urged people around the world to get the jab.
"There is a suicidal denial which I cannot explain, but today we have to get vaccinated," he told Italy's Canale 5 television channel.
In other countries:
- Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered officials to begin mass coronavirus inoculations next week and to open up the vaccination programme to all Russians.
- Switzerland tightened measures to tackle new variants of the coronavirus spreading across the country, while stopping short of the full lockdown neighbouring countries have adopted to choke off the pandemic.
- Germany will not be able to lift all curbs at the beginning of February, the health minister said, stressing the need to further reduce contacts to fend off a more virulent variant of the virus.
- Italy's health minister said the government would extend the country's Covid-19 state of emergency to the end of April.
- Some Australian scientists have proposed delaying mass inoculation using AstraZeneca's vaccine with a view to considering a different shot instead.
- China posted its biggest daily increase in cases in more than five months and stepped up containment measures that have seen four cities put under lockdown.
- Japan expanded a state of emergency in the Tokyo area to seven more prefectures amid a steady rise in cases, as a survey by public broadcaster NHK showed most people want to cancel or postpone the already delayed Summer Olympics.
- More than 6000 people in Singapore have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, with numbers expected to rise substantially in the coming weeks as the city-state ramps up its immunisation drive.
- In the US the Trump administration has moved to accelerate vaccinations of Americans, releasing the rest of the doses it had been keeping in reserve.
- Mexico will invoke labour provisions in the new North American trade pact in a bid to ensure that illegal migrants in the US receive vaccines, the country's top diplomat said.
- Turkey's official Medicines and Medical Devices Agency has granted emergency use authorisation to China's Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine, state-owned Anadolu news agency said.
- Reuters/ BBC