UK army to help COVID-19 battle as infections hit record high

TEHRAN, Dec. 29 (MNA) – The UK government will draft in the armed forces to help with coronavirus testing in schools, as pressure builds on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to delay the return of students after the holidays amid a surge in cases.

The Ministry of Defence said 1,500 personnel will help ensure testing systems are up and running when schools reopen next week. The government has previously said students facing public exams this year will return on Jan. 4, with other pupils back later in the month, Bloomberg reported.

But a growing number of unions, politicians and scientists called for more time to prepare testing to prevent virus transmission in schools. The number of new cases in the U.K. surged to a daily record of more than 41,000 on Monday and hospitalizations exceeded the peak recorded in the first wave in the spring, as a more virulent strain of the virus takes hold.

Johnson has made keeping schools open a key priority as he looks for ways to kick start the U.K. economy after months of restrictions left it facing its worst downturn for 300 years. Ministers threatened legal action to stop schools offering home learning before Christmas, but a government statement late Monday left open the possibility of that position being reversed in the new year.

“We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health,” it said. “But as the prime minister has said, it is right that we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review.”

Schools should remain closed for “a week or two” to ensure testing is effective, Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis chain of academy schools, told BBC radio on Tuesday. His intervention followed similar calls for a delay from the National Education Union on Monday.

New Strain

But the government’s pandemic strategy has been uprooted in recent weeks by the emergence of a new strain of the virus, which has spread rapidly in London and surrounding areas and led many countries to block arrivals from the U.K.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies told Johnson to keep secondary schools closed in January and to consider another national lockdown, Politico reported Monday, citing an adviser familiar with the group’s conclusions.

The group said a lockdown on the same terms as November may not be enough to control the new strain of the virus, according to the report.

National restrictions are needed to prevent a “catastrophe” at the start of year, a member of the government’s advisory group on new respiratory virus threats -- which itself advises SAGE -- told the BBC on Tuesday.

“We are entering a very dangerous new phase of the pandemic and we’re going to need decisive, early, national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February,” said Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at University College London. “Previous levels of restrictions that worked before won’t work now.”

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