he United Kingdom recorded a further 53,285 cases of COVID-19 the fourth day running that it has topped 50,000, and 613 deaths, the first official data of 2021 reveals.
The rise in cases compares with the 55,892 that were reported on Thursday, while the death tally marks a fall from the 964 reported the day before.
Last Friday 32,725 people tested positive with 570 deaths recorded.
The figures come as top health chiefs warn that a shortage in the vaccine could last for several months hampering the ability for the government to reach their target of having all over 50s and younger people who are particularly vulnerable vaccinated by March.
A letter signed by Professor Whitty and the chief medical officers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, said: “We have to ensure that we maximise the number of eligible people who receive the vaccine.
“Currently the main barrier to this is vaccine availability, a global issue, and this will remain the case for several months and, importantly, through the critical winter period.
“Vaccine shortage is a reality that cannot be wished away.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday promised “tens of millions of doses” by March. Simon Stevens, head of England’s NHS, has spoken of everyone in the priority groups being covered by “the late spring”.
While more than a million people have now received their first coronavirus vaccination, a joint statement from England’s Professor Chris Whitty and the chief medical officers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said the public would “understand” and “thank” them for a plan to give first jabs as a priority, delaying the follow-up vaccination for others.
The deployment of the newly approved Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will begin on Monday, almost a month after the rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, but second doses of either will now take place within 12 weeks rather than 21 days as initially planned.
The potential delays come as one of London’s biggest hospitals is scrambling to convert operating theatres and stroke wards into intensive care units as the number of seriously-ill Covid-19 patients spirals well beyond those seen during the first wave of the pandemic.
University College hospital is battling to accommodate the fast-rising number of people across the capital who are sick with coronavirus.
Just under half of all major hospital trusts in England – 64 out of 140 – are seeing more Covid patients than during the peak of the pandemic’s spring wave. This includes 12 of the 19 acute trusts in south-east England.
According to the latest NHS figures, 629 patients with Covid-19 symptoms were admitted to London hospitals on December 27, 22 more than the previous day and extending a steady upward curve in recent weeks.
Across London, the number of hospital beds filled with Covid-19 patients stood at 5,371 on December 29, more than 400 above the previous day’s total and nearly double the level on December 19.