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Thursday December 02, 2021

UK eyes next phase in vaccine rollout

By AFP & Xinhua
February 15, 2021

LONDON: Britain was preparing on Sunday to move to the next phase of its coronavirus vaccination programme, as it neared a target of inoculating 15 million of the most vulnerable people.

The country will start administering vaccines from Monday to those aged between 65 and 69 and the clinically vulnerable to Covid-19, with almost 1.2 million already invited to book their jabs, the state-run National Health Service (NHS) said.

The step comes after the government was set to meet its aim to have offered vaccinations to the top four priority groups of around 15 million people by the end of this week.

That comprises all over-70s, care home residents and staff, NHS workers and the extremely clinically vulnerable to the virus.

The government said on Saturday more than 14.5 million had received a first dose.

And Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was "on track" to meet the "important milestone" and officials could now focus on vaccinating all over-50s by May and all adults by September.

"(It is) the first milestone towards the wider plan to get 99 percent of those at risk of dying (from Covid-19) vaccinated with a first dose by the end of April, and then everyone in the country... by the autumn," he told Sky News.

Britain, which has been the hardest hit in Europe by the pandemic, registering nearly 117,000 deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test, began its biggest ever vaccination campaign in early December.

It now has one of the highest proportions of people vaccinated against the virus in the world.

Meanwhile, infection rates have dropped markedly across the country over recent weeks, as strict lockdown measures have curbed previously spiralling case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths.

The improving situation has prompted calls for stringent lockdown restrictions to be lifted in early March, despite concern about the spread of virus variants that may be more resistant to vaccines.

A new 10-day hotel quarantine regime for British residents returning from 33 virus variant hotspots begins on Monday, despite criticism that the move is too little and too late.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday he is "optimistic" he will be able to set out plans for a "cautious" easing of the stay-at-home rules in England later this month.

He has vowed to review all relevant data next week, ahead of setting out the government’s "roadmap" for the months ahead on February 22.

But he is facing pressure from some of the government’s own lawmakers.

Lockdown-sceptic Conservatives have called on Johnson to commit to a timetable for completely ending the controls by May.

In a letter to the British premier, the leaders of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said the "tremendous pace" of the vaccination rollout allowed for the move.

"The vaccine gives us immunity from Covid, but it must also give us permanent immunity from Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions," they wrote.

"All restrictions remaining after March 8 should be proportionate to the ever-increasing number of people we have protected."

Meantime, faced with long school closures because of the coronavirus pandemic, many US parents have taken to homeschooling to ensure their children’s education continues despite the massive disruptions of the past year.

"It’s all me: I make the lesson plan, execute the lesson plan, then do it again the next week," said Catherine Strokes, whose daughter’s school shut last year because of the pandemic.

Homeschooling "exploded" when the virus caused school closures across the country in March 2020, according to the National Home School Association, based in Colorado.

The number of children being taught at home in the United States rose from between four and five million in 2019 to almost 10 million last year, the NHSA estimates.

Nearly 51 million students, from kindergarteners to 12th graders, were supposed to have gone to public schools after the summer of 2020, but most schools opted for online instruction instead.

Strokes, 37, who works part-time, made her decision in July, when school officials in Fredericksburg, Virginia were still undecided on how to start classes the following month. More than fear of Covid-19, it was this uncertainty that pushed her into homeschooling.

"Like most people with a part-time job, I had to know what day my kids would go to school, but they kept canceling school at the last minute, lengthening break or going all virtual, it was this instability for me and my daughter," she told AFP.

Isabelle, aged seven and in second grade, therefore joined her big brother Aidan, 10 and in the fifth grade, who had already been studying at home for more than a year with his mother, a member of the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers.

Many parents do not want their children to spend the day staring at a screen, believing it is bad for their health, or find it too difficult to supervise online courses, Andrea Cubelo-McKay, president of Virginia Homeschoolers, told AFP.

Some religious communities also educate their children at home. This type of instruction affords a certain "flexibility," said Strokes.

"I decide when school starts, when our day is done, I decide when we take a break," she said.

She takes on all subjects on the curriculum -- reading, writing, science and math -- so that Isabelle doesn’t fall behind her in-school classmates, but she does concentrate on what she considers most important. But NHSA President J. Allen Weston said the transition can be "a challenge" for children used to traditional school.

In a related development, Lebanon on Sunday gave its first Covid-19 vaccines dose to a doctor and an elderly actor, as it started an inoculation drive it hopes will keep the pandemic in check amid deepening economic crisis.

Mahmoud Hassoun, the head of the intensive care unit at the key Rafik Hariri Hospital battling coronavirus, was the first person to get the jab, an AFP correspondent said. "Hopefully this will be the start of the end of this plague in the country," Hassoun told AFP.

He received a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, a day after the very first 28,500 doses landed at Beirut’s airport.

Healthcare workers and those over 75 years are the first to be vaccinated under the national rollout plan.