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British hospitals are canceling non-urgent procedures and struggling to find space for COVID-19 patients as coronavirus cases continue to rise despite tough new restrictions imposed to curb a new, rapidly spreading variant of the virus.

Dr. Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said Monday that the increasing number of hospitalized patients was “extremely concerning.”

“With the numbers approaching April peaks, systems will again stretch to the limit,” he said.

Pedestrians wear masks while walking down Oxford Street in London. (AP)

British authorities blame a new variant of the coronavirus for rising infection rates in London and south-east England. They say that the new version is transmitted more easily than the original, but they emphasize that there is no evidence that it makes people sicker.

In response, authorities have put a swath of England that is home to 24 million people under restrictions that require nonessential shops to close, indoor bar socializing and allowing restaurants and pubs to only operate to go.

Still, COVID-19 hospital admissions in south-east England are approaching or exceeding levels seen in the first peak of the outbreak. Government figures show that 21,286 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus across the UK on December 22, the last day for which data is available. That’s only slightly below the peak of 21,683 COVID-19 patients who were registered in UK hospitals on April 12.

Dr. Katherine Henderson, President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, described her experience working in a hospital on Christmas Day as “wall-to-wall COVID.”

A homeless person sleeps outside a closed shop on Oxford Street in London. (AP)

“Most likely we will, but we do it at a cost,” Henderson told the BBC. “The cost is not doing what we expected, which is being able to keep non-COVID activities going.”

Britain has already recorded more than 70,000 deaths among people with the coronavirus, one of the highest tolls in Europe.

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said more parts of England may have to submit to the strictest level of restrictions if the number of cases does not drop. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also implemented heavy lockdown measures.

Still, there is growing confidence that help could soon be on the way, with the growing expectation that UK regulators may authorize a second coronavirus vaccine this week.

British media reports say the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency is likely to give the green light to a vaccine made by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.

The regulator authorized a jab carried out by the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech on December 2, making Britain the first country to gain access to a rigorously tested vaccine. More than 600,000 people in the UK have received the first of two necessary injections of the vaccine.

If the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is licensed this week, the public could begin receiving it as of January 4. Britain has ordered 100 million doses, compared to 40 million doses for the Pfizer-BioNTech injection.

Nick and Charlie talk to family members on the phone over breakfast outside in London’s Trafalgar Square. (AP)

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is considered a potential game changer in global immunization efforts because it is less expensive than Pfizer’s injection and does not need to be stored at freezing temperatures, making it easy to distribute.

But it got less clear clinical trial results than its main rivals. The partial results suggest that the injection is approximately 70 percent effective in preventing coronavirus infection disease, compared to the 95 percent effective reported for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

But the trials produced two different results depending on the dosage regimen used. The researchers said the vaccine protected against the disease in 62 percent of those who received two full doses and in 90 percent of those who received a half dose followed by a full dose. However, the second group included only 2,741 people, too few to be conclusive.

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot told the Sunday Times that he was confident the vaccine would work against the new strain and be as effective as its rivals.

“We believe we have discovered the winning formula and how to get an efficacy that, after two doses, is on par with all the others,” Soriot said.

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