As England re-entered lockdown on Tuesday, new figures showed that one in 50 people had recently been infected with the virus, and officials warned that some restrictions on daily life could still be needed next winter.
Speaking at a news conference, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to focus government efforts on rolling out its strained mass vaccination program intended to prevent a surge in infections of a highly transmissible variant of the virus from overwhelming the health service.
With more than a million confirmed cases in the week ending Jan. 2, or 2 percent of England’s population, Britain is in a race against time to distribute vaccines.
Mr. Johnson was speaking on a day when the government said more than 60,000 new cases were recorded for the first time. Standing alongside him, Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said that the number of daily deaths, now averaging around 530, was expected to rise and that if people did not observe a lockdown order to stay at home, the risk was “extraordinarily high.”
He also warned that Britons might face some restrictions well into the future.
“We might have to bring a few in, in the next winter for example — that is possible — because winter will benefit the virus,” Professor Whitty said.
Mr. Johnson said that 1.3 million people had already been vaccinated and that he hoped that the most vulnerable, a group including the elderly and numbering around 13 million, could be protected by the vaccine within about six weeks, turning the tide in the battle against the virus.
“We in government are now using every second of this lockdown to put that invisible shield around the elderly and the vulnerable in the form of vaccinations,” he said.
Mr. Johnson said that England would be locked down until inoculations reached the four most vulnerable groups: residents in nursing homes and those who care for them, everyone over the age of 70, all frontline health and social care workers, and everyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable.
“If we succeed in vaccinating all those groups, we will have removed huge numbers of people from the path of the virus,” he said.
That goal, he added, could be achieved by the middle of February.
But to do that, the pace of vaccinations will need to increase drastically.
The four groups that the prime minister cited include 13.9 million people in England, according to Nadhim Zahawi, the minister overseeing the vaccine effort.
Since the campaign started on Dec. 8, fewer than 800,000 people in England had been vaccinated as of Dec. 27, the last date when data was available.
But with the introduction on Monday of the first doses of a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca — shots that are easier to transport and do not need to be stored at very cold temperatures — British officials said that the campaign could now be ramped up.
To meet Mr. Johnson’s target, some two million doses need to be given every week.
Mr. Johnson also said he was planning a new system to ensure that those traveling to Britain had a negative coronavirus test before arrival. But he was forced to defend himself against charges that he moved too slowly to order the lockdown, and showed poor judgment by insisting over the weekend that many schools in England should reopen after the winter holiday on Monday — only to reverse that decision on Monday night.