LONDON: London declared a major incident on Friday (Jan 8) because its hospitals were at risk of being overwhelmed by a highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus racing "out of control" across the United Kingdom.
Britain has the world's fifth worst official death toll from COVID-19 at over 78,000, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shuttered the economy and rushed out vaccines faster than its neighbours in a bid to stem the pandemic.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, from the opposition Labour Party, said hospital beds in the capital would run out within the next few weeks because the spread of the virus was "out of control".
"We are declaring a major incident because the threat this virus poses to our city is at crisis point."
London, which vies with Paris for the status of Europe's richest city, has a population of over 9 million.
The designation of "major incident" is usually reserved for attacks or grave accidents, notably those likely to involve "serious harm, damage, disruption or risk to human life or welfare, essential services, the environment or national security".
London's last "major incident" was the Grenfell Tower fire in a high-rise residential block in 2017, when 72 people died.
"The stark reality is that we will run out of beds for patients in the next couple of weeks unless the spread of the virus slows down drastically," Khan added, urging greater support from the central United Kingdom government.
"One in 30 Londoners now has COVID-19. If we do not take immediate action now, our NHS could be overwhelmed and more people will die."
Khan said there were parts of London where 1 in 20 people had the virus.
The pressure on the ambulance service, which was now dealing with up to 9,000 emergency calls a day, meant firefighters were being drafted in to drive vehicles, and police officers would follow.
The Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.1 million people in England had the coronavirus in the week to Jan 2, the equivalent of one person in 50.
Britain, the first country to approve vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca, on Friday approved Moderna's shot, hoping to begin administering it this spring. It also agreed to purchase an additional 10 million doses.
However, transport minister Grant Shapps said there were fears that some vaccines might not work properly against a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in South Africa.
"This is a very big concern for the scientists," he told LBC radio.
Britain began its third COVID-19 lockdown on Tuesday, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying the highly contagious new variant of the virus was spreading so fast the National Health Service risked being overwhelmed within 21 days.
More than 30,000 people in the UK are in hospital with COVID-19, which is more than during the first peak in April. Infection numbers are expected to rise further due to increased socialising during the Christmas period.
The sharp rise has forced hospital executives to consider shifting some inpatients to beds in nursing homes or care homes, said the head of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals in England.
More than 2.8 million people have been infected in the UK.