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By Alistair Smout
LONDON, Jan 21 (Reuters) - It is too early to say when the national coronavirus lockdown in England will end, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday, as daily deaths from COVID-19 reach new highs and hospitals become increasingly stretched.
Britain posted a fresh record in daily deaths on Wednesday for the second day running, hitting 1,820, figures that Johnson has called "appalling". The daily death count dropped on Thursday.
A prevalence survey, known as REACT-1, suggested infections had not fallen in the first days of lockdown, though the government has said that the impact of national restrictions introduced on Jan. 5 was not yet reflected in the numbers.
"I think it's too early to say when we'll be able to lift some of the restrictions," Johnson told broadcasters.
"What we're seeing in the ONS data, in the REACT survey, we're seeing the contagiousness of the new variant that we saw arrive just before Christmas. There's no doubt it does spread very fast indeed."
England's third national lockdown has seen bars, restaurants and schools mostly closed, with Johnson attributing a steep rise in cases at the end of last year to a more transmissible variant of the coronavirus first detected in England.
While deaths have been rising, the number of new cases has fallen from a peak of 68,000 on Jan. 8 to 37,892 on Thursday.
Johnson aims to vaccinate high priority groups by mid-February to protect the eldest, the most vulnerable and frontline health staff, before considering whether restrictions can be eased.
The UK delivered 363,508 vaccines on Wednesday, a new daily record that took the number of people to have received a first dose to 4.97 million.
Ministers have appealed to people to stay at home as much as they can to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed, and they increased the fines people will pay if they break the rules.
Vin Diwakar, the regional medical director for London, likened anyone breaking the rules to someone who turned the lights on during a blackout in World War Two. "It doesn't just put you at risk in your house, it puts your whole street and the whole of your community at risk," he said.
Meanwhile, the government's top scientific adviser described some hospitals as looking like a war zone.
Joe Harrison, chief executive of Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, said the hospital had seen more than twice the number of patients in the second wave than the first, and currently had 186 patients with COVID-19.
"We believe that over the next week or so, we're going to continue to see real pressures in our critical care unit," he told Reuters. "And then hopefully we will turn the corner and things will start to improve."
(Additional reporting by Michael Holden, Paul Sandle, Kate Holton and Natalie Thomas; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Peter Graff and Barbara Lewis)
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