A deserted King’s Lynn High Street as the latest national lockdown gets under way. Picture: Ian Burt

Community leaders are calling on residents to follow the latest lockdown rules to the letter, warning hospitals are under the greatest pressure yet.

With a more contagious strain of coronavirus taking hold, the government has imposed another national lockdown, again urging people to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the speed of the spread of the new variant was “alarming” and the weeks ahead would be the hardest yet.

As the vaccination is rolled-out, there are hopes the tough measures, including the closure of schools for at least six weeks, will be a final push before restrictions can be eased in the spring.

Norfolk County Council leader Andrew Proctor said while the vaccine was a game-changer, rising rates meant the community needed to “buy time” for more people to have the jab.

In the week ending January 1, Norfolk had a rolling rate of 474 cases per 100,000 people, just below the average rate in England of 519. But infection rates continued to rise, with 2,033 new cases reported – up by 89 per cent.

In West Norfolk, coronavirus cases rose by 300 – 76 per cent – bringing the total to 690, with a rolling rate of 455.

North West Norfolk MP James Wild said the NHS and hospitals were under more pressure than at any other time in the pandemic. Paying tribute to staff, he said 30 per cent of general and acute beds at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn were occupied by confirmed COVID-19 patients at the end of last year.

In Norfolk as a whole, there are more than 550 people with Covid in hospital – three times higher than the numbers seen at the beginning of December.

Mr Proctor said: “I understand and support the need for additional restrictions across England. In the circumstances of the rapidly increasing infection rate, caused by the new COVID-19 variant, it’s unavoidable. 

“In Norfolk alone, we have more than 550 Covid patients in hospital. This is a really tough start to 2021 after a tough 2020 but it’s more crucial than ever that we follow the rules – hands, face, space, avoiding unnecessary trips and social contact and isolating if you have COVID-19 or are a contact. 

“The vaccine is a game-changer and we need to buy time for more people to be vaccinated. Only then can the restrictions be eased in the future.” 

The council’s cabinet member for children’s services, John Fisher, said Norfolk schools are facing “huge pressure” for key worker places with limited staff in schools due to illness and self-isolation.

He said restrictions on how classes can be set up were “much stricter with this lockdown” and in some schools, it will mean both parents must be critical workers, rather than national criteria of one, with priority given to parents working in emergency life-saving services.

While understanding the pressure on families to juggle work, childcare and home schooling, Mr Fisher said: “It’s vital that staff in the NHS can access places for their children in the current situation and they will have to be given priority.”

All primary and secondary schools have shut, except to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, until a review in mid-February.

Norfolk’s Chief Constable Simon Bailey said since December his force had seen a rise in sickness levels, with increasing numbers of staff testing positive or having to self-isolate.

He said plans were in place to deal with the shortages and to also make sure the force continues to deliver its core services and respond to urgent calls.

“However, there’s no doubt this will be our biggest challenge yet since the start of the pandemic and my message to the public is please work with us. Let’s do everything we can to stop the spread of this virus,” he said.

Vaccinations have begun at Lynn’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.