The lifting of lockdown restrictions in England still remains a “long, long, long way” off, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned.
The news comes despite another record day in the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, which showed 491,970 people across the UK received their first dose of the two-dose vaccine on Saturday (23 January).
On course for 15 million jabs
The latest figures takes the total number of jabs given to more than 6.3 million so far, including three-quarters of all over 80s and a similar proportion of elderly care home residents.
It suggests the vaccination programme is on course to meet the government’s target of vaccinating 15 million of the most vulnerable groups, including all over 70s, by mid-February, providing supplies can be maintained.
Based on current figures, an average of 393,031 first doses of the vaccine would be needed each day to reach the target.
Thanks to the speed of the rollout so far, some Tory MPs have been looking to early March, once the effects of the vaccine have had a chance to kick in, as a date when restrictions could start to ease.
However, Mr Hancock has warned that while the vaccination programme was making “brilliant progress”, it is still too early to consider relaxing any rules as the NHS is still under too much pressure from the Covid-19 case numbers.
Speaking on Sky News’ On Sunday programme, the Health Secretary said: “There is early evidence that the lockdown is starting to bring cases down but we are a long, long, long way from being low enough because the rate was incredibly high.
“You can see the pressure on the NHS - you can see it every day.”
12 week gap between doses
A senior government adviser on vaccines has defended the decision to extend the gap between the delivery of the first and second doses of the jab to 12 weeks, rather than the previously recommended three to four weeks.
The government said that delaying the second dose would allow as many people as possible on the priority list to receive the first dose, thereby protecting the greatest number of at-risk people overall in the shortest possible time.
The British Medical Association has written to the chief medical officer for England urging a rethink, saying that in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, a maximum gap of six weeks has been mandated by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
However, Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said there was “no real evidence” that a quicker follow-up dose was more effective.
He said: “We do believe you should have a second dose, but we do believe that that can be delayed.
“Hopefully, not only will this strategy get more people immunised and protect the vulnerable, elderly and save thousands and thousands of lives, it may in the end give protection to the population as a whole.”
Threat of new variants
New variants of Covid-19 in Brazil and South Africa may be less susceptible to the vaccines, meaning the government will adopt a “precautionary” approach to protecting the UK’s border.
Ministers are expected to meet later this week to discuss a proposal requiring people arriving in the UK to pay to quarantine in a designated hotel to ensure they are following the rules on self-isolation.
Mr Hancock said that there were 77 known cases of the South African variant in the UK so far, and nine of the Brazilan. All cases of the South African variant were linked to travel.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We have to realise there is at least the theoretical risk of a new variant that is a vaccine-busting variant coming in, we’ve got to be able to keep that under control.
“That idea of looking at hotels is certainly one thing we’re actively now working on.
“We need a solution that gives us the maximum possible protection against reinfection from abroad.”