The UK's coronavirus vaccination programme could see almost all coronavirus deaths reduced by as early as spring, the Covid vaccine deployment minister has said.
Nadhim Zahawi said "99% of mortality is reduced" by vaccinating everyone in the nine priority groups - those aged over-50, classed as extremely clinically vulnerable, those working in social care, and frontline health and social care workers.
When asked how long it would take to give jabs to those groups, Mr Zahawi told Times Radio: "I'm very hopeful that by the spring we will get through the nine categories."
The minister said the government is "absolutely" focused on a target that by mid-February the first four priority categories, set out by the joint committee on vaccination, will have been inoculated.
Boris Johnson said the government will use "every available second" during the lockdown to place an "invisible shield" around elderly and vulnerable people, via the Covid-19 vaccine.
He said the gradual end of lockdown may begin after the February half term, but people "should remain extremely cautious about the timetable ahead".
At Tuesday evening's coronavirus update, the PM said there is a "prospect" the Covid lockdown in England could be eased in mid-February, if the four most vulnerable categories are successfully vaccinated.
The prime minister told the Downing Street briefing: "When a very considerable proportion of the most vulnerable groups have been vaccinated... then there really is the prospect of beginning the relaxation of some of these measures.
"But you will also appreciate there are a lot of caveats, a lot of ifs built into that, the most important of which is that we all now follow the guidance."
Updating MPs on the latest Covid restrictions, on Wednesday Mr Johnson said the government will use "every available second" during the lockdown to place an "invisible shield" around elderly and vulnerable people, via the Covid-19 vaccine.
He said the gradual ending of lockdown may begin after the February half term, but people "should remain extremely cautious about the timetable ahead".
It is estimated that achieving the target of vaccinating the top four priority groups by mid-February will mean two million people a week in these categories will need to be vaccinated.
England's Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said the vaccine timetable was "realistic but not easy".
He added: "The NHS is going to have to use multiple channels to get this out but they are very determined to do this, but that does not make it easy.
"And, of course, in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, as I think is widely reported, it's more difficult to handle because of the complicated cold chain model.
"We also, with both vaccines, wanted to be very careful in the first two or three days that we went a little bit slowly just in case there were some initial unexpected problems."
Mr Zahawi acknowledged the task is "challenging", but said he is "confident" that the NHS has a "very clear plan" for delivery of the vaccine programme.
He said if the four most vulnerable groups can be vaccinated by mid-February, then there will be a "marked difference in the hospitalisation rates a couple of weeks after that".
The nine most vulnerable groups, who are at the top of the list to be vaccinated, are:
1 - Residents in a care home for older adults and staff working in care homes for older adults
2 - All those 80 years of age and over and frontline health and social care workers
3 - All those 75 years of age and over
4 - All those 70 years of age and over and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals (not including pregnant women and those under 16 years of age)
5 - All those 65 years of age and over
6 - Adults aged 16 to 65 years in an at-risk group (see below)
7 - All those 60 years of age and over
8 - All those 55 years of age and over
9 - All those 50 years of age and over