Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks
Doctors are being incentivised to vaccinate the most vulnerable who cannot leave their home as the UK Government dismissed reports it was on target to jab all over-50s a month earlier than planned.
GPs in England will be paid an additional £10 by the NHS for every housebound patient they vaccinate against Covid-19 as ministers strive to meet their target of inoculating all those aged 70 and over, along with frontline health workers, by February 15.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the extra cash would allow GPs to reach the “most vulnerable people who might not be able to leave their homes”, such as the elderly and those who are shielding.
The move comes amid a study suggesting the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab is less effective at preventing against mild disease caused by the South African variant - though the firm remains confident vaccine can protect better against severe disease.
Downing Street is aiming to have offered a first dose jab to all over 50s and the most clinically vulnerable by early May – but the Telegraph reported that Whitehall sources believed the pace of vaccinations meant the target could be achieved by April.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock said the May target remained in place.
“As the Health Secretary has said – that is an ambitious goal and lots of things have to go well to reach it,” the spokesman added.
Clive Dix, chairman of the UK Vaccines Taskforce, said on Saturday he was “very optimistic” of meeting the May ambition.
Fresh data indicated that, up to February 5, almost 11.5 million first vaccine doses had been given – a rise of 494,163 on the previous day’s figures.
Based on the latest statistics, an average of 392,754 first doses would be needed each day in order to meet the target of 15 million first doses by February 15.
Government sources rejected suggestions reported in the Telegraph that vaccinations could be rolled out for the under-50s at their place of work by the spring.
“We have no plans to roll out vaccines at work,” a source told PA news agency.
It comes as the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) unveiled plans to widen the availability of rapid-result testing to more workers who cannot stay at home during the lockdown.
Ministers will expand the programme by offering access to lateral flow tests, which can produce results in less than 30 minutes, to businesses with more than 50 employees.
Only firms employing 250-plus staff previously qualified for the rapid testing regime.
Officials said the move was part of efforts to “normalise” testing in the workplace and ensure the safety of those who cannot work from home by identifying asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19.
But unions warned that rapid tests were “not the magic bullet” and called for them to be followed up with “confirmatory testing”, citing that Public Health England (PHE) found examples of missed asymptomatic positive cases during the mass testing pilot in Liverpool last year.
DHSC also announced on Saturday that more areas in England will be subject to a door-to-door testing blitz in a bid to find new variants of coronavirus, such as the South African mutation.
Residents in Bristol and South Gloucestershire have been told to prepare for mobile units to descend upon their neighbourhoods, while further testing will take place next week in Worcestershire and Sefton in Merseyside.
“People living in targeted areas with these locations are strongly encouraged to take a Covid-19 test this week, whether they are showing symptoms or not,” a department spokeswoman said.
ITV News Reporter David Wood has more on the findings of the preliminary study
In other vaccine developments, The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine offers only limited protection against mild disease caused by the South African variant of coronavirus, according to research.
But the British company said early data from the study, due to be published on Monday, has shown the jab can protect against severe disease caused by the mutation.
The study, first reported by the Financial Times, into the E484K mutation involved some 2,000 people, most of whom were young and healthy.
AstraZeneca told ITV News: "We do believe our vaccine could protect against severe disease, as neutralising antibody activity is equivalent to that of other Covid-19 vaccines that have demonstrated activity against more severe disease, particularly when the dosing interval is optimised to 8-12 weeks. "Oxford University and AstraZeneca have started adapting the vaccine against this variant and will advance rapidly through clinical development so that it is ready for Autumn delivery should it be needed."