Covid: Boris Johnson 'thinks' he's confident UK vaccines protect against death caused by South African strain

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener

Boris Johnson has said he 'thinks' he is confident all UK Covid-19 vaccines protect against serious illness and death caused by the South African strain of coronavirus, after concerns were raised about the effectiveness of the Oxford vaccine.

"We're very confident in all the vaccines that we're using," the prime minister said, but he was unable to say definitively confirm the Oxford vaccine's protection, as moments later he said ministers only "think" it tackles severe disease caused by the variant.

He went on: "It's important for people to bear in mind that all of them, we think, are effective in delivering a high degree of protection against serious illness and death, which is the most important thing."

Boris Johnson: 'We're confident it protects against serious disease... we think'

When asked whether the South African variant could lead to a delay in easing restrictions, he said: "We think that all the vaccines that we're using, both the vaccines that we're currently using, are effective in stopping serious disease and death.

"We also think, particularly in the case of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, that there is good evidence that it is stopping transmission as well, I think 67% reduction in transmission with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine."

Mr Johnson simply saying he thinks the Oxford vaccine is effective in stopping serious disease will cause concern among many, after a new study in South Africa found it was not effective at preventing mild illness.

He insisted that vaccines "remain of massive benefit to our country and to the population as we go through the pandemic and I've no doubt that vaccines generally are going to offer a way out".

He added: "With every day that goes by you can see that medicine is slowly getting the upper hand over the disease."

A US study showed the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine is effective against the coronavirus variant that emerged from South Africa.

Examining just 20 vaccine recipients, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that the vaccine neutralises the virus with the N501Y and E484K mutation.

But the health minister sought to reassure people, saying there is “no evidence” that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is not effective at preventing severe illness from coronavirus and suggested people may need to have annual coronavirus booster jabs to protect against new strains that emerge.

During a visit to a coronavirus test manufacturing facility in Derby, the PM told reporters: "We will be continuing to study the results, the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout, and that's going very, very fast indeed, and we will be looking at ways in which the population is starting to respond to the vaccines as we prepare to say what we're going to do in the week of the 22nd and what kind of roadmap we want to lay out."

He did not rule out the variant causing a delay in the plan for relaxing lockdown, which currently aims to reopen some schools on March, if it is found the vaccine does not sufficiently impact transmissibility of the Covid variant.

It is currently the plan for a gradual reopening of society to begin from March 8, with schools set to open on that date.

The government is hoping it can vaccinate four groups most vulnerable to coronavirus by February 15, so that schools can reopen safely.

  • ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke looks at the vaccine efficacy on Covid strains

Mandatory hotel quarantine is being introduced from that date for travellers from "red list" countries where mutations of concern have been identified, to minimise the risk they pose to the UK's vaccine rollout.

Health minister Edward Argar said there have so far been 147 confirmed cases of the South African coronavirus variant but acknowledged his figures may be “a day or so out”.

The PM suggested border controls could play a greater role against new coronavirus variants when infection rates are further reduced.

Asked about introducing tougher measures, he told reporters: "They are most effective, border controls, when you've got the rate of infection down in your country.

"And at the moment we've greatly reduced the rate of infection from the peak, where it was a few weeks ago, but it's still extremely high and for border controls really to make that final difference so you can isolate new variants as they come in, you need to have infections really much lower so you can track them as they spread.

"Don't forget, we in the UK are capable of seeing variants arise here, just in the UK, the Kent variant arose here, but that doesn't mean we're not going to be relying very much on border controls as we get the rates of infection down overall."

It comes as the number of people in the UK who have received a first dose of a vaccine passed the 12 million mark, with jabs administered at a rate of almost 1,000 per minute during a one hour period over the weekend.

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