Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen
Matt Hancock has insisted the government must take a “cautious” approach to easing lockdown restrictions despite an accelerated target to offer coronavirus vaccines to all adults by the end of July.
The Health Secretary said there were still almost 20,000 people in hospital with Covid-19 and that – despite the jabs rollout going “very well” – time must be taken to “get this right”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set a new target to vaccinate all adults aged over 50 – as well as those with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk – by April 15.
By July 31, the government hopes to have offered all adults in the UK a jab – though the order of priority for those under 50 has yet to be outlined by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Ministers had set a target to offer vaccines to all adults by September, with an aim to reach all those aged 50 and over in the first nine JCVI priority groups by May.
In England, more than two thirds of people aged between 65 and 69 have had their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine just a week after invitations went out, NHS England has said.
Around 460,000 people aged 64 will now be called forward to receive their jab, as the health service urged people aged over 65 to respond to their vaccine letter if they have not already done so.
The quicker rollout will add to pressure on Mr Johnson to relax lockdown measures sooner as he prepares to unveil his road map for easing restrictions on Monday.
Do we have any indication of what Boris Johnson will reveal tomorrow and how he will come to those decisions?
Mr Hancock told Sky News that while “all of us understandably want to get back to normal”, it is “right to be cautious – it is incredibly important”.
“The vaccination programme, whilst clearly going very well, will take time to be able to reach all people who have significant vulnerability, especially because we need to get the second jab to everybody.
“We’ve got time that needs to be taken to get this right. The PM will set out the road map tomorrow and he will set out the full details – taking into account that we need to take a cautious but irreversible approach, that’s the goal.”
He went on: “Whilst we want to set out a road map which gives people guidance in terms of how we think we will be able to do this, we also absolutely will be vigilant to the data on the way.
“We have seen throughout this pandemic that there have been moments when things haven’t got as we expected – for instance, when the new variant was first discovered in Kent.”
But Mr Hancock spoke of some optimism as the success of the vaccine rollout continues: "Thankfully the vaccine programme is going really well and so we can introduce these new faster targets and that has a direct impact on how quickly we'll be able to lift measures, while at the same time, keeping people safe."
Mr Hancock said there was evidence that cases of new variants in the UK, such as those discovered in Brazil and South Africa, were falling – as he suggested new border restrictions and enhanced contact tracing are working.
He also told Sky there was evidence the vaccines could reduce transmission by two-thirds, which could be a factor in deciding whether to vaccinate children against Covid-19.
“There’s clinical trials under way as to whether children should be vaccinated.
“There are two points here. One is that it absolutely must be safe, specifically for children, so that is being currently investigated.
“The second is – because children very, very rarely get symptoms or serious illness from the disease – the value, the importance, of vaccinating children is to try to stop the spread of the disease.”
But Mr Hancock again rejected calls for teachers to be given priority in the vaccine queue before schools return.
He told Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “There isn’t strong evidence that teachers are more likely to catch Covid than any other group, but I’ll leave it for the JCVI to set out what they think is the best order in which to do this that minimises the number of deaths.”
Mr Hancock also said the government believed it had the vaccine supplies to meet the new target of offering all adults a jab by the end of July.
The PM will chair a meeting of senior ministers on Sunday, known as the “Covid S” committee, to finalise his road map before it is signed off by the Cabinet on Monday.
He will then unveil the plans to MPs in the Commons later that afternoon and is expected to lead a Downing Street press conference on Monday evening.
Labour welcomed the accelerated vaccine target but called on the Government to “urgently” set out how they will prioritise those aged under 50.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “It’s perfectly reasonable for teachers, police officers and other key workers who haven’t been able to stay at home in the lockdown to ask when their turn will be.
“If government aren’t going to prioritise by occupation in the next phase, they need to set out why.
“Vaccination must go hand-in-hand with measures to break transmission chains. That means paying people decent financial support to isolate, updating face coverings guidance and insisting in ventilation standards to ensure all workplaces are Covid secure.”
Downing Street said the JCVI would publish its priority list for the second phase of the vaccine programme in due course.