'Hard weeks to come' as UK vaccine target 'stretching it'

The Government has outlined plans to vaccinate as many as 14million people against coronavirus by mid-February but senior ministers have admitted the target is ‘stretching it.’

Everyone in the top four priority groups will be offered the jab under the ambitious plans in the hope that it will allow the country to ease lockdown restrictions.

This would see all over 70s, care home residents, health workers and the extremely vulnerable inoculated against the deadly disease.

In total almost 13.9million Brits make up these highest risk groups while there are around 31.7million in the eight groups being prioritised for the vaccine by the Government.

A source said those near the top of the list will be contacted by mid-February, but the final figure could be lower – closer to 13million – because of some crossover between groups, such as those over 80 who live in care homes.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove admitted there was ‘a long way to go’ before achieving the milestone but stressed it was achievable.

He told Sky News: ‘It is a significant, a stretching, target but it is one that we can achieve.’

He added: ‘The Government is doing everything it can in order to ensure that we can roll out the vaccine more rapidly, help the vulnerable by getting the inoculations they need and make sure that at the end of what will inevitably be very, very difficult weeks, that life can eventually return to normal.’

The UK has so far vaccinated more than a million people using the Pfizer jab since the start of the vaccination programme on December 8. Medics started administering the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine yesterday.

Experts say the number of weekly vaccinations needs to be ramped up significantly to around two million a week if the country is to have any hope of escaping lockdown rules in the spring.

Mr Gove did not give a date for when the third lockdown is expected to end and admitted it was likely to go on until March, even if the target of nearly 14 million vaccinations by mid-February is met.

Asked on BBC Breakfast what was being done logistically to ensure the most vulnerable were inoculated by the school half-term, Mr Gove said: ‘Everything. We do want to make sure these vaccines are delivered in the safest possible way, that we do everything we can not to waste a drop.

‘The process of making sure the vaccine can be placed in the appropriate vials and then safely injected into people’s arms is a complicated exercise but the NHS has more than risen to the challenge.

‘We have some of the best public servants in the world working in our NHS and they are working 24/7 in order to ensure that we can inject people, whether that is in hospitals or through GPs or in other ways. We’re seeking to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible.’

Boris Johnson first announced plans to vaccinate the top four priority groups as he outlined details of the third lockdown last night.

Tweeting afterwards, vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said the NHS ‘family will come together’ to get the doses prepared for the most vulnerable by the middle of next month.

Speaking from Downing Street, Mr Johnson outlined the NHS’s ‘realistic expectations’ for the vaccination programme in the coming weeks.

He said: ‘By the middle of February, if things go well and with a fair wind in our sails, we expect to have offered the first vaccine dose to everyone in the four top priority groups identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.’

Theoretically, this means that all people over the age of 70 should expect to have an inoculation soon, as well as healthcare staff and others who are vulnerable.

Top of the priority list are people who live and work in care homes, followed by people over the age of 80 and frontline health and social care workers – including NHS staff.

Next on the list are people over the age 75, and the fourth group are people aged 70 and those classed as clinically extremely vulnerable.

This last group – who are the same as those who have been advised to shield – includes people such as organ transplant recipients and cancer patients.

Mr Johnson said of the top four priority groups: ‘If we succeed in vaccinating all those groups, we will have removed huge numbers of people from the path of the virus.

‘And of course that will eventually enable us to lift many of the restrictions we’ve endured for so long.’

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