More than 2.6 million doses of coronavirus vaccines have been given to almost 2.3 million people, the health secretary has said, as an NHS boss warned the jab is “not a free pass” to ignore national guidance.
Matt Hancock told a Downing Street news conference that the government was on track to achieve its pledge of vaccinating the top four priority groups by the middle of February, a total of 15 million Britons.
“We are on track to meet that target – it’s not going to be easy, but we are going to get there,” he said.
The four priority groups are: care home residents and staff; all those aged 80 and over and frontline health and social care workers; people aged 75 and over; everyone aged 70 and over and individuals classed as extremely vulnerable.
Mr Hancock said people in these groups account for 88% of COVID deaths, adding that two fifths of over 80s and “almost a quarter of older care home residents” have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
The health secretary was speaking amid continued speculation about whether England’s third lockdown could be strengthened.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned the government “may have to do more” if ministers feel the rules “are not being properly observed”.
Asked whether this was a possibility, Mr Hancock said people should be focusing on sticking to the current rules “as they are”.
“The NHS, more than ever before, needs everybody to be doing something right now – and that something is to follow the rules,” he said.
“I know there has been speculation about more restrictions, and we don’t rule out taking further action if it is needed, but it is your actions now that can make a difference.
“Stay at home, and please reduce all social contact that is not absolutely strictly necessary. That’s what is needed: act like you have the virus.”
The health secretary said the new “highly contagious” coronavirus variant first identified in the UK was “putting the NHS under very significant pressure”, with 32,294 people currently in hospital with the virus across the UK, up 22% on this time last week.
Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director for NHS England, said there are now 13,000 more COVID patients in hospital than there were on Christmas Day.
Setting out the four-part plan for rolling out the vaccines, Mr Hancock said the government will focus on supply, prioritisation, expanding the number of sites, and workforce, saying 80,000 people are involved in the effort.
Professor Powis said the vaccine is the “best line of defence we have”, and that there is currently a sprint, there will be another sprint after April, and then a marathon to get everyone else vaccinated by the autumn.
Appearing before MPs earlier, NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said the aim was to offer a jab to everyone over the age of 50 by the end of April.
The government’s UK COVID-19 Vaccines Delivery Plan says there will be more than 2,700 vaccination sites across the UK, with everyone in England within 10 miles of one by the end of January.
For those in remote rural areas, the vaccine will be taken to them by mobile teams.
The Department of Health said there will be capacity to deliver “at least” two million jabs per week in England by the end of this month, with staff and residents in care homes offered a vaccine before February.
Workers “delivering key public services”, likely to be a reference to teachers, transport workers and first responders, could be included in the second phase of the vaccine rollout, the plan states.
A workforce of more than 80,000 health workers could be involved in the vaccine plan, the Department of Health added, along with over 200,000 community volunteers who have come forward to help with non-clinical aspects of the programme.