GP surgeries in England are to begin administering the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine as the UK faces a race to protect the population after the daily reported death toll topped 1,000.
The drive to mass vaccinate the population will take a considerable step forward as the NHS in England said the jab would be rolled out from GP surgeries from Thursday.
The development comes after the UK reported a further 1,041 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday – the highest daily reported total since April 21.
Record numbers are also currently in hospital with coronavirus, with a further 3,500 admitted in England on Monday January 4.
Boris Johnson, who was given the overwhelming backing of MPs for the latest lockdown, warned that there was now a race between the spread of the virus and the delivery of vaccines to the most vulnerable.
The House of Commons, recalled from its Christmas break to vote on the lockdown restrictions on Wednesday, voted with a 508 majority for the measures, which could be in place until the end of March.
“After the marathon of last year we are indeed now in a sprint, a race to vaccinate the vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them,” the Prime Minister told MPs.
“Every needle in every arm makes a difference.”
It is hoped that more than 700 sites will be delivering vaccines by the end of the week, with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine easier to administer given it can be stored at fridge temperatures, unlike the Pfizer jab which requires storage at minus 70C.
Seven mass vaccination centres will open next week in London, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Surrey and Stevenage.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi admitted the target of vaccinating around 14 million people in the highest priority groups – including the elderly, those with clinical needs, care home residents and staff as well as frontline NHS workers – by February 15 was “stretching”.
Some 1.3 million people have already received either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca jab.
According to a report in the Daily Mail, the bid to increase the speed of inoculations will see the approval period needed for Covid vaccine batches slashed from 20 days to just four.
The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the body responsible for the checks, is also set to increase staffing in a bid to accelerate the programme, the paper reported.
Ministers have already decided, in a move queried by the World Health Organisation (WHO), to administer the first jab to as many priority patients as possible by delaying a second shot.
The second jab will be given 12 weeks later to prevent current supplies from being held back. In the clinical trials, vaccine recipients received a follow-up shot within three weeks.
Mr Johnson was given approval for the latest lockdown in the Commons but faced rebellion within his ranks, with 12 Conservative MPs voting against the stay-at-home rules. They were joined by four DUP MPs opposing the regulations.
In the face of pressure from senior Tories to commit to easing the restrictions – which came into force on Wednesday and were being voted on retrospectively by MPs – as soon as possible, Mr Johnson said there would be “substantial opportunities” for relaxation before March.
Mark Harper, ex-government chief whip and chairman of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, said the restrictions should be reviewed “in the middle of February” once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated, as per the Government’s aim.
The result came as Government data confirmed that the Covid death toll had once again reached levels not seen since the peak of the first wave in 2020.
This is a tragedy.
It's not bad luck.
It was not inevitable.
The Government has been too slow to react.
We now need a national effort to get our country vaccinated.https://t.co/p3VdJtzS6c
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) January 6, 2021
The figures, however, continue to be affected by a lag in the publication of recent data and contain some deaths that took place over the Christmas and New Year period that have only just been reported.
Of the 1,041 new deaths, around a third took place before January 1, while some 100 took place in the seven days up to Christmas Day.
After the latest mortality figures were released, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said ministers had to shoulder some of the blame.
“This is a tragedy. It’s not bad luck. It was not inevitable,” he tweeted.
“The Government has been too slow to react. We now need a national effort to get our country vaccinated.”