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 are 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.
Downing Street said the JCVI will publish its priority list for the second phase of the vaccine programme in due course.
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.
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 Prime Minister 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.”
Mr Hancock said there is evidence that cases of new variants in the UK, such as those discovered in Brazil and South Africa, are falling – as he suggested new border restrictions and enhanced contact tracing are working.
He also told Sky there is 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.”
Mr Hancock also said the Government believes it had the vaccine supplies to meet the new target of offering all adults a jab by the end of July.
He later told Times Radio that the road map will see restrictions eased with “weeks between the steps”, but that he thinks social distancing and face coverings will remain for a while.
The Prime Minister 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.
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), urged the Government to ease restrictions gradually to prevent a surge in hospital admissions and deaths.
He said vaccinating all adults by the end of July will make a “huge difference” but warned that the vaccine will not give 100% protection.
He told the BBC: “If we eased off very rapidly now, we would get another surge in hospitalisations, so we have to ease very gradually.
“Otherwise we will put the health service under pressure again and we’ll get a surge in hospitalisations, and indeed deaths.”
He said the South African variant is being “held in place now, as everything else is being held in place by the lockdown”.
Labour welcomed the accelerated vaccine target but called on the Government to “urgently” set out how it will prioritise those under the age of 50.
Party leader Sir Keir Starmer said he wants all pupils in England back in school on March 8, despite calls from education unions for a phased return.
He told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday that more coronavirus testing and “Nightingale classrooms” could address some of the issues.
Sir Keir said: “Ideally, I would like to see all schools back open on March 8 and all children back into schools on March 8.
“I have been worried through the pandemic – a number of people have – about the impact that being out of school has on, particularly, vulnerable children and the attainment gap is getting bigger.”
He said the Government will have to follow the data and the scientific advice on the issue, “but that’s what we should be working towards”.