(Feb 21): The UK will significantly accelerate its Covid-19 vaccination program, offering shots to all adults by the end of July and everyone over 50 by mid-April, as the government beefs up efforts to contain one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will set out the new targets on Monday, when he reveals his “roadmap” to easing lockdown restrictions. It is the first time the government has given a firm target for when it expects to offer all adults their initial dose, having previously said it hoped to do so by autumn. The previous target set for over-50s was the end of May.
So far, more than 17 million people have been inoculated, around 30% of the adult population, making Britain a world leader in Covid vaccinations. The success of the program contrasts with the government’s failure to contain the initial outbreak and spread of Covid-19. The UK now has Europe’s highest death toll with more than 120,000 victims of the pandemic.
The UK is now more than a month into its third national lockdown with schools closed and most businesses shuttered. With the economy suffering its worst recession in more than 300 years and cases and deaths falling rapidly, the prime minister is under growing pressure to lift lockdown curbs. Johnson, who was hospitalised with Covid-19 in April of last year, insists he will proceed with caution to make sure the current lockdown is the country’s last.
Cases surged to record levels in the UK early this year, as an easing of social distancing during the holiday period coincided with the spread of the highly-infectious UK variant. The latest lockdown, coupled with the vaccine program, has reversed that trend. Health authorities reported 10,406 new cases on Saturday, down from the peak week in January when cases averaged almost 60,000 a day.
Going forward, Johnson is planning to complement the rapid-fire vaccination program with mass testing in workplaces, schools, shopping centres and theaters to help chart Britain’s way out of the pandemic crisis.
Johnson said Britain had already achieved a significant milestone recording 15 million vaccinations by Feb 15 to meet the government’s initial target, but the rollout needs to “go further and faster in the coming weeks.
“But there should be no doubt — the route out of lockdown will be cautious and phased, as we all continue to protect ourselves and those around us,” he said in an emailed statement.
The government has yet to outline how it will roll out vaccinations to the under-50s and whether it will stick to age as the dominant criteria or prioritize other groups such as critical workers, including police, firefighters and teachers.
Jonathan Ashworth, a Labour member of parliament and shadow health secretary, said the government needs to prioritize by occupation in the next rollout phase or explain why it can’t.
“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,” he said in an emailed statement.