ONE in three adults has been vaccinated against Covid-19, the Government said yesterday.
More than 17.6 million first doses have been given out since the start of December.
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And the rest of the country’s 54 million adults will be offered a jab by the end of July.
If everything goes to plan, the country will be fully protected against the killer virus two months earlier than planned — thanks to quick delivery and take-up of the programme.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock also revealed: “We have seen early data there’s a reduction in transmission from those who get the jab — and there’s more work that is being done.”
The “great news” came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepared to announce today his “roadmap” out of lockdown.
But Mr Hancock warned that the rules must be adhered to — and that people must still wear face masks and observe social distancing.
The minister said: “Time needs to be taken to get this right. We need to take a cautious but irreversible approach.
“While we want to set out a roadmap which gives people guidance, we must also be vigilant of the data on the way.
“We have seen throughout this pandemic there have been moments when things haven’t gone as we expected — for instance, when the new variant was discovered in Kent.”
But Mr Hancock insisted that the vaccination programme is progressing “brilliantly”.
He added: “I’m absolutely delighted that the vaccine roll-out is going so well.
“The number of people in hospital is falling much more sharply than it did during the first wave.
“Clearly, the level is still far too high, we can’t lift measures right now, but we can see the direction of travel.”
The UK population had been split into ten priority groups for the vaccine, starting with care home residents, the elderly and front-line healthcare workers.
Mr Hancock said everyone in the top nine groups — including everyone aged 50 and over and all adults with underlying conditions — will have been offered a vaccine by April 15.
The number of people in hospital is falling much more sharply than it did during the first wave.
The Government had planned to offer everyone else a jab by the end of September, but that has now been brought forward to the end of July.
Mr Hancock said: “It will have a real impact on how quickly we will be able to return to normal, which is what everyone wants.”
He said scientists are confident the UK’s vaccines work effectively against the original strain of Covid-19 and the Kent variant, which is now the main source of infections.
But he admitted: “We do not yet have the confidence that the vaccine is as effective against the South Africa variant or the one first seen in Brazil.
“Yet we think the measures we have taken — enhanced contact tracing and the measures at the border — are reducing those new variants here.
“Each time we find a new one, we absolutely clamp down on it, testing all those around the person and taking whatever action is necessary.
"The spread of the South African variant is shrinking, and we are seeing fewer cases coming through the border.”
There were around 300 cases of the South Africa and Brazil variants in the UK a month ago, but the latest data shows there have been just 12 new ones since then.
Yesterday, surge testing was rolled out in Brentwood, Essex, after a case of the South Africa variant was found there.
People living in the area were “strongly encouraged” to take a test when offered, whether or not they have any symptoms of the virus.
Prof John Edmunds, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, urged the Government to ease restrictions gradually.
He said vaccinating all adults by the end of July will make a “huge difference” but warned that the vaccine will not give 100 per cent protection.
He said: “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.”
A total of 15,355,176 Covid-19 vaccinations took place in England between December 8 and February 20, according to data from NHS England.
In Scotland 1,431,942 people have been jabbed, and 860,083 in Wales.
The most up-to-date figures from Northern Ireland show that they have vaccinated 436,143 people, but that is only up to February 18, so the actual number will be slightly higher.
Meanwhile, Mr Hancock refused to apologise following the High Court ruling that the Government unlawfully failed to publish details of billions of pounds’ worth of virus-related contracts.
He said resolutely: “My officials, with my full support, spent every waking hour buying PPE so that even though we came close we never actually ran out of PPE in this country.
“And they did that even though the paperwork got delayed by just over a fortnight.
“Legal cases about timings of transparency returns are completely second order compared to saving lives.”
The Government is required by law to publish a “contract award notice” within 30 days of the award of any contracts for public goods or services worth £120,000-plus.
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