COVID-19: Health Secretary Matt Hancock hails hitting 15 million vaccine target

Everyone in the top four priority groups has been offered a coronavirus vaccine, the health secretary has confirmed.

Speaking to Sky News, Matt Hancock said the government had met its target for offering a COVID-19 jab to all over 70s by Monday’s deadline.

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How has the UK vaccinated 15 million people?

Uptake has been “much higher than we expected”, he said.

Mr Hancock said the milestone was a “little step towards freedom for us all”, but there was “no rest for the wicked”.

Letters are now being sent to those aged over 65 and the clinically vulnerable to invite them to receive the first dose of a vaccine.

The government is aiming to offer a vaccine to the 17 million in groups five to nine by the end of April, something that will be done alongside administering second doses for many in the first four groups.

“There is a huge programme under way rolling out to invite the next group of people to be vaccinated and, at the same time, from next month we have the second jabs of all the people who have come since January to make sure they happen on time, because they have to be within a specific 12-week time period,” the health secretary said.

“So there is still a huge amount of work to do but we have managed to vaccinate those who are most vulnerable.”

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COVID-19: The UK’s great vaccine gamble

Mr Hancock said the number of coronavirus deaths is falling, but it is “too early” to say whether this is a direct result of the UK’s vaccination programme.

“It is too early to be able to measure the direct impact but of course we are looking at that and we can see overall that the number of cases is coming down sharply, the number in hospitals is coming down but it is still too high – at the latest count there were 23,000 people in hospital with COVID,” he said.

The UK’s rapid vaccine rollout has raised hopes of England’s current lockdown – the third of the pandemic – being eased in the weeks to come.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will set out his plan for relaxing restrictions on 22 February, with the potential for schools to return from 8 March.

More than 60 Conservative backbenchers are said to have backed a letter to the PM from the lockdown-sceptic COVID Recovery Group (CRG), which said there will be “no justification” for restrictions to remain once all over-50s have been offered a jab.

Asked about this backbench pressure, the health secretary said: “Everybody wants to get out of this as quickly as we safely can – both as quickly but also as safely is important. That’s what everyone agrees with.

“The question is a judgment of how quickly and how safely – that’s the judgment we will be making this week, looking at the data ahead of the prime minister setting out the road map on February 22, a week from today.”

Speaking about his plans for easing lockdown at the weekend, Mr Johnson said he was “optimistic”, but stressed: “We have to be cautious”.

The PM added: “Our children’s education is our number one priority, but then working forward, getting non-essential retail open as well and then, in due course as and when we can prudently, cautiously, of course we want to be opening hospitality as well.

“I will be trying to set out as much as I possibly can in as much detail as I can, always understanding that we have to be wary of the pattern of disease. We don’t want to be forced into any kind of retreat or reverse ferret.”

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