The fast-track approval of the coronavirus vaccine means restrictions could be loosened before the end of March, the Health Secretary has said.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Matt Hancock said he “can’t wait to scrap this tiered system altogether” and for the country to “get back to living by mutual respect and personal responsibility, not laws set in Parliament”.
It marks a change in rhetoric and tone from Mr Hancock, who until now has been seen in Whitehall as one of the strongest proponents of the strictest possible measures.
Asked whether the start of administering the vaccine to Britons this week could bring about a quicker end to the restrictions in the first three months of next year, Mr Hancock said: “Yes it will.”
He later said: “There’s no doubt that having the vaccine early… will bring forward the moment when we can get rid of these blasted restrictions, but until then we have got to follow them. Help is on its way.”
The first vaccinations were being shipped to 50 locations around the UK this weekend ahead of the first inoculation on Tuesday in all four nations of the UK, on what Mr Hancock is calling “V Day”.
The Health Secretary said millions of doses of vaccine from Pfizer will be in the UK before the end of the year, while a second vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca could win approval from the UK regulator before Christmas.
The Government is now planning on vaccinating more than half of the vulnerable people who need a jab by the end of February, which could lead to a relaxation of the Covid rules when they are renewed by MPs before January 27.
The mass vaccination programme will also see a large-scale Government advertising campaign, fronted by celebrities and other trusted voices, launched before Christmas, Mr Hancock said.
The Health Secretary said he was looking for “some absolutely wonderful nonagenarians… to come forward and be vaccinated”. He refused to say whether he was thinking about the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, both of whom are in their 90s.
Nightingale hospitals will repurposed as vaccination centres, along with sports stadiums and conference centres, while GP surgeries will be able to start administering jabs next week.
Mr Hancock cautioned that scientists still did not know whether someone who had been inoculated could still pass on the virus. This meant that “the elbow bump greeting might be here for a while”, he said.
The Cabinet Office will also repurpose its fake news unit – set up in the middle of last year to counter online fears about a no-deal Brexit – to tackle propaganda from anti-vaxxers on the internet.
The news came as the UK recorded another 397 deaths from coronavirus on Saturday, down from the 504 deaths announced on Friday.
Pfizer is expecting to have up to four million doses ready for the UK by the end of the year and 40 million by the end of March – enough to vaccinate 20 million people. Britain has also ordered 100 million doses of Astra Zeneca’s vaccine, with 40 million delivered by March, although it has not been authorised by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
Mr Hancock said he could not make accurate forecasts about when people might be inoculated because of the uncertainty of MHRA’s approval of AstraZeneca’s vaccine and how quickly it and Pfizer’s drug can be made.
He said: “The majority of the vaccination [of the vulnerable] will be in January and February, and the scale of that depends on Pfizer’s manufacturing facilities, MHRA’s approval of AstraZeneca and AstraZeneca’s manufacturing capabilities.
“The speed at which we vaccinate obviously is determined by how fast the manufacturer can produce it. I’ve tasked the NHS with the simple mission of vaccinating as quickly as the manufacturers can produce.”
He added: “We’ll keep watching what happens to the epidemic. But the more people you vaccinate, the more lives you save and the fewer people who die, the sooner you can lift the restrictions – it’s as simple as that.”
People aged 80 and over, as well as care home workers, will be first to receive the jab – typically delivered by an injection in the shoulder – along with NHS workers who are at higher risk.
Hospitals will begin inviting the over-80s in for a jab and work with care home providers to book their staff into vaccination clinics. All those vaccinated will need a booster jab 21 days later.
But there is still no guaranteed date for when care home residents will be vaccinated despite them being at the top of the priority list, with Mr Hancock saying there are “significant challenges”.
Logistical issues mean there are difficulties in getting the jab to residents, as the Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at -70C before being thawed out and can only be moved four times within that cold chain before being used.
Mark Harper, the chairman of the Coronavirus Recovery Group of around 70 Tory MPs which campaigns against tough lockdown restrictions without evidence of the economic and social damage they cause, said the Government should not wait until all age groups are vaccinated before releasing the restrictions.
He told The Telegraph: “As the vaccine is rolled out and the most vulnerable are protected, the Government should begin our national renewal by reducing the crippling restrictions on our economy and society.
“Given the enormous costs of these restrictions, both in terms of individual lives and livelihoods, the faster this can be done, safely, is crucial as we seek to repair our country’s physical and economic health. If we have vaccinated those who are most vulnerable to Covid by then, why wait until Easter?”
An ally of Mr Harper said: “If we wait until every 20 or 30-year-old has had a vaccine before we remove restrictions, our economy may well resemble a Soviet relic. Boris must channel his optimism into this country’s next chapter as soon as possible.”