London, Feb 14 (PTI) The UK on Sunday achieved what Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed as a 'significant milestone' as 15 million people received at least their first of two jabs to protect against COVID-19.
The news came as the National Health Service (NHS) confirmed that its vaccination programme will officially expand further from Monday, inviting all over-65s and clinically vulnerable groups to receive their jabs.
'It has been a truly national, UK-wide effort. We have done it together,” Johnson said in a video message from Downing Street.
'And in England, I can tell you we have now offered jabs to everyone in the first four priority groups, the people most likely to be severely ill from coronavirus, hitting the first target we set ourselves,' he said, declaring that the government's target to cover all the designated top four priority groups of over-70s and frontline health and care workers with at least one of the two-dose Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines by the middle of February had now been met.
He, however, stressed that 'no-one is resting on their laurels' as there is a “long way to go to”.
“And there will undoubtedly be bumps in the road. But after all we've achieved, I know we can go forward with great confidence,' he added.
NHS England said on Sunday that millions of letters asking people from the next set of priority groups to book their jabs at any one of over 100 large scale vaccination centres or almost 200 pharmacy services have already been issued.
'The vaccination programme is continuing at an unprecedented speed and, as we're on target to offer vaccines to all those in the first four priority groups by Monday, we are determined to keep up the momentum by expanding it even further,” said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
“The NHS is doing everything it can to offer vaccines to the most vulnerable as quickly as possible, and today's news will mean millions more at-risk individuals will be able to access a jab from next week. We will continue to accelerate the vaccination programme even further,” he said.
In the next phase starting Monday, general practitioner (GP) led vaccination sites will focus initially on the clinically vulnerable with long term conditions and requiring continuity of care.
The official advice for anyone aged 65 to 69 wanting to wait to be called by their local GP vaccination service, or have already received the jab, need not respond to the NHS letters to visit a vaccine site. More High Street pharmacists are also being invited to take part as the programme continues to accelerate.
“After a strong start the NHS vaccination programme, the biggest and fastest in Europe, is entering a new phase tomorrow,” said Sir Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive.
“This is an exciting moment as we now move on to those aged 65 and over and the clinically vulnerable as part of our plan to vaccinate as many people as possible who can benefit from it. However, if you have already been offered a jab but have not taken it up it is not too late. Please come forward and help us to help you,” he said.
The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which has created the priority categories for the vaccinations, defines clinically vulnerable people as those with conditions including chronic respiratory disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis, and severe asthma.
Until now, the vaccination programme has been aimed at NHS frontline staff, care home residents and workers, along with over-70s and people deemed clinically extremely vulnerable.
Meanwhile, the devolved regions of the United Kingdom are also largely in line with the NHS England drive.
In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford said his region has begun contacting some over-50s, while Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she expects many in the 65-69 age group to have had their first jab by the middle of this month after the vast majority of older people were vaccinated.
In Northern Ireland, the Department of Health is offering everyone over 65 a vaccine by the end of February.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has hailed the “huge progress” being made with vaccines and expressed optimism about laying down a plan to gradually ease England’s lockdown later this month.
He is coming under increasing pressure from backbenchers within his own party, with the anti-lockdown COVID Recovery Group (CRG) of Conservative MPs calling for a complete easing of lockdown by the end of April and a plan for a “return to normal life”.
Johnson has indicated March 8 as the date for school reopenings as the first step towards easing lockdown, but stressed the approach will be “cautious” and based on the rate of coronavirus infections.
The UK has been registering a fall in infection rates over the past few days but the figures remain high, with 13,308 new infections and 621 deaths recorded over the weekend, taking the death toll from the deadly virus close to 117,000. PTI AK IND IND