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UK eyes next vaccine phase after hitting 15 million jabs target

Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed hitting the "significant milestone" just over two months after the country embarked on its biggest ever vaccination programme.

FILE: Nurse May Parsons administers the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine to Margaret Keenan, 90, at University Hospital in Coventry, central England, on 8 December 2020, making Keenan the first person to receive the vaccine in the country's biggest ever immunisation programme. Picture: AFP

LONDON - Britain prepared Sunday for the next phase of its coronavirus vaccination programme after meeting the government's target of inoculating 15 million of the most vulnerable people with a first dose.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed hitting the "significant milestone" just over two months after the country embarked on its biggest ever vaccination programme.

"This country has achieved an extraordinary feat," he said in a video message posted on Twitter. "It has been a truly national, UK-wide effort. We have done it together."

Johnson had set the aim of offering a jab to everybody in the top four priority groups of around 15 million people by the end of this week. That comprises all over-70s, care home residents and staff, NHS workers and the extremely clinically vulnerable to the virus.

The country will now start administering vaccines from Monday to those aged between 65 and 69 and the clinically vulnerable to COVID-19, with almost 1.2 million already invited to book their jabs, the state-run National Health Service (NHS) said.

Ministers have also vowed to vaccinate all over-50s by May and all adults by September.

"There is so much more to do and I urge anyone eligible to step forward and take up their appointment," Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Sunday.

"The vaccine is our route to freedom -- we will beat this virus jab by jab.”

Britain, which has been the hardest hit in Europe by the pandemic, registering nearly 117,000 deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test, has led the world in promptly approving the use of several vaccines.

It now has one of the highest proportions of people vaccinated against the virus of any nation -- a rare success story during a pandemic in which it has fared badly by most other measures.

'CAUTIOUS' EASING

Infection rates have dropped markedly across the country over recent weeks, as strict lockdown measures have curbed previously spiralling case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths.

The improving situation has prompted calls for stringent lockdown restrictions to be lifted in early March, despite concern about the spread of virus variants that may be more resistant to vaccines.

A new 10-day hotel quarantine regime for British residents returning from 33 virus variant hotspots begins on Monday, despite criticism that the move is too little and too late.

Johnson said Saturday he is "optimistic" he will be able to set out plans for a "cautious" easing of the stay-at-home rules in England later this month.

He has vowed to review all relevant data next week, ahead of setting out the government's "roadmap" for the months ahead on 22 February.

But he is facing pressure from some of the government's own lawmakers.

Lockdown-sceptic Conservatives have called on Johnson to commit to a timetable for completely ending the controls by May.

In a letter to the British premier, the leaders of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said the "tremendous pace" of the vaccination rollout allowed for the move.

"The vaccine gives us immunity from Covid, but it must also give us permanent immunity from Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions," they wrote.

"All restrictions remaining after 8 March should be proportionate to the ever-increasing number of people we have protected."

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