Ministers Have Announced A New Plan To Boost Numbers Of Covid Vaccinations By Delaying The Timing Of A Second Dose
Ministers have announced a new dosing strategy
The government has adopted a new dosing regime to ensure more at-risk people are offered their first coronavirus vaccine sooner rather than holding back stock to deliver a second dose.
Health officials have accepted recommendations from government science experts to provide people with a second dose of the vaccine up to 12 weeks later after it was found the extended programme did not reduce its effectiveness.
Under the previous guidelines, those receiving the vaccine were expected to be asked to return between 3-4 weeks later to get the second dose.
But the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) revealed on Wednesday they had advised extending that period to around three months in order to maximise the number of at-risk patients getting the jab earlier.
It comes after the UK's drug watchdog gave emergency authorisation for the new Coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca to be rolled out to patients immediately.
The new plan will also apply to the rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine which was approved for use in the UK in early December.
Speaking at a Downing Street briefing, Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the JCVI, said there was a need for "immediate urgency" amid soaring case numbers caused by the new strain of the virus.
Pascal Soriot, chief executive of AstraZeneca, said the plan would allow health officials to deliver 1 million doses a week "very quickly".
"Vaccination will start next week and we will get to 1m a week and beyond that a week very rapidly," he told the BBC.
"The good news with this is we are going to be able to inject a lot of people with one dose very quickly, provide them with a reasonably good dose of protection until they get their second dose two to three months later.
"That will enable us to protect many more people because we can wait two or three months for the second dose."
Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the decision had been made after it was found the new Oxford jab offered "very effective protection" from the first dose.
"This is important because it means that we can get the first dose into more people more quickly and they can get the protection the first dose gives you," he said.
"The scientists and the regulators have looked at the data and found that you get what they call 'very effective protection' from the first dose.
"The second dose is still important - especially for the long-term protection - but it does mean that we will be able to vaccinate more people more quickly that we previoulsy could."
The first doses of the new vaccine are set to be given on Monday following fresh fears that the NHS was struggling to cope with a surge in hospitalisations caused by the disease.
Hospitals in London have come under increased pressure following a spike in infections in recent weeks, with a spokesperson for the College of Paramedics saying the demand on the system was "at a level we've never had to contend with before".
In recent days, footage emerged of ambulances queued up outside hospitals in the capital, with the Health Service Journal reporting critical care capacity in London is currently operating at around 114%.
Meanwhile, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in southeast London, was reportedly forced to declare a major incident earlier this week due to a shortage in oxygen triggered by the growing number of Covid-19 patients.
The Woolwich hospital said the move was a "precautionary step due to the high number of Covid-positive patients we are seeing at the hospital".
Local authorities in Essex, which is also under the toughest Tier 4 lockdown restrictions, have also called for further government support today after declaring a "major incident" following a rise in hospital admissions.
The Essex Resilience Forum (ERF) said the decision was taken following "significant growing demand" on critical care services.
It is expected the growing cases totals across the country will prompt Mr Hancock to announce that more of England will be placed under the toughest tier of lockdown restrictions when he updates MPs later today.
While Mr Hancock disputed suggestions that a new 'Tier 5' could be introduced to tackle infections, he suggested there could be further changes to the return of schools in the new year, with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson also due to provide an update on the situation on Wednesday.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe