As the rapid pace of the vaccine rollout continues, health secretary Matt Hancock has spoken of his “optimism” about restrictions lifting in time for summer.
The government has set a target date of 21 June for all COVID restrictions in England to come to an end, ensuring enough time for all adults to be offered the vaccine.
On Thursday, Hancock said that the uptake of jabs meant that as restrictions are lifted, Britons will be “able to travel across the UK”.
He said: “I’m confident because of the vaccine we will be able to make that progress and then be able to, all of us, to travel freely wherever we are within these islands.”
Government data up to 2 March shows that 21,599,027 jabs have been given in the UK so far, with 20,703,615 being first doses – a rise of 224,996 on the previous day.
Highlighting the success of the programme, Hancock added: “I’ve said before that I’m optimistic for a great British summer and I’m now more optimistic about having a great British summer than I have been at any time, thanks to the speed and the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout.
“By great British summer, I absolutely mean people being able to enjoy travel across the whole of the UK.”
Watch: How England will leave lockdown
While the vaccine appears to be having a significant effect on both hospital admissions and deaths, scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about several variants, including one first identified in the Brazilian city of Manaus.
A study this week suggested that between 25% and 61% of people in the city who had previously had COVID were susceptible to reinfection with the worrying P1 variant found there.
Six cases of P1 have been found in the UK to date – three in England and three in Scotland.
Vaccine manufacturers including Pfizer and AstraZeneca are already working on new jabs to tackle variants in case they are needed.
Hancock warned that “one of the factors that we have to be vigilant about” in the road map out of lockdown was the emergence of new variants “in case the current vaccines are not as effective”.
In an attempt to get ahead of the variant issue, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will fast-track the approval of new jabs without compromising on safety.
MHRA chief executive Dr June Raine said the new approval process is “agile”, and the green light for new jabs could be given in just a few weeks after all data has been submitted on their effectiveness.
She insisted no corners would be cut on safety, and the framework already exists for when annual flu jabs are tweaked.
Meanwhile, a survey suggest the decline of COVID infections in England is slowing down.
The Imperial College London’s React study has been analysing data from swab tests taken from people across England since May last year.
It found that one in every 213 people is still testing positive for COVID, while in some parts of the country the rate of decline has plateaued and in places there are hints that rates are increasing
Experts have now urged people to stick to lockdown rules to give the vaccination programme “the best chance of working”.
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