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Tories today demanded Boris Johnson lifts coronavirus restrictions altogether by the summer amid fury over the government’s ‘goalpost shifting’ on lockdown.

The PM is facing an angry backlash and claims he is being ‘beaten up by scientists’ after ministers and SAGE experts suggested all over-50s should get vaccines before any ‘significant’ easing.

There is alarm that the bar for allowing the economy to get back up and running is being lifted, with dire warnings about the threat of mutant coronavirus added to concerns about the strain on the NHS.   

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi appeared to indicate this morning that the government is looking at the top nine risk categories – around 32million people – as the trigger point for a widespread downgrading of measures. So far the PM has only said that he will unveil a route map out of lockdown on February 22, after the first four most vulnerable groups have been covered. 

Mr Zahawi refused to give a date for when the nine categories in phase one of the rollout will be complete – although MailOnline estimates suggest it could be early April. 

Meanwhile, SAGE member Professor Andrew Hayward gave a similar message as he said there could be a ‘significant return to normality’ after all over-50s are vaccinated. ‘Once the most vulnerable people, particularly those over 50 and those with chronic illnesses, are vaccinated then yes I think we can see a significant return to normality,’ he said.

However, Prof Hayward said he still hoped the UK will be ‘more or less back to normal for the summer’.

Tory MPs warned it would be ‘madness’ if Mr Johnson merely started to open schools on March 8 – which he has identified as the earliest possible timeframe for any relaxation. Mark Harper, chair of the lockdown-sceptic CRG block, said once the top nine groups are vaccinated restrictions should be lifted altogether.  

And former Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith told MailOnline: ‘The trouble is they are now being beaten up by the scientists. The scientists are giving them all sorts of new reasons why you can’t unlock.

‘Of course for the scientists it doesn’t make any difference really because they get paid anyway.’ 

There are claims that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is again leading calls within Cabinet for lockdown to be eased as early as possible – in contrast to the more cautious tone adopted by Mr Johnson recently. 

There was more proof that Britain has passed the peak of the second wave today as daily deaths and cases continued to fall and pressure on intensive care units finally started to ease.

Department of Health officials recorded another 915 Covid victims and 20,634 positive tests — down by more than a quarter week-on-week.

Separate Public Health England figures showed all but three local authorities saw coronavirus infections drop last week and cases in care homes fell by a third. The latest Test and Trace report today also claimed positive tests plunged by 41 per cent in the last fortnight, in another sign the crisis is firmly in retreat.

Meanwhile, NHS England statistics showed there were 5,283 patients in ICUs across the country on the last day of January, down slightly on the previous week when there were 5,446 beds in use. It’s the first time ICU capacity has eased since the highly-infectious Kent Covid variant started to spiral out of control in December.

All key metrics now indicate the darkest days of the winter crisis are behind us, with the number of Covid hospital patients in general beds dropping to its lowest level for a month and in every region. And in another glimmer of hope, the mammoth vaccine roll-out is continuing to pick up pace with almost 475,000 jabs dished out yesterday. And 500,000 vulnerable Britons have now had both doses.  

Pressure is growing on Boris Johnson (pictured this morning) to commit to a major relaxation of the draconian measures within weeks, after the UK's rollout of jabs hit the milestone of 10million people covered

Pressure is growing on Boris Johnson (pictured this morning) to commit to a major relaxation of the draconian measures within weeks, after the UK’s rollout of jabs hit the milestone of 10million people covered

Nadhim Zahawi

Rishi Sunak

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi (left) appeared to indicate this morning that the government is looking at the top nine risk categories – around 32million people – as the trigger point for a widespread downgrading of measures. But there are claims Rishi Sunak (right) is among the Tories growing concerned about shifting goalposts

 

There are still 35,000 patients in hospital with Covid — far higher than the 20,000 at the peak last spring

There are still 35,000 patients in hospital with Covid — far higher than the 20,000 at the peak last spring

As the pandemic chaos continue to rage today: 

  • Wales is planning to get schools back from February 22, the same date as Scotland and weeks before it is due to happen in England;
  • No10 launched the world’s first trial into whether mixing and matching Covid vaccines can enhance protection; 
  • Ministers have been slammed over delays to the ‘quarantine hotels’ plans with Matt Hancock not now expected to give the details until next week;  
  • Sir Keir Starmer was forced to admit he was wrong to deny he had called for the UK to remain part of the European Medicine’s Agency;
  • Britons went on to their doorsteps and balconies to clap in honour of the late Captain Sir Tom Moore. 

Britons believe Brexit helped vaccine drive 

Most Britons believe Brexit has helped the UK’s vaccine drive – as the EU struggles with a chaotic rollout and supply shortages.

A poll for MailOnline shows the contrast between the rapid progress in Britain and the problems in the bloc has not been lost on the public.

Some 35 per cent said leaving the EU had been useful for the massive national effort, compared to 20 per cent who thought it had been a hindrance.

Around a quarter said they thought it had a neutral effect, and 19 per cent said they were not sure, according to the research by Redfield & Wilton Strategies.  

While the UK hit the milestone of 10million people given jabs yesterday, the EU’s programme has descended into a shambles with the central regulator far slower to sign off jabs and the bloc moving too late to secure supplies.

The fallout on the continent triggered threats from Ursula von der Leyen to bar exports to the UK and impose a hard border with Northern Ireland, which was later humiliatingly dropped. 

And Emmanuel Macron was among the leaders who launched baseless attacks on the effectiveness of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca jab – even though the EU has been desperately trying to obtain stocks.  

Asked on Today whether the government was shifting the goalposts on when lockdown can ease, Mr Zahawi said: ‘I think you’ve got to make sure your vaccination programme has protected the top nine categories in phase one…’ 

He reiterated that the PM will set out a roadmap and the intention is for restrictions to loosen ‘gradually’ from March 8, starting with schools. 

Mr Zahawi declined to give a date for when the first nine groups in the priority list will have received their vaccine, but said people could ‘do the maths’.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Nadhim Zahawi said: ‘We will set out our target (for vaccinating groups 5-9) after we have hit our February 15 target.

‘But you can do the maths. We did 600,000 in a single day – the deployment infrastructure that we’ve built can do as much vaccines as we get supply, so the limiting factor will be vaccine supply.

‘You can see that in the next 10 or so days, we’ve got to do another almost touching five million and so if we keep that rate up we will very quickly go down the list of the top nine.’

Pressed on whether that meant it would take another 35 days from February 15 to have jabbed all 31 million people in the first nine cohorts, Mr Zahawi replied: ‘That assumes the supply, so I don’t want to commit to a date without going through it with a very fine toothcomb with the whole team, because our limiting factor is the supply of vaccines ultimately.

‘With any manufacturing process, especially one that is new, there are challenges around that, as we’ve seen in Europe and as we saw in the early days in the UK as well.’

Covid Recovery Group (CRG) chairman Mark Harper argued that once the top nine priority groups had been vaccinated, that should be the moment restrictions are lifted altogether.

‘Once you’ve done the top nine groups – that’s 99 per cent of deaths and over 80 per cent of hospitalisations – that’s the point at which you can get rid of restrictions completely,’ he told the World At One.

‘I think what people are worried about is you then keep hearing other things creeping into the argument about the rate of infection and other things keep being thrown into the debate which sounds like it’s changing the goal post.

‘I think we should keep focused on protecting the vulnerable, reducing deaths and hospitalisations and the pressure on the health service – and those are the two things I think that need to drive opening up.’

Encouraging figures show the number of positive tests recorded in English care homes dropped by more than a third last week, falling from 504 to 321. This, combined with the fact every eligible care home resident has now been vaccinated, suggest officials are finally getting a grip on the resurgence of the virus in the sector

Encouraging figures show the number of positive tests recorded in English care homes dropped by more than a third last week, falling from 504 to 321. This, combined with the fact every eligible care home resident has now been vaccinated, suggest officials are finally getting a grip on the resurgence of the virus in the sector

Latest NHS England data published today showed there were 5,283 patients in ICUs across the country on the last day of January, down slightly on the previous week, when there were 5,446 beds in use. It is significant because it marks the first time ICU capacity has eased since the highly-infectious Kent Covid variant started to spiral out of control in December

Latest NHS England data published today showed there were 5,283 patients in ICUs across the country on the last day of January, down slightly on the previous week, when there were 5,446 beds in use. It is significant because it marks the first time ICU capacity has eased since the highly-infectious Kent Covid variant started to spiral out of control in December

Mr Duncan Smith told MailOnline that Mr Sunak was ‘not the only one’ worried about goalposts shifting on lockdown.

‘For all those on low incomes stuck in homes that are quite small with kids it’s a nightmare. They are not earning anything, large number of them have not been able to be furloughed because their companies have just gone under, and they were doing a lot of casual work.

All but THREE local authorities in England saw Covid cases fall last week 

All but three local authorities in England saw coronavirus infections fall last week, official data shows as pressure on NHS intensive care units has started to ease for the first time since the winter wave took off.

Public Health England figures published today reveal 146 out of 149 areas (98 per cent) recorded a drop in weekly positive tests in the seven days to January 31, with cases falling in all English regions for the second week running.

Infection rates plunged by more than 33 per cent in a third of local authorities and fell sharply by over 25 per cent in another 35 places. Cases are also down in every age group.

Encouraging figures show the number of positive tests recorded in English care homes dropped by more than a third last week, falling from 504 to 321. This, combined with the fact every eligible care home resident has now been vaccinated, suggest officials are finally getting a grip on the resurgence of the virus in the sector.

Meanwhile, latest NHS England data published today showed there were 5,283 patients in ICUs across the country on the last day of January, down slightly on the previous week, when there were 5,446 beds in use.

It is significant because it marks the first time ICU capacity has eased since the highly-infectious Kent Covid variant started to spiral out of control in December, suggesting the winter wave has passed its peak and the NHS will not be overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, the latest Government Test and Trace report published today showed coronavirus infections fell by 41 per cent in the last two weeks, in another sign the crisis is firmly in retreat. The programme reported 196,257 positive tests in the week up to January 27, down from 333,802 in the seven days to January 13. 

All key metrics now indicate the darkest days of the winter crisis are behind us, with the number of Covid hospital patients in general beds dropping to its lowest level for a month and virus deaths falling by a quarter in a week.

‘We have got to take stock and get the balance right again. We have now got these vaccines, they are demonstrating that not only do they protect against Covid, they protect against transmission.’

He said the government was ‘within an ace’ of protecting the most vulnerable groups and it would be ‘madness’ only to open schools on March 8. ‘We cannot scare ourselves into no activity. We need the economy to move for lots of reasons, not just for money, for wellbeing, for mental health.’ 

A supporter of Mr Sunak told the Telegraph: ‘Rishi is concerned that the scientists have been moving the goalposts in recent weeks. It’s no longer just about hospitalisations and protecting the NHS but cases and case numbers.’

They said Mr Sunak was adamant this third national squeeze must be the final lockdown and heralded it a ‘fat lady sings moment’ – the point at which Britain draws a line under a cycle of lockdowns for good.

Treasury sources played down the reports this morning, insisting those are ‘not things he has said’. 

Cases and deaths are continuing to fall as the UK recorded another 19,202 infections and 1,322 fatalities yesterday, down 25 per cent week-on-week. Prof Chris Whitty confirmed that the country is now past the latest peak.

Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the rate of the fall in Covid-19 cases made him optimistic that restrictions on households mixing could be lifted as soon as next month and that pupils could be back to school before the Prime Minister’s March 8 target date.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: ‘I think there could well be a case for opening schools sooner – I particularly think schools for children under 11 years of age, where the evidence that they contribute to the spread of the epidemic in the wider population is a lot lower.

‘I would certainly hope to see schools, and particularly junior schools, opening relatively soon.’

Asked about when people could start to see friends and family, Prof Hunter replied: ‘Personally I believe we should be able to start doing that probably not long after (schools reopen) – if I had to bet on a time, I’d say some time in March certainly.’

On being allowed back into restaurants, he added: ‘I think that will be probably around the same time, maybe April. But again, it just depends what happens with the epidemic between now and then.’  

In a statement to the Commons this afternoon, Mr Zahawi sounded a positive tone saying ‘our nation is getting safer every day’ thanks to the success of the vaccination programme.

‘I am pleased to inform the House that we have now vaccinated almost nine in 10 over-80s in the UK, almost nine in 10 over-75s, and over half of people in their 70s,’ he said.

‘We’ve also visited every eligible care home possible with older residents in England and have offered vaccinations to all their residents and staff.

‘This means we are currently on track to meet our target of offering a vaccine to the four most vulnerable groups by mid-February.’ 

He said new vaccine sites being opened will enable the most vulnerable to be given their jabs ‘even quicker’. 

But in a word of caution about the threat posed by mutant strains, Mr Zahawi said ‘no one is really safe until the whole world is safe’.

He told MPs that he was ‘pleased’ by evidence about the effectiveness of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in stopping transmission, adding: ‘This is, of course, really great news for us all.

‘But we will not rest on our laurels – no one is really safe until the whole world is safe.

‘Our scientific pioneers will keep innovating so we can help the whole world in our collective fight against this virus.’ 

In the poll for MailOnline 35 per cent said leaving the EU had been useful for the massive national effort, compared to 20 per cent who thought it had been a hindrance

In the poll for MailOnline 35 per cent said leaving the EU had been useful for the massive national effort, compared to 20 per cent who thought it had been a hindrance

Oxford vaccine’s 67% cut in transmission will save THOUSANDS of lives 

Oxford’s Covid vaccine could save tens of thousands of lives because it can cut the likelihood of catching coronavirus and passing it on by around two thirds, scientists say.

Modelling produced by SAGE members from Warwick University predicted that more than 150,000 more people could die in 2021 if lockdown rules were lifted in March or April and vaccines did not stop people from spreading the virus.

But with a 60 per cent infection-blocking capability – slightly lower than the 67 per cent that Oxford claims its vaccine is capable of – this could be halved, saving tens of thousands of lives.

Oxford researchers, who are making their jab with pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca and delivering more than a million of doses per week to the UK, confirmed last night that trials suggested the jab would stop most people from passing on the virus.

This is critical because uptake will not be 100 per cent and not everyone who gets the vaccine will be protected by it, meaning the virus will still be a danger to some.

Lifting lockdown after vaccinating people with jabs that don’t stop the spread, the Warwick experts warned, would lead to ‘an uncontrolled wave of infection in which only those successfully immunised will escape.’

And even doing so with the Oxford vaccine rolled out to millions of people could still lead to a spike of 1,500 deaths per day if lockdown was lifted in February in exchange for the rule of six, or 2,000 per day if lockdown ends completely in July. 

Dr Paul Hunter, a scientist at the University of East Anglia who was not involved with the research, said social distancing could have to stay for another year in 2022 before it would be safe to return to normal.

At a No10 press briefing last night Mr Johnson trumpeted the country’s vaccination drive for passing the monumental 10million-jab milestone.

Thanking the medics behind the rollout, the Prime Minister said: ‘It is thanks to their effort — the most colossal in the history of our National Health Service — that we have today passed the milestone.’ 

Yet Prof Whitty warned that the NHS will stay under strain until the six remaining priority groups, which include everyone over 50, are given their first dose. 

He told the briefing: ‘The number of people in hospital with Covid has now gone down from its peak, quite noticeably.

‘But as the Prime Minister said, there are still a very large number of people in hospital, and more people than there were in the first peak in April last year. So this is still a very major problem, but it is one that is heading the right way.’ 

There are still 35,000 patients in hospital with Covid — far higher than the 20,000 at the peak last spring. 

Mr Johnson rowed in behind his top medical expert and warned that the level of infection is still ‘forbiddingly high’ and that it is too soon to relax current restrictions. 

The Prime Minister promised that he will set out a ‘route map’ out of lockdown on February 22, when he said scientists will have a better idea of how effective the vaccines are. 

Cabinet ‘hawks’ such as Mr Sunak have reportedly pushed for looser lockdown curbs at times to reduce the economic fallout of the health crisis. 

An unprecedented amount of peacetime public spending to mitigate the effects of lockdown – such as furlough and bailouts – have plunged the nation’s finances deep into the red, with government borrowing reaching £270.8bn this financial year. 

At next month’s Budget the Chancellor will set out his plan to start patching up the blackhole, which will likely see tax rises, although the Tory manifesto ruled out hikes to VAT, national insurance and income tax.  

Mr Sunak’s Treasury brief, which makes him hyperaware of the havoc being wreaked on the economy, has at times put him at odds with Cabinet ‘doves’ preoccupied with driving down cases. 

Government splits publicly surfaced last night when Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer ‘liked’ a tweet telling the Chancellor to ‘get back in his box’.

The Chancellor’s bullishness to unlock parts of the economy when possible is believed to be backed by the Business and Transport departments, which are also reportedly worried the criteria for relaxing restrictions is being upped.  

German minister rages at von der Leyen on jabs 

A German minister has raged at Ursula von der Leyen’s ‘really s**t’ vaccine strategy and said that Berlin cannot ‘let this s**t repeat itself’ as anger mounts over the EU’s chaotic handling of the roll-out.

Vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz attacked von der Leyen by name in a stormy cabinet meeting on Monday, according to Bild.

Scholz – whose party opposed von der Leyen’s appointment as European Commission chief in 2019, pointing to a series of blunders when she was German defence minister – is said to have described the vaccine debacle as a ‘disgrace’.

Angela Merkel is said to have defended von der Leyen at Monday’s meeting but finds herself under fire for letting Brussels take charge of the vaccine drive, with the bloc struggling to get hold of doses and lagging behind Britain in handing them out.

Only 2.34 per cent of the EU’s 447million population has received a vaccine dose so far, with Germany barely above average on 2.36 per cent – while the UK has managed a much more impressive 14.21 per cent.

Some Tory MPs have also expressed concern over the scientists’ cautious approach and are agitating for looser measures, particularly to reopen schools. 

Mr Johnson last week said children would not go back to classes by March 8 at the earliest.  

Chair of the powerful 1922 group of Conservative backbenchers Sir Graham Brady urged the PM to revise this date in light of new vaccine data.

The senior Tory MP pointed to a study this week that found just a single shot of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had a ‘substantial’ impact on curbing transmission. 

Oxford researchers, who are making their jab with pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca and delivering more than a million of doses per week to the UK, confirmed that trials suggested the jab would stop most people from passing on the virus. 

But modelling produced by SAGE members from Warwick University predicted that more than 150,000 more people could die in 2021 if lockdown rules were lifted in March or April and vaccines did not stop people from spreading the virus. 

Lifting lockdown after vaccinating people with jabs that don’t stop the spread, the Warwick experts warned, would lead to ‘an uncontrolled wave of infection in which only those successfully immunised will escape.’ 

And even doing so with the Oxford vaccine rolled out to millions of people could still lead to a spike of 1,500 deaths per day if lockdown was lifted in February in exchange for the rule of six, or 2,000 per day if lockdown ends completely in July. 

Dr Paul Hunter, a scientist at the University of East Anglia who was not involved with the research, said social distancing could have to stay for another year in 2022 before it would be safe to return to normal. 

Will April 7 be the day Britain vaccinates its way out of lockdown? UK is on course to finish injecting all over-50s on that day – but it could be much SOONER and there are ALREADY hints that Covid vaccine is working in elderly 

Britain is on course to vaccinate all over-50s by April 7 at the current rate of vaccination, MailOnline estimates reveal as debate rages through Government about when lockdown can be lifted.

The protection offered by one dose of coronavirus vaccine takes two to three weeks to kick in, the latest evidence suggests, meaning the UK would be on track for measures to be lifted at the end of April after ministers, Chris Whitty and and SAGE scientists signalled that they want all over-50s to be offered an injection before society reopens.

However, if the UK vaccine drive accelerates from last week’s daily average of 345,000 people per day and is able to sustain its maximum rate of 600,000 doses a day, then the target could be hit by mid-March.

Anti-lockdown Tory MPs are pushing for measures to be released sooner, when the 15million most vulnerable people are vaccinated by mid-February. Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi today said the NHS is on track to hit this target and claimed that nine out of 10 over-75s have already been vaccinated.

Experts estimate that the effects of mass vaccination could start to show through in falling numbers of people being admitted to hospital in mid-February, and then significantly fewer people dying from March. They said there would also be an impact on infections, perhaps sooner, but this will be less noticeable. 

One researcher, Leeds University’s Professor Daniel Howdon, said there appears to already have been approximately 25 per cent declines in death rates among over-80s, although it is not yet clear whether this is a result of vaccination.

But modelling handed to SAGE in January predicted that easing restrictions from mid-February will cause a third wave of coronavirus that will peak at more than 1,000 deaths a day.

However, while the rollout is expected to speed up, there is still a ‘bumpy’ supply chain and ministers insist ‘our limiting factor remains supply’, which Mr Zahawi said today was ‘becoming more stable’. Other barriers to full speed vaccination may be the fact that only some GP surgeries are working on Sundays, and people will start to need second doses from early March, which will limit the numbers of unique people who can be reached.

At least one more vaccine should also come into use in March – Moderna’s – with the possibility of Johnson & Johnson and Novavax jabs also getting approval before then. 

At a rate of 345,000 first doses per day – the current average – it will take until February 17 to vaccinate all of the top four priority groups, and then the remaining 17million over-50s and at-risk people could be reached in 49 days, or seven weeks, by April 7. At an average rate of 600,000 per day from today onwards – something the NHS has shown itself to be capable of, but which would require a lot of things to go right such as constant supplies, perfect organisation and even faster rates as people start to need second doses from mid-March – the first four groups could be done by Februayr 11 and all over-50s by March 12

At a rate of 345,000 first doses per day – the current average – it will take until February 17 to vaccinate all of the top four priority groups, and then the remaining 17million over-50s and at-risk people could be reached in 49 days, or seven weeks, by April 7. At an average rate of 600,000 per day from today onwards – something the NHS has shown itself to be capable of, but which would require a lot of things to go right such as constant supplies, perfect organisation and even faster rates as people start to need second doses from mid-March – the first four groups could be done by Februayr 11 and all over-50s by March 12

Analysis shared on Twitter by Professor Daniel Howdon, a health economist at the University of Leeds, suggested there appears to already have been approximately 25 per cent declines in death rates among over-80s, although it is not yet clear whether this is a result of vaccination. This graph shows how the death rate among 85 to 89-year-old people started declining in January even when the outbreak was around its peak, which he said could be linked to vaccine coverage

Analysis shared on Twitter by Professor Daniel Howdon, a health economist at the University of Leeds, suggested there appears to already have been approximately 25 per cent declines in death rates among over-80s, although it is not yet clear whether this is a result of vaccination. This graph shows how the death rate among 85 to 89-year-old people started declining in January even when the outbreak was around its peak, which he said could be linked to vaccine coverage

The Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group, an organisation of volunteer experts, said in January that the effects of the UK's mass vaccine rollout would start to be seen in falling hospital admissions and deaths from mid-February, and then in reduced death rates from March. There would also be a drop in infection rates but this will be less noticeable. The research was produced before the vaccine programme hit its current speed, on January 11

The Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group, an organisation of volunteer experts, said in January that the effects of the UK’s mass vaccine rollout would start to be seen in falling hospital admissions and deaths from mid-February, and then in reduced death rates from March. There would also be a drop in infection rates but this will be less noticeable. The research was produced before the vaccine programme hit its current speed, on January 11

University of Warwick research published in January, before the current vaccination data became available, suggested that if a vaccine could prevent 65% of transmission, as Oxford now says its vaccine does, the country's death rate could be kept to the low hundreds per day or fewer from late March onwards if the rule of six is kept in place. The model is based on a large majority of the population having a vaccine with that level of effectiveness

University of Warwick research published in January, before the current vaccination data became available, suggested that if a vaccine could prevent 65% of transmission, as Oxford now says its vaccine does, the country’s death rate could be kept to the low hundreds per day or fewer from late March onwards if the rule of six is kept in place. The model is based on a large majority of the population having a vaccine with that level of effectiveness

The current rate of the NHS’s vaccination programme shows it is on target to hit its target of offering jabs to the 15million most vulnerable people by mid-February. Last week’s rate means it needs just two more weeks to get there.

Officials say they will ‘offer’ the vaccine to everyone rather than say they will successfully give it to them, because some are likely to refuse to have the jab and others won’t be able to have it for medical reasons.

The 15m people include everyone over the age of 70 as well as NHS and social care workers, and those with serious long-term health conditions that put them at a high risk of dying if they catch Covid-19.

Although they are the number one priority for the Government, there are now concerns that vaccinating them alone will not be enough to end the brutal national lockdown. 

There are 17million people over the age of 50 who make up priority groups four to nine and who will need to be reached once the top four priority groups have been done.

At a rate of 345,000 first doses per day – last week’s average – this would take 49 days, or seven weeks. From February 17 that would mean they could all be reached by April 7.

At an average rate of 600,000 per day from today onwards – something the NHS has shown itself to be capable of, but which would require a lot of things to go right such as constant supplies, perfect organisation and even faster rates as people start to need second doses from mid-March – the first four groups could be done by February 11.

Then it would take just 29 days to reach the 17million outstanding over-50s and high-risk people; four weeks and a day, ending on March 12.

After the most at-risk groups have been vaccinated, the Government plans to offer jabs to everyone aged 18 and over in the UK. There will be around 21million of them left by this point, according to the JCVI.

At the realistic 345,000-per-day rate this could be achieved in 61 days – from April 7 this would take until June 7.

At the hyper-fast 600,000 per day – which would likely be impossible by this point because millions of people would be having their second doses, soaking up most of the NHS’s daily capacity – it would take 35 days. From March 12, this would end on April 16. 

The estimates are based on an unlikely 100 per cent uptake rate and on the country having a big enough supply to cope with the number of doses needed each day which, from March, will include second doses for people who got their first jab at the start of the programme. 

Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said at a Downing Street press conference last night that it now looks as though all over-50s will need to be immunised in order to stop hospitals loading up with Covid patients again.

He said: ‘If you look at the situation for people that have gone into hospital only 54 per cent of all the people who go into hospital are over that age [70].

‘So what this means is that once we vaccinated down to 70 and above – plus those who care for them, frontline NHS staff and frontline care workers – we should significantly reduce the number of deaths.

‘But we will reduce by a much smaller number the number of people going into hospital…

‘If we vaccinate all the way down to the people over 50, and those who have actually got pre-existing health conditions, you then get through virtually all the people who have a high chance of dying.

‘So this is around 98 per cent of those who die are in that group. Importantly around 80 per cent, just over 80 per cent of all of those who go into hospital.’

Professor Whitty added: ‘So the first wave which is the aim is to complete on the 15th of February we would expect a situation where we can stop a very high proportion of the deaths but rather a smaller proportion of the pressure on the NHS – those very large numbers in hospital.

‘As you go onto the next wave, down to those over 50 we have further in roads into reducing deaths and also significantly reduce the pressure on the NHS.’ 

Experts have warned that lockdown must not be lifted too soon or an uncontrollable third wave of Covid could begin and kill thousands more people, smashing through efforts to protect the country with vaccines.

Warwick University experts on the Government’s SAGE committee said in a paper published last week that easing restrictions too soon could case deaths to spike back above 1,000 per day, even with effective vaccines in play.

They explained that even though the vaccines we have appear to work very well, not everyone can or will accept the jab, and no vaccine can ever protect 100 per cent of the people who do get it. 

People who couldn’t be vaccinated for medical reasons – those who have an extremely weak immune system, for example – will not be protected, and neither will people who turned the jab down, or those in the proportion of people who it fails to protect. A 95 per cent effective vaccine, for example, would still allow five out of 100 people to get Covid-19.

The discovery that Oxford’s vaccine appears to cut the risk of someone catching coronavirus and passing it on by two thirds is promising and suggests it could slash transmission even between people with mild symptoms or none, which would dampen a third wave.

But the Warwick experts, in research produced before the vaccination programme hit its current levels of success, warned that at least 50,000 people are likely to die in 2021 and this could be much higher if rules are lifted too soon. 

The wrote in their paper: ‘Even maintaining [early September] levels of NPI [non-pharmaceutical interventions; social distancing rules] control and having a highly efficacious vaccine we estimate over fifty thousand deaths are likely to occur from January 2021 due to the slow decline in cases from its current high level.

‘Early relaxation of control measures or low infection efficacy can lead to a pronounced subsequent wave of infection. 

‘If we wish to completely lift all restrictions once both phases of the vaccination campaign are complete, we predict a substantial outbreak with a large number of associated deaths. 

‘When the vaccine is not infection blocking, removing NPIs triggers an uncontrolled wave of infection in which only those successfully immunised will escape.’

They predicted that between 99,000 and 123,000 more people could die in 2021 if lockdown and social distancing come to an end, even in an ‘optimistic’ vaccine scenario.

In less gloomy news, however, some experts claim they are already starting to see the effects of vaccination in the death rates of the most elderly people in the country.

Professor Daniel Howdon, a health economist at the University of Leeds, revealed on Twitter that the fatality rate among over-80s appears to be falling fast in the wake of the vaccination programme.

He said: ‘All 80+ groups are showing quite big (~25%) falls in the CFR [case fatality ratio] vs 75-79 group. All very tentative for now but I think of interest.’

Professor Howdon, using Public Health England data, noted that the proportion of Covid-positive people over the age of 90 who were dying appeared to have dropped from 46.8 per cent at January’s peak to 34.7 per cent in the most recent week.

In 85 to 89-year-olds it fell from 40.6 per cent to 30.5 per cent, he said, in 80 to 84-year-olds it dropped from 32.9 to 24.4 per cent, and in 75 to 79-year-olds from 20.6 to 17.6 per cent. 

He said that less pressure on hospitals or longer lags between people catching the virus and dying could account for these effects but also suggested it was ‘not too unreasonable’ to expect to see an effect from vaccines.

Professor Howdon added he was ‘going to keep an eye on it. Even if this isn’t an effect now, if vaccination reduces deaths more than cases then we should see one soon enough.’

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