UK ahead in vaccine race but PM warns no early release from lockdown

‘It is still early days and we have very, very high rates of infection,’ Boris Johnson said

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It is too early to start considering lifting lockdown restrictions in the UK even as vaccine targets for the most vulnerable appear to be on track, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

Dr Clive Dix, chairman of the UK’s vaccines task force, said he was “very optimistic” that a target of vaccinating all over-50s by May would be reached.

He said the UK was also "before the game" preparing for coronavirus mutations.

Dr Dix's optimism came as Mr Johnson warned against lifting lockdown orders early, as infection rates remain "very high" and political leaders in the EU were forced to defend the bloc's approach to delivering vaccines to member states and its sluggish start.

“I want to stress that it is still early days and we have rates of infection in this country, still very, very high,” Mr Johnson said in a video shared on his Twitter account.

“And more people, almost twice as many people in our hospitals with Covid now than there were back at the peak in April.

“So do remember how tough it still is, how high that rate of infection is, and that we must, must work together to get it done. So that’s the fundamental thing to get right. Stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.”

He said 90 per cent of 75 to 79-year-olds and almost 90 per cent of the over-80s had been reached. Almost 11 million vaccinations had been administered.

Pharmacist Asha Fowells vaccinates Judy Phillips, aged 75, with her first dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, at Copes Pharmacy and Travel Clinic in Streatham, south London, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (Yui Mok/PA via AP)

“On February 22, I’m going to be setting out a road map as far as we’re able to, giving everybody some more clarity insofar as we can about how we hope to unlock, beginning, as you know I’m sure, with schools, we hope very much from March 8. But trying to set out the beginnings of a road map for a way forward for the whole country.

“As the vaccine programme intensifies and more and more people acquire immunity, [there will be] a steady programme for beginning to unlock.”

Anger is building in the EU as it lags behind inoculation campaigns in Israel, the UAE, the UK and US.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen defended the EU's response, saying countries operating on their own could move more quickly.

"I'm aware that a country might be a speedboat and the EU more a tanker. But this is the strength of the EU,” she said.

In Britain, Dr Dix said they would do everything possible to meet the inoculation goal.

"We will work day and night to ensure we meet whatever target that feasibly can be met," he said.

"So, I'm very optimistic that we will meet the May target."