London, Apr 13 (PTI) The National Health Service (NHS) in England on Tuesday expanded the COVID-19 vaccination programme to the next cohort on its age-based priority list to all above 45 years of age, after it announced that the target to cover over-50s had been met ahead of the April 15 deadline.
The government had set a target to offer a COVID-19 jab to all over-50s, the clinically vulnerable and health and social care workers – about 32 million people – by this Thursday. The NHS confirmed that nearly 40 million vaccine doses have now been administered across the UK.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed 'another hugely significant milestone', adding that the focus would now be on completing essential second doses as well as to meet the target of offering all adults a vaccine by the end of July.
'More than 32 million people have been given the precious protection vaccines provide against COVID-19. I want to thank everyone involved in the vaccine rollout which has already saved many thousands of lives,' he said.
Speaking at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, he reiterated his plea for caution as he flagged that the fall in COVID-related hospitalisations and deaths was largely the result of lockdown.
'The numbers are down – of infections and hospitalisations and deaths. But it is very, very important for everybody to understand that the reduction in these numbers – in hospitalisations and in deaths and infections – has not been achieved by the vaccination programme,' said Johnson.
'People don't, I think, appreciate that it's the lockdown that has been overwhelmingly important in delivering this improvement in the pandemic and in the figures that we're seeing. And so, yes of course the vaccination programme has helped, but the bulk of the work in reducing the disease has been done by the lockdown,” he said, adding that as the UK unlocks, the result will inevitably and sadly be more hospitalisations and deaths.
The next stage of the unlocking roadmap is set for May 17, when greater freedoms on indoor interactions are expected – a schedule Prime Minister Johnson indicated remains on track.
Meanwhile, as the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) updated its advice for vaccinations to cover people aged 45-49 in England, the online NHS booking service crashed for some time in the face of a surge in traffic to book the jabs.
NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said the latest milestone means that 19 out of 20 of those most at risk from COVID had now been vaccinated.
'Thanks to our NHS nurses, doctors, pharmacists, operational managers and thousands of other staff and volunteers, the NHS COVID vaccination programme is without a doubt the most successful in our history,' said Stevens.
'It's one of our tickets out of this pandemic and offers real hope for the future,' he said.
It comes as England began giving out its first doses of the Moderna vaccine, the third COVID-19 vaccine in the UK’s rollout that had been launched in Wales earlier. It will be available at 21 sites across England, along with the Pfizer/BioNTech jab and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
'We are making phenomenal progress, but we continue to remain focused to make sure nobody is left behind,' said UK Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi.
Under the new regulatory guidance, when vaccines are expanded to the under-30s age group, they would be offered either the Pfizer or Moderna jabs after concerns about a 'possible' link to very rare blood clots with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has insisted that the benefits of the vaccine continue to outweigh any risks but said those aged 18-29 in the UK will be offered an alternative vaccine instead, where available, as an added precaution until further investigations remain ongoing.
The DHSC said that rolling reviews are underway by the MHRA to assess the Janssen and Novavax vaccines as well.
Data from Public Health England’s real-world study shows that both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines are 'highly effective' in reducing COVID-19 among older people aged 70 years and over.
There has already been a significant impact of the vaccination programme on reducing hospitalisations and deaths, with more than 10,000 lives saved by vaccinations between December and March, the DHSC said.
Vaccines in the UK are available free of charge from thousands of GP surgeries and pharmacies as well as large NHS vaccination centres including temples, mosques, community centres and football stadiums. PTI AK ZH ZH