UK sees AstraZeneca, Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine rollout starting December
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the U.K. plans to start rolling out two coronavirus vaccines next month before the program gathers pace in the new year, with a return to “normal” possible in the spring.
Hancock was responding to trial results announced Monday by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca Plc showing their Covid-19 vaccine prevented a majority of people from getting the disease. It followed positive results this month from a vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. Both still need to be assessed by the U.K. health regulator before they can be administered to the public.
“If this all goes well in the next couple of weeks, then we are looking at the potential of starting the vaccination program next month for this Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as well as the Pfizer vaccine -- but in all cases the bulk of the rollout will be in the New Year,” Hancock told BBC Radio. “We are looking with high confidence now that after Easter things can really start to get back to normal.”
The vaccine data adds to the government’s growing optimism that the U.K. is beginning to reverse the tide of the virus after a new wave of infections forced England into a second lockdown this month. Virus cases “are clearly starting to fall,” Hancock said, and ministers are discussing how to relax rules to allow families to get together at Christmas. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will announce the new winter strategy in Parliament on Monday.
Johnson is also set to announce a massive increase in community coronavirus testing as part of a plan to reintroduce tiered restrictions in place of the England-wide lockdown. Areas under the strictest curbs will have access to regular tests. People who come into contact with someone with the disease will be able to avoid quarantine by taking a test every day for seven days, Johnson’s office said.
The program, which will be trialled in Liverpool, northwest England, is due to be announced by the prime minister alongside tougher restrictions for the worst-hit areas, and guidelines for family visits “for a small number of days” over the Christmas holidays.
“The increase in new cases is flattening off, but we are not out of the woods yet,” Johnson will tell lawmakers, according to his office. “With the expansion in testing and vaccines edging closer to deployment, the regional tiered system will help get the virus back under control and keep it there.”
The prime minister is trying to balance the reopening of the economy in England -- where restaurants, bars and many shops have been closed since Nov. 5 -- with the need to slow the spread of the pandemic, which has killed more than 55,000 people in the U.K., including over 3,000 in the past week.
Vaccines will form a major part of coming out of the pandemic, and the U.K.’s vaccine procurement program has left it well-placed to capitalize on progress being made by the pharmaceuticals industry.
Even before the vaccines had been tested, the U.K. had pre-ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca one. It also has bought 5 million doses of a third vaccine being developed by Moderna Inc. that’s also yielded positive results this month.
“All three are showing that they are effective, and all three are now going to need to be looked at by the regulator to double, triple-check that they are safe,” Hancock told LBC Radio on Monday, adding that the vaccines have different properties that will be incorporated into the vaccination program.
Under Johnson’s new plan, non-essential retailers and gyms will be allowed to reopen, and a curfew on hospitality businesses will be moved to 11pm from 10pm, according to a person familiar with the guidelines. More areas will be placed into the higher tiers of restrictions, with stricter limits on household mixing. Details of exactly where will be announced on Thursday.
But the prime minister is facing a rebellion from a group of 70 MPs from his Conservative Party, who warned they’ll not back the return of the tiered structure unless ministers provide a full “cost-benefit” analysis of the plan.
Parliament is due to vote on the new rules before they come into force, and if all the signatories to the letter join the opposition parties to vote against Johnson, the government would face defeat.
“We cannot support this approach further unless the government demonstrates the restrictions proposed for after Dec. 2 will have an impact on slowing the transmission of Covid, and will save more lives than they cost,” they wrote in a letter to Johnson. “The lockdown cure prescribed runs the very real risk of being worse than the disease.”
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak sought to reassure the potential rebels, saying the cost to livelihoods, particularly in the retail and hospitality sectors, is being taken into account along with wider health impacts.
“Restrictions on businesses’ ability to trade are enormously damaging, not just for them, but for the people that they employ,” Sunak told the BBC on Sunday. “As we’ve learned more, there’s opportunities for us to look and refine things.”
The opposition Labour Party said it will “look closely” at the new proposals before deciding whether to support them. There needs to be better financial help for people affected by the restrictions and certainty for businesses, the party said.
Under the new program, care workers, employees in food manufacturing, prisons and vaccination centers will be offered weekly swabs. Increased testing will also be used to allow more visits to residents in care homes, Johnson’s office said.
Universities have also been offered mass asymptomatic testing to ensure students can safely travel home for Christmas.