Strain detected in England, which may be 30 percent more lethal than other variants, has spread to more than 50 nations.
The British government has declared that every adult in the country should get a first coronavirus vaccine shot by July 31, at least a month earlier than its previous target, as it prepared to set out a “cautious” plan to ease the United Kingdom’s lockdown.
The previous aim was for all adults to get a jab by September. The new target also calls for everyone 50 and above and those with an underlying health condition to get their first of two vaccine shots by April 15, rather than the previous date of May 1.
The makers of the two vaccines that Britain is using, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, have experienced supply problems in Europe. But UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday that “we now think that we have the supplies” to speed up the vaccination campaign.
The early success of Britain’s vaccination effort is welcome news for a country that has had more than 120,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest in Europe. More than 17.5 million people, a third of UK adults, have had at least one vaccine shot since inoculations began on December 8.
Britain is delaying giving second vaccine doses until 12 weeks after the first, rather than three to four weeks, in order to give more people partial protection quickly. The approach has been criticised in some countries – and by Pfizer, which says it does not have any data to support the interval – but it is backed by the UK government’s scientific advisers.
Despite the success of Europe’s fastest vaccination campaign, the UK government has been accused of failing to protect disabled people, who are among the most at-risk from coronavirus.
The Office for National Statistics has found that 60 percent of people who died of coronavirus in England in 2020 had a physical or mental disability. But many disabled people, apart from those with “severe or profound” learning disabilities, have not been put in a priority group for vaccination.
News of the new vaccine targets came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson met on Sunday with senior ministers to finalise a “road map” out of the national lockdown. He plans to announce details in Parliament on Monday.
Faced with a dominant virus variant that scientists say is more transmissible than the original virus, Britain has spent much of the winter under a tight lockdown. Bars, restaurants, gyms, schools, hair salons and all nonessential shops have been closed; grocery stores, pharmacies and takeaway food venues are still open.
The government has stressed that economic and social reopenings will be slow and cautious, with nonessential shopping or outdoor socialising unlikely before April. Many children will go back to schools beginning on March 8 and nursing home residents will be able to have one visitor from the same date.
Johnson’s Conservative government has been accused of reopening the country too quickly after the first lockdown last year. The number of new confirmed cases, hospitalisations and deaths are all declining in February but remain high, and Johnson says his reopening road map will follow “data, not dates”.
But he is under pressure from some Conservative MPs, who argue that restrictions should be lifted quickly to revive an economy that has been hammered by three lockdowns in the last year.