Boris Johnson celebrated a “major milestone” when the number of people in the UK receiving a coronavirus vaccine exceeded 15 million.
The prime minister said it was an “exceptional achievement” just over two months after 91-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a Covid-19 bump under a mass vaccination program.
With that, the government is firmly on track to meet its goal of offering a first dose to everyone in the UK in the top four priority groups – including those over 70 – by Monday.
In a video message posted on Twitter, Mr Johnson confirmed that it had already been passed in England, while on Friday Prime Minister Mark Drakeford said it had been reached in Wales.
The Prime Minister said: “Today we have reached a significant milestone in the UK’s national vaccination program.
“This country has done an extraordinary feat – giving a total of 15 million shocks into the arms of some of the most vulnerable people in the country.”
The announcement paves the way for the rollout to be expanded to include the next five groups – including those over 50 – which should be completed by the end of April.
In England, 1.2 million letters have already been sent to people aged 65 to 69 and the clinically weak, who invited them to make an appointment.
The news will also increase pressure on ministers to relax lockdown restrictions and reopen the economy.
Foreign Minister Dominic Raab had previously rejected an “arbitrary” demand by lockdown skeptic Tories in the Covid Research Group to undertake to lift all legal restrictions in England by the end of April.
Ministers will now begin their review of the restrictions before Mr Johnson announces on February 22nd that he has not blocked his “roadmap”.
More than 60 MEPs from the CRG endorsed a letter to the Prime Minister insisting that he commit to a fixed timetable for the end of the controls.
They said schools will have to return as planned on March 8th as pubs and restaurants will open in “economically viable ways” from Easter. The end of the lockdown is the end of April.
However, Mr Raab said that while ministers wanted to lift controls as soon as possible, it was important to make sure the disease was under control first.
“We have to be very careful how we proceed.
“We have made good progress.
“We don’t want this to go away because we’re going too far too quickly,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday program.
“We’re not making a somewhat arbitrary commitment for me without reviewing the impact of the measures on the transmission and hospital admissions of the virus.
“We need to maintain some flexibility to deal with the variants that are of course part of the pandemic but change the exact timeframe.”
However, CRG chairman Mark Harper insisted that their demands represented a “sensible” way forward as more people were protected by the vaccine.
“They are not random, arbitrary schedules.
“It’s very much related to the introduction of the vaccine,” he told Times Radio.
“When you’ve vaccinated the top nine groups, which represent 99% of the people who sadly died from Covid and around 80% of the people who are critically ill, I don’t think there is any justification for all of these draconian restrictions.”
Mr Raab said they still wanted to start schools reopening on March 8, although he wasn’t convinced they could all return at the same time, as secondary schools reportedly could return a week later.
“We will have to wait to carefully evaluate the data and enable these plans to be implemented,” he said.
“Because we are making progress, we can be sure that we can start this process.”
The foreign minister noted that enabling outdoor socializing and reopening non-essential stores would also be early priorities as controls were relaxed.
Meanwhile, in Wales, Mr Drakeford, where schools are due to reopen to some students on February 22nd, warned that they could close again if the disease recurs.
“The advice from our chief medical officer and our scientists is that you should always take action during these early stages that can be quickly undone if you need to,” he told Sky News.
“If there were unintended consequences for three- to seven-year-olds going back to school, we could of course take the opposite route.”
Despite ministers’ hopes they can begin a significant easing in England, scientists continue to warn that if they go too fast they could face another wave of the pandemic, just as bad as the current one.
During a visit to a vaccine factory in Teesside on Saturday, Mr Johnson said that while he was “optimistic” about the prospect, he would have to study the data “very, very hard” because he did not want to be forced to “reverse ferrets”.