However, fears of a third lockdown also rose and scientists warned that a new South African mutation of the virus could pose a bigger threat than the Kent variant behind the current surge.
An 82-year-old retired maintenance manager with kidney disease become the first person in the world to receive the new Oxford University and AstraZeneca vaccine outside clinical trials at 7.30am.
Brian Pinker told reporters he was “proud” to receive the injection in Oxford where British scientists conceived the first vaccine suitable for mass deployment throughout the world, costing £3 a shot and stored at an ordinary fridge temperature.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock refused to rule out another lockdown, saying rises in Tier 3 areas driven by the new variant first found in Kent could mean those places, including Bristol and Liverpool, being put into Tier 4, the same as London. That would mean almost the entire country being in Tier 4, the toughest level.
Boris Johnson confirmed that tougher measures will be announced soon. Speaking during a visit to Chase Farm Hospital in north London, he warned there were “tough, tough” weeks to come.
He added: “If you look at the numbers there’s no question we will have to take tougher measures and we will be announcing those in due course.”
- Ministers in all four nations are set to discuss potential tougher restrictions within days. Boris Johnson was chairing a meeting of the Cabinet’s regular Covid committee to discuss pressures on NHS wards, with officials expecting that the “O” committee, which would consider possible curbs, to meet soon. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon was preparing a statement amid expectations of a stricter “stay at home” message
- Pressure was on ministers to deliver the new target of two million vaccinations a week. Some 530,000 Oxford doses are at hand, with tens of millions promised by the end of March. Officials say the only limit is on how whether they can be supplied by the makers
- Leading scientist Sir John Bell, who helped develop the Oxford jab, said there was “a big question mark” over whether the South African mutation might overcome current vaccines. “The mutations associated with the South African form are really pretty substantial changes in the structure of the protein,” he told Times Radio. “My gut feeling is the vaccine will be still effective against the Kent strain. I don’t know about the South African strain — there’s a big question mark about that.” He said the new strain was more worrying “by some margin” but that a new vaccine to target it could be developed quickly
- Two London hospitals were among the first six to deliver the Oxford vaccine in today’s first wave: Royal Free Hospital London NHS Foundation Trust, and St Thomas’s. Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust also delivered the jab. The aim is to have 1,000 centres up and running by the weekend
- The armed forces stepped up their role, with Covid Support Force numbers in London rising to 87 in the Joint Medical Centre London and 170 deploying tomorrow in support of schools testing
- Teaching unions combined to demand the closure of all schools. In a joint statement, the GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, Unison and Unite, claimed staff were being exposed to “serious risk of ill-health”. Government officials said the rate of infection for teachers was no higher than other professions.
The day started with smiles as dialysis patient Mr Pinker rolled up his sleeve to be injected by nurse Sam Foster at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s Churchill Hospital.
“I am so pleased to be getting the Covid vaccine today and really proud that it is one that was invented in Oxford,” he said.
Trevor Cowlett, 88, a music teacher, and Professor Andrew Pollard, a paediatrician working at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust who also pioneered the Oxford jab, were also vaccinated. Mr Hancock called it “a pivotal moment in our fight against this awful virus”.
Asked about a third lockdown, he told ITV: “We are prepared to take the sort of action (lockdown) if that is what’s necessary.” He suggested the next move could be to turn Tier 3 areas to Tier 4, and require stricter obedience to Tier 4 restrictions.