OVER 50s could be vaccinated by the end of March if the programme continues at its current speed.
There are 17.2 million people in the priority groups left to receive their first dose, including everyone from the age of 50 to 70.
They could all receive their first dose by March if the current vaccination rate – 430,000 doses per day – continues.
The Government has set a less ambitious target of the end of April.
Sir Simon Stevens said the end of April has been set as the target to vaccinate the top nine priority groups due to “likely vaccine supply”.
But he added that “if supply increases then we think we can go faster”.
Experts say the April target is likely to avoid overpromising, after a string of failures in reaching milestones.
Dr Andrew Preston, a reader in microbial pathogenesis and expert in vaccines, University of Bath, told The Sun: “Having a target of vaccinating all nine priority groups by the end of April doesn’t preclude this being completed earlier.
“The government has taken so much flak from missing other targets that perhaps they have finally learned to create targets that are achievable with a margin, and that under-promising and over-achieving is the best combination.”
He said vaccinating all nine priority groups is often associated with a green light for lifting the lockdown.
Therefore, “if the target were shifted to end of March, then there will be great pressure to have re-opening shifted to match, and I think No.10 really don’t want to be bullied.”
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist and oncologist at the University of Warwick, said it will be important to vaccinate “the 50-70 group as soon as possible”.
He told The Sun it was “worth noting that while most covid deaths are in the over 70s, this age group is responsible for just over half of the hospitalisations – so need to protect the 50-70 age group where most of this additional health burden resides before significant easing of lockdown”.
Whether the Government can reach all over 50s by the end of March comes down to a consistent stream of supplies.
But it also depends on leaving no less than 12 weeks between an individual’s two jab doses.
Prof Young said: “The problem with vaccination roll out now is that from March people will start needing their second dose and that this will impact the rate at which new first doses can be given because of vaccine supply and logistics.”
More than 1.5 million people who were inoculated with their first dose in December cannot wait any longer than March to receive their second dose.
However, the millions who received their first dose in January, when the rollout significantly ramped up, can theoretically wait until the start of April for their second dose.
It frees up the supplies for the first-dose rollout across March.
At the moment, the second dose rollout is moving at a very slow pace – around 3,700 a day – but it is slowly increasing.
If the second dose rollout is ramped up, the speed at which over 50s are given their first dose could be slowed down.
Dr Preston said: “We will start to hit the 12 weeks for those who have been vaccinated, meaning that doses will have to be split between second doses and ‘new’ vaccinations.”
By April and into the summer, hundreds of thousands of people will need their second dose per day.
If vaccine supplies do not increase, it means there will be no other doses left to offer new people aged under 50 their first dose.
Gabriel Scally, a public health physician and president of epidemiology and public health at Royal Society of Medicine, told the Sun: “There is a real question there – can they step up, and do they have enough vaccines, to double run? To keep up the pace of hundreds of thousands of new people a day, plus doing the second vaccines as well.
“That’s a big ask. It is in effect doubling the size of the programme if they wanted to continue at the same pace.”
NHS boss Sir Simon told a Downing Street press conference the “second sprint” of the rollout will require a doubling in supplies – but he did not clarify when this would need to happen.
He said: “As well as opening up the invitations to more than 14 million new people in England – in the groups that we’re now talking about – we’ve also got the second doses to administer for those who have had their first dose.
“And when we look at the likely vaccine supply that we will have available to us between now and the end of April, that appears to be what we can do.
“If supply increases then we think we can go faster.
“But that at the moment represents still a doubling of the number of vaccines delivered over the next 10 or 11 weeks compared to those that have been delivered over the last 10 weeks.
“So it is a pretty substantial ramp-up in this second sprint that we’re about to embark on.”
‘CAREFUL APPROACH’ NEEDED
Prof Scally has warned against “repeating the mistakes that we made in the past by loosening restrictions in places where there still is a lot of circulating virus”.
And Dr Preston said: “It’s the usual case of the impossible balancing act of preventing Covid-mortality and morbidity on one side versus all of the collateral damage the restrictions cause on the other side.”
It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said falling Covid rates are paving the way for the nation to get back to normal.
He told CBS News: “Thanks to the efforts of the British people, the lockdown, plus possibly the effect of the vaccine, we’re going to see the rates coming down more sharply.
“They’re falling at the moment. We want to be in a position where we can begin to open up.”
Mr Johnson is putting the final touches to his long-awaited roadmap out of lockdown, which he is due to unveil on February 22.
The blueprint is not expected to set out specific dates for unlocking — except for schools, on March 8.
Meeting a pal for a coffee outside is set to be allowed on the same day.
This will be followed by all non-essential shops opening, then pubs and restaurants will be allowed to serve punters outside.
The PM also wants to bring back the Rule of Six for outdoors — where the virus finds it far harder to spread.
Dozens of MPs are urging for the lockdown to end as soon as the most vulnerable are vaccinated amid accusations of scientists “moving the goalposts”.
More than 60 MPs on the Covid Recovery Group said schools “must” return by March 8 as planned with pubs and restaurants reopening from Easter.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the Government would take a “careful” approach towards the easing of lockdown restrictions.
“We do need to be very careful how we proceed. We have made good progress. We don’t want to see that unravel because we go too far too quick,” he told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
Asked if he agrees that if all nine priority groups are vaccinated then restrictions should end, he said the Government will not make what feels to him like a “slightly arbitrary commitment”.
Today the Prime Minister’s spokesperson said the government was considering a range of data to lift lockdown, including infection numbers and the R rate.
Despite infection rates falling across the UK, they still remain at high levels.
Some 10,972 new infections were reported yesterday – down from 11,892 a week earlier.