Boris Johnson has warned the UK is still in a “pretty precarious” position as ministers prepare for the easing of lockdown restrictions from early March.
The Prime Minister said the process would be gradual, with no great “open sesame” moment when curbs on freedoms are suddenly lifted.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged Britons to stick to coronavirus regulations and not “blow it” as the vaccination campaign makes progress, with more than four million people having received a first dose.
The latest figures showed a record 37,475 people were in hospital with coronavirus, while there had been a further 599 reported deaths within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 and 37,535 new cases.
The Prime Minister said decisions on loosening England’s stay-home order will be based in part on progress in the vaccination programme.
The Government is on track to vaccinate around 15 million high-priority people across the UK by February 15, including health and social care staff, the elderly and people in care homes.
Once those vaccines have taken effect, around two to three weeks later ministers will consider whether lockdown measures can be eased.
Mr Johnson, on a visit to the manufacturing facility for the Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine, said: “I understand completely that people want to get back to normal as fast as we possibly can. It does depend on things going well.
“It depends on the vaccination programme going well, it depends on there being no new variants that throw our plans out and we have to mitigate against, and it depends on everybody, all of us, remembering that we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Mid-February would be the time to take stock of the situation, he said.
“It’s only really then that we can talk about the way ahead and what steps we can take to relax.
“I’m afraid I’ve got to warn people it will be gradual, you can’t just open up in a great open sesame, in a great bang, because I’m afraid the situation is still pretty precarious.”
Mr Johnson suggested “things will be very different by the spring” and claimed the UK would be capable of a “very powerful economic recovery” as it emerges from the crisis.
At a Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock said the vaccine programme is “one of the biggest civilian operations that this country has ever undertaken”.
But despite the progress – which has seen more than half the over-80s and half of elderly care home residents given a jab – Mr Hancock urged adherence to the rules on social distancing.
“Don’t blow it now, we’re on the route out,” he said. “We’re protecting the most vulnerable, we’re getting the virus under control.
“Together, I know that we can do it.”
In other developments:
– Family doctors have been told by NHS officials in England to have a list of back-up patients and staff who can receive the jab at short notice to prevent any waste of vaccine stock.
– The Welsh Government faced accusations of a “go-slow” vaccination strategy after First Minister Mark Drakeford said there was “no point” in rushing to administer all available doses this week if it meant vaccinators were “standing around with nothing to do for another month”.
– Nicola Sturgeon said she was “hopeful” that all adults in Scotland would have been given their first dose of coronavirus vaccine by September.
– The latest Government data showed that of the 315 local areas in England, 28 (9%) have seen a rise in case rates in the seven days to January 14 compared with the previous week, while 286 (91%) have seen a fall and one is unchanged.
– NHS data showed London had administered the lowest number of vaccinations in England’s regions, with a total of 417,225 first and second doses between December 8 and January 17, while the Midlands had delivered 746,487.
Progress in the vaccination effort came with hospitals still under intense pressure.
NHS England’s medical director Professor Stephen Powis said around 15,000 people had been admitted to hospitals with coronavirus since Christmas Eve.
He said: “It is absolutely critical that we continue to stick to those social distancing rules that are in place. That we don’t rely yet on vaccines coming to our rescue.
“It will be some time before the effects of the vaccination programme are seen through into reducing pressure on hospitals. We all have a role to play in reducing the risk of transmission.”
The chief executive of the NHS Confederation warned that the health service could hit the limit of critical care beds this week.
Speaking to Times Radio, Danny Mortimer praised the determination of critical care staff in tackling the surge in cases, saying: “I think this next week, we will be at the limit of what we probably have the physical space and the people to safely do.
“And of course, this is the week when we expect also the highest rate of admissions, the highest demand for the care that we’re providing.”
Mr Mortimer said the NHS has 5,500 critical care beds, up from 4,000 a year ago, with several hundred more due to become available on Monday.