Health Secretary Matt Hancock has pleaded with the public to follow coronavirus rules as new figures show nearly 2.3 million people in the UK have had a vaccine jab.
Mr Hancock said the new variant of coronavirus is “highly contagious and it is putting the NHS under very significant pressure” as he addressed a Downing Street briefing.
He echoed comments made earlier by England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, saying “we’re at the worst point in this pandemic”.
And he added: “The NHS, more than ever before, needs everybody to be doing something right now – and that something is to follow the rules.
“I know there has been speculation about more restrictions, and we don’t rule out taking further action if it is needed, but it is your actions now that can make a difference.
“Stay at home, and please reduce all social contact that is not absolutely strictly necessary. That’s what is needed: act like you have the virus.”
New figures show the number of people in the UK to have been given a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine is nearly 2.3 million.
Some 78,005 first doses have been given in Northern Ireland, on top of the 1,959,151 in England, 86,039 in Wales and 163,377 in Scotland – to give a UK total of 2,286,572.
So far, 388,677 second doses have also been given.
Mr Hancock said vaccination was the “fastest route to safely lifting restrictions” and the Government was on track to vaccinate the 15 million people most at risk by middle of February.
He said two fifths of over-80s have now received their first dose, while almost a quarter of care home residents have received theirs, with a commitment to reach all residents by the end of January.
He also ruled out removing support or childcare bubbles, saying: “I know how important they are to people and they are an important part of the system.”
NHS England’s national medical director, Professor Stephen Powis, told the briefing that vaccination would gradually lead to a drop in people in hospital.
“But we are not going to see it now,” he said. “We are not going to see it next week or the week after.
“It won’t be until we get to February that we are going to see the early signs of that.
“The vaccination programme gives hope but to battle the virus today, we have to comply with the guidelines today.”
He said more than 1,200 vaccination sites in England would be in place by the end of the week, including community pharmacies.
The NHS was “in a sprint” to reach the top four priority groups by mid-February, followed by the rest of the vulnerable groups by April, with a final push to offer all adults over 18 a vaccination by the autumn.
Overall, there will be 2,700 vaccine sites across the UK, according to the Government’s vaccine rollout plan.
The document sets out plans to vaccinate at least two million people a week, with ministers pledging that “tens of millions will be immunised by spring”.
Earlier, Boris Johnson warned that tougher lockdown measures may be needed as he stressed “now is the moment for maximum vigilance”.
It comes amid increasing calls for tougher lockdown restrictions – including from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – as case rates soar in several parts of the country.
During a visit to a vaccine centre in Ashton Gate Stadium, Bristol, the Prime Minister said: “We’re going to keep the rules under constant review.
“Where we have to tighten them, we will.
“We have rules in place already which, if they are properly followed, we believe can make a huge, huge difference.
“It’s now that people need to focus… when they’re out shopping, whether they’re buying cups of coffee in the park or whatever it happens to be, they need to think about spreading the disease.”
Mr Johnson said that “more important than us just pushing out new rules”, people should follow existing guidance.
“Of course, if we feel that things are not being properly observed then we may have to do more,” he added.
In the Downing Street briefing, Mr Hancock said he wanted Britons to “have that great British summer” and for life to return to normal “as fast as possible”.
Asked about Covid-19 restrictions, Mr Hancock was pressed on whether people should exercise seven miles from their home – thought to be a reference to reports that the Prime Minister cycled in east London at the weekend.
The Health Secretary said: “Yes, you can go and exercise in the park with one other person, but only one other person.
“And we have been seeing large groups and that is not acceptable.”
He added: “Likewise, it is OK, if you went for a long walk and ended up seven miles away from home, that is OK.
“But, you should stay local, you should not go from one side of a country to another, potentially taking the virus with you.”
– The biggest increases in Covid-19 case rates are now happening outside the south and east of England, analysis by the PA news agency shows. The Liverpool City Region and parts of the West Midlands have seen particularly sharp rises.
– Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi suggested that police officers, teachers and other critical workers will be in the “highest category of phase two” of the vaccine rollout.
– Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the “over-riding message” was Scotland was now in the “most perilous and serious position since the start of the pandemic”.
– Sir Richard Branson has paid tribute to his mother, Eve, who has died from Covid-19 aged 96.
Earlier, Prof Whitty warned the UK has not yet hit the peak of the current wave of Covid-19 infections, with the next few weeks being “the worst” of the pandemic for the NHS.
He said the vaccine rollout offered hope that lockdown restrictions could be lifted in the coming months but told BBC Breakfast: “We will get through together but at this point in time we’re at the worst point in the epidemic for the UK.”
The situation in the NHS is very serious and the number of people in ICU is rising rapidly.
We are improving our knowledge on how best to treat people in ICU thanks to research, but hundreds of people a day are currently dying.
We must all take the lockdown very seriously. https://t.co/ByWz4ejwz5
— Professor Chris Whitty (@CMO_England) January 8, 2021
Currently, around one in 50 people in England is infected, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures.
Prof Whitty said: “There’s a very high chance that if you meet someone unnecessarily they will have Covid.”
He added: “This is the most dangerous time we have really had in terms of numbers into the NHS at this particular time.”