Every adult in Britain will be vaccinated by the end of June, senior Government figures hope, as they grow increasingly optimistic they will be able to accelerate the rollout.
The Telegraph can reveal Whitehall sources believe this target could now realistically be achieved as they plan to vaccinate four to five million people a week within months.
A further two vaccines in the pipeline, from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, could help Britain speed up the process to vaccinate all 54 million adults. A source said: "All over-18s by June – yes." They added: "It is delivery, delivery, delivery.”
While senior Government figures are now privately working to this target, the Department of Health – which said it hoped to have vaccinated "tens of millions" of Britons by April – are reluctant to publicly acknowledge a deadline.
Separately, the chief executive of Britain's new £158 million Government vaccine factory in Oxfordshire told The Telegraph it will be able to vaccinate the entire nation against dangerous new Covid strains within four months when it opens in full by the end of the year.
However, ministers are growing increasingly concerned about hitting the Government's only public target – to offer the jab to 14.9 million Britons by February 15 – due to manufacturing delays from Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
It comes as:
Armed Forces medics will spend at least two months in hospitals across the South East to help ease the pressure on frontline staff;
Councils were accused of enforcing tighter lockdown measures against Government advice by closing children’s playgrounds and beauty spot car parks;
More than one million people aged 80 or over were invited to book a coronavirus jab at a Vaccination Centre, as the NHS accelerates the immunisation programme, the biggest in health service history;
The Trump administration in Washington published fresh claims that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan;
The bold forecasts for vaccination delivery by the middle of summer came despite supply issues at both Pfizer and AstraZeneca that have left officials with "a big supply headache".
AstraZeneca is understood to have delayed its target of delivering two million vaccines a week to the UK from the end of this month to the middle of next month. Meanwhile, Pfizer said late last week it was delaying deliveries to the UK to reconfigure its manufacturing sites to boost capacity from 1.3 billion doses to two billion a year.
One source said this presented "a real challenge" to hit the target set by the Prime Minister of offering jabs to 14.9 million of the most vulnerable by the middle of February, adding: "It remains tight, very tight for our targets. It was always ambitious, massively ambitious."
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “We do not recognise the 'internal target' referenced. Our aim is to offer priority groups 1-4 their first jab by February 15.
“Through the UK vaccines delivery plan we are making fantastic progress rolling out jabs as quickly as possible to the most vulnerable.”
Ministers are also optimistic that any new vaccine to fight new variants which have emerged in Kent, South Africa and Brazil can be developed quickly.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told MPs last week that new vaccines to fight the variants can be administered in as little as 30-40 days after they were first formally identified.
One Whitehall source said AstraZeneca was already looking at the new variants to see if the vaccine needed to be tweaked.
A source close to the Sage committee added: “AstraZeneca are working on a potential vaccine. They have a team in Oxford looking at it. But they haven’t got a huge amount of data to work with, and neither do we.”
The source added: “It’s likely that the second Brazil variant will already be here, although we don’t have the detected cases yet. The data suggests it might affect the way that antibodies see the virus." AstraZeneca declined to comment.
Officials have been encouraged by data from Israel that has shown a big fall in serious illness and mortality in the over-60s by 25 per cent after two weeks of vaccinating 20 per cent of the target population.
The hope in Government is that in the UK, hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19 will fall sharply in early-March, two weeks after all of the top four priority groups have been vaccinated.
One source said: "The beauty of this is if we have vaccinated the most vulnerable then actually we are in great place because the rest of the economy can begin to open up.
“We still have to be careful – we still have to socially distance but at least we can go back to normal and know there are no more lockdowns coming.”
Writing in The Telegraph, Mark Harper, chairman of the Coronavirus Recovery Group of Tory MPs, calls for a "clear roadmap" to lift restrictions by March 8. He says: "There cannot be any more excuses and there's no need to wait until Easter. We need a clear roadmap to all our freedoms, economy and health prospects being fully restored."
Boris Johnson is due to review the rules governing the third national lockdown this week.
The UK has pre-ordered 17 million doses of the Moderna vaccine – 10 million more than planned – but supplies are not expected to arrive until spring. Britain has also already struck a deal for 30 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with the option of ordering 22 million more, but it has yet to be approved by regulators.
Dr Matthew Duchars, of the Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Oxfordshire, said: “We’ll be able to make 70 million doses within a four to five month period, enough for everyone in the country, when we open late this year.
“New Covid variants are absolutely part of the thinking. We probably will need to make seasonal vaccine variants because there may well be mutations in the virus, as well as vaccines for other diseases. You never know what’s coming next.”
Currently under construction at the Harwell Science & Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, the VMIC was first conceived in 2018 and originally planned to open in 2022.
When the Covid pandemic struck, the Government pumped a further £131 million into the not-for-profit company to bring the project forward by a year.
Much of the Pfizer and Oxford vaccine doses currently being rolled out in the UK are made in factories in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Mr Johnson has hailed the "national effort" as the latest data showed more than 3.5 million people have now received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in the UK. He tweeted: "We've given over 3.5 million vaccine doses to protect against Covid-19, with over 324,000 doses yesterday alone.
"Thank you to everyone who is helping in this fantastic national effort. Help our NHS by staying at home to save lives."