Vaccines are not doing enough “heavy lifting” at the moment and case rates need to drop further before the Government can think of easing restrictions, the UK’s chief scientific adviser has said.
Sir Patrick Vallance said the country still has a long way to go in battling coronavirus – describing scenes in some hospitals as a “war zone” – but added there is “light at the end of the tunnel”.
It comes as calculations by the PA news agency show the Government needs to hit an average of 384,000 first doses per day to reach a target of vaccinating 15 million of the most vulnerable by February 15.
New figures released on Wednesday show the total number of people given first doses in Great Britain now stands at nearly 4.5 million.
The Government has pledged that all those in the top priority groups, including the over-70s and frontline health and social care workers, will have received an offer to have had their first dose of the jab given to them by mid-February.
In a Q&A with Sky News viewers, Sir Patrick was asked if the lockdown would be kept in place if infection figures stayed the same or dropped.
“The advice at the moment is vaccines are not going to do the heavy lifting for us at the moment, anywhere near it,” he said.
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“This is about, I’m afraid, the restrictive measures which we’re all living under and carrying on with those.
“The numbers are nowhere near where they need to be at the moment, they need to come down quite a lot further – we need to make sure we stick with it.
“You go for a walk in the park or something, life looks normal; you go for a walk in a hospital, if you work in a hospital, you will see life not looking normal at all.
“This is a really difficult, dangerous situation we’re in, and we need to get the numbers down, so I don’t see a release of these measures as being a sensible thing to do in the short term.”
He said it was hoped that as the vaccine took effect and cases dropped, it would be possible to start a gradual release of some of the measures.
But he warned: “I think it’s important to recognise this is not going to be a sort of big bang, ‘great, take the lid off, everything’s fine, we can all go back to normal’.
“This is going to be a slow release, monitoring carefully, understanding the effects.”
Sir Patrick said that through the summer and into winter “things will be a lot better” because a large proportion of the population will have been vaccinated.
But regarding the current situation in the NHS, he said: “This is very, very bad at the moment, with enormous pressure, and in some cases it looks like a war zone in terms of the things that people are having to deal with.”
In a direct message to the public, Sir Patrick said: “There’s light at the end of the tunnel, science is going to get us out of this, and we’re on the way.
“We need to carry on doing what we’re doing and a big thank you to everybody.
“It’s really tough to keep these restrictions in place, it’s really tough on children, it’s really tough on all of us.
“Please keep going because if we can keep this under control, if we can drive these numbers down, that’s what’s going to get us out of this sooner.”
It comes as analysis by PA shows Covid-19 case rates in two regions of England are at their lowest level since before Christmas.
In London, the rolling seven-day rate as of January 15 stood at 703.7 cases per 100,000 people – down from 1,053.4 a week earlier, and the lowest since the seven days to December 19.
Eastern England is currently recording a seven-day rate of 526.8, down from 763.5 and the lowest since December 20.
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All regions of England are continuing to show a week-on-week fall in seven-day rates, though levels are dropping faster in some areas than others.
Earlier, Professor Calum Semple, from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which advises ministers, told Sky News he agreed it was “not the time to relax” restrictions and some measures may be required next winter.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he said: “One in eight to one in 10 people have had this illness and, although we have vaccinated the most very susceptible people, there are a large number of people, perhaps 80% to 90% of the population, (who) are still susceptible to getting severe disease that would cause hospitalisation and put them at risk of long Covid.”
Elsewhere, Home Secretary Priti Patel stressed that the UK would see “inconsistencies” in vaccine supply due to changes at manufacturing plants.
Pfizer has said it is reducing deliveries for the next three to four weeks while it makes improvements to its factory in Belgium, while AstraZeneca expects to scale up to two million doses per week before or by mid-February.
Ms Patel told Good Morning Britain manufacturing reconfigurations make it challenging in terms of having a streamlined approach to the delivery of the vaccine, adding: “There are going to be inconsistencies in terms of vaccine rollout and we are seeing that.”
Asked about the UK’s high death toll, she said there were a “range of reasons” for the UK’s “appalling” death toll, mentioning how people with “comorbidities” are “more susceptible to this virus”.
She told Good Morning Britain the death toll was “catastrophic” but argued that it could not have been known how deadly coronavirus would be when the outbreak struck last year.
It comes as the British Medical Association (BMA) criticised the Government over a lack of transparency around vaccine supply which is impacting the speed at which jabs are rolled out.
In a statement to PA, GP committee chairman Dr Richard Vautrey said the past few weeks “has seen an enormous effort on the part of GPs and other healthcare workers to roll out the vaccination to as many people as possible”.
But he added: “Unfortunately, we are hearing of supply issues which are impacting the speed of the rollout of the vaccine.
“Despite having the staff and resources available, some GP-led sites are not able to vaccinate patients at the rate at which they could if they had continued access to the vaccine.
“As well as accelerating the delivery of supplies to ready and willing sites across the country, the Government needs to be honest both with the public and practices about what supplies are available.”
It comes as Sherwood Forest Hospitals and University Hospitals Birmingham are confirmed as the first sites to pilot the delivery of Covid vaccines 24/7.