Vaccinations against coronavirus will continue on Christmas Day as part of a national drive to halt the spread of the new mutant strain spreading across the country.
Britain’s GP surgeries and hospital hubs have seen more than 100,000 bookings for the Pfizer jabs this week, NHS sources say.
Medical staff are preparing to inoculate patients throughout the week, even in areas that face fresh restrictions, to maintain the rapid progress being made since Britain rolled out the world’s first vaccination programme, The Times reports.
But concerns among GPs and care staff have been growing over fears they will not be able to maintain the current rate of vaccination, as some had to cancel appointments with cancer and heart patients due to a lack of staff or insufficient space to inoculate hundreds of people a day while maintaining non-coronavirus care.
It comes as Health Secretary Matt Hancock voiced hopes that ‘several million people’ could be vaccinated by Christmas.
Yesterday it was revealed that more than 350,000 people have been vaccinated by the Pfizer/BioNTech jab in Britain, amid hopes that Oxford University’s inoculation could be approved by the New Year.
A patient receives an injection of their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in their car at a drive-in vaccination centre in Hyde, Greater Manchester
Boris Johnson announced the figure at a Downing Street briefing, where the Government also confirmed London and swathes of the South East will be placed under new Tier 4 restrictions from midnight.
BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said that doctors are ‘working flat out’ to distribute the coronavirus vaccine but it would take three to four months for enough of the population be vaccinated.
He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: ‘We have been working seven days a week, 8am to 8pm.
‘It will take, unfortunately, three to four months for enough of the population to be vaccinated.
‘Therefore there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I hope people, the public, can understand and be patient, carrying on being responsible, follow the rules and measures because we will, if all goes well, in a few months, be able to mix with family, friends and relatives.’
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt claimed on Saturday that the available doses of the Pfizer vaccine will run out in January and that another shipment is not due until March, meaning the vaccination programme could grind to a halt.
Pictured: John Schofield is injected with his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine
He said the Oxford vaccine would make a ‘massive difference’ because ‘the doses that we have of the Pfizer vaccine will keep us going until the end of January and I think we’re not getting another shipment until March.’
But a Pfizer spokesman responded by telling MailOnline that deliveries of their vaccine are ‘on track’ and that new shipments will arrive ‘before March’.
It had already emerged last week that it would take a decade to vaccinate all of Britain’s 30million vulnerable residents if the mammoth jab operation continues at its current speed.
NHS staff are facing a rush to use every dose of the Pfizer vaccine within five days of them leaving cold storage, leading to some patients being offered one by their GP and hospital on the same day.
The time restraint has also led to some vaccination sites with leftover doses offering them to NHS staff to make the most of the urgent situation.
Matt Hancock has today suggested that draconian Tier 4 restrictions could be in place ‘until we have the vaccine rolled out’.
The Health Secretary said people in Tier 4 areas should behave as if they are infected in order to combat the new variant of the disease which spreads quicker than its predecessor.
A member of staff prepares an injection of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at a drive-in vaccination centre in Hyde, Greater Manchester, northwest England on December 17
He said the new strain can be caught ‘more easily from a smaller amount of the virus being present’ as he confirmed areas subject to the toughest restrictions are likely to be in the top tier for the long haul.
The Cabinet minister said ‘we have got a long way to go to sort this’ and it will be ‘very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out’.
Britain has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, seven million of the Moderna, and 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine.
But the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has still not approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
The makers of the only vaccine approved for UK use, the Pfizer and BioNTech version, have been hit by shortages of raw materials.
The Moderna vaccine, approved for use in the United States, reports a 94.1% efficacy in phase 3 trials, but Britain’s order will likely not arrive in Europe until spring next year – and it is still yet to be approved by the MHRA.
Dr Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at the Wellcome Trust, said: ‘This has been such a difficult year for so many of us. What shines through for me is the astonishing speed of vaccine development.
‘But we cannot become complacent. The world faces a staggering logistical challenge in manufacturing, delivering and rolling out billions of doses to every country.’
Draconian new restrictions imposed on swathes of Britons last night were drawn up after the number of people carrying the coronavirus more than trebled in a week.
The rapid rise in areas which were last night plunged into new tier 4 measures is said to be down to a new virus strain, which was first announced on Monday.
Last night Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, warned: ‘The virus has taken off – it’s moving fast.’
The restrictions will apply in London, Kent, Essex, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey, Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings, all of which were previously in tier 3.
Epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said: ‘This is the worst moment of the epidemic because of the extraordinary infectivity of the new strain.’
Last night Sir Patrick Vallance, (pictured) the Government’s chief scientific adviser, warned: ‘The virus has taken off – it’s moving fast’
He added: ‘This strain has been increasing exponentially during the lockdown and during the tier 3 restrictions that Kent and other parts of the South East have been under.
‘Although the lockdown was enough to bring cases down elsewhere, it was not enough to stop this strain from spreading rapidly. We will need much more severe measures to bring the incidence down.
‘Worse than that, we are starting from a very high incidence already with hospitals stretched and NHS staff under strain. It is a very perilous situation.’
Analysis show that the worst-hit area was Rochford, Essex, where the number of cases increased by 207 per cent, from 180 to 533 in a week. Elsewhere in Essex, Castle Point saw a 183 per cent increase, from 182 cases to 516, and Epping Forest recorded a spike of 140 per cent.
Infections in some London boroughs have increased by nearly 150 per cent.
Richmond saw cases spike by 148.4 per cent, Enfield 109.5 per cent, Lewisham 137.5 per cent, Hammersmith and Fulham 130 per cent, Southwark 117.2 per cent, Sutton 118.9 per cent and Lambeth 152.3 per cent.
The number of people in Kent catching the virus has also soared. There was a 118 per cent increase in Sevenoaks, with 942 cases, up from 431, while Swale has the most cases in the county with 1,127.
Big increases have been recorded in commuter-belt towns such as Woking in Surrey with 327 infections recorded up to December 14.
Cases in West Berkshire rose by 149 per cent, from 149 cases to 244, while infections in Rother spiked by 123 per cent.
The rapid rise in areas which were last night plunged into new tier 4 measures is said to be down to a new virus strain, which was first announced on Monday
Mole Valley, which lies at the heart of Surrey, mid-way between London and the Sussex coast, more than doubled its figures from 70 to 177 cases, and Reigate and Banstead saw a 132 per cent increase.
Professor Chris Whitty told a Downing Street briefing yesterday that there had been a ‘really dramatic’ increase in the proportion of cases seen with the new variant.
Screening tests suggest that in the South East of England, 43 per cent of the virus was now the new variant, in the East it was 59 per cent and in London 62 per cent. The new strain is thought to have spread along a corridor from Kent to London, before seeding in the capital and then spreading to the Home Counties via commuter routes. The Office for National Statistics estimated that 567,300 people had Covid last week, up from 481,500 seven days earlier.
Tracey Crouch, Tory MP for Chatham and Aylesford in Kent, responded to the latest surge by tweeting: ‘I feel quite down (personally & professionally) about tougher restrictions… but I also understand why this has happened.
‘Our local hospitals have reached capacity, the virus and its new variant is rife in our community. Focus must be on vaccine rollout.’
Tudor Price, deputy chief of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, said the new restrictions for the county were ‘disappointing but not surprising’. He said: ‘It’s the worst of all possible situations from a business point of view but understandable from a public health point of view. I am extremely empathetic towards those businesses that now have to close.’
Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale, whose constituency North Thanet is also in Kent, said: ‘It is very hard but if we are to enjoy Christmas and at the same time stay safe, it is vital that everyone sticks to the restrictions that have been announced this afternoon.
‘The alternative will be a truly dangerous and terrible start to 2021.’