Britain closed in Friday on a mid-February target to offer coronavirus vaccinations to 15 million of the most vulnerable people in the UK, raising hopes it could lead to restrictions being eased.
More than 13.5 million people have been given a jab since the country’s biggest-ever immunisation programme began in early December, with a daily average of 431,232 receiving a vaccine last week.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to offer jabs to all those in its top four priority groups—which includes over-70s, care home residents and some key workers—by the end of this week.
The devolved government in Wales, which controls its own health policy, said it will reach its target of vaccinating the top four categories on Friday.
Figures showed nearly 22 percent of people in Wales have been vaccinated, compared to 20.3 percent in England, 19.2 percent in Scotland and 18.7 percent in Northern Ireland.
The UK government in London, which is responsible for sourcing vaccines, is next aiming to have offered jabs to all over-50s by May and the entire adult population by September.
Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford said the successful vaccine rollout combined with falling infection rates could soon allow for some restrictions to be lifted “carefully and cautiously”.
“We can see a path into the spring where it will be possible for us to go back to doing some of the things that we’re all missing so much,” he told the BBC.
Infection rates have dropped markedly across Britain over recent weeks, as strict lockdown measures have curbed previously spiralling case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths.
That has prompted calls for the stay-at-home rules to be lifted in early March.
Johnson has vowed to review all relevant data next week, ahead of setting out the government’s “roadmap” for reopening the following week.
Ministers have said ensuring the return of in-person schooling for some students will be the immediate priority.
Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, one of the government’s most high-profile scientific advisers, said Britain was now “in a better place than I might have anticipated a month ago”.
Johnson will “have some bandwidth” to start reopening primary schools in March before potentially easing other restrictions the following month, he said.
But he cautioned against moving too hastily.
“If we relax too quickly without seeing the effect of each stage of relaxation, we may do what we’ve done before and relax too much, see a surge in case numbers, and still need to tighten up measures again,” Ferguson told Politico’s “Westminster Insider” podcast.
The government is also facing pressure from some of its own lawmakers to act.
Mark Harper, who chairs the COVID Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, said this week there was no case “for any legal restrictions” once the most vulnerable have been inoculated.
“Vaccinating the top 9 vulnerability groups will reduce COVID deaths by 99 percent & COVID hospitalisations by about 80 percent,” he added on Twitter.
“After we have protected all those vulnerable people, what arguments remain to keep any legal restrictions in place?”