Britain could be free of tight Covid restrictions by the end of February, after Ministers pinpointed the 15 million people who would need vaccinations to end the cycles of crippling lockdowns.
With the ‘game-changing’ Oxford jab expected to be approved within days, the Government hopes that enough doses will soon be available to inoculate those most vulnerable to coronavirus within weeks.
Writing in today’s Mail on Sunday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak says the Covid breakthroughs – combined with the newly minted post-Brexit trade deal with the EU – signalled an optimistic new era for the UK.
Hailing the ‘early roll-out of vaccines and the incredible work of our scientists and NHS’, Mr Sunak pledges that next year will be the first in a ‘new era of global Britain’. He also hopes to consign the rancour of the Brexit feuds to history, writing: ‘In 2021 we won’t be Remainers or Leavers – only believers in Britain.’
The Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency could authorise the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca as early as New Year’s Eve.
Rishi Sunak during a visit to Imperial Clinic Research Facility at Hammersmith Hospital in west London
Britain has an advance order for 100 million doses of this jab, to join a further 40 million doses of the approved Pfizer vaccine which are already being rolled out. Boris Johnson said last week that 800,000 vaccinations had been administered so far.
Government sources say that between 12 million and 15 million people have been identified as likely to require hospital treatment if they contract coronavirus, or be at risk of dying from it. Once this group has received the vaccine – which some officials hope could be achieved by the end of February – then the NHS would no longer be at risk of being overwhelmed if the virus spread through the greater population. That would remove the main argument for shutting the economy at a stroke.
A source said: ‘The path to liberation is finally becoming clear.’
This newspaper also understands that the Government is examining the possibility of accelerating the vaccination programme by giving just single rather than double doses.
The plans emerged as:
- The number of new Covid cases in Britain rose 34,693 yesterday, an increase of 1,968 on the number for the previous 24 hours, while daily deaths fell to 210 from 570;
- A further six million people in East and South-East England entered tier four, England’s highest Covid level, which includes a ‘stay at home’ order;
- Ministers privately admitted concern about the ‘theoretical possibility’ that a virulent new South African strain of the virus could render the vaccines less effective;
- Infections linked to the mutant strain previously found in London and the South East were detected in Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, linked to people who had travelled there from the UK;
- It was announced that a new antibody treatment with the potential to give instant immunity after exposure to coronavirus was being trialled by British scientists;
- A Mail on Sunday poll found that 85 per cent of people obeyed Mr Johnson’s tighter Christmas restrictions, and nearly three-quarters said that they agreed with the decision to ban family mixing;
- Former Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood called on the Government to deploy troops to carry out tests on pupils so that more schools can remain open next month;
- More than 8,000 lorry drivers who had been stuck in Kent since Christmas Eve crossed to France after the Army helped to organise a mass testing programme;
- Shoppers queued round the block on a £3 billion Boxing Day shopping spree – but only in areas which have escaped tier 4 restrictions.
The first public Pfizer vaccine was given to British patient Margaret Keenan, 91, earlier this month, but the Oxford vaccine is regarded as the game-changer because it is cheaper and easier to distribute. The new jab can be stored at normal fridge temperatures rather than the minus 70C required for Pfizer.
Football stadiums, conference centres and racecourses are expected to become makeshift vaccination hubs within days of the regulator granting approval.
The University of Oxford samples from coronavirus vaccine trials are handled inside the Oxford Vaccine Group laboratory in Oxford
The idea of administering one jab rather than two, as former Prime Minister Tony Blair called for last week to accelerate the programme, also gained more support yesterday. Pfizer says that two doses of its jab are necessary to ‘provide the maximum protection’, but Professor David Salisbury, who was in charge of immunisation at the Department of Health until 2003, supported the idea of a single dose.
‘You give one dose you get 91 per cent [protection]. You give two doses and you get 95 per cent,’ he said. ‘You are only gaining 4 per cent for giving the second dose.’
Mr Sunak’s vision of a ‘new era’ for Britain as it finally emerges from the EU and, eventually, from the Covid crisis, reflects the desire among ambitious Cabinet Ministers to take credit for the nation’s recovery.
Mr Sunak has been one of the leading anti-lockdown voices in Cabinet, appalled at the multi-billion-pound cost of shutting the economy for months at a time.
A health professional administering a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during its trial in November
His ruinously expensive furlough scheme for workers is due to run until April.
But colleagues of Health Secretary Matt Hancock, one of the leading pro-lockdown ‘doves’, also believe that he is now preparing to change his position – and try to claim credit for the vaccine programme which could ‘liberate’ the population from the misery of endless confinements.
Mr Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost echoed Mr Sunak’s clarion call about the twin boosts of a vaccine and the UK’s new trade deal with the EU, saying the country – which yesterday became the world’s fifth-largest economy after overtaking India – stood at ‘the beginning of a moment of national renewal’.
Meanwhile, sources told this newspaper how Lord Frost’s team succeeded in the trade talks by adopting the axiom of 19th Century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who once said of his diplomatic strategy that combined charm and menace: ‘With a gentleman I am always a gentleman and a half, and when I have to deal with a pirate, I try to be a pirate and a half.’
The powerful European Research Group of backbench Brexiteer Tory MPs indicated it would deliver its verdict on the deal on Tuesday – just 24 hours before the Commons debate on the deal.
ERG chairman Mark Francois said a last-minute decision was needed so they could carry out a line-by-line study of the deal.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he would back the deal in the Commons, but faced a rebellion by about 20 of his Europhile MPs who indicated that they would abstain or vote against the agreement because they didn’t want ‘Brexit blood on our hands’.
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, writing in today’s Mail on Sunday, told Mr Johnson that the Brexit ‘war is over’.
RISHI SUNAK: In 2021 we won’t be Remainers or Leavers – only believers in Britain
This has been a tough year for everyone in this country. We all know businesses which have had to close or friends who have lost their jobs. We all have loved ones we’ve not been able to see, and just two days ago we all celebrated a Christmas sadly unlike any other.
There will be tough days and months ahead, but there are reasons to look ahead to a brighter future and what 2021 promises. The early roll-out of vaccines – and the incredible work of our scientists and NHS – means we can now see light at the end of the tunnel with this pandemic.
The free-trade deal the Prime Minister has negotiated with the EU means we can, after four years of debate and dither, move on from Brexit and toward a future in which we can now take the right long-term decisions for our country.
I campaigned to leave the EU, and I was always clear that leaving on World Trade Organisation terms would be necessary if we couldn’t secure an agreement which respected the fundamental principle of the United Kingdom’s sovereignty. But leaving with a deal is better for us and better for our friends across the Channel.
This is the largest free trade agreement in history, covering trade that was worth £668 billion in 2019. It’s the first free trade agreement the EU has struck based on zero tariffs and zero quotas – meaning our businesses can export easily and we keep prices down in our shops.
At a time when our number one priority has been protecting jobs, when we’ve taken the unprecedented step of paying people’s wages through the furlough scheme, this deal will also help keep people in work.
And this is a deal which works for all nations of our Union – for Welsh farmers, for Scottish distilleries, Northern Irish fishermen and English cheesemakers.
Most importantly, this deal delivers on the instruction of the British people from the 2016 referendum and the General Election last year. We will take back control of our money, borders, laws, trade and our fishing waters.
We will have full flexibility to implement our points-based immigration system to welcome in talented people from all around the world as free movement ends.
But I don’t want 2021 to just be the year we delivered on promises made in 2016. I want next year to be the start of something much more meaningful for all of us. A moment to look afresh at the world and the opportunities it presents, and to consider how to take advantage of them.
In 2021 we won’t be Remainers or Leavers – only believers in Britain. We will benefit from our new-found freedom and autonomy outside of the EU, as we rebuild our economy and recover from Covid.
Next year is the first in a new era of global Britain and all it has to offer. We will strike trade deals with new markets, reasserting ourselves as a liberal and free trading nation; and acting with a strong moral anchor, as a force for good in the world. And we will invest in our country to build opportunity for everyone. Whether it be new roads or rail connecting our towns and cities, leading the world in creating green jobs, or rewarding risk-takers and entrepreneurs who want to invest in the new freeports we will open next year, this is a new start for us all.
This deal has got Brexit done. Now let’s move on together.
Euphoric negotiator Frost hails ‘moment of renewal’
Britain’s deal with Brussels is the ‘beginning of a moment of national renewal’, according to the UK’s chief negotiator.
Lord Frost hailed ‘one of the biggest and broadest agreements ever’, saying it ensured the UK ‘sets its own laws again’. He added: ‘All choices are in our hands as a country and it’s now up to us to decide how we use them and how we go forward in the future.’
Lord Frost’s euphoria follows almost 12 months of gruelling negotiations, culminating in an all-night haggling session over the quotas for individual species of fish.
MPs will vote on the deal in Parliament on Wednesday, with the UK to exit existing trading rules on Thursday. The European Parliament also needs to ratify it, while EU ambassadors received a Christmas Day briefing on the trade deal from EU negotiator Michel Barnier.
A 1,246-page document, including 800 pages of annexes and footnotes, setting out the post-Brexit relationship with the EU, has been published on the UK Government’s website.
Lord Frost said: ‘There’s no more role for the European Court of Justice, there’s no direct effects of EU law, there’s no alignment of any kind, and we’re out of the single market and out of the customs union, just as the manifesto said we would.’ Senior members of the UK negotiating team said the deal allowed for a ‘managed divergence’ from EU rules and standards.
A free trade agreement usually rules out tariffs being applied to imported goods. Under the terms of this deal, if either party acts in a way the other views as anti-competitive, it can go to an independent arbitrator. If that doesn’t resolve the complaint, either party can impose tariffs.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – who campaigned against Brexit – said the deal did not provide adequate protections for jobs, manufacturing, financial services or workplace rights.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the deal was ‘fair’, adding that it was ‘time to turn the page and look to the future’.