Boris Johnson has warned that it will be months before the first phase of vaccination against coronavirus is completed, after Britain on Wednesday became the first country in the world to approve a vaccine.
The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be administered next week to vulnerable groups, including care-home residents, health and care staff, the elderly and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable .
But in a press conference from Downing Street on Wednesday evening, Boris Johnson warned of difficulties ahead.
“There are immense logistical challenges: the vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees and each person needs two injections, three weeks apart. So it will inevitably take some months before all the most vulnerable are protected, long and cold months. So it is all the more vital that as we celebrate this scientific achievement we are not carried away with over-optimism or fall into the naive belief that the struggle is over,” he said.
Mr Johnson suffered the biggest backbench rebellion of his premiership on Tuesday when more than 70 Conservative MPs refused to back the latest set of coronavirus restrictions in England. But he said that social distancing measures would continue to be needed for months to come, although mass testing and vaccines would gradually carry more of the burden.
“And as we do all this, we are no longer resting on the mere hope that we can return to normal next year in the spring, but rather on the sure and certain knowledge that we will succeed and together reclaim our lives and all the things about our lives that we love,” he said.
Britain has ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine, which trials show to be 95 per cent effective and to work in all age groups. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) insisted that no corners had been cut in the regulatory process to approve the vaccine so quickly. MHRA's chief executive June Raine contradicted an assertion by health secretary Matt Hancock that Brexit had allowed Britain to speed up the process.
“We have been able to authorise the supply of this vaccine using provisions under European law, which exist until the first of January. So our speed or our progress has been totally dependent on the availability of data,” she said.
In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer welcomed the approval of the vaccine but warned that vaccinating care-home residents could present huge logistical challenges. And he expressed concern about the impact of disinformation on public confidence in the vaccine.
“That is a real cause for concern, because it is going to be crucial to the success of getting this rolled out across the country and getting our economy back up and running. As the prime minister knows, we have the highest regulatory and medical safety standards in the world, but it is really important that we do everything possible to counter dangerous, frankly life-threatening disinformation about vaccines.
“The Opposition have called for legislation to be introduced to clamp down on this, with financial penalties for companies that fail to act,” he said.