Now schools face a 'postcode lottery' for reopening after lockdown

Now schools face a 'postcode lottery' for reopening after lockdown

January 19, 2021

Now schools face a ‘postcode lottery’ for reopening – as top medic Dr Jenny Harries warns it is ‘likely’ they will return at different times and hints they WILL remain closed until after Easter

  • Matt Hancock fuelled growing fears schools will stay closed beyond the stated date of February half-term
  • Boris Johnson also said there would be no ‘open sesame’ reopening of society when lockdown was eased
  • And one academy boss said the current ‘mood music’ was schools would not opened before Easter holidays 
  • Steve Chalke, of Oasis Academy Trust, warned parents: ‘I think they will miss the second half of term as well’
  • Now education insiders say date for reopening was ‘never going to be’ February and may stretch past March

Hard-pressed parents were handed the prospect of a new postcode lottery nightmare when lockdown ends as a top medic warned today that schools could reopen at different times.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries told MPs that it was ‘likely’ that there would a regional approach to restarting face-to-face lessons for millions of children when England comes out of the latest shutdown.

It means that the date when schools restart could be based on the infection rate locally, with areas with the highest rates staying closed for longer. 

Facing the Education Committee today Dr Harries was also unable to rule out schools remaining closed after February half-term – after education chiefs last night raised fears children  could be away from the classrooms until Easter.  

Asked if schools could reopen next month she said the February restart should not be seen as a ‘fixed date’ and infection rates ‘will continue to need to be observed and reviewed up until that time period’.

Asked about a regional phased reopening of schools she said: ‘On the broad epidemiology it is highly likely that when we come out of this national lockdown we will not have consistent patterns of infection in our communities across the country. And therefore as we had prior to the national lockdown it may well be possible we need to have some differential application.

‘But … clearly schools will be right at the top of the priority for trying to ensure that that that balance of educational wellbeing is right at the forefront of consideration.

‘The short answer is that it is likely we will have some sort of regional separation of interventions and it is likely that as we are hopefully starting to see now some glimmers of hope that London which has been affected earlier by the new variant, that may move across the country.’

She added: ‘Schoolchildren definitely can transmit infection in schools – they can transmit it in any environment – but it is not a significant driver as yet, as far as we can see, of large-scale community infections.’ 

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Janny Harries told MPs that it was ‘likely’ that there would a regional approach to restarting face-to-face lessons for millions of children when England comes out of the latest shutdown

Despite the UK recording another drop in Covid cases, school bosses believe millions of pupils face being home schooled until the start of April. Pictured: Pupils wear protective face masks 

Despite the UK recording another drop in Covid cases, school bosses believe millions of pupils now face the prospect of being home schooled until the start of April. It means students will have faced almost a year of on-and-off disruption to their education.

Fears of an April return were further compounded as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned at the weekend that it would not be possible to start to lift lockdown restrictions in England until March.

And yesterday Health Secretary Matt Hancock cast more doubt on a March re-opening for schools when he declined to say that a loosening of lockdown rules meant a return for students.

The warning comes as disgruntled Tory backbenchers last night demanded the Government produce an urgent ‘road map’ out of lockdown – with measures due to be lifted in mid-February.

But as the number of people vaccinated reached 4million yesterday and infection figures continued to fall, with Britain recording another 37,535 new cases, down a fifth from last Monday, Boris Johnson last night defied fresh demands to say how and when the brutal restrictions in England will ease. 

Meanwhile, Government sources last night said it was too early to say when schools would reopen, with one source saying: ‘It’s about what the health picture is. If lockdown does its job then schools could be the first thing to open.’ 

The Prime Minister has repeatedly vowed that the reopening of schools will be his priority when lockdown is eased – but no date has ever been set. 

And now the leader of a major academy chain has warned the ‘mood’ is for schools to shut until the Easter holidays – at the start of April. 

Steve Chalke, head of the Oasis academy chain, which runs 48 schools, said: ‘I don’t think schools will reopen until post Easter. I think they will miss the second half of term as well.’  

Mr Chalke meanwhile said many teachers are very worried about catching Covid in school and that they will feel ‘safer’ and ‘more confident’ when the weather warms up and they can take children out of the classroom more. 

At yesterday’s Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock was asked whether schools would reopen in March. 

He simply said: ‘We’ve got to watch the data, and the Prime Minister, when he brought in the national lockdown, set out four considerations. We’ve got to see the number of deaths coming down, and sadly we haven’t seen that yet. We need to clearly see the pressure on the NHS reducing, and we are not seeing that yet.   

‘We must see the vaccination programme working and the rollout is going really well.’ He continued: ‘The fourth consideration is that there mustn’t be some other new variant.’ 

Professor Susan Hopkins, senior medical adviser at Public Health England, said: ‘We’ve always said the schools should be the last to close and first to open. 

‘But I think giving a more defined date than that is very difficult until we see what happens over the next few weeks.’ 

Fears of schools remaining shut until Easter are growing after ministers refused to set a reopening date yesterday. Pictured, a primary school in east London

A sign hangs on the gate of St Anne’s Catholic Primary school in Caversham, Reading. No date has yet been confirmed for the reopening of schools

Education insiders said the date for reopening ‘was never going to be’ February half-term and claimed the Government is ‘working on the assumption it will be Easter at the earliest’

Speaking in the Commons yesterday, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said the Government has presided over ‘one of the world’s largest procurements of laptops and tablets’ so students can work effectively remotely. Pictured: Students takes a COVID-19 test at Oasis Academy in Coulsdon, Surrey

Last night Robert Halfon, Tory MP and chairman of the education committee, said: ‘The Government said that schools would reopen after the February half term. Everything possible should be done to keep to that date – for the sake of the children’s education, mental health and safety. 

‘That is why ministers should prioritise school staff for the vaccine, and send in mobile units to jab them across the country.’    

Mr Johnson said there would be no ‘open sesame’ relaxation of lockdown. ‘I understand completely that people want to get back to normal as fast as we possibly can,’ he said. 

Delays at Heathrow as Border Force check ‘every UK arrival’ for negative Covid test

Thousands of airline passengers arriving in Britain from across the world faced delays to get through passport control as Border Force agents demanded proof they did not have Covid-19 – despite all those flying into the UK already having to prove their negative test result when boarding abroad.

New rules came into force at 4am requiring arrivals to prove they were negative for coronavirus with a test that meets performance standards of 97 per cent specificity and 80 per cent sensitivity at high viral loads.

This is most likely to be a PCR test, which tend to take 12 to 48 hours for the results to come back and were used by every passenger spoken to MailOnline arriving at UK airports today.

Border Force staff were ignoring guidelines for ‘spot checks’ and instead chose to ask every person for proof they don’t have Covid-19, leading to concerns over social distancing as queues built up.

Travellers described ‘chaotic’ scenes in arrivals at London Heathrow Airport as border workers checked all negative test certificates and quarantine locator forms despite all airlines not allowing anyone to get on a plane to Britain without seeing them at check-in first. 

New rules requiring arrivals to take a negative test up to 72 hours before departure and self-isolate for up to ten days after entering the UK came into effect yesterday as travel corridors offering exemptions were scrapped. The move is part of the Government’s attempts to prevent new strains of Covid-19 entering the UK.

Spanish student Enrique Vasquez arrived today to Heathrow on a flight from Madrid. He said: ‘When I arrived, I had to show three documents to the border force officers – my passport, a negative Covid test result from when I took my PCR test in Madrid less than 72 hours before my departure. I also had to give them the locator form telling them at which address I will be isolating at for the next ten days.’ 

Coffy app chief executive Andy Hart, from London, who arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal Five from Nairobi with his partner, said he was ‘shocked and disappointed’ to see the queues at passport control – and fears the delays could lead to the spread of coronavirus.

He said: ‘We felt unsafe. We felt that, even though everyone was masked, they were far too close together. I’ve been flying 30 times a year for 20 years. I mean, once or twice have I ever seen it (airport queues) like this. How can this happen during Covid times?’

The Department for Transport has recommended ‘spot checks’ for proof from people flying into the UK – but UK Border Force workers were checking the vast majority of people on the first day of new testing rules, with several people getting £500 fines this morning. 

Staff at Terminal Two handed out bottles of water to passengers waiting over an hour and a half to clear immigration, leaving suitcases piling up in arrivals. 

Richard Bradley also arrived from Nairobi with his son Joseph after a Christmas break with family. Mr Bradley, who was returning to his home in Oxford, said there was a ‘triple check’ of people’s passports, proof of a negative Covid-19 test, and their passenger locator form, taking 90 minutes to get through the ‘pretty substantial’ queue at passport control. 

He said: ‘There were a couple of people in our queue whose tests may have been outside the required 72 hours so that was causing a lot of grief and discussion.’

Home Office sources disputed that delays had lasted 90 minutes. One Whitehall source told MailOnline: ‘People knew these checks would be made, they are being done as speedily as possible. They are in place to protect people, I think the vast majority of people would accept that.’ 

A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘People should not be travelling unless absolutely necessary and it is an offence to arrive into England without proof of a negative Covid test or a completed Passenger Locator Form.

‘We have also increased Border Force spot checks on arrival, with passengers subject to an immediate fine of £500 for failing to comply with the new rules.

‘Despite these measures, the vast majority of passengers have been moving through the UK border in good time.’

The Prime Minister insisted that things would look ‘very different by the spring’, adding: ‘I’m afraid I’ve got to warn people it will be gradual, you can’t just open up in a great open sesame, in a great bang, because I’m afraid the situation is still pretty precarious.’ 

Meanwhile, speaking in the Commons yesterday, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said the Government has presided over ‘one of the world’s largest procurement of laptops and tablets’ so students can work effectively remotely.

He told MPs: ‘By December, we had procured and delivered 560,000 laptops and tablets. In November last year we ordered an additional 340,000 devices, bringing our total procurement to one million laptops and tablets.

‘This has been one of the world’s largest procurement of laptops and tablets, and it has happened despite intense global demand.’

It comes as Mr Johnson yesterday defied fresh demands from Tory MPs for a ‘road map’ out of lockdown as coronavirus infections tumbled again. 

The PM is under pressure to say how and when the brutal restrictions in England will ease after the UK recorded another 37,535 cases – down a fifth from last Monday.

Although deaths rose again to 599 there are increasing signs that the curve is flattening, as it lags weeks behind the new infections. 

Conservatives this evening underlined calls from former chief whip Mark Harper, who heads the CRG group of lockdown-sceptics, to say what will happen when the government has vaccinated the four most vulnerable groups – meant to happen by mid-February. 

The number of people receiving their first jab topped four million today.

The deputy chair of the group, Steve Baker said: ‘We locked down the country and shut down our schools on the basis of a forecast, so why can’t we open it up on the basis of one too? It is not sustainable to leave the public and British businesses languishing any longer.

‘Businesses and individuals desperately need hope and the opportunity to plan our recovery, that’s why we need to know our road to recovery as soon as possible.’

Another Tory backbencher told MailOnline the government should lay out its plans even if it is like ‘snakes and ladders’ and the arrangements later have to change. 

However, Mr Johnson poured cold water on the idea this afternoon, insisting that it will not be possible to set out the route for unwinding restrictions until February 15.

Touring the Oxford Biomedica vaccine plant, the PM also warned when the loosening does come it will not be an ‘open sesame’ moment.

‘I understand completely that people want to get back to normal as fast as we possibly can. It does depend on things going well,’ he said.

‘It depends on the vaccination programme going well, it depends on there being no new variants that throw our plans out and we have to mitigate against, and it depends on everybody, all of us, remembering that we’re not out of the woods yet.’

He said: ‘We’re going as fast as we can but I stress we can do everything we can to open up but when we come to February 15, and the moment when we have to take stock of what we’ve achieved, that’s the time to look at where the virus is, the extent of the infection and the success that we’ve had.

‘It’s only really then that we can talk about the way ahead and what steps we can take to relax.

‘I’m afraid I’ve got to warn people it will be gradual, you can’t just open up in a great open sesame, in a great bang, because I’m afraid the situation is still pretty precarious.’

The wrangling came as ministers face a backlash over a vaccination ‘postcode lottery’, with millions of 70-somethings being offered a jab – but only in areas where the ‘majority’ of over-80s have had it already.

Nearly 5million people aged between 70 and 80 are being invited to receive their first dose, with some in Whitehall suggesting the rollout is going so well that the wider adult population could be covered by June rather than September.

However, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said people in their 70s will only be offered jabs in areas where the ‘majority’ of over-80s have already had their first shot. 

That could mean people in areas such as London and Suffolk, where progress has been slower, will have to wait longer.

Tory MPs demand a route out of lockdown after infections drop AGAIN with 37,535 more Covid cases, 599 new deaths and 4million vaccinations

By James Tapsfield, Political Editor for MailOnline

Boris Johnson defied fresh demands from Tory MPs for a ‘road map’ out of lockdown as coronavirus infections tumbled again.

The PM is under pressure to say how and when the brutal restrictions in England will ease after the UK recorded another 37,535 cases – down a fifth from last Monday.

Although deaths rose again to 599 there are increasing signs that the curve is flattening, as it lags weeks behind the new infections. 

Conservatives this evening underlined calls from former chief whip Mark Harper, who heads the CRG group of lockdown-sceptics, to say what will happen when the government has vaccinated the four most vulnerable groups – which is meant to happen by mid-February. The number of people receiving their first jab topped four million today.

The deputy chairman of the group, Steve Baker, said: ‘We locked down the country and shut down our schools on the basis of a forecast, so why can’t we open it up on the basis of one too? It is not sustainable to leave the public and British businesses languishing any longer.

‘Businesses and individuals desperately need hope and the opportunity to plan our recovery, that’s why we need to know our road to recovery as soon as possible.’

Another Tory backbencher told MailOnline the government should lay out its plans even if it is like ‘snakes and ladders’ and the arrangements later have to change. 

However, Mr Johnson poured cold water on the idea this afternoon, insisting that it will not be possible to set out the route for unwinding restrictions until February 15.

Touring the Oxford Biomedica vaccine plant, the PM also warned when the loosening does come it will not be an ‘open sesame’ moment.

‘I understand completely that people want to get back to normal as fast as we possibly can. It does depend on things going well,’ he said.

‘It depends on the vaccination programme going well, it depends on there being no new variants that throw our plans out and we have to mitigate against, and it depends on everybody, all of us, remembering that we’re not out of the woods yet.’

He said: ‘We’re going as fast as we can but I stress we can do everything we can to open up but when we come to February 15, and the moment when we have to take stock of what we’ve achieved, that’s the time to look at where the virus is, the extent of the infection and the success that we’ve had.

‘It’s only really then that we can talk about the way ahead and what steps we can take to relax.

‘I’m afraid I’ve got to warn people it will be gradual, you can’t just open up in a great open sesame, in a great bang, because I’m afraid the situation is still pretty precarious.’

The wrangling came as ministers face a backlash over a vaccination ‘postcode lottery’, with millions of 70-somethings being offered a jab — but only in areas where the ‘majority’ of over-80s have had it already.

Nearly 5million people aged between 70 and 80 are being invited to receive their first dose, with some in Whitehall suggesting the rollout is going so well that the wider adult population could be covered by June rather than September.

However, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said people in their 70s will only be offered jabs in areas where the ‘majority’ of over-80s have already had their first shot. That could mean people in areas such as London and Suffolk, where progress has been slower, will have to wait longer.  

NHS staff administer the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine at the Totally Wicked Stadium, home of St Helens rugby club, one of the new mass vaccination centres opened today

John Mason, 82, receiving a Covid-19 vaccination from nurse Anie Santillan in the crypt of Blackburn Cathedral today

Boris Johnson was shown the vaccine quality control systems on a visit to Oxford Biomedica in Oxfordshire today

The Prime Minister toured a warehouse at the vaccine manufacturing facility in Oxfordshire today

On another turbulent day of developments in the coronavirus crisis:

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, Mr Harper set out CRG demands for the PM to publish a draft plan this week setting out how curbs will be lifted.

The Government is due to conduct its first formal review of lockdown on February 15 and Mr Harper said ministers could at that point firm up the proposals ahead of an easing of rules in March.

He said: ‘The top four at-risk groups, which the Government aims to have given a first dose by Feb 15, will have got the maximum immunity from that within three weeks – by March 8.

‘That has got to be the point at which we start to lift restrictions in a way proportionate to the reduction of risk.’

Mr Harper said that ‘nobody is expecting nightclub doors to be flung open on March 8’ because it is ‘obvious that not every restriction can be lifted straight away’.

He pointed to Mr Johnson’s previous suggestion that there will be a ‘gradual unwrapping’ of lockdown and said he agreed that will be the best approach to take.

‘People need hope and businesses need a plan in order to survive, especially those in the hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors,’ he said.

‘That’s why this week, we need a draft plan for the progressive lifting of restrictions from March 8 so that the public, businesses and scientists can use it as the basis for a sensible debate, as the Prime Minister suggested on Friday.

‘That will allow a definitive plan to be published ahead of Feb 15.’

Mr Baker said tonight: ‘Just like the disease, lockdowns and restrictions cause immense harm – to people’s health, their livelihoods and to our children’s life chances. So it’s a relief to hear that once the top four groups have been vaccinated and immunised by 8 March at the latest, Government will start easing the restrictions.

‘It’s important that we lift restrictions in a way that is proportionate and safe. The Health Secretary has told us that the vast majority of hospitalisations and death caused by Covid will be protected against by 8 March, so this clearly implies that we should be removing the vast majority of restrictions.

‘It is crucial that our response to Covid is proportionate at all times to the harm the disease is capable of causing – which by 8 March should, thankfully, be hugely diminished if we hit the 15 February vaccination rollout target.’

The government is facing concerns it has moved too fast to roll out vaccines for over-70s, with large disparities between how many have been administered in different parts of the country. 

London has given the lowest number in England so far, with a total of 417,225 doses between December 8 and January 17, including 367,209 first doses and 50,016 second doses.

This compares to 746,487 total jabs in the Midlands, 681,317 in the North East and Yorkshire, 541,145 in the North West, 652,350 in the South East, 461,792 in the South West and 424,135 in the East of England.

The eligibility is being expanded despite vaccines not yet having been distributed to all care homes. Most residents and carers have already had their first shot in Newcastle, but in rural Suffolk the programme is struggling to speed up. 

The PM defended the shift this afternoon, insisting that while the four most vulnerable groups remained the ‘top priority’ it was right to widen the scheme ‘as more vaccine comes on stream’. Asked if he was concerned about a postcode lottery, Mr Johnson said: ‘I think actually the whole of the UK is going very well. And, overall, the pace of the rollout is very encouraging.’ 

Cabinet minister Therese Coffey voiced frustration today, saying ‘something isn’t right’ and it was ‘distressing and annoying’ that individuals in their 70s were being offered jabs ahead of the more elderly. 

Hundreds of patients forced to rearrange their vaccine appointments after jabs failed to arrive

Hundreds of disappointed patients were forced to rearrange their vaccine appointments after jabs failed to arrive at a new hub.

Headcorn Aerodrome in Kent was set to begin inoculating elderly people in the Weald today.

But the delivery never turned up – leading to GPs having to break the devastating news to the most vulnerable at the eleventh hour.

A statement from Marden Medical Centre in Tonbridge said: ‘We have been informed on Sunday evening 17th January that our patients booked for the

Monday afternoon 18th will need to be rescheduled.

‘This is due to a failure of supply and is a regrettable and not infrequent issue for those organisations contracted to give the vaccines. They will be contacting the many hundred elderly patients from the Weald area directly.

‘We are very sorry for the stresses this will create. Please be patient with the team who are mostly volunteers with a problem beyond their control.

‘Marden Medical Centre has no access to the booking system so please do not contact us with queries.’

North Ridge Medical Practice in Hawkhurst also raised the alarm by saying: ‘Due to stock not being delivered on time, the clinics scheduled for Monday 18th January 2021 has to be postponed for later in the week. You will get contacted to re-schedule.

‘If you know of anyone over 80 booked for tomorrow please advise them not to attend there appointment.’

‘Vaccinations started well in Suffolk Coastal in the last few days, but something isn’t quite right as in some places, patients aged 70+ are being contacted for vaccination ahead of 80+/90+ year olds,’ she tweeted. 

Ms Coffey later said that she had been assured ‘letters and messages will be going out today’ to all over-80s who had not already been contacted. 

Letters are being sent out in England inviting the next two priority groups for vaccinations. That includes 4.6million in their 70s plus another one million classed as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ because they have conditions affecting the immune system, certain cancers or are organ transplant recipients. 

In London vaccinations have been trailing behind the rest of the country, with Tory MPs voicing alarm that the supplies are being based on take-up of the flu vaccine last winter, which was low in the capital.

Downing Street insists the supplies are being ‘distributed equally’.  

Some 140 people a minute are receiving a jab, putting Britain on course to vaccinate all adults by early autumn, if not before. However, one coronavirus patient is being admitted to hospital every 30 seconds. 

The Government last night announced that the first phase of the vaccine programme has made enough progress that those in their 70s and on the shielding list will be called up to get their jabs from today. 

But in some places medics still haven’t got through to the over-90s, who are in the top priority group for the Covid vaccines. Matt Hancock last week revealed GPs leading Britain’s great vaccination drive were forced to pause jabs to allow other parts of the country to catch up.

Newcastle’s care homes saw all their residents get vaccinated against Covid by seven medical teams who made their way through the city in just two weeks. 

Care home residents are top of the Government’s priority list for vaccination because they face such a high chance of dying if they catch Covid-19.

Ministers pledged to get jabs to all of them – there are around 400,000 people living in homes across the UK – by the end of January.

The roll-out could not start immediately because the first vaccine to be approved, Pfizer’s, had to be kept in specialist freezers so couldn’t be transported in batches smaller than 1,000 to begin with.

But since the approval of Oxford and AstraZeneca’s jab, which can be kept out of the fridge for almost an entire working day, the care home programme has sped up. 

Leader of Newcastle City Council, Nick Forbes, said: ‘In less than two weeks we have protected the most vulnerable people in our communities, providing the residents and their families with a sense of reassurance and hope they have longed for.

‘It is also relief for care home staff who have given so much during this pandemic, prioritising the health and care of the residents they work with.’

Public Health England data shows that the North East & Yorkshire – the region containing Newcastle – was furthest ahead with its vaccine programme by January 10.

This is the most recent data available and local figures are not yet available for areas smaller than regions.

It shows that the North East and Yorkshire had vaccinated 370,694 people by January 10. 

Elderly people have been the priority since the vaccine programme started and data published by Public Health England shows exactly how many of them have been vaccinated.

PHE figures show that 43.8 per cent of over-80s in the North East & Yorkshire had received a Covid vaccine by January 10, compared to 27.9 per cent in the East of England. 

In London the figure was 29.5 per cent, in the Midlands 33.4 per cent, in the South West 34.3 per cent, in the South East 34.8 per cent and in the North West 35.9 per cent.

Mr Johnson last week told MPs: ‘There are parts of the country where they have done incredibly well in, for instance, vaccinating the over-80s.

‘We are well over 50 per cent now in the North East and Yorkshire; less good in some other parts of the country.’

It is not clear whether some regions are vaccinating fewer people because they can’t get enough supplies or because they aren’t rolling them out quick enough. 

Hailing the vaccine expansion today, Mr Johnson said it ‘marks a significant milestone as we offer vaccinations to millions more people who are most at risk from Covid-19’.

The vaccination centre in Bournemouth officially opened today and is expected to give jabs to more than 9,000 a month

Cabinet minister Therese Coffey complained this morning that in her constituency some individuals in their 70s were being offered jabs ahead of the more elderly

NHS staff administering the vaccine in St Helens today as the drive to innoculate the population steps up another gear


Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi (left) was bullish about the September target for covering all adults in a round of interviews this morning. NHS England medical director Stephen Powis (right) today warned that vaccines will not have an impact on the death rate until ‘well into’ February

‘We have a long way to go and there will be challenges ahead – but together we are making huge progress in our fight against this virus,’ he said.

Drakeford under fire as he blames Pfizer vaccine limits for slower rollout in Wales 

Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford came under fire from MPs today for deliberately slowing down the country’s Covid vaccine roll-out.

Mr Drakeford this morning admitted Wales isn’t using up all of its doses of the Pfizer jab because it wants to make them last until the end of the month.

He claimed the ‘sensible’ thing to do would be to ration supplies so the programme could work steadily until next month and so staff aren’t ‘standing around with nothing to do’ if supplies run out.

But MPs have slammed his plan as ‘dangerous’ and said the point of the programme is to protect elderly people from dying not to keep NHS staff busy.

David Jones, MP for Clwyd West said the explanation was ‘wholly incoherent’.

Mark Harper, MP for the Forest of Dean on the Welsh border, said it was ‘dangerous’ and that people needed vaccines as soon as was possible.

And Stephen Crabb, the MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, said it was ‘deeply, deeply frustrating’.

The Government – including Mr Drakeford in the same interview – have blamed limited supply from manufacturers for slowing down the roll-out of vaccines, which it is hoped could bring an end to the UK’s relentless cycle of lockdowns.

Britain has so far immunised nearly 3.9million people – Wales has done the fewest in relation to its population size with a total of 126,375.

There are claims swirling that Mr Johnson wants all adults to get an initial jab by June. And Mr Zahawi backed the target to offer a first jab to everyone by September as ‘achievable’.

However, he fuelled questions about the way in which people are getting access by confirming that over-70s are currently being offered first jabs in areas only where ‘the majority’ of over-80s have had their first shot. The speed of the process has varied widely in different areas.

‘Anyone who is over 80 watching us this morning should not worry because we are making sure that those areas have vaccinated the majority of their over-80s,’ Mr Zahawi told the BBC. 

‘And in some areas they’ve got to 90 per cent of their over-80s, that’s where the letters are going out for the over-70s to invite them for their vaccinations.’ 

Downing Street said those aged over 70 would start to be offered vaccines in areas where the ‘majority’ of those in the older age category and higher up the priority list had already received their first jab – but refused to say what that meant.

A spokesman said: ‘From today, those aged 70 and over will begin receiving invitation for vaccination, and it will be for them to book an appointment or come forward.

‘Depending on where they are, the timing will be slightly different but the important point is that this allows areas that have already vaccinated a majority of those over 80, care home residents, frontline NHS and care home staff to keep the momentum up and to start giving it to further-at-risk people.’

Asked whether those in their 70s could expect to start receiving their vaccination this week, the spokesman said the jabs would start ‘shortly’. 

The PM’s spokesman also insisted supplies were being ‘distributed equally’ across the country.

‘In some areas where they have already vaccinated the majority of those four high-risk groups, we want to ensure we maintain momentum and continue to rollout the vaccine to more and more people who are at higher clinical risk – that’s why we sent out the letter to the over-70s,’ the spokesman said.

‘The Prime Minister has stated clearly that we will ensure that everybody in the first four priority groups will receive a vaccination by February 15 and we’ve also said that care home residents will all have received it by the end of the month.’

But Work and Pensions Secretary Ms Coffey was among those expressing alarm at the situation, although she later said she had been reassured.  

‘I know it is both distressing and annoying when people hear that other cohorts of a lower priority (according to the JCVI) are being vaccinated ahead of our oldest and most vulnerable. On that point, every care home resident will be vaccinated by next Sunday,’ she posted on Facebook.

‘I am already in regular contact with the NHS and Ministers but will be following up with the local NHS to work out what is going on regarding contacting 80+ population (main route is by text and/or letter) and will be pressing for some local communication.’

Touring the Oxford Biomedica vaccine plant today, Mr Johnson appeared to dismiss demands from Tory MPs for an early ‘road map’ to show how lockdown will be eased. 

And he warned when the loosening does come it will not be an ‘open sesame’ moment.

The PM told reporters: ‘I understand completely that people want to get back to normal as fast as we possibly can. It does depend on things going well.

‘It depends on the vaccination programme going well, it depends on there being no new variants that throw our plans out and we have to mitigate against, and it depends on everybody, all of us, remembering that we’re not out of the woods yet.’

He said: ‘We’re going as fast as we can but I stress we can do everything we can to open up but when we come to February 15, and the moment when we have to take stock of what we’ve achieved, that’s the time to look at where the virus is, the extent of the infection and the success that we’ve had.

‘It’s only really then that we can talk about the way ahead and what steps we can take to relax.

‘I’m afraid I’ve got to warn people it will be gradual, you can’t just open up in a great open sesame, in a great bang, because I’m afraid the situation is still pretty precarious.’

Mr Zahawi laid out the timetable for easing the lockdown, although he warned there were ‘caveats’ about whether it could happen in early March. 

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘If we take the mid-February target, two weeks after that you get your protection, pretty much, for the Pfizer/BioNTech, three weeks for the Oxford/AstraZeneca, you are protected.

‘One of the things we don’t know yet, and the deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam is on record as saying ‘look give me a couple of months and I’ll tell you’, is the impact of the vaccine on transmission rates ie on infecting people.

‘So there are a number of caveats that stand in the way of us reopening the economy.

‘It will be gradually, it will be probably through the tiered system but you’re looking at that sort of period, two to three weeks after the middle of February, after we’ve protected the top four cohorts.’

He said there should be ‘very clear evidence’ by the second week in March that there had been a ‘break in the correlation between infection rates and hospitalisation and obviously death’.

‘There is some really good early data from Israel, where they have vaccinated 20 per cent of the over-60s and they are beginning to see, two weeks later, a marked reduction in the serious illness and death in that same cohort. 

‘So, two weeks after mid-February, we should be seeing a marked reduction in death and of course serious illness,’ he said.  

Mr Zahawi said 24-hour vaccinations will be piloted in London hospitals by the end of January – but he played down the usefulness of the idea in the first phase.

He told Sky News: ‘We are going to pilot the 24-hour vaccination, the NHS is going to pilot that in hospitals in London and we will look at how we expand that.’

Pressed for when the pilots will start, he said: ‘By the end of January, absolutely.’

But he said 8am-8pm vaccination ‘works much more conveniently for those who are over 80 and then as you move down the age groups it becomes much more convenient for people to go late at night and in the early hours’.  

Home Secretary Priti Patel today vowed tougher enforcement on lockdown-sceptic protests as she chatted to police officers in Westminster

Several passengers have been refused permission to fly to Britain from the US today after being told their negative Covid results were ‘not sufficient’. Pictured, Heathrow Airport

Boris Johnson, pictured with his son Wilfred on Sunday, has promised the first four priority groups will all have received the jab by the middle of February

The new mass vaccination hub that has opened in the Olympic Office Centre in Wembley, London today

Meanwhile, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has defended the slower rollout of the vaccination programme in Wales – saying the Pfizer vaccine could not be used all at once.

The Welsh Government has faced criticism in the past week for vaccinating fewer people in proportion to its population than the other home nations.

Priti Patel vows tougher action on lockdown-sceptic protests 

Home Secretary Priti Patel today vowed tougher enforcement on lockdown-sceptic protests.

The Home Secretary warned people will be held responsible for their actions as she visited St Thomas’s Hospital in central London, the scene of an anti-lockdown protest on New Year’s Eve.

Asked whether there would be tougher enforcement to target protesters she said: ‘Absolutely, without hesitation. 

‘When you look at the pressures on the NHS – and we have been saying this for too long, quite frankly – the public need to take responsibility, act conscientiously, wear their masks, wear face coverings, follow the rules, follow the regulations.

‘I can’t emphasise that enough.

‘The police will not hesitate, they are doing a fantastic job in terms of stopping the spread of the virus, making sure people comply, enforcing the coronavirus regulations but helping the NHS in particular save lives and to protect the NHS.’

Statistically, Wales is behind the other nations of the UK in delivering the first dose of the vaccine per 100,000.

As of last week, 3,215 had received it in Wales, compared to 3,514 in Scotland, 4,005 in England and 4,828 in Northern Ireland.

Mr Drakeford dismissed the statistics as ‘very marginal differences’, and went on to explain that supplies of the Pfizer vaccine had to last until the beginning of February and would not be used all at once.

‘There will be no point and certainly it will be logistically very damaging to try to use all of that in the first week and then to have all our vaccinators standing around with nothing to do with for another month,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

‘The sensible thing to do is to use the vaccine you’ve got over the period that you’ve got it for so that your system can absorb it, they can go on working, that you don’t have people standing around with nothing to do.

Mr Raab pledged yesterday that every over-18 will be offered a first jab by September – if not earlier.

And he said he was hopeful some lockdown restrictions could start to be lifted from March. 

Ten new mass vaccination hubs will open today, including Blackburn Cathedral and Taunton Racecourse. 

Ministers said the priority this week will still be to vaccinate the top two priority groups, made up of care home residents and staff, the over-80s, and NHS workers. 

More than 3.8million have received their first vaccine dose so far. But NHS sites which have spare capacity will be allowed to offer jabs to those aged over 70 and those who are ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’.

Boris Johnson has promised the first four priority groups will all have received the jab by the middle of February.

The PM said: ‘Today is a significant milestone in our vaccination programme as we open it up to millions more who are most at risk from Covid-19. We are now delivering the vaccine at a rate of 140 jabs a minute and I want to thank everyone involved in this national effort.

‘We have a long way to go and there will doubtless be challenges ahead – but by working together we are making huge progress in our fight against this virus.’

Mr Hancock added: ‘Now that more than half of all over-80s have had their jab, we can begin vaccinating the next most vulnerable groups.

‘Where an area has already reached the vast majority of groups one and two, they can now start opening up the programme to groups three and four.

‘We are working day and night to make sure everyone who is 70 and over, our health and social care workers and the clinically extremely vulnerable are offered the vaccine by the middle of February and our NHS heroes are making huge strides in making this happen.’ Mr Raab said yesterday it would be ‘great’ if the rollout could be faster amid reports that the target of offering everyone in the UK the jab could be met by June, but said the Government was working to the early autumn target.

‘Our target is by September to have offered all the adult population a first dose. If we can do it faster than that, great, but that’s the roadmap,’ he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

Mr Raab said the Government hoped 88 per cent of those most at risk of dying from coronavirus would receive their first jab by the middle of February, with 99 per cent of those at greatest risk protected by the early spring.

He suggested lockdown restrictions could then be eased – with a possible return to the tiered system. ‘I think it is fair to say it won’t be a big bang, if you like, it will be done phased, possibly back through the tiered approach,’ he told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.

Asked if vaccine supplies are sufficient for someone to get their second dose within 12 weeks, he said ‘we ought to’ be able to deliver.

Sir Simon Stevens said staff were jabbing ‘four times faster’ than people are newly catching the virus.

He also predicted lockdown could be eased ‘gradually’ around spring and summer time. However, he said this would depend on the effect of new variants of coronavirus.

A new strain found in the UK that is more transmissible than previous types is rapidly spreading across the country, and variants found in Brazil and South Africa are also being viewed with concern by virologists in case they are more resistant to vaccines. 

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