Boris Johnson has warned the UK is still in a “pretty precarious” position as ministers prepare for the easing of lockdown restrictions from early March.
The Prime Minister said the process would be gradual, with no great “open sesame” moment when curbs on freedoms are suddenly lifted.
He said decisions on loosening England’s stay-home order will be made based on progress in the vaccination programme, which had been “very encouraging” despite concerns that some parts of the nation are falling behind.
More than four million people in the UK have received a first coronavirus vaccine dose.
The Government is on track to vaccinate around 15 million high-priority people across the UK by February 15, including health and social care staff, the elderly and people in care homes.
Once those vaccines have taken effect, around two to three weeks later ministers will consider whether lockdown measures can be eased.
Mr Johnson, on a visit to the manufacturing facility for the Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine, said: “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.”
Mid-February would be the time to take stock of the situation, he said.
“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 Johnson suggested “things will be very different by the spring” and claimed the UK would be capable of a “very powerful economic recovery” as it emerges from the crisis.
In other developments:
– New data analysed by the PA news agency shows that of the 315 local areas in England, 36 (11%) saw a rise in cases in the seven days to January 13 compared with the previous week, while 279 (89%) saw a fall. All areas in the top 10 had a week-on-week drop, with only three areas in the top 50 seeing an increase.
– Knowsley in Merseyside had the highest rate in England, with 1,853 new cases recorded in the seven days to January 13 – the equivalent of 1,228.3 cases per 100,000 people. Barking and Dagenham in London had the second highest rate.
– Family doctors have been told by NHS officials in England to have a list of back-up patients and staff who can receive the jab at short notice to prevent any waste of vaccine stock.
– The Welsh Government faced accusations of a “go-slow” vaccination strategy after First Minister Mark Drakeford said there was “no point” in rushing to administer all available doses this week if it meant vaccinators were “standing around with nothing to do for another month”.
– Nicola Sturgeon said she was “hopeful” that all adults in Scotland would have been given their first dose of coronavirus vaccine by September.
– NHS data showed London had administered the lowest number of vaccinations in England’s regions, with a total of 417,225 first and second doses between December 8 and January 17, while the Midlands had delivered 746,487.
Progress in the vaccination effort came with hospitals still under intense pressure.
The national medical director for NHS England, Professor Stephen Powis, told Good Morning Britain that the vaccination programme will not have an impact on hospital admissions or death rates until “well into February”.
He said infection rates in London had “slowed down” but there was “less of a slowdown” in the rest of the country, adding: “For the next few weeks and into February, it’s really important that everybody sticks to those social distancing guidelines.”
The chief executive of the NHS Confederation warned that the health service could hit the limit of critical care beds this week.
Speaking to Times Radio, Danny Mortimer praised the determination of critical care staff in tackling the surge in cases, saying: “I think this next week, we will be at the limit of what we probably have the physical space and the people to safely do.
“And of course, this is the week when we expect also the highest rate of admissions, the highest demand for the care that we’re providing.”
Mr Mortimer said the NHS has 5,500 critical care beds, up from 4,000 a year ago, with several hundred more due to become available on Monday.
Across the UK, millions of over-70s and the clinically extremely vulnerable will start being invited for a vaccine as the Government expands the programme.
The effort so far has focused on the over-80s, care home residents and health and care staff, but from Monday jabs were being offered to the next two priority groups.
The Government said it would remain the priority to vaccinate those in the first two groups, but sites which have enough supply and capacity to vaccinate more people will be allowed to offer jabs to the next cohorts.
Additional Reporting By The Press Association