Boris Johnson has rejected a Labour demand to vaccinate all teachers and school staff during February half-term to allow classrooms to reopen.
The demand came as Sir Keir Starmer went on the attack over the government’s record on coronavirus in the House of Commons, calling for all 6.2m key workers to be moved up the priority list for vaccination.
But the prime minister blasted the plan, warning that it risked “delaying our route out of lockdown” by diverting vaccines away from some of those most likely to need hospital treatment or die.
At the first prime minister’s questions since the UK passed the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths from Covid-19, the Labour leader demanded an explanation from Mr Johnson for why Britain has the worst fatality rate in Europe.
He accused the prime minister of being “slow into the first lockdown last March, slow getting protective equipment to the frontline, slow to protect our care homes, slow on testing and tracing, slow into the second lockdown in the autumn, slow to change the Christmas mixing rules, slow again into this third lockdown”.
Watch: COVID-19 - Labour calls for all teachers and school staff to be vaccinated during February half-term
As Mr Johnson confirmed that home secretary Priti Patel will later today announce mandatory quarantine in airport hotels for arrivals from high-risk countries only, Sir Keir repeated Labour’s demand for the rule to be applied to all those coming from overseas.
And he called on Mr Johnson to speed the return of schools in England by making plans to vaccinate every teacher and school staff member during the week-long half-term holiday beginning on 15 February.
But Mr Johnson said only that teachers would receive jabs if they fall into the nine priority groups identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which covers over-50s, health and care workers and those with underlying health conditions.
In a later debate, the prime minister told MPs: "The JCVI list is designed by experts, by clinicians, to priorities those groups who are most likely to die or to suffer from coronavirus.
“By trying to change that and saying he wants now to bring in other groups - to be decided by politicians rather than the JCVI - he has to explain which vaccines he would take from which vulnerable groups.”
Responding to Sir Keir’s demand for an explanation for the UK’s death rate from Covid, the prime minister replied: “When you have a new virus - and indeed when you have a new variant of that virus of the kind that we have in this country - when you have dilemmas as hard and as heavy as this government has had to face over the last year… there are no easy answers.”â¨
Mr Johnson said that “perpetual lockdown is no answer” to the pandemic.
And he said that he hopes to set out an exit plan from the pandemic within the next few weeks.
The PM said that some 6.9m people had now received vaccinations and the government was “on target” to deliver first doses of vaccine to the 15m people in the most vulnerable groups by 15 February as planned.
Labour said that all key workers in critical professions should be added to the next phase of the vaccination programme, covering people aged 50-70 and those with certain health conditions, which is due to get under way after the first for priority groups are completed in mid-February.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said those to be offered early jabs should include police officers, teachers, fire fighters and transport workers.
Watch: PM 'offended bereaved families of COVID victims with childish joke', claims Keir Starmer
“The NHS rightly deserve congratulations for their impressive and speedy roll out of vaccinations,” said Mr Ashworth.
“But now we need to go further and faster. Not only will vaccination acceleration save lives, it will help us to carefully and responsibly reopen our economy and crucially ensure children are back in school as transmission reduces.
“Ministers must bring forward plans to vaccinate key workers as soon as possible.
“Police officers, teachers, fire fighters and transport workers are just some of the key workers who have kept society functioning through this pandemic and are more exposed to the virus. We cannot afford to slow our vaccination efforts now.”
The general secretary of teaching union NASUWT, Dr Patrick Roach, said: “We want to see all teachers and education staff made a priority for vaccination.”