Matt Hancock has finally confirmed plans to vaccinate all over-50s by May this year after weeks of the government refusing to firm up a date.
Ministers had previously committed to a target of “by the end of spring” – but repeatedly refused to say what date they considered to be spring.
But health secretary Hancock said on Friday: “My plan is that we should be able to offer a vaccine to everybody in categories one to nine – that’s all the over-50s – by May.
“Lots of things have got to go right to hit that goal, especially supply, which is the rate-limiting factor.
“But I’m sure, working with the NHS and everybody else who is making this happen, that if we keep going at the pace we can, then we can make sure all the over-50s get the offer of a vaccine by May.”
In a chaotic briefing for journalists earlier on Friday, a Number 10 spokesman initially said that a Cabinet Office press notice, which contained confirmation of the May commitment, had been issued “in error” and had been withdrawn.
Minutes later the spokesman said the notice – which confirmed plans for local elections to go ahead on 6 May – was in fact correct.
The spokesman said “the Cabinet Office document is correct,” adding that Boris Johnson would set out a “precise timetable” for the rollout on 15 February.
NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens had previously said the aim was for all over-50s and those at risk to be vaccinated by the end of April.
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On Thursday vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi declined to say when over 50s would be offered a vaccine.
He said a target would be set for reaching all those aged 50 to 70, as well as those with underlying conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease, once the most vulnerable have been offered a jab by 15 February.
The government has been under pressure from lockdown sceptic Tory MPs to release the country from COVID rules once the vulnerable have received their jab.
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), called for all coronavirus restrictions to be dropped as soon as the top nine priority groups are vaccinated.
He also claimed the goal posts for reopening society were being shifted as he demanded that the national lockdown is completely dropped within the next few months.
Following reports that outdoor socialising and sport could be allowed within weeks of schools returning in March, Professor Graham Medley, chairman of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said the government should “make decisions dependent on the circumstances, rather than being driven by a calendar of wanting to do things”.
He was backed by Dr Mike Tildesley, also from Spi-M, who said there needed to be a gradual easing out of lockdown to prevent a resurgence of cases and the need to implement tighter controls.