BRITAIN is “turning a corner in the battle against coronavirus”, Matt Hancock declared last night.
And the incredible team effort, which has already seen 12.3 million people in the UK vaccinated, could not be better illustrated than in the work of footballer Olivia Smart.
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The Leeds United defender, 26, swapped her boots and shinpads for scrubs and a facemask yesterday as she became the first nurse to give out the vaccine at the club’s Elland Road ground.
Health Secretary Mr Hancock had confirmed that the target of vaccinating the country’s most vulnerable by Valentine’s Day this Sunday was within grasp as he revealed 91 per cent of over-80s have had their first dose.
Some 95 per cent of those aged 75 to 80 have also been jabbed, along with 75 per cent of those in the 70 to 74 bracket.
Despite the snow slowing jab rates on Sunday, NHS boss Dr Nikki Kanani said 1,500 vaccination sites “from mosques to museums, from gurdwaras to sports grounds, from cathedrals to community centres” had battled on.
And in a further boost to Britain’s virus-fighting armoury, 4.5million tests are now being conducted every week — 97 per cent of which are turned around in under 24 hours.
Mr Hancock told the Downing Street press conference: “Take-up of the vaccine has been significantly better than we had hoped.”
But in a dramatic switch in policy, he said anyone over 70 who has yet to receive their first dose is now being encouraged to self-refer.
All adults in the top four eligibility groups will be able to make an appointment online or via their GP.
It includes frontline care workers, vulnerable Brits asked to shield, and those aged 70 and above.
Until now, they were strictly asked to wait to receive a call or letter from the NHS.
But health bosses now want them to come forward in a final push to vaccinate all those at the highest risk by the start of next week.
Dr Kanani, medical director for primary care at NHS England and a practising GP, said: “If you are aged 70 and over, and have not yet received your vaccine, please make an appointment as soon as you can.
“The vaccine is safe, simple, and will offer you and those around you crucial protection against the virus.”
Officials said all bookings will be cross-referenced to stop ineligible Brits from jumping the queue.
And Mr Hancock said: “We are on track to meet our goal of offering everyone in the top four priority groups a jab.
“We have said, ‘Please wait until the NHS contacts you’. But I now urge everyone aged 70 and over who hasn’t had a vaccination to contact the NHS.
“And if you have grandparents, relatives and friends over 70, encourage them to book an appointment as soon as possible.”
The shift came as Boris Johnson and medics led a concerted charge to soothe fears that the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab is not as effective as hoped against the South African strain of Covid.
'THE WAY OUT'
The PM said the jab was “no doubt the way out” of the pandemic — despite concerns over the weekend.
Visiting the SureScreen Diagnostics testing site in Derby, he insisted it was a “massive benefit to our country and the population” and still worked to stop serious disease and death.
Mr Johnson added: “We also think, in particular in the case of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, that there’s good evidence that it is stopping transmission as well, I think, 67 per cent reduction in transmission.”
He was speaking yesterday after a worrying study of 2,000 patients appeared to show that the Oxford vaccine was not able to stop mild to moderate illness of the variant, leading to South Africa to pause its rollout until more research is done.
But, crucially, none of the people involved in the research were hospitalised or died — and some trial participants showed only mild or moderate Covid symptoms.
While the PM did not rule out that the South African variant could lead to a delay in easing restrictions if it reduces the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine’s effect on transmission, medics played down its threat.
Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, said the strain “is not going to overrun or overtake” the Kent variant that is currently the dominant type of virus in the UK, which the jabs work against.
He added that “it is not a big fright or a big surprise” that the vaccine will need to be tweaked and some high-risk groups may need a booster, as with the flu jab.
Professor Van-Tam insisted there was no evidence of a “distinct transmissibility advantage” and “no reason to think the SA variant will catch up or overtake our current virus in the next few months”.
Leeds footie star Olivia stepped in to help with the effort as she is also a trainee advanced practitioner in organ retrieval and transplant.
She gave the Oxford jab to Mewa Singh Khela, 72, as the Centenary Pavilion at the ground opened its doors to over 70s for the vaccine.
The use of Leeds’ Elland Road stadium and Plymouth Argyle’s Home Park for jabs follow Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park and Aston Villa’s Villa Park, which were made available earlier this month.
Olivia, who has volunteered to help her NHS colleagues in recent weeks, said: “Being able to work at Elland Road is testament to Leeds as a city — and the people — that we can turn a Premier League club into a vaccination centre.
“I’ve done vaccinations in the community. One lady was 99 and said I was the first person outside her family she’d seen since March.”
- Patients can book appointments via www.nhs.uk/covid-vaccination or those unable to get online can call 119. If a convenient slot is not available, you can call your GP
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