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Coronavirus: PM hails vaccine but warns of ‘immense logistical challenges’
2 December 2020, 22:09 | Updated: 3 December 2020, 11:19
Boris Johnson has hailed the approval of the UK's first coronavirus vaccine but warned of the "immense logistical challenges" facing its distribution.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved for use in the UK on Wednesday by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), paving the way for mass vaccination to start as early as next week.
Priority groups will be the first to receive the jabs, including people over 80 and health and care workers. Care home residents and staff will also be among the initial recipients once supply chains allow it.
It will then be distributed to the rest of the population in order of age and risk, including those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
However, it needs to be stored at -70C, which means it can only be moved a few times.
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said each pack of doses cannot be easily split and the 975 doses they contain would be too many for individual care homes, meaning the vaccine would be wasted.
Speaking alongside the health chief at Wednesday's Downing Street press conference, Boris Johnson said the "searchlights of science" had picked out the "invisible enemy" in getting the vaccine to the public.
The prime minister praised scientists for performing "biological jiu-jitsu" to turn the virus on itself and create the drug.
But he also said a combination of community testing, vaccines and social distancing measures were still necessary and there were challenges in distributing it.
Mr Johnson said there were "immense logistical challenges" in distributing the jab, adding: "It will inevitably take some months before all the most vulnerable are protected - long, cold months.
"So it's all the more vital that as we celebrate this scientific achievement we are not carried away with over-optimism or fall into the naive belief that the struggle is over."
The UK leader added that hospitality restrictions would have to stay in place over the Christmas "relaxation" period and that it would be a "fatal mistake" to let caution slip.
"I'm sorry to say we have got to stick with the guidance that we have set out, the tiering system, throughout the Christmas period," he said.
"It would be a really fatal mistake now to respond to this good news by letting the virus run riot again, letting it get out of control by too much transmission over Christmas.
"That's why we have to stick very tightly to the tiers that we have set out."
Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam also warned it is "going to take months, not weeks" for the country to be vaccinated and said other measures, such as social distancing, must remain in place in the meantime.
He also said he "doesn't think we are going to eradicate coronavirus ever", adding that it could become seasonal in the same way as flu.
Sir Simon told the briefing that the first people to receive the jab from 50 hospital hubs next week would be the over-80s, care home staff and others identified by the JCVI who may already have a hospital appointment.
GP practices will then operate local vaccination centres as more vaccine becomes available and, if regulators give approval for a safe way of splitting packs, care homes will receive stocks, he added.
Sir Simon said it would take until March or April for the entire at-risk population to be vaccinated.
Professor Sir Munir Pirmohamed, of the Commission on Human Medicines advisory panel, said approval of the vaccine was a "historic moment".
He told a Government press conference: "We are in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic and I think this is a historic moment.
"The UK is now one step closer to providing a safe and effective vaccine to help in the fight against Covid-19, a virus that has affected each and every one of us in some way.
"This will help to save lives."
Dr June Raine, of the MHRA medicines regulator, stressed the vaccine met "rigorous high standards".
"The public's safety has always been at the forefront of our minds," she said.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation's Wei Shen Lim said the body had advised on how the jab might by used in the "first phase" of the programme but had not yet given advice about future phases.