The first doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus jab are to be given as the UK accelerates its vaccine programme to tackle a surge in cases.
More than half a million doses of the vaccine are ready for use on Monday.
The health secretary described it as a “pivotal moment” in the UK’s fight against the virus, as vaccines will help curb infections and, ultimately, allow restrictions to be lifted.
But the PM has warned tougher virus rules may be needed in the short-term.
Boris Johnson said regional restrictions in England are “probably about to get tougher” as the UK struggles to control a new, fast-spreading variant of the virus.
On Sunday more than 50,000 new confirmed Covid cases were recorded in the UK for the sixth day running, prompting Labour to call for a third national lockdown in England.
Six hospital trusts – in Oxford, London, Sussex, Lancashire and Warwickshire – will begin administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab on Monday, with 530,000 doses ready for use.
Most other available doses will be sent to hundreds of GP-led services and care homes across the UK later in the week, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “This is a pivotal moment in our fight against this awful virus and I hope it provides renewed hope to everybody that the end of this pandemic is in sight.”
But he urged people to continue to follow social distancing guidance and coronavirus rules to “keep cases down and protect our loved ones”.
As the recent rise in Covid cases puts increased pressure on the NHS, the UK has accelerated its vaccination rollout by planning to give both parts of vaccine 12 weeks apart, having initially planned to leave 21 days between jabs.
The UK’s chief medical officers have defended the delay to second doses, saying getting more people vaccinated with the first jab “is much more preferable”.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first jab approved in the UK, and more than a million people have had their first jab.
The first person to get the jab on 8 December, Margaret Keenan, has already had her second jab.
The Oxford jab – which was approved for use in late December – can be stored at normal fridge temperatures, making it easier to distribute and store than the Pfizer jab. It is also cheaper per dose.
The UK has secured 100 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, enough for most of the population.
Care home residents and staff, people aged over 80, and frontline NHS staff will be first to receive it.
GPs and local vaccination services have been asked to ensure every care home resident in their local area is vaccinated by the end of January, the DHSC said.
Some 730 vaccination sites have already been established across the UK, with the total set to surpass 1,000 later this week, the department added. (Courtesy BBC)