Boris Johnson is to receive his first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, as several European countries start inoculating their populations again in light of new assurances on the jab’s safety.
The Prime Minister will receive his vaccine in London later on Friday, while countries including France, Germany and Italy restart their vaccine programmes with the AstraZeneca jab – reversing an earlier decision to suspend it over blood clot concerns.
It comes as new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that around one in 340 people in private households in England had Covid-19 in the week to March 13, down from around one in 270 the week before.
In Wales, around one in 430 people are estimated to have had Covid-19 in the week to March 13 (down from one in 365), while the figure was one in 315 in Northern Ireland (similar to the week before) and around one in 275 in Scotland, up from one in 320. The current reproduction rate (R) for the UK is 0.6 to 0.9.
Other data shows the UK ended 2020 with one of the highest levels of excess mortality for people aged under 65 among countries in Europe.
Mr Johnson’s vaccination comes after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said the AstraZeneca vaccine was “safe and effective” and its benefits in preventing Covid-19 hospital admission and death greatly outweighed potential risks.
The EMA has, however, been unable to say definitively that the jab is not linked to “extremely rare” blood clots on the brain, of which there have been 18 reports among millions of people vaccinated.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have said that the jab is safe and have encouraged people to take up their vaccine appointments.
The WHO’s advisory committee on vaccine safety issued a formal statement on Friday saying the vaccine “continues to have a positive benefit-risk profile, with tremendous potential to prevent infections and reduce deaths across the world”.
Mr Johnson, 56, told a Downing Street press conference on Thursday afternoon: “The Oxford jab is safe and the Pfizer jab is safe.
“The thing that isn’t safe is catching Covid, which is why it is so important that we all get our jabs as soon as our turn comes.”
French prime minister Jean Castex received the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday.
Earlier, a senior scientific adviser said the UK must keep the South African Covid-19 variant at bay as some European countries report a third wave of infections.
Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, who spurred the UK’s decision to go into lockdown last March, warned that a group of European countries are seeing increasing levels of coronavirus cases.
“Perhaps more concern for the UK though is that some countries are notably seeing a significant fraction, 5-10% of cases, of the South African variant,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“When infection levels go up in France, 30,000 cases a day, that implies there’s at least 1,500-2,000 cases a day of the South African variant.
“That is the variant we really do want to keep out of the UK.”
A study published on Thursday by Oxford University suggested that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs could struggle against the South African variant and may end up offering limited protection.
Researchers said the South African variant should be the focus of any efforts to create new vaccines that may be needed next winter.
Professor Ferguson said “we do need to keep these variants of concern at bay”, adding: “The longer we can keep it (South African variant) out, or at least at low levels in the UK, the more time we have to vaccinate the entire adult population and to update vaccines to be able to cope with that new variant.
“I think it’s an important issue right now.”
He said there are “important decisions coming up” with regards to dealing with variants, including how much the ban on international travel is relaxed.
One way of dealing with variants may be through “introducing testing of people coming into the country”, he suggested, but added: “These are policy decisions.”
Prof Ferguson said deaths in the UK were being driven down “at a faster rate then I ever thought possible, and that will allow us to open up, but opening up poses risks, particularly if there are variants around which can partially escape the vaccine”.
Meanwhile, professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford vaccine group, said the EMA saying the AstraZeneca vaccine was safe and effective would help “rebuild confidence” in the jab he developed.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “This is incredibly reassuring, the processes are working, the safety monitoring that we all expect from our authorities is happening.
“I think what they have very clearly stated is that we absolutely are confident in use of the vaccine, that it’s not associated with the blood clots as was originally raised.
“We’re really not in a battle with each other or the vaccine, we’re battling a ruthless killer that within the European Union has killed 600,000 people in the past year.”
Elsewhere, professor Robin Shattock, who is working on Covid-19 variants research at Imperial College London, said vaccine supply shortages in April will have some impact on the rollout programme.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca jab is safe and the Pfizer jab is safe - the thing that isnât safe is catching COVID.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) March 18, 2021
Which is why itâs so important that we all get our jabs as soon as our turn comes. pic.twitter.com/WREOjG4FIX
He added: “What’s going to have much more of an impact on rollout is that now people are due their second dose… everybody who’s had their single dose will require their second dose.
“It’s unrealistic to imagine the first dose rollout will be as fast because we’ll have to catch up with the second doses.”
The vaccine news comes as Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said coronavirus certificates are being considered as a way of getting fans back to larger events “in significant numbers”.
He said ministers were reviewing the possibility of introducing a document providing proof that a person has either been vaccinated against the virus or tested negative.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove is currently leading a review on the “ethical, equalities, privacy, legal and operational aspects” of a so-called vaccine passport scheme, with the results due to be published by June 21 when all restrictions are planned to be scrapped.
It has also emerged that the Department of Health and Social Care has asked NHS Blood and Transplant to stop collecting convalescent plasma donations.
This follows the completed analysis of clinical trial results which showed no overall benefit for people in hospital with coronavirus.