Matt Hancock has said the rollout of the UK vaccine in age order is the “fastest and simplest way” amid backlash over the lack of priority for teachers and police.
The health secretary defended plans for the next phase of the Government’s Covid response, due to start in April, in which those aged 40-49 will be offered the jab first.
The view of the Government and its advisers was that “the right thing to do, the moral thing to do is to make sure that we save the most lives,” Hancock said.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has said that vaccination in order of age remains the speediest way to cut deaths.
Targeting certain professions would be complicated and may slow down the process, the JCVI has advised.
This means that the second stage of the rollout will start with the 40-49 bracket before moving on to younger age groups.
Teaching unions have criticised to the move while the national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales said it was a “deep and damaging betrayal” and “will not be forgotten”.
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Mr Hancock told a Downing Street briefing the JCVI had looked at clinical evidence on who is at highest risk of death and said age was the determining factor.
Asked specifically why teachers had not been prioritised, he said data showed that “thankfully teachers are no more likely to catch Covid than any other member of the population who goes to work”.
He added: “Trying to come up with a scheme which prioritises one professional group over another would have been complicated to put in place and wouldn’t have done what we asked the JCVI to do, which I think is the right thing, which is to make sure we minimise the amount of people who die by using the vaccine.”
England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, said that prioritising by occupations would “damage the pace of the vaccine rollout so much”.
He added: “It’s more important to be in the queue, worry less about where exactly you are in the queue but be reassured the queue is moving really fast and that you’re going to get to the front of the queue because it’s moving fast.”
Other workers are at higher risk than teaching, such as those with jobs in catering and “machine operatives, food, drink and tobacco process operatives, chefs, [and] cab drivers”, according the professor.
Referring to coronavirus case rates across England, Prof Van-Tam said there “were quite a few areas of the UK that are burning quite hot”, including in the Midlands and spreading up to the west coast of England.
He added: “Although it is generally good news, I’m afraid it is better news in some places than it is in others and this is not a battle that we have won yet.
“In some parts of the UK, case rates are changing, albeit slowly, in the wrong direction.”
Prof Van-Tam urged those who have been vaccinated to stick to the rules, saying he had been “besieged” with people writing to him saying “‘I’ve had the vaccine, essentially can I now start to break the rules?”
He asked people not to ignore the national lockdown based on whether or not they were inoculated, saying: “It is too early to relax”.
Earlier, Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 chairman for the JCVI, backed the move, echoing other advisers in saying age was a stronger indicator of risk than occupation.
One of the problems with trying to hand out doses according to occupation is that jobs aren’t well-recorded in GP records, he added.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at Public Health England (PHE), told the briefing the age-based approach will ensure more people are protected more quickly.
She said that, even within different occupations, age was the dominant factor in severe disease, adding: “We would want a 40-year-old policeman to come forward before a 20-year-old policeman.”
But John Apter, from the Police Federation, said: “There’s real palpable anger from all levels within policing about how we have been completely disregarded and ignored in this phase.
“What is expected of policing does put them at risk.
“It does put them at risk of transmitting this virus.
“They’re being spat at, coughed at, rolling around on the ground with people, working in hospital environments, going into people’s homes.
“They can’t mitigate the risk of the virus.
“All of that means absolutely nothing.
“This is a very deep and damaging betrayal and it will not be forgotten.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “I am amazed by the continuing dedication of school teams.
“The Government has let them down at every turn.”
The move comes after data from Public Health England (PHE) revealed certain workers were disproportionately hit by the virus.
Hundreds of suspected Covid outbreaks have been linked to offices in England over recent months.
More than 500 outbreaks are believed to have happened in offices in the second half of last year – higher than the entire retail and catering sectors put together, the data showed.
SAGE expert Professor Cath Noakes also warned that the chances of contracting the virus in poorly-ventilated offices can go up by 70 per cent.
Emergency service workers, manufacturers and mail delivery staff were also among those worst hit, the PHE data shows.
The Office for National Statistics shows that around one in 145 people in private households in England had Covid-19 between February 13 and 19, down from about one in 115 the previous week.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus reproduction number, or R value, across the UK has stayed between 0.6 and 0.9.
Some 19 million people have now had a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, 35 per cent of all adults in the UK.