England’s chief medical officer has declared that the country is “past the peak” of its second coronavirus wave, as the number of people vaccinated against the disease topped 10 million.
But Chris Whitty warned that the virus could still surge again if restrictions are lifted too soon.
And he said a “residual risk” of future winter waves of Covid-19 will remain for years to come, even after a successful immunisation programme.
“At this point in time, provided people continue to follow the guidelines, we’re on the downward slope of cases, of hospitalisations and of deaths, in all four of the nations of the United Kingdom,” Prof Whitty told a Downing Street press conference.
“So I think, we do think, at this point, this peak at least we are past.”
But he added: “Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have another one.”
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, hailed the inoculation of the 10 millionth person as a “significant milestone” in the fightback against Covid-19, giving the UK one of the highest per capita vaccination rates in the world.
“Every jab makes us all a bit safer – I want to thank everyone playing their part,” he said.
But prime minister Boris Johnson cautioned that, while there were “signs of hope”, levels of infection remained “alarmingly high”.
Resisting pressure from Tory backbenchers to reopen English schools on 22 February in line with Scotland and Wales, he insisted he was sticking to the “prudent” date of 8 March for the return to classrooms.
Official figures showed that 10,021,471 people have now received their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine in the UK. Of these, almost half a million – 498,962 – have had their second jab.
At the current rate of vaccination, with an average of roughly 400,000 doses being administered every day, the UK is on course to offer a jab to the top nine priority groups by early April.
But Prof Whitty said unofficial hints that every adult could receive a first dose by the end of May and a second by August were “probably beyond what is possible”.
Latest figures showed 19,202 positive tests for coronavirus reported in the UK on 3 February, with 1,322 deaths, bringing the official fatality total to 109,335.
Total infections over the past seven days were down by more than a quarter (25.1 per cent) on the previous week, at 156,771, with weekly deaths down 13.4 per cent at 7,448.
“The number of people in hospital with Covid has now gone down from its peak, quite noticeably,” Prof Whitty told the Downing Street briefing.
“But, as the prime minister said, there are still a very large number of people in hospital, and more people than there were in the first peak in April last year.
“So this is still a very major problem, but it is one that is heading the right way.”
Deaths would remain high “for quite some time” before the impact of vaccination can be seen, he said.
And he warned: “If we were to start take-off again from the very high levels we are at the moment, the NHS will get back into trouble extraordinarily fast.”
Mr Johnson warned that even those who have had their second dose of the vaccine must stick to social-distancing rules.
“We really need to see more data, particularly about transmission from people who have already had the vaccine and others before we think about relaxing social distancing and guidelines for everybody,” he said.
The government announced armed forces personnel would begin administering doses in Scotland and other parts of the UK to aid with the vaccine rollout.
Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccine minister, said: “Our armed forces are playing an invaluable role in helping ensure those most at risk get their jabs, working side by side with healthcare staff in a truly UK-wide effort.
“The pace and progress of our rollout shows the strength of our union and how much we can achieve by pulling together as one United Kingdom.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies