Matt Hancock has defended the continued rollout of the UK vaccination programme in age order, saying it is the “fastest and simplest way to roll out the jabs”.
The Health Secretary said 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”.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised that vaccination in order of age remains the quickest way to cut deaths, with age still a dominant risk factor for serious illness and death from Covid-19.
This means that phase two of the vaccine rollout, which is expected to begin in April, will start with people aged 40 to 49 before moving on to younger age groups.
Teaching unions have reacted angrily to the news, while the national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales said it was a “deep and damaging betrayal” of police officers, which “will not be forgotten”.
Mr Hancock told a Downing Street briefing the JCVI had looked at clinical evidence on who is at highest risk of death and also how quickly jabs could get into people’s arms.
Asked specifically why teachers are not being 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.
“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.”
He said other occupations were higher risk than teaching, including people working in catering as well as “metal-working and machine operatives, food, drink and tobacco process operatives, chefs, taxi and cab drivers”.
Presenting a series of slides on 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?
“‘Can I go and see my grandchildren and do X, Y and Z?’
“And the answer to that is no,” he said.
“We are not yet collectively, as a country, in the right place.”
The professor urged people not to think “well, one home visit might be all right now the weather is getting better, gonna be a nice weekend, one small gathering in your house won’t really matter.
“I’m afraid it does and the data on the slides speak for themselves.
“So my key message tonight is look, this is all going very well but there are some worrying signs that people are relaxing, taking their foot off the brake at exactly the wrong time.
“It is a bit like being three-nil up in a game and thinking, ‘We can’t possibly lose this now’ – but how many times have we seen the other side take it 4-3?
“Do not wreck this now.
“It is too early to relax.
“Just continue to maintain discipline and hang on just a few more months.”
Earlier, Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 chairman for the JCVI, told a press briefing the reasoning behind the decision not to prioritise groups such as teachers and police officers in phase two of the vaccination programme.
He said that even within different occupations, it was older people who were more at risk than those who were younger.
One of the difficulties with looking at vaccination according to occupation was that jobs were not very well recorded in GP records, he added.
“Trying to work out the association between occupational risk and exposure and severe disease has been difficult enough, and I think structuring an entire mass vaccination programme around occupation would be even more difficult,” he said.
“We know that an age-based programme is simple and works very well and it seems sensible to continue with that, keeping an eye on speed because speed of deployment is the important factor.”
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, told the PA news agency: “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.”
It comes as new data from 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 remains unchanged and is between 0.6 and 0.9.
Some 19 million people have now had a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, 35% of all adults in the UK.