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Vaccine will 'substantially reduce deaths' - and UK will have up to four jabs to use by mid-2021

The coronavirus jab being rolled out across the UK will "substantially" reduce deaths and there will be up to four vaccines to use by the middle of next year, the chief medical officer for England has said.

Professor Chris Whitty also said the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine will drastically reduce hospital admissions from COVID-19.

A UK-wide rollout of the vaccine began on Tuesday in what health leaders hailed as a "turning point" in the pandemic.

Professor Whitty told the Commons Science and Technology Committee this morning that he expected the UK to have between three to four vaccines to choose from by the middle of 2021.

However he also advised the rollout process should still proceed "carefully".

Professor Whitty said: "The aim would be to roll out this vaccine and any others that get a licence and are effective and safe.

"We expect probably by the middle of the year to have a portfolio of three or four vaccines which we can actually use."

Professor Whitty also said he believes the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is likely to reduce transmission of the virus, and continued: "It will reduce the mortality rate substantially.

"Then it'll start to reduce the number of people who go into hospital.

"And at a certain point, through society, through political leaders, will say this level of risk is something we are prepared to tolerate.

"For example, in an average year 7,000 people die of flu.

"At this point, the risk is now low enough that we can do away with the most onerous things we have to deal with."

The government's chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who was also sat before the committee, said the "biggest risk we face now is that people think it's all over".

He continued: "It isn't all over.

"We have a very important light at the end of the tunnel, but we're a long way off.

"It's not the time to relax things. If that happens we will have a big surge."

He also said there would still be coronavirus transmission among the population once the most vulnerable are vaccinated.

When asked when lockdowns will no longer be needed, he replied: "It's a science-informed political decision.

"What we're looking at is exactly that sort of question, as to depending on the effects of the vaccine on transmission, which we don't know yet, as Chris (Whitty) has said, you would have different models as to what that would mean in terms of the degree of immunity across the population you will end up with, that will be relevant to keeping suppression of transmission versus protecting those who are most vulnerable.

"Priority number one has to be protect those who are most vulnerable, you can see the effects of that.

"There will still be transmission amongst others at that point, so we need to be aware of that, and then we will know a bit more as we learn about transmission across the different vaccines, what effect they have.

"But, ultimately, then there are some decisions to be made about how much risk society wishes to take with that."

Professor Whitty later described so-called "anti-vaxxers", people who are opposed to the vaccination rollout, as a "small group with very weird views".

He continued: "They are almost not worth acknowledging in public communication terms because nothing will persuade them.

"But there are people who are waiting to see - and that is entirely reasonable."

The committee went on to ask the government advisers what can be learned from the UK's handling of the pandemic so far, with the scientists saying testing and contact-tracing were two main areas.

Sir Patrick Vallance said it would have been beneficial for the UK to have pre-trained contact-tracers.

Analysis: The vaccine rollout doesn't let the government off the hook

By Thomas Moore, science correspondent

It is vital to learn the lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, and that will be helped by this forensic inquiry by MPs into what has gone well and what hasn't.

Vaccines are a huge success, of course.

The UK has more vaccines pre-purchased per head than any other country, and yesterday's world-first roll out of the Pfizer jab is a direct result of the early call made by the government's chief scientist that they would be the way out of the pandemic.

Within the next few months it is likely there will be several vaccines approved and in use, with doctors having to choose which to use. It's a nice problem to have.

But there are other aspects where the government's response has been inadequate.

The lack of testing capacity meant the authorities lost sight of the virus in the spring, allowing it to spread widely, below the radar.

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By the time capacity increased it was too late for contact tracing and self-isolation to bring the epidemic back under control.

The decision to lockdown in the spring was also taken too late. A delay of just a week may well have cost something like 20,000 lives.

So there are questions to be asked about the accuracy of the epidemic modelling and whether the government responded quickly enough to the steep rise in cases.

Of course an inquiry has the benefit of hindsight, so the question for MPs on the science and technology and the health select committees is whether the government and its advisers responded appropriately, based on the information they had at the time.

This was a new virus that was poorly understood. The science evolved and advice changed - for example on face masks - and that's a reasonable evidence-based approach.

But Asian countries lost no time in preparing for a significant outbreak when China warned of an emerging virus. The UK, and to be fair, some other European countries, just didn't believe a coronavirus was a threat.

A lot of the government's problems are down to transparency and communication. Mixed and confusing messages undermine public trust in the social distancing rules that make absolute sense from a health perspective, but come at the cost of our liberty.

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