Matt Hancock said the virus was “diminished but not yet defeated” as recorded coronavirus fatalities dropped to their lowest since early September. He said continued caution is needed to ensure the Government’s roadmap to freedom is “a one-way street”. Mr Hancock revealed that booster jabs will be offered this autumn, tweaked to fight mutant strains – seen as the biggest risk to normality returning.
He said: “Cases, hospitalisations and deaths are back to the levels we saw in September.
“Throughout the crisis we’ve protected the NHS and there are now 2,186 people in hospital with Covid across the UK – down 94 percent from the peak.
“The average number of daily deaths is 25, down 98 percent.
“Because of this brighter picture, we’ve been able to take step two on our roadmap and it is brilliant to see the high streets bustling with life once again and to hear the real-life crowd back in Wembley this weekend.
“Step by step we are returning this country towards normal life and we are on track to meet the roadmap set out by the Prime Minister.”
Mr Hancock told MPs that uptake of Covid vaccines was “astonishingly high”. All adults are likely to have been offered first doses by the end of July.
But he continued: “Throughout we must be vigilant, cautious and careful because we want this road to be a one-way street.” The four new virus deaths reported yesterday compared with 13 a week earlier.
Another 2,963 cases were confirmed, which is 17 percent fewer than the previous Monday.
The total of people fully vaccinated with two doses passed 10 million while those with one hit 32.9 million.
The Health Secretary welcomed the “terrific milestone” but noted that a variant which outwitted immunity generated by first generation vaccines was the main threat to further progress.
He said in the House of Commons: “We know from our response to other viruses like flu that we need updated vaccines to tackle mutated viruses.
“We’re ramping up plans for a booster shot to make sure our vaccines stay ahead of the virus.
“We’ve already procured enough vaccine doses to begin the booster shots later this year.”
Mr Hancock added: “We will be working with our current vaccine suppliers and new suppliers, like the CureVac partnership, to work out which vaccines will be effective as a booster shot.”
He also revealed that new vaccines would be “targeted at the variants of concern – like the one first found in South Africa.
He added: “Our goal is to ensure the vaccine protects against this dreadful disease, whatever it throws at us, to keep us safe and to protect our much-cherished return to a normal way of life.”
Mr Hancock explained the booster shots would be run in a similar way to the first dose and will draw on annual flu vaccine experience.
He said: “Most years, the flu virus mutates. We work out, observing the Australian winter of Covid reported what is the most likely variant we’ll get in our winter.
“We adjust the vaccines to that variant and then we roll them out in the autumn. That sort of programme, I think, is likely to be needed in this country for some time to come.”
Scientists are trying to see if Covid boosters can be given at the same time as flu jabs, or if a gap is needed between them.
Mr Hancock said: “We want to be absolutely clear that a booster shot programme will happen this autumn. We are determined to make it as efficacious as possible because dealing with these new variants will require booster shots especially for the most vulnerable.”
He also announced that nine in 10 community pharmacies in England are offering free, rapid Covid tests for use at home.
Pharmacy Collect lets adults pick up a batch of tests for use twice weekly.