Matt Hancock has said the NHS could start vaccinating people against coronavirus “next month”.
Speaking at the Downing Street press conference on Friday, the health secretary said the government had “formally” asked the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to assess the suitability of the Pfizer vaccine.
“If the regulator approves a vaccine, we will be ready to start the vaccination next month, with the bulk of the rollout in the new year,” he said.
“This is another important step forward in tackling this pandemic.
Hancock said the speed of the roll-out of a vaccine would depend on the speed it could be manufactured.
“We are heading in the right direction but there is still a long way to go.”
Hancock added that he has grown “more and more confident” that life will be closer to normal by spring.
The government said a further 511 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Friday, bringing the UK total to 54,286.
Hancock’s comments came following reports all adults in England could start to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before the end of January if supplies allow.
NHS England’s draft Covid-19 vaccine deployment programme, seen by the Health Service Journal (HSJ) and dated November 13, said every adult who wants a jab could be vaccinated by early April.
Pfizer together with its partner BionTech is expected to receive US approval for its vaccine within days.
The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer jab and expects 10 million doses by the end of the year.
It has also ordered 100 million doses of a vaccine from AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which has shown promising results in clinical trials and is due to report before Christmas, and five million doses of a jab from US firm Moderna, which is not expected to arrive until the spring.
The planning document from NHS England, according to the HSJ, relies on a range of assumptions including that there will be 75% take-up of the jab outside residential settings such as care homes and prisons, where 100% is expected.
The model also relies on more than seven million doses of a vaccine being available in December, with four to five million doses per week given to people, the HSJ reported.
The document, which was shared among senior NHS regional leaders on Thursday, comes as the head of England’s biggest NHS hospital trust said in a “best-case scenario” it could take until April to vaccinate enough people to make a difference to the pandemic.
The NHS England document sets out how those groups given priority for the vaccine could be vaccinated at the same time if stocks allow.
Interim guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises the Government on jab priorities, has said older adults in care homes and care home workers should be vaccinated first.
All those aged 80 and over and health and social care workers would be next, followed by anyone aged 75 and over.
People will then be vaccinated in descending order of age, taking into account high-risk adults under 65 and moderate-risk adults under 65.
According to the NHS England document, care home residents and staff and healthcare workers could be vaccinated from the beginning of December, followed by those aged 80 and over from mid-December.
Everyone aged 70 to 80 could be vaccinated from late December and those aged 65 to 70 from early January alongside all high and moderate-risk under-65s
Everyone aged 50 to 65 could then receive a jab from mid-January, followed by everyone aged 18 to 50 from late January, the HSJ reported.
However, the bulk of this latter group would be vaccinated during March.