Vaccinations had saved more than 6,000 lives in the UK by the end of February, Matt Hancock has revealed, saying he now believes he can see an end to the crisis where Covid-19 could be treated like flu and dealt with via top-up vaccines.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Hancock also claimed the UK had the upper hand in a dispute with the EU over vaccine supply contracts. “They have a ‘best efforts’ contract and we have an exclusivity deal,” he said.
Hancock hinted that the EU’s threats of a potential export ban on vaccinations would help the UK’s bid to become a centre for life sciences research. “You can export anywhere in the world and we’re never going to put a stop to that,” he said.
Asked whether he could now see an end to the crisis via vaccinations, he said he was cautiously optimistic: “It depends what you mean by ‘end’. I see an end where Covid is managed more like flu: we repeatedly vaccinate, we update the vaccines according to mutations and we manage the challenges, especially around transmissions over winter.
“I’m confident that’s where we can get to. I want to get to a position where we can have an updated vaccine in weeks or months, not a year.”
MPs will vote on Thursday on whether to extend the Coronavirus Act until October, as well as approving the roadmap for lifting restrictions via new regulations.
The former chief whip Mark Harper, leader of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, said he and others would oppose the extension of what he called “very significant draconian powers” for a further six months.
“These are quite significant powers; they are powers, for example, for the police to detain people indefinitely and to continue having powers to shut down events and so forth all the way through to October,” he told Sky News.
“And I haven’t heard a single good answer about why the government wishes to do that, given that the prime minister has said he wants to be out of all of our legal restrictions by June.”
The government has said there are provisions in the act that are needed beyond the end of restrictions to help with NHS and court backlogs – though some MPs have disputed that. Hancock wrote to MPs to say the act was needed to help extend the furlough scheme, which No 10 later said was incorrect.
The Conservative MP Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, said the vote was a rare opportunity for MPs to “say no to a new way of life in a checkpoint society”.