British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a mask because of the coronavirus, took a closer look at a sample in the Lateral Flow Testing Laboratory during a visit to the Public Health England site at Porton Down Science Park near Salisbury in the south of England on Friday November 27. 2020. (Adrian Dennis / Pool via AP)

The British government on Saturday appointed a vaccination minister who is preparing to vaccinate millions of people against the coronavirus, possibly within a few days.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Conservative lawmaker Nadhim Zahawi will oversee the country’s largest vaccination program in decades.

The UK Medicines Agency is currently testing two vaccines – one from Pfizer and BioNTech, one from Oxford University and AstraZeneca – to see if they are safe and effective. The Guardian newspaper reported that hospitals were told they could receive the first doses of the Pfizer shot in the week of December 7th, if approved.

The UK says frontline health workers and nursing home residents will be the first to be vaccinated, followed by the elderly, starting in those over 80.

The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine, enough for 20 million people, and 100 million doses of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine.

In total, the UK government has agreed to buy up to 355 million doses of vaccine from seven different manufacturers in order to vaccinate as many of the country’s 67 million people as possible.

Decisions about which vaccines to approve, if any, are made by the independent drug and health product regulator.

UK appoints vaccines ministers to oversee COVID vaccinations

A man walks past a billboard in the window of a clothing store in Manchester, England on Saturday 28 November 2020. A four-week national lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus still restricts civil liberties and will put more pressure on businesses to lure customers back to the shopping streets if restrictions are eased before Christmas. (Danny Lawson / PA via AP)

Pfizer and BioNTech say their vaccine is 95% effective based on preliminary data. It has to be stored at extremely cold temperatures of around minus 70 degrees Celsius.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored at conventional refrigerator temperatures and is also cheaper than its main competitors. However, some scientists have questioned gaps in the reported results.

Oxford and AstraZeneca reported this week that their vaccine was 62% effective in people who received two doses and 90% effective when volunteers were given half a dose followed by a full dose. They said half the dose was given due to a manufacturing defect and they are planning a new clinical trial to investigate the most effective dosing regimen.

The UK government is hoping a combination of vaccines and mass testing will end the need for business and daily life restrictions it has imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The UK had the deadliest COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, with more than 57,000 confirmed virus-related deaths.

The prime minister said this week that officials are hoping to “vaccinate the vast majority of people who need the most protection by Easter”. But he warned that “we have to face a tough winter first”.

A four-week national lockdown in England is scheduled for Wednesday and is being replaced with a three-tier system of regional measures that restrict business, travel and socializing. The vast majority of the country is divided into the top two levels.

UK appoints vaccines ministers to oversee COVID vaccinations

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson watches a PCR diagnostic device with biomedical scientist Jodie Owen in a laboratory during a visit to the Public Health England site at Porton Down Science Park near Salisbury in the south of England on Friday 27 November 2020 was seen. Adrian Dennis / Pool via AP)

The restrictions sparked protests with police arresting dozens of people at an anti-lockdown demonstration in London on Saturday.

Several bottles and smoke bombs were thrown as protesters against masks and vaccines rattled with officials in the city’s West End shopping district. The Metropolitan Police said more than 60 people have been arrested and the number is expected to increase.

Johnson also opposes actions by dozens of his own Conservative party lawmakers who say the economic harm outweighs the public health benefits.

Bur Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove said the restrictions were “grimly” necessary to keep the health system from becoming overwhelmed this winter.

Gove wrote in The Times of London that there are currently 16,000 coronavirus patients in UK hospitals, not far below the April high of 20,000. An increase in infections would mean that coronavirus patients would “displace all but emergencies. And then these too,” he said.

“However, if we can keep infection levels stable, or better yet, go down and hold out through January and February, we can be sure that vaccination will solve the problem,” Gove wrote.

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