LONDON: People eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine among the over-70 most at-risk groups who haven't yet had their jab are being urged by the National Health Service (NHS) to come forward this weekend in a renewed drive as the UK government nears its target of vaccinating the top priority groups by Monday.
Over 12 million people in England have now received jabs to protect against coronavirus and the government is expected to expand the criteria to start covering the most vulnerable within the over-65 age group.
The milestone comes as government ministers go out into the community to help counter any reluctance around vaccinations, with UK Home Secretary Priti Patel volunteering at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Bedford, eastern England, to spread the message among British Indians.
"The vaccine is safe and will protect you and your loved ones -- no matter your background," said Patel.
Meanwhile, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told "The Daily Telegraph' that he hoped that over time the world could be living with the deadly virus like the seasonal flu virus."
"I hope that COVID-19 will become a treatable disease by the end of the year," Hancock told the newspaper.
The minister said that new treatments will be important in "turning Covid from a pandemic that affects all of our lives into another illness that we have to live with, like we do flu. That's where we need to get Covid to over the months to come".
"I am determined that we protect as many of our country's most vulnerable people from this awful disease as soon as possible. Vaccines are the way out of this pandemic," he said, as he called upon any remaining over-70s yet to receive their first of two doses of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs to come forward this weekend.
"People in the priority groups have not missed their chance to get jabbed and if you are aged 70 and over and haven't yet taken up the offer, please do come forward and make an appointment -- the vaccine is safe, simple, and will offer you and those around you crucial protection against this virus," added Professor Stephen Powis, NHS medical director.
The top four priority cohorts, set by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), include care home residents and staff, frontline health and social care workers, anyone aged 70 or over and people who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
These groups were contacted for their jabs in turn and are now being urged to contact the NHS or their local general practitioners (GPs) directly if they are yet to receive their dose for any reason.
Frontline health and social care workers are being encouraged to speak to their employer if they haven't had their vaccine yet.
And GP teams have been asked to contact their clinically extremely vulnerable patients to make sure they have been offered a jab.
"We are working with communities right across the country to make sure that whatever someone's background, ethnicity or their religious beliefs, everyone is able to get the protection they need as we continue to fight this disease together," said NHS England.
Almost 30 ministers are taking part in the concerted push across every region in the UK to encourage everyone eligible for the vaccine to come forward through visits and virtual meetings.
It is part of a strategy for the UK government to meet its expanded target of offering the vaccine to all those over 50 by May and all adults by September, as an important route out of lockdowns.