Britain must preserve the gains of its COVID-19 vaccination campaign at all costs and avoid a situation where people would return from foreign holidays bringing vaccine-resistant variants with them, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said on Sunday.
Under its four-stage roadmap to easing restrictions, the government has said that foreign travel would be allowed to resume from May 17 at the earliest, although it could be later than that. A taskforce is due to report to the government in April on the issue of what to do about foreign travel.
"We can't be deaf and blind to what's going on outside the United Kingdom. If you look in Europe, increases in infections," Wallace said on Sky News when asked about whether foreign holidays would be possible for Britons this summer.
"If we were to be reckless in any way, and import new variants that put out risks, what would people say about that? We've got good direction of travel, we're getting there, and I think we need to make sure we preserve that at all costs," he said, referring to the vaccination campaign.
Britain has hit a COVID-19 vaccination milestone with more than half of all adults having had at least one injection, health secretary Matt Hancock said on Saturday, making it the world's first major economy to achieve that level of innoculation.
Britain's vaccine roll-out, which has raced ahead of those in the European Union and the United States, means the country is on track to ease lockdown measures and re-open the economy in line with its plan, Hancock said.
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"The vaccination programme is our route out of the pandemic," Hancock told Sky News on Saturday. Official data showed 26.9 million had received a first dose of vaccine, up from 26.3 million the previous day.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had AstraZeneca's vaccine on Friday, tweeted "Let's keep going" after the announcement that half of all adults had had a first shot.
Yet worries were also growing about a new wave of infections in continental Europe as cases rise in countries including Germany and France. A scientist who advises the government warned on Saturday that holidays abroad were "extremely unlikely" for most Britons this summer due to the risk of importing new variants of COVID-19.
Asked if infection rates elsewhere in Europe concerned him, Hancock said Britain had to stay vigilant but saw no threat to plans to gradually re-open shops, pubs and restaurants from April 12. "There is no sign that we won't be able to make progress as set out in the roadmap," Hancock said.
Britain's vaccination roll-out, using the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs, is one of the fastest in the world. Israel tops the world in terms of the proportion of its population it has vaccinated, followed by the United Arab Emirates, Chile, then the UK.
By comparison, 23% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, and less than a 10th of the EU population has been vaccinated.