The British government has appointed a vaccines minister as it prepares to inoculate millions of people against the coronavirus, potentially starting within days.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday (Sunday NZT) Conservative lawmaker Nadhim Zahawi would oversee the country's biggest vaccine programme in decades.
The UK medicines regulator is currently assessing two vaccines - one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, the other by Oxford University and AstraZeneca - to see if they are safe and effective.
The Guardian newspaper reported hospitals have been told they could receive the first doses of the Pfizer shot the week of December 7, if it receives approval.
The UK says frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents will be the first to be vaccinated, followed by older people, starting with those over 80.
Britain 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 all, the UK government has agreed to purchase up to 355 million doses of vaccine from seven producers, as it prepares to vaccinate as many of the country's 67 million people as possible.
Decisions about which, if any, vaccines to authorise will be made by the independent Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.
Pfizer and BioNTech say their vaccine is 95 per cent effective, according to preliminary data. It must be stored at ultra-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 rivals. But some scientists have questioned gaps in its reported results.
Oxford and AstraZeneca reported this week their vaccine appeared to be 62 per cent effective in people who received two doses, and 90 per cent effective when volunteers were given a half dose followed by a full dose.
They said the half dose was administered because of a manufacturing error, and they plan a new clinical trial to investigate the most effective dosing regimen.
The British government hopes a combination of vaccines and mass testing will end the need for restrictions on business and everyday life it imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Britain has had Europe's deadliest Covid-19 outbreak, with more than 57,000 confirmed virus-related deaths.
The prime minister said this week officials hoped to inoculate "the vast majority of the people who need the most protection by Easter". But he warned that "we must first navigate a hard winter" of restrictions.
A four-week national lockdown in England is due to end on Wednesday, and will be replaced by a three-tiered system of regional measures that restrict business activity, travel and socialising. The vast majority of the country is being put into the upper two tiers.
The restrictions have sparked protests, including an anti-lockdown demonstration in London on Saturday, where police arrested scores of people.
Several bottles and smoke bombs were thrown as anti-mask and anti-vaccine demonstrators scuffled with officers in the city's West End shopping district. The Metropolitan Police force said 155 people were arrested.
Johnson also faces opposition to the measures from dozens of his own Conservative Party lawmakers, who say the economic damage outweighs the public health benefits.
But Cabinet minister Michael Gove said the restrictions were "grimly" necessary to avoid the health system being overwhelmed this winter.
Writing in The Times of London, Gove said there were currently 16,000 coronavirus patients in British hospitals, not far below the April peak of 20,000. A rise in infections would mean coronavirus patients would "displace all but emergency cases. And then even those", he said.
"If, however, we can keep the level of infection stable or, even better, falling, and hold out through January and February, then we can be confident that vaccination will pull the plug on the problem," Gove wrote.