PRIME Minister Boris Johnson has warned the public not to get carried away with optimism, despite the approval of a new coronavirus vaccine.

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said the vaccine "does not mean the struggle is over".

He confirmed that the rollout of the vaccine will begin next week and that the elderly in care homes, health and social workers would be top of the list.

Boris Johnson said the “searchlights of science” had picked out the “invisible enemy” as he welcomed the approval of a coronavirus vaccine.

He said scientists had performed “biological jiu jitsu” to turn the virus on itself.

At a Downing Street press conference he said the NHS would now embark on the the “biggest programme of mass vaccination in the history of the UK” from next week.

Mr Johnson  acknowledged there were “immense logistical challenges” in distributing the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

The Prime Minister said: “It will inevitably take some months before all the most vulnerable are protected – long, cold months.

“So it’s all the more vital that as we celebrate this scientific achievement we are not carried away with over-optimism or fall into the naive belief that the struggle is over.”

Despite warning against over-optimism, Boris Johnson said it was now “sure and certain” that life could start returning to normal in 2021.

A combination of community testing, vaccines and social distancing measures were still necessary, he said.

“As we do all this we are no longer resting on the mere hope that we can return to normal next year, in the spring, but rather the sure and certain knowledge that we will succeed and together reclaim our lives and all the things about our lives that we love,” he said.

Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said the bulk of vaccinations will take place in “January through to March or April for the at-risk population”.

The Northern Echo: NHS Chief Executive, Sir Simon StevensNHS Chief Executive, Sir Simon Stevens

Speaking at the Number 10 press conference, he said: “Supplies from the manufacturer are phased so the initial tranche in December is going to enable us to get started but the bulk of this vaccination programme, either through this vaccine, or hopefully others as well that will join it, will take place in the period January through to March or April for the at-risk population.

“The majority of the early vaccinations will, as I say, be for the over-80s and for care home residents and since you need two jabs with an initial injection and then a booster given to you around 21 days apart that means that we’ve got to reserve the second dose for the people who are getting the first dose in December to make sure that that second dose is available for them.”

Universities should stagger the return of students over five weeks after the Christmas break to reduce the transmission of Covid-19, the Government has said.

All students should be offered coronavirus tests when they return to university to help identify and isolate those who are asymptomatic, according to the Department for Education (DfE) guidance.

The Government has also announced a one-off fund of up to £20 million to help students most in need of support in these exceptional circumstances.

Sir Simon said the vaccine rollout will start at 50 “hospital hubs” in England next week.

He said: “The vaccine that has been approved for the NHS to deploy today, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, has been independently shown to be medically safe, but it is logistically complicated.

“We have to move it around the country in a carefully controlled way initially at minus 70 degrees centigrade, or thereabouts, and there are a limited number of further movements that we are allowed by the regulator to make.

“It also comes in packs of 975 people’s doses so you can’t at this point just distribute it to every individual GP surgery or pharmacy as we normally would for many of the other vaccines available on the NHS.

“So the phasing of delivery, the way we will do it, is that next week around 50 hospital hubs across England will start offering the vaccine to the over-80s and to care home staff and others identified by the JCVI typically they may be people who were already down to come into hospital next week for an outpatient appointment.

“So if you are going to be one of those people next week or in the weeks that follow the hospital will get in touch with you, you don’t need to do anything about it yourself.”

Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said: “We have to be realistic about how long this is going to take.

The Northern Echo: Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Jonathan Van-Tam during the media briefing on coronavirus Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Jonathan Van-Tam during the media briefing on coronavirus

“It is going to take months, not weeks.

“And, for now, the other measures, the tier measures, the social distancing have to stay in place.

“If we relax too soon, if we just, kind of, go ‘oh, the vaccine’s here, let’s abandon caution’, all you are going to do is create a tidal wave of infections.

“And this vaccine has then got to work in a head wind to get back ahead of the game. And that will make it harder.”

The prime minister said that hospitality restrictions would have to stay in place over the Christmas “relaxation” period and that it would be a “fatal mistake” to let caution slip.

“I’m sorry to say we have got to stick with the guidance that we have set out, the tiering system throughout the Christmas period,” he said.

“It would be a really fatal mistake now to respond to this good news by letting the virus run riot again, letting it get out of control by too much transmission over Christmas.

“That’s why we have to stick very tightly to the tiers that we have set out.”

Sir Simon said pharmacies could be able to start vaccinating in January.

He said: “That will be followed in the subsequent weeks with GP practices coming together in each area to operate local vaccination centres and that will grow to over 1,000 places right across England where GPs will be in touch with their at-risk patients inviting people to come forward for vaccination.”

The Northern Echo: Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Jonathan Van-Tam, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and NHS Chief Executive, Sir Simon Stevens during the media briefingDeputy Chief Medical Officer for England Jonathan Van-Tam, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and NHS Chief Executive, Sir Simon Stevens during the media briefing

He added: “If the MHRA, the independent regulator, as we expect they will, give approval for a safe way of splitting these packs of 975 doses then the good news is we will be able to start distributing those to care homes.

“And then as even more vaccine becomes available finally we will be able to switch on large vaccination centres across the country and indeed invite local community pharmacists probably at the beginning of January to begin to offer vaccination as well.”