Boris Johnson has warned people not to “get their hopes up” about a very rapid rollout of a newly approved coronavirus vaccine across large parts of the population, urging the public to observe restrictions in the interim.
In a prime minister’s questions dominated by the announcement on Wednesday that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had been authorised for emergency use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority, Johnson began by ruling out compelling people to be vaccinated.
“I strongly urge people to take up the vaccine, but it is no part of our culture or our ambition in this country to make vaccines mandatory. That’s not how we do things,” he said.
Under close questioning from the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, about vaccination efforts, Johnson was unable to say how long it might take for this to happen for the top priority groups named by the government: older care home residents and their carers; people aged 80 or over and frontline health and care staff.
“At this stage it is very, very important that people do not get their hopes up too soon about the speed with which we will be able to roll out this vaccine,” the prime minister said.
As well as an initial 800,000 doses of the approved vaccine, the government expected to get “several million” more before the end of the year, Johnson said, adding: “We will then be rolling it out as fast as we possibly can.”
After the Commons passed the new regional tier system of Covid restrictions on Wednesday night, even with 55 Conservative MPs voting against it, Johnson stressed the continued importance of these measures.
The vaccine approval was, he said, “very, very good news”. “But it is by no means the end of the story, it is not the end of our national struggle against coronavirus. And that is why it’s very important that the package of moderate but tough measures that the house voted for last night, the tiering system, is followed across the country.”
Starmer also questioned Johnson on public confidence in vaccines, which he called “a real cause for concern”. He said: “It’s really important that we do everything possible to counter dangerous, frankly life-threatening disinformation about vaccines.”
Starmer asked Johnson if he would cooperate on emergency legislation to combat anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories online. Johnson avoided the question, saying only: “We are, of course working to tackle all kinds of disinformation across the internet.”
In a more traditional end to a PMQs, which had up to that point been unusually sober and restrained, Johnson responded to a question about support for staff at the collapsed Debenhams and Arcadia retail chains by mocking Starmer for Labour’s decision to abstain in the vote on Covid tiers.
In response, Starmer noted a 2018 incident when Johnson missed a vote on expanding Heathrow airport – which he had pledged to fight – when he was foreign secretary by flying to Afghanistan.
“When I abstain, I come to the house and explain,” Starmer said. “When the prime minister abstains, he runs away to Afghanistan and gives the taxpayer a £20,000 bill.”