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The U.K. is on track to vaccinate all people over age 50 by May and is already planning for a program of top-up immunizations to fight new variants of coronavirus from the autumn, officials said.

Health Minister Nadhim Zahawi predicted annual vaccination drives similar to the program of injections given for influenza each year.

Work is already under way to develop a shot that will offer better protection against the South Africa variant, after a study suggested the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine had limited effect on mild Covid-19.

The government expects “probably an annual or a booster in the autumn and then an annual" dose of vaccines to be given “in the way we do with flu vaccinations," Zahawi told the BBC on Sunday.

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“You look at what variant of virus is spreading around the world, you rapidly produce a variant of vaccine, and then begin to vaccinate and protect the nation," he said.

The U.K. is a month into its third national lockdown, with businesses shuttered and schools closed. With the economy already damaged by its deepest recession in more than 300 years, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is racing to roll out enough vaccines to be able to begin lifting curbs next month.

Target Date

Zahawi, who is responsible for the vaccine rollout, said 979 doses per minute were given to patients between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. in the busiest period on Saturday.

Speaking to Sky News, he said he was “confident" the government would meet its target to offer vaccines to the 15 million most vulnerable people by Feb. 15 and to have provided doses to everyone over the age of 50 by May.

The government is now starting to stockpile shots for the second doses that will be administered from March, Zahawi said in an interview with Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

So far the U.K. has given first shots to more than 12 million people, putting it ahead of almost every other country in the world on immunizations. It has also suffered one of the worst death tolls, with 112,465 people losing their lives, according to data published Sunday.

In other developments:

• The government signed a contract with SureScreen Diagnostics to supply 20 million rapid coronavirus tests as part of a drive to get more people tested who do not have symptoms in coming months.

• Zahawi confirmed the government isn’t planning to introduce vaccine passports and said people should ask their family doctors if they need to provide proof they have received a shot for travel purposes in future.

• The World Health Organization praised the U.K.’s controversial decision to hold back the second doses of vaccines by as much as 12 weeks to give more people at least some protection with a first shot.

• Ministers suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine would still be effective in preventing severe cases of Covid, after an early study found it offered limited protection against mild cases of the South Africa variant.

• Small businesses with more than 50 employees will be able to roll out rapid virus tests to their workers, under an expanded government program.

• Ministers are considering a proposal to offer vaccines to the under-50s from the spring, according to the Telegraph newspaper.

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