A single shot of either the Oxford-AstraZeneca or Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is more than 80% effective at preventing hospitalisation among the over 80s, according to Public Health England (PHE).
Speaking at a Downing Street news conference, Matt Hancock hailed the “exciting new data” showing the effectiveness of the two COVID-19 jabs.
But he urged Britons to keep following the rules and not to “blow” the progress made in the fight against the virus.
According to a pre-print study from PHE, which involved more than 7.5 million people aged 70 and over in England:
The authors of the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, said “both vaccines show similar effects”, adding: “Combined with the effect against symptomatic disease, this indicates that a single dose of either vaccine is approximately 80% effective at preventing hospitalisation and a single dose of (Pfizer) is 85% effective at preventing death with COVID-19.”
Mr Hancock said the fact that the number of hospital admissions was falling faster than that of cases – particularly among the older age groups who were given a jab first – “is a sign that the vaccine is working”.
The rate of decline in deaths among the older age groups is also faster than in the under 80s, the health secretary said.
“This shows, in the real world, across the UK right now that the vaccine is helping both to protect the NHS and to save lives,” he declared.
And he said the findings from the PHE study “may also help to explain why the number of COVID admissions to intensive care units among people over 80 in the UK have dropped to single figures in the last couple of weeks”.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, one of England’s deputy chief medical officers, said the data “gives us those first glimpses of how, if we are patient, and we give this vaccine programme time to have its full effect, it is going to hopefully take us into a very different world in the next few months”.
He said that “in time”, he expected the UK’s vaccine rollout to lower levels of the virus, reduce the likelihood of infections affecting the older and more vulnerable and result in milder cases for people in those groups.
But while Professor Van-Tam said “there’s a lot to look forwards to”, the “problem isn’t fixed yet”.
“It’s very tempting to just go, ‘right, we’ve seen the results, that means the problem is fixed’,” he said.
“The problem isn’t fixed yet but we definitely have identified a way of fixing the problem and the early data show us how to do that and where to advance from here.”
And he encouraged people to keep coming forward for their first and second doses, saying: “We have to be patient. We have to push on with the vaccine programme.”
Professor Van-Tam added: “Coming forward for the second jab is a very, very important part of this programme because while the first jab gives you this excellent protection that we are seeing in the data that we are publishing today, the data also show that for the Pfizer jab – which is the only one we have the data for – you get yet further protection from the second jab.”
He said: “I think there’s quite a significant likelihood that a second dose of vaccine is going to mature your immune response, possibly make it broader and almost certainly make it longer than it would otherwise be in relation to a first dose only.”
Professor Van-Tam also said the latest data had “vindicated” the UK’s decision to give the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab to older people.
Some countries have opted not to give their over-65s the vaccine due to a lack of testing data on older age groups.
Professor Van-Tam said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) had taken the view that it was “not immunologically plausible” that the jab would work on younger people but not those in older age groups.
He added: “I am not here to criticise other countries but to say that I think in time the data emerging from our programme will speak for itself and other countries will doubtless be very interested in it.”
Schools are set to reopen for all pupils on 8 March, with the health secretary saying: “We do not think there is any need to change the approach on schools because of this new variant.”
Mr Hancock said he was “highly confident” getting children back in the classroom was the “right thing to do”.
“The data points that way, and then we will assess the data before taking step two,” he said.
“The roadmap is designed to be able to see the data before we take each step, and so we’ve done it in that way in order to be able to have the assurance that we are taking a cautious yet irreversible path out of this pandemic.”