Meetings between fully vaccinated people are "incredibly safe", the country’s deputy chief medical officer has said amid growing calls for those who have had the jab to be allowed to hug loved ones.
Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said he was "highly confident scientifically" that there were no risks if two people who had received both jabs met up at least two weeks after their second dose – but he urged the public not to do so yet.
It came as official data showed that seven in 10 adults now have antibodies against Covid, with a leap in protection over the last month as the vaccine programme rollout continued.
Health officials were repeatedly questioned on Wednesday about Britain’s approach to the rollout, with other countries such as the United States having granted more freedoms to those who have had their jabs.
Dr Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisation at Public Health England, told MPs one of the reasons for Britain’s approach was a "cultural perspective" rather than a scientific one "in that we tend to do everything together".
She suggested the Government was re-examining this approach, opening up the possibility of different rules for those who have been vaccinated, given growing evidence about the effectiveness of even one jab.
Asked about the comments, Prof Van-Tam told a Downing Street press conference: "If two people who both had two doses of vaccine and have both served at least 14 days after their second dose, then I would be highly confident scientifically that – if those were reputable vaccines – then indeed it would be incredibly safe for those two people to meet."
On when that could happen in the UK, he said: "Soon, I really hope soon – but not quite now."
He pointed out that people below the age of 42, apart from healthcare workers and those with underlying conditions, had yet to receive one dose.
"I know this feels tantalisingly, extremely close and it is going to be frustrating at times, particularly for those who have had their two doses – but we just need to make sure we don’t have to go backwards again on any of this," he added, urging people to "hold the line for just a teeny bit longer".
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said ministers had taken the decision that "we all move as one" as the roadmap progresses, contrasting the policy with the decision to allow different freedoms to different geographical areas in the autumn.
During a meeting of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Dr Ramsay said the policy of leaving up to 12 weeks between vaccine doses – a move she said had saved lives – meant the country was only now reaching the point at which significant numbers had been fully vaccinated.
"I think the United States says it has to be at least two or three weeks after your second dose before you can release those restrictions, and we’re only really just reaching that now," she told MPs. "I think they are able to be less cautious, perhaps, than us because of the fact that more people have had two doses, which one would expect to give even better protection against transmission.
"Our data is now coming through showing that even one dose is very good [against transmission], so I think we can begin to look at those factors. I think the other thing is we have a slightly different cultural perspective in this country in that we tend to do everything together. We started vaccinating second doses really towards the end of April, so it is very early.
"But I think the roadmap and the policy decision which has been taken by Government, not by PHE, is about doing everything as a whole. We are trying to say that this is about the population as a whole rather than the individuals, those privileged individuals who have had two doses, being somehow able to do things that other people cannot."
She said it "may be that, within the future roadmap, we are able to pick out individuals," stressing that policy decisions were for the Government.
On Wednesday, Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of Sage’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) said he was increasingly hopeful that people would be able to hug their loved ones after June 21.
Speaking after the release of a PHE study which found that just one vaccine dose cuts onward transmission by up to half, he said it was unclear what rules or guidance would be in place after that date, when social distancing rules are due to be lifted.
He told Times Radio: "I think the key thing is that if you’re both vaccinated, of course, it does reduce the risk of anyone becoming severely ill. My hope is that as we move towards that June date, we will be in a position that we can not just see our loved ones but also hug our loved ones, because it’s been a very long time since we’ve been able to do that."
On Wednesday, the Government announced that the NHS app will become Britons’ vaccine passport for international travel.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, confirmed that the app – currently used to book medical appointments and order repeat prescriptions – will be used by holidaymakers to prove their virus status to destination countries.
Ministers announced that they had secured 60 million more doses of the Pfizer/BionNTech vaccine, which will be used for booster jabs to protect against new Covid variants this autumn. Trials are examining "mix and match" combinations of different vaccines to establish the best approach.
Prof Van-Tam said latest figures suggested the country was now "at, or close to, the bottom" of levels of Covid, with "very low levels" testing positive – in line with those last September at around 2,000 cases a day. He added that the numbers in hospital may drop further, but at 1,634 – down from a peak of around 38,000 – were close to the lowest they were likely to reach.
Mr Hancock also suggested the Government may soon relax rules that require care home residents to isolate for two weeks after a trip out.
He said he hoped to have "good news soon", adding: "We are working on it right now, and in fact I had a meeting on this yesterday, to make sure we can get the rules right so that people can safely leave a care home and come back without bringing coronavirus back into the home."
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