Monday 1 March 2021 7:00 pm

Matt Hancock takes over as head of government's vaccine taskforce

Matt Hancock will take over top-level responsibility of the government’s vaccine taskforce, the health department has announced, as ministers prepare to ramp up the nation’s largest ever immunisation programme.

The health secretary will take charge of cabinet-level ministerial responsibility for the taskforce from business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

The move is to allow “for end-to-end oversight of the programme to sit with a single minister”, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said in a statement.

Hancock’s appointment will also “further strengthen relationships with the therapeutics taskforce and with other vaccination policies and programmes,” DHSC added.

Vaccines deployment minister Nadhim Zahawi will remain in post across both the health and business departments, after being appointed to the role in December.

The vaccine taskforce was set up in April last year to “drive forward, expedite and co-ordinate efforts to research and then produce a coronavirus vaccine”.

The scheme has ordered 457m doses of eight different vaccine types so far, and plugged more than £300m into vaccine manufacturing capabilities.

Speaking at this evening’s Downing Street press conference, Hancock announced the taskforce will receive a further £1.65bn in funding to improve the UK’s vaccine supply.

Part of the funding will “go towards further vaccine testing and development, to make sure we are fast and effective in developing the next generation of Covid vaccines, including vaccines against new variants”.

Last month, the taskforce secured a deal with German biotech firm CureVac for 50m doses of a new vaccine being developed to tackle emerging Covid mutations, amid concerns that new coronavirus strains may prove partially resistant to vaccines.

The agreement will see CureVac create “new varieties of vaccines based on messenger RNA technology to be developed quickly against new strains of Covid-19 if they are needed”, according to DHSC.

It comes as the government scrambles to contain the spread of a new Brazilian variant of coronavirus, after six new cases were confirmed across England and Scotland.

The variant is believed to be more transmissible than the original strain of the virus and may be resistant to the UK’s two approved Covid vaccines.

A search for one unidentified person thought to have been infected with the new Brazilian mutation is being conducted by NHS Test and Trace, with anyone who took a coronavirus test on 12 or 13 February in England asked to call 119. 

It is not yet known whether available vaccines are effective against the new strain, also known as the P1 or Manaus variant, though the health secretary insisted they provide strong protection against other mutations.

It comes as Hancock hailed a significant milestone in the vaccine rollout, after latest figures showed more than 20m Brits have received their first dose of a Covid jab, including all top four priority groups.

The government has now set a new target to offer a first dose of the vaccine to all over-50s and those with a significant underlying health condition by 15 April.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans last month to see all adults in the UK vaccinated by 31 July, as he unveiled his roadmap for leaving lockdown.

Last week, the NHS wrote to almost 450,000 people aged 64, as well as 600,000 at-risk individuals who have recently been asked to shield.

Around 2m people aged between 60 and 63 in England will receive with letters from today asking them to book vaccine appointments.