The UK’s frontline health workers could potentially receive a vaccine for the novel coronavirus within weeks, according to reports.

The Mail on Sunday reported that it had seen an email sent to NHS staff that reveals preparations are underway for a national vaccination program before Christmas.

The report also said that the UK government was seeking to circumvent the EU approval process and move ahead with a mass roll-out programme if a successful COVID-19 vaccine is found before the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December this year.

If so, then a vaccine programme would mean that the three-tier and other lockdown restrictions that have crippled the economy since March could be relaxed. It is currently expected that the vaccine would require two doses, taken 28 days apart.

Glen Burley, chief executive of George Eliot Hospital NHS Trust in Warwickshire, wrote to NHS staff earlier this month. In the email, he said: “Our Trust, alongside NHS organisations nationally, has been told to be prepared to start a Covid-19 staff vaccine programme in early December.”

“The latest intelligence states a coronavirus vaccine should be available this year with NHS staff prioritised prior to Christmas.”

However, the report from the Mail on Sunday added that the timeline has not yet been confirmed as none of the vaccines currently being developed has gained clinical approval.

David Eltringham, managing director at the Trust, said: “We don’t have a definite date for delivery of the vaccine, but we are making ready to deploy the vaccine from the beginning of December.”

A senior government source told the paper that the government is wanting to ensure that if a safe and viable vaccine is developed, then there will be no hold-ups in deploying it from waiting for approval from Brussels.

Under changes to the Human Medicines Regulations 2012, which took effect on October 16, the UK was ‘no longer beholden to the EU process if a vaccine is developed before 2021 and has strong evidence proving it is safe, high quality and effective’

A vaccine being developed by Oxford University and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, now in the final stages of trials, is most likely the one that health workers would receive.

However, rushing ahead with a vaccine programme could hamper efforts to test and create improved versions scientists warned.

Adam Finn, a professor at Bristol University, said immunisation is not simply a matter of switching off the virus once a vaccine appears, saying “The vaccines coming through fastest are the most experimental. It is possible they won’t be all that great and that others — created using more tried-and-tested but slower methods — might be better.”

But to prove that point, he added, would become extremely difficult if many individuals had already received the first vaccine, and it would require large numbers of people to effectively demonstrate which of the vaccines works best, or if different versions of the vaccine work better for particular demographics, such as the elderly.

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