By Sarah Young
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain has hit a COVID-19 vaccination milestone with more than half of all adults having had at least one injection, health secretary Matt Hancock said on Saturday, making it the world's first major economy to achieve that level of innoculation.
Britain's vaccine roll-out, which has raced ahead of those in the European Union and the United States, means the country is on track to ease lockdown measures and re-open the economy in line with its plan, Hancock said.
"The vaccination programme is our route out of the pandemic," Hancock told Sky News on Saturday. Official data showed 26.9 million had received a first dose of vaccine, up from 26.3 million the previous day.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had AstraZeneca's vaccine on Friday, tweeted "Let's keep going" after the announcement that half of all adults had had a first shot.
Yet worries were also growing about a new wave of infections in continental Europe as cases rise in countries including Germany and France. A scientist who advises the government warned on Saturday that holidays abroad were "extremely unlikely" for most Britons this summer due to the risk of importing new variants of COVID-19.
Asked if infection rates elsewhere in Europe concerned him, Hancock said Britain had to stay vigilant but saw no threat to plans to gradually re-open shops, pubs and restaurants from April 12. "There is no sign that we won't be able to make progress as set out in the roadmap," Hancock said.
Britain's vaccination roll-out, using the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs, is one of the fastest in the world. Israel tops the world in terms of the proportion of its population it has vaccinated, followed by the United Arab Emirates, Chile, then the UK.
By comparison, 23% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, and less than a 10th of the EU population has been vaccinated.
Watch: Key moments in the 12 months since the UK’s first lockdown
ON TRACK FOR TARGETS
Britain's government has said it is aiming to give at least one shot to everyone aged over 50 by mid-April and to every adult by the end of July, targets which Hancock said would be met.
Famous London landmarks like Westminister Abbey and the Science Museum as well as local mosques and football stadiums have hosted vaccine clinics.
The state-run health service also said that 2.1 million people, or 4% of the population, have had a second dose and almost 95% of people aged over 60 have been vaccinated.
The EU meanwhile is trying to get its vaccine programme back on track after at least 13 countries temporarily suspended the use of the AstraZeneca shot last week over safety concerns.
The European Medicines Agency has since said the benefits of protecting people outweighed the possible risks from the vaccine, but the damage to the AstraZeneca jab's reputation could further slow the pace of the roll-out.
The struggle to secure vaccine supplies has left Britain and the EU at loggerheads over vaccine exports. The EU threatened to ban shipments to Britain on Wednesday.
Come April, Britain has warned its roll-out will slow due to a supply crunch caused by a delayed shipment from India and the need to retest one batch of vaccines.
Watch: UK says 'world is watching' EU over threat to ban exports
(Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Andrew Heavens and David Holmes)