By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday he was optimistic he could announce the easing of some lockdown measures soon as the government nears its target of offering vaccines to 15 million people in priority groups.
The government says it is on track to have offered an injection by Monday to everyone who is aged 70 and over, as well as those who are clinically vulnerable, frontline health and social care workers and older adults in care homes.
With infections and hospitalisations beginning to fall, Johnson is under pressure from some in his own party to set out when strict lockdown restrictions, which have caused the biggest crash in economic output in more than 300 years, will be eased.
"I'm optimistic, I won't hide it from you, I'm optimistic, but we have to be cautious " Johnson, who will outline a route map out of the lockdown on Feb. 22, told broadcasters.
He said reopening schools remained the priority, with the hope they could return on March 8.
"Then working forwards to getting non-essential retail open as well, and then in due course as and when we can prudently and cautiously of course, we want to be opening hospitality as well," he said.
Britain, which has recorded more than 120,000 deaths from COVID-19, was the first Western country to begin mass vaccinations in December, and more than 14 million Britons have since received their first dose.
But Johnson said the number of new COVID-19 cases remained very high, with more than 15,000 reported on Friday, as did the number of deaths, but "perhaps starting to come down quite fast".
Some newspapers reported on Saturday pubs and restaurants might be able to serve to customers outdoors from as early as April, and restrictions on social mixing easing by May, but Johnson declined to be drawn on that timetable.
He also echoed health minister Matt Hancock who earlier said the country could live with the virus as it did with flu by the end of the year and make it a treatable disease.
"I do think that in due time, it will become something that we simply live with some people will be more vulnerable than others that's inevitable," Johnson said.
Hancock also announced that innovative treatments for COVID would soon be fast-tracked through the UK’s clinical trial system, to make them available in months rather than years.
(Reporting by Costas Pitas and Michael Holden. Editing by Jane Merriman and Angus MacSwan)