National lockdown restrictions could be lifted in early March with a return to the tier system as the country battles to keep Covid-19 infection rates under control, the vaccines minister has said.

The Government is currently on track to vaccinate 15 million people across the UK by mid-February including health and social care staff.

The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi said that once millions of the most vulnerable are vaccinated with a first dose by the middle of February, it takes just a few weeks for their immune response to kick in and offer protection.

Mr Zahawi told BBC Breakfast: “If we take the mid-February target, two weeks after that you get your protection pretty much for the Pfizer BioNTech (jab), three weeks for the Oxford AstraZeneca, (then) you are protected.

“That’s 80% of mortality.

“One of the things that we don’t know yet – and the deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam is on record as saying ‘look give me a couple of months and I’ll tell you’ – is the impact of the vaccine on transmission rates, ie infecting people.

“So, that will become apparent. So there are a number of caveats that, obviously, stand in the way of us reopening the economy.

“It will be gradual, it will be probably through the tiered system, but you’re looking at that sort of period – two to three weeks after the middle of February where we’ve protected those top four cohorts.”

Salford City News: Lockdown restrictions could be gradually lifted from March. (PA)Lockdown restrictions could be gradually lifted from March. (PA)

Speaking to Times Radio Mr Zahawi said that by mid-March there should be  “very clear evidence of a sort of a break in the correlation between infection rates and hospitalisation and obviously death”.

He added: “But of course, there are a lot of unknowns, we don’t know the impact on transmission of the vaccines yet.

“There are lots of caveats on this so I don’t want to sort of over-promise and under-deliver on this.”

Asked if there was a role for mass testing, Mr Zahawi said the combination of vaccination and mass testing would allow the economy to gradually reopen.

And on the question of schools going back in early March, he said: “I’m saying to you that there are lots of uncertainties, we still don’t know what the impact of the vaccines are on transmission… but they (schools) are top of our list in terms of wanting them to reopen as soon as practically possible, with a combination of testing and, of course, vaccination as well.”

Speaking on Monday, the national medical director for NHS England, Professor Stephen Powis, told Good Morning Britain that the vaccination programme will not have an impact on hospital admissions or death rates until “well into February”.

He said infection rates in London had “slowed down” but there was “less of a slowdown” in the rest of the country, adding: “For the next few weeks and into February, it’s really important that everybody sticks to those social distancing guidelines.”

Across the UK, millions of over-70s and the clinically extremely vulnerable can expect to start being invited for a vaccine as the Government expands rollout of the jabs.

More than 3.8 million people in the UK – including over-80s, care home residents, and NHS and social care staff – have already received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, but from Monday it will be rolled out to the next two priority groups.

The Government said it would remain the priority to vaccinate those in the first two groups, but that sites which have enough supply and capacity to vaccinate more people will be allowed to offer jabs to the next cohorts.

Ten further mass vaccination centres are opening in England from Monday, including Blackburn Cathedral, St Helens rugby ground, Norwich Food Court and a park-and-ride outside York.

NHS England said they will join the seven existing mass vaccination sites across the country, alongside around 1,000 GP-led surgeries and more than 250 hospitals already providing jabs.

Elsewhere in the UK, more people are now in hospital with coronavirus in Scotland than at any time during the pandemic – despite new infections falling to the lowest level in almost three weeks.