By Alistair Smout and William James
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is targeting a 24-hour, 7-day a week COVID-19 vaccination programme as soon as possible, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday, as he bids to step up the pace of the rollout with daily coronavirus deaths at record levels.
AstraZeneca executives said the company was on track to deliver 2 million doses of its shot a week before mid-February, and Johnson said increased availability would be crucial to scaling up to a round-the-clock service.
"We'll be going to 24/7 as soon as we can," Johnson told parliament. "At the moment the limit is on supply."
Britain reported a record daily death toll of 1,564 on Wednesday, showing the intensity of a second wave that has been more deadly than the first.
Johnson hopes that giving protection to the elderly, the vulnerable and frontline workers by mid-February will provide a route out of a new lockdown which began in England last week.
Scotland, which locked down at the same time, said on Wednesday it would tighten measures further.
Across the United Kingdom, there are 15 million people in the highest priority groups. With 2.6 million first vaccine doses administered so far, the government needs more than 2 million vaccinations a week to hit its target.
Britain is using two vaccines, by AstraZeneca and Pfizer.
Earlier, Health Minister Matt Hancock said Britain was on track to meet the target, and manufacturers were delivering on schedule, but the process would become smoother as it moves along.
AstraZeneca UK President Tom Keith-Roach said he hoped to be able to expand supply beyond 2 million doses a week as processes were optimised, but could not promise that.
Britain is prioritising giving as many people as possible first doses, allowing up to 12 weeks before a second dose.
AstraZeneca research chief Mene Pangalos supported the move, saying data showed an 8-12 week gap was a "sweet spot" for efficacy.
Pfizer has been more cautious, warning that there is no data to support delaying the second dose of its shot beyond 21 days, and other industry voices echoed that wariness.
"The biopharmaceutical industry supports adhering to the dosing that has been assessed in clinical trials," a group of industry bodies including Vaccines Europe and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations said in a statement.
It said any changes should follow science and be based on transparent analysis of data.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, William James, Michael Holden, Elizabeth Piper and Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Cawthorne)