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By William James
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed a "significant milestone" on Sunday as data showed 15 million first doses of COVID-19 vaccinations had been delivered, fuelling calls for the government to start relaxing stringent lockdown measures.
The vaccine programme is seen as one of few successes in the government's handling of a pandemic that has left the country with a higher death toll and worse economic damage than its peers. With a population of around 67 million, the United Kingdom's vaccination progress is among the fastest in the world.
The British government set a Feb. 15 target date to reach 15 million people in priority categories: care home residents and staff, frontline health and care workers, all those aged 70 or over and the clinically extremely vulnerable.
Johnson said all those groups had been reached in England but did not speak for Scotland or Northern Ireland, and did not say the overall target had been met. Wales said it had met the target on Saturday.
In some areas those in lower priority groups have received jabs, meaning that it was not clear if the UK-wide target for the top priority groups had been met
"Today we have reached a significant milestone," Johnson said. "No one is resting on their laurels... We've still got a long way to go and there will undoubtedly be bumps in the road, but after all we've achieved, I know we can go forward with great confidence."
Britain is also emerging from the worst of a second wave of the pandemic. On Sunday it reported nearly 11,000 new infections and another 258 deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test. The official death toll by this measure is over 117,000.
Government data showed the total receiving first vaccines doses was 15,062,189 and 537,715 second doses had also been administered. Johnson will set out further progress on Monday.
CALLS FOR EASING OF LOCKDOWN
The vaccine programme's success has led to calls from those opposed to prolonged lockdowns to begin easing restrictions that have ordered citizens to stay at home, shut non-essential shops and closed schools.
But foreign minister Dominic Raab said it was too soon yet to discuss when restrictions could be lifted.
"We share all of the ambition and the desire to get out of this lockdown, we want to do it responsibly and safely and therefore it's got to be based on the evidence," he told Times Radio.
Raab was responding to a letter from 63 lawmakers from the ruling Conservative Party that demanded that all lockdown measures be lifted by the end of April. That is when the government hopes to have given first vaccinations to all the cohorts that have so far accounted for 99% of all deaths.
"Once all nine priority groups have been protected by the end of April, there is no justification for any legislative restrictions to remain," the letter organised by the COVID Recovery Group said.
Johnson will set out on Feb. 22 the government's plans to end the lockdown. He has said he wants schools to reopen on March 8.
(Reporting by William James; Editing by Gareth Jones, Barbara Lewis and Frances Kerry)