The vaccines minister has refused to say when the target of 2 million weekly jabs will be hit, throwing doubt on the plan to ease the lockdown.
The government has pledged to vaccinate the 14 million most vulnerable people by mid-February – when the lockdown will be reviewed – which means about 2 million every week.
But Nadhim Zahawi declined – twice – to say when that weekly figure will be achieved, promising only “a significant increase” when the first regular data is released next Monday.
The deployment of the Wrexham-made Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is being hindered by the need for separate batch approvals and a worldwide shortage of glass phials.
Asked, again, on BBC Breakfast, when he was “optimistic” of hitting 2 million weekly innoculations, Mr Zahawi replied: “I don’t want to pre-empt the figures. It’s very important that when we publish figures they are accurate.”
The uncertainty comes before Boris Johnson faces the anger of many Conservative MPs, who will be told to give their retrospective backing to the third lockdown that came into force in England on Wednesday morning.
Although the prime minister has hinted at an easing of restrictions from late February, the legislation allows them to remain in place until the end of March – provoking suspicions.
Mr Johnson argued the UK had made a remarkable start by vaccinating 1.3 million people already, including 650,000 over-80s – 23 per cent of the group most likely to be hospitalised or die of Covid-19.
He also pledged to have opened almost 1,000 vaccination centres by the end of this week, with seven major hubs in sports stadiums and exhibition centres next week.
But, in interviews, Mr Zahawi faced accusations that the government has consistently “overpromised and underdelivered” throughout the pandemic.
However, the vaccine deployment minister, insisted: “The NHS has a very clear plan and I am confident that we can meet it.
“You will see from Monday a significant increase from the 1.3 million that we have done from December 8.”
He argued that meant the battle against coronavirus would begin to “tilt in our favour and actually reduce the death rates, reduce the hospitalisation rates” – allowing restrictions to be eased.
Mr Zahawi made clear that was a decision for ministers, saying: “There will come a moment when we see where we can basically manage this virus and be able to bring it back under control. And that is a decision for the government.”
In the Commons, the prime minister is expected to face a much smaller rebellion than when 55 Tory MPs voted against his tougher system of tiers in December.
The self-styled lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group of Conservatives is poised to vote with the government, after the sharp deterioration of the situation.