The timetable for delivering a first dose has been brought forward from September – with Boris Johnson hinting the move will also help speed up the easing of some restrictions.
The new targets – for the whole of the UK – will also see a first jab offered to all over-50s by 15 April, instead of the end of that month, as the programme continues to run ahead of expectations.
The prime minister again insisted his roadmap would be “cautious”, but also raised hopes for an earlier softening of the lockdown, as he comes under fierce pressure from Conservative MPs.
“We will now aim to offer a jab to every adult by the end of July, helping us protect the most vulnerable sooner and take further steps to ease some of the restrictions in place,” he said.
The long-awaited roadmap will see at least some schools reopen on 8 March, although No 10 was forced to rebuff a claim that Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, is resisting a “big bang” reopening of them all.
From that date, care home residents in England will be allowed one regular visitor and there will almost certainly be some easing of the rules on meeting people from other households outdoors.
One option is for households in England to be able to meet in each other’s gardens for the Easter weekend at the start of April, with non-essential shops also likely to open that month.
But pub organisations believe no date will be set for the full reopening of hospitality – extremely unlikely to be before May – although outdoor eating and drinking could be allowed earlier.
If, as expected, the roadmap only sets out criteria for most measures, dependent on continued success in curbing Covid-19 – “data not dates”, as Mr Johnson put it – it will anger many Conservative MPs.
Some have accused the government of “moving the goalposts”, with a new focus on new daily infections, rather than the number of deaths and whether the NHS is at risk of being swamped.
Pressure is growing to restore freedoms after recorded deaths fell faster than expected to a daily average of around 500, fuelled by higher than expected vaccine take-up so far.
The government met its ambition to offer jabs to all those in the top four priority groups – over-70s, frontline NHS and care workers and the most clinically vulnerable – by 15 February.
With more than 17 million people now vaccinated, and more than 1,500 vaccination sites up and running, “ambitious new targets” are now possible, Downing Street said.
“There will be no let up and I want to see the rollout go further and faster in the coming weeks,” Mr Johnson added.
“But there should be no doubt – the route out of lockdown will be cautious and phased, as we all continue to protect ourselves and those around us.”
However, the priority list for phase two of the programme will now not be unveiled until all over-50s have been offered a first dose, in mid April according to the new timetable.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is expected to rebuff calls to bump teachers or police officers up the list, sticking to a rollout based on age.
Second doses will continue to be offered within 12 weeks of the first, amid rising evidence that an initial jab offers very high protection.
A further 445 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, it was announced – bringing the UK total to 120,365 – and there were 10,406 more confirmed cases of the virus.