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The UK has become the first western country to license a vaccine against COVID-19, opening the way for mass immunisation with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to begin for those most at risk with 800,000 doses expected to be available next week.

The vaccine has been authorised for emergency use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA). The body has been given power to approve the vaccine by the government under special regulations before Jan. 1, when it will become fully responsible for medicines authorisation in the UK after Brexit.

The first doses are set to arrive in the next few days, with the UK having ordered 40 million doses of the 95% efficiancy vaccine.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: "The government has today accepted the recommendation from the MHRA to approve Pfizer/BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine for use. This follows months of rigorous clinical trials and a thorough analysis of the data by experts at the MHRA, who have concluded that the vaccine has met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will shortly also publish its latest advice for the priority groups to receive the vaccine, including care home residents, health and care staff, the elderly and the clinically extremely vulnerable. The vaccine will be made available across the UK from next week."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the first round of doses would be issued to the most vulnerable people on a tier-based system, telling Sky News: "This is fantastic news. The MHRA, the fiercely independent regulator, has clinically authorised the vaccine for rollout. The NHS stands ready to make that happen. From early next week, we will start the programme of vaccinating people against COVID-19 here in this country. The MHRA have approved it as clinically safe and we have a vaccine, so it's very good news."

Hancock said the rollout would be "challenging" due to the vaccine needing to be kept at -70C.

A network of 50 hospitals was ready to deliver the first jabs, he said, and specialist vaccination centres were being built, with GPs and pharmacists able to use it if they had cold storage facilities.