Britain will not be able to vaccinate the whole population against a possible winter swine flu epidemic, the health secretary has admitted.
Alan Johnson said the Government was taking steps to begin vaccination against swine flu even before a full-blown pandemic is declared.
But he acknowledged it might take up to six months before a vaccine could be available for use, and said it may not be until summer 2010 that the entire population could be protected.
Speaking as seven new cases of swine flu were confirmed today, taking the total number of UK cases to 78, Mr Johnson said that the Government is already negotiating with manufacturers so that the UK can obtain "early supplies" of the treatment when it is ready.
He told the Commons: "The best protection we can offer people is vaccination because by giving people some form of immunity to the virus, even at a low level, we will achieve a significant reduction in the severity of any pandemic and in particular the number of deaths or serious complications."
Health Protection Agency scientists have already identified the virus' genetic fingerprint and the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control is now developing it into a vaccine strain.
But Mr Johnson said it was "a long journey" between identifying the virus to a vaccine becoming available.
The UK intends to vaccinate the entire population and has advance purchase agreements with manufacturers to secure supplies if the World Health Organisation moves the flu alert from phase five to phase six and declares a full-blown pandemic.
Mr Johnson said: "We have always known that it may take four to six months before a matching vaccine is available and over a year before it can be manufactured in sufficient quantities for the entire population given that international demand will be high."
He continued: "We are currently in negotiations with manufacturers to see if we can obtain early supplies at this pre-pandemic phase.
"We hope that this will enable us to vaccinate front line health and social care staff and vulnerable groups who prove particularly susceptible to infection before a predicted second wave hits."