UPDATE 3-Dutch will start COVID-19 vaccinations on Jan 8 -minister

(Adds date of first injections, minister quotes, background)

AMSTERDAM, Dec 17 (Reuters) - The Netherlands will not be among the first EU countries ready to start with COVID-19 vaccinations in December, but will begin inoculation on Jan 8, health minister Hugo de Jonge said on Thursday.

“We have opted for a planning that is careful, safe and responsible”, De Jonge said in a letter to parliament.

“We need as many people as possible to get vaccinated. That will only happen if people trust the vaccine and the process of vaccination.”

EU commission head Ursula von der Leyen said earlier that European Union countries would begin inoculating people against the coronavirus on Dec. 27-29, assuming the EU regulator approves a vaccine.

But officials in the Netherlands, which registered a record 12,779 new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours on Thursday to a total of more than 652,500, quickly played down chances they would be ready this month.

“We have always said we were on track to start vaccinations in January,” said spokeswoman Sonja Kloppenburg of the Dutch municipal health authorities (GGD). “And that remains the case.”

“We will start when we feel it is safe to do so.”

The European Medicine Agency (EMA) has said an expert panel will convene on Monday to evaluate the vaccine made by U.S. company Pfizer and German partner BioNTech.

The Netherlands expects to receive an initial batch of 507,000 out of 7.8 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine soon after EMA approval has been granted.

The first injections will be reserved for healthcare workers, De Jonge said. (Reporting by Toby Sterling, Bart Meijer and Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Alistair Bell)