UK health leaders call for clarity on Covid vaccine supplies

Doctors and public health leaders in the UK have lambasted a lack of transparency over the timing and quantity of Covid-19 vaccine supplies as fears grow that shortages will jeopardise the government’s timetable for immunising the most vulnerable Britons.

With ministers seeking to demonstrate they have the infrastructure to complete some 13m vaccinations in six weeks, the government announced seven more large vaccination centres, including the ExCeL Centre, which houses the London Nightingale hospital.

Other hospitals, GP-led services and “pilot” pharmacy vaccine services will also join the programme, with almost 200 more sites being launched this week, according to Nikki Kanani, NHS medical director for primary care.

With the growing number of sites and the arrival of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine — which is more easily transported and stored than the BioNTech/Pfizer version — “we will now be able to protect many more vulnerable people against the virus and faster,” said Dr Kanani.

However, one senior health leader close to the delivery of the programme complained of a lack of communication between central government and health planners, and those in charge of implementation on the ground.

A number of GPs on Wednesday said they had failed to receive promised consignments of vaccine and were forced to cancel patient appointments at short notice.

Ruth Rankine, who represents primary care networks for the NHS Confederation, the membership body for NHS organisations, said: “What we’re asking for is greater clarity about what is coming and when so that primary care can properly plan, both in terms of booking patients in and their workforce and staff rotas.”

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The system was currently working on a “push model”, she said, “and sites have little control over what they get and when they get it”.

Ms Rankine said she hoped the situation would improve as the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was rolled out. But she cautioned that in order to meet the government’s target “we would need to see a much more effective supply chain in terms of numbers of the vaccines and numbers of sites being able to take part in the vaccination programme”. 

Other health leaders agreed that logistical issues, such as reliable delivery schedules, were crucial to meeting the government’s ambitious targets.

Kate Ardern, director of public health for Wigan, said the Greater Manchester region had vaccinated more than 43,000 people. But she said public health leaders were not receiving “timely access to management information” that would show which groups were not coming forward, without which they could not improve local uptake.

“The rate limiting factor is understanding the vaccine delivery schedule that we don’t have control over,” she added. “What we need is a really robust and reliable vaccine delivery schedule.”

Supply issues are also affecting hospitals at the forefront of the vaccination programme. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Trusts are in a position to administer more vaccines but at the moment there are constraints on supply arriving with them.”

However, he believed supplies would increase quickly in the coming days. “This constraint is not surprising at this early point in the programme,” he said.

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With concerns over whether the NHS workforce can maintain the hectic pace of vaccinations, 126 military medics will be mobilised as a “quick reaction force” to assist with the vaccine rollout from January 11. However, Ben Wallace, defence secretary, said last week he could mobilise 250 teams of six — 1,500 personnel in total — if the Department of Health needed to boost immunisation capacity.

Health secretary Matt Hancock’s team has so far asked the military’s reaction force to provide cover in case NHS staff administering vaccines become ill. Defence officials emphasised military medics would only administer vaccinations “on a needs basis” and would be engaged “only when required and requested by the NHS in a surge capacity”.

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