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 vaccine supplies they receive, as fears grow that supply shortages will jeopardise the government’s timetable for immunising the most vulnerable Britons.

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

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 complained on Wednesday that they had failed to receive promised consignments of vaccine and had to cancel appointments for patients 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.”

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”. 

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

With concerns over whether the NHS workforce can maintain such a hectic pace of vaccinations, 126 military medics will be mobilised as a “quick reaction force” ready to assist with the vaccine rollout from January 11. However, defence secretary Ben Wallace 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 quick reaction force to provide cover in case NHS staff administering the vaccines become ill. Defence officials emphasise that military medics will only be vaccinating the public “on a needs basis” and will be engaged “only when required and requested by the NHS in a surge capacity”.

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