Wednesday 13 January 2021 12:01 pm

UK vaccine rollout was ‘lumpy’ at first, minister admits

The UK’s vaccine tsar has admitted the nation’s largest ever vaccination programme was “lumpy at the outset” as he faced a grilling in the Commons.

Nadhim Zahawi told the Science and Technology Committee: “I now have line of sight of deliveries all the way through to the end of February and [am] getting more confident about March too.”

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“Any manufacturing process, especially one where you’re dealing with a biological compound and novel vaccine, is lumpy at the outset, and there’s no doubt that it was — but getting better,” he added.

Almost 2.5m people in the UK have now been vaccinated, after 90-year-old Margaret Keenan last month became the first person in the world to receive a coronavirus vaccine outside of a trial.

Britain has now administered more vaccine doses than any other country in Europe, after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) last month delayed plans to give patients booster doses in favour of giving a first dose to as many as people as possible. 

However, reports that some elderly residents were being asked to travel more than 40 miles to vaccination hubs sparked backlash from scientists. 

The NHS has now rewritten as many as 500,000 letters to over-80-year-olds advising them on how to get vaccinated. 

Zahawi was unable to answer how much stock of both the Pfizer/Biontech and Astrazeneca vaccines were available in the UK at the moment.

“It’s not about wanting to withhold information from a committee”, he told MPs. “The more we show off about how many vaccines we are receiving, the more difficult life becomes for the manufacturers.”

The vaccine deployment minister said he was “absolutely” confident the government would meet its target of vaccinating around 14m people in just five weeks’ time.

AstraZeneca today said it expects to release 2m doses of its vaccine every week by mid-February.

However, he warned there would be “fluctuations” in the daily figures being published, with a focus on prioritising the elderly likely to prove “a much greater challenge for delivery than just opening the doors”. 

“We are in a race against death,” Zahawi told the committee.

Zahawi said he could “categorically rule out” reports that the government would introduce vaccine passports as part of plans to resume international travel, adding that such measures would be “discriminatory”.

“We don’t do that in this country,” he said. “People have a choice.”

It comes after health secretary Matt Hancock last week announced government plans for every UK resident over the age of 18 to receive a Covid vaccine by autumn.

Hancock said the rollout has reached more than 200,000 people a day, with the figure set to increase dramatically this week after seven mass vaccination centres opened across the country. 

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Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, on Monday warned that meeting the government’s vaccine targets would be “extremely difficult”, as he cautioned that the NHS is facing the “most dangerous situation” in living memory.

“If the virus continues on this trajectory, hospitals will be in real difficulties, and soon, staff-to-patient ratios — already stretched — will become unacceptable even in intensive care,” he said.