The “majority” of vulnerable people in the UK will be vaccinated throughout January and February, the government has said, as authorities prepare to rollout the first available doses of the Pfizer–BioNTech jab.
Around 25 million people are covered by the 10 priority categories set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Under this guidance, the first vaccine supplies will be sent to care home staff and residents, NHS frontline workers and people aged 80 and over – around six million people.
The rest of the priority list is made up of those aged between 50 and 80, extremely vulnerable individuals and all people aged 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of mortality.
If sufficient vaccination can be achieved across these groups, 99 per cent of Covid-19 deaths will be prevented, according to JCVI.
The first round of vaccine doses is due to be administered to the general public tomorrow.
Roughly 800,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which has been shown to be 95 per cent effective in preventing disease, are to be distributed across the UK throughout next week.
It is hoped that up to five million doses – enough to vaccinate 2.5 million Britons – will eventually be made available by the end of the year, though the government has been reluctant to provide a definitive number.
The announcement comes as the UK’s official coronavirus death toll rose by 189, meaning 61,434 people have now died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus. A further 14,718 new cases were also reported yesterday, with the total number of identified infections nearing 1.75 million.
The government’s spokesperson stressed that the vaccines developed by Moderna and Oxford University were still being assessed by regulators, which could boost the UK’s supplies in the coming weeks.
In England, 50 hospitals have been chosen to serve as hubs for administering the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, though doses have already been transported to all four nations of the UK.
With limited quantities initially available, elderly people who are already attending hospital as an outpatient, as well as those who are being discharged after a hospital stay, will be among the first to receive the jab.
Should the failure to agree a trade deal with the European Union complicate the delivery of doses from the continent, supplies could be airlifted to the UK by the military, according to James Cleverly, a junior foreign office minister.
Transport between Britain and mainland Europe is likely to be severely disrupted if a deal with the EU is not agreed before transitional arrangements expire at the end of the year.
But Mr Cleverly said the UK’s vaccine supplies would get through whatever the circumstances.
“We have extensive plans in place to ensure the protection of our vaccines, that is absolutely the priority product,” he said on Monday.
“We’ve looked at the use of non-commercial flights, we have border arrangements in place.”
He said the military could be used and an airlift was included in plans “amongst other things”.
Downing Street did not deny that RAF flights could be used to transport the vaccine over from the continent if there were problems at ports caused by a no-deal Brexit.
The PM’s spokesperson would not comment on specific plans for “security reasons”, but added that “the military will have a role to play in what’s been an enormous logistical challenge and I’m sure they will continue to do so as we move forward”.
Shadow armed forces minister Stephen Morgan separately warned that the armed forces “are already stretched” as he called upon the government to ensure these services are kept well-sourced during the nationwide rollout.
Defence minister James Heappey said there are 2,600 army personnel “deployed right now”.
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“The winter preparedness package is 13,500 people … and we’re confident that in generating that package, we have not in any way damaged the defence’s ability to prepare for operations that are currently required, or indeed are required within the next six months or (more),” he told the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, confirmation has been provided by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) that doses will be delivered directly into care homes, after initial concerns that elderly residents would have to be transported to vaccination sites to receive their jabs.
The government admitted last week that the nationwide rollout of the Pfizer vaccine poses a “mammoth logistical operation” owing to the freezing temperature at which it must be maintained, with supplies transported in 975-dose batches.
Care homes typically have dozens of residents: none have nearly a thousand. This means that if a batch is delivered to a care home then there would be a potential waste of precious vaccine stock.
However, the MHRA has now approved a method for breaking up these batches of doses into smaller quantities, allowing them to be transported into separate homes without fear of waste.
“Regulatory approvals required to proceed with the splitting up of packs have been put in place,” a spokesperson for the MHRA told The Independent. “We are working with NHS and their assemblers to help support them to implement the processes and training they need to have in place to meet our conditions.”
Companies licensed to assemble vaccine packs and some NHS hospitals with the appropriate facilities will break down the batches for shipment to care homes.
They have to do this in 2-8C cold rooms and then repack the supplies into refrigerated carriers that are then sent out to care homes.
The clock starts ticking as soon as the assemblers thaw the vials, the MHRA said. They have 12 hours to complete the “pack down”, label the boxes and get the vials to the mobile teams and into care homes.
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