HDA UK Media and Political Bulletin – 18 March 2021
COVID vaccine: India shortfall behind UK’s supply delay
BBC News, Editorial Team, 18 March
BBC News reports that an expected reduction in the UK’s COVID vaccine supply next month is due to a delay in the delivery of five million Oxford-AstraZeneca doses from India.
The shipment, produced by the Serum Institute of India, has been held up by four weeks. The Serum Institute is the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines and is making one billion doses of the AstraZeneca jab this year. Earlier this month, it agreed to supply 10 million doses for the UK, but only half of these will arrive this month with the rest delayed for several weeks. The rest of the UK’s AstraZeneca doses are being produced domestically and the company says there are no supply issues with these doses.
A spokesperson for the Serum Institute said: “Five million doses had been delivered a few weeks ago to the UK and we will try to supply more later, based on the current situation and the requirement for the government immunisation programme in India.” Meanwhile, NHS England warned of a reduction in supply in April in a letter to local health organisations on Wednesday, although the Department of Health insists it is still on track to offer a first dose to all adults by the end of July.
Dominic Cummings calls for ‘very hard look’ at handling of COVID crisis
The Guardian, Ian Sample & Jessica Elgot, 17 March
The Guardian reports that Boris Johnson’s former Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings has called for an investigation into the government’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Cummings told MPs there was a need for “a very, very hard look” at what went wrong and why, adding that problems at the DHSC had prompted him, along with Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, to argue for a separate taskforce to procure vaccines for the UK.
Shortages of PPE such as masks, visors and gowns in Spring 2020 forced the Government to order in supplies at inflated prices, with some items being found to be defective once they arrived. Cummings said the Government’s procurement system was an “expensive disaster zone” before last year and it “completely fell over” when the pandemic struck.
“In Spring 2020 you had a situation where the Department of Health was just a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE and all of that. You had serious problems with the funding bureaucracy for therapeutics. We also had the EU proposal which looked like an absolute guaranteed programme to fail – a debacle,” he said. “Therefore Patrick Vallance, the Cabinet Secretary, me and some others said: ‘Obviously we should take this out of the Department of Health, we should create a separate taskforce and we have to empower that taskforce directly with the authority of the Prime Minister.”
COVID-19 vaccination deployment next steps on uptake and supply
Written Letter, Emily Lawson, NHS Chief Commercial Officer & Dr Nikita Kanani, Medical Director for Primary Care, 17 March
In a letter published Wednesday, NHS England said they had been notified by the Vaccines Task Force that there would be a significant reduction in weekly supply available from manufacturers beginning week commencing 29 March.
The letter states that the reduction will continue for a four-week period. NHS England emphasised the importance to focus efforts on reaching as many people in cohorts 1-9 and said inviting patients outside of cohorts 1-9 is “only permissible in exceptional circumstances”. They added that vaccination centres and community pharmacy-led vaccination services should close unfilled bookings from the week commencing 29 March and ensure no further appointments are uploaded from 1 to 30 April.
The Government have reassured that they are still on track to meet their 15 April (To vaccinate all adults aged 50 and over with a first dose) and end of July (All UK adults to be offered first dose) deadlines.
You can read the letter here.
Further funding for community pharmacies’ response to COVID-19
Written Statement, Vaughan Gething, Welsh Minister for Health and Social Services, 16 March
Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething has announced that a further £3.5m will be provided to Welsh community pharmacy contractors. In total, this means an additional £9.1m will have been allocated this financial year in recognition of the vital role pharmacies played during the height of the pandemic.
In a statement, the Welsh Health Minister highlighted that he has also enacted a deferment of further repayments against the £55m advanced payment until the 2021-22 financial year in order to support the cash flow situation for community pharmacies.
You can read the statement in full here.
COVID vaccine: India shortfall behind UK’s supply delay
BBC News, Editorial Team, 18 March
An expected reduction in the UK’s Covid vaccine supply next month is due to a delay in the delivery of five million Oxford-AstraZeneca doses from India.
The shipment, produced by the Serum Institute of India, has been held up by four weeks, the BBC has been told.
NHS England warned of a reduction in supply in April in a letter to local health organisations on Wednesday.
The Department of Health insists it is still on track to offer a first dose to all adults by the end of July.
A spokesperson for the Serum Institute said: “Five million doses had been delivered a few weeks ago to the UK and we will try to supply more later, based on the current situation and the requirement for the government immunisation programme in India.”
A source told the BBC that although the original aim had been to deliver the next five million in March, there was not a stipulated time for the delivery of the doses.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said the UK had less supply of the vaccine “than we might have hoped for in the coming weeks but we expect it to increase again through the course of April”.
He told BBC Breakfast the vaccine rollout would be “slightly slower than we might have hoped but not slower than the target we had set ourselves” of offering a first dose to all people aged over 50 by 15 April, and all adults by the end of July.
He said that anyone who had an appointment for a second jab “should have complete confidence” that they will go ahead.
“The month of April will be different – and it was always going to be – because I think this will be the month that second jabs exceed first jabs,” he added.
More than 25 million people in the UK have had a first dose of a Covid vaccine, while around 1.7 million have had a second jab.
After opening up appointments to all over-50s on Wednesday, the NHS in England was then told not to offer jabs to younger age groups throughout April.
Prof Adam Finn, a member of the government’s Joint Committee for Vaccinations and Immunisation (JCVI), said the disruption to supply meant the UK’s rollout would be going from “extremely fast to somewhat less fast”, rather than “juddering to a halt”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the supply issues could have an impact on infection rates but should not have an impact on hospital admissions, as those who are most vulnerable to Covid-19 were being prioritised for the jab.
The Serum Institute is the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines and is making one billion doses of the AstraZeneca jab this year for low and middle income countries.
Earlier this month, it agreed to supply 10 million doses for the UK, but only half of these will arrive this month with the rest delayed for several weeks.
These supplies were always part of the contract and the UK is not taking vaccines away from supplies for lower-income countries.
All the rest of the UK’s AstraZeneca doses are being produced domestically and the company says there are no supply issues.
Pfizer, which produces its vaccine in Belgium, says its deliveries to the NHS are also on track.
Although, on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said if Covid vaccine supplies in Europe do not improve, the EU “will reflect whether exports to countries who have higher vaccination rates than us are still proportionate”.
We were always warned supply was fragile – and these developments are a reminder of that.
The UK has its own plants that are supplying one to two million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine each week.
There are also stocks coming from Pfizer’s Belgium plant – these would be the ones that would be susceptible to any restrictions on exports the EU is threatening.
The Indian supplies were supposed to give the UK the “bumper” end to March, allowing the government to push ahead with vaccination of the under-50s within weeks.
This has now been put on hold, given significant numbers will need their second doses from the start of next month.
The government is still on track to hit its target to offer all adults a vaccine by the end of July – and therefore this development does not affect the lifting of restrictions.
By late Spring the first doses of Moderna – the third vaccine to have been approved in the UK – should start arriving.
But the delay to the second shipment from India means rollout is going to take a little longer than was hoped at the start of this week.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is due to give a statement to MPs in the Commons later on Thursday.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth tweeted that people “across the country” would be “anxious and worried” about news of delays.
Labour is also backing a call from bereaved families for a public inquiry into the handling of the Covid pandemic, saying it should take place once the end of the government roadmap for leaving lockdown restrictions is reached.
Boris Johnson has previously promised an “independent inquiry” into the pandemic.
In addition, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is due on Thursday to release the findings of an investigation into cases of blood clots in a handful of Oxford-AstraZeneca jab recipients.
Several European countries have paused the use of the vaccine but the regulator has said there was “no indication” it caused the clots.
The World Health Organization has urged countries not to halt vaccinations.
A further 141 people in the UK have died within 28 days of a positive test, according to figures updated on Wednesday from the UK government. A further 5,758 people have tested positive.
Dominic Cummings calls for ‘very hard look’ at handling of COVID crisis
The Guardian, Ian Sample and Jessica Elgot, 17 March
Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings has called for an investigation into the government’s handling of coronavirus and described the Department of Health and Social Care as a “smoking ruin” when the crisis struck.
Cummings told MPs there was a need for “a very, very hard look” at what went wrong and why, adding that problems at the DHSC had prompted him, along with Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, to argue for a separate taskforce to procure vaccines for the UK.
“It is not coincidental that we had to take it out of the Department of Health. We had to have it authorised very directly by the prime minister,” Cummings told the Commons science and technology committee.
“In spring 2020 you had a situation where the Department of Health was just a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE and all of that. You had serious problems with the funding bureaucracy for therapeutics. We also had the EU proposal which looked like an absolute guaranteed programme to fail – a debacle,” he said.
“Therefore Patrick Vallance, the cabinet secretary, me and some others said: ‘Obviously we should take this out of the Department of Health, obviously we should create a separate taskforce and obviously we have to empower that taskforce directly with the authority of the prime minister.”
The remarks will be an embarrassment for the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and may be seen in Westminster as an attempt to assign credit to No 10 for the successful vaccine programme while leaving Hancock bearing the brunt of the responsibility for problems with procurement of personal protective equipment.
At a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Hancock sought to dismiss Cummings’ attacks on his department, saying the vaccine rollout had “been a huge team effort” and involved both the government and the vaccines taskforce it set up, as well as the NHS which he said had “led the way in terms of the delivery” of jabs.
He added: “One of the striking things about being involved in the vaccine rollout is that the spirit is a positive, mission-driven can-do spirit that we all share.”
A number of influential figures have told the Guardian they support a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.
Shortages of PPE such as masks, visors and gowns in spring 2020 forced the government to order in supplies at inflated prices, with some items being found to be useless once they arrived.
Cummings said the government’s procurement system was an “expensive disaster zone” before last year and it “completely fell over” when the pandemic struck.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said it was a “scathing intervention” from the man who had been Johnson’s most trusted aide. “To describe the Department of Health and Social Care as a ‘smoking ruin’ is a clear admission of fundamental mistakes that have contributed to us tragically experiencing one of the highest death rates in the world,” he said.
Downing Street said: “Covid challenged health systems around the world. From the outset, it was always our focus to protect the NHS and save lives. We have procured over 9 million items of PPE, we have established the NHS test and trace system, which has contacted millions of people and asked them to isolate. [The health department] and the NHS were central to the rollout of the vaccination programme.”
Cummings appeared before the committee to explain the rationale behind the proposed Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria), a radical new funding agency that would back high-risk, high-return projects that have the potential to transform society.
Asked about the genesis of the idea, Cummings said its creation was one of the conditions he insisted upon when he was asked by the prime minister to join No 10. The agency is based loosely on the 1960s US Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa).
“The prime minister came to speak to me the Sunday before he became prime minister and said: will I come to Downing Street to help sort out the huge Brexit nightmare?” Cummings said. “I said: ‘Yes, if first of all you are deadly serious about actually getting Brexit done and avoiding a second referendum. Secondly, double the science budget; third, create some Arpa-like entity; and fourth, support me in trying to change how Whitehall works, because it’s a disaster zone.’ And he said: ‘Deal.’”
Cummings said the meeting took place in his living room with just himself and Johnson present.
He denied he had been given a specific pay rise, despite a £45,000 increase being justified on the record by the No 10 spokesperson Allegra Stratton. Cummings claimed he asked for his pay to be cut to match his £100,000 Vote Leave salary – less than the £145,000 usually offered to someone in his role. He said it went up to the usual salary expected in his role after the 2019 election.
Cummings said he did not regret his departure at the end of last year and said he had always planned to quit around that time. “I think I made the right decision to resign when I did. I actually said to the prime minister back in July that I would leave by Friday 18 December at the latest, so the whole thing was not exactly as it appeared,” Cummings said.
During the session, the former Vote Leave campaigner criticised the EU over its handling of vaccines and said the past year had demonstrated the importance of not having the EU set science and technology regulations in the UK.
“As things have been proved every day now, science can cooperate globally without having to be part of the nightmarish Brussels system which has blown up so disastrously over vaccines,” he said. “Just this week we’ve seen what happens when you have an anti-science, anti-entrepreneurial, anti-technology culture in Brussels married with its appalling bureaucracy in its insane decisions and warnings on the AstraZeneca vaccine. I think we are extremely well out of that system.”
Asked about the recent threat of budget cuts to UK science funding, Cummings said that when he left Downing Street in November, “the numbers pencilled in” for UK Research and Innovation were “very generous improvements to its core budgets, not just for this year but throughout the whole spending review period, through to 2025.”
“If that’s changed in the last 12 weeks then that’s obviously bad,” he added. “If 2020 isn’t enough of a galvanising shock to say we ought to take science and technology seriously – both funded properly and embedded in government decision-making intelligently and strip out the bureaucracy that causes so much harm – then I don’t know what would be.”
Last week the UKRI, which oversees science funding in Britain, told universities that its budget for international development projects had been nearly halved, from £245m to £125m. The move means hundreds of research projects on problems ranging from antimicrobial resistance to the climate crisis will have to be shelved or cut back.
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