HDA UK Media and Political Bulletin – 16 March 2021

Media Summary

COVID: The inside story of the Government’s battle against the virus
BBC News, Laura Kuenssberg, 15 March

In a long-read piece, BBC News reports on the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, covering developments including the early onset of the disease in March 2020, the various lockdown measures implemented, and the vaccine procurement process.

In preparation for the piece, reporter Laura Kuenssberg interviewed 20 senior politicians and officials, who either witnessed or were involved in the big decisions, gathering a clearer picture of the crisis.

The piece highlights both areas of criticism, such as PPE procurement and other early logistical challenges, as well as areas of success, such as the early investment in vaccine planning.

 

Parliamentary Coverage

List of approved countries for authorised human medicines (Updated)
Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, 16 March

Innovation Minister Lord Bethell announced today that the Government is introducing a two-year notice period of any changes to the current position of continued recognition of EU batch testing, which will be reviewed before 31 December 2022.

Recognising the critical role the healthcare sector has and continues to play in the response to COVID-19, the Government hopes that this change will allow the sector to continue to focus on the pandemic, and to protect the supply of medicines to UK patients. This comes after concerns were reportedly raised about moving facilities to the UK by 2023.

The Government has also committed to conducting a comprehensive review of the future batch testing strategy for the UK, to create the opportunity to develop an innovative strategy that supports the UK’s thriving life sciences sector. Read more here.

You can read the batch testing and importation of medicines guidance here.

UK government announces partnership with British rapid test manufacturers
Department of Health and Social Care, 15 March

Two British companies have secured contracts with the Government to supply rapid lateral flow tests, which will help prevent the virus from spreading, keep healthcare staff safe, and make sure businesses can reopen.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has agreed contracts with Omega Diagnostics, headquartered in Alva in Scotland, and Global Access Diagnostics, based in Thurleigh.

The contracts will provide manufacturing capacity for up to 200 million COVID-19 lateral flow antigen tests, which detect positive cases quickly – in under 30 minutes – meaning positive cases can isolate immediately, breaking chains of transmission.

Omega and Global Access Diagnostics will have the capacity to produce approximately 2 million tests per week each by the end of May, helping scale up the Government’s rapid lateral flow testing programme across the country.

You can read the full announcement here.

House of Commons – Written Question, 15 March

Alexander Stafford (Conservative, Rother Valley): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what steps he has taken to ensure that housebound patients can access a free community pharmacy medicines delivery service once the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have ended.

House of Commons – Written Question, 15 March

Olivia Blake (Labour, Sheffield Hallam): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what assessment his Department has made of the potential effect of the request for the repayment of the £370 million allocated to community pharmacies during the COVID-19 outbreak on the future financial sustainability of that sector.

House of Commons – Written Question, 15 March

Emma Hardy (Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what assessment he has made of the financial position of community pharmacies; and what assessment he has made of the potential merits of converting the £370 million of COVID-19 emergency cashflow loans into grants.

House of Commons – Written Answer, 12 March

Cat Smith (Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, what fiscal steps he is taking to support community pharmacies.

Steve Barclay (Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire): We recognise the vital role community pharmacies have played throughout the pandemic, and have put in place a comprehensive package of support:

  • We have provided extra funding for Bank Holiday openings, a new medicines delivery service for shielded patients and a contribution to social distancing for every pharmacy.
  • Between April and July 2020, a total of £370 million in increased advance payments were made to support community pharmacies with cash-flow pressures due to COVID-19.
  • Most community pharmacies have been able to access general COVID-19 business support, including business rate relief and Retail, Leisure, Hospitality grants – we estimate community pharmacies have had access to some £82 million in grants.
  • We provide personal protective equipment (PPE) free of charge and reimburse community pharmacies for PPE purchased.
  • The Government has put forward firm proposals for additional funding to meet extra costs incurred by pharmacies during the pandemic, which are under active discussion with the PSNC.

We have also provided non-monetary support such as the removal of some administrative tasks, flexibility in opening hours, support through the Pharmacy Quality Scheme for the sector’s response to COVID-19 and the delayed start of new services.

Full Coverage

COVID: The inside story of the Government’s battle against the virus
BBC News, Laura Kuenssberg, 15 March

At the beginning of March 2020, I asked a senior member of the government: “Do you feel worried?” They replied: “Personally? No.” But just weeks later, Downing Street was scrambling to manage the biggest crisis since World War Two.

Since then, monumental decisions have had to be taken. And there have been many accusations of failings – the desperate shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID ripping through unprepared care homes, hundreds of billions borrowed and spent to keep the economy going, to name a few.

I have asked 20 of the most senior politicians, officials and former officials, who either witnessed or were involved in the big decisions, to pick five pivotal moments from the past 12 months.

What they say tells us so much about what really happened, what our leaders were thinking, and, strikingly, how little they knew. The contributors are not being named, so they could speak freely.

The virus on our doorstep

On 31 January, it was reported that coronavirus had arrived in the UK, as two people were admitted to hospital. Meanwhile, more than 80 Britons evacuated from China were quarantined at a facility in the north-west of England. But for the government, Brexit had sucked up all the political energy – it was the day the country officially left the EU.

The prime minister and his team were exhausted but elated. It felt like Boris Johnson had “just really started to take flight”, one member of the team tells me.

Ministers and officials had already been meeting to discuss the virus in China – but it felt thousands of miles away. There was a “lack of concern and energy,” one source tells me. “The general view was it is just hysteria. It was just like a flu.”

The prime minister was even heard to say: “The best thing would be to ignore it.” And he repeatedly warned, several sources tell me, that an overreaction could do more harm than good.

A small group in Downing Street had started daily meetings, after, according to one of those who attended, “it became clear that there was no proper, ‘Emergency break-the-glass’ plan.”

But for many of those I’ve spoken to, the game-changer was at the end of February, when the virus took hold in northern Italy – it was closer to home, and England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, had, one minister told me, warned that if it got out of China, it would become global, and be on its way to the UK.

“The biggest moment for me was when I saw those pictures of northern Italy,” one senior minister says. “I thought that will be us if we don’t move.”

Reports of the chaos there catapulted the virus, one senior minister says, “from not on the radar, to people on the floor of hospitals in Lombardy.” They say that was the moment “we knew that it was inevitable”.

Ministers and officials became locked in arguments over how to respond. The prime minister and many cabinet ministers were reluctant to consider anything as draconian as a lockdown. To many people, the very idea would have seemed fanciful.

Even stopping shaking hands seemed a step too far for the prime minister.

Before the first major coronavirus briefing on 3 March, he had, I am told, been prepared by aides to say, if asked by journalists, people should stop shaking hands with each other – as per government scientific advice.

But he said the exact opposite. “I’ve shaken hands with everybody,” he said, about visiting a hospital with COVID patients.

And it was not just a slip, one of those present at the briefing says. It demonstrated “the whole conflict for him – and his lack of understanding of the severity of what was coming”.

A Downing Street spokesperson told the BBC: “The prime minister was very clear at the time he was taking a number of precautionary steps, including frequently washing his hands. Once the social distancing advice changed, the prime minister’s approach changed.”

By this point, Mr Johnson was attending emergency committee Cobra meetings with officials and leaders from Holyrood, Belfast and Cardiff – although he had missed the first few.

But one senior politician who attended at the same time says: “The early meetings with the prime minister were dreadful.” And inside Downing Street, senior staff’s concerns about the government’s ability to cope grew.

There were huge logistical considerations about equipment, facilities and how fast the disease might move in the UK, and questions about how effective the actions taken in China to suppress the virus would be here. It was not well understood, for example, that people without symptoms could still pass it on, nor that Britons returning from half-term holidays in northern Europe were bringing the virus back home in large numbers.

“There was a genuine argument in government, which everyone has subsequently denied,” one senior figure tells me, about whether there should be a hard lockdown or a plan to protect only the most vulnerable, and even encourage what was described to me at that time as “some degree of herd immunity”.

There was even talk of “chicken pox parties”, where healthy people might be encouraged to gather to spread the disease. And while that was not considered a policy proposal, real consideration was given to whether suppressing COVID entirely could be counter productive.

On 3 March, when the prime minister set out the government’s plan, the focus was on detecting early cases and preventing the spread.

But on 12 March, with journalists crammed into the state dining room at No 10, he told the public that the country was facing its worst health crisis in a generation. Anyone with symptoms was told to stay at home for a week.

Advisers seemed confident it was not yet time to close schools or stop large crowds gathering. And the government’s scientists felt they had time to slow everything down – the peak was not expected for another 10-14 weeks.

That same week, though, nervousness was rising among others in government that the virus was outpacing everyone’s expectations, and the plans in place to smooth out the outbreak would not work.

One source tells me it felt like the “government machine was breaking in our hands”, things were “imploding”, and within 48 hours the approach outlined on the 12th would feel out of date.

There has been no shortage of controversy over whether the government was too slow to close the doors on 23 March – but many of the conversations I have had, pinpoint the moment it became urgent in No 10.

On 13 March, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) committee concluded the virus was spreading faster than thought.

But it was Downing Street “modellers in the building”, according to one current official, who pored again over the numbers, and realised the timetable that had only just been announced was likely to result in disaster.

The next morning, a small group of key staff got together. Simple graphs were drawn on a whiteboard and the prime minister was confronted with the stark prediction that the plan he had just announced would result in the NHS collapsing under the sheer number of cases.

Several of those present tell me that was the moment Mr Johnson realised the urgency – that the official assumptions about the speed of the spread of this new disease had been wrong.

To prevent the NHS “falling over”, he was warned, the government would have to impose measures as infections rose. And while they could be relaxed as cases fell, this pattern might recur across “multiple waves for 18 months”.

Several sources recall vividly the “snake like graph” they were shown that day.

Then, one official says, everything started to move at “lightning speed”. And behind closed doors – before the terrifying projections of Imperial College became public, a couple of days later – plans were accelerated.

On 16 March, the public were told to stop all unnecessary social contact and to work at home if possible.

New cabinet committees were formed. And the machine moved into a different phase, with the prime minister and the “quad” – Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Rishi Sunak – the new decision-making form. It was, I am told, “high tension – [with] a lot of testosterone in the room”.

For many inside government, the pace of change that week was staggering – but others remain frustrated the government machine, in their view, had failed to move quickly enough.

There was tension between those who wanted to ensure systems were as ready as they could be first, and others who argued vociferously that moving fast against the virus was more important than anything else.

But those I spoke to now agree on one thing – how much they did not know about the disease.

“You can kick yourself about the things that you wish you knew,” one minister says, “but we just didn’t have anything in place.”

Another cabinet minister says: “It’s easy to say we should have locked down longer, gone harder, but there are more complex debates about where the national interests really lie.”

And it was all so strange.

One minister who made some of the public announcements when lockdown came says: “I remember when I wrote it into the script, I just couldn’t believe that I was saying this.”

And one official, struck by how huge it all felt, says he googled: “Did they shut the schools during the War?”

Another, meanwhile, admits, “We were more blind than we told the public,” and suggests that is still the case one year on.

Boris Johnson out of action

On 18 March, we reported that a small number of members of staff in No 10 had fallen ill. One insider says: “People were dropping like flies.”

The prime minister, however, was acting as though he was impervious to the risk. He had developed a habit of banging his own chest, telling staff he was “strong as a bull”. Soon, though, this chest-banging turned into “extreme coughing fits”. Tests, in short supply everywhere, were requested for him from 25 March. And two days later, he tested positive.

He switched to the chancellor’s bigger suite of offices so that he could keep working, screened off from the rest of the building. Insiders recall how much he hated this and, in a second spell of isolation in the autumn, chairs had to be placed across the door “like a puppy gate”, so he could still communicate with the tiny number of staff allowed into the same part of the building.

Then, at the end of March, the prime minister became increasingly ill – each video call he made to reassure the public required more takes.

On 6 April, he agreed to go to St Thomas’ Hospital and, struggling for breath on a phone call, I have been told, confirmed he wanted Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to stand in for him.

Initially, Downing Street tried to give the impression that all was well. Journalists were even told that Mr Johnson was working on his red boxes. That message has been put down to a mix up, and we now know this was far from the truth.

The moment of genuine crisis came when he was moved into intensive care. No-one knew if the prime minister would make it through the night – or what the plan was if he did not.

By this point, with so many in No 10 and in government already sick, there were, I have been told, about “half a dozen people running things”.

Fears that he might need to be intubated were shared by a tiny group inside Number 10. They discussed the possibility that ministers would have to gather in the cabinet room, with the doors closed, until they chose a successor – but there was no fixed protocol, and no conclusion was reached. The Tory Party, I have been told, even started to consider how to transfer the leadership without a contest, fearing that such a competition could be seen as “venal” after the prime minister’s death.

Then cabinet ministers were summoned urgently for a conference call. “All of a sudden we were asked to join this call – not knowing if he was alive,” one tells me. Then No 10 prepared to make the news public.

The Downing Street voice on the other end of the phone cracked with fear as I was asked to get to the Foreign Office as soon possible with a camera to talk to Mr Raab, who was being sent out to try to reassure the country. We reported the news that Mr Johnson was in intensive care from the back of a taxi.

A former official tells me: “We thought we really could lose him – we had to plan for a full transition.” That night was “long and shocking”, one source says.

By the end of May, the number of coronavirus cases was falling, the prime minister was back at work full time, and the public had surprised the government by overwhelmingly sticking to the rules.

Furthermore, despite some embarrassing and prominent lockdown breaches – in April, for example, Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, had to quit over her visits to her holiday home – there had been what one senior minister describes as “tremendous goodwill”.

But then came the Mirror and the Guardian’s scoop – in March, the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, had travelled hundreds of miles to County Durham, after his wife fell ill with COVID. He, too, succumbed to the virus and his stay on his family’s farm to recover, before returning to London, had been kept secret – apart from among a tiny number of Downing Street staff.

And Mr Cummings was determined not to quit. After considering sacking him, the prime minister stuck by him – but first, there was what has been described to me as tense “mediation between a couple deciding whether to divorce”.

Before making that decision, he had summoned Mr Cummings to go through his version of events. Together, they planned for him to give this version publicly – despite others’ protestations. The result was the surreal press conference in the Downing Street rose garden.

Many of those I have talked to describe this episode as a terrible turning-point.

“Even for us, this is mad,” a member of the Downing Street team tells me.

Senior ministers say: “The handling was a fiasco”. “It was ridiculous”, and, at a time of national emergency, “broke the political consensus”.

Perhaps, after two months of lockdown, the public was ready to be angry with someone.

MPs’ inboxes were swamped with irate emails – mine too. “The early pandemic washed away all the bitterness of Brexit,” one senior minister tells me. “That all came flooding back, all that bile, all that pent up frustration.”

Some ministers tweeted their support for Mr Cummings. One of those who refused says: “He should have resigned straight away. You lead by example. I was busy chopping logs with my chainsaw to get the frustration out.”

Some polling suggests the Barnard Castle episode really did dent the public’s trust in the government. “It gave people who wanted to break the rules an excuse,” one source says.

But inside government, there was a belief that an extraordinary period of unity had already started to fade, and the public had started to tire of the rules once the government had moved towards its plans to lift them.

There is no question, though, the whole misadventure made the politics of the pandemic more scratchy and less consensual.

Mr Cummings was not the only one to be caught up. In June, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, provoked anger by attending a huge Republican funeral.

But it was after Barnard Castle that it felt like the mood in the country had changed.

“People wanted to portray the PM as a clown,” one minister tells me, “or not up to the level of events.”

Summer optimism, missed September

Britain in the summer did not feel like a country still gripped by a pandemic.

“There was loads of over optimistic messaging,” one politician says.

For example, the time when a Labour MP asked for advice at the end of June for his constituency, which was home to a popular beach and he was worried about huge numbers heading for the sea. “Show some guts,” the prime minister told him.

In July, a grinning chancellor delivered plates of Japanese curry to unsuspecting customers at a London restaurant, to promote his “eat out to help out” scheme. Then the prime minister started to encourage people back to the office.

But behind closed doors, there were significant doubts about the wisdom of this new mood. “We knew there was going to be a second wave,” one cabinet minister tells me, “and there was a row about whether people should work from home or not – it was totally ridiculous.”

The summer optimism and opening was “the biggest mistake – a rush of blood to the head, another senior figure says. “The PM has to carry the can”.

The prime minister believed that another lockdown would be a disaster and wanted to avoid it at all costs – but for many of those involved in making the decisions, his hostility to tightening the rules again was frustrating, dangerous and political.

“The policy objective in the summer and the autumn was – do the minimum possible,” one tells me.

But by the end of August, with Britons packing beaches, the warnings of what might come were already flickering in Number 10.

Some days, sources suggest, the prime minister would express concern about the virus coming back. Others, he would be in “let-it-rip mode”. And senior officials expressed deep concern about what seemed to be changes of heart on a daily basis.

The disease would not be contained by indecision, and by the start of September, with schools and universities having returned, “you could clearly see a steady increase,” a senior figure says.

The testing system had not been able to keep pace with demand, and too few people were willing to, or could afford, to self-isolate if they tested positive. “The idea that you could liberalise in the summer was based on the idea that you could whackamole with test and trace,” the source says. “But if you didn’t whack the right moles then it doesn’t work.”

By the middle of September, “the data was already screaming out”, one insider says. On the 17th, I was told by one source: “If you do nothing now, by the end of October you will get something worse than the first wave.”

The possibility of a short “circuit breaker” lockdown was already being discussed in Downing Street that week. Prof Whitty, the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, and Mr Cummings and others were arguing hard for action to be taken – but the prime minister was unpersuaded.

Others wanted to push again – one current official recalls a “concerted effort” – and on Sunday 20th, the No 10 team gathered a range of scientists. But the prime minister remained reluctant.

Another current official describes his attitude as, “if there is a way not to act, why do it?”.

Over the next 36 hours, I have been told, a small group inside Downing Street repeatedly tried to change Mr Johnson’s mind – but by then, he was operating in a very different atmosphere.

“A swampiness had risen because of ideological pressure on this government at every turn to do less – and to do it more slowly,” a senior figure says. And it is understood Mr Johnson had privately assured groups of MPs there would be no more restrictions.

The Treasury was pointing out the damage any further restrictions would do to the economy, many of the traditional Tory-backing newspapers were hungry for restrictions to be relaxed, the party was restless, and I remember cabinet ministers who had hardly any cases of the virus in their constituencies at that point, suggesting they saw no evidence for further action.

So when Mr Johnson made changes to the coronavirus restrictions on 22 September, they were tweaks, rather than a real tightening up. I remember talking to Tory backbenchers that day who felt they had won.

The importance of the missed September moment is cited by many senior figures – and some now concede it was a mistake.

“We strained at the leash to get things going,” one cabinet minister admits. “I was aggressively for that – but I have learned that it is better to go slow.”

Another senior minister, one of those who pushed for more radical action at the time, now says: “We should have locked down more severely, earlier in the autumn – the whole point was, the earlier you act the more you buy yourself time for a strategy that can get out.”

You can still hear the frustration in the voices of those who lost the argument.

“The PM was saying the Tory Party won’t swallow it,” one tells me. “Everyone else felt, we know we are going to have to do a lockdown.”

And there is no question that the tier system that was introduced over the autumn, which portioned England into different levels of restrictions, was soon tied up in confusion and regional spats.

“It was completely unintelligible to any normal human being,” one senior official says. “It was too slow, and too Byzantine, and that resulted in more cases.”

Another says now: “We ended up tying ourselves into ever tighter knots,” as the system became more and more particular to each part of the country.

It is impossible to know what would have happened if the brakes had been slammed on in September – but some ministers pin the terrible scale of the second wave, at least in part, on the apparent reluctance to act.

The circuit-breaker that was imposed later in Wales did not make the problem go away, however. Case numbers weren’t the only concern – the economy had been shuttered, and shattered. Political demands had changed.

In defence of Mr Johnson, one senior minister says: “He’s not to blame if he was trying to reflect the aspiration for the country back in the summer”. Another tells me the plans, and the billions spent on “test-and-trace and tiering meant it was reasonable to do the unlock”.

They reject the idea that a circuit breaker was the obvious option – “There wasn’t a slam dunk recommendation.”

Regarding the potential introduction of national restrictions in September, Downing Street referred us back to comments made by the prime minister to parliament in early November.

“No-one wants to impose measures unless absolutely essential,” Mr Johnson told the Commons. “So it made sense to focus initially on the areas where the disease was surging and not to shut businesses, pubs and restaurants in parts of the country where incidence was low.”

But while there is no question mistakes were made in the first phase of the pandemic, when so much about the virus was a mystery, those involved in the decisions are already less forgiving of their own mistakes the second time around.

The big vaccine gamble

“A miracle,” is how one minister describes the vaccine gamble to me. A government so often lambasted by critics for busting convention did it again – but this time, so far, with a stunning outcome.

Vaccines had been discussed in January, as the government machine began to contemplate, slowly, what might be ahead. Early on the chancellor, holding the cheque book, indicated a willingness to spend at speed, without asking for guarantees.

No 10 decided to “chuck everything at it”, at a meeting in April. With Sir Patrick’s crucial experience and deputy chief medical officer for England Prof Jonathan Van-Tam’s emphasis on the practicalities of delivering the vaccine, politicians were persuaded to take what was then a huge risk.

There was an early decision to “pay high, pay early, and ensure it works,” one senior official tells me.

And it seems their decision was informed by everything that had gone wrong with trying to secure PPE – the collapse of the NHS’s normal procurement process, with Foreign Office officials even trying to hunt down missing consignments on the ground in far-flung places.

The UK decided early not to participate in the EU’s joint plan to buy vaccines. While publicly this decision may have been politically controversial, behind closed doors it was “easy” and “straightforward”, ministers and officials say. “No-one wanted any of the Brexit baggage anywhere near it.” And, more importantly, the EU had made it clear any participating country would be unable to make its own deals with manufacturers the EU had an agreement with – or control its own supply.

The vaccines team had warned ministers at the start of May that nothing was certain – and developing a vaccine as quickly as the prime minister, who “wanted it yesterday”, required would be an uphill struggle. But, as one minister says, it was “the one thing we would wish that we had done in a year’s time”.

Another, a senior minister, says: “The PM strategically saw immediately that the combination of testing, drugs and vaccine was the way out.” And when it came to vaccines, the UK was ready to take an expensive gamble.

The Treasury was spending speculatively in ways it had not since the War – and vaccine spending has already reached nearly £13.5bn. “Imagine if it hadn’t come off and we had spent all of that taxpayers’ money,” one senior official says to me.

There was intense secrecy, throughout, with the various vaccines given secret code names to ensure commercial confidentiality. All were named after submarines – the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine “Ambush”, I can now reveal, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca “Triumph”.

After 12 months of grappling with endless calculations about balancing risks to life, wider health and how the country makes a living, decision-makers are exhausted. They have to accept it is perfectly possible to be wrong, one senior minister tells me. And those who made the decisions are all too aware mistakes they made in these past 12 months may have had such a terrible cost.

Media Summary

Number of UK COVID-19 vaccinations falls by a third as vaccine supply dips
The Guardian, Dan Sabbagh & Natalie Grover, 23 February

The Guardian reports that the number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the UK has fallen by over a third in the last week as ministers warned of a short-term dip in supply, coupled with stockpiling to ensure people get second doses within the recommended 12-week limit.

The latest data showed 192,341 people received a first jab on Monday, the second-lowest daily total since 17 January – taking the number of people in Britain who have had an initial COVID-19 vaccination to 17.9 million. On Sunday the number of vaccinations was 141,719. Taken together, the total for the past two days is 35% lower than the equivalent figures last week.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said in a radio interview the country could expect “a quieter week this week” for vaccinations because of supply pressure but that the rollout would bounce back next month. “We’re going to have some really bumper weeks in March,” he added.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, also said in her daily press briefing that there had been “a temporary dip,” but added there were other factors at play to suggest that UK vaccine stocks had been reduced. Other reasons for the slowdown, the First Minister said, included “the higher than expected uptake so far, and also the need to reserve stock so that second doses can be offered to people who received their first dose in December.”

 

Parliamentary Coverage

Dr June Raine appointed as CEO of MHRA
Department of Health and Social Care, 23 February

Dr June Raine has been appointed as the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s (MHRA) new Chief Executive, having been the interim CEO since 2019.

Dr Raine played a crucial part in setting up rolling reviews during the pandemic to ensure the UK was the first in the world to authorise the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines. Her work has helped improve patient safety and patient engagement and has helped establish the UK as a world-leading destination for life sciences.

Health Minister Lord Bethell said: “It is thanks to Dr Raine’s strong leadership during the pandemic that the UK was the first country in the world to authorise COVID-19 vaccines. The MHRA is widely regarded as one of the best regulators in the world with the highest standards of safety and I’m delighted to confirm Dr Raine’s appointment as CEO.”

You can read the full press release here.

 

House of Commons – Written Answer, 23 February

Sarah Owen (Labour, Luton North): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what preparations the Government is making with community pharmacies for the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Jo Churchill (Conservative, Bury St Edmunds): NHS England and NHS Improvement are working with all the national pharmacy organisations on plans to ensure that community pharmacies, including large chain pharmacies, are used to optimal effect in the COVID-19 vaccination programme, starting with the sites that can do this at scale. As of 22 February 2021, 196 community pharmacies have now started to offer the COVID-19 vaccination service, with more pharmacies joining the service over the coming weeks. We expect 200 community pharmacies sites to offer the COVID-19 vaccination service as of 8 March 2021. Some pharmacists and members of their team have also been working with general practitioners to deliver the vaccine in many areas of the country.

 

Northern Ireland Assembly, Written Question, 22 February

Paula Bradshaw (Alliance, South Belfast): To ask the Minister of Health, given that community pharmacy is not mentioned in any detail in the document referred to, for an update on the detail of the precise role to be played by community pharmacists during the vaccination roll-out.

 

Full Coverage

Number of UK COVID-19 vaccinations falls by a third as vaccine supply dips
The Guardian, Dan Sabbagh & Natalie Grover, 23 February

The number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the UK has fallen by over a third in the last week as ministers warned of a short-term dip in supply coupled with stockpiling to ensure people get second doses within the recommended 12-week limit.

The latest data showed 192,341 people received a first jab on Monday, the second-lowest daily total since 17 January – taking the number of people in Britain who have had an initial COVID-19 vaccination to 17.9 million.

On Sunday the number of vaccinations was 141,719, the lowest figure since the UK daily count began on 10 January. Taken together, the total for the past two days is 35% lower than the equivalent figures last week.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said in a radio interview the country could expect “a quieter week this week” for vaccinations because of supply pressure but that the rollout would bounce back next month. “We’re going to have some really bumper weeks in March.”

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, also said in her daily press briefing that there had been “a temporary dip”, but added there were other factors at play to suggest that UK vaccine stocks had been reduced.

Other reasons for the slowdown, the first minister said, included “the higher than expected uptake so far, and also the need to reserve stock so that second doses can be offered to people who received their first dose in December”.

UK ministers have repeatedly said they expect supplies to be uneven, particularly while Pfizer reduces production at its European plant in Belgium during February to increase the amount it can make in March. AstraZeneca has promised to produce an average of 2m doses a week, but it acknowledges its production can be lumpy.

Modelling documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on Monday also appear to suggest that the UK could speed up its pace of inoculation towards the end of March.

A document from Sage’s modelling subcommittee produced earlier this month suggests that vaccinations could potentially be carried out at the rate of 4m a week from 22 March based on scenarios “commissioned by Cabinet Office” – although a second, more conservative forecast, suggests 4m a week could be hit by 25 April.

A little over a week ago, with average vaccination rates running at more than 400,000 a day, the UK hit a target to provide a vaccine to the 15 million people in the first four priority groups. Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “Maybe they used up a lot more doses in the first part of February to make the self-imposed target and to look good.”

Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said it was too soon to tell if there were any serious problems. “We probably need another week of data to have a clearer picture around whether this is a concerning trend, or indeed part of natural fluctuations,” he said.

Sturgeon said Scotland would follow an announcement made by England over the weekend to bring forward a target to reach all people in the first nine priority groups by 15 April instead of 30 April.

That would mean everybody over 50 being offered a first shot shortly after Easter, as well as those with underlying health conditions plus health and care workers – a total of 32 million people across the UK. A rolling programme of second jabs in large numbers would also have begun by then.

Media Summary

UK anticipating dip in COVID vaccine supply in coming weeks
Financial Times, Sebastian Payne, Sarah Neville, John Burn-Murdoch and Clive Cookson, 16 February

The Financial Times reports that the UK may be anticipating a dip in its Coronavirus vaccine supply in the coming weeks, with potential to disrupt inoculation targets.

After hitting its mid-February goal for offering vaccines to the 15m most vulnerable UK residents, the government is aiming to give jabs to the next 17m most vulnerable, including all over-50s, by 30th April. The UK has delivered close to 3m doses a week over the past fortnight. If that supply and distribution level is maintained, this next target could be met by the week ending 28th March according to analysis by the Financial Times.

The government’s much longer target of 30th April suggests that ministers either expect supply levels to drop in the coming weeks, or want to play down expectations. According to individuals familiar with the programme, supply is expected to remain fairly constant over the next few months but some glitches have been factored into planning. However, one senior Number 10 official said that vaccine supply was “a difficult one” and the government was cautious on whether supplies would continue at the almost 3m doses a week rate seen in early February. “Targets for the end of March do not reflect our internal assessment,” the individual said.

 

Parliamentary Coverage

NHS England seeks further community pharmacies to contribute to COVID-10 vaccination programme
Emily Lawson, NHS Chief Commercial Officer and SRO Vaccine Programme; Ed Waller, Director of Primary Care; and Dr Keith Ridge CBE, Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for England, 16 February

NHS leaders have written to Community Pharmacy Contractors and Local Pharmaceutical Committees re-opening the designation process for pharmacy contractors to apply to become vaccination sites.

Applications will be open to contractors who may be able to provide a service where NHS England has identified there is still a need for local populations. Contractors must be able to provide at least 1000 vaccines per week and must be able to be open from 8am to 8pm, 7 days a week if required.

NHS England has also asked for expressions of interest from contractors who could provide up to 400 vaccines per week. These sites may be considered where a site offering 1000 vaccines per week is unlikely to be viable, or where an additional site would offer significant benefits for specific patient cohorts.

You can read the letter in full here.

 

Full Coverage

UK anticipating dip in COVID vaccine supply in coming weeks
Financial Times, Sebastian Payne, Sarah Neville, John Burn-Murdoch and Clive Cookson, 16 February

This article is subject to copyright terms and conditions. You can access the article here.

Media Summary

Tens of thousands of UK nurses yet to receive first dose
The Guardian, Denis Campbell, 09 February

The Guardian reports that tens of thousands of nurses across the UK have not had their first Coronavirus vaccine, sparking fears that they could contract COVID-19 or infect patients. A Royal College of Nursing (RCN) survey of 24,370 nurses found that 85% had had at least one dose, with the remaining 15% unvaccinated.

The findings show that the government is in danger of failing to deliver one of the main elements of its pledge that all 15 million Britons in the top four priority groups for immunisation – which includes all health and social care staff – should have been offered a first shot by next Monday, 15 February.

“It is extremely worrying that, as our survey suggests, many thousands of nursing staff have yet to be given their COVID-19 vaccine less than a week before the government’s deadline,” said Dame Donna Kinnair, the RCN’s Chief Executive and General Secretary. She added, “with only days to go, every effort must be made to reach all nursing staff to ensure their protection and that of the patients and vulnerable people they care for.” The RCN said scaling that 15% up to its 450,000-strong membership suggested an estimated 75,000 nurses had still not had their initial jab.

 

EU poised to reject two-year extension to Northern Ireland grace period
The Telegraph, Harry Yorke & James Crisp, 08 February

Brussels appears poised to reject the UK’s calls for a two-year extension of the grace periods for post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland, reports the Telegraph.

Multiple Whitehall and EU sources have told The Telegraph that the European Commission is likely to agree to only a three to six-month extension of the arrangements in place for traders moving goods between Britain and the province. The mooted extension falls far short of Michael Gove’s request for the EU to agree to extend measures in place to reduce red tape on supermarket goods, chilled meats, parcels and medicines until January 2023.

Ahead of a crunch meeting in London on Thursday, EU figures also accused the UK of exploiting an international backlash against Brussels over its aborted move to erect a hard vaccine border on the island of Ireland.  While the UK argues the controversy has highlighted the need for urgent solutions to the problems being experienced in Northern Ireland, EU diplomats claimed the issue was being used to try to renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol.

This was also reported in the IndependentReuters, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail.

 

Parliamentary Coverage

International Trade Committee launches inquiry in UK-EU trade relationship
International Trade Committee, 08 February

The International Trade Committee is launching a new inquiry into the UK-EU trade relationship, focussing on the implementation of the trade provisions of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The inquiry will explore:

  • The experiences of businesses and other stakeholders in the UK regarding implementation of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement’s trade provisions;
  • How effectively the UK-EU trade relationship is being managed through the mechanisms under the Agreement;
  • The impact of the Agreement, now and in the future, on the UK’s wider trade policy – including in relation to trade with non-EU countries; and
  • How the implementation of the Agreement – along with the wider UK-EU trade relationship – is likely to evolve

Angus Brendan MacNeil, the Chair of the Committee, said: “Since the new arrangements for UK-EU trade began at the turn of the year, numerous reports have shown that businesses and consumers are experiencing a range of difficulties. My Committee will be exploring these issues, including their impact on particular industries – not least those concerned with exporting perishable foodstuffs.”

You can read the full press release here.

 

Letter on the flow of pharmaceutical products between the UK and EU
Stephen Crabb MP, Welsh Affairs Committee, 08 February

Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, Stephen Crabb MP, has written to the Secretary of State for Wales, Simon Hart MP, about the flow of pharmaceutical products between the UK and EU.

In a recent Welsh Affairs Committee session, one witness, Ian Price from the CBI, spoke about a pharmaceutical company manufacturing cancer drugs having to relocate production from Wales to Dublin. He said that two to three hundred consignments had to be destroyed after being blocked somewhere in the system in Europe. Mr Crabb MP asked if the Secretary of State was aware of the following issues, and asked if the UK Government had been informed about other instances of pharmaceutical firms experiencing issues importing or exporting products.

The full letter can be found here.

 

House of Commons, Written Answer, 02 February

Liam Byrne (Labour, Birmingham Hodge Hill): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what plans he has to use the 11,300 community pharmacies in England to administer the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at scale.

Nadhim Zahawi (Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon): From 1 February 2021, 130 community pharmacies have started to offer the COVID-19 vaccination service, including the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, with more pharmacies joining the service over the coming weeks. Some pharmacists and members of their team have also been working with general practitioners to deliver the vaccine in many areas of the country.

NHS England and NHS Improvement are working with all the national pharmacy organisations on plans to ensure that community pharmacies are used to optimal effect in the COVID-19 vaccination programme, starting with the sites that can do this at scale.

 

Northern Ireland Assembly, Written Question, 08 February

David Hilditch (DUP, Antrim East): To ask the Minister of Health what plans his Department has to use community pharmacies as part of the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out.

 

Full Coverage

Tens of thousands of UK nurses yet to receive first dose
The Guardian, Denis Campbell, 09 February

Tens of thousands of nurses across the UK have not had their first Coronavirus vaccine, sparking fears that they could contract COVID-19 or infect patients.

A Royal College of Nursing (RCN) survey of 24,370 nurses found that 85% had had at least one dose, with the remaining 15% unvaccinated.

The findings show that the government is in danger of failing to deliver one of the main elements of its pledge that all 15 million Britons in the top four priority groups for immunisation – which includes all health and social care staff – should have been offered a first shot by next Monday, 15 February.

“It is extremely worrying that, as our survey suggests, many thousands of nursing staff have yet to be given their COVID-19 vaccine less than a week before the government’s deadline,” said Dame Donna Kinnair, the RCN’s Chief Executive and General Secretary.

“With only days to go, every effort must be made to reach all nursing staff to ensure their protection and that of the patients and vulnerable people they care for.”

The RCN said scaling that 15% up to its 450,000-strong membership suggested an estimated 75,000 nurses had still not had their initial jab.

The college said it was critical that all nurses had a COVID vaccine so that they, their families and patients were protected, adding that any nurse left unvaccinated was “a risk to themselves and those they care for”.

While 91% of nurses directly employed by the NHS have had at least one jab, just 71% working for other organisations – such as district nurses, health visitors or those in care homes – have received theirs.

Overall, 20,719 (85%) of those surveyed had received the first of the two doses of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Seven in 10 of those who had not yet had a vaccine worked in non-NHS settings.

While only 6% of nurses who work directly for the health service have not been offered a vaccine, much greater proportions of nurses who work through an employment agency (35%) or as temporary staff (19%) have still not been invited for an appointment.

A minority of nurses do not want to have a COVID vaccine. The RCN asked the 1,624 nurses who had not taken up an offer of a jab why they had refused. Of those, 38% said they did not want to have the vaccine at the moment or were undecided, and 12% did not want to have a vaccine at all. A third (33%), however, had an appointment booked and planned to attend.

Overall, 902 respondents (4%) said they had decided not to have a vaccine or been advised against doing so. The most common reasons they cited were: worry that the vaccine was unsafe or had not been tested enough; fears about side-effects; and belief that it may not prove effective in the long term against all strains of COVID-19.

Chris Hopson, the Chief Executive of NHS Providers, which represents health service trusts in England, said: “It is encouraging to see high levels of NHS staff uptake on the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, as indicated by this survey.

“It is really important that as many staff as possible take the opportunity to get vaccinated to help protect colleagues and patients. Trusts are making concerted efforts to ensure coverage is as comprehensive as possible.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said it was following the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation’s advice and would have offered everyone in the top four priority groups a vaccine by next week.

A spokesperson said: “This includes temporary, agency and voluntary workers who are at an increased risk of contracting or transmitting the virus to other people particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, as well as to other staff in a healthcare environment.

“The NHS is working at pace to vaccinate these groups and we are on track to offer a vaccination to everyone in these first four priority groups by mid-February.”

 

EU poised to reject two-year extension to Northern Ireland grace period
The Telegraph, Harry Yorke & James Crisp, 08 February

Brussels appears poised to reject the UK’s calls for a two-year extension of the grace periods for post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.

Multiple Whitehall and EU sources have told The Telegraph that the European Commission is likely to agree to only a three to six-month extension of the arrangements in place for traders moving goods between Britain and the province.

Ahead of a crunch meeting in London on Thursday, EU figures also accused the UK of exploiting an international backlash against Brussels over its aborted move to erect a hard vaccine border on the island of Ireland.

While the UK argues the controversy has highlighted the need for urgent solutions to the problems being experienced in Northern Ireland, EU diplomats claimed the issue was being used to try and force through a renegotiation of the agreement.

The mooted extension falls far short of Michael Gove’s request for the EU to agree to extend measures in place to reduce red tape on supermarket goods, chilled meats, parcels and medicines until January 2023.

It has also reignited calls from the DUP for Boris Johnson to unilaterally override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was established to smooth over trade issues created by the province continuing to apply some EU customs rules at its ports.

Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s Westminster leader, told The Telegraph: “I am disappointed but not surprised by this meagre response from the European Union. I really don’t think the Irish government understands the extent of the difficulty consumers and businesses are experiencing in Northern Ireland.

“Simply extending the grace period doesn’t resolve any of the difficulties and doesn’t fix the underlying problem, which is that people in Northern Ireland are facing barriers to trade with the United Kingdom.

“If this is the best the EU can do, by kicking the can down the road a little further and offering no substantive change… then the Prime Minister has a duty to act, and he has the power to act.”

Separately, George Eustice, the the Environment Secretary, wrote to Brussels calling for an “urgent resolution” to unexpected barriers being placed on some shellfish exports.

It comes after the EU warned fishermen that some types of live shellfish caught in parts of the UK’s fishing waters could not be exported to the bloc – a move the UK says does not tally with previous assurances it had received.

Appearing before the Commons EU Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday, Mr Gove told MPs that while he believed that problems in Northern Ireland could be dealt with, the two sides were still “very far from resolving” them.

He added that while ministers did not wish to trigger Article 16, enabling them to override parts of the protocol causing trade friction, the EU needed to be “practical and pragmatic” to avoid the measure of last resort being used.

“One of the points that I’ve made is that if people put a particular type of integrationist theology ahead of the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, they are not serving the cause of peace and progress in Northern Ireland,” he said. “That is my principal and overriding concern.”

Mr Gove also expressed his alarm that the EU may seek to trigger Article 16 again in the future, warning that its actions last month had opened the “Pandora’s box.”

“Article 16 isn’t there to ensure the EU’s vaccine procurement program can be salvaged,” he said. “There needs to be a realisation on all sides that this isn’t some arcane bit of diplomatic procedure. This has real consequences on the ground.”

His comments will be seen as a thinly-veiled swipe at Ursula von der Leyen and commissioners in Brussels, who have been accused of failing to understand the sensitivities around Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement.

However, ahead of a meeting between Mr Gove and his EU counterpart, Maros Sefcovic, on Thursday, a Whitehall source said the EU was privately indicating it would only accept an extension of between three and six months.

“They are amenable to a three-month extension… whether we can do more we will probably have to wait for this week’s discussions,” the source added.

Two EU sources also confirmed that discussions were taking place over an extension of up to six months.

Media Summary

NHS plans for annual Coronavirus vaccinations
Financial Times, Sarah Neville & Jim Pickard, 07 February

The Financial Times reports that the NHS is planning a mass campaign of booster jabs against new variants of Coronavirus as early as the autumn, in what the Vaccines Minister suggested would become an annual effort to prevent COVID-19 as the virus keeps mutating.

High-street pharmacists and retired doctors who were not enlisted in the first phase of the vaccination programme could be involved in the effort to protect the UK against new strains, according to people familiar with the logistics.

Nadhim Zahawi, the Vaccines Minister, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that the Government was expecting annual inoculations to take place every autumn in much the same way as flu prevention, adding: “Where you look at what variant of virus is spreading around the world, you rapidly produce a variant of vaccine, and then begin to vaccinate and protect the nation.”

In a statement the NHS said it had “mobilised efficiently and speedily to ensure that new vaccines and treatments are rolled out as they become available”. NHS leaders believe that the timing of the extra shots means they could be delivered alongside the annual seasonal flu vaccinations long offered to over-65s, and for which eligibility was last year extended to all over-50s.

This story was also reported in The Independent.

 

Free provision of vaccines is preventing criminals from infiltrating rollout, say UK police
The Guardian, Mark Townsend, 07 February

The Guardian reports that the UK’s rapid vaccine rollout is being protected from the threat of serious organised crime and corruption thanks to the centralised systems of the NHS, which help safeguard it from attempts to infiltrate its supply chain according to the National Crime Agency.

But it was the NHS’s principle of providing free treatment for all that was the most crucial factor in protecting the so far successful vaccine rollout, particularly when compared with countries that relied on private healthcare and were more vulnerable to fake vaccines and fraud.

“You can’t buy the vaccine and you can’t sell it, that from a clear public messaging point of view makes it easier,” said Ben Russell, Deputy Director of the NCA’s National Economic Crime Centre. “Also you know it’s real because it’s being administered by the National Health Service and they’re not going to ask for your bank details or turn up at your house unannounced.”

His comments coincide with the latest data from Action Fraud, showing there have been 580 reports of attempted vaccine fraud, but these appear to be low level opportunistic attempts to defraud the public rather than organised crime.

 

All over-50s in UK to be offered vaccine by May
BBC News, Editorial Team, 06 February

All adults aged 50 and over should have been offered a Coronavirus vaccine by May, BBC News reports. The UK had given a first jab to nearly 11 million people as of last Thursday and is aiming to reach 15 million vaccinations by 15 February.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said a lot of things would “have to go right” to hit the May target for all over-50s. He added that supply was the “most difficult” limiting factor in the roll out.

However, he said the government was on track to vaccinate the first four priority groups by the middle of the month, these include the over-70s, frontline health and care workers and the clinically extremely vulnerable.

There is growing confidence in the UK supply chain, with the bulk of supplies now coming from UK-based plants, while the first batches of the Moderna vaccine – of which the UK has ordered 17 million doses – will start to arrive before Easter.

 

Parliamentary Coverage

There was no parliamentary coverage today.

 

Full Coverage

NHS plans for annual Coronavirus vaccinations
Financial Times, Sarah Neville & Jim Pickard, 07 February

This article is subject to copyright terms and conditions. You can access the article here.

 

Free provision of vaccines is preventing criminals from infiltrating rollout, say UK police
The Guardian, Mark Townsend, 07 February

The UK’s rapid vaccine rollout is being protected from the threat of serious organised crime and corruption by the structure and principles of the NHS, senior police officers say.

The National Crime Agency, which is monitoring any attempt by organised syndicates to profiteer from the Coronavirus vaccine programme, said the centralised systems of the NHS helped safeguard it from attempts to infiltrate its supply chain.

But it was the NHS’s principle of providing free treatment for all that was the most crucial factor in protecting the so far successful vaccine rollout, particularly when compared with countries that relied on private healthcare and were more vulnerable to fake vaccines and fraud.

“You can’t buy the vaccine and you can’t sell it, that from a clear public messaging point of view makes it easier,” said Ben Russell, Deputy Director of the NCA’s National Economic Crime Centre. “Also you know it’s real because it’s being administered by the National Health Service and they’re not going to ask for your bank details or turn up at your house unannounced.”

His comments coincide with the latest data from Action Fraud, which is overseen by the City of London Police, showing there have been 580 reports of attempted vaccine fraud, but these appear to be low level opportunistic attempts to defraud the public rather than organised crime.

Recently the government launched an information campaign reminding the public that the NHS would not ask for payment because the “vaccine is free”.

Figures from the City of London Police, which specialises in fraud investigations, also reveal they are aware of more than 8,200 vaccine related phishing emails, when criminals attempt to trick users into revealing personal data.

Concerns that transnational narcotics syndicates may attempt to use their supply chains to move into the illicit distribution of COVID vaccines have, said Russell, proved unfounded.

In December Interpol issued a global alert to global law enforcement agencies warning them that organised crime networks may target Coronavirus vaccines physically and online.

The international police coordination agency said the pandemic had prompted “unprecedented opportunistic and predatory criminal behaviour” and warned of a new wave of criminal activity “in relation to the falsification, theft and illegal advertising of COVID-19 vaccines”.

 

All over-50s in UK to be offered vaccine by May
BBC News, Editorial Team, 06 February

All adults aged 50 and over should have been offered a Coronavirus vaccine by May, Downing Street has confirmed.

Previously ministers had said it was their “ambition” to vaccinate the first nine priority groups by the spring.

The UK had given a first jab to nearly 11 million people as of Thursday and is aiming to reach 15 million vaccinations by 15 February.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said a lot of things would “have to go right” to hit the May target for all over-50s.

He said supply was the “most difficult” limiting factor in the roll out.

But he said the government was on track to vaccinate the first four priority groups by the middle of the month, these include the over-70s, frontline health and care workers and the clinically extremely vulnerable.

The top nine priority vaccination groups – which are set by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) – also includes people aged 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions.

Mr Hancock also said it was “still too early to say” when restrictions could be lifted and warned the health service was still under pressure.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, in a Twitter video, that on 22 February he would “set out the beginnings of our roadmap for a way forward for the whole country as the vaccine programme intensifies and, as more and more people acquire immunity, a steady programme for beginning to unlock”.

He also warned that these were still “early days” and rates of infection in the country were “still very high”.

It comes after Mark Harper, Chairman of the COVID Recovery Group made up of Conservative MPs who want lockdown to be eased, said it would be “almost impossible to justify having any restrictions in place” once the over-50s had been vaccinated.

Prof Graham Medley, who is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, earlier said the government should avoid “setting dates” for lifting lockdown and focus on criteria, such as case rates, rather than a calendar.

A further 1,014 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were reported on Friday, taking the total by that measure to 111,264.

There have been 19,114 more positive cases of Coronavirus recorded, while another 480,560 people received their first dose of a vaccine – taking the total to 10,971,047 across the UK.

Coronavirus cases are showing clear signs of falling across the UK, the latest figures suggest, and the R number – the average number of people that someone with COVID-19 will go on to infect – has dropped slightly to between 0.7 and 1.

In a press release confirming May’s local elections will go ahead, the Cabinet Office said: “The UK’s vaccination programme is planned to have reached all nine priority cohorts by May, meaning that the government can commit to go ahead with these polls with confidence.”

BBC Health Correspondent Nick Triggle said, while the NHS has the staff, volunteers and clinics needed to vaccinate the 15 million people in the next priority groups, vaccine production was a biological process so there were no guarantees about how much could be grown.

But our correspondent said there was growing confidence in the UK supply chain, with the bulk of supplies now coming from UK-based plants, while the first batches of the Moderna vaccine – of which the UK has ordered 17 million doses – would start to arrive before Easter.

So far, the falls in COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions (about a fifth in a week respectively) are pretty much exclusively down to the effects of lockdown restrictions.

But soon, we’ll start to see the impact of vaccination too – and we will expect to see more good news, particularly falls in deaths which are heavily concentrated in the over-80s.

While deaths mainly occur in the over-80s, about 20% of hospital admissions are in 45-64-year-olds and another 20% in 65 to 74-year-olds. The latest commitment to vaccinate all over 50s could have a massive impact on severe illness and the strain it puts on the health service, too.

But the situation will remain precarious for a while. Cases, though falling, are still high – and despite a so-far successful vaccination campaign, large swathes of the country may still be unprotected come spring.

Though much rarer, a proportion of younger, healthy people will end up in hospital with COVID-19, and we’re only just beginning to learn about the burden of long COVID-19 on the previously well young.

So once the groups at highest risk of ending up in hospital and dying have been vaccinated, the government will face difficult questions about what level of risk it is willing to stomach to ease restrictions, while a prolonged lockdown carries its own risks that might be currently difficult to measure.

The UK’s drugs regulator, the MHRA, said the vaccines being distributed in the country were extremely safe, while new research shows the AstraZeneca jab protects well against the new “Kent” variant of Coronavirus.

Earlier on Friday, the government also announced a deal with biopharmaceutical company CureVac, which Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said would allow the UK to “swiftly tweak and roll out” existing vaccines to combat new variants, with 50 million doses placed in an initial order for later this year.

The government also said no contracts had yet been awarded to hotels to take part in England’s new quarantine scheme, which will see all those arriving from 33 COVID hotspots have to stay in a hotel for 10 nights.

 

Media Summary

COVID-19: New Oxford vaccine ‘ready by the autumn’ to tackle mutations

BBC News, Nick Triggle & Philippa Roxby, 03 February

BBC News reports that a vaccine produced by the Oxford-AstraZeneca partnership to tackle Coronavirus variants could be ready to deploy by the autumn. Professor Andy Pollard from Oxford University said tweaking a vaccine was a relatively quick process and would only need small trials before roll-out.

There is still strong evidence existing vaccines work well against the mutations that have emerged, although their overall effectiveness may be weakened a little. Results released by Oxford University showed evidence that the vaccine can reduce the chances of people catching and passing on the virus, which has always been uncertain. The data showed vaccination with the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab could cut transmission by up to 67%.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the results were “absolutely superb” and showed vaccines are “the way out of this pandemic” but that the “on-going challenge” would be for vaccine manufacturers to keep up with what the virus is doing.

 

Parliamentary Coverage

World-first COVID-19 alternating dose vaccine study launches in UK
Department of Health and Social Care, 04 February

Patients taking part in a new clinical study launching today will receive different COVID-19 vaccines for their first or second dose. The study will be the first in the world to determine the effects of using different vaccines for the first and second dose – for example, using Oxford University/AstraZeneca’s vaccine for the first dose, followed by Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine for the second.

A same-dose regimen is currently implemented for the national COVID-19 vaccination programme, and there are no current plans for this to change. Anyone who has received either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccination as part of the UK-wide delivery plan will not be affected by this study. However, should the study show promising results, the government may consider reviewing the vaccine regimen approach, but only if proven to be safe and recommended by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

Minister for COVID-19 Vaccine Deployment, Nadhim Zahawi, said: “This is a hugely important clinical trial that will provide us with more vital evidence on the safety of these vaccines when used in different ways. This is another great step forwards for British science, expertise and innovation, backed by government funding – and I look forward to seeing what it produces.”

You can read the full press release here.

 

More than 10 million people receive first dose of COVID-19 vaccine in UK
Department of Health and Social Care, 03 February

More than 10 million people in the UK have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, marking a significant milestone for the largest vaccination programme. Figures out yesterday show the NHS vaccinated a total of 10,021,471 million people between 8 December 2020 and 2 February 2021, including 9 in 10 people aged 75 and over in England. These 4 groups account for 88% of COVID deaths, which is why the vaccines will play an important role in reducing the demand on the NHS and saving lives.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “This terrific achievement is testament to the monumental effort of NHS workers, volunteers and the armed forces who have been working tirelessly in every corner of the UK to deliver the largest vaccination programme in our history. Every jab makes us all a bit safer – I want to thank everyone for playing their part.”

You can read a full statement here.

 

House of Lords, Written Answer, 03 February

Lord Scriven (Liberal Democrat): To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the average waiting time to receive COVID-19 vaccinations in (1) mass vaccination hubs, (2) GP surgeries, and (3) community pharmacies.

Lord Callanan (Conservative): The UK COVID-19 Vaccines Delivery Plan sets out how the Government will work with the NHS, devolved administrations, local councils, and the Armed Forces to deliver the largest vaccination programme in British history.

As of 3 February, over ten million people across the UK have been vaccinated with the first dose of the vaccine. We continue to work to meet our target of vaccinating all four priority groups, as advised by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, by 15 February 2021.

Vaccines are a precious resource in very high demand across the world; therefore, for security reasons it is not possible to provide detail about the size of our supplies and exact detail about deliveries.

 

Next Steps on the Northern Ireland Protocol
Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, 02 February

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, has written to Maroš Šefčovič, Vice President of the European Commission about the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Gove requests, amongst other articles, that the arrangements on medicines agreed last December should be extended for a further year at least to 1 January 2023, ensuring that medicine supply chains are not impacted by further barriers to trade. The letter continues to say that the UK and EU must also immediately resolve for Northern Ireland patients all outstanding practical issues on medicines; and set out a long-term approach that will ensure no barriers of any kind to the movement of medicines into Northern Ireland.

The full letter can be found here.

 

Full Coverage

COVID-19: New Oxford vaccine ‘ready by the autumn’ to tackle mutations
BBC News, Nick Triggle & Philippa Roxby, 03 February

A vaccine to tackle the coronavirus variants could be ready to deploy by the autumn should it be needed, the Oxford-AstraZeneca team says.

Prof Andy Pollard, from Oxford University, said tweaking a vaccine was a relatively quick process and would only need small trials before roll-out.

It comes as the UK announced more than 10 million people had received a jab.

There is still strong evidence existing vaccines work well against the mutations that have emerged.

Although their overall effectiveness may be weakened a little.

The comments came after results released by the team showed the first evidence the vaccine can reduce the chances of people catching and passing on the virus, which has always been uncertain.

The data, which has not yet been published or reviewed, showed vaccination with the Oxford-AZ jab could cut transmission by up to 67%.

This means the vaccine could significantly slow the spread of the virus, potentially allowing restrictions to be lifted more quickly, as well as protect people from becoming seriously ill and dying with COVID-19.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the results were “absolutely superb” and showed vaccines are “the way out of this pandemic” but that the “on-going challenge” would be for vaccine manufacturers to keep up with what the virus is doing.

He described the fact that 10 million people had received their first dose of a vaccine as a “hugely significant milestone” and said “every jab makes us all a bit safer”.

There is most concern about the South African variant, which shows signs of being able to escape some of the protective effect of the vaccines. There are already signs this has begun circulating in some parts of the UK, prompting surge testing to be introduced into parts of London, Surrey, Kent, Hertfordshire and Southport.

The mutation behind this variant – called E484K – has also been detected in some of the infections caused by UK strains that are circulating in parts of Bristol and Liverpool.

Prof Pollard said his team were already looking at updating the vaccine to make it more effective against the mutations that are being seen.

“I think the actual work on designing a new vaccine is very, very quick because it’s essentially just switching out the genetic sequence for the spike protein.

“And then there’s manufacturing to do and then a small scale study. So all of that can be completed in a very short period of time, and the autumn is really the timing for having new vaccines available for use,” he said.

It’s not yet clear how the new vaccine would be given to people, but it is possible it could take the form of a one-dose booster which is updated and rolled out every year or so.

Sir Mene Pangalos, Executive Vice President of Biopharmaceuticals Research and Development at AstraZeneca, added: “Our ambition is to be ready for the next round of immunisations that may be necessary as we go into next winter. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

He added the manufacturing process would also be easier as plants would be fully up to speed by then.

The trials that would need to be run are only likely to involve a few hundred people as the team would only need to check safety and that a good immune response is generated by carrying out blood tests.

There were a further 1,322 deaths in the UK reported on Wednesday within 28 days of a positive test for coronavirus, bringing the total number of people who have died by this measure to 109,335.

Media Summary

GSK and CureVac to develop vaccines to tackle COVID variants
Financial Times, Donato Paolo Mancini & Joe Miller, 03 February

The Financial Times reports that the UK’s GlaxoSmithKline and Germany’s CureVac will work together on a new generation of COVID-19 vaccines to tackle emerging variants of the virus that have shown some resistance to existing ones.

The two companies have agreed a €150m deal to jointly develop a product using mRNA technology that would work on multiple variants of the Sars-Cov-2 virus and could be ready for use in 2022, subject to approval.

GlaxoSmithKline will also help manufacture up to 100m doses of CureVac’s mRNA vaccine candidate at its plant in Belgium. The CureVac vaccine, the only mRNA shot that is stable at conventional fridge temperatures, is in the final phases of testing.

CureVac has said it can manufacture 300m doses of its vaccine this year, and at least 600m next year. It has signed a deal to deliver 400m doses to the EU, and has said it will no longer pursue authorisation of the shot in the US, citing market saturation.

 

Bill that could allow wider hub-and-spoke dispensing expected to become law in February
The Pharmaceutical Journal, Carolyn Wickware, 02 February

The Pharmaceutical Journal reports that legislation paving the way for wider use of hub-and-spoke dispensing is expected to receive royal assent this month.

The Medicines and Medical Devices Bill will also lay the first steps towards building a replacement for the EU’s Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD) and supporting a wider range of professions to prescribe certain medicines.

The bill’s impact assessment set out the implications “for how powers may be used in the future” following secondary legislation, which included “enabling hub-and-spoke arrangements across legal entities.” This would mean that smaller pharmacies would be able to access dispensing hubs run by larger multiple pharmacies, for instance.

The DHSC confirmed to The Pharmaceutical Journal this week that the proposed changes to the regulation of pharmacies, which would also enable hub-and-spoke dispensing, have not changed.

 

Parliamentary Coverage

House of Lords, Written Answer, 02 February

Lord Scriven (Liberal Democrat): To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the average waiting time to receive COVID-19 vaccinations in (1) mass vaccination hubs, (2) GP surgeries, and (3) community pharmacies.

Lord Bethell (Conservative): Waiting times at individual vaccination sites are not collected centrally by NHS England and NHS Improvement. However, it is important to keep waiting times to a minimum. To support this, the national vaccination booking system has been set up so that specific time slots can be booked in advance based on a site’s capacity.

 

Oxford Coronavirus vaccine shows sustained protection of 76% during the 3-month interval until the second dose
Oxford University, 02 February

Researchers at the University of Oxford have published an analysis of further data from the ongoing trials of the vaccine. The data reveals that the vaccine efficacy is higher at longer boost intervals, and that a single dose of the vaccine is 76% effective up to 90-days post vaccination.

They report that the effect of dosing interval on efficacy is pronounced, with vaccine efficacy rising from 54.9% with an interval of less than six weeks to 82.4% when spaced 12 or more weeks apart. They also detail that a single standard dose of the vaccine is 76% effective at protecting from primary symptomatic COVID-19 for the first 90 days post vaccination, once the immune system has built this protection 22 days after the vaccination.

Professor Andrew Pollard, Chief Investigator of the Oxford Vaccine Trial said: “These new data provide an important verification of the interim data that was used by more than 25 regulators including the MHRA and EMA. It also supports the policy recommendation made by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) for a 12-week prime-boost interval, as they look for the optimal approach to roll out, and reassures us that people are protected from 22 days after a single dose of the vaccine.”

You can read the full press release here.

 

Full Coverage

GSK and CureVac to develop vaccines to tackle COVID variants
Financial Times, Donato Paolo Mancini & Joe Miller, 03 February

This article is subject to copyright terms & conditions. Please access the full article here.

 

Bill that could allow wider hub-and-spoke dispensing expected to become law in February
The Pharmaceutical Journal, Carolyn Wickware, 02 February

Legislation paving the way for wider use of hub-and-spoke dispensing is expected to receive royal assent in February 2021, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has said.

The Medicines and Medical Devices Bill will also lay the first steps towards building a replacement for the EU’s Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD) and supporting a wider range of professions to prescribe certain medicines.

The bill will provide the primary legislation needed to amend a variety of legislative frameworks, including the Human Medicines Regulations 2012 (HMRs).

These frameworks were previously amended through legislation that has since been repealed under the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

The bill’s impact assessment set out the legislation’s implications “for how the powers may be used in the future” following secondary legislation, including “enabling hub-and-spoke arrangements across legal entities”, which will ultimately require a change to the HMRs.

This would mean that smaller pharmacies would be able to access dispensing hubs run by larger multiple pharmacies, for instance.

The DHSC confirmed to The Pharmaceutical Journal on 1 February 2021 that, despite amendments to the bill since it was laid before parliament in February 2020, the powers enabling changes to the regulation of pharmacies to be kept up to date, which would also enable hub-and-spoke dispensing, have not changed.

It added that the bill is in its final stages and the DHSC hopes it will achieve royal assent in February 2021.

Speaking during a debate on 27 January 2021, Pharmacy Minister Jo Churchill said the government plans to hold “a full public consultation” on broadening hub-and-spoke dispensing.

“The government will then report to parliament and include a summary of the concerns raised in the public consultation,” she said.

“To ensure that we get the right model to assist pharmacy going forward, we intend to be totally transparent.”

This comes after the government also committed to consulting the public on a new national scheme to detect falsified medicines in the supply chain within 12 months of the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill receiving royal assent.

The national scheme would replace the FMD, which was introduced across the EU in February 2019 and ceased to apply in Great Britain when the Brexit transition period ended on 31 December 2020.

The bill’s impact assessment listed “introducing a scheme to combat falsified medicine products” among a range of examples of how the powers may be used in the future following secondary legislation.

The bill could also enable hospitals to use patient tissue and DNA samples to tailor treatments for individual patients and allow hospitals, in their existing facilities, to develop drugs that have a shelf life of minutes and would otherwise be unavailable to them.

Medicine manufacturers may also be required to signpost patients to “up-to-date statutory information about certain medicines on a variety of digital platforms”, rather than include hard copy patient information leaflets in packaging, under proposals permitted by the bill.

The Medicines and Medical Devices Bill was first announced in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019 amid plans to introduce legislation to allow a wider range of healthcare professionals — potentially including pharmacists — in the NHS to prescribe ‘low-risk’ medicines.

Changes enabled by the powers in the bill will be made using secondary legislation at a later date, and any proposed legislative changes arising from the provisions in the bill will be subject to consultation, the DHSC said.

Media Summary

COVID-19: Vaccine programme continues to expand with 32 new centres across England
Sky News, Editorial Team, 25 January

Sky News reports that more than 30 new vaccination centres are due to open in England this week as the drive continues to protect the population against COVID-19. It comes after government figures showed more than 6.3 million people in the UK have received the first dose of the two-dose vaccine.

A record-breaking 491,970 people were vaccinated in a single day over the weekend, suggesting the country is on course to meet the government’s target of vaccinating 15 million of the most vulnerable by mid-February.

Meanwhile, union leaders have called for transport workers to be classed as a priority group after a “surge” in deaths.

 

COVID-19: Demand at Northern Ireland’s vaccination centres declines
BBC News, Marie-Louise Connolly, 25 January

Demand at Northern Ireland’s regional vaccination centres has started to decline as health workers have received their first dose of a vaccine, the Department of Health has confirmed to BBC News NI.

The Department said: “Demand at the trust regional vaccination centres has started to decline as we are coming to the end of HSC workers receiving their first dose of a vaccine. So trusts are now working hard to invite their clinically extremely vulnerable patients into these regional centres to receive their vaccine.”

The Department of Health said that a further announcement on the timing of the start of vaccinations for those aged 70 and over, the wider clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) group, and those aged 65 and over will be confirmed later this week. More than 150,000 people in NI have already received a COVID-19 vaccine – 10.5% of the adult population.

 

COVID-19: AstraZeneca to ‘cut COVID-19 vaccine delivery to EU by 60%’
Sky News, Editorial Team, 23 January

Sky News reports that AstraZeneca will cut deliveries of the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine to the European Union by 60% in the first quarter of the year.

The company was expected to deliver around 80 million doses to the 27 EU countries by the end of March, an EU official said. However, it now expects that to be cut to 31 million doses due to “production problems” at a vaccine factory in Belgium run by its partner Novasep.

Stella Kyriakides, the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said on Twitter: “The EU Commission and Member States have expressed deep dissatisfaction with this development. The EU Commission will continue to insist with AstraZeneca on measures to increase predictability and stability of deliveries, and acceleration of the distribution of doses.”

Deliveries to the United Kingdom are not expected to be impacted.

 

Parliamentary Coverage

There was no parliamentary coverage today.

 

Full Coverage

COVID-19: Vaccine programme continues to expand with 32 new centres across England
Sky News, Editorial Team, 25 January

More than 30 new vaccination centres are due to open in England this week as the drive continues to protect the population against COVID-19.

The 32 centres include the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, a racecourse, a football stadium and a former Ikea store.

It comes after government figures showed more than 6.3 million people in the UK have received the first dose of the two-dose vaccine to help protect them against the coronavirus.

A record-breaking 491,970 were vaccinated in a single day over the weekend, suggesting the country is on course to meet the government’s target of vaccinating 15 million of the most vulnerable by mid-February.

With the first four priority groups now being vaccinated, attention is turning to which groups will be offered the vaccine next.

Union leaders have called for transport workers to be classed as a priority group, after a “surge” in deaths.

Rail, Maritime and Transport Union General Secretary Mick Cash said: “A more infectious and now it seems more deadly variant of the COVID-19 virus plus an increase in passengers numbers is a lethal cocktail threatening rail workers, with deaths and illness doubling since November.”

A group of scientists have also said it might be necessary to vaccinate domestic animals to limit the spread of the virus.

Coronavirus can infect species including cats, dogs, experts from the University of East Anglia, Norwich based research facility the Earlham Institute, and University of Minnesota have said.

In an editorial for the journal Virulence, they wrote: “It is not unthinkable that vaccination of some domesticated animal species might… be necessary to curb the spread of the infection.”

Kevin Tyler, Editor-in-Chief of Virulence, said: “Cats are asymptomatic but they are infected by it and they can infect humans with it.

“The risk is that, as long as there are these reservoirs, that it starts to pass as it did in the mink from animal to animal, and then starts to evolve animal-specific strains, but then they spill back into the human population and you end up essentially with a new virus which is related which causes the whole thing all over again.”

The UK recorded a further 610 COVID-related deaths on Sunday, along with another 30,004 cases.

It brings the total number of coronavirus-related deaths in the UK to 97,939.

Meanwhile, senior ministers will meet on Tuesday to discuss requiring travellers to pay for quarantine at a designated hotel on their return to the UK.

The proposal, which is aimed at getting more people to comply with isolation rules after their arrival, is said to have the support of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

It was prompted by concerns over new variants of the virus found in Brazil and South Africa.

Mr Hancock has said there were 77 known cases of the South African variant in the UK – all linked to travel – and nine of the Brazilian variant.

The variants have also sparked concern in the US, where president Joe Biden is expected to reinstate travel restrictions on non-US travellers from the UK, Ireland, Brazil and 26 other European countries.

 

COVID-19: Demand at Northern Ireland’s vaccination centres declines
BBC News, Marie-Louise Connolly, 25 January

Demand at NI’s regional vaccination centres has started to decline as health workers have received their first dose of a vaccine, the Department of Health has confirmed to BBC News NI.

Instead, health trusts are planning to invite clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) patients into these regional centres to receive their vaccine.

The department said CEV patients would be contacted in due course.

It also urged healthcare workers to take up the offer of a jab quickly.

However, in a letter seen by BBC News NI, the Southern Health Trust has told vaccinators that due to some services being stood down, the need for vaccinators at South Lake Leisure Centre in Craigavon “will be limited” over the next four to six weeks.

“This is because we have staff who require shifts delivering vaccines to make up their core working hours,” it said.

The letter from the Southern Trust acknowledged that some “will be disappointed not to be able to work as part of our vaccination team and also avail of the opportunity to work additional hours”.

It added that there will be times when vaccinators will be needed “at short notice”.

“We will be keeping a list of staff who have advised that they would be available to work at South Lake Leisure Centre and we will contact them in the first instance if a shift needs covered unexpectedly.”

In a statement, the Department of Health said: “We are advised that as some services are currently stood down – eg school nurses – this has allowed staff from these services to be redeployed to the vaccination team.

“This has allowed other staff to be released from vaccinator shifts back to their substantive posts, given the pressures on hospital services. That is what the letter was referring to – not about any diminution of the vaccination centre’s work.”

The speed at which the vaccines are being delivered has slowed somewhat over the past week, according to official government data, but Northern Ireland remains one of the vaccination success stories.

The Department of Health said the NI vaccination data for 23 and 24 January – as reported at UK-wide level – “is only partial information as it does not contain the GP vaccination figures”.

Updated figures are expected to be published on Monday.

“Demand at the trust regional vaccination centres has started to decline as we are coming to the end of HSC workers receiving their first dose of a vaccine,” said the department.

“So trusts are now working hard to invite their clinically extremely vulnerable patients into these regional centres to receive their vaccine.”

The Department of Health said that a further announcement on the timing of the start of vaccinations for those aged 70 and over, the wider clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) group and those aged 65 and over will be confirmed later this week.

More than 150,000 people in NI have already received a Covid vaccine – 10.5% of the adult population.

On Sunday, the Department of Health reported 14 more coronavirus-related deaths, bringing the NI total to 1,730.

Another 433 people have tested positive for Covid-19.

There are 796 people in hospital in Northern Ireland with the virus, 74 of them are in intensive care and 54 are ventilated.

Over the weekend, the Nightingale Hospital – based in the tower block at Belfast City Hospital – has opened eight additional ICU beds, in response to the number of people needing care for Covid-19.

Some patients are being transferred from other hospitals, as are staff.

It was also reported that Northern Ireland is testing for the new Covid-19 variant but that capacity is limited.

It is thought that up to 50% of current Covid-19 cases could be related to the new variant ‘English’ variant, which is thought to be about 50-70% more infectious than the original strain.

Speaking on BBC Good Morning Ulster, Dr Connor Bamford, a virologist at Queen’s University said: “I think we need to be fairly concerned about this, for a couple of these variants they’re actually changing how the virus behaves.

“This one in particular seems to be more transmissible, which means more people getting infected, more people getting sick and more people dying.

“For some of the other variants they might actually be able to escape, ever so slightly, how our vaccine works.”

 

COVID-19: AstraZeneca to ‘cut COVID-19 vaccine delivery to EU by 60%’
Sky News, Editorial Team, 23 January

AstraZeneca will cut deliveries of the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine to the European Union by 60% in the first quarter of the year, according to Reuters news agency.

The company was expected to deliver around 80 million doses to the 27 EU countries by the end of March, an EU official told the agency.

However, it now expects that to be cut to 31 million doses due to “production problems” at a vaccine factory in Belgium run by its partner Novasep.

Earlier, the Financial Times reported that supplies to the UK would not be affected.

Stella Kyriakides, the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said on Twitter: “@EU_Commission and Member States expressed deep dissatisfaction with this.

“We insisted on a precise delivery schedule on the basis of which Member States should be planning their vaccination programs, subject to the granting of a conditional marketing authorisation.

“The @EU_Commission will continue to insist with @AstraZeneca on measures to increase predictability and stability of deliveries, and acceleration of the distribution of doses.”

A statement from AstraZeneca said: “While there is no scheduled delay to the start of shipments of our vaccine should we receive approval in Europe, initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain.

“We will be supplying tens of millions of doses in February and March to the European Union, as we continue to ramp up production volumes.”

The EU drug regulator is due to decide on approval of AstraZeneca’s vaccine on 29 January, with a deal to purchase at least 300 million doses, with an option for an additional 100 million already signed

Europe’s immunisation campaign has already been hampered by a temporary shortfall in the supply chain of vaccine developers Pfizer and BioNTech, who are retooling a site in Belgium to boost output.

GIRP Virtual Supply Chain Conference: On 11-12 March 2021, GIRP will be hosting its annual supply chain conference virtually. The programme includes discussions on the continued availability of medicines in times of COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccines deployment, COVID-19 cold chain logistics, temperature controls, just-in-time distribution, and the digitilisation of the supply chain. You can view the conference programme here, and register here.

 

Media Summary

COVID-19 vaccine: Priti Patel ‘working to get jabs to front-line roles’
BBC News, Editorial Team, 20 January

BBC News reports that ministers are working to ensure further categories of front-line workers are moved up the priority list for the COVID-19 vaccine. The committee advising the government on vaccines has said it will consider factors like exposure risk and occupation in the rollout’s next phase.

Speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson said the government was “on track” to meet the pledge, however, he said it was “very hard” because of constraints on supply.

Asked whether groups whose work brings them into contact with others, such as police officers, emergency service workers and teachers, should be vaccinated next, the Prime Minister said the government must rely on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). However, he said the government wanted those groups to be vaccinated “as soon as possible”.

 

Boris Johnson says UK ready to deploy tweaked vaccines
Financial Times, George Parker & Anna Gross, 20 January

The Financial Times reports that Boris Johnson has declared Britain was ready to quickly deploy tweaked vaccines to combat new variants of Coronavirus, as the number of daily COVID-19 deaths in the UK hit a record of 1,820.

The Prime Minister said he was concerned about the risk posed by dangerous variants of the virus as he justified new border restrictions in the UK. This comes after Conservative MP Neil O’Brien asked Mr Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions about “concerning data from South Africa” that the virus could mutate and thus “dodge the vaccines and reduce their efficacy”.

Mr Johnson said he had been discussing the issue over the past few weeks to make sure any UK regulatory approval for a new form of vaccine could be swiftly given. “We are confident that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency will be in a position to turn around new applications for new variants of vaccines, as may be required to deal with new variants of the virus,” he said.

The MHRA said: “We are in discussion with vaccine manufacturers on potential modifications that may be needed for current vaccines to be effective against new variants, if required.” It said it was seeking expert advice, but added “we can say at this stage that it is unlikely a full new approval process will be needed”.

 

Parliamentary Coverage

NHS delivers COVID jabs from cinema and mosque
NHS England, 21 January

Coronavirus vaccinations will be delivered from new locations from today as the NHS’s largest immunisation programme continues to accelerate. A Mosque in Birmingham and the Odeon in Aylesbury are among dozens of new sites that have started to offer the service for those in the highest priority groups.

High street pharmacies began delivering the jabs last week and another 65 pharmacy sites are joining the programme this week and early next week, with more to come. NHS Deputy Chief Pharmaceutical Officer Bruce Warner said: “After our successful launch in pharmacies last week, scores more sites are now offering the life-saving jab. As more vaccine supply comes online, we will be able to open even more helping us to vaccinate vulnerable people even faster.”

A full press release on the expansion of the immunisation programme can be found here.

 

House of Commons, Urgent Question, 21 January

Huw Merriman (Conservative, Bexhill & Battle): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what role community pharmacies will have in the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine.

 

House of Lords, Written Question, 20 January

Lord Scrivan (Liberal Democrat): To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the average waiting time to receive COVID-19 vaccinations in (1) mass-vaccination hubs, (2) GP surgeries, and (3) community pharmacies.

 

House of Lords, Written Question, 20 January

Lord Scrivan (Liberal Democrat): To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered (1) to mass-vaccination hubs, (2) to GP surgeries, and (3) to community pharmacies.

 

Full Coverage

COVID-19 vaccine: Priti Patel ‘working to get jabs to front-line roles’
BBC News, Editorial Team, 20 January

Ministers are working to ensure police and other front-line workers are moved up the priority list for the COVID-19 vaccine, the Home Secretary has said.

Priti Patel told the BBC there was “a lot of work taking place in government right now” on the issue.

The committee advising the government on vaccines has also said it will consider factors like exposure risk and occupation in the rollout’s next phase.

The most vulnerable are being prioritised for the vaccine first.

The government is aiming to offer everyone in the top four priority groups a first dose by mid-February.

Speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson said the government was “on track” to meet the pledge, however, he said it was “very hard” because of constraints on supply.

Asked whether groups whose work brings them into contact with others, such as police officers, emergency service workers and teachers, should be vaccinated next, the prime minister said the government must rely on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

However, he said the government wanted those groups to be vaccinated “as soon as possible”.

Ms Patel, in response to being asked whether she wanted to see police officers “bumped up the queue” for the vaccine, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s both police, fire and other front-line workers. And the health secretary and I are working to absolutely try and make that happen.

“This isn’t just something we are thinking about. There is a lot of work taking place in government right now.

“If the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation says that is a possibility, we can make it happen. We have the supply, we have the logistical plans in place, we will absolutely work to make that happen.”

Ms Patel added that Health Secretary Matt Hancock was “supporting all our efforts across government on this” and she was talking to police partners, including the National Police Chiefs Council and the Met Police Commissioner, about getting officers “ready to take the vaccine when that comes”.

Prof Anthony Harnden, the Deputy Chair of the JCVI, which advises the government, said phase two of the rollout would continue to work down the priority list through the over-50s.

However, he told BBC Radio 5 live phase two would also concentrate on people who are potentially at risk of being exposed to the virus, such as teachers and police officers, as well as “those that are important to keep the economy running”.

“There are a lot of factors in phase two which we’ll be looking at in depth,” he added.

Questions about who will be next in the priority list for vaccination once the first phase is complete keep coming.

If all goes well with rollout, by the end of April all the over-50s and younger adults with health conditions should have been offered a jab.

But what happens after that has not been decided – and will not be until nearer the time.

Ministers heed the advice of an expert committee, the JCVI, and they want to know more about the effectiveness of vaccine and to what extent it stops transmission – people who have been vaccinated passing on the virus even if they themselves do not fall sick.

If it stops transmissions – known as sterilising immunity – the next phase could involve targeting the vaccine at people who are most likely to spread it.

That could see younger age groups prioritised, for example.

But if the vaccine does not do that the preference, as it is currently, would be to target the vaccine at those most at risk.

Once you get down to the under-50s without health conditions the risk is small. Less than 1% of COVID-19 deaths have been in these age groups.

At such low levels of risk exposure becomes a more crucial factor, which is why there is a logic in targeting key workers like teachers, the police and transport workers.

But phasing vaccination in this way is more complex than simply working through the age groups, and so, in the end, may mean vaccination rollout takes longer overall

There is a fine balance to tread.

Asked when phase two would begin, Prof Harnden said: “We haven’t put a timescale on it, but we will be looking at this over the next few weeks.”

“One of the really difficult things about this vaccine is we don’t know yet whether it prevents transmission,” he said.

“If we can show through data that the vaccine does prevent transmission, it’s a whole new ball game in terms of who we immunise because of course we may look at groups that actually transmit that virus to others.”

It comes after Met Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, said she was “baffled” about why front-line police officers were not closer to the front of the queue to receive the vaccine.

The Fire Brigades Union said it was “glad” Ms Patel “appears to be listening” to its calls for firefighters to receive priority access to vaccinations.

But it said “vaccines alone will not secure the safety of firefighters and the public” and called for safety measures in fire services to be properly implemented.

The teachers’ union NASUWT welcomed support from ministers to prioritise education staff for the vaccine and called for the government to “make good” on their comments.

General Secretary Dr Patrick Roach said: “Alongside the need for tougher control measures in schools and colleges, providing education workers with access to vaccines will help to minimise further disruption to children’s education and help ensure the safe and sustainable resumption of school and college-based education for all pupils as quickly as possible.”

Last week, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he wanted school staff to be a “top priority” for the vaccine in the next phase of the rollout.

Ms Patel was also asked about why the rollout of the vaccine appeared to be slower this week than last week.

She said Pfizer, which is producing one of the vaccines being used in the UK, was upgrading its factories and changing its supply chains, which would “inevitably have an implication in terms of the actual supply of the vaccine”.

More than 4.2 million people in the UK have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine so far, including more than half of over-80s and half of elderly care home residents.

 

Boris Johnson says UK ready to deploy tweaked vaccines
Financial Times, George Parker & Anna Gross, 20 January

This article is subject to copyright terms and conditions. Please access the full article here.

Media Summary

COVID-19 in Scotland: Concerns about vaccine supply amid GP frustration
BBC News, Editorial Team, 19 January

BBC News reports that Scottish opposition parties have voiced concerns about vaccine supplies after “frustrated” GPs said they were still waiting for deliveries.

At Holyrood on Tuesday, the First Minister was pressed on why the rollout was going “so slowly” and on whether there was a problem with distribution. Dr Andrew Buist, of BMA Scotland, also told the BBC that patients were getting anxious and practices could not plan.

In response, Nicola Sturgeon said that there were ongoing challenges but targets would still be met. The First Minister said the January target of delivering 100,000 vaccines per week had been “exceeded”. She also reiterated that she had not been able to discuss supply figures due to commercial confidentiality.

 

COVID-19: No vaccine postcode lottery in NI, say doctors
BBC News, Lesley-Anne McKeown, 19 January

BBC News reports that Northern Irish doctors have insisted there is no postcode lottery when it comes to rolling out the Coronavirus vaccines.

Northern Ireland’s vaccination plan means all those over 80 should receive their first dose by the end of January. More than 154,000 doses of a vaccine have now been administered, health officials said.

Dr Frances O’Hagan, Deputy Chairwoman of NI’s GP committee, said practices had their own rollout plans but she expected them to meet official targets. She said rolling out the programme was a logistical challenge which fell on top of an already heavy workload, but assured that the jab would be given out in a “safe and timely” fashion.

Facing criticism that the distribution of the vaccine has been unequal to date, Dr O’Hagan said: “We tailor our programmes to our individual patients and to our geography and to our surroundings. It’s the best way of doing it because we know what suits our patients.”

 

Parliamentary Coverage

EU Committee seeks evidence for new inquiry on EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement
House of Lords EU Goods Sub-Committee, 20 January

The House of Lords EU Goods Sub-Committee is inviting written contributions to its ongoing inquiry into “Future UK⁠–EU relations: trade in goods.”

This inquiry will examine the impact of the provisions set out in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), and what a UK-EU relationship could and should look like going forward.

The inquiry is interested in the provisions of the Agreement and its implications now and in the future. Areas of particular interest are: non-tariff barriers (rules of origin and technical barriers to trade), customs arrangements, transport and level playing field provisions.

You can read a press release for the inquiry’s call for evidence here.

 

Supply chain workers crucial to vaccination programme to receive jabs
Department of Health and Social Care, 19 January

The Government has announced that up to 2,000 people working in roles crucial to the continuity of the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain will be offered jabs to help ensure the UK gets the doses it needs to protect the most vulnerable.

Highly trained workers who have been identified by the government as being irreplaceable and crucial to the delivery of vaccine supplies will be offered vaccines.

This will reduce the risk of an outbreak that would disrupt the immediate supply chain, which could have a significant impact on the largest vaccination programme in British history.

You can read the full press release here.

 

House of Commons, Written Answer, 18 January

Grahame Morris (Labour, Easington): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what role community pharmacies will have in the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Nadhim Zahawi (Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon): Community pharmacies will play a major role in the COVID-19 vaccination programme. Since 11 January 2021, some community pharmacies have started to offer the COVID-19 vaccination service, with more pharmacies joining the service over the coming weeks.

Some pharmacists and members of their team have been working with general practitioners to deliver the vaccine in many areas of the country as part of the Primary Care Network service.

The Department, NHS England and NHS Improvement, and the community pharmacy representative bodies will be working together to establish how community pharmacies’ role could be expanded further in the vaccination programme.

 

House of Commons, Written Answer, 18 January

Alex Norris (Labour, Nottingham North): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, whether the Government plans to adapt the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine programme to allow more local communities to receive the vaccine from their community pharmacy.

Nadhim Zahawi (Conservative, Stratford-on-Avon): Community pharmacies play an important role in the COVID-19 vaccination programme. Since 11 January 2021, some community pharmacies have started to offer the COVID-19 vaccination service, with more pharmacies joining the service over the coming weeks.

Some pharmacists and members of their team have been working with general practitioners to deliver the vaccine in many areas of the country as part of the Primary Care Network service.

The Department, NHS England and NHS Improvement, and the community pharmacy representative bodies will be working together to establish how community pharmacies’ role could be expanded further in the vaccination programme.

 

Full Coverage

COVID-19 in Scotland: Concerns about vaccine supply amid GP frustration
BBC News, Editorial Team, 19 January

Opposition parties have voiced concerns about vaccine supplies after “frustrated” GPs said they were still waiting for deliveries.

At Holyrood on Tuesday, the first minister was pressed on why the rollout was going “so slowly” and on whether there was a problem with distribution.

Dr Andrew Buist, of BMA Scotland, told the BBC that patients were getting anxious and practices could not plan.

Nicola Sturgeon said there were ongoing challenges but targets would be met.

Dr Buist claimed that as of Monday, the Scottish government had taken receipt of more than 700,000 vaccines – but only used 264,991.

He said: “The work force is there and that’s why it’s so incredibly frustrating when the patients want the vaccine, we’re very keen to give it to our patients but we just don’t have the vaccine in our fridge.”

Dr Buist spoke also about “inconsistencies” across the GP network, saying some practices had supplies but others had none.

The government said it was listening to Dr Buist’s concerns and every GP in Scotland would receive, in writing, more detail about the “mechanism of supply, ordering and delivery, with suggested solutions”.

Opposition party members questioned Ms Sturgeon about the vaccination programme after she had delivered a statement to parliament saying lockdown would continue until “at least” mid-February.

Scottish Conservatives MSP Ruth Davidson said anxious constituents feared being “left behind” and called for an explanation on why over 400,000 vaccines had “yet to reach patients”.

The First Minister said the January target of delivering 100,000 vaccines per week had been “exceeded”.

She also reiterated that she had not been able to discuss supply figures because the UK government had “thrown a hissy fit” after plans were published then removed from the Scottish government website.

Ms Sturgeon told the chamber: “They don’t want us to be open about supply for reasons of commercial confidentiality and while I don’t necessarily agree with the reasoning behind that, we have agreed with their request.

“We vaccinate as quickly as we possibly can and that will continue to be the case as we go through the different groups in our vaccination programme.”

Ms Sturgeon said the following targets would be met:

Interim Scottish Labour leader Jackie Baillie also asked when the 400,000 remaining vaccines would be distributed to GPs, reiterating that supply had been “patchy”.

Ms Sturgeon replied that as per earlier JCVI advice, the Scottish government had been holding back 50% of doses in order to complete the second round of vaccinations within three weeks.

The UK’s vaccination strategy changed in recent weeks, leaving a 12-week gap between doses.

Ms Sturgeon added: “They are now flowing through the system now advice has changed.”

Scottish Lib Dem Leader Willie Rennie said he had heard from GPs in his own constituency of Fife who had been forced to cancel vaccine appointments because they had run out of injections.

He pressed the first minister on whether there was a problem with Scotland’s distribution system.

All governments have “big challenges” in terms of vaccine allocation because of supply flow, responded Ms Sturgeon.

She added: “I don’t underestimate ongoing challenges but I don’t think it would be right to say the programme is not progressing well.”

Could GPs use the Pfizer vaccine?

On Monday Ms Sturgeon said vaccinating over-80s in the community was now picking up pace, with the target being to have them all given the first dose by 5 February.

However, Dr Buist questioned whether Scotland would receive enough supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine to meet the target of offering vaccines to all over 70s and 80s by the middle of February.

Instead, he proposed that GPs should be allowed to use the Pfizer vaccine – which has to be stored in industrial freezers and has limits on the number of times it can be transported.

He said: “Once it’s defrosted it can be used over five days. They do come in boxes of 975 doses and I am also aware that GPs in NHS Highland have already been using it.

“It is quite possible to use Pfizer in practice. Of course we absolutely want to minimise any wastage but with good planning we can do that.”

National clinical director Prof Jason Leitch told the BBC there was no “medical or clinical” reason GPs could not use the Pfizer jab, but it would be “much harder logistically”.

“The potential would be that we would waste a lot – because they don’t have industrial freezers with which to store it,” he said.

“Once it is defrosted you have to use it fast. And you can’t transport it long distances – you can only transport it two six hours journeys. We don’t want to send them 195 vials and they use four.”

How has the government responded to GP frustrations?

A Scottish government spokesman said the country’s chief pharmaceutical officer had contacted Dr Buist to discuss with him the ongoing concerns. In addition all GPs would be receiving a letter explaining in more detail “the mechanism of supply, ordering and delivery, with suggested solutions at local board level that can also assist them”.

The spokesman added: “GPs have a significant role to play in delivering the vaccine – and we thank them for their hard work.

“We are in regular contact with boards to ensure GPs have the most up to date information on when supply is available and what our expectations are for them, providing as much detail as we can while rightly allowing our teams to focus on the task of delivering the biggest vaccination programme ever seen in Scotland.

“We too want to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible and are continually working hard to see if distribution can be made faster in any respect.”

 

COVID-19: No vaccine postcode lottery in NI, say doctors
BBC News, Lesley-Anne McKeown, 19 January

Doctors have insisted there is no postcode lottery when it comes to rolling out the coronavirus vaccines.

Northern Ireland’s vaccination plan means all those over 80 should receive their first dose by the end of January.

More than 154,000 doses of a vaccine have now been administered, health officials said.

Dr Frances O’Hagan, deputy chairwoman of NI’s GP committee, said practices had their own rollout plans but she expected them to meet official targets.

“As soon as we get the vaccine, we will get it to you,” she told BBC News NI. “But please, please wait until we contact you.”

“We tailor our programmes to our individual patients and to our geography and to our surroundings.

“It’s not actually a postcode lottery. It’s the best way of doing it because we know what suits our patients.”

What is Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccine plan?

Dr O’Hagan said she had not heard reports of some practices holding back vaccines until they received bigger amounts to allow for a larger number of vaccinations to be done.

She said rolling out the programme was a logistical challenge which fell on top of an already heavy workload but the jab would be given out in a “safe and timely” fashion.

Sinn Féin MP Órfhlaith Begley said doctors in her West Tyrone constituency were working above and beyond to administer the vaccine to as many people as possible.

“But unfortunately I am hearing that some GPs cannot access supplies of the vaccine,” she said.

“There does appear to be, and it is a consistent message from GPs in my own constituency, a feeling the distribution of the vaccine has been unequal to date.”

Vaccination update

Meanwhile, Health Minister Robin Swann has welcomed a further delivery of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine into Northern Ireland on Tuesday morning.

In a tweet, Robin Swann said: “We now have the supply to complete all our over 80s and when that group is finished, there will be enough to start into the over 75 programme.”

Patricia Donnelly, the head of NI’s vaccination programme said there had been 154,436 doses of the vaccine administered here, with 132,857 of those being first doses.

On Tuesday, she said three quarters of care home residents had already received both doses.

“With the arrival of additional vaccine today, which have been issued this afternoon and tomorrow to GPs, there will be enough to complete the over 80 population and to commence in the over 70 population,” she added.

A further 24 virus-related deaths and 713 more COVID-19 cases were reported in Northern Ireland on Tuesday.

It brings the total number of deaths recorded by the Department of Health to 1,649.

There are currently 842 people in hospital with the virus, 70 people in intensive care units (ICU) and 57 being ventilated.

In the Republic of Ireland, a further 93 COVID-19 related deaths were reported on Tuesday, bringing the country’s death toll to 2,708.

A further 2,001 positive cases were also recorded in the latest figures from the Republic’s Department of Health.

Northern Ireland’s rate of COVID-19 infection is now below one and has been at that level for a couple of weeks, according to the chief medical officer.

However, Dr Michael McBride warned the reproduction (R) number for hospital transmission remains above one.

What is the R number and why does it matter?

Dr McBride said new variants of the virus had made the job of curtailing the spread even more difficult, and warned he did not foresee any relaxation of restrictions any time soon.

“We need to ensure that we have as many people who remain at risk of severe disease vaccinated and prioritised with the first dose as possible before we consider significant relaxations in the current restrictions,” he said.

Meanwhile concerns have been raised that “social media myths” are encouraging some care home staff to reject the COVID-19 vaccine.

Pauline Shepherd, from the Independent Health and Care Providers, said young women were especially vulnerable to misinformation about the vaccine and fertility.

Last week, the Department of Health said there had been an uptake level of about 80% among care home staff.

“We are very keen obviously that everyone takes the vaccine, that is really the only way that we are going to get through this,” she told BBC Radio Foyle.

“Obviously there are myths going around on social media about the vaccine and some are opting not to take it.

“Particularly younger females seem to have the view through social media that it may impact fertility”.

There are currently 139 confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks in NI’s 483 care homes.

The Public Health Agency (PHA) and Department of Health were now exploring how “to dispel the myths”, Ms Shepherd added.

Dr Mukesh Chugh, a consultant anaesthetist at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry, said there had been a “reluctance” among black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people to take COVID-19 vaccines.

Dr Chugh says this is because of “anti-vaccine messages” posted across various social media platforms and messenger apps “targeted at certain ethnic and religious groups”.

“I encourage them not to believe the messages they are getting on WhatsApp – these are not scientific messages,” he said.

“Believe the scientific research.”

Meat plant workers

On Tuesday, Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said a number of groups of key workers should be given priority access to vaccinations.

Prioritisation was decided by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises UK health departments on immunisation.

Edwin Poots said meat plant workers should be among those given priority vaccine access
Asked if he supported prioritisation for food workers in meat plants, Mr Poots told the assembly he did and had raised it with the executive.

“It’s been identified as an essential service – those people working in them are there in cold, wet conditions where we have had a number of outbreaks,” he said.

“We should seek to introduce those people somewhat earlier than is currently the case – I will continue to endeavour to press that case.”

He said other groups of workers who should be prioritised included “teachers and police officers”.

From Factory to Pharmacy

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