The UK’s milestone of issuing 25m vaccine doses has been dampened by news that the vaccine rollout will be slowed down come April.
A letter from the NHS in England states that volumes for first doses of the vaccine will be “significantly constrained” for four weeks from the end of March.
At a Downing Street press conference after the letter emerged, health secretary Matt Hancock insisted the UK is still “on course” to ensure everyone aged 50 and over will be able to get vaccinated by April 15.
He has since confirmed the delay is due to a need to “retest the stability” of a batch of 1.7m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and that a hold up in a shipment from India has also impacted supply.
NHS England’s national medical director Professor Stephen Powis has called on anyone who qualifies for a jab, but has not yet received one, to book an appointment soon before slots “dry up” ahead of April.
So how will the vaccine slowdown affect you?
In short: it depends how old you are. Those aged 50+ can expect to have their vaccine as normal. If you’re 49 and under – without an underlying medical condition – and you had hopes of having your jab before April, you should expect not to. The government has confirmed people in their 40s are likely to have to wait until May to get their jab.
Matt Hancock said the government is committed to all adults being able to get the jab by the end of July – and added they are still on track to deliver on that commitment.
This was reiterated by a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson (DHSC), who told HuffPost UK: “The vaccination programme will continue in the coming weeks and more people will continue to receive first and second doses.
“As has been the case since the programme began, the number of vaccinations carried out over time will vary due to supply – but we remain on track to offer a first vaccine to over 50s by 15 April and all adults by 31 July.”
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick also insisted the UK will meet the target of offering a first dose to the top nine priority groups by 15 April and all adults by the end of July. “We’ve built an infrastructure in this country that really is world class, it would enable us to vaccinate even more people than we have done in recent weeks - millions more people,” he told Sky News.
“So the more vaccines we can secure, the more jabs can go into people’s arms. But we do have enough supply in sight to continue to meet our obligations.”
The letter from the NHS, which alerted people to the delays, states those “aged 49 years or younger should not be offered vaccination” unless they are in a higher priority group, such as being clinically vulnerable, unpaid carers, or frontline health and care workers.
This is because those who have had their first dose of the jab will need to be prioritised for their second doses – as they are more at risk of serious illness and death from Covid-19. It’s likely that April will see the number of second jabs taking place exceed the number of people having their first jabs.
What about the other new vaccines?
Some scientists have been asking what happened to the Moderna jab, which was given a vague rollout date of “spring” in January by the government. Two other vaccines are also currently being assessed by the MHRA. According to reports, Novavax could be approved for use in a matter of weeks, while the Johnson & Johnson jab – a single dose shot – is also awaiting approval. The UK has secured 30 million doses of the latter already, according to Politico.
Professor Lawrence Young, an expert in molecular oncology from Warwick Medical School, said the UK is “in a very precarious situation”.
Vaccine supply “was always going to be challenging”, said Prof Young – particularly with the current rates of daily vaccinations – but the UK is “limited” by having just two approved vaccines currently in use, he added.
“Five million doses of the Moderna vaccine, which was approved for use by the UK Medicines regulator (MHRA) in January, were secured for delivery in the spring,” he said. “Where are they? We have also secured 60 million doses of the Novavax vaccine which is currently awaiting regulatory approval.”
When HuffPost UK contacted the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to ask about its rollout, the department was unable to share any further information on dates. But a spokesperson for Moderna told Reuters the vaccine is on track to be supplied to the UK in April.
Could delays have an impact on lockdown, too?
It’s not clear whether the easing of lockdown measures could be delayed as a result of the slowdown.
Prof Young believes the situation could mean we need to revisit the timetable for easing out of lockdown – particularly as a significant proportion of the adult population (those aged 18-49) remain unvaccinated and there is a continued threat of more transmissible virus variants around the country. At the time of writing, there were four variants of concern circulating in the UK.
Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, believes “the ripple effects [of delaying vaccination] could last for months”.
“It will undoubtedly make the meeting of the target dates for lifting restrictions more difficult than they otherwise would have been,” he says.
“By pushing back the under-50s first doses, their second doses are also being pushed back. If full vaccination becomes required for holidays abroad or even more mundane things like going to the cinema, millions of younger people may end up being excluded from participating for the whole summer.”