The NHS could start immunising people against Covid-19 next month, if the medicines regulator approves a vaccine in time, Matt Hancock has said.
The health secretary held out the prospect of the unprecedented vaccination programme starting before Christmas, if the vaccine developed by Pfizer/BioNTech has been given the green light.
“I’ve asked the NHS to be ready to deploy at the speed at which the vaccine can be produced. What I can say about timing is that if, and it still is an if, if the regulator approves a vaccine, we will be ready to start the vaccination next month, with the bulk of the rollout in the new year”, Hancock told a Downing Street news conference.
His remarks come amid an increased expectation among NHS bosses that at least some people will have the injection before the holiday season begins. Health service sources said there is “intense political pressure” to kickstart the vaccine rollout by then, although one Whitehall official stressed that “the imperative is social, medical and economic, not just political.”
The availability of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine now depends on how long the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency takes to analyse it and decide if it can safely be deployed. Pfizer said this week that its product is 95% effective and works with older people, who are more likely to die if they contract Covid-19. The government has now formally asked the MHRA to assess the Pfizer vaccine’s suitability for authorisation, Hancock added.
The average number of new daily infections being recorded UK-wide has fallen over the last week to 22,287, down from 24,430 the week before. “These figures are promising and show that the second peak is flattening”, the minister said.
However, the number of people in hospital across the UK with Covid has risen again to 16,409, despite the different types of restrictions on normal life that have been in place in all of the four home nations for weeks now and 511 more people died in hospital with it yesterday.
In England the number of hospitalised cases of Covid now stand at 14,470, a rise of 1,800 in a week, said Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director.
Meanwhile, the Guardian can disclose new details of how what Hancock called the “massive logistical challenge” of acquiring, storing, distributing and administering the vaccine will work.
If Pfizer’s vaccine is approved it will ship it from its production plant in Puurs in Belgium in freezer boxes containing 195 vials of the vaccine, each of which holds five doses. Dry ice in the double membrane boxes will keep the vaccine at the required -75C temperature.
Once it has reached Britain, it will be taken by truck to a network of 50 medicine storage warehouses at undisclosed locations which already supply 92% of the country’s drugs and deliver medications daily to 16,500 hospitals, pharmacies and primary care health centres.
Martin Sawer, the executive director of the Healthcare Distribution Association, which represents the warehouse owners, said the vaccine will be kept in specially-designed extreme-low temperature freezers acquired by the NHS and lent to warehouses for the duration of the rollout. Once an order is received from vaccination centres, stocks will be moved to “massive fridges the size of small bungalows” to be defrosted over three hours and, once thawed, placed in refrigerated vans immediately for distribution.
The boxes can remain stored at their sub-Arctic temperature for up to six months. But once opened and thawing begins, the NHS will be in a race against time to ensure it is delivered and administered before it expires, to avoid wastage. The government has ordered 40m doses of Pfizer’s vaccine. But with 20m-22m people in 10 priority groups the first to be immunised, and each due to receive two injections three weeks apart, NHS England has told GPs and everyone else involved in giving the jabs that no more than 5% of vaccines must be wasted.
Refrigerated vans will deliver batches of the vaccine to the several thousand sites around England where people will have their jab, at least 1,560 of which will be run by GPs. However, Sawer said that “the van delivery system … is yet to be finalised” but is likely to be operating 24/7 with a precisely choreographed just-in-time delivery system.
“We’ve got to manage the flow into those outlets, make sure they don’t get flooded with more vials of vaccine than are needed hour by hour,” said Sawer. “It will be about getting information on the demand at the jabbing end and making sure you’re defrosting the right amount at the right time.”
The Pfizer vaccine remains stable for six hours after opening; the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, which ministers hope will also be approved soon, giving the NHS a choice of two vaccines to dispense, is stable for four hours.
Family doctors will initially play the lead role in immunising members of vulnerable groups, such as the over-80s, care home residents and those who are “shielding” because of their poor underlying health, with most NHS staff being inoculated in “hubs” in their workplaces, notably hospitals. But the NHS also plans to open several dozen mass vaccination centres, once they move into the second phase of the rollout, which will see adults under 50 offered a vaccine.
The NHS will deploy staff from almost every area of care – GP surgeries, hospitals and community services. But the rollout will also involve drug companies, the army, local councils, firms specialising in storage, transport and logistics, thousands of vaccination sites and tens of thousands of volunteers being recruited by St John Ambulance.