Frontline NHS staff have been denied the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, leaving doctors alarmed and “scrabbling” to get immunised.
A new survey reveals that almost two-thirds of medics who responded to it have still not had the vaccine, half believe its delivery to the NHS frontline has been “ad hoc” and a third have no idea when they will be offered it. They fear the government’s decision to prioritise over-80s and care home staff above health workers has left them at risk of catching the disease, especially given the emergence of the coronavirus variant, which is 70% more transmissable.
The findings, from a survey of 1,316 doctors by EveryDoctor, came as the UK’s medicines regulator prepares to approve the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, possibly as soon as Monday. Leading doctors and NHS chiefs believe the second vaccine’s availability will enable a dramatic increase in the number of people who are vaccinated, including health professionals.
The fact that the Oxford vaccine can be stored and transported at normal temperatures, while the Pfizer jab has to be frozen at -75C, will make it much easier to distribute, especially to people’s homes and care homes. The government has ordered 100m doses, of which 40m are due before the end of March. Around 10,000 people have reportedly been recruited to deliver the vaccine with locations such as race courses, sports stadiums and village halls pressed into service as inoculation sites.
Ministers believe that inoculating 15 million Britons will help bring back a significant degree of normality, as many of those most at risk from Covid will have been immunised.
However, the Guardian has seen messages sent by NHS bosses to staff that acknowledge their acute concern, with many workers feeling they have been left unprotected.
In an email sent to colleagues on Boxing Day, Len Richards, the chief executive of Cardiff and Vale University health board in Wales, said: “I understand that there is a great deal of frustration among colleagues with regards to access to the coronavirus vaccine. I can fully understand and appreciate that frustration.”
Richards said the numbers of staff wanting the vaccine “significantly outstrip the amount of vaccine available to us”. The problem had been caused by “an indisputable supply and demand constraint”, and the organisation had had to ration jabs because “the supply is so low”, he added.
Similarly, in a letter to staff on 18 December, the divisional directors for medicine, surgery and nursing at University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS trust, admitted that “the absence of clarity” about when workers could have the jab “is causing a high degree of anxiety and concern amongst some groups within our workforce”.
The trio explained that the trust’s “limited capacity for staff vaccination slots” was the result of ministers decreeing that 75% of supplies of the Pfizer jab should be given to those over 80 and 20% to care home personnel, leaving just 5% – or 48 doses from a batch of 975 – for NHS staff.
Dr Julia Patterson, the lead for EveryDoctor, a network of grassroots medics in the NHS, said: “The government needs to urgently rethink its strategy regarding Covid-19 vaccine priorities.
“Vaccines stop people from passing viruses on. We have limited vaccines available. Who is most in need of a vaccine? The people who are forced to mix with others. And those people are the frontline healthcare staff looking after Covid-19 patients, who encounter Covid-19 continually.”
In EveryDoctor’s self-selecting survey 831 (63%) of the 1,316 doctors had not yet had the first dose of the vaccine while 451 (34%) said they did not know what the plan was for immunising staff.
One consultant at Imperial College Healthcare trust in London said: “Some of us have received vaccines from overflow at GP surgeries, which has involved word of mouth and last minute scrabbling about.”
A GP in Warwickshire said it was “ludicrous” not to prioritise vaccinating healthcare professionals given the risk of them passing the virus on to patients. There were 30,501 new cases recorded yesterday and a further 316 deaths.
While the Pfizer vaccine proved to have 95% efficacy in trials, the Oxford vaccine resulted in 62% for those taking two full doses four weeks apart but 90% for those who took a half dose and then a full dose later. However, the latter regime was only tested on under-55s.
But Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s chief executive, sought on Sunday to promote confidence in the jab by insisting that it will prove as effective as the Pfizer one
“We think we have figured out the winning formula and how to get efficacy that, after two doses, is up there with everybody else,” Soriot told the Sunday Times.
The Department of Health and Social Care insisted that NHS staff had always been able to get vaccinated since the rollout began on 8 December, even though only those with underlying health conditions have been eligible.
“Health and social care staff have always been prioritised for the Covid-19 vaccine since the start of the programme, along with those of older age,” a spokesperson said.