England and Wales hit target to vaccinate top four priority groups

Milestone means 65 to 69-year-olds will be invited for jab and those with underlying conditions are expected to follow

England and Wales have said they have met the government’s target of offering a coronavirus vaccine to the top four priority groups by 15 February amid growing warnings that the supply of vaccines would be cut for the next fortnight.

Achieving the milestone means that vaccinators have been told they can now invite people aged 65 to 69 in both nations to come forward, with Scotland expected shortly to follow suit.

Another 503,000 people received an initial jab on Thursday, taking the total to 14 million who had received at least one dose.

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Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, said there had been “a huge and unique” team effort and said the NHS was “delivering Europe’s fastest and largest Covid vaccination programme”.

Vaccinators are also expected to start offering jabs to the largest remaining priority group – 7.3 million people with underlying health conditions – from next week, with GP-led vaccination teams taking the lead in this aspect of the programme.

Dr Nikki Kanani, the medical director of primary care for NHS England, said there would be an effort “to ask mass vaccination centres to handle cohort five [those aged 65 to 69]” amid reports from within the health service that they are under-used.

There is a growing expectation that the supply of vaccines will be reduced substantially from next week as Pfizer slows production while it reconfigures its manufacturing plant in Belgium.

A WhatsApp message sent by Kanani to GPs on Thursday said: “If you don’t have much vaccine in the next few weeks please don’t be despondent”. She advised that medical teams “need to recuperate” and that people should “recharge if you can”.

NHS sources said supply is expected to pick up again around the beginning of March, but the pace of first jabs, running at between 2.5m and nearly 3m a week, is likely to ease during February.

Stevens also called for anyone from the top four priority groups who had not yet accepted the offer of a jab to contact the NHS to arrange one, although take-up rates across the UK have been far higher than the 75% anticipated.

More than 90% of people aged 70 or over in England – one of the initial priority groups – have received the first dose of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in the 10 weeks since the immunisation programme began.

Earlier on Friday, Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, said Wales had become the first nation in the UK to have offered a first jab to the top four priority groups. He said Wales would turn to offering jabs to younger people as well as those with underlying health conditions.

A total of 715,944 people have had the first dose of the vaccine in Wales. “I am incredibly proud to say we have achieved the first milestone in our vaccination strategy. This means we have offered vaccination to everyone in the first four priority groups,” Drakeford said.

He conceded that while there would be a dip in supply over the next fortnight, Wales was still on track to complete the vaccination of the next five priority groups by the spring.

Prioritisation has been set by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). The top four groups comprise everybody aged over 70 and the clinically extremely vulnerable, plus NHS and care home workers, about 15 million people across the UK.

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In England, GPs and other vaccinators were told on Friday they could start give coronavirus vaccinations to people aged between 65 and 69 if they had done all they could to reach older and clinically vulnerable people in higher priority groups.

NHS England quietly indicated that regions could be given permission to move on to group five, although the formal target to offer a vaccine to everybody in groups one to four by Monday 15 February remains in place.

On Thursday, some places were complaining that they had run out of patients in the top four groups to vaccinate. Doctors at the Francis Crick Institute in central London said they could only vaccinate 100 people a day when they had capacity for 1,000.

In Scotland, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said she expects many in the 65-69 age group to have had their first vaccine by the middle of this month. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, people aged 65-69 have been able to book a Covid-19 vaccine at seven regional centres since the end of January.

Contributor

Dan Sabbagh

The GuardianTramp

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